Friday 30 September 2022

Anikulapo (Movie Review)

Kunle Afolayan is a name that carries a lot of weight in the Nigerian film industry. This is primarily because he is one of the few directors working to push the envelope for the quality of our films. And while his movies might be hit or miss depending on who you ask, you can at least bank on the fact that they will be well put together, at least on the production front. The same attention to detail doesn't always extend to his stories though, which is why I had approached Anikulapo with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The movie cold opens with a dead man being brought back to life by a magical bird, immediately setting the stage for its supernatural backdrop. That man is named Saro, an ambitious fabric maker from a far-off village. We spend much of the film going over the events that eventually led to his demise. But then we also learn that the encounter with the bird had left him with the ability to bring others back from the dead, and now he seeks to use those powers to make a name for himself.

I have had this long-held belief that our traditional Yoruba films, while often lacking in the production department, usually tell stories that tend to be far more compelling than their English counterparts. So I indeed had some measure of excitement at the prospect of a film like Anikulapo, which was being helmed by Kunle Afolayan of October 1 fame. My hope going into the movie was that we would finally get one that merges some of that great storytelling with the kind of budget and production that those stories deserve.

However, it doesn't take very long into his latest film before those expectations are brought back to reality by some questionable-looking special effects. The film does look good overall though, with some creative shot compositions and excellent cinematography across the board. But Hollywood-level visuals do not a great movie make, which brings us to the story itself.

Like most Nollywood productions, Anikulapo is of the leave-your-brain-at-the-door variety, requiring you to suspend your disbelief during several nearly implausible scenarios. It is not immediately clear who we are supposed to be rooting for, because even though the bulk of the story centers upon the plights of Saro, his actions are far from heroic. He gets swept from one questionable situation to another, with very little agency on his part, which makes the character come across as weak and almost spineless.

And while Kunle Remi was himself competent enough in the role, I still found it hard to believe that his character was as desirable as depicted, with multiple women shown throwing themselves at him in the early portions of the film. All that aside, it is the fact that I felt he lacked the redeeming qualities that would have at least made him an intriguing antihero that created the biggest disconnect between myself and his story.

The movie is also plagued by pacing issues. It takes forever before anything remotely interesting happens. And when things finally kick into gear, it glosses over details that would have helped enrichen the narrative. Instead, we get several drawn-out scenes that, while beautifully shot and generally pleasing to look at, do very little to move the actual story forward.

Then there was the ending of the film, which was nearly incomprehensible and filled with flashbacks to earlier scenes, some of which were never even shown before then, all in the name of lending needed context to emotional scenes that otherwise felt unearned. The fact that it ends with a scene that felt like it was tacked on during post-production only shows how cobbled together the entire third act was.

Such shortcomings are generally what keep our Nollywood films from achieving true greatness, and they appear particularly glaring here, especially coming in the wake of The Woman King, which I thought was excellent. I know it is unfair to compare both films considering one had a $50 million production budget but I still hold on to the belief that you don't need all the money in the world to tell a story competently.

Anikulapo is yet another Kunle Afolayan production that leaves a lot to be desired with its storytelling and characterization. The film leans heavily into melodrama, even becoming heavy-handed with the message and morals of its overarching narrative. All that should go without saying for anyone that enjoys watching these Nollywood movies of course, but I still expected more from this particular one. And while it could be considered an overall improvement over the likes of Citation, it still doesn't move the needle enough to earn a recommendation from me.

Friday 16 September 2022

The Woman King (Movie Review)

Long before the Dora Milaje would grace the pages of fictional comic books, we had the real-life Agojie, an elite squad of women soldiers in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. And in The Woman King, those warriors are brought to life with all the flair one might expect from a summer blockbuster. But does the film actually deliver on the promise of the thrills seen in its trailers, or is it yet another example of Hollywood trying to cash in on an ongoing trend?

Set during the height of the rivalry between Dahomey and the Oyo Empire, the film follows Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a new recruit of the Agojie undergoing training under the tutelage of their formidable leader, General Nanisca (Viola Davis). The women serve a young king named Ghezo (John Boyega), whose efforts to keep the peace with both the Oyo Empire and European slave traders grow increasingly strained. And when tensions go beyond his control, his loyal Agojie must prepare to face off against the forces of the Oyo Empire, led by the ruthless general, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya).

It is clear that a lot of care must have gone into crafting a film like The Woman King. From its opening battle scene, you are immediately thrust into the harsh realities of its brutal world. Except it is one where there exists a lot of beauty as well, shown through the culture of the Dahomey. But none of that would mean anything if the film didn't also tell a compelling story, which, thankfully, it manages to do over the course of its 135-minute runtime. And while that story might take a lot of creative liberties and deviations from actual history, it never felt superficial or implausible.

The comparisons to Black Panther are inevitable of course, especially coming out just two months before its highly-anticipated sequel. But while the former had depicted its female warriors as nearly infallible killing machines, this one takes a far more realistic approach to its depiction by not shying away from showing its warriors take some painful licks and blows. That said, you can still expect plenty of action scenes that require some level of suspension of disbelief, none of which was enough to take me out of the movie.

This is because the film is anchored by truly great characters, and those characters were generally driven by solid performances across the board. Nawi serves as an appropriate surrogate for viewers to follow, allowing us to learn about the Agojie and their way of life. Despite her hotheaded ambition, I was quickly endeared to her desire to prove herself. Viola Davis was as well as captivating as ever, but it was actually John Boyega who garnered the most cheers in the theater where I saw the movie. I suspect that had a lot to do with his nigh-on perfect Nigerian accent and overall charm.
If I had any criticism to give about The Woman King, then it would be that its ending didn't quite resonate with me as strongly as I wanted it to. This is not to say that the film had ended on a downer, but just my way of expressing my disappointment at the fact that a certain plot thread hadn't been fleshed out more. I obviously can't get into what that was without also getting into spoilers, but I can at least say that it was a minor detail in the grand scheme of the movie, and chances are you might not even have the same problems that I had with it.

The Woman King is a historical epic that plays like a summer blockbuster. Its story and well-choreographed action scenes are sure to please moviegoers, but it is its excellent characters that work to elevate the movie above your typical popcorn fare. This is a movie that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, irrespective of what you think about Hollywood trends or its so-called "woke agenda." Plus it is sure to scratch some of that Black Panther itch for those waiting for Wakanda Forever.