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.