Monday, October 11, 2021

Free Guy


What do you get when you remake The Truman Show but update it for modern day by adding elements of Ready Player One, and a bit of the Groundhog Day concept, and make Ryan Reynolds the lead?

You get a summer movie that actually feels like a summer movie.

Here's a shocker: this movie isn't two hours of Reynolds running around in a videogame world making quippy jokes. There's like, a story. And stakes. Remember those? There are characters who have goals, and an antagonist who's in their way. And they're the good guys because their goals are moral, and the antagonist is the bad guy because his goals are immoral, and the story is written so that we'll root for the good guys and have a satisfying sense of resolution if they succeed.

"No duh, Sarah, that's how movies work." Yep. It's weird. I wish I could say I wasn't starstruck by a mere coherent plotline, but here we are. And I know it's not only me. "It's deeper than I expected" is a popular comment on this film. Why? Because it has real-world characters too, with visible character arcs? Because there's an NPC in a videogame who gains self-awareness and freewill and that makes us consider what human value he has? Not exactly mind-blowing stuff here. And yet, it is. Because movies have been without basic things like moral standards, thought, or storytelling coherence for so long that we forgot how essential they are. There's a romantic subplot that's resolved for more reason than "the movie is ending now," and it felt earth-shatteringly original. 

Shawn Levy understands how to assemble a competent film. "Earth-shattering," he is not. Something else is up here.

While I appreciate that this movie returns to a certain filmmaking standard, that's not to say that it's automatically great. The spell only lasted during the runtime, and now I'm left to mull over how exceptionally sad it is that so little could feel like so much. Because sure, the movie feeds us what I've been craving, but in bites, not meal-sized portions. To say Free Guy puts in more effort than recent action-comedy flicks isn't saying anything, really. They have funny guy Ryan Reynolds at their disposal, and they let him do his thing. But too much so. More often it's more like they leave him—to ad-lib quips on top of normal scenes, instead of writing set-up and pay-off jokes for him to elevate. Most of the comedic scenes are not only unnecessary but totally humorless. (Hello Channing Tatum.)

They let Taika Waititi have fun too, and I liked hating the character. But did they think we wouldn't notice he was the bad guy unless they had him spell it out for us? "I love money, I want more money, I don't care about anything but money." We get it. A little subtlety wouldn't kill you, and would ring truer, even for an over-the-top character. And of course, they can't help but wedge in some political talking points, some that clash with the actual intent of the movie. I'd have cut 10-20 minutes from the runtime, mostly in cameos and people watching events from the real world. That got in the way. There are also three separate sequences that feel like the "final battle." One was expensive, one "funny," and one had narrative relevance. Guess which one I'd keep?

Even in action movies the last thing I care about is the action...

My favorite aspect was the real-people characters played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery. They own the heart of the film, baby-sized as it is. Keery's relevance to the plot was especially a nice surprise. I was fully expecting him to be a side character meant for more jokes only. In fact, I wish there had been more real-life all around. Comer's character is even more essential on paper but doesn't feel it because we see her mostly in the game, where she lacks her real-world personality. We thought that Reynolds' star-power, the humor, and high concept actiony videogame fun was the point, but it's not, not really. It's dressing. Free Guy remembers that better than most, but not quite well enough.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Quiet Place Part II

Some spoilers, for this and A Quiet Place.

If you call it a "Part 2" it's easier to make people swallow that it's not just another unnecessary sequel. Heck, even I got drawn in, and I despise the idea of sequels as a rule. What got me interested though, was adding Cillian Murphy to the cast to fill the hole John Krasinski's character leaves. Krasinski is still directing though, and this time he's also writing the whole thing. For the first movie he bought and tweaked an original script, and now he's trying his hand at expanding the story alone.

It's debatable whether the story wants expanding in the first place, let alone if the continuation settled on is any good.

We pick up exactly where we left off (after a flashback prologue). Emily Blunt and children leave their farmhouse to find one of their neighbors whose fire they would see from their water tower. This is Emmett (Cillian Murphy), but he's not as interested in playing father figure and man-of-the-house as the Abbott family wishes. He's already lost his family and is now a Joel from The Last of Us, lone wolf type character. However, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) has her hearing aid device that incapacitates the aliens and when she finds a radio station that is still broadcasting, she's determined to use it to help other survivors fight back. When she leaves alone, Emmett finds himself going after her, and then along with her, despite his protests.

The story splits then into two plotlines. The one with Regan and Emmett is interesting; straightforward in its goal, with ample opportunities for exploration. The one with Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and the baby, however, is small potatoes, with no goal at all other than to survive when the aliens inevitably find them (after a year and a half they're still terrible at living quietly.) It tries to give Marcus an opportunity to become a man, but must make him even more of a frightened useless child first to make the change clear. It smacks of fishing for story filler rather than letting the story push along at a natural pace. Because both plotlines were focused on equally despite unequal value, neither was developed fully.

Abandoning Emily Blunt's plotline altogether would've been a crazy, bold, and I think rewarding, move.

The Emmett-Regan plotline could have been a movie all in itself, but it had corners cut to make room for the pointless other plotline. Everything happens too fast for them, and comes too easily. The two have a lot of potential together, and I liked their chemistry, but they slip too quickly into a father-daughter dynamic, especially after Regan's rough relationship with Lee, turned to deep loyalty. She initially rejects even the idea of Emmett becoming even a temporary protector. Then warms to him after one incident. They also have a language barrier, in that he cannot sign. This is got over easily and is never an issue in high-stakes situations. Then an evil tribe of cannibals is set up as a non-alien threat, but only amounts to one scene once they show up. 

It's rush, rush, rush, and then it's over and I can list on one hand the important things that were accomplished. I don't even need all five fingers! If it needed to end at that point to allow Part III all the plot it needs to wrap things up, then why not let this story sit back more and develop relationships? Why not explore the themes of family further, instead of leaving themes out altogether? Did Krasinski not realize those were the things that made the first one good? Or is he simply incapable of creating on that level? He is a good director, but he needs a good script with clear purpose, else his movies lack direction, and those satisfying moments of resolution that made A Quiet Place stand out.

"More of the same," but only superficially, isn't really more of the same, is it?

I feel like A Quiet Place Part II's only purpose was to set up the pieces for A Quiet Place Part III, so I guess I'll hang on and see how the payoff goes. Despite the definite downgrade in writing, this movie maintains its winning premise, with the same intense alien thriller feel to it, and tentatively expands the lore on its featured creatures. The mortal flaw is simply that it's lazier; messy next to the lovingly crafted original. Even with nothing to do Emily Blunt is good. Millicent Simmonds steps up her game to great results, and Cillian Murphy is a vital addition that makes the whole endeavor better than it has a right to be. If nothing else, I'll watch Part III to see more of him. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Chaos Walking


After two years on the shelf, Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley's team up to adapt yet another dystopian YA novel has seen the light of day. It's about a planet that makes men's thoughts appear as visible and audible fogs of color around their heads, called The Noise. And what happens when the first girl (Ridley) in Todd's (Holland) lifetime shows up, throwing their futuristic wild west town into, uh, chaos.

Actually, "Chaos Walking" is a pretty good description of the film itself. 

The YA dystopia phase was deftly put into its grave by the last effort of the Maze Runner series, The Death Cure, limping across the finish line before the race, as it were, was shut down for good. This film's producers, and director Doug Liman, though, didn't get the memo. Although to be fair they started shooting before The Death Cure was released. And it was probably wise of them to shelve it for a while, so people could forget how tired they were of the genre. Now, it feels like a throwback. Remember when Tom Holland was on top of the world? Remember when people thought Daisy Ridley might actually have a career? Remember when making a movie based on a series of books meant that sequels might get made? 

On one hand I feel like Chaos Walking would have been better off rotting on the shelf. On the other, I've always enjoyed these types of films, no matter how bad they get, and I was tickled by this flick every bit as much as I was annoyed. And boy, was I annoyed! You might be able to imagine how grating it'd be to constantly see and hear every thought of every person around you; if you watch this movie, you don't have to imagine anymore! I can't think of a better way to portray this gimmick myself, but I certainly wouldn't have tried to adapt it if this was my best solution. It's distracting. It's cluttering. It's rarely interesting, or useful. It just makes the thing a mess. I imagine it worked easily on page. I wish it had been considered more carefully in the planning stages of this film.

I feel like the story could have worked without it except for one big detail, but it is the main memorable aspect at the same time. Mostly it gets in the way. 

Besides that, the script reads a lot like you'd expect from a film banking on the success of the Maze Runner series. It's clearly a gutted version of its book counterpart, breezing over explanations and leaving confusion in its wake. All while never allowing scenes to breathe, settle, or be toned into something rich. It's action scenes and exposition scenes layered together. The action holds the most interest as they have a similar kinetic energy to The Maze Runner, and the world they take place in allows for a few creative set pieces. (I'm always on board for on-the-run adventures!) Often the exposition holds back too much, rendering itself unnecessary. Characters are cardboard-level quality, painted colorfully as a distraction. You can tell many of them served a purpose in the book—who can tell what that may have been from this.

It's the cast that does most of the leg work in selling the story. Tom Holland's try-hard attitude is admirable, but sheer willpower cannot make him become the character, Todd; he's always just Tom Holland, playing some kid in a movie. The action is his greater strength, and he sells that even harder. Daisy Ridley has literally nothing to work with in terms of character, but I don't imagine she'd have given it much more than a pretty face in an ugly wig making big eyes at everything anyway. Star Wars is over, and so is she. The supporting cast is a skilled bunch and though they don't try particularly hard, they bring out memorability in their characters. Mads Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo... Nick Jonas (Haha just kidding!) and particularly David Oyelowo, who's a wonderfully intimidating character that ends in underwhelming disappointment.

Clearly Tom's trying to prove himself as Nathan Drake here, but what's Daisy gunning for? Leeloo in some secret lumberjack remake of The Fifth Element?

And speaking of disappointment, that's what I was expecting from this movie, and little more. But the thing about disappointment is, you can't be disappointed unless there are hopes of good to be let down. Chaos Walking provides both the hope, and the potential, and then the disappointment in turn. I could easily dismiss it as a too-little-to-late addition to a dead genre and leave it at that, but the fact is I genuinely liked some of the bones beneath the chaos. And while that's a solid positive, it's sadly a positive that only results in deeper disappointment.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Tomorrow War


Chris Pratt's first time producing a film is exactly the sort of movie we'd expect him to produce. It casts him as a nice but slightly malcontented suburban dad, wishing for a little bit more to life in the year 2022. Then people from 2051 show up, saying that they're losing a war with evil aliens in their time, and ask for help fighting them. It's not long before a worldwide draft is instituted... and we all know Pratt eventually gets his chance to "be more" as he wishes.

Wish granted! You get to risk your life to save humanity itself! Probably more than he had in mind...

This is a blockbuster flick, no doubt about it, and the movie is proud of that fact. But it's also a time-travel oriented scifi movie, and it takes pains to explain itself on those fronts. It includes neat details in its worldbuilding, like, the people who travel back in time are young (not born yet in 2022) and they only recruit people who die before 2051. Cuz, you know, the space-time continuum. It's explains its time-travel method succinctly, and it's not without holes and paradoxes, but the rules are clear, and that's all we ask for.

Scientific explanations breezed-through, the movie gets right into the action. It's about sending nearly-untrained civilians into battle with animalistic aliens that shoot spikes out of tentacles (not to mention their sharp teeth) so there's a lot of general mayhem, but fortunately Pratt's character served in the army before, so he takes the lead and is assigned a mission, which leads to more specific encounters catered to the movie's needs of plot-momentum, and memorable action set pieces. None of the action was outstanding, but the aliens were cool and frightening, and the characters fighting them weren't cardboard cutouts, so it did the job being entertaining.

Surprise surprise, stakes that are imbedded in the plot are more effective than tacked on ones!

