Monday, 18 October 2021

Dune (Movie Review)

Rolling into 2021, one of my most anticipated movies for the year was the latest Hollywood adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. This was a book I had loved as a kid, captivated as I was by its descriptions of its desert world and the politics that governed that specific slice of the universe. And when word had initially come out that the movie was to be helmed by Denis Villeneuve, I couldn't think of a better director for the job. Now that the film is finally here, I am more than happy to share my thoughts on its grand ambitions and the overall quality of its execution.

The movie centers upon a young man named Paul Atredies (Timothy Chalamet), whose father is the leader of one of the great houses that make up the Galactic Empire. Despite being haunted by visions of a blue-eyed girl (Zendaya), he must instead grapple with the reality of his training to become leader of their house one day. But when his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), is appointed as steward of Arrakis, their entire family is forced to leave the comforts of their homeworld behind and forge a new path on the harsh desert planet.

It was always going to be a difficult task, adapting one of the most beloved sci-fi novels of the past century. And Denis Villeneuve steps up to that challenge with more than capable hands. Coming off the critical success he'd gotten with both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the visionary director puts his skills to good use on a property that is often compared to the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. And while we can definitely see its source material's influence on the former, I think the only real connection with the latter is in its scale.

Everything about Dune feels grand and epic, with some of the best production design I've seen in a sci-fi movie. The world of Arrakis is brought to glorious life, matching much of what I'd conjured up in my mind while reading the book. Except the film even goes one step further with its wildly unique interpretations. Everything from the insect-like ornithopters to the completely massive sandworms speaks to that distinct vision, and it is all captured with some truly gorgeous cinematography.

Aside from looking great though, Dune still has a story to tell, and for the most part, it faithfully adapts the one we got in the novel. The movie is well-paced, moving the plot forward in a gradual flow that should keep most viewers engaged. It does a decent job of establishing all the key characters and background lore, without getting too bogged down in boring exposition or information dumps. That said, the film is kind of light on action, at least compared to the average blockbuster, and when that action does happen, it is played for emotions as much as it is spectacle, so anyone going in expecting your typical popcorn fare would be best off tapering those expectations.

On the acting side, the performances were uniformly great, with Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd in particular managing to chew some scenery as the villainous Baron Harkonnen. The music was also appropriately rousing, conjuring feelings of dread and wonder to go along with the onscreen visuals. But all that is not to say that the movie is without its flaws, the biggest of which stems from the nature of the adaptation itself. Adapting just the first half of the book means there is still half a book worth of story to tell, making the film as it is feel less satisfying as a result. 
I am also concerned about how none readers and science-fiction casuals might take to its sprawling worlds and jargon-heavy lore, without the benefit of all the background details Frank Herbert was able to cram into the novel. The ultimate test would be how the film performs when it releases in US and UK theaters. But if its success in international territories is any kind of indication, then those concerns could very much turn out to be unfounded.

Dune is one of the more faithful book-to-film adaptations I have seen in years. But even more than that, it is a movie that serves as another showcase for Denis Villeneuve's talents, cementing his position as one of the best sci-fi directors working today. And while it remains to be seen if his current saga will be able to rise to the level of pop culture relevance we saw with The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (most likely not), it is still off to a great start and I am more than eager to see what comes next.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Halloween Kills (Movie Review)

Following a year-long delay that was brought about by the ongoing pandemic, Michael Myers returns this Halloween to do what he does best. And with a title as on the nose as Halloween Kills, it is anybody's guess what that is. The film marks the second entry in the current trilogy, after the first one pretty much retconned everything that happened beyond the 1978 classic. But does the new film move the franchise forward in any meaningful way, or is it just another case of more of the same?

Set immediately after the events of the previous movie, we once again find masked killer Michael Myers defying the odds. He somehow manages to escape the carefully-laid-out trap he'd been left in at the end of the 2018 film, as he goes on to continue his killing spree through the small town. Except the townsfolk have had enough. So in a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted, they form an angry mob in a bid to put an end to his reign of terror. But it quickly becomes clear that they are in over their heads when he proves quite resilient and almost impossible to kill.

Halloween Kills is yet another trudge through an all-too-familiar path. The movie pulls all of the same punches we've seen in previous entries, and it does so without bringing anything new to the table. The result is that the entire thing starts to feel like filler before long, or a stopgap before the inevitable final film in the new trilogy. But even taken into consideration within its own limited playground, the film simply doesn't offer nearly enough thrills or reasons for its existence.

I'd even go one step further and say that it simply lacked any true sense of dread or quality scares, which is what one primarily goes into these movies for. Michael Myers was the same old Michael Myers we've been getting since 1978, with no added depth or dimension to his character. Jamie Lee Curtis was easily the best part of the previous movie, and even she was pretty much underutilized and out of commission for the better part of this one. And none of the other supporting characters were anywhere near as compelling, making it hard to really care when they start to get killed off one by one.

Speaking of which, this is the one area where the movie attempts to raise the bar, the actual kills themselves. And it certainly had its fair share, so gorehounds should be pleased in that regard. Some of those kills border on the edge of comedy though, requiring a level of suspension of disbelief I wasn't expecting to find in a modern-day slasher film. It is hard to take the film seriously, not when it has some of the most cartoonish deaths I've seen outside of the Final Destination series.

Halloween Kills feels like extended setup for Halloween Ends, the third and hopefully final installment of what is clearly an aging franchise. And much like the masked killer at the center of its plot, the whole thing feels rote and stuck in its ways. Anyone hoping for the kind of revitalization we saw in the previous film would be better off tapering those expectations. But for anyone just looking for a half decent slasher film to watch this Halloween, then there is some rudimentary fun to be had with this one.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

No Time to Die (Movie Review)

The 25th entry in the James Bond series is finally here, following its much publicized delays in the wake of COVID-19 concerns last year. The landmark film marks Daniel Craig's final outing as its eponymous secret agent, a role he has played since Casino Royale in 2006. And in all that time, the actor has come to define that role, so watching him say goodbye to the character was always going to be a bittersweet affair. But does his fifth and final appearance as Bond do justice to his tenure?

In No Time to Die, everyone's favorite MI6 agent is forced out of retirement when the world is once again threatened by the terrorist organization, Spectre. And things have changed somewhat since the last time he was on her Royal Majesty's secret service. Not only has MI6 been caught dabbling in some shady dealings, he must also contend with his replacement, a new hotshot agent. But the two must learn to work together to bring down the terrorist organization once and for all.

Let me start by confessing that I wasn't all that keen on Spectre when I saw it in 2015. It was a movie I'd found to be quite forgettable amongst other things. So watching No Time to Die, which is effectively a direct sequel, it almost felt like I was missing a big chunk of the narrative. The film does its best to fill in those blanks, but I guess what I'm saying is your enjoyment of No Time to Die could very well hinge on how much you'd enjoyed the previous movie.
All that said, No Time to Die is definitely an improvement over Spectre. The film finds Bond doing what he does best, except he is even more world weary this time around, having suffered some crushing emotional blows in his time as a double O. It also subverts expectations by throwing away some of the well-worn tropes the franchise has come to be known for, like the action packed cold opens that has defined the last couple of entries. 
But the whole thing ultimately feels the same, with yet another global threat that must be stopped before it is too late. And speaking of that threat, Rami Malek plays the film's villain, Safin, in a performance I found to be quite on the nose. He was certainly as villainous as they come, but came too close to mustache-twirling territory for my liking. The movie is also overlong, stretching towards the three-hour mark without really justifying why it needed to do so.

I guess my biggest gripe with No Time to Die is the fact that it doesn't really give any indication of what to expect with the James Bond franchise going forward. Most likely we'll be getting another reboot sometime down the line, so anyone going into the movie expecting some kind of passing of the torch might come out sorely disappointed. But negatives aside, the film still manages to shine due to its focus on its central hero and his storied history.

