Friday 26 February 2021

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (Movie Review)

Films often spend a good bit of time trying to find a home after making their debuts at the various film festivals. This was certainly the case with The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, an American drama about a black gay boy named Tunde struggling to escape a fate that seems all but destined for him. Originally making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, it finally receives a simultaneous release in select theaters and video-on-demand platforms this weekend.

In The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, Steven Silver plays Tunde, a young black boy of Nigerian descent, who struggles with anxiety and depression, amongst other things. You see, Tunde is not only gay, but he is also caught in a love triangle between his childhood friend and her closeted boyfriend, Soren. On the night that he comes out as gay to his parents, both of whom appear to be supportive of the news, he is pulled over by police while driving to attend Soren's birthday party in celebration. 

It is immediately clear that Tunde is a victim of racial profiling, and despite doing everything he can to comply with the police officers, the incident would end with Tunde being killed. Except for Tunde, it wasn't the end at all, as he finds himself having to relieve that same day over and over again, with the same tragic outcome. But with each iteration of the day, he gradually develops the understanding and acceptance he needs to face his demons.

I have seen my fair share of movies with infinite time loops, but this is the first one I am seeing where the concept is used so effectively to explore the issues that plague a young black man in America. From racial profiling to police brutality, these are issues we hear about on the news, with far-reaching ramifications that often signal just how far we still have to go to become all-inclusive. And that it used them to further its narrative, and did that so well, is something that definitely needs to be applauded.

But at the center of the whole thing was of course Steven Silver, who owned the role of Tunde. He had also played Marcus in the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, and while he was never quite one of the standouts on that show, he gets to shine brightly here. His range of emotions spoke of a boy that was struggling to find his place in a society where he clearly felt ostracized, with the time loop device allowing for more and more layers of his character to be peeled back as the movie progressed, taking viewers on as much a journey of self-discovery as that of its main character.

It's a shame then that the same praise cannot be given to the rest of the cast. As a Nigerian myself, it was a bit disappointing to see that the actors who played Tunde's parents didn't speak with anything remotely resembling a proper Nigerian accent. This is especially aggravating considering the large number of Nigerian actors out there in Hollywood, any of which would have given a more convincing performance. I mean, I even made a whole video about a number of them just last year. 

The film also often veered into the realm of teen melodrama, where it tended to lose focus of the larger issues it tries to tackle in favor of played-out high school tropes. But it thankfully never completely loses sight of those larger issues, and aside from these perceived problems, I have to say that The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a real eye opener overall.

Sunday 21 February 2021

I Care a Lot (Movie Review)

Rosamund Pikes steps back into familiar territory in the new dark comedy, I Care a Lot, a film for which she recently received a Best Actress nomination at the forthcoming Golden Globes. The movie was written and directed by J Blakeson, an English filmmaker best remembered for helming the YA sci-fi adaptation, The 5th Wave. Following a strong showing at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, his latest film makes its debut on both Netflix and Amazon Prime this weekend.

The film stars Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a woman who runs an elaborate scam where she gets the court to appoint her as guardian to wealthy senior citizens deemed no longer capable of taking care of themselves. She then proceeds to put them up in a retirement home where they have no contact with the outside world, while she profits by liquidating their assets.

But unbeknownst to Marla, her latest target is the mother of a Russian mobster (played by Peter Dinklage), and the woman had been in possession of some diamonds worth millions of dollars. And now her son is willing to go to any lengths to get both of them back, as Marla finds herself entangled in a battle of wits.

I Care a Lot is an exhilarating story about ruthless ambition and its consequences. The film is populated with characters operating within the dark side of a clearly flawed legal system, and as such, it was almost impossible for me to root for any single one of them. But I still found myself wanting to see the story through to its ending, just to see whether or not some due justice was going to get served.

The real highlight of course was Rosamond Pike, who once again channels a cold, diabolical side that is sure to leave viewers shaking in their seats, be that from fear or righteous anger. I still get chills when thinking of her performance from Gone Girl, and her performance here was every bit as strong and memorable. That said, Peter Dinklage also manages to hold his own, plus it was nice seeing the Game of Thrones alum after that show had left fans with a sour taste in their mouth.

The film was also stylishly put together, from its smooth editing to its synth-heavy soundtrack. My main gripe with the movie then stems from its overall identity crisis. I'm a fan of dark comedies, but this particular one was devoid of any real jokes, at least ones that landed or that I would consider memorable. As such, it settles into this awkward middle ground between a true comedy and a psychological thriller.

I Care a Lot skirts by off the strength of its lead star. Rosamund Pike has already proven herself to be an accomplished actress at this point, so whether or not she snags the Golden Globe this year shouldn't change any of that. Her latest film is just further proof of why she is one of the most talented actresses working in Hollywood today.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Namaste Wahala (Movie Review)

The Nigerian film industry, or Nollywood as it is more popularly referred to, produces more films on a yearly basis than the likes of Hollywood and China. It is in fact only bested by Bollywood, which produced just shy of 2,000 films in 2019 alone. Granted, most of those films were direct-to-video offerings made on a shoestring budget. But every now and then, we happen to get the occasional gem, or dare I say, guilty pleasure.

Now imagine what would happen if those two industries were to join forces. The answer, my friends, is Namaste Wahala, a cross-cultural romantic comedy debuting on Netflix this Valentine.

The movie stars Ini Dima-Okojie as Didi, a young lawyer who works at a family-owned law firm. Following a chance encounter with an attractive Indian man named Raj (Ruslaan Mumtaz), the two fall helplessly in love with one another. But in a classic case of forbidden love, Raj is rejected by Chidinma's parents when she brings him home to meet them, while Chidinma herself is given a similar treatment by Raj's mum. Now the two star-crossed lovers must find a way to convince their families they were meant to be together.

I'll confess that I am not the biggest fan of Bollywood movies, with the likes of Slumdog Millionaire and Lion being the closest I have gotten to enjoying the depiction of Indian culture in film. Same goes for Nollywood movies, many of which I find too insufferable to sit through. All that is to say that I was fairly skeptical heading into Namaste Wahala, despite all the social media buzz it has received in the lead up to its release.

So how exactly is the film then you ask? Well, not too bad. I could even go as far as saying I was pleasantly surprised by it. That it not to say that it was the best thing since sliced bread. And the film definitely had its fair share of problems, several of which I would touch upon now.

Those of you that read my Wedding Party review already know how I feel about Richard Mofe Damijo and his acting, and not much has changed since then, so the less said about his acting here the better. Other notable appearances include Broda Shaggi, who played a hot-tempered cabdriver, as well as M.I., who played himself.

Prior to the movie's release, we heard a lot of news about the Chocolate City rapper handling the soundtrack of the movie. And if all that translated into was the rapper's song playing over a montage while he makes a tacked-on cameo appearance, then color me disappointed. At least the scene didn't overstay its welcome, so that's a plus.

The strength of any good romantic comedy though rests upon the chemistry between its two leads. And while both Ruslaan and Ini were competent enough in their roles, I still had a hard time buying into their love for one another. This wasn't exactly help by the fact that the romance between the two had escalated so quickly that some suspension of disbelief was required in order to fully buy into the whole thing.

I mean, Raj himself had alluded to the fact that he had charmed his way into her heart. It would have been nice to see how exactly.

The film definitely follows most of the tropes you'd expect to find in a romantic comedy, like the the best friend who provides most of the comic relief. Sadly, it also had all the classic Nollywood trappings as well, from overacted melodramatic scenes, to cheesy lines of dialogue and deliveries that have you laughing for all the wrong reasons.

I also had issues with how the film had managed its runtime. There was a sexual assault subplot that took up a large chunk of the movie's 1 hour 46 minutes length, and I felt this could have been used to better develop the core story and characters, or trimmed out completely, as it didn't really tie into the overall plot in any meaningful way. It did at least give us some of the most comically bad line deliveries when it arrived at its climax though. You'll know it when you hear it, and I guess this could count as another plus.

Namaste Wahala works best when viewed as a homage to the films of Nollywood and Bollywood, zits and all. The cheese factor was definitely stronger than I would have liked, but therein lies most of the film's appeal. That the film also has a strong overall message about cultures coming together, and true love transcending cultural barriers, makes it easy for me to recommend to anyone that enjoys feel-good romances. It's definitely worth checking out on Netflix.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah (Movie Review)

There seems to be no shortage of timely historical dramas of late, and the newest one to be gracing screens big and small is Judas and the Black Messiah. Produced by Ryan Coogler, the film is a dramatization of the events that took place in the late 1960s, in which the FBI managed to infiltrate the ranks of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party. Released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, the film is the latest one from the Warner Bros. 2021 slate to receive a same-day premiere.

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O'Neal, a man caught trying to steal a car while impersonating an FBI agent. But rather than spend the next few years in prison for his crimes, he is given a choice to work with the actual FBI as an informant. His assignment is to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, by getting close to its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), an offer Bill accepts.

He slowly begins to work his way into his target's good graces, even rising to become his chief security officer. But as he becomes a greater part of the Black Panther family, he starts to feel conflicted about relaying their every move to his handler (Jesse Plemons). Now Bill must choose between fulfilling his promise to the FBI or going to prison for his crimes, or worse, risk getting exposed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a captivating look back in history. It lays bare all the facts surrounding the events depicted with a razor-sharp accuracy seldom seen outside of the best documentaries. Like The Trial of the Chicago 7 before it, the movie also manages to capture the racially charged atmosphere of late 1960s America. That many of the themes it explores are still relevant today points to its timeliness and timelessness, and the director Shaka King's attention to detail.

His film is populated with characters operating within a moral grey area. But rather than try to demonize any of those characters or the institutions involved, the film goes for a far more nuanced approach. And most of that was made possible by some truly remarkable performances from both Kaluuya and Stanfield. The former might be getting most of the praise right now, but it was actually Lakeith Stanfield's turn as Bill that left a greater impression in my opinion.

Everything from his troubled mannerisms to his quiet delivery spoke of a man that was being eaten up from the inside by the consequences of his actions. I was also happy to see Dominique Fishback once again at the top of her acting game. We last saw her in the Netflix film, Project Power, and she once again proves herself to be quite a capable actress.

Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a movie that needs to be experienced one way or another. So whether you choose to do so in theaters or at home on HBO Max, you're guaranteed to be met with some truly top-tier storytelling.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Minari (Movie Review)

In my quest for complete Oscars readiness, I finally managed to see Minari, one of the last remaining movies for me to watch before the big ceremony in April. The film has been generating a lot of awards season buzz, not to mention some outcry after it was relegated to the foreign language category of the forthcoming Golden Globes Awards. So, of course, I just had to see what all the noise was about. What follows are my unbiased thoughts about the film.

Set in the 1980s, the movie tells the story of a family of Koreans trying to make a place for themselves in rural Arkansas. The patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has just bought the acres of land they now call home, where he intends to start a farm, much to the displeasure of his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri). Her objection mainly stems from their new home's distance to the newest hospital, which is a major concern as they have a 5-year-old son with a heart condition to consider.

But the family slowly settles into their new life on the farm, with both Jacob and Monica taking up jobs at a nearby chicken hatchery. To help with the kids while they are away, Jacob arranges to have Monica's mum (Youn Yuh-jung) come over from Korea to live with them. Despite that, Monica becomes increasingly concerned as Jacob seems to be investing all their money into the farm, rather than the core needs of the family. And with things on the farm failing to go according to plan, Jacob soon finds himself having to decide which was most important to him.

To answer the question I know you've been asking yourself since the start of this review: Yes, Minari is worthy of every bit of praise it has gotten since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival one year ago. But even more than that, it is a film worth experiencing. The story is relatable in a way you don't often find in smaller-scale dramas, with its focus on each member of the Yi family, and their day-to-day struggles in the less-than-ideal, new environment they find themselves in.

Because of this, the film is several things at several points during its runtime: it is a family drama, a comedy, a cautionary tale, and a coming-of-age story. And that all those aspects of the film manage to stay rolled into one cohesive whole is testament to the writing and direction of Lee Isaac Chung. The film also boasts some truly memorable performances, from Steven Yeun as Jacob (who has definitely come a long way since his stint as Glen on The Walking Dead), to Will Patton, who plays a farm hand and was responsible for most of the film's comic relief.

Minari is ultimately a movie about doing whatever it takes to succeed. The film paints a beautiful portrait of the life of hardship many foreigners often face in their pursuit of the American dream. It is currently the frontrunner to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes in my opinion, and I can also see it managing to score a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, amongst other nominations.

Friday 5 February 2021

Malcolm & Marie (Movie Review)

Netflix seems to be really doubling down on its love for black and white movies lately. Just last year, we got both The Forty-Year-Old Version and Mank, two very different yet equally brilliant films about struggling artists navigating their way through their respective industries. The latter would even go on to score some big nominations at the forthcoming Golden Globes. And now we have Malcolm & Marie, an emotional rollercoaster of a film starring Zendaya and John David Washington.

The latter plays Malcolm, an up-and-coming film director whose latest movie just had its Hollywood premiere, while the former plays Marie, his girlfriend. Having just returned from what was an otherwise successful first showing for his film, the couple intend to spend the rest of the evening together, waiting for the first reviews to show up online. But what was meant to be a night of celebration quickly turns tempestuous when bottled up feelings are let loose, threatening to derail their plans.

Anyone going into Malcolm & Marie expecting a feel-good romance would most likely come out of it feeling sorely disappointed. Despite being billed as such, the film threads the lines of something closer to a psychological drama than a romantic one, despite having romance elements. Basically, if your idea of a good time is watching a couple get into back-to-back arguments over the course of one night, then boy are you in for a treat. But chances are that is not the case, which is why the movie might feel like a bit of a drag for most.

Both John David Washington and Zendaya prove to be charismatic leads though, with the actors holding their own and ensuring that the movie never became less than intriguing. But they were ultimately letdown by a story that couldn't seem to decide what it was trying to say for much of its run-time. One moment the film could be attempting to dissect the core issues at the heart of the couple's relationship, the next it turns its focus on Hollywood and its need for political correctness in this day and age.

This lent the movie a rather jumbled up message that never became any clearer as the movie went along. That said, I did really enjoy whenever it touched upon the disparities between an artist's vision and a reviewer's interpretation of that work. I just wish those discussions had been had in a much better context, and not in the shadow of a relationship that seemed to be heading for the rocks.

Another aspect of the movie I really enjoyed was its cinematography, from smooth tracking shots that always ensured both actors were in frame when they needed to be, to closeups that really served to heighten their emotions as their arguments heated up. The movie itself was shot during the coronavirus lockdowns, and it shows, with its single-location setting and dialogue-heavy screenplay. But the way it was presented, in stunning black and white, made certain that it was never anything short of captivating.

Malcolm & Marie is far from what I would call essential viewing. It is certainly not a feel-good romance. But that is not an inherently bad thing as it paints a picture of a more realistic romance that was oftentimes relatable. The movie is definitely worth checking out on the strength of its two leads alone. Just don't expect the kind of gratification you'd get from your typical romantic fare.