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.