August 2021 Roundup

Free Guy

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20th Century Studios // Directed by Shawn Levy // Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi

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Ryan Reynolds and comedy used to be a sticky affair for me. In fact, Ryan Reynolds used to be a sticky affair for me. An actor trying his hands in varying roles and genres (Green Lantern, The Amityville Horror, The Proposal...) without ever really excelling in any. Then along came Deadpool (not the Wolverine version...) and suddenly Reynolds found his niche. The quippy, near-antihero became the vehicle to relaunch Reynolds into what has become a more successful career journey. In Free Guy, Reynolds plays...Guy - an NPC (non-playable character) in a globally successful online game who eventually breaks out of his programmed ways when he crosses paths with the mysterious Molotov Girl (played excellently by Comer). However, the nefarious head developer Antwan (Waititi) has other ideas for the rogue good guy taking the gaming world by storm. Free Guy is a comedy that certainly has heart but, whilst being effortlessly entertaining, lacks the real comic moments that one would expect from a Reynolds-led vehicle. It’s funny, don’t get me wrong, but it never elicited roaring laughter and quite a few gags or quips didn’t quite land. The chemistry between Reynolds and Comer is effective and I found Lil Rey Howery to be the one to provide the real emotional backbone to a story that refreshingly eschews many of the tropes of the varying genres from which it takes influence. The movie also boasts some well-executed action sequences (a standout motorbike sequence and a crowd-pleasing finale) plus some well-placed cameos too. Alongside that, Free Guy boasts some clever ideas in its approach alongside surprisingly deep thematic ideas on existence and free will (it’s not quite Devs level, but there’s more to be found here than I had expected). Whilst not being as funny as I had hoped, Free Guy makes up for that with a fun idea that’s accomplished effectively, some game performances, and a smattering of great moments throughout. 

 
 

Don't Breathe 2

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Sony Pictures Releasing // Directed by Rodo Sayagues // Starring Stephen Lang, Madelyn Grace, Brendan Sexton III

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2016’s Don’t Breathe was a surprise hit upon release, made for less than $10m and raking in nearly $160m alongside mainly positive reviews, the gross and reception made a sequel almost inevitable. However, those two variables alone shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether a follow-up should be made simply because its predecessor performed well. In the case of Don’t Breathe 2, it would seem those two factors were the only ones taken into consideration. This movie follows Norman (Lang), the blind Gulf War veteran with a penchant for kidnap, rape, and torture. Oh good. It’s set eight years after the original and Norman now lives a reclusive life with eleven-year-old Phoenix (Grace), a young girl he has taken under his wing for reasons. Events transpire so that blind Norman has to fight for his survival again, as well as Phoenix’s, and, well, none of it is very good frankly. Whereas Don’t Breathe delivered tension and atmosphere (despite its dodgy ending), Don’t Breathe 2 is grim, grimy, depressing, uninspiring, unexciting, not scary, not creepy, not atmospheric, and not well acted. Top that off with the fact the movie is asking us to SYMPATHISE and side with Norman? Nope. Thankfully, the ninety-minute runtime means you won’t waste too much of your time with this needless effort. Never at any point did I watch this and begin to see the value of this sequel. Of course, no movie is so sacred that a sequel need not be required, but Don’t Breathe 2 just doesn’t bring anything of note to the table - no interesting lore additions and certainly no new characters of note. I didn’t have high hopes for Don’t Breathe 2 before going in, but I came out knowing this was one of the worst movies I’ll see this year.

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

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Paramount Pictures // Directed by Robert Schwentke // Starring Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Úrsula Corberó, Samara Weaving, Haruka Abe, Takehiro Hira, Iko Uwais