I can take or leave action most of the time. Unless it's Tom Cruise doing impossible feats on screen, it's hard to impress me. But no matter the genre I always go in for characters. And it's been a while since a brazenly extra-buttered-popcorn blockbuster presented characters that I cared two straws about. It helps that Chris Pratt is Chris Pratt. His acting consists mostly of hamming dramatic looks for the camera, but his own genuine personality bleeds through so well that it works anyway. Next to him, Yvonne Strahovski and J.K. Simmons are good and fantastic actors respectively, and they bring their characters to life as well. Between the three of them (and Edwin Hodge who was good but needed more screen time) they imbed the action with stakes worth caring about.

It got to the end, and I really was leaning closer to the screen, wondering what was going to happen. Most of the plot was predictable—I'm proud of myself for calling one slight twist early on—but the way they do the predictable things were always fresh and unexpected. The predictability played into the traditional blockbuster feel. It had a Cowboys and Aliens vibe to me, another movie that knows how outlandish it's being, but still goes in 100% and makes it all work. The three-act structure is clean and by-the-book which I love to see in movies like this, and it doesn't fall apart in the final act. In fact, the final act was my favorite section of the movie altogether.

Sad that cliché has become a dirty word. I want to say this movie was cliché and mean it as a recommendation!

Every blockbuster should go out on a bang. Even if it drives home its message with a heavier, less nuanced hand, that's better than having no message, or having a pandering sermon instead of something uplifting. And pulling off a few clichéd maneuvers is infinitely preferable to robotically manufactured originality. This movie goes by an outdated playbook, and I couldn't be happier. There's heart, humor, characters with arcs, a plot that a human person with human feelings made up with their human imagination, and Chris Pratt lends his warm affability to the whole ordeal. A genuine blockbuster in 2021. Time travel is real after all!

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It


The Conjuring movies have a draw and a repellent for me, and they are one and the same: that they are based on real-life stories. I believe in the supernatural—in demon-possession and ill-meaning sprits and hauntings. So, I am fascinated. And a bit creeped-out. But fascinated. There are few definable rules to the subject, but mostly it's a dark unknown, full of potential for exploring by way of fiction. And that's why, despite reservations, I've come to be a fan of The Conjuring movies.

Well. Up till now... 

Not only is this the most poorly made of the three films, it's also the only one in which the real-life element is thrown out the window. Of course, the first two were embellished (to put it mildly) and sometimes heavily added to to make a longer, and more cinematic, story. But parts that did have claims on reality were the same parts that gave the films their draw. The supernatural. The haunted house and demon possession of the first film. The girl being oppressed in the second, with the levitating and teleporting and the old man speaking out her mouth. So, what's true about The Devil Made Me Do It?

Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor) has a brother (Julian Hilliard) who's possessed by a demon. After the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are called in to exorcise him, the demon moves from the brother to him. Afterwards, he murders his landlord, and then claims that, well, the devil made him do it. But that doesn't quite do it, does it? Whether you believe the true stories of the first two films or not, the claims are scary. Reports of seeing a witch with a head that looked like a tangle of cobwebs. The little girl falling asleep in one place and waking in another. The old man's voice coming from inside her. What's scary about this story? Nothing, really. It's a loose, undetailed set of facts. There's no inherent fear. It must be invented.

"What if there's a demon/ghost in the water mattress?!?!" "HoW sCaRy!!"

There's no haunting element, so the movie brings in a witch character that curses the family and then begins to telepathically stalk the Warrens when Loraine accidentally makes contact with her. In one fell swoop the movie forgoes whatever little grasp on reality it had. It allows its witch to animate dead bodies for a cheap scare or two. Then with the planting of one little totem, she gains the ability to literally control minds and make people see whatever she wants. The only thing more annoying than this is that her mind control spell is broken by the power of love. No exorcism. No mention of God or application of His power. No rules. No reality. Just hogwash.

It's even understood in the narrative that there was no demonic possession at all; that Arne was tricked by the mind control to commit murder—which means that the movie doesn't even accept the true story's premise. And despite my being a horror lightweight, I was more scared watching The Conjuring for the third time than I was watching this. Ed and Lorraine's character story is contrived and silly—if the Hallmark channel turned horror—while the rest plays out like an unfinished sketchbook from some not-particularly-creative tween who's determined to write a hit creepypasta. A series of vignettes, with no build or significance, that continuously fall flat, until the runtime is over-filled and all is quickly solved by magic.

I doubt the real Arne was demon-possessed. Especially if it supposedly left him after the murder like they claim in the film. Demons don't just up and leave. It was more likely a successful ploy to get a lessened sentence.

For what it's worth I do believe a demon could drive a person to commit murder, but even so they still would have to have chosen to give in and do it, so this movie's title isn't a viable defense in my book. As for the crime of having made this film? "The devil made me do it" is the ONLY defense I'll accept.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong


You've seen the 2014 Godzilla, that took the classic campy monster and turned him into a serious and dimly-lit force of nature; then focused the lens down to the earth, not to watch the destruction, but to see how the human characters react.

You've seen the 2017 Kong: Skull Island—the bombastic and gleefully explosive adventure romp with a cast full to the brim with A-list actors and an enlarged King that packed an entertaining action punch.

And you've seen the 2019 sequel to the former, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, where the dark and the seriousness remains but any semblance of interesting or even memorable characters are gone.

Now. Get ready... for the series to be degraded even further by pitting the two epic beasts against each other as the finalists in a literal knockout tournament, complete with brackets showing their progress in defeating Skull Crawlers and Hydra monsters in single elimination on their way to the top.

If that sounds like the direction you were hoping this "Monsterverse" franchise would take, quit reading and watch the movie. It's for you. If you were hoping that this mashup would contain even a single drop of respect for its predecessors, or human characters worth rooting for (let alone learning the names of) or a plot that tries to make sense, or fight scenes that hold more substance than CGI is capable of... you're as out of luck as this movie is out of a worthy bone in its massive, lazy body.

Its worst offense in my book is the tone-deaf way in which it attempts to borrow from the extremely stylish Skull IslandKing of the Monsters already did away with 2014's Godzilla's grounded sensibilities and that was left to lie in its discarded grave. But people still like Jordan Vogt-Roberts' use of color and fun classic tunes, so that's what this movie gives us—just sans the purpose that drove Vogt-Roberts's epic choices. There's music. But its applied meaninglessly, ignorantly splashing it against the giant monkey whenever it can't think of anything else to do. Bright colors are even more used. And while I thank copycat mentality for making it more colorful and not less, it might as well have been black and white for all the good it did.

I felt so sorry for the human actors in this. Kyle Chandler was wasted as the lead in the last film; here he gets 5 short scenes out of obligation. Meanwhile the ostensible new lead, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is treated the same way as his predecessor. I remember someone saying his name near the end of the film and realizing I'd not heard it until then. He serves to set the plot in motion, then as a reactionary sign from whom the audience is meant to take their cues. He, Rebecca Hall, Eiza Gonzáles, and the cute little girl spent the film sitting inside the cockpit of a magical ship, gasping and staring at what is clearly nothing before their eyes. How frustrating a shoot it must have been.

There's a bit at the beginning that explains how Main Character's brother died going into the Hollow Earth, leaving Main Character on the too-careful side. The cute little girl and her mom agree that he's a coward and I figured he was meant to have an arc that culminates in a redemptive moment of bravery. But he was the one who pushed to take the risk of moving Kong to the Hollow Earth in the first place. And while he looks constantly nervous and timid, the movie never allows that to become a flaw. He risks himself for others and to further the plot easily—because the movie doesn't have time to spend on things like arcs or consistency.

The movie has no time, or interest, in thinking about anything. It needs a way to get people into the Hollow Earth, so magical flying ships are already made, with no explanation to the science that makes them look like they were plucked from a Star Wars film. On the way down there's a weird scifi portal that's a hassle to travel through. So much so that going back up, the portal no longer exists. Too much trouble. Why think of an explanation when dedicated fans can explain for you? Why put in effort when the cash will come in without it just as easily?

There's one exception to the movie's aversion to thought, (a spoiler so I won't go in depth) and it was the only part of the movie that didn't seem to actively rip brain cells from my brain. Beside this one part that explains an impossible science and ties back to the last film, the movie doesn't even turn off its brain; rather, its brain doesn't exist. And it demands you leave yours at home as well. I wouldn't care so much—who am I to get in the way of people's mindless entrainment—except that Skull Island and 2014's Godzilla both were far more entraining, while keeping their brain intact and in use.

The movie knows that it doesn't need any of the things it lacks. Sense, story, characters with names... it's all moot. Godzilla and King Kong punch each other in the face, and roar, and destroy buildings. It knows that's all it needed to earn attention and accolades. I despise this film. It was bad—but not just bad. It was carelessly bad. Confidently bad. It took the easiest path to shallowest success, and what frustrates me most is that its smug, lazy judgment of audience's tolerance was correct.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Kid Detective


Abe Applebaum was a prodigy as a kid. He solved mysteries. "Who stole the school's fundraising money?" "Who stole from the candy store?" "Where's that missing cat?" The whole town loved him. He was so good, he got his own office at age twelve. Now, he's thirty-two. "Is this guy I'm interested in gay?" "Who stole my silver brooch?" "Where's that cat gone this time?" It's all the same deal, except no one cares anymore. He couldn't crack the only case that mattered and fell out of the town's good graces. But now, he gets a chance to redeem himself when the girlfriend of a murdered high schooler asks him to take on the case.

Written and directed by Evan Morgan. This is his first feature, and you can tell—he's clearly still passionate about his stories and dedicated to telling them well.

This movie would be good on set up alone: A dark comedy that blends two worlds of mystery-solving seamlessly together. Half a kiddie detective mystery, with all the cute tropes and cozy tone you'd expect—and half a cynical neo-noir, wallowing in the sadness of a tragic past and floundering through shadowy underworlds and oodles of booze in search of redemption. As we wind through the trail of clues and the twists and turns that we know are coming but still surprise us when they arrive, we are invited to laugh with pathos and feel warm surrounded by the gritty dark. And we do.

The thread that holds the halves together is Adam Brody. No one else can do cynical humor like he does. It's hard to make an audience sad and still get them to laugh, but Brody's hardboiled man-child loser-detective-who-still-cares has it in the bag by scene two. He probably could have played Abe in his sleep and got away with it, but he digs in and fleshes out what the script brings to make a well-rounded character of real, relevant flaws, and genuine sympathy. The role is practically custom-made for the unique persona he brings to the screen, but heck, the whole premise and plot is custom-made for that kind of character. Whether by design or lucky happenstance, this is the kind of casting that clicks like magic. 

Supporting cast is great too. The "bad guy" especially.

For me, it always boils down to character. I spent the whole movie chuckling sadly at Abe's pathetically cynical devotion to his investigation, and that's what won me over, but I have to say—the investigation plot itself was far from pathetic, holding its own alongside the strong premise and character. It incorporates a lot of "Hardy Boys" type antics and formula—hiding in closets when you're snooping in someone's house and they come home early is a running joke—and follows a tight and detailed trail of clues in a classic way that evokes noir mysteries as well as cozy detective tales. Then when the puzzle pieces all fall together for the payoff, it's as satisfying and rewarding as either genre could ever hope to achieve.

I was impressed at how effortlessly refined the writing was too. Plot details and witty lines stand out as they should, but equally as sharp, though less prominent, is the theme. The idea of tainted innocence is embedded so deeply that it permeates the whole story, but never in a blatant or tactless way. And the tonal balance is deceptively effortless. It gets serious and intense but is able to turn out consistent laughs amid it all. The duality—light yet dark, kiddie yet adult, innocent yet cynical—works as more than a fun premise idea because the filmmaker recognized the concept's value and structured everything around it.

All while slapping together a hardcore murder mystery like that's easy or something...!

A huge, popular audience may never be cultivated for this flick, and that's too bad, as even the pickiest of mystery connoisseurs would be hard-pressed to find disappointment. I think it'd make a good companion piece with Brick, and would recommend it to anyone who likes that movie, and/or cozy mysteries with some adult content, and/or darkly comic neo-noir thrillers, and/or Adam Brody's particular leading man skills. For me, that adds up to only one possible conclusion: I love it. Case closed!