Army of the Dead

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I don’t actively think of myself as a zombie-movie lover, but when I think back on the zombie movies from the past decade, I find myself surprisingly happy with my options. The gritty World War Z, the romantic Warm Bodies, the hilarious Shaun of the Dead and the unforgettable Zombieland. With all that said, Army of the Dead is a disgrace to the genre. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a totally tolerable and, at times, vaguely enjoyable movie. In fact, the fantastic opening credits lull you into a false sense of security, with a punchy opening song (Viva Las Vegas) and fast-paced shots of undead Vegas brides and Elvis impersonators, and a quick introduction to our main characters. But I think it says a lot about a movie when the opening credit sequence is, by far, the best part of the otherwise tiresome two and a half hours. The main issue with Army of the Dead is that it really doesn’t know what it should be. Is it gritty, romantic, or funny? No, it’s not really any of those. It’s just another poorly executed blockbuster (although can it even be called that, with a straight-to-streaming release?).

Army of the Dead’s director (and producer, and cinematographer, and writer) Zack Snyder, now best known for his work in the DC extended universe, has been getting a lot of press recently with his version of the Justice League film. I suppose, after having millions of devoted followers tweet #ReleasetheSnyderCut, and having one of the biggest production studios in the world give you 70 million USD to complete your vision for a superhero movie, your ego might get a little inflated. And that’s what this film feels like. While Snyder has said that this film has been in the back of his mind since his version of the Dawn of the Dead, Army of the Dead instead feels like a director filled with bravado pulled two words out of a hat (‘zombie’, and ‘heist’) and made a film.

With that said, the actors do seem like they’re giving it their all. Dave Bautista captures your attention (even if as a knock off Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson from the Fast and Furious franchise) and Matthias Schweighöfer is actually quite charming as German lockpicker ‘Dieter’. And the actresses truly are giving their all as bad-ass zombie slayers, but it’s clear their character design is entirely from a male gaze (really, you’re going to wear hoop earrings to go fight zombies? And who has time to do their eyeshadow in a quarantine camp, even if it is to match your mysterious nickname?).

So, this is my lowest rated film yet so far on this blog. Truly, a hot piece of garbage. But if that’s your thing (see; Sharknado and other iconic hot pieces of garbage) then give it a go. Who knows, maybe Dave Bautista’s tiny glasses will bring you some joy.

The Serpent

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I am an avid consumer of true-crime content in many forms, from documentaries to podcasts, and though I am usually wary of actor portrayals of real life events, The Serpent defied every low expectation I had for it. I blew through this series in a matter of days because of the captivating storyline and characters.

The first episode was a bit slow—a fair amount of exposition was necessary to introduce us to the large cast of key players. First up we have our principal antagonist: Charles Sobrahj. For most of the series he goes by the name Alain Gautier, and sometimes by the names of his victims, whose passports he steals to adopt new identities and travel across Asia and Europe under the radar. His accomplices, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (AKA Monique) and Ajay Chowdhury do the same at his instruction, helping him poison, murder, and burn bodies across the continent, under the guise of smuggling and dealing gems.

Next we meet the team of crime-fighters, a ragtag group who come together out of necessity and a sense of duty. Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat, and his brilliant wife Angela lead the charge against Sobrahj with fervor that threatens their careers and their marriage, to stop Sobrahj from killing more innocent people. Nadine and Remi Gires are a young French couple unlucky enough to find themselves neighbors to “Alain” and “Monique” in Bangkok, the reluctant champions of the couple’s many victims. Finally, we have Herman’s one true ally among diplomats: Paul Siemons. The Belgian attaché lends his expertise on the ins and outs of the Thai government and the embassies to subvert the system and find loopholes to justice. The forces of evil and bureaucracy oppose the five at every turn, making for a simultaneously devastating and inspiring story of perseverance and the ease of evildoings.

By nature of being a true story, The Serpent has an intensity that doubles down on the disturbing nature of Sobrahj’s crimes. But the stellar cast and vivid writing played an important role in creating rich, complex relationships that I felt I’d been following for years (and could follow years longer). Tahar Rahim embodies the serial killer with poise, charm, and an unbridled rage against the world—all the things that made Sobrahj so terrifying. Jenna Coleman delivers intricate layers of facade and inner turmoil, while Mathilde Warnier and Amesh Edireweera portray the fear and bravery that came with Alain and Monique’s “friendship.” But in my opinion, the most captivating aspect of the series was the small but stunning performances from every single victim, which made it impossible to stop watching until the serpent was caught.

You root for each one to triumph over Charles’ evil, even more so every time you remember they are all based on real people. You want them to succeed, escape, and make the right decisions that will lead them away unscathed, no matter how many times his manipulation wins. And the more lives he destroys, the more invested you become—like Herman, and Angela, and Paul—in the inevitable failure or slip-up that will get him caught and punished. In a few words? A must-see.

Palm Springs

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Some might criticise Palm Springs as another version of the tired Groundhog Day trope. And to that I would say, who cares? While the film certainly wasn’t entirely revolutionary in its premise, I was more than delighted to watch a few hours of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti adorable dancing across the screen. Samberg’s charm seems to have no ends in this movie, and his character Nyles is loveable from the first shot of him on a pool floatie to the last.

The concept of the movie is simple. At her sister’s wedding, maid-of-honour Sarah is charmed by the laid-back, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Nyles. They spend the evening together, drinking, making fun of Nyles’ cheating girlfriend, and eventually find themselves alone in the desert together. Unfortunately, before things get too hot and heavy, Nyles is struck by an arrow. As we follow along, we realise that Nyles’ has been trapped in a time-loop for an extraordinary amount of time, and has come to the conclusion that his life is without meaning.

At its core, just as with Groundhog Day, this movie is a romantic comedy. Even before they enter the time loop, both Nyles and Sarah have very little to live for. Nyles is in a dead-end relationship, and Sarah’s self-destructive tendencies have isolated her from friends and family. Freed from all forms of normal morality, the two seem initially to have found the perfect escape from real life. As their feelings grow, however, both Nyles and Sarah wonder if there’s more to their endless life than choreographed dances at the local bar. Palm Springs neatly and light heartedly explores ideas of pain and love.

A review of this film would not be complete without a mention for J.K. Simmons’ endearing performance. His character mainly serves as an initial roadblock and antagonist for Nyles, but eventually becomes a sage of advice. His ability to go from bow-and-arrow toting maniac to doting father and husband adds to the charming absurdity of the film.

The film is short but rapidly paced and doesn’t stop for breath throughout its short 90-minute runtime. The cinematography is vibrant and comical, and, in its style, unlike any other romantic comedy I’ve seen. It has the quirk of Samberg’s artistic touch, and keeps humour relevant and upbeat, never once crossing into the cheap vulgarity many contemporary comedies seem to rely on. Nyles and Sarah also share the on-screen space as main characters, and while we use Sarah initially as navigation into the life Nyles has grown accustomed to, she does not serve as a plot device, but instead grows as a fully fleshed character. I would argue, in fact, that while Nyles is the central character for the first half, Sarah’s ambitions turn her into the protagonist and hero of her own story.

There is little else to say about Palm Springs, other than it is a must-watch. While it is simple in its premise and storyline, it accomplishes both fantastically.

The Ritual

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a lover of horror movies, I felt well-prepared for the plot of The Ritual: four friends with skeletons in their group closet venture into the Nordic woods for a hiking holiday, where brutality unfolds. The plot itself was nothing new—the forest is always full of dangers for young men stranded outside civilization—but the expert cinematography and stunning performances all-around made for a pleasant surprise. Without giving anything too important away, I can say for certain that The Ritual is a great addition to the genre, and a testament to the chops of director David Bruckner, writer Joe Barton, and stars Rafe Spall and Sam Troughton.

From the first moment, we can see the rifts within our group of heroes. They’ve known each other since university and growing up has pushed some of them apart. Luke, played by Rafe Spall, is our main man, racked with guilt over the death of old friend Rob in a robbery-gone-wrong. Dom (Sam Troughton), the nerdy family man of the group, blames Luke for Rob’s death. Phil takes a background role, staying mostly quiet, while Hutch acts as the voice of reason.

The trip itself is an homage to Rob, the only one who really considered hiking in Sweden fun. In past years, they’d gone on lads’ trips to Ibiza and Amsterdam, but in honor of their late friend, hiking it is. All is well until Dom hurts his leg and the boys decide to take a shortcut back to the lodge… off the trail… through the forest… I’m sure you see where this is going.

The forces of nature and things unseen join forces against the four, stranding them in the dense woods with limited supplies and willpower. Our motley crew is thoroughly spooked by the time they are first attacked and press on through the woods despite a gutted elk hanging in the trees and a spooky house that riddles each with nightmares. Cleverly, Hutch is the first taken out by the antagonist—an unseen force for much of the film. With their level-headed leader gone, the group begins a descent into madness, sped up by fighting, injury, and terrifying discoveries. The plot is well-paced and I was impressed at the flow of the dialogue and dream sequences, often weaving certain imagery or motifs into each scene.

A number of good scares made their way into the final cut, and I have to admit I flinched more than once. The antagonist is terrifying, even before it rears its ugly head, and its minions are creepy enough to at least stay in your head for a few days. I would put myself solidly in the middle of the “Easy to Scare” scale, and the gore and unease of this movie did not put me off. If you’re looking for a good scare and a good story, The Ritual is the film for you. On the surface, it evokes a classic horror premise. Deep down, it’s a story about becoming an adult and facing your fears. The ending isn’t necessarily a twist, but it does leave you satisfied with the character growth and movie lore.

Signs

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

As I was sitting down to watch an M Night Shyamalan film, I felt fairly well prepared for to what I was about to watch. And that’s not a bad thing. Shyamalan has a knack for thrillers that is unmatched within the genre. Most thrillers are filled with unexplained twists and turns, over the top chase scenes, and a plot that grows ever the more confusing by the minute. Unlike those, Shyamalan feeds you more and more information through the film, clearing your understanding at the same pace as the main characters’.

The movie follows the Hess family, who, after finding crop circles on their farm, are forced to reconsider whether or not they are alone in their universe. They are led by patriarch Father Graham Hess, a former priest who renounced his title after his wife suddenly passed away. His younger brother, Merrill, came to live on the farm to work and to help with the children. Graham’s kids, Morgan and Bo, are struggling without their mother, and Graham’s surety of his world is entirely shaken. For a movie about alien life, Shyamalan does an excellent job at reinforcing the theme of faith, both in religion and in one another. As a thriller, most scenes are nonconfrontational, and instead rely on incredibly close shots of Mel Gibson’s face and a distant but rising global threat to build tension.

Watching this movie in a pandemic felt more disconcerting than usual. Especially scenes where Merrill, played by a young Joaquin Phoenix, sits in a closet, his eyes fixated psychotically on a television. He obsessively watches news broadcasts of the end of the world, which, if it had been set twenty years later, would undoubtedly be replaced by obsessive doom scrolling. As the end of the world draws near, each family member takes to a different obsession. Somehow, I feel that if Shyamalan had written this is 2020, Mel Gibson would be aggressively making sourdough bread.

The pièce de résistance of this film, however, just as with most M Night Shyamalan films, is the way every neatly clicks into place in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything that was first presented as bad omens become lifesaving, like Graham’s wife’s final words, Bo’s obsession with water glasses, Merrill’s failed baseball career, and Morgan’s crippling asthma. Unlike most thriller writers, Shyamalan understands how to make his audience feel clever. Most thrillers take pride in their obscurity and use unexplained plot holes to cover their poorly written plots. Or, on the flip side, they patronise their audience, and spoon feed the entirely unsurprising plot twists.  

Overall, this film completely itches the scratch. It’s a thriller, horror, and mystery tied into one, and Shyamalan imbues just enough humour to cut through the darkness. It is, however, more of a fun thought experiment than a fleshed-out film. Other than Graham, most characters don’t get fully realised development, and instead serves as plot points to fill up Graham’s story. Despite this, Signs is a fun and gripping watch.

I Care a Lot

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rosamund Pike takes centre stage again as a cunning and sinister ‘lioness’ in the new thriller I Care a Lot. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a career driven woman who makes her profit from swindling the elderly and fooling the justice system. Grayson, along with her friend, a corrupt doctor, convince courts to allow Grayson full guardianship of elderly patients, citing their inability to care for themselves. Once the patients are secure in care homes, away from the protection of their family and friends, Grayson’s team empty out any valuables and assets from their victims, and pocket the money for themselves. With a dark and sinister overtone and Rosamund Pike at its centre, the movie takes on a very ‘Gone Girl’ aesthetic. Pike has proven once again that she is incredibly suited to playing these ‘lioness’ characters, and I appreciate how solidly they stuck to this characterisation.

Many of these types of female characters, written to be heartless or cold-blooded, are then either made to be ugly, or eventually find their humanity as part of some wider character development (usually involving a man). But Grayson, a sadistic lesbian with excellent fashion taste, carries the same energy as DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street, but never once sacrifices her femininity or her goals. Her meticulously designed pantsuits and dresses remind you of this in every scene, and although she’s more than happy to get her hands dirty, her charisma is what makes her so successful. While I was disappointed that Grayson’s counterpart was not another tall, beautiful merciless woman, I was happy to see that it was Peter Dinklage. His contrast, even just physically, to Rosamund Pike make the duo an unexpected but well-welcomed pair on screen. Their chemistry was not exactly electric, but it did firmly hold my attention. They play what I would normally describe as a cat and mouse game, although for these two it’s more like a couple of wild barn cats running circles around one another.

The film overall is sinister and dark, but surprisingly fast paced. There are action scenes for those who want them, quick-witted court scenes for others, and, in case I haven’t made it clear thus far, many scenes of Rosamund Pike strutting around in a pastel pantsuit for everyone else. While it’s listed as a comedy, I would not say that the film is comedic so much as it has a sense of humour. There aren’t necessarily any laugh out loud moments, but more of a cheeky and self-aware tone.

The one real downside of I Care a Lot is the act structure. The story peaks far too early, and the film is forced to elongate the climax for a good hour of the film. While I think this is rather common for action movies, the moments of quiet between the big action scenes are not really quiet enough. Instead, we get a rather repetitive and at times tedious onslaught of events. Although the exposition and conclusion are sharp and to the point, the pace of the middle act feels forced and convoluted. Nevertheless, I Care a Lot is a fun and upbeat thrill ride well worth a watch.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Star Treks: Lower Decks was an unexpected gem. I’ve never been a big Star Trek fan, and I assumed it would be something like Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is much more serious, but also quite juvenile. Halfway through the pilot, I could tell that this show was so much more. Lower Decks is made of entertaining characters with interesting backgrounds, and throws them into a previously unexplored but familiar environment. The concept is, by itself, an amusing idea. Who is plumbing Spock’s toilets? Who is dry-cleaning Kirk’s uniform? Lower Decks answers these questions, and expands on the Star Trek universe.

 The USS Cerritos (which I assume is named after the comedically boring city of Cerritos, California) has the typical cast of characters; a headstrong captain, a dashing first mate, and a clever but sarcastic doctor. But these are not our main cast. Instead, the show follows the quirky adventures of Beckett Mariner, an ensign with a taste for mischief, and Brad Boimler, another ensign who is desperate to please anyone above his station. Mariner is a loveable troublemaker, who believes that the brig is the best place to be. Her character is really what makes the show compelling. She leads her crewmates, and the audience, through the world of Star Fleet, and positions the narrative from a new and exciting perspective. There are interesting points made about difficult topics, like the consequences of foreign diplomatic intervention that I absolutely did not expect from a comedic, animated show. Bradward Boimler is her perfect counterpart. The two are dissimilar in most ways, but bond over the Lower Decks traditions. In a really interesting dynamic, they both somehow play the straight man to the other’s crazy. Over the series they grow to be each other’s best friend, and provide most of the quick and witty banter. What I most appreciate about this show is its ability to walk the fine line of animated television between crudeness and childishness. The only show in recent memory that rivals this feat is Bob’s Burgers. The show is made up of fast paced action and ‘blink and you miss it’ punchlines. It has a drier humour than most television, and, importantly, does not fall into the Family Guy trap of relying on dirty lines when wit can’t be found. While I think this sets it up for a slightly younger audience, it does not by any means come across as children’s television. In fact, I think children could be traumatised by it (especially scenes like the ones where ‘Badgey’, still coming to grips with his own sentience, goes on a murderous hunting spree).

