Blockers (2018)

Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.

Nate’s Grade: B

Advertisements

Super Troopers 2 (2018)

Sixteen years after the original film, Super Troopers 2 is coming to theaters thanks to a record-breaking campaign on the fundraising site Indiegogo. The comedy team, Broken Lizard, finds itself somewhat in a similar lace Rob Thomas and the Veronica Mars team did after their successful Kickstarter haul got them a feature film. It’s primarily the fans that have supplied the funds for the project, and in doing so proven a viable audience for any other potential future financial backers. Therefore, when the finished product comes together, are you designing the movie for that core base of fans that may or may not be looking for more of what they enjoyed the first time around. Does servicing the fans outweigh telling something original and expanding the brand? Credit to the Broken Lizard team that very few of the jokes from the first film are outright repeated and there are sparing references in general to the earlier movie. Super Troopers 2 exists on its own merits; however, it feels like a shaggy, and amiable if mostly lackluster comedy.

In the years since the first film, the state troopers for Vermont have been reassigned to a new task. The Canadian border is being renegotiated, and a swath of Canada is now going to be declared American territory. The troopers, Mac (Steve Lemme), Rabbit (Erik Stolhanske), Thorny (Jay Chandrasekhar, also serving as director again), Foster (Paul Soter), and Farva (Kevin Hefferman), are reunited with their old Captain (Brian Cox) and entrusted by the Governor (Lynda Carter) and a local, small town mayor (Rob Lowe) with upholding law and order. The guys uncover a smuggling conspiracy that plans on using the switching border to great financial gain, but mostly they just mess with people.

All the guys are back and they’re back to their old hijinks and now they’re all pushing fifty, which makes things feel a little weird. The Super Troopers style of comedy is pretty juvenile, silly, slapstick-heavy, with the occasional meta-textual aside. It’s a low-key sort of comedy that provides chuckles but rarely the bigger, memorable laughs. Your mileage will vary, as all comedies do, but I chuckled about five to ten times in the movie. There are a couple solid running jokes that are nicely set up for payoffs, like an oft-referred to tragic accident involving Fred Savage and the troopers. There are glimpses of a stranger, more interesting comedy here that will never be seen, like an opening segment that takes some unexpected turns. The Super Troopers 2 that ends up on screen feels a bit like a flailing act that is still trying to find laughs after the joke ends.

The plot doesn’t matter in this kind of movie so much as the jokes, and the quality of jokes is rather mediocre, falling back on tired tropes and dated stereotypes. The jokes about Canada rehash lots of well-worn clichés about our neighbors to the north (hockey, vowels, politeness, hockey). Here’s an example of the untapped potential for the comedy. There’s a funny bit where Farva goes to a local restaurant, discovers a buy-ten-liters-get-a-free-dessert punch card offer, and orders ten liters of soda to drink all at once. It’s drawn out in a way that feels like it’s going to be the setup for a big punch line. The man has ten liters of soda occupying his bladder. I’m thinking maybe Farva’s powerful stream of urine will save the day unexpectedly from the villains at a fortunate moment. At least something, right? All that happens is he’s later seen peeing in the woods. That’s it. Why even bother with something as outlandish as this setup if there is no inspired payoff?

Worse, there are entire lanes of humor that feel painfully dated, unfunny, and like leftovers from an earlier version of the script from the early 2000s. Thorny becomes addicted to female hormone pills (“Flova Scotia”) and behaved with tired gender tropes like becoming overly emotional and bitchy (see, it’s funny because… that’s what ladies… yeah…). It’s Thorny’s whole character for the movie and it feels so depressingly lazy. You get a sense that everyone was so happy to be back together that the comedy development took a back seat to the fun of the reunion. It feels like a loose collection of untapped comedy premises. Super Troopers 2 has a lot of free time and for a good while becomes a wacky, prank battle between the Americans and Canucks. It’s just that a group of fifty-year-old dudes behaving like children can come across as past its prime comedy without further characterization.