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Formerly played by Darth Maul (Ray Park…), the character of Snake Eyes is back and has his own movie. This one, though, pays no mind to any of the previous GI: Joe movies which can probably be seen as a blessing. They weren’t great. Donning the mantle this time is Henry Golding, an actor I have a lot of time for, and he’s tasked with telling the origin story of Snake Eyes - or, more realistically, attempting to kickstart a new cinematic franchise. The movie takes its time early doors to try and set up the emotional core of the story and the motivation for Snake Eyes to become... Snake Eyes. The remainder of the first half is dedicated to his time with the Yakuza and Clan Arashikage before transitioning into a fairly ordinary action movie in its second half. There are some interesting ideas within regarding the clans playing off against each other but eventually, the movie begins to fall away and gets slightly absurd (harnessing the power of the sun in a jewel and giant SNAKES...with eyes). The strength of the movie lies within its fight sequences, they’re fast-paced, well-choreographed, and enjoyable to watch but a lot of the character development outside of these is lacking in depth and chemistry - even Golding struggles to apply any real charisma. The dialogue is clunky and over-expository or, at times, a bit daft (At one point, Haruka Abe’s Akiko, in a moment of desperation, calls out “Snake!” and I giggled). Attempting to harness a Batman Begins-type vibe, Snake Eyes ends up being a forgettable action/superhero movie that aims for gravitas but ends up feeling rather insignificant. Is this the start of the GIJOECU? I doubt it.

 

Stillwater

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Universal Pictures // Directed by Tom McCarthy // Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud, Idir Azougli

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From Oklahoma to Marseille, Stillwater provides a character study of a brash American single father coming to terms with his daughter's imprisonment for murder in a foreign land. Clearly inspired by the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox/Rudy Guede case of 2007 (which, in itself, seems a questionable choice), the movie focuses primarily on Matt Damon’s Bill Baker, a man who is out of his depth in Marseille, ostracised from his family but, damn, is he stubborn. Damon is unwaveringly good here as his character struggles to juggle the weight of the situations he is placed in. His chemistry with his surrogate daughter Maya (Siauvaud) was a joy to see and the performances from Breslin and Cottin are extremely good also. Sadly, Allison, the imprisoned daughter that the crux of the movie centres around, feels like a side thought at times in a movie that really should feature her more. Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey, Hostels, and McCarthy’s Spotlight) provides some delicious cinematography that sits alongside some excellent slower moments that Stillwater delivers effectively. Whilst the movie deals with Baker’s own investigations into the events surrounding Allison’s indictment, the movie takes an odd turn in the third act that seems to really come from nowhere and feels out of step with the rest of the movie. It felt like McCarthy decided the movie required a sense of tension or stakes so adopted a thriller approach to proceedings. However, the strength of Damon and Bill ensures that Stillwater remains an intriguing watch throughout. Whilst it may lose its way towards the end, the family dynamic between Damon, Cottin, and Siauvaud provides a solid emotional foundation and, whilst contentious, the story of Stillwater is strong enough to make it a very decent watch.

 

Reminiscence

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Lisa Joy // Starring Hugh Jackman, Thandiwe Newton, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu

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Noir. Sci-fi. Thriller. Mystery. Jackman. Ferguson. Me? Sold. Reminiscence seemed like a big win going in. Jackman’s Nick is a private investigator of the mind using an advanced machine to access clients' memories for them. One client, the alluring Mae (Ferguson), immediately becomes the target for Nick’s infatuation and when she disappears, he risks spiraling out of control in the search for her and for answers. It was all there. Sadly, the movie just doesn’t deliver on its premise and ingredients. Instead, Reminiscence feels like a lot of half-baked ideas floating in a convoluted pool of plot threads and narrative indecisions. Whilst the world that the movie takes place in is intriguing, well-envisioned, and not-so-advanced that it becomes dystopian, the story is murky, the dialogue clunky and it seemed to be the case that nobody involved could conjure a satisfying conclusion leading to an unearned attempt at an emotional payoff. Jackman is reliable and eminently watchable but this isn’t his finest hour, whereas the remainder of the cast, Ferguson included, receive short shrift in terms of development - Thandiwe Newton’s Watts being the one exception. Newton, also, is dependable here and Joy devotes more time to giving her a backstory and motivation but when it’s trapped in the mire that is Reminiscence, it just never feels consequential. The most frustrating part for me is that Reminiscence really should have been excellent. It had so much going for it ranging from the cast, the talented director, and an interesting new world to build upon that it feels even more disappointing given just how lackluster and, sadly, boring it felt at times. Ramin Djawadi’s score attempts to elevate proceedings but, in the end, Reminiscence will fade into memory and won’t be one I’ll look to revisit.

