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 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #10

Unlike certain things that are going on right now, this feature is indeed finally coming to an end. Believe it or not, the idea was not to drag this feature on until forever. (If you’re curious as to how things typically work, you can check the main Actor Profile page here.) Here we are at the end of a second year, finally bidding adieu to one of the most popular movie stars of this generation.

Setting my idealism aside, I am excited to have seen this latest project through and to have had so much good feedback on the roles I have chosen to cover. Unfortunately what ended up happening as far as role selection is concerned was not what I had intended, either; the original plan was to crowdsource ideas for which roles should be covered and then work from those, perhaps providing a link to the blogger’s site (should they have one) from the post they inspired me to create. In the end I inadvertently passed on an opportunity to build community by going with my own choices. It was never my intention to ignore others’ suggestions.

Besides, I’m 100% positive this suggestion would have made its way into the mix, some way, some how. Let’s be honest, you can’t really talk about certain actors without also considering their contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cinematic landscape has been changed forever with Jon Favreau’s template-setting Iron Man in 2008. The prestige casting has only intensified since Robert “Sundance” Redford decided to loosen his tie and join the fun by playing Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The end credits of Black Widow, as an even more bizarre example, features Julia Louis-Dreyfus for crying out loud. One wonders, when all is said and done, what self-respecting Hollywood actor will have actually failed to have landed an MCU gig of some kind, if not on the big screen then on the small. Of course, that’s with the presumption the MCU is a finite thing. 

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow 

Role Type: Lead

Premise: Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. (IMDb)

Character Background: Born in Russia in 1984, orphaned as a child and trained up to become a KGB spy through a brainwashing program targeting young women, Natasha Romanoff lived quite the complicated life. Or, as Cate Shortland’s Black Widow suggests, perhaps it was two lives, what with her being part of two adoptive families — one a little indie start-up you might know as the Avengers and the other a trio of Russian sleeper agents posing as American expats in suburban Ohio.

Making her MCU début in Iron Man 2 as a flirty undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was clearly never going to be just a simple foil for Tony Stark (or a sex object for that matter), the enigmatic redhead quickly became a fundamental part of the MCU fabric, earning increased screen minutes in The Avengers (2012) and notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evolving from a sidekick to a significant role player in the process. Natasha Romanoff may be without superhuman or godly powers but her speed and brutality in hand-to-hand combat make her a force to be reckoned with — skills that are put on full display in her long-overdue solo film (not to mention, her propensity for dramatic fight stances).

Age of Ultron provided a glimpse of her past trauma as the team collectively reeled under hallucinations brought on by an enraged Wanda Maximoff, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 2021 that the specifics of that past would be brought into the full light (or in this case, dark) of day. Black Widow is the film that acquaints us with Natasha’s original adopted family — a true highlight being the dynamic between her and “sister” Yelena — as well as the source of her torment, the hissable spymaster Dreykov, the man who turned an entire generation of women into weapons.

And although the chronology remains an annoyance there is at least a sense of evolution with the way themes of independence and control are evolved through the character’s actions here. In Black Widow Natasha makes the decision to stop retreating from and instead start running toward those who oppress her, aspiring not only to rid herself of Dreykov but free all those still under his influence. Even if the thing that she must do in order to achieve her goal feels disappointingly been-there-done-that, in becoming a leader of women and an inspiration to her “sister,” Natasha’s arc feels emotionally and psychologically complete.

What she brings to the movie: Pathos, pride and consistency. I’d wager no two actors are more inseparable from their MCU personalities than Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. I say this in full recognition of all the fascinating roles she has made her own throughout a box office smashing career. Across an eight-film arc spanning more than a decade — nearly a third of her big screen career — Johansson has quite literally grown up with the character, one who has often been at the center of some of the most dramatic moments in the Infinity Saga. To say she knows Natasha well by the time Black Widow rolls around is some kind of understatement. 

It’s in her solo film where that comfort level is most felt, as we get to see Johansson flex more than her muscles in what has always been a physically demanding role. The weariness and cynicism in her performance feels true to where the character is at this point in time, itinerant and alone; down but hardly out. She also has this fantastic chemistry with Florence Pugh that makes this film human in ways it might not have been with different actors.  

In her own words: “When you find her in the beginning [of Black Widow] she’s just broken. By the end of the film the goal is to put her back together different than before, you know? I think Natasha has a lot of compassion and that’s not necessarily what I would have anticipated when we were filming Iron Man 2 or Avengers or whatever. You’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed over time, as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different instillaments, but she’s a very compassionate person and that passion is actually what drives a lot of her decision making. I mean, she’s also practical and pragmatic and I don’t think those two things have to necessarily work against each other. That part of her is what really touches me.”

Key Scene: A brutal trip down memory lane. There are so many good scenes between Johansson and Florence Pugh but one of the more poignant is this exchange between Johansson and Rachel Weisz, as the two reminisce over fake Christmases, fake traditions, fake family memories. It’s perhaps not a signature action scene but I’m always for the more grounded, human moments and this one’s a memorable one. 

