Everything Everywhere All At Once

Release: Friday, March 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Starring: Michelle Yeoh; Ke Huy Quan; Stephanie Hsu; Jamie Lee Curtis; James Hong; Jenny Slate

Distributor: A24 

 

 

***/*****

No one makes a movie like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, nor does anyone dare try. Relatively unknown as the guys behind viral music videos such as DJ Snake’s Turn Down For What, the writer/directors etched their shared first-name moniker into audiences’ minds forever with their supremely strange feature film debut Swiss Army Man in 2016. Now they return with a proposition that makes their first effort seem unadventurous by comparison.

With a fatter budget and increased confidence Daniels take massive swings for the fences with their own indie flavored multiverse movie. Everything Everywhere All At Once is undeniably the product of two of the most inventive and unapologetically odd filmmakers running around Hollywood at the moment. It is also a rare casualty of production company A24’s artist-friendly approach. Unfettered weirdness mutates from exhilarating to eventually exhausting over the course of two long and chaotic hours.

In the off-kilter and unpredictable world of Daniels nothing is certain except death, taxes and this pesky thing called Jobu Tupaki, an anarchic entity intent on destroying literally everything in existence. The story centers on a Chinese-American family whose matriarch is unwittingly pulled into a confrontation with this threat. In acquiring all kinds of abilities and insight jumping in and out of the various lives she might have lived she becomes the only one who can stop it. However, her ability to succeed may well hinge on her willingness to make amends with those closest to her.

The simple yet heavy question “what if my life went differently” is at the heart of this highly cerebral and often ridiculous journey. When we first meet her, Evelyn Wang (a dynamic Michelle Yeoh) is not exactly living the high life. Struggling to make ends meet with her laundromat, she is preparing for an audit by the IRS (represented by an amusingly frumpy Jamie Lee Curtis) while nervously awaiting the arrival of her intimidating father Gong Gong (James Hong). All is not well on the home front either as husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), at wit’s end trying to make their life happy, trails her around with divorce papers. Meanwhile daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) wants to introduce Gong Gong to her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) but Evelyn doesn’t think that is a good idea.

There is enough tension and acrimony in the early going to serve a compelling family drama on network television. But this is Daniels, not This is Us, and so the film with all of its fantastical elements takes a rather circuitous route in elucidating what really matters. When we arrive at the IRS building the story takes on an entirely new life — The Matrix meets Boots Riley — and it’s as though Daniels have bailed on their early suggestion of more intimate drama. In an elevator, a transformation occurs and suddenly Evelyn’s pushover hubby becomes a kung fu master brimming with charisma. Like Morpheus, this more assertive Waymond from the “alpha-verse” has searched far and wide to find the right one for the job.

As it was with Swiss Army Man, the established rules and mechanisms that enable the action to tick forward can be challenging to accept. Here you’ll receive a crash-course in “verse-jumping,” learn what “mind-splintering” is (and perhaps, like me, experience it yourself) and encounter bagel-worshipping cults and people with hot dogs for fingers. Absurdism is part of the filmmakers’ appeal, but Everything Everywhere takes liberties with your goodwill — a moment in which a man flings himself across a room for the specific purpose of impaling himself on a sex toy seems like an easy cut to make.

Fortunately the performances are really good, particularly the dynamic between Yeoh and Quan. Together they imbue the narrative with just enough humanity to make the insanity relatable. Yeoh is a force to be reckoned with as she multitasks as both hero and an everywoman. Semi-retired actor Ke Huy Quan makes a triumphant return to the screen, falling toward the center of emotional devastation as a man who can’t imagine any version of his own life without his wife. As the daughter, Hsu fits in nicely as well, creating a character full of believable torment — a young woman caught between cultures who never seems to measure up to expectations.

Everything Everywhere toes the line between artistic freedom and pretentiousness. For all that this swirling mass of energy and ideas does differently and at times movingly, the cumulative effect is not entirely satisfying, the payoff frustratingly minimal for all the energy required to keep pace.

Gonna take this to another level.

Moral of the Story: Kung Fu Bagel. Enter the Bagel. Big Bagel in Little China. Whichever way you want to slice it, this crazy visual feast is unlike anything you’ll see this year. Personally, I don’t think the film’s messaging is particularly original or profound, but there’s certainly stuff here to strike an emotional chord. And I also do appreciate how the film’s conflict revolves around imperfect people vs chaos, rather than pure good vs pure evil. The villain(y) is refreshingly nuanced. 

Rated: R (for rocks!)

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Adam Project

Release: Friday, March 11, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Tropper; T.S. Nowlin; Jennifer Flackett; Mark Levin

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Zoe Saldaña; Mark Ruffalo; Catherine Keener; Jennifer Garner; Walker Scobell

 

 

 

**/*****

Shawn Levy’s sentimental time-traveling adventure The Adam Project is a Netflix “original” that stretches the term to its breaking point. The story it tells may be hopeful but from a creative standpoint it feels hopelessly generic.

The Adam Project revolves around the alluring idea of tinkering with the past in order to change an unpleasant future. Like Levy’s previous film, 2021’s Free Guy, the overall experience plays light on logic and heavy on the feels, except here the reliance upon deus ex machina is even more pronounced; this is time travel by way of Sterling Archer, a little more sober and polite perhaps, but no less farcical with the sheer number of things working out at just the right time, on the first try, on the last gasp of fuel.

Adam Reed (no, not that Adam Reed, but the one played by Ryan Reynolds) is a fighter pilot from the year 2050 who crash-lands in 2022 en route to 2018 where he hopes to find his missing wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña). She’s gone back to terminate an Evil Future Woman from taking over a time traveling device and using it for her own vaguely nefarious purposes. Adam’s plan is complicated when he realizes he has conveniently landed at the very location of his old house, a quaint little pocket in the woods where he encounters his pre-teen self (Walker Scobell).

Less convenient are the circumstances into which he has accidentally plopped himself down. It’s been about a year since the sudden death of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist, and both young Adam and his mother Ellie (a disappointingly under-used Jennifer Garner) are coping in their own way, which for the former means giving the latter a really hard time and making her worry about his future. Older Adam, nursing a wounded leg and stressing over his wife’s fate, lacks the temperament to deal with his younger self’s so-called problems and his many questions.

Two-time Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener meanwhile has ditched teacup-tapping hypnosis for an admin position at some Skynet-adjacent tech conglomerate. As the movie’s big bad, Maya Sorian, Keener hardly gets to demonstrate her abilities. (Although her character does pull double duty, manifested in the future and past — the “past version” being a poor CGI approximation that makes Rogue One-era Peter Cushing look like the Rolls Royce of digital renderings.)

The Adam Project is a diverting, fantastical adventure that, in its nascent stages, teases something special. In the end, and after so much disaster effortlessly averted, the one thing it cannot escape is its lazy, written-by-committee feel. Moving from one plot beat to the next like a tourist scooted on along by an impatient guide going through the motions, the writers seem more interested in silly song placement than getting serious about the implications of what they have set up. The film is amiable, in large part due to the cast, but it is also forgettable — a creative sin the previous Levy/Reynolds collaboration managed to avoid committing, if barely.

“No gamma rays?”
“No gamma rays.”

Moral of the Story: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two names that never appear in The Adam Project, but they’re two names I could not get out of my head all throughout, from certain action sequences to the tonality of some conversations and the sentimentality that is laid on pretty thick. Not a bad movie by any means, but like so many Netflix “originals” there is a lot of potential that goes unfulfilled. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I spent thirty years trying to get away from the me that was you and, I’ll tell you what, kid; I hate to say it, but you were the best part all along.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Studio 666

Release: Friday, February 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Jeff Buhler; Rebecca Hughes

Directed by: B.J. McDonnell

Starring: Dave Grohl; Taylor Hawkins; Pat Smear; Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel; Rami Jaffee; Jeff Garlin; Will Forte; Whitney Cummings; Leslie Grossman; Jenna Ortega

 

 

**/*****

In Memory of Taylor Hawkins (1972 – 2022)

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is a man possessed of more than musical talent in Studio 666, a gore-soaked, gleefully over-the-top horror comedy from director B.J. McDonnell, one in which the popular American rock band battles both creative droughts and supernatural forces during the recording of its tenth studio album.

With their obnoxious manager Jeremy (Jeff Garlin, one of the film’s few professional actors) breathing down their necks for the next hit, the Foos find themselves up against a wall as they brainstorm ideas for their landmark record. When they’re informed of a creepy old house in Encino, California, a sad-looking forties-era manor that has more than great acoustics going for it (and where the band put together its actual tenth album, 2021’s Medicine at Midnight), an optimistic Grohl jumps at the opportunity, enamored with the character of the place.

But as the band settles in the writer’s block hits hard and the typically ebullient musician starts to lose his cool, resorting to Youtube instructional videos and plagiarizing Lionel Richie all night long. Then he discovers a demo tape in the cellar, along with some other gubbins, and let’s just say things are never quite the same after that. As Grohl’s behavior deteriorates, a collective effort to complete a full-fledged record morphs into a nightmarish and one-sided obsession with finding an ending to a single song, a soul-sucking process that begins to tear the group apart figuratively and literally.

From electrocuted roadies and barbecued bandmates to decapitated delivery boys and mangled managers, this ridiculous horror-comedy makes sure you’ll remember the red syrupy stuff. Yet despite the former Nirvana drummer’s boundless supplies of energy and enthusiasm, Studio 666 fails to find a consistent rhythm with too many dead spots in the narrative where the camera just seems to roam the house, looking for something interesting to capture. Invariably the lightweight story meanders, leaving you with time to think about why John Carpenter’s score is more memorable than the music being produced by the actual musicians.

The writing doesn’t do the inexperienced actors many favors, either; drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and keyboardist Rami Jaffee are predictably (dare I say acceptably) wooden in moments of high drama but surprisingly are also unconvincing during the quieter moments where they’re just hanging out, the band’s natural, time-tested camaraderie coming across more forced than it ought to. By contrast Grohl rocks pretty hard, his notorious perfectionism making him an ideal candidate for the role of Obsessive Compulsive Psycho, one that is part-trope, part-send-up of the trials and tribulations the band went through when putting together their official debut album, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. 

Despite a nagging sense of unfulfilled potential, Studio 666 is a far cry from dire. Based on a story conceived by Grohl and written by Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes, this is a novelty film where you have no problem believing those involved had a blast making it, and occasionally that enthusiasm possesses us as well.

Killer riffs but where’s the soul?

Moral of the Story: Though Studio 666 couldn’t be much gorier, it could in many instances be funnier and more impactful. Diehard fans of the band however are going to have an easier time overlooking the things the movie does not do so well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “You’re my favorite band after Coldplay!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Red Notice

Release: Friday, November 5, 2021 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Ryan Reynolds; Gal Gadot; Ritu Arya; Chris Diamantopoulos 

 

 

 

**/*****

A red notice is associated with something of very high value, such as an art thief of international notoriety. It’s what INTERPOL uses to identify and/or extradite highly wanted suspects. If you haven’t heard, there’s one out for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who is guilty of making a very expensive heist comedy featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot feel cheap and lazy.

Originality is not the issue, although (and with due respect) it never has been with Thurber, who has set his sights on pure escapism and is now a three-time Dwayne Johnson collaborator. As his filmography has shown he’s a guy who likes to rub shoulders with big-name talent. But I’m not sure he’s ever rested on the laurels of his cast quite in the way he does here. Red Notice is expensive but creatively bankrupt — a two-plus-hour conveyor belt of farcical episodes that are forgotten as soon as they happen, all capped off by one of the most asinine endings you’ve seen in a while.

As the Cliff’s Notes prologue establishes, thousands of years ago some dude named Marc Antony gifted three bejeweled eggs to the war-mongering Cleopatra as a wedding gift and a symbol of his “devotion.” Don’t worry too much about brushing up on your Ptolemaic history though; this thing is mostly just jokes and good-looking actors being captured in the perfect light. In the present day, an Egyptian billionaire thinks it would be neat if he replicated the symbolic gesture for his daughter on her wedding day. Whoever can recover all three eggs and deliver them on the big day will become a very rich man or woman indeed. 

The leading trio has certainly ensured their own personal wealth, commanding $20 million a head, but we as viewers (or armchair critics) aren’t exactly enriched by watching reheated performances from other, better movies. This is the kind of pablum that tends to cool even the hottest of Hollywood celebs. Reynolds and The Rock do alright with the odd-couple dynamic but their characters are paper thin. Gadot fares better and seems like the only one who’s trying to do something more fun with her enigmatic character The Bishop, less a femme fatale as a rogue in rouge.

Thurber, who may never set the world on fire, knows how to make a good time happen but Red Notice finds him struggling to make a $200 million production come to life. Though DP Markus Förderer injects some energy with the rinse-and-repeat FPV drone shots that link us to every important place — we start in a priceless museum in Rome, make a daring prison escape in Russia, crash a masquerade ball in Valencia and dig into the rich history of Argentina’s underground, Nazi-stuff-stashing tunnels — the temperature in every room, or outside of them for that matter, remains the same. There is no tension to any of the developments, no significant stakes. But if you are looking for an obnoxious Ed Sheeran cameo, boy do I have the movie for you. 

The Bishop and her pawn

Moral of the Story: I was actually looking forward to Red Notice when it was first announced. Those expectations weren’t anything wild, but I also was not anticipating something so machine-processed. So for me it’s hard to overlook even the minor flaws. I very much doubt I’ll be wasting my time on the two sequels that are soon coming. I’ve done pretty well avoiding most of the crap that floats around on Netflix but this time their cute little algorithm got me. Looks like I’m the chump. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know who I am? I was in The Game of Thrones! I’m Ed Sheeran, bitch!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.imdb.com

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

One of the things that I really like about, you know, not setting any rules as to how I go about these actor profile things is that chronology is never an issue. I can jump and skip around in an actor’s filmography as if time never mattered (this post’s belated publishing is proof that it indeed doesn’t here on Thomas J). Picking and choosing roles more or less at random has been liberating. 

The time has finally come for a healthy discussion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (and thus far his only feature directing credit). Back in 2013 the amiable and ever-busy native Angeleno broke the ice with a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the sacrifices and benefits of relationships, taking a modern, sex-positive approach to the subject and the nuances thereof — the corrosive effects of pornography and pop culture on one’s expectations of real sex; the difference between genuine, emotional connection and the thrill of infatuation. 

Despite the film taking its title from the fictional and life-long womanizer Don Juan, a name used to pin down the general attitude of men devoted to the Lothario lifestyle, Levitt’s direction balances baser instincts with more complex feelings in a way that satisfies far more than it feels manipulative and cheesy. The cast is small but fantastic and, predictably, does great work with well-written characters.

Scarlett Johannson as Barbara Sugarman in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. (IMDb)

Character Background: Don Jon is a film with a strong personality. With it being set in a part of the country that also boasts a strong (some may say abrasive) personality, it’s no surprise the characters are going to let you know what’s on their mind, usually by yelling. Barbara Sugarman is a good example, a strong cuppa who isn’t afraid of dropping a few f-bombs in a sentence for proper emphasis. And really everything about her is emphatic: girl talks loud, walks fast and chews gum for the work-out. 

Barbara is a pretty shallow individual. She’s all about the artifice, how something appears rather than how it feels. One of the things that needs to be made clear is that Barbara is no villain, despite the character arc eventually pushing the viewer’s sympathies far more to Jon’s side. Not for nothing, she is very up-front about some of her principles. Don’t lie and everything will be all good. When Jon violates that simple rule, we understand her anger. What’s less reasonable is her expectation that relationships aren’t about work, it’s about comfort and pampering. Fine if you’re a Royal but in reality, at street-level, it takes two to make an effort and it would seem Barbara is putting in the wrong effort, or at least diverting her resources to the wrong cause.

Ultimately she is walking on a different side of the film’s thematic avenue. Unable to accept a man who prefers doing his own cleaning and taking care of his space, believing talking house chores is “unsexy,” Barbara fetishizes her knight in shining armor, attempts to contrive it in the same way Jon’s carefully curated collection of pornos has given him a far too specific code for stimulation. 

What she brings to the movie: Temptation. Sex appeal is largely the point of the character, though Barbara’s perfectly manicured image is also symptomatic of something rotten. Scarlett Johansson is of course the quintessential blonde bombshell but as this feature has gone to show she’s a talented actor capable of conveying depth across a diverse range of roles. So it’s almost anti-Johansson to take on a role that’s the very definition of the cliché of beauty being only skin deep. 