 

Pig

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Neon // Directed by Michael Sarnoski // Starring Nicholas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

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With its wonderfully literal title, Pig may have one of the strangest movie titles you’ll see in 2021. It’s about a pig. But, not just any pig. No no, it’s about a truffle foraging pig extraordinaire that is abducted by those wanting to share in the spoils and riches that its discoveries bring. The problem is, the pig is owned by Nicolas Cage’s Robin which surely means lights out for the vile perpetrators of this pork-ticularly heinous crime (come on, give me that one). Well, not exactly. Pig is, in fact, a far more meditative and endearing movie than I ever believed it could be. It’s the story of a man whose love for his pig and for his old profession of cooking outweighs the need for violence and bloodshed. Instead, we follow Robin on a quiet journey as he revisits old haunts and, yes, his past that he has tried to escape from in order to reconnect with the one thing in his life that brings meaning and joy - his pig (and alongside that, something much bigger too). He is joined by Amir (Wolff), a truffle supplier living in his father's shadow and also the antithesis of Robin’s character, and the two must form an unlikely bond in order to reach the end. It’s become easy to laugh at and meme Nic Cage in recent years but when he is in the form that he shows in Pig, it’s a welcome reminder of just what a fine actor he really is. His heartfelt, somber yet stern performance anchors the movie and genuinely adds weight and emotion to a patently thin narrative. Alongside him, Wolff turns in another great performance at the slick salesman and Sarnoski doesn’t allow his character to fall by the wayside. Whilst the story is rudimentary, that isn’t what Pig is aiming for. This is a character-driven piece about kindness, loss, and, yes, love and one that is superbly realised by debutant Sarnoski. It may feel like one of the smallest movies I’ll see this year but Pig definitely feels like one of the best.

 

CODA

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Apple TV+ // Directed by Sian Heder // Starring Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin

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An Apple TV+ Original, CODA is a new entry into the ever-expanding coming-of-age genre. I wasn’t aware that CODA is the acronym for ‘child of deaf adults’ and I’m glad that I checked as that is pretty much the premise of the movie. It also acts as a clever homonym too. Emilia Jones stars (and I mean stars) as Ruby, a high school student with singing aspirations but also a loyalty to her family of which she is the only hearing member. As the end of high school approaches, Ruby must decide which path in life she will take. As with all coming-of-age stories, Ruby has to also contend with issues at school, peer pressure, and the burgeoning feeling of romantic love. Jones wonderfully presents the struggle of wanting the independence to follow one's dreams vs. responsibility to family and home, her breakout performance boosts what was already a joyous and excellent movie. Her family is all played by deaf actors (including Marlee Matlin) who themselves provide strong and, at times, heart-wrenching, performances too. Credit too to Eugenio Derbez as the strong-willed but sensitive teacher Mr. V. Throughout, CODA is charmingly earnest - it’s funny too, there were a few moments throughout that made me laugh out loud (an LOL) and many moments that brought a lump to the throat as well. The final third especially was excellently realised and powerful to watch. Centering the story on a deaf family adds a new dimension to a genre that can sometimes be smothered in convention and also highlights the struggles and wins that the community faces daily. Were there moments that felt typical or contrived? Sure. Does the movie end predictably? Yes. But when the performances are this strong, the characters are this likable, and the story so engaging, then those cliches become absorbed into something bigger. Emotionally satisfying and funny to boot, CODA is an absolute delight.

 

Demonic

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IFC Midnight // Directed by Neill Blomkamp // Starring Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Michael J. Rogers, Nathalie Boltt, Terry Chen