No Time to Die is a fitting end to the Daniel Craig era of Bond movies. It builds upon everything that came before it to give the actor one of the more emotional sendoffs in the franchise's 25-film history. And while it doesn't reach the same heights as a Casino Royale or Skyfall, it still manages to satisfy as it caps off what is surely one of the best runs we've had since we were first introduced to Bond.


Friday, 17 September 2021

Cry Macho (Movie Review)

Very few filmmakers working today are as resilient as Clint Eastwood. At 91 years old, the acclaimed actor and director continues to put forth excellent work in his movies, where others would've already opted for retirement. His latest project is one that has seen its own share of ups and downs, having been attached to several actors and directors since the screenplay was first written in the 1970s. But following a development period that seems worthy of its own movie, the film finally hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously this weekend.

In Cry Macho, Clint Eastwood plays Mike Milo, a washed-up ranch hand whose glory days as a rodeo cowboy had ended with a severe back injury. Now he lives a life of solitude following the string of tragedies that have come to define who he is as a person. But when he is called upon by his former employer (Dwight Yoakam) to repay a debt that would involve him crossing the Mexican border to retrieve the man's estranged son, he finds himself forced to accept. What he doesn't count on though is just how challenging this particular job would prove to be.

Cry Macho once again finds Clint Eastwood stepping into the shoes of an aging cowboy. But unlike the brilliant Unforgiven, this is a film that is less concerned about shoot outs. It is effectively a road movie that centers upon the growing relationship between an old man and a young boy, and the film shines brightest when we get to see the chemistry between the two evolve. Clint Eastwood is just as charismatic as he has ever been, delivering a performance that was very much nuanced.

The same thing can't be said for the rest of the cast though, with performances ranging from good to just barely serviceable. Thankfully, most of the runtime is spent with our two leads, or three if you count Macho, the titular rooster. In terms of tone, the film is not afraid to throw in a few jokes, despite its otherwise serious premise. I wouldn't go as far as calling it a comedy, but things are kept lighthearted for the most part, no doubt to ensure that its feel-good message about redemption comes through strong.

My main criticism then is its somewhat slow pacing and relatively low stakes. The film has long stretches where barely anything seems to happen, lacking much of the excitement you would expect from a movie about a man operation outsides the lines of the law. But not every one of these films need to be plot-driven, or conform to the same rigid formula we've seen time and time again. This isn't Rambo: Last Blood after all, and neither does it need to be.

Cry Macho is a clear example of a passion project, and it is that passion that carries the film for most of its runtime. The story itself is simple, with very little in the way of twists or surprises, while its overall pacing does suffer from a lack of momentum. It helps of course that the whole thing is beautifully shot, and that Clint Eastwood's commandeering presence can be felt both in front and behind the camera. His execution might not be to everyone's taste, but what the film lacks in tension it definitely makes up for in heart.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Malignant (Movie Review)

As we once again approach Halloween, you can expect the various Hollywood studios to start serving up the horror goods. And Warner Bros. is one of the first ones to jump into the fray with Malignant, a supernatural horror film that is receiving a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend. Directed by James Wan of Saw and The Conjuring fame, the film finds the acclaimed horror director taking time away from those other franchises to conjure up something new and unsettling.

In Malignant, a young woman named Madison finds herself inexplicably connected to a serial killer through visions of his grisly murders. And as the killer grows increasingly malignant, she gets embroiled in an investigation to catch him before he claims his next victim. But in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, she'll need to search deep within herself and channel the suppressed horrors of her troubled childhood.

Let me just start off by admitting that I was a little bit torn coming out of Malignant. On the one hand, I understand what James Wan was trying to accomplish with its throwback horror feel and the cheesy dialogue to go with it. On the other hand, I was almost put to sleep by the predictability of its build up and its lack of quality scares for most of its runtime, which is generally why you'd want to see a horror film in the first place, for the scares.

But the film spends so much time setting up its grand finale that by the time it gets to its third act, I was all but ready to check out completely. Thankfully, I hadn't, because I would've missed out on what is quite possibly the most insane and bonkers turn of events I have witnessed in a film this year. The final twist was so overwhelming that I found myself questioning what I was even watching. That's how gloriously executed that entire stretch of the movie was.

It's just a shame that the rest of the film didn't even attempt to measure up. On the flip side, the movie did have some great cinematography that worked well to heighten the tension in those earlier scenes, as well as some cool gore effects that is sure to leave all but the most jaded of gore hounds feeling squeamish. It did tend to get a little bit too heavy on its use of CGI though, which I generally don't like to see in horror films since it makes them feel less believable. But I'd still like to say that they manage to strike a nice balance between that and all the practical effects on display.

Malignant is saved by a climax so wild that you almost wouldn't believe your eyes while watching it. The final 20 minutes manage to go so completely off the rails, and in the best way possible, that it almost made up for the slog we had to endure to get there. James Wan clearly has a mastery of the art of horror, and the wildness and unhinged nature of this particular vision are what make the film ultimately worthwhile.

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Movie Review)

Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was meant to kick off with Black Widow. But as anyone who had seen my review of that film would remember, I hadn't been too pleased with how it turned out. My main gripe stemmed from the fact that it didn't really move the MCU forward in any meaningful way, nor did it manage to do more than attempt to fill the gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

So we've basically had to rely on Disney+ shows like Loki and WandaVision to set the stage for the current phase of the MCU, which they have to varying degrees. Loki in particular looks like it might have long-reaching ramifications for films like Spider-Man: No Way Home as well as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. But out of everything we've gotten in Phase Four thus far, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels like its first true springboard for what's to come.

Set in the post-Blip portion of the MCU timeline, the film stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, a trained warrior who has long since turned his back on his family and their ways. He now spends his days working in LA as a valet with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). But after his father (Tony Leung) and leader of the Ten Rings criminal organization sends a number of his foot soldiers to hunt him down, he finds himself drawn back into the life he thought he'd already left behind.

As far as MCU origin stories go, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the best ones yet. It was certainly leagues above Black Widow, which didn't even feel like an origin story in the strictest of terms. This one introduces its title character and his particular corner of the MCU, without feeling like it was merely treading the same ground that past MCU origin films had, most of which is due to its talented cast, and the chemistry between them.
Simi Liu shines as Shang-Chi, delivering a performance that was strong enough to carry the movie. But he was of course helped along by Awkafina, who provided much of the comic relief. It was easy to buy into their friendship because both actors manage to make it look so pure and effortless. And Tony Leung plays what is now another top-tier MCU villain in the form of Wenwu, aka. the real Mandarin. There were several nods to the earlier iteration of the character throughout the film, none of which I will spoil here. 

But by far the biggest facet of the movie that I enjoyed was the fight choreography. The movie boasts some of the best action scenes in the MCU, borrowing heavily from Chinese cinema to create some truly jaw-dropping wire stunts that immediately call to mind films like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Fans of such films and Chinese mythology in general would definitely have plenty to ogle at, especially since it fully embraces their more fantastical side, unlike the recent Mulan live-action adaptation.

This is incidentally the one area of the movie that I found didn't always live up to that same high quality. I'm of course talking about the special effects, which were definitely special and spectacularly so for the most part. Some of it was convincing enough, while others were borderline cartoonish. This was especially true during the climax, where these MCU films typically tend to get CGI heavy. But all of that is par for the course, so it shouldn't really work to pull you out of the experience that much.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is proof that Kevin Feige and his team of writers still have a few tricks up their sleeves. They've crafted a world that feels just as integral to the overall MCU as everything that came before it. That they've done that while telling a story that was both heartwarming and awe-inspiring bodes well for the future of the franchise. And if this is any indication of what we can expect from these movies post-Avengers: Endgame, then fans still have a lot to look forward to.

Monday, 30 August 2021

The Green Knight (Movie Review)

Filmmaking in my opinion is all about stimulating the senses. Whether this is through a well-executed action scene like the ones we get in a typical summer blockbuster, or through stories that capture the imagination in other less visceral ways. And every now and then, we get a film that take either of those two things one step further, elevating the medium into the realm of fine art. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 immediately come to mind, wherein the filmmaker's singular vision is on full display for all to see. The Green Knight is just the latest example.

Directed by David Lowery, the film is based on the 14th-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this particular adaptation, Dev Patel plays Gawain, nephew to a battle-weary King (Sean Harris) who is challenged to a game by the eponymous Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) one Christmas morning. With nothing to lose and plenty to prove, Gawain accepts the challenge. But as he'll quickly come to find out, the knight's game is a lot more devious than he'd anticipated. Now he is bound to an oath that would have him journeying across the country to fulfill it.

I concede that I am a little bit late to the party with my review of The Green Knight, but that was mainly due to the fact that the film did not receive a theatrical release over here in Nigeria. Apparently, we have a low tolerance for so-called art films, as they tend to require a greater commitment from the viewer, who more often than not just wants something simple to serve as some mild escapism. Which is fine, and every film has its purpose and target audience. 

But all that is to say that I didn't get to see the movie the way it was meant to be seen, sprawled across a massive theater screen. And believe me when I say if ever there was a film that deserves the premium large format treatment, it is this one. The film is easily one of the most visually-striking I have seen this year, with cinematography that all but seems like a shoo-in at next year's Oscars. Every single shot is meticulously framed, and every single scene is tightly edited, which is saying something considering the film's deliberate pacing.

Speaking of pacing, the story follows the same general beats as its source material, with a few minor deviations to keep the film feeling fresh. But this is where the film itself might lose most viewers, because the director never shies away from letting the camera linger on his subjects, or from scenes that stretch on much longer than most viewers are accustomed to. In spite of all that though, none of those scenes felt inconsequential, or truly overstayed their welcome, not when they were filled with so much detail to parse and take in.

The closest thing I can liken it to is staring at a beautiful painting. Beneath every brush stroke lie layers of meaning and expression. And the movie is certainly filled with hidden depths, much like the poem it is based upon. It is a coming-of-age story that is less concerned with adventure than it is understanding what drives a young man in pursuit of honor and glory. Dev Patel helps to bring that young man to life, in what is arguably his most accomplished performance to date. And he is helped by one of the best ensembles on this side of the round table.

The Green Knight is not an easy movie to sit through, no doubt. The film meanders in the way that most slow-burn art films tend to do. The fact that it leaves its ending and overall narrative open to interpretation also might turn casual viewers off. But if you are willing to indulge in the director's striking vision and unique take on the classic Arthurian legend, then you'll find yourself lost in its vast canvas of rich textures and beautiful imagery.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Reminiscence (Movie Review)

The Warner Bros. slate of 2021 movies has been pretty much hit or miss thus far, with some truly standout films like Judas and the Black Messiah getting offset by some middling undertakings like The Little Things. So in a way, the fact that all those movies have been getting a simultaneous release on HBO Max almost seems like a godsend. And if ever there was one of these films that feels almost tailor-made for the streaming platform, then that film is Reminiscence.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where most coastal cities are largely submerged underwater, the film follows Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a former war veteran who now works as a private investigator of the mind. Using a device called the Reminiscence, Nick helps his clients to relive some of their fondest memories. Because apparently things have become so dreary in this particular future that people would rather look back at such memories than forwards. 

But after Nick falls in love with one of his clients, a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), he finds himself drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy when she disappears almost as suddenly as she had popped into his life. Now he must follow a breadcrumb trail of clues and lost memories that would lead him into the seediest recesses of a dying world in order to find her.

From the very first time I saw the trailers for Reminiscence, there was no shaking that overriding lack of excitement the film seemed to exude. Despite its respectable budget, and the presence of A-list stars, those initial showings just didn't do anything to move the needle. So my hope going into the movie then was that it was going to be a case of the actual movie being better than the trailers, because we've certainly had movies in the past that were undersold by their trailers. Well, it turns out its trailers were a perfect reflection of the film, as they simply didn't have anything exciting to pull from.

I am as much a sucker for high-concept sci-fi as the next man, and the one thing that could've drawn me into Reminiscence was its post-apocalyptic setting. But the world-building in the movie was so underwhelming that it was hard for me to fully buy into its premise. The same thing could be said about its core concept of reconstructing people's memories, which while not underutilized still wasn't used to do anything particularly groundbreaking or worthwhile for that matter. 

All that is not to say that the film did not have anything going for it. The world was certainly beautiful to look at at times, and the actors seemed fully committed to their roles. But the whole thing ultimately rang hollow. Maybe it is the fact that I have seen so many former war veterans turned private eyes at this point, or post-apocalyptic near futures where humanity teeters on the edge of extinction. Whatever the case, it definitely didn't help the movie, making it feel like a lesser version of those other works.

Reminiscence merges its high-concept premise with some classic hard-boiled detective storytelling. Unfortunately, the two don't always gel well together, resulting in a film that quickly starts to feel derivative. This also isn't helped by the fact that the film is plagued by some truly hamfisted dialogue, as well as pacing issues that prevent it from ever getting off the ground. But if you are willing to look past all of that, then the movie is at least worth passing some time with from the sturdy comfort of your couch.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Free Guy (Movie Review)

Video games have been the subject of several Hollywood movies of varying quality. On one end of the spectrum, we have films like Wreck-It Ralph and Ready Player One, films that pay respect to the medium while still managing to tell compelling stories. At the other end, we have bottom-of-the-barrel offerings like 2009's Gamer, a film that was just as ridiculous as it was generic. So the question then is where exactly does Free Guy land on this particular quality spectrum,  a question that will be answered over the course of this review.

In Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds plays the titular Guy, a bank teller living in a city that is plagued by near constant crime and mayhem. And much like the other denizens of the city, he is resigned to his fate as cannon fodder for the many "hero" characters responsible for said mayhem. Because unbeknownst to Guy and the other citizens, he is actually a non-playable character in a popular online game called Free City. But when he crosses paths with the woman of his dreams one fateful day, he gets swept up in a mission to save the world he calls home.

Going into Free Guy, I had expected your run-of-the-mill Ryan Reynolds action comedy. And to a degree, that is exactly what the movie delivers, Ryan Reynolds dishing out his particular brand of self-deprecating humor. What I didn't anticipate though was a story that was just as thought-provoking as it was fun. And while that story did tend to conform to some well-worn tropes and story beats we've already seen in similar movies, it did so without feeling too derivative or unoriginal.

Most of that is due to the little surprises that were sprinkled throughout its two-hour runtime. The movie is packed with Easter eggs and references, much like other gaming-centric movies of its kind. It also featured a number of celebrity cameos by popular streamers and some Hollywood A-listers. I won't spoil any of them here, but expect to find more than a few recognizable faces. Take note, Warner Bros. and Space Jam: A New Legacy writers; this is how to use intellectual property the right way.

It was also very refreshing to see a summer blockbuster where most of the action scenes take place in broad daylight. This was no doubt reflective of the film's overall tone, which was wild, wacky and fun, but in a very lighthearted way. The action itself was of course over-the-top and spectacularly so, but given the context in which most of it was taking place, still made sense and generally obeyed the rules it had already laid out for itself.

In terms of acting, the film's ensemble was decent overall. Ryan Reynolds played yet another variation of himself. Likewise, Lil Rel Howery proved to be adequate foil as his best friend, Buddy. Jodie Comer played the dual roles of Millie and Molotov Girl, her in-game avatar, and she'd generally pulled both off convincingly. And Taika Waititi plays the villainous Antwan, an over-the-top representation of the greedy corporate executives most gamers hear about in gaming news headlines.

If I'm being nitpicky, then it is worth pointing out that the film did seem to run out of steam about halfway through its second act, when most of the action ground to a halt to make room for some character development. It is also guilty of oversimplifying the process of game development, but was nowhere as offensive in that regard as the recent Space Jam movie. The film did make up for those shortcomings though with a strong final act that was filled with great action and cool Easter eggs.
Free Guy captures the joyous and chaotic nature of some of today's most popular online open-world games. But even more than that, it tells a heartwarming tale that should delight gamers and non-gamers alike. And although the film might not be a video game movie in the true sense of the word, it should still serve as yet another shining example of a film that successfully pokes fun at the medium while paying homage to video game culture at large.


