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.