As a native New Yorker she also makes the thick Jersey accent easier to buy. It’s still affected, but is nowhere near as odd to hear as it is from her California-born co-star. 

In her own words: “I had romantic ideas when I was a kid. I don’t know, I always liked people who didn’t like me. I always wanted what I couldn’t have, and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is. It is something about our own ego, I think, it strokes our ego, the idea of the chase, the challenge. When you actually think about it realistically, would you ever want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”

Key Scene: An interesting moment, this one. Is this invasion of privacy? Or is that beside the point? Healthy debate time! Sound off in the comments. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of ScreenSlam 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Free Guy

Release: Friday, August 13, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Matt Lieberman; Zak Penn

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Taika Waititi; Joe Keery; Jodi Comer; Lil Rel Howery

 

 

 

***/*****

Following more the logic of the heart than the brain, Free Guy is a whacky but entertaining circus of big visual effects, videogame Easter eggs, and shameless (more like proud) product placement for parent company Disney, which now owns the world. It’s also the perfect environment for Ryan Reynolds to flourish, one in which cutting loose and just doing you is the whole point. Or was supposed to be!

The movie’s big draw is of course Ryan Reynolds doing his typical Ryan Reynolds thing, but this is also literally a love letter to gamers and coders. Being knowledgeable about technical stuff will surely elevate the experience though by no means is it a requisite. Free Guy takes a surprisingly high concept approach to a basic template. This is all about a guy (lowercase ‘g’) pursuing his dream girl, a pretty classic convention often obfuscated by all the chaos. Very little here is designed to be stored in the long-term memory. Instead director Shawn Levy and his writing team work overtime to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain as often as possible, injecting silliness, cartoonish violence and a surprising amount of heart into one hyperactive summer blockbuster.

In an open-world game called Free City, Guy (Reynolds) wakes up each morning in a Groundhog Day loop of obliviousness to what this place really is and his role in it. His best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery — Get Out; Bird Box), the cheerful security guard at the bank where Guy works as a teller. Neither has a clue that their lives are a programmed simulation. One day on his way to work he passes a woman humming a Mariah Carey tune and is smitten. He pursues her but unfortunately that train goes off the rails. However something profound has changed within him.

Molotov Girl’s the name and “Leveling Up” is the game he must play if he is to impress her. So of course the eternally upbeat and decreasingly naive Blue Shirt Guy plays along, but he won’t gain experience by doing what most players do — holding NPCs (non-player characters) hostage, blowing things up, generally being lawless savages. No, he’s going to do good deeds, a strategy that earns him Molotov Girl’s respect and a cult following. In fact he fast becomes a “player” of interest for many throughout the world plugged into Free City, represented in a series of stilted cameos by real YouTube celebrities and gamers.

His increasing autonomy also attracts the attention of game developer Antwan (Taika Waititi), for whom the brilliant code writers Keys (Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer — Killing Eve; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) work as dogs for their master. I mentioned before how very little is going to be remembered for long, and if you’re a fan of the Kiwi comedian that’s definitely a good thing. He’s actually pretty awful as the movie’s one-note villain whose whole deal is stealing other people’s work and being as insufferable as possible. In fairness, the character isn’t written to be anything more but his acting is of a quality where you suspect the director didn’t have the cohones to edit his Oscar-winner.

Maybe the director didn’t feel like meddling because he has so much on his plate. Free Guy is arguably over-ambitious, particularly considering a sequel has already been green-lit. What’s going to be left to tell? Yet for all that it is burdened with, the story moves pretty fluidly as it hops in and out of the game, an anarchic environment inspired by the likes of GTA, Fortnite and The Sims, with spirited input from the young Keery and Comer keeping us invested in the affairs of the real world. Concurrent to the Guy plot is a heist involving precious data which could incriminate Antwan and potentially save Free City from his future nefarious plans. To get there, Millie and Keys need to access a secret location called The Stash, and they could really use some help.

Combining the playground aesthetic of Ready Player One, the voyeurism of The Truman Show and The Matrix‘s march toward salvation, Free Guy is a Frankenstein of elements and homages that somehow ends up morphing into its own ridiculous thing. I mean, where else are you going to see Reynolds as an evil David Hasselhoff avatar whose coding is disturbingly incomplete and whose face is super-imposed on an actual bodybuilder? Okay, so I lied. That’s one thing you’re never going to forget from this movie.

Lucky Guy

Moral of the Story: Huge entertainment value trumps logical storytelling and one seriously annoying villain. Because I am a big fan of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic act Free Guy is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. It’s far from perfect but it is really fun and super easy to get along with, even for non-gamers such as myself. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Is this what recreational drugs feel like?”

Check out the pretty sweet new music video for Mariah Carey’s Fantasy here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent o the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; 20th Century Studios 

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.nytimes.com 

Jungle Cruise

Release: Friday, July 30, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Michael Green; Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Emily Blunt; Jesse Plemons; Jack Whitehall; Paul Giamatti; Édgar Ramírez

 

 

***/*****

The long, predictable meanders of the river are more enjoyable when you’ve got a good crew to float with. Such is the case with Jungle Cruise, a family-friendly adventure deeply indebted to the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, playing a mismatched pair on a dangerous mission deep into the heart of the Amazon circa the early 1900s.

Jungle Cruise remains rooted in classic adventure tropes even as the whole kit-and-caboodle swings wide of classic status and despite the expensive, flashy CGI ballast. There’s a map, a hidden treasure, cursed conquistadors (the film at its most unfortunate, casting a slew of Latinx actors, most notably Édgar Ramírez, and extras in thankless background roles smothered in digital Disneymagic), a bad guy after the same treasure, and even a wisp of romance, although this proves to be about the only thing Johnson and Blunt fail at as a team. Less trope-y is the characterization of the aforementioned competition, Jesse Plemons in fine bizarre form as a largely submarine-bound German memorably seen consulting a swarm of bees on navigational strategy.

On strategy, helming this old-school-feeling rig is director Jaume Collet-Serra, who sets aside his more violent filmmaking tendencies in favor of a breezy, good-natured bit of escapism where the exploration (and exploitation) of character foibles and differences outweigh more tangible narrative concerns. The plot finds Blunt’s danger-courting, pants-wearing Dr. Lily Houghton traveling to the Brazilian jungle in search of a riverboat captain willing to take her and her brother MacGregor (a third-wheeling but really fun Jack Whitehall) to the secret location of the Tears of the Moon, a mythical tree whose incandescent pink petals she believes could change the course of modern medicine and, thus, her status amongst her peers who all too happily laugh a lady out of any serious discussion. Meanwhile, Plemons’ Prince Joachim is hoping to get there first, thinking it could change Germany’s fortunes in the Great War.

Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a down-on-his-luck river guide with more puns in the bank than dollar bills, is motivated to journey down the Mighty Amazon due to his increasing debt to port manager Nilo (a haggard-looking Paul Giamatti). Naturally, personalities and philosophies clash immediately and about as comically as MacGregor’s wardrobe choices do with the climate. Along the way a mutual respect for one another is eventually gained. However, trust turns out to be more of an uphill battle for the Houghtons, who understandably tire of Frank’s penchant for pranking. As it turns out, there is more to Frank than deception and a pet jaguar.

Jungle Cruise is the latest in a line of movies “inspired by” real theme park rides. Like the actual Disney World attraction itself, for maximum enjoyment it helps to not get too curious about how the machinations work. Once you look over the sides and see the rails guiding the thing along a lot of the fun tends to get lost. Jungle Cruise is a cash grab but there are certainly more cynical ones out there.

So quiet you can’t even hear the critics chirping

Moral of the Story: I’m not sure I should be admitting this, but I actually got to experience this movie in an empty theater. Much to my surprise, it didn’t make much of a difference. Jungle Cruise, like many a Marvel movie, just seems like it would play better to a packed house. And it probably still does. Yet it speaks to the charisma of the two leads that I had a good time anyway. Plus the beer probably didn’t hurt (Señor Krunkles IPA — pretty sweet, hoppy and fruity. Made for a great pairing.)  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I had a girlfriend once, she was cross-eyed. Didn’t work out. We could never see eye to eye!”

Check out the creepy-crawly jungle-brawly trailer here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actionra.com 

Werewolves Within

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Mishna Wolff

Directed by: Josh Ruben

Starring: Sam Richardson; Milana Vayntrub; Wayne Duvall; Rebecca Henderson

 

 

 

 

 

***/*****

A little niceness goes a long way in Werewolves Within, a new horror-comedy from director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff. That’s a very welcomed message right now, though not one I was expecting to take away from a werewolf-themed horror-comedy.

Werewolves Within is an oddball film with a big heart that mixes horror and comedy elements together pretty well, if not always smoothly. I’d say the mix is more like 60/40, in favor of the laughter. The story it tells is actually an adaption of a 2016 virtual reality game that requires participants to piece together clues to figure out who among them (i.e. the crazy townsfolk) is the literal wolf in human clothing. On screen the concept comes to life as an Agatha Christie murder mystery to be solved by the underdog squad of Parks & Rec, with maybe some assistance from the Trailer Park Boys. As such, the movie isn’t as interested in the werewolves (sorry, lycanthropes) and their mythology as it is in the human residents and the baggage they carry.

Set in the fictional Vermont village of Beaverfield, Werewolves Within follows friendly forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson — The Tomorrow War; VEEP) as he digs into the mystery surrounding some strange goings-on around the sleepy community. Having left his previous post behind due to some mishap, Finn appears on the scene as a nice guy who may be out of his depth but genuinely wants to help. However he’ll need some himself if he wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this cold and isolated place, with dead bodies turning up under porches and inexplicable damage done to town property.

The movie kicks off spiritedly as he meets his first friend in the local mail delivery person Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, a.k.a. AT&T’s spokesperson Lily). She happily agrees to show him (us) the town and its interesting assortment of characters. The ensuing cavalcade is pretty in-your-face weird: Trisha (Michaela Watkins) wants you to like her bar soap sculptures as much as she does while her hubby Pete (Michael Chernus) has a side hustle in being a creep. A block later or something town mechanics Gwen (Sarah Burns — Barry; I Love You, Man) and Marcus (George Basil) are having a very public, very verbally graphic spat, and soon after that we’re intruding upon Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and his husband Joaquim (Harvey Guillén — What We Do in the Shadows – TV; The Internship) as they get their yoga on in their private studio.

Subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit. I fully admit I may be susceptible to some serious post-COVID cynicism — it’s going to happen with many a movie going forward, I’m sure — but let’s not forget how opportunistic Hollywood writers can be, either. The pandemic is the mother of all elephants in the room, and so it becomes difficult not to associate the supernatural threat and the panic and speculation it causes — “It’s a possum!” — with certain real-world traumas. Or the finger-pointing and spear-chucking of opinions as everyone huddles together at the Beaverfield Inn after a power outage as a simulation of the grenade-pin tension of our locked-down lives. Of course, not everything is symbolic but a lot of it feels that way.

We quickly learn that everyone in town has been on edge even before Finn arrived, not because of some clawed beast but due to a proposed oil pipeline that Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), a big man with big pockets (and big guns) wants to run through the area. The development could bring the town much needed revenue, but it would also intrude upon national park land. His presence particularly bothers Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), an environmentalist who lacks people skills in the extreme and has this knack for appearing out of nowhere. Their ideological differences form the destabilizing base upon which this fun but familiar whodunnit builds off of, with red herrings, red stains and rednecks all playing a part in the misdirection.

Fortunately, and I reiterate that this is technically an adaptation of a game, none of the Real World stuff is brought to bear in a particularly confrontational way. Werewolves Within is, for the most part, a laidback, low-stakes movie that is more interested in being silly than serious. This underdog tale may not make you howl with laughter or wince in horror but its entertainment value is surprisingly solid and positive, its characters deliciously unhinged. Less a battle of good and evil as it is one between kindness and mean-spiritedness.

That’s . . . uh, not kindling . . .

Moral of the Story: A whodunnit that goes through some growing pains to become a great deal of fun thanks to its OTT, zany characters. Plot-wise you’ve seen it before but there’s a surprising message of unity and compassion that I just was not expecting.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Well . . . the roads are effed and there’s something wrong with the generator.”

Peep the Official Trailer from IFC Films here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.slashfilm.com