As someone who found the original Super Troopers to be overrated, what saved the sequel for me was the exuberance of the performances to balance out the lackluster laughs. The Broken Lizard guys have built up an outstanding chemistry and camaraderie together over the course of several decades. These guys an be very funny and they go above and beyond to sell their zany jokes and larger-than-life characters, best typified with Hefferman (Sky High). Farva is meant to be obvious, obnoxious, and buffoonish, and my God does Hefferman seem to be exploding with energy. His spirited line readings seem to exercise every muscle in his face. It’s so committed and enthusiastic that Hefferman elevates okay jokes into newly funny jokes. In a similar fashion, the Canadian side characters played by Will Sasso, Tyler Labine, and Hayes MacArthur provide some genuine laughs from their hyperactive and at times incomprehensible cartoon Mounties. Every time they were onscreen I knew I would, at minimum, be amused. Watching skilled performers have fun and actually put forth a worthy effort is a recipe that can make an otherwise boring comedy worth watching, and that’s Super Troopers 2. I must also add that the Broken Lizard guys have aged tremendously well and look remarkably similar to how they did in the mid 2000s. Chandrasekhar even appears shirtless and with a toned physique. Again, all pushing fifty. Congrats on the amazing genetics, gang.

The Broken Lizard guys may have not had a comedy released since 2009’s The Slammin’ Salmon and haven’t had a theatrically released film since 2006’s Beerfest. Perhaps their time of relevance as a comedic group has come and gone, so it makes sense to go back to their biggest hit. The original Super Troopers may have been their breakout but I still find their first film, 1996’s Puddle Cruiser, as the group’s best. It’s a sweet rom-com with enjoyable characters and wit. I’ve enjoyed the ideas and performances in several of their movies, but their first film managed to bring it all together the best (I think the crazier Beerfest is their second best). Even with lesser material, the Broken Lizard guys have a genial, likable screen chemistry that can smooth over comedy misfires and dropped potential. Super Troopers 2 is like a reheated meal you remember enjoying but lacks that same sense of flavor. You could do worse but you could also certainly do better.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rampage (2018)

Rampage is exactly as advertised, a big, dumb monster movie based upon a flimsy premise of an arcade smash-‘em-up, and it’s also just about everything you’d ask it to be. This movie is ridiculous, no question, but I walked away feeling like the filmmakers recognized this and embraced its ridiculousness.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo. His prized primate, an albino gorilla named George, is undergoing very dramatic changes. A canister of secret genetic-altering gas has fallen from a scientific space station, landing in George’s gorilla pen, the hills of Montana, and in the Everglades. Separately, a wolf and a crocodile are rapidly growing in size, as is George, who is also becoming more aggressive and violent. Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) is a disgraced scientist who may know how to reverse the changes. The U.S. government, lead by Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), relocates George to a government lab; however, he breaks loose midair. He and the other monstrous animals are heading to Chicago, lured by a signal intentionally staged to draw them in one very smashable location.

It’s not exactly a winking, satirical statement on the monster movie genre, but I think Rampage is still self-aware. Take for instance what befalls The Rock. His character is literally shot in the gut (no exit wound) and miraculously recovers and runs through crumbling buildings, leaps over rubble, tussles with giant monsters, and even outruns them on the ground, and is thrown this way and that. This happens for the entirety of the last act while, and I don’t think I can stress this enough, A BULLET IS STILL LODGED INSIDE HIS CHEST CAVITY. However, he is The Rock, our modern equivalent to a living Superman, so the movie shrugs and asks us to just go along with it, and because I was entertained I did. There were several moments where I just shrugged and said, “Sure, let’s do that,” but usually these decisions were in the service of the blockbuster elements that I would want to see with this kind of premise. It’s silly and stupid and baffling at times, but Rampage knows what elements to pump up and what elements an audience won’t really care about. The villain’s plot is completely nonsensical and amounts to, “Step 1) lure the giant monsters to one central tower in Chicago, Step 2) ?, and Step 3) profit.” I have no idea what they were hoping to accomplish but their lamebrain thinking efficiently facilitated the monsters getting closer to peak smashing form.

You can look at three performances to get a sense of those who understand the big, dumb, fun movie they’re in, and those who have misjudged what kind of movie they’re in. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TV’s Walking Dead) knows exactly what kind of movie he is starring in and has the time of his life as a scenery chewing, gun slinging, folksy quipping cartoon. Every scene he slides into, the man has a gleeful glint in his eye at what he gets to do. You almost expect like a musical motif to accompany him every time on screen. It’s enough that you think he might just strut off into another movie all his own. On the opposite end are the film’s villains, callous, rich, and almost bumbling in their sense of evil. To their credit, Malin Akerman (TV’s Billions) and Jake Lacy (TV’s I’m Dying Up Here) are mostly meant to verbalize their villainy for the audience. Whenever we cut back to them, the brother and sister are helpfully explaining the lengths of their scheme. Lacy is goofy dumb and relatively useless outside of deliverer of exposition. Akerman fares worse trying to be a no-nonsense bitch of business and is far too serious. When both of these actors are onscreen, the movie powers down, sapping its fun. When Morgan appears, it’s like Rampage can once again be the big, dumb, fun movie we crave.

Unexpectedly, the best relationship in the movie is that of The Rock and a giant CGI albino ape, proving once again that Johnson’s charming bonafides know no limits. George the gorilla is given far more nuance than any of the other supporting characters, which isn’t saying much, yet Johnson’s charisma is able to lift all on screen partners. Their funny, warm-hearted relationship may actually stir some emotions in you come its heroic climax, and that by itself is astounding. Johnson’s character back-story is kept to a relative minimum as not to gum up the narrative expediency (he prefers animals over people, but not in… that way). He’s a reliable anchor for audience engagement that he can sell the most ridiculous, as detailed above. It’s been quite an ascent for Johnson over the course of the last ten years, and my pal Dan Nye observed that he’s now been playing actual characters rather than recognizable versions of himself. Davis Okoye is more or less The Rock: Zoologist, but it’s still a welcomed development. The Rock could star alongside an actual rock and glue your eyes to the screen.

The special effects are also quite good for this sort of brainless caper. George comes across as a genuine creature, not necessarily with the depths of say Andy Serkis’ Caesar, but what CGI-performance does? The computer effects do an excellent job of communicating actor Jason Liles’ (Death Note) mo-cap performance and make the big guy sympathetic even as he rages out. I enjoyed that, much like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, the animals are not necessarily demonized for behaving like nature intended. They’re creatures undergoing a change they cannot understand and acting accordingly like animals would. The crocodile is impressive for its evolutionary mutations and textured, especially when we see its gaping mouth open.

As far as its stated mission, Rampage smashes things up but good. Director Brad Peyton showed with 2015’s San Andreas that he’s essentially the diet version of Roland Emmerich, and that’s okay. The action is fun above all else and Peyton prefers long visible shots. If we’re going to see a bunch of monsters, let’s actually see them (ahem, 2014 Godzilla). I felt like Peyton was far more invested in this movie and his shot selections finding interesting arrangements, like a slow-mo shot of jaws snapping together on a passing fighter plane. Peyton understands the significance of scale, letting the sheer size of the monsters communicate the immeasurable danger. There’s an early confrontation with the giant wolf in a Wyoming forest that’s chaotic, suspenseful, and demonstrates how freaking fast these creatures can be at their size. A prologue in space is genuinely thrilling and the zero gravity aerobatics provide an extra feeling of helplessness against a mutant attacker. By the end, when all three monsters descend on Chicago, Rampage becomes the popcorn movie experience that it has promised.

Nobody is going to label Rampage as a smart movie but it is aware of what it is. This is a big, dumb movie that aspires to merely be an awesome big, dumb movie, and that prioritized sense of fun pervades the relatively fast-paced film. The Rock is running around with his hulking ape-bro and wrecking havoc. This is the kind of movie where a giant gorilla mimes the universal physical symbol for sexual congress. This is the kind of movie where they feed a person to that giant gorilla. This is also the kind of movie where The Rock has a bullet lodged in his gut for the entire climax. This is a movie that has no airs about it and simply wants to entertain a mass audience. The Rock is a consistently charming and very capable action lead, and the relationship he has with his giant ape-bro is surprisingly chummy and sweet. If you’re looking for a monster movie that has no embarrassment about what it is, let alone being based on an arcade game, then Rampage is going to be a stupidly enjoyable time out at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Quiet Place (2018)

I’m going to write a sentence I’ve never written in my history of writing about film: make sure you get all the gas out of your system before sitting down to watch A Quiet Place in the theater. This intense little thriller relies upon a nearly silent film experience which makes you, in the audience, hyper aware of just about every little noise permeating your surroundings. Munching popcorn, opening candy wrappers, brief coughs, you’ll become highly attuned to the faintest of noises. This is why you, dear reader, should be advised to make sure you have no bodily gasses stored in your system. Unless that’s your plan all along, to break the tension with a well-timed expelling of flatulence, going from screening to screening, finding new purpose with being that guy, eating plates of beans in preparation for the long withholding. With all that being said, A Quiet Place is an ingenious little thriller with near flawless execution.

It’s over a year into a world overrun by monsters that are trained to attack the smallest of sounds. What’s left of humanity has had to adapt to a very quiet way of life. The Abbott family has ironically be given a head start to adapt into this scary new world that prioritizes silence. Lee (John Krasinski, also co-writer and director) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have a daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, so the family has learned to communicate via sign language. The family walks barefoot on paths of sand and resides in a farmhouse on the edge of a rural community. The Abbott clan is still overcoming the loss of their youngest child who, at and innocent and naïve four years old, was taken by the monsters. Now Evelyn is expecting a new child and the Abbotts must stick together if they are going to survive.

A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. The emptiness of the aural landscape creates a template to build upon, so that any small noise feels like an alarm to the sense. The gripping sound design brings a sense of the looming dangers as we hear the thundering claps and crashes of the monsters approach. Krasinski also very cleverly communicates the world from Regan’s deaf perspective. When the camera focuses on her, the sound levels drop entirely, and then when another character is onscreen, they rise back up. It’s an extremely effective and smart way to drop the audience into her vulnerable position.

This is a movie that sets up the stakes upfront. A young child dies for doing something stupid but entirely in character for a young child (whom I’m assuming never personally encountered these creatures). A Quiet Place establishes immediately that this new world is unforgiving of mistakes. A distracted mind, a false step, a sudden impulse, and anyone can be gone forever.

Like the similarly themed Don’t Breathe, the fun is setting up the world, the playing space, and the rules, and then watching it all play out. A Quiet Place does a great job of establishing its world and surroundings and once the action hits midway through it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Fortunately, the thrills never get old too because Krasinski and the other screenwriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, keep finding new and intelligent challenges to explore. The pieces all add up and the details make this world feel extremely well realized, from the marked squeaky floorboards to the routines if separated to the colored warning lights. The tension is already at a constant simmer from its very effective opening sequence that sets the mood. A simple exposed nail on a stair can be a returning point of tremendous uncertainty time and again. The very presence of a pregnancy with a looming due date feels like a bomb waiting to explode. How in the world will a baby be born in a world that punishes sound? I watched this movie with my hand covering my mouth for a far majority of it. Even the jump scares feel well distributed and earned in this movie. Mostly, it’s a film that makes you twist in that delicious sense of anxiety as you wait. It’s nerve-rattling in the best possible way.

Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Each member of the Abbott family feels some level of blame for the tragedy and is punishing his or herself. In a way, the events of the film are about processing that grief and handing over the protection of the family. It’s an unspoken shroud that hangs over the entire family, you can see it on their faces, with the heaviness in their eyes, and in their day-to-day anxiety. The film does a great job through the character of Marcus (Noah Jupe), the middle child, of showcasing how this terrifying new normal would affect and fray one’s psyche. He’s petrified with fear and consumed with the scary burden of having to ascend into the role of protector and provider that his father is trying to groom him for when the inevitable comes. The happy version of “the inevitable” is Evelyn and Lee growing old and feeble. The more realistic version is the two of them at some point being felled by these murderous monsters. When Marcus is given a moment to let his guard down, to not worry about the volume of his voice, it’s a sweet father/son moment of bonding that feels entirely fulfilling as well as insightful about this new, peculiar way of life.

A central conflict is the friction between Regan and her father and their desire to understand and empathize with one another. The film’s biggest emotional moment is the conclusion of this, and it feels so fully earned and poignant that even typing it out now stirs me. It’s the culmination of a well-structured screenplay that has found its moments for character development in a nearly silent movie, so that when declarations are made, even with the monsters and its creepy gimmick, you’ll still feel something. These characters matter and their struggles are universal and emotionally appealing. The acting all around by the young children and Krasinski and Blunt is completely believable and engaging.

For a relatively low-budget thriller, I was surprised how much of the monsters we actually saw onscreen. Krasinski still prefers to keep his monsters on the peripheral or in the background, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the horrifying rest. That’s where I thought the movie would stay, but it does not. There are several close-ups of the creatures at work, a mass of teeth and auditory sensors. Their heads open up like blossoming flowers. I know the designs are CGI and yet they looked very realistic, as realistic as a fanciful monster can, naturally. It had the sheen of practical effects, which is the best compliment. The monsters reminded me of the Cloverfield creatures mixed with the Pitch Black aliens. It’s a spooky design and under Krasinski’s attention the menacing creatures never stop being scary.

Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? The affable actor best known for portraying Jim Halpert on the long-running American version of The Office has directed before, an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book and an indie family dramedy. He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through (though newspaper publishing is questionably late into this sound apocalypse), and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

The original Pacific Rim brought out my inner child with its gee-whiz spectacle of giant robots fighting giant monsters, and under the artistic vision of Guillermo del Toro. I was eager for a sequel, as was my inner child. Thanks to China, a sequel was granted, though del Toro left to go win Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars. The new director replacing del Toro, Steven S. DeKnight, came to fame on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spartacus, and Netflix’s Daredevil. DeKnight acquits himself well in a world of big-budgets and big worlds, and while Pacific Rim Uprising is definitely lesser than the original, it’s still a whole lot of fun. John Boyega (The Last Jedi) leads the way as the son of Idris Elba’s character. It’s been ten years since the events of the first film and humanity is considering replacing Jaeger pilots with more cost-efficient drones. Then a rogue Jaeger starts attacking the remnants of the fleet, and Boyega and a scrappy pre-teen girl have to team up with a bunch of other Jaeger recruits to save the day. Where the first Pacific Rim rode the wave carefully to find a middle ground between cheese and awe, this time the movie swerves far more into cheese. Stuff gets silly, but if you can’t abide a little silliness then what are you doing watching this movie? The mythology and world building deepen, building off the last film, and they even supply a motivation for the aliens. It does feel at times like a pilot for a TV series, Jaeger Academy, and oddly the plot seems to follow Independence Day 2, Iron Man 2, Ender’s Game, and then ends right back with Independence Day 2’s closing sales pitch for a sequel that was never destined to be. Boyega has a fine reserve of charm and much is asked of him since the remaining characters are pretty slight. The action takes place almost entirely in daylight, a positive change from the original. The monsters don’t appear until the final act, which is not a positive change. It’s fun, goofy, and entertaining in the way that Saturday morning cartoons of your youth were entertaining. Uprising probably won’t be saved by China this time, but if you’re a fan of the first I have to think you’ll still enjoy the sequel.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.

In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.

Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.

With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”

I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.

Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.

I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.

Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!

With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.

Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).

Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).

The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.

I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.

This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.

The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and  All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!

UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.

Unsane (2018)

Steven Soderbergh is a restlessly experimental filmmaker who enjoys adopting new technology to tell familiar stories. Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone (7s, if you must know) but I’ll never know the reason other than to see if it could be done. Otherwise, Unsane is Soderbergh’s woman-in-peril Lifetime movie of the week. Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) plays a harried woman on the edge that accidentally commits herself to an in-patient mental hospital. That’s the best part of the movie, the first twenty minutes, as she diligently tries to convince everyone she is not crazy and there has been some sort of mistake. From there she begins seeing images of her stalker (Joshua Leonard) from another city. Is she really crazy? Is he really there? Has he followed her and gotten a job at a mental hospital and been waiting his time anticipating she would commit herself to this exact facility? The film answers this question ridiculously early and finds the most boring yet also preposterous route to go with its pedantic thrills. There’s a good concept here with the idea of a person trying to navigate the Byzantine, bureaucratic system to prove their sanity from behind bars, but it’s so poorly developed as to feel like a promising TV episode stretched thin. There simply are not enough twists and turns to keep an audience consistently engaged. Soderbergh has played in the trashy B-movie realm before with 2013’s Side Effects to much better effect. There aren’t enough credible characters to grapple onto. Foy is enjoyably incensed and erratic and keeps your attention, though I think she studied at the Kate Winslet School of American Accents. Gorgeous looking movies have been shot on cell phones, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine. This movie looks like it was shot on someone’s phone while it was dying. It looks so ugly on the big screen, flat and over-saturated in lighting, and just unappealing. It’s deeply un-cinematic and Soderbergh has the skills to do better. Unsane is un-good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. The characterization of a sociopath without a heavy moral condemnation was refreshing. We assume Amanda will be the bad influence but it really becomes the other way around, with Lily faking for her own purposes. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re mostly effective. The first half is a bit more engaging than what it ultimately delivers as a climax. It’s still satisfying and well handled, but Finley throws in some misdirects that don’t add a rising sense of stakes. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.

Nate’s Grade: B+

%d bloggers like this: