Friday 30 April 2021

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Movie Review)

Disney and Pixar might be the reigning champions when it comes to animated films, but one other studio that has recently been producing a steady stream of great movies is Sony Pictures Animation. The travesty that was The Emoji Movie aside, the studio has produced notable films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and those in the Hotel Transylvania series, just to name a few. And just after scoring their first Academy Award win for Best Animated Film for the former in 2019, it would look like they are already on track for a repeat with The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

The movie centers upon The Mitchells, a quirky family of four (five if you include their dog, Monchi). Their daughter, Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), is an aspiring filmmaker who doesn't quite fit in with the regular crowd. So when she gets accepted into film school, she sees it as an opportunity to finally get to meet others like herself. On the eve of her departure, she has an argument with her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), and she learns that he doesn't appear to have much faith in her abilities as a filmmaker.

Feeling guilty about his words and actions, Rick decides that the entire family should embark on a cross-country road trip to Katie's school together, in a bid for them to reconnect one last time before she is gone. But when a tech mogul unknowingly gives rise to the robot apocalypse in the middle of their trip, the whole thing is brought to a screeching halt. Now the Mitchells must learn to come together as a family in order to survive and save the rest of humanity.

The first trailer for The Mitchells vs. the Machines had debuted last year, back when it was still known as Connected. And the first thing that struck me upon seeing it was its beautiful animation. The art style was immediately reminiscent of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so I wasn't all that surprised to find out it was from the very same animation studio. The visuals are just as striking here as they were in that other movie, and it really adds to the film's overall charm.

But aside from its striking good looks, The Mitchells vs. the Machines also offers a very heartwarming story about family, with a strong message about reconnecting with one another. Its social commentary might come across as a bit heavy-handed at times, but it never once ceased to be poignant or powerful. That it does all that and still manages to garner enough laughs to cater to just about every type of viewer is also worthy of praise.

The characters might be animated, but they were brought to life by some truly exemplary voice work from the likes of Maya Rudolph, Olivia Coleman and even Doug the Pug, the internet sensation who makes his acting debut. But the true standouts were of course Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride. Both of them really sold the father-daughter relationship that served as the movie's emotional core.

Sony Pictures Animation scores another win with The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Their latest film can be considered an evolution of their entire body of work, incorporating the best bits while streamlining the rest. The result is what I consider my current frontrunner for favorite animated film this year. And I know we just got through the Oscars, but a Best Animated Film nomination at next year's ceremony seems all but guaranteed as well.

Thursday 29 April 2021

Things Heard & Seen (Movie Review)

Netflix recently released a video showing its upcoming films for the 2021 summer movie season. And one of the movies featured on that sizzle reel was their new horror film, Things Heard & Seen. In what was almost a "blink and you'll miss it" inclusion, the movie appeared to be treading familiar territory. Turns out it is yet another haunted house film with a very familiar cast caught in an all-too-familiar situation. But how exactly does this particular one differ from the many we've gotten recently? Not very much.

Set in the year 1980, the movie follows a family of three who move to a small-town after its patriarch, George (James Norton), gets a job in the countryside. If this already sounds all too familiar, it is because it is the same basic template for about a hundred other haunted house movies. The house in question is one that dates back to the late 1800s, and as you can guess it has a somewhat diabolical history the family is blissfully unaware of.

It doesn't take long after they'd moved in that lights start to flicker and furniture begin to move on its own, the usual telltale signs of a ghost haunting. The matriarch, Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), eventually discovers a book that seemed to have some disturbing information about the previous occupants. But after being continuously dismissed by her husband, she begins to suspect that he knew more about the hauntings than he was letting on.

From the first moment I caught wind of Things Heard & Seen, it was hard to shake the overwhelming sense of déjà vu I'd felt. Everything about the film just screamed "been there, done that," as though its filmmakers were merely content with trying to make another slow-burn horror film about a family in a haunted house. This wasn't helped by the fact that this one didn't even have anything new to say, despite the talent involved. 

Fresh off her Academy Award nominated performance in Mank, Amanda Seyfried sets into familiar territory once again. She'd only just starred in the eerily samey You Should Have Left, which came out last year, so it is almost unavoidable to draw comparisons between both movies. I mean, even their posters look practically interchangeable. At least she gives a decent if not quite memorable performance that doesn't manage to elevate the material.

Things Heard & Seen is yet another slow-burn horror film that requires way too much patience from its audience. The fact that it offers very little payoff only makes my time with the movie feel that much more wasted. But the movie's greatest shortcoming is its failings as a horror film. A better designation for the film would have been a paranormal drama. At least then expectations could've been managed better.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Stowaway (Movie Review)

My fascination with space and movies dealing with its exploration dates back to early childhood. From sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey to historical dramas like Apollo 13, I've always loved watching the exploits of brave men and women journeying to the stars. That love had reached a crescendo when Gravity was released in 2013, a film that went on to become my favorite movie that year. So of course I was going to check out Stowaway, on the strength of its premise alone.

In Stowaway, three astronauts are on a two-year voyage to Mars. The crew is made up of Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), the commander of their ship, the MTS-42, as well as Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), a medical researcher, and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), the ship's biologists. Following a successful launch, the three slowly start to settle into the routines that would govern the many months it would take them to get to Mars.

But they soon find themselves having to alter those routines, when they discover that a fourth person (Shamier Anderson) had managed to stow away on their ship. Things are further complicated by the fact that they'd sustained some damage to their life support system, the implication being that they only have enough oxygen left for three people. Now the crew must decide on how best to handle the situation, or risk jeopardizing the entire mission.

From the very first frames of Stowaway, it became readily apparent that its filmmakers were working within some tight constraints. This is in itself not a red flag per se, especially in a single location film with only 4 principal actors. The cinematography helped to heighten the limited scope, which contributed to that feeling of claustrophobia. For example, the decision to keep the camera tightly focused on the faces of the crew members during its opening launch sequence, rather than show exterior shots of the ship, immediately puts those characters front and center.

So in other words, the movie was always meant to be more psychological and character-focused. And in terms of capturing what it is like for these characters to be stuck together on this voyage, it does a decent job. The performances in the film were also decent, with all four actors doing the best they could with the limited material at hand. The overall hook was intriguing as well, in a way that sci-fi thrillers like Gravity tend to be.

But where the movie seemed to fall down flat was in the way it didn't really do anything interesting with its premise. There were so many things I'd expected to see during the course of the film, and so many destinations it could have arrived at. The filmmakers instead take us on an underwhelming journey towards an ending where they try to tug at the heartstrings, but I was just too busy rolling my eyes at that point to shed a tear. Not to spoil anything, but anyone hoping for something similar to Sandra Bullock's triumphant first steps at the end of Gravity would be sorely disappointed.

Stowaway manages to squander its rather intriguing premise with a highly unsatisfying conclusion. That it also left some important plot threads unexplained is simply unforgivable in a film where hardly anything happens. The film drags for much of its runtime, and I found myself almost tempted to watch it at 1.5x speed just to counteract this. But if you have the patience and are already on the hunt for something new to watch on Netflix, then it is at least worth checking out.

Friday 16 April 2021

Nobody (Movie Review)

In the wake of the recent success of the John Wick movies, several filmmakers have tried to replicate its formula, by stuffing their films with gritty, over-the-top action scenes and totally badass antiheroes. I am talking about movies like Atomic Blonde, a film that was itself directed by David Leitch, one half of the directorial team behind the first John Wick movie. But none of those films have come close to successfully replicating that formula until now.

In Nobody, Bob Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a family man that seems to be having a midlife crisis. He is caught between a stale marriage and an unfulfilling job, and the unchanging daily routines holding all of it together. After their house gets broken into one night, and Hutch fails to deal with the intruders, he appears to hit an all-time low.

But Hutch soon decides to take matters into his own hands, and following a chance encounter with a group of Russian thugs one night, he is forced to unleash a part of himself that has been long dormant. Now Hutch must do everything he can to protect his family from the fallout, as he once again finds himself navigating the criminal underworld he had once turned his back on.

Nobody has Derek Kolstad's fingerprints all over it, from its grizzled protagonist to the over-the-top action that takes up much of its runtime. The John Wick screenwriter certainly has a flair for such stories, and it was on full display here. But it is actually the film's director (Ilya Naishuller) who's DNA was most at play. Much like Hardcore Henry, the movie plays out like a video game brought to life. 

There were disposable bad guys everywhere, who seemed to spawn one minute only to get dispatched with minimal effort the next. None of that is a dinge on the quality of the action by the way, which was generally topnotch and quite visceral, just a commentary on the type of logic one should expect in the film. Put simply, this is another one of those leave-your-brain-at-the-door action flicks.

But what actually helps to elevate Nobody beyond the designation of yet another John Wick clone was Bob Odenkirk's performance. The actor imbued the character of Hutch with enough heart and soul to make him instantly likeable. It was also nice to see him able to take on an action role like this one, even if it is in an action film that borders on the very edge of full-blown comedy.

The comparisons with John Wick are of course ultimately inevitable. Both movies center upon a former hitman who is being forced out of retirement after all. But unlike John Wick, which quickly veered towards the fantastical in its depiction of its criminal underworld, this one takes a more grounded-in-reality approach. Just don't expect any of that grittiness to get in the way once the bodies start piling up.

Nobody has enough over-the-top action to rival all the films in the John Wick franchise. And while it might not do too much to set itself apart from those films, the film at least acknowledges its lack of originality with something resembling a knowing wink. Bob Odenkirk's Hutch also proved to be just as endearing as John Wick, so much so that a part of me now wishes that we'd one day get a crossover featuring both characters.

Saturday 10 April 2021

Mortal Kombat (Movie Review)

Warner Bros. sure seems to be on a roll of late. And while the studio might still be busy basking in the glory of Godzilla vs. Kong's successful debut, that hasn't stopped them from going full steam ahead with the next film in their 2021 slate. That film is Mortal Kombat, the newest adaptation of the ultra-violent video game series that began its life in the early 90s. The film is currently scheduled for a same day release in US theaters and HBO Max, but started its international rollout this weekend.

In Mortal Kombat, a group of Earth's mightiest warriors have been chosen by the powers that be to fight in a tournament that would determine the fate of the world. This includes Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a mixed martial artist that was born with a strange dragon-shaped birthmark. After he finds himself and his family being hunted by a mysterious assassin named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), he is forced to seek out a woman named Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) for help.

From Sonya he learns about a tournament between the various realms, and how this had been going on for centuries. The forces of the Outworld, led by a sorcerer named Shang Tsung (Chin Han), seek to take over the Earthrealm once and for all. And in order for Cole and his fellow warriors to defend it, they'd need to undergo training under the tutelage of the god of Thunder, Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).

As a long-time fan of the Mortal Kombat games, I had approached this latest adaptation with a fair amount of skepticism. A project like this, with a first-time director and a cast populated by B and C-list stars, more often than not ends up falling short of its full potential. Also, there is the fact that I was yet to truly recover from the trauma of watching Liu Kang transform into that CGI dragon in the last film in the franchise. So yes, this latest film had a lot to prove. And prove it it does. 

The fight scenes were tightly choreographed, and the special effects were convincing in a cartoonish sort of way. I was especially surprised by just how funny the movie was, and most of that was due to Josh Lawson's portrayal of Kano. He had the whole theater where I saw the movie bawling with laughter, taking what should have been the film's most obnoxious character and making it its most endearing.

The story of the movie on the other hand was just so-so, but they can only do so much with the premise being carried over from the games, so this shouldn't really come as a surprise. The decision to focus much of that story on the rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero did lend the movie most of its emotional core. But this also contributed to what I felt was my biggest issue with the film.

For a movie called Mortal Kombat, I had expected to see something resembling the proper tournament we got in the 1995 film. But the closest thing we got to that here was a montage of several match ups that were taking place at the same time. It didn't feel like we had a group of fighters working their way up the ladder towards one final confrontation, or that the tournament itself was operating by any kind of discernible rules, the way it did in the video games.

Another issue I had with the movie was the way it just sort of fizzled out at the ending, as though the filmmakers were not quite sure where or how to end it. It is not that the ending was underwhelming per se, but the movie ends right when it felt like things were about to get good, making the whole thing feel like mere setup for future films.

It is also worth noting that the film is excessively violent, with enough blood and gore to make even horror fans squirm. But I think that should go without saying, given its source material and its storied history. It definitely earns its R-rating. So if you fancy watching a man rip a bat-winged woman in two with a weaponized hat, and hearing him call out "flawless victory" afterwards, then you're in for a bloody good time. 

Mortal Kombat works because it fully embraces the tongue-in-cheek nature of its source material. Unlike previous entries in the series, which tended to take themselves a little too seriously, this one strikes a nice balance between comedy and action. Its self-awareness elevates what would've otherwise been another retread into something that is sure to please fans of the games and the earlier movies alike.