Wednesday, 4 August 2021

The Suicide Squad (Movie Review)

Ever since it was first shown off at the DC FanDome event last year, The Suicide Squad had quickly grown to become one of my most anticipated films. So of course I was going to go see it at the earliest opportunity and on the biggest screen available. The film had released in the UK and other select territories last week, but advance screenings have just started here in Nigeria, ahead of its worldwide rollout in theaters and HBO Max this Friday. And out of all the same-day movies we have gotten on the latter thus far, this is the one that demands to be seen at the cinema the strongest.

Much like the 2016 film with which it shares its title and some of its characters, the new film once again finds government agent Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) leading a team of antiheroes on a suicide mission. This time around, Task Force X as they are officially known is tasked with infiltrating the island nation of Corto Maltese, where they are to find and destroy all evidence of something called Project Starfish. But what they find there is well beyond anything they could have imagined or prepared for.

The Suicide Squad is hands down the most fun I've had in a movie theater since Avengers: Endgame. And in many ways, the film is just as epic and packed with emotional highs as that other film. James Gunn breathes new life into its roster of characters, with familiar faces like Harley Quinn making a return. And much like Guardians of the Galaxy, his DNA was on full display once again. From music choices that heighten the on-screen action, to stylishly presented setpieces that rival some of the very best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The trailers might have already hinted at some of this, but trust me when I say they simply don't do justice to how brilliant the execution is in the actual movie. The best part is how utterly crazy and bonkers the film gets, pushing the boundaries for comic book movies in the best way possible. And speaking of bonkers, the film is also perhaps the bloodiest I've had the pleasure of witnessing in a cinema, easily earning its R rating. And thankfully, most of it isn't mere blood and guts for the sake of it, like Birds of Prey before it, where its R rating felt very much tacked on.

In my review of the 2016 version of Suicide Squad, I had accused that film of being all style with very little substance, which is one thing that can't be said about this one. The new movie has an overall charm that was very much lacking in that other film, as well as way more heart than I had expected. I was especially surprised by how much I grew to care about its characters over the course of the film, with each one getting to shine with their unique abilities and fully-fleshed out backstories. I am tempted to name Polka-Dot Man as a highlight, but that would suggest that other characters like King Shark or Rat Catcher weren't as endearing, which was certainly not the case.

I realize I have spent the bulk of this review gushing about the new Suicide Squad film, and the critic in me would at least like to point out one or two shortcomings. But the fan in me genuinely thinks that this movie ticks all of the boxes, and should serve as a prime example of how to adapt these types of movies going forward. This is not to say that the movie was flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but rather an illustration of how all the things it does right elevates it beyond any perceived shortcomings.

The Suicide Squad is not only one of the best DCEU films to date, it is also one of the best comic book movies, period. It is leagues ahead of the 2016 David Ayer film that preceded it, and the more recent Birds of Prey, so much so that it is almost hard to imagine that all three movies exist within the same universe. James Gunn has delivered a take on the property that fires on all cylinders. I can't say enough good things about the film, so do yourself a favor and go see it for yourself. Just make sure it is on the biggest screen available.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Jungle Cruise (Movie Review)

Disney continues to test the PVOD waters with Jungle Cruise, its fourth overall movie to receive a simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ through its Premier Access model. This is coming right after the heavily-touted success it had seen with Black Widow earlier in the month. And much like that other film, this one was originally slated to debut last summer, before being bumped a full year in the wake of lockdowns and COVID concerns. Now that the film is finally out, I'm here to tell you whether or not it manages to stay afloat in uncharted waters.

All sailing puns aside, Jungle Cruise stars Dwayne Johnson as Frank, a skipper who gets hired by a brother and sister (played by Jack Whitehall and Emily Blunt) seeking to explore the Amazon river in search of the fabled Tree of Life. Their adventure is made all the more perilous by the fact that they are being hunted by a German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons) who also seeks to find the Tree. But little do they all know about the dangers that await them in the depths of the jungle.

Jungle Cruise is just the latest Disneyland attraction to be turned into a full-fledged film, following after the very successful Pirates of the Caribbean film series. And similar to those movies featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, this one is also elevated by the star power of its lead, or leads to be specific. Both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt give great performances, and the ensemble as a whole more than make the movie worth the price of admission.

The movie also has that sense of adventure you'd expect from a film about facing the many dangers of the Amazon. Most of its setpieces were a little too heavy on their use of CGI though, but even that is to be expected from a film of this nature. The main letdown then is in its generic story, and a marked absence of real stakes. Not once in the movie did I fear for the lives of its protagonists, despite the film's attempts to convince me otherwise. But I imagine this was done to keep things lighthearted and more importantly, family-friendly.

Jungle Cruise is a fun-filled adventure film that should appeal to fans of genre classics like those in the Indiana Jones series. But while it might not quite match those films in sheer thrills, it still offers many of its own while serving as a showcase for its star-studded ensemble, all of which come together to make its adventure ultimately worthwhile.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Snake Eyes (Movie Review)

The G.I. Joe movie franchise receives another shot in the arm with Snake Eyes, its third entry and second attempt at a soft reboot. The two previous films had been met with a largely negative reception, despite scoring some measure of success at the box office. So for this new one, the hope was that it would finally get things right and set the franchise up with a solid foundation for future installments.

The movie stars Henry Golding as the titular Snake Eyes, a man that is taken in by an ancient Japanese ninja clan after saving the life of one of its high-ranking members. There he must not only earn their trust, but he must also undergo training and pass through a series of grueling tests in order to prove his loyalty. But after witnessing the death of his father at a young age, he'll be forced to choose between fulfilling his quest for revenge and his ties to his new family.

I'd gone into Snake Eyes with lowered expectations, based mainly on the quality of the two previous G.I. Joe movies. Because let's face it, those movies weren't exactly great, meaning that this latest film had a very low bar to scale to be considered an improvement. And in a way, it was this very fact that had helped to cushion my disappointment at its otherwise bland story and muddled execution. 
The film simply lacks the kind of spark you'd want to see in a movie about ninjas doing ninja stuff. Not that anyone should be going into a movie based on a Hasbro toyline expecting anything particularly groundbreaking, but still. Its one saving grace should have been its action scenes, but even those were marred by an overreliance on fast cuts and shaky cameras. What little could be seen of its fight choreography and wire stunts was awesome though, channeling the kinetic energy of classic ninja films. 
But when otherwise competent martial artists like The Raid's Iko Uwais are made to look uncharacteristically slow, then there is something clearly wrong with the way their actions are being presented. Speaking of which, the film does boast a solid overall ensemble, with Henry Golding bringing much of the same level of charisma he had shown in Crazy Rich Asians. But the true standout was Andrew Koji who plays Thomas Arashikage, the man who would eventually become his archrival, Storm Shadow.

Snake Eyes is easily the best film in the G.I. Joe movie franchise thus far. But considering how poorly put together the last two films were, that's not saying much. The film squanders its great ensemble on a generic plot that barely manages to get the job done. That said, there's certainly some enjoyment to be had with the movie. And while it might not on its own fully revitalize the franchise in the way its filmmakers had no doubt hoped, I am still more than curious to see what comes next.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Space Jam: A New Legacy (Movie Review)

Back in 1997, it seemed like one could barely put on the TV without hearing "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly. The song was so ubiquitous that it pretty much transcended the movie that spawned it. All that is to say that I still consider Space Jam an integral part of that particular slice of my childhood. So as you can imagine, the cynic in me was quite skeptical the moment I learned they were doing a sequel, all these years later. Turns out the cynic had every reason to be.