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: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of Ashley Robinson/Collider 

In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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.movieinsider.com 

The Tomorrow War

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021 (Amazon Prime)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Zach Dean

Directed by: Chris McKay

Starring: Chris Pratt; Sam Richardson; Yvonne Strahovski; Betty Gilpin; J.K. Simmons; Edwin Hodge

 

 

***/*****

The creatures at the center of Chris McKay’s fast-moving and action-packed sci-fi blockbuster are microcosmic of the overall experience of The Tomorrow War. You can’t take your eyes off them despite how familiar they are, an amalgam of iconic elements and concepts from bigger, more famous genre titles of years past.

It’s not looking good for us humble humans in the year 2051. The global population reduced to something in the hundreds of thousands, we’re well on our way to losing the war against the Whitespikes, a race of vicious creatures who look like some hybrid between H.R. Giger’s beloved Xenomorphs and the chaotic Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In a last ditch effort, future people are time-traveling back to our reality to recruit citizens into the war effort because we regular Joes are literally the last line of defense. May as well cancel the sunrise at this point.

The gregarious Chris Pratt is our ticket in to experiencing this future hellscape for ourselves, charged with leading a platoon on what essentially amounts to a suicide mission into a world overrun with beasts that move with alarming agility and aggression and have this nasty tendency to shoot spikes from tentacled appendages. Pratt again proves to be a supportable hero though this time he disconnects more from his goofball persona to slip into the fatigues of career-depressed Dan Forester, a retired Green Beret now itching to retire from the grind of teaching high school biology to disinterested students.

Too ‘average’ to fit in at the Army Research Lab, Dan is handed (more like strong-armed into) an opportunity to fulfill a destiny, if not also risk his sanity. His number gets called and despite the protestations of his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin — redeemed) whose experience as a therapist for returning survivors gives her a good idea of the best case scenario, he’s quickly on board for a one-week tour of duty in which the survival rate hovers at a miserable 30%. Those who do survive get beamed back to the present day from wherever they happen to be at the time. While a pre-jump exchange feels shortchanged between Dan and his estranged father James (a beefed-up J.K. Simmons), whose methods of dealing with his own PTSD have never sat right with his son, leaving behind his bright daughter Muri (a wonderful Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the tear-jerking moment Zach Dean’s pedestrian screenplay flubs the most.

This brief snapshot of an average family life discarded with, we plunge headlong into the film proper, to the part everyone is anticipating. Blasting through the most hurried boot camp you’ve ever seen — mostly a loading platform where we pick up fellow goofball Sam Richardson as the nervous chatterbox Charlie and a dead-serious Edwin Hodge as Dorian, a jaded warrior on his third tour — we’re soon dumped unceremoniously onto the terrifying field, a visually stunning combo of war-ravaged metropolis, oceanic fortress and gorgeous locales both tropical and tundral. The future-world sets are the film’s best assets, a series of battlegrounds rendered both foreign and familiar and across which we rip on a death-defying mission to find the almighty toxin that can bring down these bastards once and for all.

In reaching for Interstellar-levels of wisdom director Chris McKay, in his first live-action feature film, misses the mark with only broad gestures toward its themes of redemption and familial sacrifice. After barely surviving Miami Beach and awakening in a military compound in the Dominican Republic Dan is brought face-to-face with a challenge greater than the physical ordeal. Australian actor Yvonne Strahovski ironically puts in the most emotional performance as the hardened Colonel Forester, who gives her trusted soldier plenty to think about à la Matthew McConaughey as his lonely little self slipped, preposterously, toward the singularity-cum-bookshelf.

Yes, almost by definition even the best sci fi are inherently ridiculous. Unfortunately The Tomorrow War lacks the emotional gravity and force of personality that can distract from overthinking. This is a blockbuster designed to keep your eyes busy and your analytical mind at bay. The film editors are key, masterfully sowing together the three major movements into one kinetic, fast-moving machine whose biggest malfunction is being forgettable pablum.

The Tomorrow War is likable, lively but ultimately shallow. However you could do a lot worse for an unwitting hero and for a piece of home entertainment. As yet another casualty of the COVID disruption, this two-hour wow-fest is found exclusively on Amazon Prime and is bound to rattle walls with its unrelenting energy.

“I’m court marshaling you for your Thanos-related antics. You really could have cost us, buddy.”

Moral of the Story: The living room may not be the ideal environment in which to take in a movie of such size and scale — The Tomorrow War is Amazon’s biggest film purchase ever, priced at an eye-popping $200 mil — but the convenience factor makes this derivative sci-fi yarn more attractive. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins. 

Quoted: “If there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s scientists. We cannot stop innovating. That’s how you solve a problem.” 

Check out the (really long) Final Trailer from Amazon Prime 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; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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 

Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow 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.forbes.com

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.


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

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

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: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Terminator: Dark Fate

Release: Friday, November 1, 2019

→On Demand 

Written by: David Goyer; Justin Rhodes; Billy Ray

Directed by: Tim Miller

Terminator: Dark Fate is the best installment in the series since Judgment Day and it’s not even close. That said, having never been a die-hard I have gotten along pretty well with most* of the sequels, even the mind-bendingly-complex-and-not-in-a-good-way Terminator Genisys, so what do I know?

One thing I know is that this movie was fated to be poorly received. Faith in this once glorious franchise has been steadily eroding ever since we entered the 2000s. In 2019, oh how the mighty have fallen: In America Dark Fate basically flat-lined, barely recouping a quarter of its $185 million budget. Losses for the studios involved topped $130 million. That’s even more damning considering it is directed by the guy who made Deadpool. It seems this female-led retcon of one of the most convoluted storylines in franchise filmmaking history** was destined to become the next Terminator film to disappoint. The question was whether it would disappoint in the same way or if it would mix things up by being disappointing in other areas.

Dark Fate, in fact, does neither. Director Tim Miller and his writing team create a solid action movie underpinned by relevant themes and bolstered by the welcomed return of original characters plus a few memorable new ones. James Cameron also resurfaces as producer, ensuring fidelity to not just the general formula that brought tremendous fame to the doorstep of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, but specifically to  style and tonality. Bitter and violent but with a streak of humor persisting through all the hardscrabble survival shit (mostly at the expense of Arnie, but hey it’s welcomed), the story is stripped down and actually coherent. The action is visceral and the acting frequently intense.

Twenty-five years after Sarah Connor thwarted Judgment Day, and the future is repeating itself anyway. The details are almost a matter of semantics; instead of Skynet, there is now Legion. Somewhere along the line, someone screwed up. Artificial intelligence gained the upper hand. The machines have once again sent back in time a representative to crush a human uprising before it can even begin. This upgraded model of terminator called the Rev-9, besides sounding like a new line of Mazda sport car, makes the T-1000 obsolete. He is played coolly (and cold-bloodedly) by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ghost Rider Gabriel Luna. His mission is to track down and eliminate the de facto new John Connor — a teenage girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who lives an unassuming life as a factory worker in Mexico City.

This is of course the part where you’re expecting Arnie’s T-800 to drop out of thin air to protect the girl, kick some robot ass and maybe disappear from whence he came (or into a vat of liquid metal). But like with the androids we carry around in our pockets some updates are more significant than others. Arnie is indeed back, not with a vengeance but rather a conscience. Filling in his old shoes is a hybrid of human and terminator not-so-subtly named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She has also been sent back to convince Dani of her role in the human resistance while also contending with unexpected roadblocks, such as Sarah Connor and her own beliefs in fate.

No, this movie does not throw heavy punches of originality. Signature one-liners, even when delivered by the legendary Linda Hamilton, feel like hand-me-downs rather than organic reactions. It’s not like this latest chapter doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. Dark Fate carries some heavy emotional baggage and the script occasionally hits some poignant notes as its leading trio of women confront loss and grief. That weight is mostly shouldered by the older and wiser Sarah Connor and her complicated relationship with the T-800 but it’s also a pain shared by all involved, whether that’s Dani receiving a brutal crash course in terminator-human relationships or Grace recounting her experiences of surviving the apocalypse through flashback.

Retreading old footsteps does not make a movie bad however. It’s when directors and producers forsake the spirit of the original in an attempt to chart a new course that often leads to trouble. Dark Fate is made with an obvious reverence for Cameron’s seminal sequel. I consider its familiarity a strength. And if indeed it is the last hurrah (and it sure looks that way) I would also consider it an homage to greatness. If given a choice between a safe and familiar package and a narrative so convoluted you don’t even care where or when you are on the timeline, I will always choose the former.

* all except salvation. nope, can’t do it. it’s bad when a movie’s best scene is that artfully edited together clip of Christian Bale going berserk on set 
** DARK FATE, in acting AS A DIRECT SEQUEL TO JUDGMENT DAY, BOLDLY — AND WISELY — ERASES EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE 1991, EXcepT THE AFOREMENTIONED and iconic meltdown 

Two headaches for the price of a not-even-wanted one

Recommendation: I think the mileage you get out of this one really depends on whether you think the homage is unwarranted or if it is kinda cool. Or, indeed, if you even view it as an homage. Genisys was, by comparison, a regrettable reboot of the series with a young Sarah Connor and it technically introduced the dad-joke-making Terminator, so you can’t go around blaming Dark Fate for that. This movie undoes all of that stuff, all the way back to Rise of the Machines. I think it is a big shame there will be no future installments as I really enjoyed this cast and seeing Hamilton back in action was really satisfying. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you believe in fate, Sarah? Or do you believe we can all change the future every second by every choice that we make? You chose to change the future. You chose to destroy Skynet. You set me free. Now, I’m going to help you protect the girl, because I chose to.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb