Friday 26 November 2021

8-Bit Christmas (Movie Review)

Christmas is right around the corner, which means the various streaming services have once again started to put out their holiday offerings. Hawkeye just debuted on Disney+ with a two-episode premiere on Wednesday, while Netflix had its third entry in The Princess Switch series go up last week. But over on HBO Max, viewers are being treated to a different kind of holiday fair. This is coming in the form of a retro trip back to the 80s in the new holiday comedy, 8-Bit Christmas.

The film stars Neil Patrick Harris as Jake Doyle, a man who regales his daughter with a story of the one Christmas he was willing to do anything to get his hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System. The year was 1988 and young Jake's parents had already refused to get him one on the grounds that it was going to rot his brains away. Disheartened but not dissuaded, Jake is forced to come up with his own elaborate plan to procure the game console. What he doesn't count on though is just how hard getting the highly-elusive holiday item would prove to be.

On the surface, 8-Bit Christmas might look like yet another comedy about the craziness that sometimes surrounds the holidays. Much like the equally comical Jingle All The Way, the film centers on a high-in-demand holiday gift item and the people trying to get their hands on it. But that is where the similarities end really because outside of that central conceit, much of this film is about a young boy simply trying to navigate all the hardships life seemed bent on throwing at him this one Christmas.

The film uses its unreliable narrator framework to great comedic effect, making us question the validity of much of the claims being made while keeping most of it lighthearted and funny. It is certainly a family film and one I can see appealing to young and older viewers alike. There is a sense of nostalgia for anybody that grew up in the late 80s, or ever pinned for a Nintendo Entertainment System back in its heyday. And the whole thing ties into a very emotional ending I didn't see coming at all.

The best thing about 8-Bit Christmas is you don't have to be into video games to enjoy its highly-humorous and heartwarming story. The film is as much a homage to the 80s as it is a morality tale. Most of the jokes are of the over-the-top slapstick variety, and while not every single one of them might land, the overall film boasts more hits than misses. The movie should satisfy anyone looking for something new to watch this holiday, and as such, it earns an easy recommendation from me.

Friday 12 November 2021

Eternals (Movie Review)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe grows larger than ever with Eternals, the latest film to come out in Phase 4. Directed by Chloe Zhao, the movie introduces fans of the franchise to its eponymous team of superheroes and their particular slice of its overall mythology. And what a slice that is, spanning thousands of years and involving beings as old as time itself. The film is certainly grand with its ambitions and it shows from its very first frames. But does all that ambition come at the detriment of the movie's overall execution?

The film begins with an opening crawl that sets the stage by letting us know just how insignificant everything that has come before it is in the grand scheme of things. I won't go into too many details but just know that we have these centuries-old beings called Eternals, and they've been sent here by the power that be to protect mankind from the deviants, a vicious race of aliens seeking to destroy all life. And when the deviants suddenly resurface after being gone for hundreds of years, the Eternals are forced to do what they'd been sent here to do.

I guess I'll have to start this review by addressing the obvious fact that it is coming one week later than originally planned. In the wake of the film receiving a ban in Saudi Arabia last week, the Nigerian censorship board had decided to follow suit with a ban of its own. And just like that, the movie was yanked out of cinema schedules nationwide, and wouldn't resurface until one week later.

All that because of one kiss between a gay couple and the MCU's first-ever sex scene, neither of which had made it into the cut of the film we were shown. And judging by the shoddy editing that was done around the scenes in question, it would appear that this particular cut wasn't done or sanctioned by Disney itself. I mention all this just for the sake of transparency, as I do my best to appraise the film based on the chopped-up version I saw. 

Regarding the film itself, I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I had anticipated. It certainly feels like an MCU film, even though it ditches much of the traditional MCU formula for something far more ambitious. The film employs a nonlinear narrative structure, with the plot spanning several time periods and the story getting filled in the further it went along. But it still had all the humor and action fans have come to expect from the MCU.

It is clear that Chloe Zhao and her team of writers were shooting for something very grand indeed. And for the most part, they've succeeded, bringing her distinct vision to a film that would have probably turned out differently in the hands of any other director. I can certainly see traces of her other work on films like Nomadland in this one, in scenes that showcased the striking beauty of rural communities, intermixed with the intergalactic proceedings.

So yes, the film scores high in my books on the grounds of atmosphere alone. My main criticism then comes from the fact that it juggles between way too many characters, making it hard to fully invest in their struggles on an emotional level. There were characters like Makari that I would have loved to see more of, and others still that were outright missing for long stretches of the film. Unlike the various other Marvel team-ups, this one didn't have the benefit of enough character development, despite its interminable runtime, and it shows.

The movie is also plagued by some rather uneven special effects. Most of it was decent enough and spectacularly so, serving to convey the epic scale Chloe Zhao was going for. But others were just inexcusably bad, even looking unfinished and working to pull me out of the movie. I guess most of us have come to accept that these Marvel movies will always be effects heavy extravaganzas, and that those effects won't always look particularly convincing.

Eternals is a film that often feels like it is at war with itself. On the one hand, it is an epic sci-fi story that asks a lot of big questions while raising several possibilities. On the other hand, it tries to fit all that vast mythology and storytelling into the traditional MCU mold. This results in a mishmash that doesn't always quite work. But when it does, we get to catch glimpses of the completely stunning movie buried underneath it all, and what a sight to behold it was.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

The Harder They Fall (Movie Review)

Boyz n the Hood meets the Wild West in the new Netflix Original, The Harder They Fall. The movie is just the latest one to hit the streaming platform from the more than 70 it had promised to release this year. Most of those movies have turned out to be resounding duds though, with more misses than actual hits doting their 2021 lineup thus far. But as we enter into awards season, we can expect the wheat to get separated from the chaff. The question then is where exactly does their new Blaxploitation Western fall within that quality spectrum?

In The Harder They Fall, a young outlaw named Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) finds that his quest for revenge is brought back to the forefront when his archenemy, Rufus Black (Idris Elba), gets sprung out from prison. He learns that Rufus had in fact taken control of a small town, but that his plans to turn it into a safe haven are challenged by some financial setbacks. Nat rides there to liberate the townsfolk, together with his posse of sharpshooters. Except what they find there is something they were not prepared for and Nat would be forced to test just how far he is willing to go to get his revenge. 

Revenge is a dish best served cold as they say, and I am as much a sucker for a good Spaghetti Western as the next man. So when Netflix had originally dropped the first trailer for The Harder They Fall, you can bet that I was immediately intrigued. The concept of a Blaxploitation Western is nothing new of course, with films like Django Unchained having already laid the framework for how they can be done to near perfection. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise that The Harder They Fall follows that same template almost religiously.

The first thing that undoubtedly stands out about the movie though is the killer ensemble. The film does a good job of establishing all the key characters, giving just enough context for their individual motivations to make them captivating whenever they were onscreen. That is, until they start engaging in some leaps of logic, all in the name of advancing the plot. I won't go into specifics but it is somewhat aggravating that the script hadn't received nearly as much love as other facets of the film.

Speaking of which, the entire film drips with style and it certainly doesn't shy away from wearing its influences on its sleeves. Then again, neither did Quentin Tarantino in his many Spaghetti Western-influenced movies. The film is competently shot, with scenes that were expertly framed to maximize the growing tensions between the characters. The same can be said about the editing, which keeps those scenes rolling along despite its two-hour-plus runtime.

Sadly, the illusion is often broken by some flimsy-looking Production Design, which might have been excusable in the heydays of the Hollywood Western, but stands out like a sore thumb today. Then there is the soundtrack, which while great on its own merits, often works to distract from the onscreen action, rather than enhance it, making the whole thing feel like an overproduced music video sometimes.

The Harder They Fall comes close to being all style with very little substance, but the movie is elevated by some truly great performances from its stellar ensemble. It was clear that each actor was having as much fun as they could with their roles, and it is that fun that ultimately resonates with us the viewer. The film certainly delivers on its promise of a solid Spaghetti Western which is why it earns an easy recommendation from me for fans of the genre and any of the actors involved.