In Space Jam: A New Legacy, a basketball legend is sucked into a cartoon world where he must lead a team of Looney Toon characters to victory in a high-stakes basketball match. And you'll be forgiven for thinking I'd simply read out the synopsis for the original Space Jam, because the basic premise is the same. The only difference is where once stood Michael Jordan now stands Lebron James in his place.

Following an encounter with a rogue A.I named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), both Lebron and his son, Dom (Cedric Joe), are trapped in the Server-Verse, a virtual reality world populated by the various Warner Bros. properties. In order to escape, they must each assemble a team to play in a basketball match against one another. And while Dom gets to put together a dream-team of augmented professional basketballers, Lebron gets saddled with the Looney Tunes.

I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy with lowered expectations, hoping to be mildly entertained at best. I mean, it is not as if the original Space Jam was all that great to begin with, even though the 10-year-old version of me had loved it at the time. So I'd channeled my inner 10-year-old as I attempted to enjoy the new movie for what it was. And to a certain degree, there is some enjoyment to be had with it.

The premise of the movie is flimsy at best of course. The whole thing is after all just an excuse to have Lebron James play basketball with some Looney Tunes, much like Michael Jordan had done in the first movie. Which is fine, since once again, no one is going into these movies expecting anything particularly groundbreaking from their stories. But unlike the original film, where I cared about the build-up to and actual game of basketball at its center, this one seemed to lack much of that spark.

I know it is probably the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia speaking, but I'd felt way more invested over the course of the first movie. This time around, I was merely going through the paces and looking forward to seeing more of its updated take on the original's formula. Where the new movie tries to make up for some of those shortcomings though was in the comedy department. Some of the jokes were actually quite funny, poking fun at a lot of Warner Bros. properties. But for every one of those laugh-out-loud gags, there were at least two or three that were eye-roll inducing.

Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like a film that was conceptualized during a board room meeting between Warner Bros. executives. It pays homage to the vast number of Warner Bros properties, but in so doing fails to include much of the sports drama that made the first film memorable. To its credit, it does try to include a story with morals about being your true self. But even that isn't enough to save what is essentially another cash grab at best, and an elaborate ad for Warner Bros. and HBO Max at worst.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Black Widow (Movie Review)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe finally returns to the big screen after being forced to take a more-than-year-long break. Within that time though, we've gotten not one, but three excellent MCU shows, with Loki still ongoing as we speak. All that is to say that fans of the MCU have still been getting their MCU fix these last couple of months. So with Black Widow, what many of us are no doubt hoping for is a reminder of what sets these MCU movies apart from everything else. But does it mark a triumphant return, or is it just a simple case of too little too late?

Set following the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie finds Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) on the run following her reluctance to sign the Sokovia Accords. It also traces her origins as a former KGB agent, most of which plays out over an opening montage set to a remix version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. She is soon forced out of hiding and back into the spy game though when an old acquaintance reaches out to her out of the blue. Now she must confront the demons of her past while being hunted by a deadly assassin that seems to know her every move.

I confess that I was never really that keen on a solo Black Widow movie, especially coming this late into the overall MCU. And my skepticism didn't exactly wane in the intervening time we had to wait following the film's delays. So you can take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt, and believe me when I say that your mileage may very well vary. But I honestly believe that this is one of the weaker movies we've gotten in the MCU thus far. This is not to say that it was a bad movie, just that it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the movies that came before it.

My main issue with the movie then stems from the very nature of its narrative. The fact that the film is a prequel immediately removes any sense of tension or urgency. We already know what happens with Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Endgame, as well as the role she had to play in Avengers: Infinity War. So any threat she goes up against in this film gets instantly diffused by that knowledge. And the events of the movie itself ultimately adds nothing new to the MCU or any of these characters.

All that said, the film still delivers what the MCU does best, some truly jaw-dropping spectacle. The setpieces are some of the very best I've seen in a while, even though the action was of the leave-your-brain-at-the-door variety. Because we've got to remember that these aren't superheroes in the true sense of the word, at least save for one character. So watching them perform superhuman feats can feel a bit jarring and over-the-top. But if that is precisely what you came for, then rejoice, because that is precisely what you'll get.

Another highlight of the film was its stellar ensemble. Scarlett Johansson throws all her heart and soul into the role, but she is easily outshined by both David Harbor and Florence Pugh, both of whom provide much of the comic relief in the film. It is a shame we can't offer the same praise to the two villains though, both of which felt weak and terribly underdeveloped in comparison. And for anyone wondering, the film does have a post-credits scene, but it didn't feel like much more than an ad for one of their upcoming Disney+ shows.

Black Widow is not the epic swansong fans of Natasha Romanoff might be hoping for. Neither is it that great of an origin story. What it does do well though is remind fans of the MCU why they love this character. The film attempts to marry the spy thriller thrills of Captain America: Winter Soldier with the kind of family drama and hijinx you'd expect to find in a Fantastic Four. And while the two don't always gel well together, the film still manages to do just enough to justify its existence.

Friday, 2 July 2021

The Tomorrow War (Movie Review)

It was around this time in 2015 that Chris Pratt became a bona fide action star, after starring in the global box office hit, Jurassic World. This was itself coming in the wake of him playing Star-Lord in the 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy, a role he has since reprised across multiple films in the MCU. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise to find him headlining yet another action film. Except this latest one appears to be his most ambitious one to date.

In The Tomorrow War, mankind is faced with the ultimate test when soldiers from the future travel back in time to enlist the help of present-day soldiers in their fight against a devastating alien foe. But when the first batch of soldiers is almost entirely wiped out, the governments of the world are forced to enact a global draft where everyday workers are forced to fight. This would lead to worldwide protests and general unrest as it appeared they were fighting a losing battle.

One of the men recruited to fight in that battle is James Daniel Forester (Chris Pratt), a former Iraq War veteran who has since become a high school teacher. Leaving his family behind with the hope of securing their future, James is sent forward in time 30 years, along with several other recruits. But what they find there is a lot graver than anything their drill instructors had prepared them for. Now they must fight to survive their 7-day tour, while fulfilling their duty and ensuring the survival of the human race.

Despite an overwhelming sense of been there, done that, there were still a few things I liked about The Tomorrow War. First, there is the whole concept of jumping back and forth through time in a bid to gain the upper hand in a future war. The concept itself is not particularly original, I know, but while it might seem like a rip off of older films like The Terminator, it still managed to infuse enough deviations to that formula to help set it apart. I won't give any of the twists away of course, but I was definitely surprised by the direction the film ended up taking, especially towards it latter half.

Then there is the fact that the film fully embraces the campiness of its premise. This point can't be overstated. It has oftentimes spelt the difference between why a film like Battle: Los Angeles gets poorly received for taking itself too seriously, and something like Edge of Tomorrow, which contained a nice mix of lighthearted humor and over-the-top action, doesn't. Thankfully, The Tomorrow War bears more in common with the latter than the former.

But speaking of action, this was the one area of the film where it threatened to lose me completely. Much like you'd expect from a film of this kind, it places a lot of focus on action and spectacle. A little too much for its own good in fact. Not that the effects were low-budget or unconvincing. But I would have simply preferred a more nuanced approach to some of those scenes, especially coming off the heels of the brilliant A Quiet Place Part II. But I recognize that those are two different types of films, engineered to appeal to two different types of movie fans.  

The Tomorrow War is a wholly unoriginal but still somewhat enjoyable sci-fi actioner. It delivers the kind of blockbuster spectacle you'd expect to find in a cinema around the fourth of July. The fact that it is instead debuting on Amazon Prime feels just about right though. Because despite all of its visual flourishes, this is one film that simply doesn't warrant going out to see on the biggest screen possible.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Luca (Movie Review)

The spirit of summer is brought to life beautifully in the latest Pixar animated feature, Luca. Helmed by first-time director, Enrico Casarosa, the movie marks the studio's second film to debut exclusively on Disney+, following Soul's move to the streaming platform last December. And much like that other film, it also received a theatrical release in those territories where Disney+ is currently unavailable.

Set on the bright shores of the Italian Riviera, the film centers upon Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea creature who has spent most of his life in fear of leaving his underwater home. But after he crosses paths with a fellow sea creature named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), he comes to discover that they actually harbored the ability to transform into humans once they leave the water. 

This opens up a world of possibility for Luca, except he is torn between his curiosity and the warnings of his overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph). With Alberto's help, he learns to overcome his fears as they set off on an adventure to explore a neighboring human town together. But as they soon come to find out, not everything above water is as welcoming as it seems.

Luca is a coming-of-age story with plenty of heart. The film is beautifully animated, as is typically the case with these Pixar animated films. But what really sets this one apart is how perfectly it captures the spirit of summer. From the deep blues of the sky and ocean, to the cobblestone terrain of the Italian town, the movie looks like a postcard brought to life.

The voice cast is also deserving of praise, with Jacob Tremblay once again delivering another heartfelt performance. And speaking of heartfelt, the film is all but guaranteed to hit you in the feels, but in a positive way that the studio seems to know how to do so well. It might not quite rise to the same level of brilliance as their older classics like Wall-E or Up, but that shouldn't take away from the overall quality of its execution.

Luca joins both Onward and Soul as yet another win from Pixar Animation Studios during the so-called pandemic era. That all three aforementioned films are original productions points to the sheer level of creativity still alive at the studio today. Their latest film deserves to be on any list of must-see summer movies. And whether you choose to see it in theaters or at home, the movie is sure to fill you with all the warmth and magic that only the wizards at Pixar know how to conjure.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

F9 (Movie Review)

The ninth main entry in the never-ending Fast Saga, F9 (or Fast & Furious 9), is almost finally here. At least for those of us not living in China and other select Asian territories, where it had made its debut three weeks ago. I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening for the film here in Nigeria, where it is currently set to debut this Friday, along with the US and much of the wider world. 

The film had made the news in the lead up to the summer movie season last year, when it was one of the first major tentpoles to move its release date in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, choosing to jump a full year into 2021. So the question on most fan's lips is undoubtedly whether or not it was worth the additional one-year wait. The answer, I guess, depends on your tolerance for the outlandish and utterly implausible.

In F9, or Fast 9, or whatever you want to call it, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and crew return to do what they do best: drive fast cars while its filmmakers think up increasingly ridiculous ways to outdo themselves. In terms of actual story and plot though, the latest film finds them on yet another high stakes mission that would have them traveling locations around the world in pursuit of yet another villain that seemingly materialized out of nowhere.

Only this time around the villain in question is Jakob (John Cena), Toretto's younger brother, and much of the film is spent exploring the dynamic of their relationship. So expect to see a lot of flashbacks and the now-standard redemptive arch that almost always feels unearned. And if you consider that a spoiler then it means you've basically never seen any of the recent Fast Saga movies, because if you had then you should know the drill by now.

My main problem with F9 is not that it tries too hard to deliver the type of spectacle fans have come to expect from these movies. I mean, I've pretty much come to accept that as part of their DNA, so believe me when I say my brain was firmly left at the door before I'd plopped into my seat to watch this one. It is the fact that in their pursuit of jaw-dropping spectacle, the film has made it harder than ever to invest in the struggles of any of its characters.

To its credit, the movie does at least attempt to address their near Superhero-like invincibility, but none of that really amounted to anything beyond some self-deprecating humor and a knowing wink. And if you stop caring about who lives or dies, or who is brought back to life after being MIA for several movies, then the whole thing simply ceases to hold any kind of appeal beyond the purely visceral.

So how is the action then? At least that's one area where they've never failed to serve up the goods, right? Well, I'd say it was serviceable and you pretty much get what you pay for. Cars are driven across exploding mine fields, flown over impossibly wide chasms, and even flipped around like burgers on a hot grill. All standard fare for the series by this point really. Except the movie attempts to up the ante by taking the action into a whole new frontier. But the less said about space the better.

Chances are if you're a hardcore fan of The Fast Saga, then nothing I can say would be enough to dissuade you from wanting to see F9. And that was never the intention of this review to be honest. Because for all of its ridiculous stunts and narrative shortcomings, you've still got to respect a movie that manages to entertain without taking itself too seriously. And while I would have preferred if it had dialed back some of the mayhem in favor of characters you actually cared about, those characters have been with us so long at this point that I am willing to forgive their excesses.

Friday, 11 June 2021

In The Heights (Movie Review)

Disney+ had scored a huge hit last summer when Hamilton was added to its ever-growing library of family content. But now it seems that HBO Max is the one about to score a big summer hit, with today's simultaneous release of In The Heights. And unlike that other film, which was merely a high-quality recording of one of its earlier stage play performances, this one is a ground-up adaptation of yet another Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, lovingly made for the big screen.

Directed by Jon M. Chu of Step Up and Crazy Rich Asians fame, the film tells the interweaving stories of several people living in the titular Washington Heights in New York City. First there's Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man that runs the neighborhood bodega. Then there's his love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer. And then there's Nina (Leslie Grace), a young woman that recently came home from Standford University.

All three, like much of the cast, are of Dominican descent. And their ethnicity is not the only thing that connects them. The one thing they all have in common is their pursuit of a better life, a dream that often feels out of reach due to financial hardships. But as they all prepare for their community's forthcoming Fiesta ceremony, they'll soon come to learn the role a community plays in overcoming all sorts of obstacles.

In The Heights is a love letter to the larger-than-life cultures that color our respective neighborhoods. It is not only a celebration of Latin culture in particular, but also an examination of the challenges and experiences of Latinos living in the US. But rather than merely settle for shining a spotlight on those experiences, it goes one step ahead by humanizing their struggles. This is mainly achieved through fully fleshed-out characters that were instantly likable.

The musical numbers were also singalong worthy, and the choreography that accompanied them were just as memorable. All of which was captured through some stunning cinematography that almost demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. There was this one performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda that felt tacked on though, and a few other moments during the film where it seems to lose some momentum. Also, the film did tend to run a little bit longer than I had anticipated, clocking in at almost two and a half hours, so keep that in mind and plan your own intermissions accordingly.

In The Heights seems almost tailor-made for the summer movie season. The movie boasts a number of memorable songs and performances, as well as a heartfelt story that was brought to life by an all-round stellar cast. Most importantly, it excels in much the same way Hamilton had done when it made the jump from stage to streaming. But whether you choose to see it in theaters or at home, the film is guaranteed to leave you walking away with a spring in your step.

Friday, 4 June 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Movie Review)

The Warrens return for another round of paranormal investigation in the third film in The Conjuring series, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. This is actually the eighth overall entry in the wider Conjuring Universe, following spinoffs like Annabelle, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona. That last movie's director assumes directing duties for this one (taking over from James Wan), and his movie receives a simultaneous release in both theaters and on HBO Max this weekend.

The film has Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life husband and wife team of paranormal investigators. Set in 1981, the movie centers upon the infamous "the Devil made me do it" case, the first-ever US murder investigation in which the defendant had pleaded not guilty under the grounds of demonic possession.

So rather than have the Warrens go up against the ghosts in yet another haunted house, the film instead functions as a murder mystery. The murder in question was done by a young man named Arne Johnson, who had spontaneously stabbed another man to death. Convinced that he was acting under demonic influence, the Warrens must now work to find the evidence needed to convince the courtroom as well.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It takes the popular horror series into strange new territory. Unfortunately though, its chosen destination isn't one that was necessarily worth visiting to begin with. The movie lacks much of the spark that made those first two movies great, and I found that it relied too heavily on cheap jump scares that you could see coming a mile away.

The movie also wears its influences a little too openly on its sleeves, and one of the more recognizable ones was the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Everything from the way certain shots were framed, to the way the set was lit during its climactic exorcism scene, mirrored that other film. But there is a thin line between paying homage to something and plain ripping it off, and it was not always clear what the filmmakers were going for in this particular case.

The movie's sole saving grace then comes from its two leads. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson once again prove to have great on-screen chemistry. But even more than that, their characters are given greater depth than ever before, reflecting the toll all the ghost hunting has had on them as individuals and as a couple. I'll always have a soft spot for Vera Farmiga, and both she and Patrick Wilson do their best to elevate what was essentially an uninteresting script.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the latest victim of the laws of diminishing returns. The movie runs on fumes for much of its runtime, before finally arriving at a fairly predictable conclusion. And while it might still do enough to please fans of the wider Conjuring Universe, it simply doesn't offer nearly as many thrills as the two movies that came before it

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Cruella (Movie Review)

Disney continues its trend of giving its classic villains origin stories. And the latest one to follow in the footsteps of Maleficent and Elsa is Cruella de Vil, the evil socialite from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This is actually not the character's first foray into live-action, having been played by Glenn Close in two previous live-action adaptations. But this time around, Cruella is portrayed by Emma Stone, who steps into the role with all the class of a socialite putting on a tight leather glove.

In the film, a young woman named Estella dreams of becoming a fashion designer. And her dream becomes reality when she is taken under the wing of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the head of one of London's leading fashion houses. Under her tutelage, she begins to learn just what it takes to come out ahead in the high fashion world. But as their relationship develops, so also would the rivalry between them that would serve as the catalyst for Estella's transformation into the villainous Cruella de Vil.

Cruella is a movie that has a lot going for it. The film is not only an origin story, it is also a heist film and a revenge movie, rolled into one. It borrows heavily from the likes of The Devil Wears Prada, mirroring that other film's tale of a fledgling fashionista struggling to learn the ropes. But the movie did strive to forge its own identity through its vibrant reinterpretation of its source material.

It was brought to life by a pair of brilliant performances. Emma Thompson was appropriately evil and despicable as Baroness von Hellman, but Emma Stone proved to be every bit her equal, and the film was at its strongest when both women tried to outdo one another. The supporting cast was just as colorful, with Paul Walter Hauser providing much of the comic relief.

The film also boasts some incredible production design that really help capture the feel of 1970s London. And the costumes on display were just as brilliant as the larger-than-life characters, even though that fire dress did look like it was ripped straight out of Hunger Games. The soundtrack was likewise populated by a greatest hits collection of 70s classic, and I found myself singing along for much of the film.

In terms of issues, the main one I had with the film was Emma Stone's transition from Estella to Cruella. I felt like it was just a little too exaggerated for my liking, which made the development a bit jarring at first. But the whole thing eventually comes together in a way that makes the film greater than the sum of its parts.

Cruella is a fresh albeit darker take on the origins of the eponymous Disney villainess. More importantly, it is a fun, energetic film that moves along at an almost breakneck pace. It did tend to run a little too long though, and its resolution didn't really give much justification for why that was. But if you fancy an unusual coming-of-age story bolstered with laughs and great performances, then the movie has plenty of that on offer.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

A Quiet Place Part II (Movie Review)

Back in 2018, when moviegoers could still congregate in movie theaters without the fear of contracting something deadly, a certain horror film was busy taking the pre-Summer box office by storm. Unfortunately for those of us in Nigeria, where horror movies are usually relegated to the 9pm cinema dead zone, that movie never even got to see the light of day. So I had to wait an excruciatingly long three months for the film to land on digital platforms before I could see what the noise was about. And boy was it worth the wait, going on to become my favorite movie that year.

Flash forward to this weekend, and A Quiet Place Part II finally began its global rollout, just as movie theaters are beginning to show signs of recovery from the year-long lockdowns that have kept them under lock and key. And once again, the movie has proven to be worth the wait, delivering on every single promise made in the trailers that heralded its often delayed arrival. But how exactly does it measure up to the very high standards of the first film? That is the question that I'll be trying to answer in this review.

The film picks up right where the last one left off, with the remaining members of the Abbott family forced out of their home following the events of the first movie. It also pulls double duty as a prequel of sorts, showing what happened on Day 1 of the invasion that saw the world's population decimated by ferocious creatures that hunt by sound. That 10-minute opening sequence alone had enough highs and thrills to fill up an entire film, but I was just happy to see John Krasinki reprise his role as Lee Abbott.

The rest of the film finds the family seeking help and shelter from an old friend of Lee's named Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a man struggling to deal with his failure to keep his own family alive. But after the Abbott's deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), discovers that a looping radio broadcast was actually masking coordinates to its source, she decides to set off to find it with the hope of being able to broadcast the high-pitched frequency that would help them fight the creatures.

It should come as no surprise that A Quiet Place Part II was my most anticipated movie of 2020. But following the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the onset of lockdowns, the movie was delayed indefinitely, mere days before its scheduled global rollout. But my anticipation for the film never waned in the intervening one year, once again becoming my most anticipated movie for 2021. And now that I've finally gotten a chance to see it in all its glory, I'm pleased to say that it was everything I'd expected and more.

The movie excels in a way that many sequels fail to do. In a trend that finds more and more Hollywood franchises going bigger and bolder for their second outings, this one keeps its action grounded and tethered to the family drama at its core. It maintains a nearly identical premise with the first film, but shakes things up by having the family members split up on their own separate adventures.

And the film was once again bolstered by excellent performances across the board. Out of all the newcomers, Cillian Murphy proved to be the standout, with his character coming across as a man struggling to do the right thing despite being kicked down in the dirt. But the real heart of the movie was Millicent Simmonds, who once again gave Regan the same fieriness and fighting spirit that made her great in the first film.

The sound design of the movie also needs to be applauded. Not many films make you wary of eating your popcorn too loudly after all, an experience I'd missed out on with the first movie. There were many long stretches of uncomfortable silence, followed by jump scares that never felt cheap or overused. Likewise, the creature design and visual effects as a whole remain impressive to behold, never choosing to sacrifice effective scares for the sake of mere spectacle.

A Quiet Place Part II is the perfect sequel to an already near-perfect movie. It expands upon everything that made the first film so intriguing without feeling like a rehash or cash grab. That it manages to maintain the same level of dread, while using most of the same tools within its toolbox, is a testament to a story that was not only well conceived but well-executed too. It might not quite surpass the sheer thrills of the first film, but it is every bit its equal in my opinion.

One Lagos Night (Movie Review)

All art is subjective as the saying goes, and things don't really get any more subjective than with comedy. Everything from an actor's delivery, to their comedic timing, comes into play in determining whether we find their performance funny or not. So it is always tricky when evaluating a movie like One Lagos Night, where much of the enjoyment hinges on how well the jokes land. But as I quickly found out during the course of the film, it boasts a lot more hits than misses.

The movie tells the story of two men, Ehiz (Ikponmwosa Gold) and Tayo (Frank Donga), struggling to get by in the slums of Lagos. Ehiz is in search of an well-paying job, while Tayo works as a security man and a part-time prophet. Following a series of unfortunate circumstances, Tayo comes up with a plan to rob the house of a wealthy money launderer. But when the same house is invaded by professional burglars on the very same night they'd intended to execute their plan, the pair is forced to resort to their wits to come out ahead and with their lives.

One Lagos Night's biggest strength comes from the on-screen chemistry between its two leads. The way both actors were able to continually riff off of each other's shortcomings throughout the movie made it feel like I was watching two real-life friends and not professional actors. I confess that I wasn't familiar with Ikponmwosa Gold and his work prior to his appearance here, but Frank Donga I remember from his scene-stealing performance in the otherwise shoddy The Wedding Party. And it was nice seeing him shine once again with a performance that was both nuanced and funny.

So it is a shame then that we can't really say the same thing about the supporting cast. Most of them covered the broad spectrum of acting tropes you'd expect to find in a Nollywood movie, meaning their performances were either wooden or terribly overacted. The biggest offenders were the so-called professional thieves, who were about as convincing as their cheesy codenames. It is hard to tell how much of that was due to their stilted dialogue, but a part of me suspects this is another case of bad acting paired with a questionable screenplay.

And speaking of screenplay, this one often skirted the thin line between playing the situations for laughs and just being plain dumb. There were many scenarios that played out unrealistically, but I guess that shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. There were also some technical issues I noticed during the film, like the audio getting out of sync in certain scenes. Its hard to tell if this was from the movie itself or Netflix, but still something that threatened to pull me out of the experience.

One Lagos Night is a flawed but nonetheless funny crime comedy. It plays into the strengths of its two leads, giving both men ample opportunity to showcase their talent. The film might not be to everyone's taste, but it at least offers enough entertainment value without overstaying its welcome. And sometimes, it is best to just go along for the ride and enjoy a film for what it is, not what it isn't.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Army of the Dead (Movie Review)

I've always been a sucker for zombie films, and out of all the ones I'd seen growing up, my favorite was the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder, the film had taken everything I loved about the horror subgenre and shot it to the stratosphere. The rest is history I guess, with Zack Snyder now being a household name and his first movie still considered the finest in his filmography. So of course I was going to check out Army of the Dead the moment it dropped on Netflix.

The film stars Dave Bautista as Scott Ward, a mercenary who is tasked with pulling off an almost impossible heist. Following a viral outbreak in the Nevada desert, the city of Las Vegas is overrun by zombies. This had prompted the US government to quarantine the entire city by walling it off from the rest of America. But after the city is deemed impossible to reclaim and get under control, an executive order is passed to nuke it to the ground in four days' time.

Meanwhile, Scott has been hired by a rich businessman named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), to help retrieve the sum of $250 million left in a vault in one of his casinos. And in order to do so, Scott must put together a team of fellow mercenaries to break into the Las Vegas quarantine zone. But with the clock already ticking, and a new breed of zombies to contend with, they soon come to realize that the job was more than they'd bargained for. Now his team must work together to get out of the city alive.

My expectations for Army of the Dead were quite high going into the film, mainly because I am a big fan of Zack Snyder. And his latest film definitely doesn't disappoint, offering the same level of thrills he gave zombie fans in his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. The director has always been known for his heavily stylized visuals, and while that appears to be toned down somewhat in this movie, there's still plenty of beautiful cinematography for viewers to ogle at.

But unlike his remake of Dawn of the Dead, this latest film takes a while before things truly kick into gear. The film meanders quite a bit in the beginning, as we go over all the requisite introductions and setup. And I know it is a bit unfair to compare the opening sequence of both movies, but this one just didn't reach the same heights as the one in that other film. But once our crew of mercenaries make their way into Las Vegas, things pick up in pace and the movie starts to shine.

And speaking of our crew of mercenaries, the film is populated by an interesting cast of characters that cover a broad range of stereotypes. That you actually grow to care about most of them during the course of the film, and understand why they have chosen to take on this impossible mission, bodes well for the ensemble as a whole. But out of all the actors in the film, Dave Bautista gave the most heartfelt performance, proving to be a truly capable lead.

Army of the Dead has Zack Snyder doing what he does best. The movie updates the already established zombie lore in some new and interesting ways, while still providing enough gruesome zombie kills to satisfy gorehounds and purists alike. Comparisons to other heist-based zombie films like last year's Peninsula might seem inevitable, but what this one lacks in originality it more than makes up for in sheer thrills.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Those Who Wish Me Dead (Movie Review)

Taylor Sheridan returns to the director's chair for Those Who Wish Me Dead. The actor had risen to prominence as a screenwriter after penning the scripts for both Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which had scored him a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. For his latest film, he once again channels his love for stories set in the modern-day American frontier, and he has recruited one of Hollywood's biggest A-listers to help bring it to life.

The film stars Angelina Jolie as Hannah Faber, a former smokejumper suffering from PTSD. She has been relegated to manning a lookout tower for forest fires, and there she struggles to come to grips with the tragedy that took place there one year ago. But her time of reflection is cut short when she stumbles across a distraught young boy (Finn Little) who was clearly on the run.

She learns that he was being hunted by a pair of assassins, who were trying to prevent him and his father from releasing some incriminating evidence against their employer (Tyler Perry). And to keep the authorities distracted while they hunt down their prey, the pair start a forest fire that quickly spirals out of control. Now Hannah must do everything she can to get the boy to the safety of the nearest town 12 miles away.

After spending the last couple of years taking on more dramatic roles, Those Who Wish Me Dead marks Angelina Jolie's return to action thriller fare. She had risen to fame with roles in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Tomb Raider, the latter of which had helped cement her position as one of the few bona fide female action stars in Hollywood. So it is a much-welcomed return for many of her long-time fans. And she proved more than capable in the role, bringing the kind of physicality one would expect from such a film.

I also enjoyed seeing Nicholas Hoult in yet another villainous role. But unlike his very quotable turn as Nux in the brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, the actor doesn't get much to work with here. He was supposed to be this conflicted killer, duty-bound by his mission, but his character merely came across as one-dimensional. The same thing could be said about Aidan Gillen, who plays his dad. And John Bernthal rounds out what could be considered an okay ensemble.

So the performances range from great to just okay. But how about the story you ask? Well, given the premise of the movie, the story was about as good as could be expected, which is my way of saying it was serviceable. The one area I had an issue with was in its unrealistic depictions of forces of nature like lightning storms. This was especially glaring during the climax, when the film turns into a full-blown disaster movie. I'm not quite sure how much of what was shown is based on real-world science, but I suspect that some suspension of disbelief will be required from most viewers. 

Those Who Wish Me Dead is an action thriller/disaster film hybrid with a strong emotional core. It is also a throwback to the cheesy natural disaster movies you most likely loved as a kid. I'm talking about films like Hard Rain that feature otherwise conventional plots. But this one has the added benefit of being anchored by a strong performance by Angelina Jolie, and a fairly brisk runtime that keeps things moving along at a steady pace.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Wrath of Man (Movie Review)

Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham join forces once again for Wrath of Man, an action thriller based on the 2004 French film, Cash Truck. The two had previously collaborated on the classic crime comedies, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, with both films being responsible for making them household names. But they'd found significantly less success in 2005 with their third collaboration, Revolver, with most viewers agreeing that the film felt like a step backwards from the highs of the previous two. Their latest effort seems to land somewhere in-between.

In Wrath of Man, Jason Statham plays H, a new recruit at a security company. His job is to help protect the millions of dollars that gets transported through them daily. But after he single-handedly helps to prevent a robbery on one of their bullion vans, he gains a new sense of respect from his teammates. Except H isn't looking for respect. He is looking for revenge, and this has led him right where he needs to be. Now he is barrelling towards his goal with a singular resolve that should have anyone standing in his way shaking with fear.

You can pretty much tell what to expect from a film like Wrath of Man from its title alone. And Guy Ritchie takes that same no-frills approach with other aspects of the film as well. It lacks much of the signature humor from his earlier films, leaning instead on Jason Statham's stone-cold resolve to carry much of the film. Unfortunately, his character comes across as too one-note for my liking, making it hard to truly root for him on his quest for revenge.

The film still has some other vestiges of Guy Ritchie's directorial style on display though. Its nonlinear story structure is just one example of this, where the same event takes place multiple times during the course of the film, with each iteration shedding more light on the overall narrative. The narrative itself is not as complex as that setup would lead one to believe, with very few twists along the way. But each take is at least presented from a new perspective, using some effective cinematography, which makes the repetition feel like less of a chore.

The highlight of the film for most viewers then is certainly the action set pieces. And thankfully, most of it is grounded in reality. So don't expect to see any cars flying from one building to the next like in those Transporter movies. Some action film logic is still on display of course, especially during its climactic final scenes where all hell breaks loose as scheduled. But it never ventures into leave-your-brain-at-the-door territory.

Wrath of Man is a by-the-numbers revenge movie that doesn't try to do too much to distinguish itself from those that came before it. The film might prove a bit too dour for Guy Ritchie fans hoping for something closer to last year's The Gentlemen. But for anyone looking for yet another Jason Statham action vehicle, minus much of the charm and charisma the actor is known for, then the film should still deliver on its promise of a bloody good time.