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District 9 was very good. Let's get that out of the way now as it seems as if Neill Blomkamp cannot be mentioned without reference to how decent his first film was compared to his follow ups Elysium and Chappie. Well, six years on from the latter, he is back with the low-budget, pandemic-shot horror Demonic. The premise is as such: using state-of-the-art technology, Carly (Pope) is tasked by a shady company to enter the mind of her estranged and comatose mother Angela (Boltt) via VR with the goal of communicating with her and unravelling more about her troubled mental state. Now, that sounds pretty good to me and also reminiscent of 2000's The Cell, however, this is horror so there’s always more to it. Black Ops Priests, that’s what. Yes, you read that correctly. An interesting premise very quickly descends into cliched and contrived horror-action and in the worst way possible. Of course, the entire affair is nonsensical but Demonic takes that idea and shakes every brain cell from it. The main villain takes the form of a big bird man (well, initially, as it later becomes something much worse) that can only be defeated by a magic spear (because legend says so as does an elongated expository scene involving internet searches and newspaper clippings…) though that doesn’t stop the big bad priests from packing some serious heat...despite them knowing they have no effect. The movie is packed with daft moments like this as well as a plethora of rough dialogue, ropey performances and an overall feeling of straight-to-DVD in terms of the visuals (though will absolutely respect this was shot during the pandemic). On top of that, the tension is genuinely non-existent and there are no creepy or scary scenes/visuals to fall back on. Demonic is boring. Even with Black Ops Priests and exorcisms. I really like the overall premise and feel this movie could’ve been stronger had it lent harder on the dysfunctional family idea alongside lesser usage of the VR (as novel as it was) and cheap attempts at scares (and satirical commentary?). Alas, Demonic ends up being a literal horror show with nothing to show for it. It’s awful.

 

The Last Letter from Your Lover

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StudioCanal // Directed by Augustine Frizzell // Starring Felicity Jones, Shailene Woodley, Callum Turner, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan

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Based on Jojo Moyes’ novel of the same name, Augustine Frizzell’s The Last Letter from Your Lover could lay claim to having one of the worst theatrical posters of the year (thankfully, not the one included here). Mercifully, the movie is better than its marketing team. A romcom spanning decades and two stories, TLLfYL bounces between 1960s London and the City in present-day. Journalist Ellie (Jones) comes across a collection of love letters whilst researching for an article and decides to further investigate the forbidden romance whilst also facing crossroads in her own love life. It’s a rom-com filled with the standard beats and tropes that you’d expect to occur and you can probably pinpoint the moment they will. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that TLLfYL is a charming affair about...a charming affair. The cast is in good form, Woodley and Turner have cracking chemistry and the relationship between Jones and Rizwan is both awkward and sweet as marshmallow sauce. Joe Alwyn, too, is good, however, isn’t really given much to do but he does it well anyway. The period setting of '60s London is beautifully realised and the costume design is impeccable alongside the at-times luscious cinematography from George Steel - it really is a lovely movie to look at. At times, though, the story can begin to step on its own toes as it flits back-and-forth and a middle act lull takes away some of the early momentum. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Last Letter from Your Lover, it knows what it is and it knows what it needs to do - and it does those things efficiently to create a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable rom-com.

 
 

Candyman

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Universal Pictures // Directed by Nia DaCosta // Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo

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Dare you say his name five times? Well, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is the fourth movie to feature the titular character so we’re one away from actually summoning him. Released after a long COVID-related delay, Candyman is touted as the spiritual sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 original and brings the story right into modern times. Still set in Cabrini-Green, Chicago and expanding upon the racial and social commentary of the original, Candyman sees struggling artist Anthony (Mateen II) spiraling into a nightmarish descent after he is told of the local legend that is Candyman – a spiral that threatens himself, his girlfriend Brianna (Parris) and those around him. Much has been made of Jordan Peele’s involvement with the project, but it must be said up top, this is DaCosta’s movie. There are Peele-isms involved, absolutely, but DaCosta has created an atmospheric, slow-burn horror that respects the original and strives to stand on its own. Something that it absolutely does. Crafting well-orchestrated horror sequences with the matter of casual brutality against the black population alongside the demonization of the community, Candyman presents a chilling and resonant narrative. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II provides an engaging performance alongside the equally solid Parris and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Troy, Brianna’s brother, and the cast as a whole delivers (including a few well-placed cameos). Robert A.A. Lowe’s affecting score compliments the striking visuals and there are some technically superb shots present too. Add to that the brilliant use of shadow puppets to act as our expository narration and Candyman is a sumptuous movie to gaze upon. The tight runtime ensures the movie keeps a consistent momentum leading up to the finale which seems to be causing division – personally, I thought it was well-executed. However, DaCosta does attempt to fit a lot within that runtime which does lead to certain sequences and/or moments feeling rushed and underdeveloped. Candyman hits the heights more often than not, and, in terms of modern horror sequels, it’s right up there with the best of them. Say his name, I dare you... 

He's All That

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Netflix // Directed by Mark Waters // Starring Addison Rae, Tanner Buchanan, Peyton Meyer, Madison Pettis, Myra Molloy, Isabella Crovetti, Rachel Leigh Cook

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1999’s She’s All That isn’t remembered as a titan of cinema but it did leave a footprint in the pop culture landscape (not least Sixpence None the Richer’s Kiss Me) regardless of how faded it may be now. Fast forward twenty-two years and Netflix have unleashed a gender-swapped remake in the annoyingly shiny and vapid He’s All That starring TikTok star (sigh…) Addison Rae in her acting debut (and it shows). If that’s not enough to get you excited, well, that’s all I have. In a clear attempt to appeal to the young social media droolers and Generation Z, He’s All That eschews any attempt at crafting a compelling narrative and instead opts for an entirely unconvincing ‘unappealing’ lead actor (Buchanan), horrific supporting characters, cringy karaoke moments, Kardashian appearances, the lust for ‘likes’ and naff plastic rivalries. I will admit to rolling my eyes at certain moments but, bafflingly, I couldn’t stop watching. Now, that is in no way an endorsement of this clogged toilet of a movie but its brisk runtime and unfailing visual pop kept things interesting enough to keep following. A few gags hit the right note and some fun cameos (see: She’s All That alumni) help also and they needed to as I struggled to work out whether this was a satirical commentary on the influencer life or merely a celebration of it. It initially seemed to be a commentary as we see Addison Rae’s Padgett glamming up in the morning to go live for her millions of adoring followers before it is revealed she lives in a modest house with her overworked mother (Cook). From then onwards, He’s All That simply devolved into a conventional rom-com to the overall detriment of the movie. Had it committed to being a satirical poke at the shallow world of social media ‘stars’ against the backdrop of living a ‘normal’ life, the movie had a chance to educate and expose at the same time. Instead, we see Padgett attempting to make the cliche loser Cameron (the wholly attractive Buchanan) into the Prom King for a bet and watch as they fall for each other along the way. Yes, it’s the plot of She’s All That, and whilst that film wasn’t exactly Oscar-bait, it felt less manufactured than this. It’ll likely appeal to fans of The Kissing Booth (shudder…) and maybe those looking for a quick date movie but, beware, other than a few moments of comedy, He’s All That is a modern masterpiece...if the criteria includes being substandard, superficial, and utterly forgettable.

Hear me chatting He's All That with Bespin Bulletin on his podcast, BOB the Podcast

 

The Suicide Squad

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by James Gunn // Starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi

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Is it a sequel? Is it a reboot? No! It’s a...well...yes, it’s a sequel of sorts. 2016’s Suicide Squad is a conundrum - it scored big at the box office and secured an Academy Award, yet it’s looked down on my the vast majority of people (I didn’t mind it). With that, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad already had baggage to contend with even before hitting the screens but the worry was unfounded - this Suicide Squad is fantastic. Gunn’s version still has the verve, colour and, yes, music that defined the original but here it all feels more authentic and less for show. In fact, pretty much everything feels more authentic and elevated - the action sequences are bigger, bloodier and boast greater choreography, the characters are far more engaging and even the villains are more compelling. In terms of characters, Gunn mined DC for the strangest he could find yet they became the heart of the movie - David Dastmalchian’s Polka Dot Man and Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 being the standouts alongside Elba’s gruff Bloodsport, Cena’s Peacemaker and Margot Robbie returning as Harley Quinn (hell, even Stallone’s King Shark is ace). The story itself is fairly typical but that isn’t an issue when the characters are strong alongside sharp writing and effective humour - The Suicide Squad is a good example of getting the basics right and adding to them. The Suicide Squad possesses some of the best action sequences of the year and some surprisingly earnest moments too to coincide with the excellent rogue gallery Gunn has assembled. You’ll be lucky to have this much fun in a cinema again this year.