The main failing of Lower Decks is that, if you were a Star Trek fan, you could be entirely disappointed. While I think this is my favourite version of this universe, I understand that it does not carry the same atmosphere of past Star Trek content. Lower Decks is far more suited for a viewer like me, who knows enough about Star Trek to understand the jokes, but wouldn’t care if they insinuated Kirk was a Vulcan.  

Malcolm and Marie

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s difficult to know where to begin reviewing Malcom and Marie, especially when Malcolm spends half the movie ragging on movie critics. But the easiest way to start is to say this is a spectacular movie that is deeply personal but widely relatable. The plot follows an argument on the evening following the opening night of Malcolm’s debut film. Over the course of the night, the ties that hold him and his girlfriend Marie together completely unravel after he forgets to thank her in his speech.

Both Malcolm and Marie are strongly written, but the performances from Zendaya and John David Washington are what make these characters. They are both complex and very human. In many ways, their faults outweigh their redeeming characteristics. They are silly with one another, and certainly enjoy each other’s company, but more often than not they are the source of each other’s emotional damage. Zendaya’s performance of Marie is charming but manipulative, and John David Washington plays Malcolm as clever and egotistical. Their argument explores the complex nature of drug use, jealousy, and gratitude in a relationship. They slowly become more hurtful, and purposely target each other’s weak points. More viciously, I would say, than a normal couple, and with a serious understanding and judgment of the other’s character. Their words are meant to kill their relationship, and yet they continuously reconcile. It shows a stubborn resilience from both, who have decided that this is their person, for better or for worse.

There is an interesting use of physical space. The house contains their resentment and anger. It suffocates the two of them, and they fail to maintain a cool head while within it’s walls. Even when they try to leave, the darkness of the night ensures that they have to return, sometimes angrier than when they left. When the sun comes up, they are finally able to reconcile. An interesting metaphor, considering the nature of the pandemic. The suffocation, and danger, that many have felt during the pandemic is addressed here. While everyone is locked inside, relationships reach their make-or-break point. In this house, Malcolm and Marie take their relationship as close to the edge as they can.

It is not without its faults, however. Each time the two seemingly reconcile, it is mere minutes until they are at each other’s throats. The first two peaks and troughs feel like they follow the natural course of an argument, but the recurring pattern becomes almost farcical after the third. The movie also falls into a trope I like to call the La La Land Complex, where Hollywood movies love to talk about how difficult it is being in the spotlight. Malcolm believes that he is entirely misunderstood, and that he alone truly understands the old classics. He is a reflection of the narcissistic nature of the film scene. While it’s not an uninteresting story, we have seen it hundreds of times over, even in just the past few years. Oscar nominations and wins went to films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, A Star is Born, and Judy. Even the age difference between the two could be seen as more evidence of the self-reflective nature on Hollywood and filmmaking. Or, as I think is more likely, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making a comment on age gaps between Hollywood stars and their partners, it hires two actors who play right into that complex. This otherwise interesting comment on the nature of relationships and self-destruction instead became a self-indulgent comment on the film industry.  

Regardless of this self-indulgent nature, the film is still a fantastic film about relationships and what we mean to one another.

Detective Pikachu

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Picture this:

The movie takes place in a futuristic city, where new technology, created by one large tech company, has allowed for a new way of life. Humans now coexist with other creatures, who help them do their jobs and assist them in everyday life. A young man, our protagonist, has a dislike of the creatures, due to a traumatising incident in his past. When the creatures begin to act strangely, it is up to him to solve the case. He goes on an adventure where, along with a young woman, he discovers that not everything is as it seems, and he comes to befriend one of the creatures, who teaches him an important life lesson. In the end, it is revealed that the head of the tech company was behind all of it. Now, am I describing Detective Pikachu, or am I describing I, Robot?

As I watched this film, the similarities between the two movies were obvious, and Detective Pikachu really does feel like a toned down, children’s take on the classic sci-fi. I found that you don’t really need to know anything about robots to enjoy I, Robot, and the same goes for this movie. I know next to nothing about Pokémon, and I’m sure I missed some easter eggs, but I still thought this silly family movie was a fun watch. It is a blockbuster film, and, as such, is filled with overly dramatic moments and larger than life characters, but nevertheless, I was extremely impressed at the dedication this film had to the characterisation of the Pokémon.

Each creature, even those in the background, had excellent texture animations and stylistic design. Pikachu felt alive and real, and, somehow, did embody Ryan Reynolds (I was especially impressed by the texture animation when his fur was wet). In comparison to movies like Jurassic World, the animators took care to ensure the Pokémon looked as grounded as possible. I assume that setting of the film in the dark was a design choice, one that helped to disguise any faults in the rendering of the Pokémon. And their aesthetic design besides, the actual expression and movements of the characters felt real. One thing I do know about Pokémon is that each creature makes the sounds of their name, and I was impressed by how realistic they made these voices sound. I was also unsurprised to discover that the same team who had worked on Detective Pikachu also designed creatures for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In both films, the creatures have distinct and charming character design. 

At the end of the day, though, this is a blockbuster movie. It does not rank as one of my favourites by far, but this movie certainly passes as a film that the family can enjoy together. I can dream about an R-rated, ‘Deadpool’ style version of this movie as much as I want, but I understand the market that this movie had. It was whimsical and silly but did manage to pull some real laughs from me (mostly just because Ryan Reynolds could read me a takeout menu and I’d find it hilarious). Overall, Detective Pikachu was simply a cute film.

Lupin

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Lupin stole my heart. I don’t even care if this show doesn’t deserve 4.5 stars (it does; it’s fantastic) I will still award them happily. Lupin, in short, is a more complex, French James Bond. His character, with all his oddities, strengths and weaknesses, makes 007 look like a primped and plucked doll, although I suppose it is unfair to compare the two, given that Lupin is both 007 and M put together (although there is still a wiry, frizzy haired best friend if that’s important to you).

The story opens on a jewellery heist. A washed-up janitor, down on his luck, has decided to steal a necklace from the Louvre to cover his debts. But as I found with all of Lupin’s hijinks, nothing is really as it seems. The show takes us speeding and sneaking around the streets of Paris, and tugs at our heartstrings along the way. While there was nothing particularly interesting to be said about the cinematography, it is brilliant writing and fantastic acting that brings this show to life. Omar Sy, who I am ashamed to say I didn’t know before this, is a well accomplished actor. He plays Lupin as suave and too clever for his own good, but doesn’t hesitate to show us that Lupin, unlike Bond, has serious weaknesses. He struggles with fatherhood and his own parental past, and despite his practically photographic memory, still manages to forget to spend time with his son. The people who surround him (half of whom want to kill him, and the rest want to kiss him) are also fully realised characters in their own right, perhaps unlike the Bond girls we are used to seeing. When these well written characters are thrown into layers of conspiracy and corruption… well, what’s not to love.

While generally I don’t believe that knowing the plot to a story ruins the experience (it’s the journey, not the destination) I hope it has been noted that I am trying my best not to spoil anything. Unlike with other films and television I’ve reviewed, it is important to me that you experience Lupin as it happens. The twists, turns, and witty punchlines are worth seeing first-hand. It also introduced me to French television, which, for some reason in my head, I felt must be similar to black-and-white silent films.  While of course this has the Netflix spin, the fact that I didn’t know Omar Sy before this baffles me. This show, once again, confirms what Bong Joon-Ho said when he received Best Picture, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

The main weakness of this show is that there is not more of it. That, and the often-outrageous plot lines. There are some moments where I have to admit, I thought, ‘Even Lupin couldn’t pull that off.’ But I suppose, if we are willing to believe that James Bond throws himself onto trains and out of cars, that we should forgive Lupin for this as well.