Category Archives: 2023 Movies
Powerfully forgettable except for its time-wasting twists and erasure of stakes, Hypnotic is an action thriller that feels out of time from the 1990s. In this movie’s universe there are a clandestine group of “hypnotics,” people with genetic powers that can manipulate others to do whatever they want. Ben Affleck plays a detective who is also searching for his abducted daughter and the case is mixed up with uncovering the secrets behind hypnotics and a mysterious and devious man (William Fichnter) who commands people to kill themselves. This should be a fun movie from its premise, Affleck chasing after killer physics like Scanners. It’s written and directed by Robert Rodriguez based on a script he’s been The problem with Hypnotic is that it wastes so much of its structure on playing into the expected, and once that happens it more or less invalidates the first hour of the movie. Once they introduce the concept of hypnotics erasing their own memories and placing triggers to remember key things, it’s not so hard to determine where the ultimate twist is heading. It leads to some serious wheel spinning from its plot, and then the end relies upon a standoff where one side is so all-powerful that there is no real danger. Therefore the emphasis of this movie hinges on the “wow” factor of its twist with little else to keep your waning attention. I suppose the appeal for Rodriguez from a directing standpoint were the sequences where the hypnotics are altering perception, watching the world bend onto itself in trippy Inception-style visuals. I wish there was more of this. The problem with Hypnotic is how unremarkable it is and how inevitable it will be forgotten (with or without your own psychic powers).
Nate’s Grade: C
Who exactly could get that excited about a movie about selling a shoe? Apparently, plenty of critics and audiences judging by the success of Air, the dramatization of the eventual formation and presentation for the first Air Jordan sneaker. It’s Amazon’s first original movie that they’ve given a theatrical release since 2019’s Late Night, and it proved a moderate success for a mid-range adult drama before debuting on its streaming service. I was intrigued by the creative pedigree, as I’ve been an ardent fan of Ben Affleck as a director, and the uniformly strong critical reviews, but I kept thinking, “It’s just a shoe.” It was hard for me to imagine getting that drawn into a drama about a bunch of guys trying to get Michael Jordan’s endorsement. I just couldn’t see the movie in this scenario. Now that I’ve actually watched Air, I can credit it as a well-written and well-acted movie about passionate people putting forward a presentation. That’s the movie, and while entertaining, it’s still hard for me to understand all the fuss.
It’s 1984 and Nike isn’t the market-leading trend-setting company that we think of today. They dominated the running world but few if any saw them as hip. They were struggling behind Adidas and Converse in popularity and cultural cache, and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) had tasked his basketball head of operations Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) with snagging endorsements from the new NBA rookies. Sonny wants to go all-in on just one athlete, a special case that Sonny thinks can revolutionize the game, and one that could propel Nike to the next level. But first he’ll have to convince Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), that this smaller company with its smaller reach is going to be the best fit for her son’s potential future earnings.
This is still a movie about a shoe, but it’s really a movie about people who are good at their jobs and trying to change a paradigm of thinking and the Way Things Are Done. I’ve seen it said that Air is “Moneyball for sneakerheads,” and that’s an apt comparison. It’s about a bunch of smart guys fighting for clout, a group of underdogs going up against the entrenched winners, but it’s really about passionate people trying to get others to recognize their passion. So it’s scene after scene of Sonny trying to break through and get others to understand why his way of thinking is going to be the best. It’s also structured entirely around the big presentation with the Jordans, with each stop at a competing shoe company as its own act break. It makes the movie feel very streamlined and focused. It allows moments for minor characters to get their own moment, to make it seem like there’s a larger world behind every scene. It makes the team feel more filled out, and as each person and artist comes together, it’s reminiscent of movies in general, about various talents coming together to put on a big show. With our hindsight already locked in before the opening credits, it’s got to be the journey that matters here, because we know the eventual coupling, so Air has to justify why the before time could be captivating. It’s engaging because it’s a story built upon underdogs and smart people getting to flex their smarts.
Of course, it’s also not too difficult to make someone look smart with the power of hindsight. This was one of the more maddening features of Aaron Sorkin’s frustrating HBO series, The Newsroom. The focus was on a TV show on a cable news network but it existed in our universe, covering the big stories from the recent past. Rather than providing insight into the struggles of journalists trying to break big stories and follow their leads, Sorkin’s show was his turn to rewrite the news, showing how the foolish journalists should have covered these major events. It was his condescending attempt to tell professionals how they should have done their jobs. However, he had the extreme benefit of 18 months or so of hindsight and seeing what was important and what was less so, which just made his critiques all the more condescending (“Why don’t you know all the things that I know from the future, stupid present people?”). I could do this myself, writing a story about a guy in the 1930s talking down to these people hoarding their gold and how they should, instead, invest in a burgeoning computer industry. It’s not hard to look smart when you have history already in your pocket. This is also the case with Sonny in Air, who says over and over how special Michael Jordan is, and we know this too with our personal hindsight, so it makes him look transcendent. However, there could be any number of guys in history that had a similar hunch about Sam Bowie, the player picked one spot ahead of Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft and whose career was cut short by rampant leg injuries. That could have happened to Jordan too. Sometimes the greatest athletes are the recipients of just horrible luck (look at Bo Jackson, a modern-day Greek God who could have been an all-timer in two sports).
Where Air glides is with its snappy dialogue and attention to its supporting cast, thanks to debut screenwriter Alex Convery. Despite my reservations on the subject matter, this is proof that a good writer can make any story compelling as long as they channel into the right universal elements. A movie about selling a shoe to a future billionaire becomes an underdog story and one about a group of middle-aged guys trying to live out their dreams by picking the right player to become their vicarious capitalistic dream. The side characters played by Chris Messina as a foul-mouthed agent, and Jason Batemen as an exec who mostly just wants to spend more time with his kids following a divorce, and Matthew Maher (Our Flag Means Death) as a lonely shoe designer, are welcomed and I enjoyed spending time with them all before the big decision. It’s pleasurable just to sit and listen to the conversational banter. If you can find a way to make characters debating the particulars of their industry and make it interesting regardless of industry, then that’s the sign of a good writer. There’s plenty of conflict thrumming throughout, like Sonny pushing to spend his entire department’s budget on one player rather than spreading the risk around, and the climax involves whether or not a billion-dollar company is willing to split some of its earnings with the athlete they’re making mega-million from. It was a first-of-its-kind deal that changed the industry, giving athletes more leverage and direct money for the use of their likenesses, and considering how integral Jordan was to the explosion of the NBA’s popularity, it was money well spent.
There’s no distinct directing flair from Affleck, as I think he recognizes the strengths of this script and how best to utilize them, which is to support his actors and give them space. The most noticeable directing feature is the repeated use of period-appropriate songs and archival footage, which might explain the movie’s staggering reported $90 million budget (for a shoe movie?). Affleck keeps things moving at a light-hearted tone but knows when to slow things down too.
Air is an amusing drama with good performances and good writing and direction that understands how best to hone both of those selling points. It’s very streamlined while still feeling developed, and it manages to make a decades-old shoe deal feel interesting in 2023. I enjoyed it but I would have enjoyed this cast in just about anything, and I feel like the screenwriter and Affleck as a director have better stories on their docket waiting. It’s an enjoyable and intelligent drama with crackling good dialogue. It’s a solid movie but I guess I won’t ever understand the adoration it received, and that’s fine. Air proves you can indeed tell a compelling movie about a shoe deal. There you have it. Now back to that chicken/egg dilemma.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania (2023)
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had a bumpy ride, coming after the significant climax of 2019’s Avengers Endgame and releases shifting thanks to COVID, with plenty of think pieces and pundits waiting to seize upon the possible decline of the MCU’s box-office and pop-culture dominance. This was still a phase with several enjoyable blockbusters with stars of old (Black Widow, Loki, Black Panther 2, Spider-Man No Way Home) and stars of new (Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel), but it’s been defined by movies and series that have not engendered the same level of passion with fans and audiences, and left many questioning whether audiences are finally suffering from dreaded Marvel Fatigue. I cannot say, because even movies people were so-so on have generated tons of money, and it’s not like I even have to travel far in the past for a good-to-great Marvel movie with Wakanda Forever last November. However, after the muddled response to a third Ant-Man movie, as well as a bland Shazam sequel within weeks, then the old media narrative reignites the Marvel Fatigue question. I think the better question is aimed at the studio and whether we’re entering into Marvel Complacency.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is trying to live a normal life, at least for a superhero that helped save the world. His adult daughter Cassie (recast as Kathryn Newton) is a social activist and a burgeoning scientific genius, and with the help of her grandad, Hank (Michael Douglas), they’ve developed a way to communicate into the Quantum Realm, the metaphysical world of subspace where Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) was lost for decades. The entire family gets sucked into the Quantum Realm and separated, fighting to make their way in a strange new land. Among all the unorthodox beings is Kang (Jonathan Chambers), a banished interdimensional conqueror. He’s looking to break free of his prison and thinks Scott can be persuaded to help under the right pressure.
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania is blatantly weird and shapeless, which allows for some of the most silly character designs in the MCU yet, and it also adds up to so precious little. From a character standpoint, we get minimal forward progress, which is strange considering Scott was deprived of years from his daughter, missing out on her growing up into an adult. When you have a villain who can manipulate space and time, and this scenario, wouldn’t you think that the ultimate appeal would be to regain that lost time? Maybe Scott feels like this older Cassie is a version of his daughter he doesn’t recognize, and he misses the innocence of her younger self, and therefore he wishes to experience those moments he had missed. Mysteriously, this doesn’t factor in at all with Ant-Man 3. I suppose it’s referenced in vague terms, but you would think the thematic heft of this movie would revolve around lessons learned about thinking in the past, of trying to recapture what is gone, of moving onward and trying to be present for those we love, you know, something meaningful for the characters besides victory. Nope, as far as Cassie is concerned, she serves two story purposes: 1) being a plot device for how we got into this crazy world, and 2) being a damsel in distress. Kang’s threats to withhold Cassie or harm her are the motivating factor for him to collaborate with the villain. How truly underwhelming. I did enjoy a sequence where a plethora of Scotts across multiple timelines come to work together with a common goal, with every one of the many Scott’s love for Cassie being their top ambition.
As for the universe existing between space, the Quantum Verse of our title, it’s the highlight of the movie, so if the characters and their personal conflicts aren’t hitting for you, like me, then at least there’s some fun diversions to be had with every new locale and introduction. There’s an enjoyable sense of discovery like a new alien world where the possibilities seem endless. The strange quirks were my favorite. I adored the exuberant goo creature Veb (David Dastmalchian) fascinated by other creatures having orifices. There’s also a mind reader played by William Jackson Harper, who was comically brilliant on The Good Place, and just repeating the same lazy joke here about people’s minds being gross. There’s even Bill Freakin’ Murray as a lord. I enjoyed how many of the new characters, many of them strange aliens, had prior relationships with Janet, and her hand-waving it away explaining that over thirty years she had certain needs. This subplot itself could have been given more. time, with Janet having to deflect Hank’s sexual inadequacies in the face of so many virile lovers (“How can I compete with a guy with broccoli for a head?”). I think this reunited couple confronting their discomfort would be far more entertaining than yet another massive CGI face-off with thousands of soulless robots. There are interesting moments and characters in this strange new world, but they’re all so fleeting, meant to be a goofy supporting character or cameo or simply a one-off joke and not what matters.
Like Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder, this feels very much like a table-setting MCU movie, meant to move the pieces along and set up other movies, chiefly the next Thanos-level big bad with Kang, first portrayed in Loki’s season one finale in 2021. I found this character version underwhelming. Part of this is that Kang’s first appearance was so memorable, spirited, anarchic, but also subversive, going against the audience expectations of what the final confrontation with the puppetmaster was going to involve. With Ant-Man 3, this version of Kang is an overly serious, well-poised castoff in a secondary Shakespeare play, which would work if the screenplay gave the guy anything interesting or memorable or even really threatening to play. He’s just another authoritarian who speaks in grand speeches of their greatness and then proves not to live up to his much-hyped billing. I worry that the next few years of the MCU will feature a rotating set of Kangs to topple with every film, which will make the villain feel less overwhelming and powerful and more like a reoccurring Scooby Doo villain (“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddlin’ heroes, and YOUR ANTS!”). This isn’t to say that Majors (Creed III) gives a poor performance. It’s just so stubbornly stern and shouty and rather boring in comparison to He Who Remains from his Loki appearance. Note to Marvel: given the serious charges that have surfaced against Majors, if you do wish to recast the role, a character who is different in many universes should be a pretty easy explanation for any change.
Is Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania the beginning of the end of the country’s love affair with the MCU? Well… probably not. Just three months later, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 hit it big, so maybe it’s less fatigue with big screen superhero escapades and more fatigue with mediocre movies. Maybe the public won’t be so forgiving of less-than-stellar efforts, but at this point the MCU in a moving train and some movies seem to get caught in the churning wheels of “progress.” After thirty movies and counting, some of the novelty is gone, that means just delivering the same old won’t deliver the same old results. Too much of Ant-Man 3 feels like the characters are inhabiting a large and empty sound stage. The visuals are murky and gunky and less than inspiring, and while some of the special effects are occasionally dodgy, they aren’t the travesty that others have made them out to be (though MODOK is… something, I suppose). It’s such a dank-looking movie that it feels like somebody put the light settings on power saving. There were things I enjoyed but most of Quantumania left me indifferent, and that’s the feeling I got from the cast and crew as well. I dearly missed Michael Pena’s Luis, who should have gone along for the ride just for his commentary for all the weirdness. At this point, you’re along for the MCU ride or not, and this won’t deter your 15-year investment, but coasting on its laurels will also not satisfy anyone. Not every MCU entry will be great, but they can at least try harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
I’m not a big fan of the Peter Pan story. I think it has some meaty themes but the world of Neverland was never that interesting and I always found the characters to be more annoying and flimsy than enchanting and diverting. It also doesn’t help that there have been dozens and dozens of Pan adaptations; by existing in the public domain, one is guaranteed every few years, like 2015’s disastrous Pan by director Joe Wright (Cyrano) and 2020’s Wendy, the long-awaited follow-up from director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). The only aspect that had me even remotely intrigued in Disney’s new live-action version was the creative team behind it. Director/co-writer David Lowery is better known for sumptuous and deeply humanist indies like The Green Knight and Ain’t Them Body Saints, plus having Rooney Mara eat an entire pie for ten minutes of A Ghost Story (thus fulfilling my requirement to mention this baffling moment whenever the opportunity arises). He also happened to make the 2016 live-action remake for Pete’s Dragon, which was soulful and heartwarming and excellent. It’s in fact my favorite of all the recent Disney remakes and proof of what great artists can do when given enough creative latitude, from the parent studio as well as general audiences and their expectations. I think the overriding Disney demands won out, as Peter Pan & Wendy is a rather bland update that every so often gives a glimpse of a more introspective, thoughtful, and possibly better Pan.
You probably know the story already, as we follow the Darling children from their home in London all the way to the magical fantasy island of Neverland thanks to immortal child and would-be lovable scamp, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). The kids can forever be kids on adventures with the fellow Lost Boys, battling against pirates led by Captain Hook (Jude Law). Except Wendy (Ever Anderson) starts to wonder whether growing up might be a necessity.
Considering the original Disney animated movie was released in the 1950s, there have been more than a few updates to modernize this tale, which have predictably riled the easily triggered culture warriors always looking for their next outrage. The offensive minority representation has obviously been altered, with actual indigenous actors portraying indigenous roles (no Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in this go-round), and we have a brown-skinned Peter and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), and the Lost Boys includes girls too in a throwaway explanation that’s entirely credible. Wendy also gets more empowered and has much more influence in the end events. I cannot understand the mentality of anyone that gets this upset over the skin color of fictional characters when it doesn’t alter the story. Who cares what the race of the actress playing Tinkerbell is, she’s a fairy. Why can’t there be darker-skinned fairies, hobbits, and mermaids? There are some exceptions; if Superman was played by a black actor, the world would view this overpowered alien in a completely different light, and that demands to be explored. However, most stories in a fantasy or sci-fi setting are not dependent on specific ethnicity, so why care? Of course, when the Tinkerbell character is such a waste, used solely for wordless reaction shots, it doesn’t matter what the race of the actress is when the character is this inconsequential.
One change I did like was bringing more of a personal fidelity between Peter and Captain Hook, beginning as close friends before falling out. The role of Hook has usually been modeled as an analogue for the Darling’s disapproving father and played by the same actor for the obvious parallels (in this iteration, Alan Tudyk). With Lowery’s version, Hook began as simply James, a Lost Boy who was Peter’s BFF until James started to miss his mother. This cherishing of the past rather than out-rightly rejecting it caused a wedge between the two friends, and James returned home only to eventually return back to Neverland as a grown man. I don’t know if the adult James was seeking out the comfort of his old friend and the familiar or if he was seeking out Peter for the sake of vengeance, blaming him for the years of time he lost and missing the death of his mother. Perhaps Peter’s harsh rejection of his grieving friend sent him into a tailspin. This painful past, when it starts to break through the cracks of family spectacle, can be captivating. Characters who are unable to articulate their loss but they feel it, as if there’s something just below the surface that they know isn’t right in all these redundant clashes. Can these characters even die? There are several that come back from certain demise. There are exchanges where Peter and Hook feel like they’re on auto-pilot, mechanically giving into the demands of a universe keeping its players in tidy and conforming roles. There’s a slight danger when the movie hits these little bumps, like characters becoming aware of more than what they’re used to. It’s like they’re breaking free of the Matrix to briefly realize how they’re being manipulated by fate before succumbing back to it.
These occasional philosophical glimpses are what kept me going, hoping that somehow the movie would rise above its familiarity into something different and more exciting. I don’t mean adult or darker, though there are clear horror routes one could take with the story of Peter Pan. Pete’s Dragon wasn’t a particularly complex story by any means but it channeled a clear and heartfelt tone and vision, and was executed at a high level to be appealing to all ages. I was hoping for something the same here, but the muck of the Peter Pan expectations ultimately gets the best of Lowery and his team. I liked the idea that Wendy may not be the first Wendy to be lured to Neverland to be the house mother for these wayward children. I liked the idea that Peter Pan could be the real villain of this realm, holding children hostage more or less through their rejection of growing up, and how resentful and remorseful that can make someone when they are cut out of their former life. I liked the idea of James/Hook possibly maybe even being a distant relative of the Darlings and what that could do for their relationship and perspectives meeting. I liked the idea of characters falling into patterns but not able to comprehend why they’re being manipulated. There’s a more penetrating movie here just on the peripheral and it pokes through but only occasionally. It’s frustrating to watch because it feels like uncovering artifacts of an older, more arresting screenplay that has, over the course of numerous rewrites and studio intervention, been diluted. The Peter Pan movie we get in 2023 is fine with some diverting visuals, but it’s a shadow of what could have been had Lowery been allowed to explore more of his creative impulses.
The movie is not without its charms and beauty, and for 106 minutes you can watch it without investing too much of your emotions. Law (Fantastic Beasts) is easily the best part of the movie, really enjoying the snarl of his over-the-top villain but finding opportunities for nuance to showcase his lingering vulnerabilities. Hook comes across like a bigger kid hurt and lashing out, and there’s tragedy to that that Law is able to tap while also playing into the foppish and slapstick comedy. I adored Jim Gaffigan (Linoleum) as Smee and was amused that he becomes the moral center for the pirates, speaking out when he fears they’re crossing a line. The natural scenery has a luscious storybook quality to it, and the mossy ruins made me think of Lowery’s Green Knight and its many visual pleasures. I enjoyed the presentation and physics of a below deck sword fight while the ship is rotating in the air. It made me think of Inception’s famous gravity-defying hallway fight, in a good way. I enjoyed how active the cinematography was, swooping and swirling with the energy of a child radically at play, and the montages of characters feeling the full power of happy memories had a downright ethereal quality of demonstrating a fuller life.
If you’re hungry for a live-action Peter Pan movie, then try the 2003 version with a deliciously maniacal Jason Isaacs (Mass) as Captain Hook. If you’re looking for a Peter Pan that goes beyond the bounds of the same old story, try Steven Spielberg’s Hook, a touchstone of many Millennial childhoods. Or check out the 1922 silent era Peter Pan. There is no shortage of Pan adaptations to choose from, so there’s a Pan for every occasion, and I’m sure there will be fans of this new live-action update as well. I found it a little too bland. It’s certainly better than the recent Pinocchio, but that itself is not reason enough to watch this. Peter Pan & Wendy offers too little to distinguish it from its predecessors, so it becomes yet another Pan adaptation that fails to fully take flight.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Have you ever watched a movie that felt like it was created by soulless robots? That was the overwhelming feeling I had with Ghosted, a supposed “romantic” “comedy” and spy thriller debuting on Apple Plus with big stars and a big budget and lacking anything that feels recognizably human. 2023 has been a year of exciting and precarious technological advances, and the emergence of A.I.-assisted chat and performative generators, from art to stories, is a Pandora’s Box that will not go away, especially for an industry looking to cut corners wherever possible to save a buck. Super producer Joe Russo has bleakly predicted it’s only a matter of time before studios lean into A.I. programs to help them write bankable screenplays. When that dark day arrives, if we haven’t already crossed that Rubicon, I imagine those A.I. ghostwritten scripts will feel a lot like Ghosted, a movie that feels like it was constructed from imperfect observers.
It all begins when boy meets girl at a farmer’s market. Cole (Chris Evans) refuses to sell a potted plant to Sadie (Ana de Armas) because her job keeps her away for up to months at a time. He cannot, in good conscience, sell this woman a plant he knows will be neglected. From there, they spend a whirlwind first date getting to know one another in and out of the bedroom. Then Sadie never returns Cole’s messages and calls again. He frets that he’s yet another modern dating victim of being ghosted when strange men kidnap him and ask him scary questions about things he has no clue about. He’s rescued from this interrogation by none other than a gun-toting Sadie. She reveals she’s really a secret C.I.A. agent and somehow her enemies have mistaken Cole for “The Tax Man,” a dangerous and mysterious assassin that’s actually Sadie. Now they’re on the run and Cole has to learn the ropes of spy business or else, and maybe he can get a second date while he’s at it.
The premise alone is a workable high-concept we’ve seen comedy variations of before, from Charade to Knight and Day to The Spy Who Dumped Me (remember that movie, anyone?). It’s the perspective of the novice being plunged into the chaotic and overwhelming world of spy-craft and having to rapidly adjust to a world they thought was just the stuff of movies and beach reads. It’s the kind of story that pokes fun at spy movies while embracing them as well, and it posits what would happen if one of us normies ever accidentally found ourselves in this high-stakes world. Where Ghosted doesn’t work is that the characters are both awful versions of the Novice and the Expert. There’s a slight amusement watching Evans plays out of his depth in action contexts, running counter to a decade of Marvel heroics, but this is short-lived. He eventually begins to be a capable partner for Sadie as she learns to trust another, which is the most expected and basic character arc for each of these people. However, Sadie is also boring, and even when the truth about her profession is revealed, it doesn’t make her that much more interesting. I was already doubtful when we opened with her talking to her therapist over her car’s phone and this was the first scene. She’s been slotted as Killing Machine with Trust Issues, and he’s been slotted as Too Afraid to Seek His Dreams, and so their conclusions are predictable and bland. There’s even a lack of a technique that Sadie teaches Cole that comes into play at a pivotal moment. That’s the most basic thing and they miss that.
There is also a notable absence of chemistry between the leads. While de Armas and Evans have co-starred in two prior films, they were opposed in 2019’s Knives Out and 2022’s The Grey Man. Actor chemistry is one of those ineffable qualities that you can tell pretty quickly whether it’s evident or lacking, and within minutes of the tortured house plant meet-cute, I sensed a gaping black hole of palpable chemistry. It’s even more obnoxious when MULTIPLE characters in MULTIPLE scenes implore the two to “get a room” because their supposed sexual tension is off the charts. Sure thing, movie.
Another quality that becomes very apparent is how forced everything in Ghosted feels. The romance feels forced but the comedy especially feels forced. The four screenwriters include the writers behind the Deadpool, Zombieland, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and recent Jumanji movies, so we know these credited writers have a keen understanding of comedy. It makes the results on screen all the more mystifying and disappointing. The jokes generally feel off (“He expected a hottie not Mata Hari,” womp womp), the rhythm and tone feel a little too much, too forced, like the actors are desperately trying to compensate. It comes across like they were instructed to speak at a more fast-paced and clipped rate to attempt to emulate screwball comedy patter, but the material isn’t there to match the hyperactive verbal presentation. The music is also another factor in trying to better compensate. It’s trying to provide a jaunty, breezy energy level that isn’t sustained in the movie by its comedy, action, or romance. The number of needle drop song selections can also be insufferable and dumbfounding. The characters will start a gun fight and then “My Sharona” will crank up or, even more inexplicably, “Uptown Funk.” The relentless fallback of familiar pop and rock ditties intruding over the action doesn’t so much elevate the moment as make you realize just what would be missing without the song. I’m all for the clever use of music to jazz up a scene, but the final action sequence shouldn’t have to rely on Bruno Mars for any nascent fun.
There are a handful of moments and ideas here that could have worked in a better movie. I enjoyed a stretch in the middle where Sadie and Cole are ambushed by one bounty hunter with an absurd name after another, and each is a cameo from a familiar face and each gets dispatched swiftly. The movie also takes pains to make fun of Cole’s smothering qualities, including his snapping a picture of Sadie while she slept in his arms post-coitus and unaware. I wish this line of criticism would pick up more momentum but there’s only so much heat that Cole will take when he still needs to be the handsome and appealing lead. I also liked the idea of a villain, played by Adrien Brody like his copy of the screenplay didn’t have a single joke inside it, who is simply trying not to be revealed to be incompetent. I think there was especially more room to mine with the confusion over which character was the infamous Tax Man. The assumption that it must be a man could have opened up a broader and interesting subplot over sexist gender assumptions, with nobody believing that a g-g-g-girl could be such an accomplished trained killer (alas, the “girls can do it too” message seems to be all the movie offers in response).
Ghosted is not a good action movie, as it’s poorly sourced and edited, it’s not a good comedy, as the jokes are iffy and delivered in such an exaggerated and clunky manner, and it’s not a good romance, with two bland and under-developed genre character cliches portrayed by two actors who have a startling lack of chemistry together. The music is obnoxious and trying to compensate for the flagging energy level and forced comedy, the movie runs too long at almost two hours, and director Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) has no feel for action or romance. It’s the comedy that made me most depressed, as no character talked like a semblance of a real human being, nor was their fast-paced, quippy dialogue truly zingy and entertaining. t was like watching a desperate person try and prove they are not, in fact desperate, but with every word only proving more and more their desperation. I’m sure some people out there will find this movie passably breezy or charming or at least inoffensive for two hours of inattention. It all felt so forced and inauthentic and tired to me. It’s best to just ghost this film in real life.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Three Quarters Dead (2023)
I don’t normally review short films but I was asked to by an Ohio filmmaker, and so I agreed to do my best in providing a review of a movie that runs a total of only seven minutes. Three Quarters Dead is the latest from writer/director Angelo Thomas, a rising Ohio filmmaker who already has two movies under his belt, The Incredible Jake Parker and the documentary, DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition. Short films must still function under the same guiding rules as feature-length films: there needs to be a beginning, middle, and end; characters should be engaging; conflict should be clear and developed; and the audience needs a reason to care. Granted, you expect more from an 80-minute movie than an eight-minute movie but you’re still expecting the basics of story, character, and entertainment to land. Three Quarters Dead is a cute little movie that nibbles at the edges of some profound concepts but settles a little too quickly.
We begin at the end, well the end of Zach’s (Eric Six) life. He’s moved on from the mortal plane and wakes up inside a peculiar movie theater. There are only three other patrons sitting in attendance and two of them are skeletons. David (David Reid Hatfield) is the only other living patron, though perhaps that term doesn’t even qualify. He has a sickly, zombie-like pallor and prefers to munch on popcorn sprinkled with maggots. David serves as a guide for wayward spirits, helping them transfer to the Great Beyond outside the theater. Until then, they can sit and watch movies for possibly an eternity of downtime.
The premise of a movie theater as purgatory is a fun concept and has several areas to connect with the theological and philosophical aspects inherent in any life-after-death story. I liked the projectionist being the equivalent of God looking down from above, offering light and diversion while the mortals sit and wait for answers that might never come. I liked the idea that David has been here so long that he forgot who he is. He is literally deteriorating physically and mentally. The presence of skeletons implies that you can possibly rot away and never even make it to the other side (unless these are just for ambience). Whenever you present a fantasy setting, the audience is going to be keen to adjust to the rules and expectations of this abnormal setting. The premise begs plenty more questions. I was surprised at no point does the short imply what the souls are even watching. This would provide more material either for comedy, like complaining about being stuck watching only so many movies so many times, for character exploration, maybe the movies are chosen that have a specific meaning to each soul, or some melodramatic rumination, like the characters are watching home movies of their own life and its ups and downs, regrets but also the joys that fill the bounds of a life lived. Considering that Zach is revealed to have taken his own life (he even has the note still with him, though its words are not shared either), it would have been helpful to either shed more details about this unique space and its connections for our newcomer or the newcomer’s life that he’s bidding goodbye to. I was left with an unrequited desire for more than the story was willing to offer for its seven minutes.
The central metaphor of a movie theater as a supernatural setting is a good starting point. The script was a little too locked-in on the discovery period and needed more development. Zach is such a blank from a character standpoint, which is acceptable since he’s the audience’s entry point. He seems to emit no real strong emotions or defiance about his strange situation. This may be a result of just being overwhelmed by the sheer existence of another spiritual plane, or this could also be him trying to remember who he was when he was alive. The dynamic of New Guy/Veteran is a comedy staple, learning the ropes from the charming and wily veteran. It seems like a storytelling disadvantage to limit the knowledge base of both parties. We’ve just spent a few minutes with David when he learns that Zach will actually be his replacement. I wish this had been revealed upfront rather than reserved for an ending meant to provide some uplift and reward. We still could have had the same end results but now there would have been an immediate urgency, David only having so many minutes (maybe even make it real-time) to teach his replacement the ropes before he gets recalled to that Great Beyond. If Zach is taking on this new responsibility, you would think he’d need to understand how exactly he’s supposed to help souls transition.
The movie is technically polished and has a nice score from Brooks Leibee (DeRosa). The shot selections are somewhat minimal, likely a result of budgetary time limits, but it also makes the movie visually staid. Many of the edits are simply from two shots from the same angle. It’s efficient but can also be bland over time. Also, I’m surprised there wasn’t a godlike point of view shot from the projectionist booth, at least a high angle looking down from above, but that might have given away the fact that nothing was actually on the screen during filming. The makeup effects for David are simple but effective and do well to assist the actor’s mordant performance.
I enjoyed both actors, though Hatfield (Dogwood Pass, Quarantwinned) has the more fun role as the decrepit veteran teaching us all about this unique space. He gives glimpses of even more honed comedic skills that I wish the short could have utilized. Six (Christmas Collision) is given the less fun role of being responsive but the character is so subdued that he can feel like a proverbial and literal seat-filler. I liked the two actors together and wished their interaction had a bit more energy to it.
Three Quarters Dead is an amusing and light-hearted short even as it skirts over some more meaningful and darker material. It’s a promising idea with more intriguing directions that are unexplored. Partly because of the limits of short-form storytelling but also partly because the concept just wasn’t creatively pushed further. It’s a quick seven minutes that elicits some smiles and maybe even a chuckle (I enjoyed the quarters classification of its title). You won’t regret watching it, and trust me, I’ve watched dozens of short films that I do very much regret ever having seen. Even with a few precious minutes, bad filmmaking and a paucity of coherent ideas can become most evident. Three Quarters Dead is a fun little horror comedy that coasts on charm, good vibes, and the tantalizing possibility of more, but like the characters trapped inside that theater, you’ll be left waiting.
Nate’s Grade: B-
John Wick Chapter 4 (2023)
As many of you are well aware, I believe great action can be some of the highest cinematic highs one can experience through the transporting thrill of the movies. It’s the larger-than-life quality, the symbiosis of so many tactical teams working in harmony to pull off the breakneck stunts, rapidly escalating stakes, and organic story complications, that it all feels like the best kind of magic trick. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is closer to the pinnacle of the artform than a majority of self-serious Oscar bait drivel. In many ways, musicals are very similar to action movies, as fight choreography is nothing more than a rehearsed dance between professionals. Both must incorporate geography, spacing, and interaction to maximize their appeal. It is from this perspective that I approach the John Wick franchise, a series that I have enjoyed and has gotten more popular with every new entry. John Wick: Chapter 4 is about as action-packed as they come, running at nearly three hours long. I purposely waited and saw the movie with my father, a fellow lifelong lover of big screen action and particularly Fury Road. We both had a blast, and rather than write a review of exclamatory nonsense, I thought I’d look over some of my finer critical points with 2019’s John Wick 3 and analyze how 4 excels beyond.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a legendary assassin in a world where I think half the population are secretly, or not so secretly, trained assassins. I have to think the union collective bargaining negotiations are brutal. Regardless, John has been on the run ever since he upset the High Table, the cloak-and-dagger authority over this clandestine universe. He’s had a bounty on his head getting larger and larger with every foiled assassination, and there have been hundreds at this point. To finally clear his name, John plans on challenging the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), the new controlling High Table member who is un-sanctioning every international hotel that gives refuge to Wick. The old rules state that Wick can challenge the Marquis to a duel, but getting to the actual dueling site might be murder.
As I wrote in 2019: “Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments… For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.”
This compliment is still applicable because the lasting draw of the John Wick franchise has always been its highly polished and intense action sequences. Series director Chad Stahelski has an intimate understanding of his star’s physical capabilities, having served as Reeves stunt double for years, and he and his team stress the fidelity of visceral realism with their overtly preposterous movie. The action is displayed in long takes, wide shots, and gloriously accessible visual arrangements to allow the audience to truly enjoy the splendor of the moment. This philosophy stretches to car chases, like an exciting roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe making bodies fly through the air, and even horseback chases, like an opening evoking Lawrence of Arabia. There were several moments that made me giggle in giddiness, like a woman relentlessly stabbing a man she rode piggyback up the stairs, and a sustained high angle where Wick clears room after room of baddies with fiery canisters that turn each target into a burst of flames, and a fight ascending many flights of stairs that has echoes of Wile E. Coyote slapstick. If you are a lover of action, these movies will not disappoint in that department. The movie takes about 30-40 minutes to set up its stakes and goals, and from there it’s relentless. The best compliment I can give is that Chapter 4 did not feel like three hours because it just flew by for me.
This is where my small criticisms of 2019’s third entry began, and I’ll address them one-by-one: “Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise.”
This was a concern I was beginning to notice with Chapter 3, that the movies were in danger of becoming repetitive as Wick clears room after room of opponents. In general, that is the plot of all four movies, so the emphasis needs to be on how each sequence differentiates itself. Chapter 4 does this very well by giving every sequence its own underlying identity. This can be through unique locations or even weapon preference. One sequence is entirely John battling with nunchucks. One sequence is John fighting through a rainy Berlin club that becomes an ax fight. There’s a fight that utilizes well-placed doorbells to cue a blind swordsman Caine (Donnie Yen). The change in locations also helps differentiate the action sequences, with trips to Osaka, Berlin, and finally Paris each adding their own style. It’s a lot more fun to change things up and make sure that the change in scenery, weapon preference, and character is incorporated into the fight.
Another undervalued aspect of the Wick franchise is how damn good looking these movies are. Stahelski can frame some beautifully lit sequences to make all the subsequent carnage and fisticuffs that much more pleasing. We’ve been settling for far less for far too long, folks. There’s no reason our grungy, dank, overly gray action movies cannot look as pristine and striking as the John Wick series.
I also wrote in 2019: “The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was willing Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any long standing personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax.”
I was beginning to worry that by the time of John Wick 12 he would have killed the entire world’s population and forgotten it all started because of one dog. It’s not that story is the preeminent feature of the Wick franchise but there is more thought and curiosity put into this world building and it would be a shame to ignore it simply for wall-to-wall violence. Fortunately, I think Chapter 4 does the best about introducing new and engaging characters. The John Wick series has introduced new faces but rarely do they seem like more than overly glorified NPCs meant to root for John or take stock of the current predicament (they’ve never found a meaningful use of Laurence Fishburne). With Chapter 4, the new characters actually matter, and they’re great. The best addition is Caine, made even more intriguing by being a blind assassin and made even more fantastic through the performance of Yen (Rogue One, Ip Man). He’s a friend to John and feels great guilt about trying to kill him (his daughter’s life is threatened as leverage). He’s a conflicted killer, the rueful warrior, and his disability makes every fight worthy of watching how exactly he’ll take down his next opponent. It’s enough that I could foresee a Caine spinoff if the fortunes of the universe demand even more Wick spinoffs (Ballerina, a spinoff starring Ana de Armas, is expected to be released summer 2024).
The other new characters are also strong. Skarsgard (It) makes a great hiss-able villain and he really eats up his French dandy accent. There’s also Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who spies from afar, biding his time until the bounty on Wick gets high enough. He has a dog too that is trained to attack men in a very vulnerable spot first. Then there’s Scott Adkins (Ip Man 3) in perhaps the performance of his career. He gets to slather on makeup, a fat suit, false teeth, and really becomes a broad character, a German crime lord but more a menacing fairy tale behemoth. The way Adkins relishes every syllable is a delight. The man isn’t known much for his acting, other than his finely honed martial arts skills, but he showcases plenty of potential if given a chance. It’s fun to watch all these martial arts experts cut loose, most in their middle age. Recording artist Rina Sawayama makes a killer acting debut as the concierge of the Osaka Continental hotel, and she wreaks havoc with a bow and arrow and some intense knife work.
Because of having more interesting characters meaningfully involved, including those who have a familial history with John Wick, it brings a new emotional stakes to the franchise because we don’t know what will happen to these new faces. I cared enough to be newly invested.
And lastly, in 2019, I concluded with: “I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures.”
By the end of Chapter 4, you question whether this universe can exist beyond the bloodshed of Mr. Wick, and my answer would be yes. A Continental TV series is premiering in the fall on Peacock, taking place in the 1970s with younger versions of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick). There’s at least one spinoff in the works I’ve mentioned earlier. It very much appears that Reeves and Stahelski intended for Chapter 4 to be the definite conclusion to their story they began in 2014. I doubt things will stay that way, especially with Chapter 4 becoming the biggest earner in the franchise. I would suspect the studio would be begging for a Chapter 5. Regardless, if this is the intended series finale, then Reeves and Stahelski have gone out on top. John Wick: Chapter 4 is action movie nirvana.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s a movie about Adam Driver as a spaceman fighting dinosaurs. What could go wrong? 65 (as in 65 million Years Ago) is a sci-fi action thriller with a ripe concept overworked by blockheaded studio notes that mitigate its potential and engagement. I was initially intrigued because it was the directorial debut of the writers of A Quiet Place, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. That 2018 movie was a masterful genre exercise, though director John Krasinski was also a key contributor and rewrote their initial script. First off, I don’t know why this movie makes the decision to have Driver from an advanced alien species that crash lands on a prehistoric Earth unless it was related to the eventual development of humans on this planet. The opening segment explains in text and then a “Dad, don’t go” flashback before jumping into the action of the crashing spaceship. Even the dramatically protracted title reveal (65…………. MILLION YEARS AGO!) makes little sense considering the timeline was conveyed earlier. It makes me think about studio execs questioning whether audiences would get it, so what follows is mostly a survivor story of surrogate father and surrogate daughter (Arianna Greenblatt). A lot of our emotional involvement hinges on this relationship and I don’t think it carries the film. There’s a language barrier with the little kid, which is an interesting complication for their cooperation, but it also means Driver’s absent father is projecting a whole lot onto this little kid as if she were his daughter. The central relationship is serviceable but unremarkable, which could also suffice for discussing 65 as a whole. Driver trying to escape from a dinosaur territory dispute could have been plenty for survivor thrills, plus with little Predator-style advanced weapons to even the playing field of man and beast. What I didn’t need was a literal apocalyptic final act where Driver and the kid must not only survive dinosaurs but get off-planet before the big dinosaur-killing meteor strikes. It’s excessive bombast that feels tacked-on, like studio execs worried that dinosaurs by themselves would be boring. 65 is loud and obvious and only 90 minutes, and that can be enough for escapist entertainment, but it squanders its bigger concept.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)
As required for every film critic before discussing the new Dungeons and Dragons movie, subtitled Honor Among Thieves, I must tell you my personal history with the seminal tabletop game. Well, I don’t think D&D is for me. Many of my friends are heavily involved in D&D, several as the quest-fashioning dungeon masters, and I’ve even sat in for a few games, but there’s something about the group improv experience that I never feel comfortable while playing, like my mind just runs into imagination roadblocks trying to come up with options in a near limitless space. Plus I think character creation is one of my lesser storytelling skills; I typically build characters more out of plot and concept and theme. Also, the demanding time commitment to play a game that can take possibly months or years to conclude makes me hesitant. I already think Monopoly lasts too long and has a habit of ruining friendships (if I was ever paid to write a Monopoly movie, that would be my starting point, not bringing to life Mr. Moneybags).
Anyway, D&D has had something of a cultural renaissance the last decade, reaching new levels of wider acceptance partly thanks to its prominent placement in Stranger Things. Pretty good for an ever-evolving 50-year-old game system that was at one point blamed for luring impressionable youth into the ways of Satanism and insanity (see the ridiculous 1982 movie Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks as a student who cannot distinguish between reality and the game world to murderous effect). It’s such a substantial fantasy property that it was only a matter of time for movies to follow. There was an abysmal D&D movie from 2000 co-starring Thora Birch and a go-for-broke Jeremy Irons that isn’t worth your time. I wasn’t excited for a new Dungeons and Dragons movie until I saw that its directors and co-writers were Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. I was a big fan of 2018’s Game Night, their last directing effort, and they’ve been a dependable comedic writing duo. It was with them that I placed my faith and that faith was fully rewarded when my wife and I watched Honor Among Thieves and had a delightful time. This is a wildly fun D&D movie for every viewer.
In the world of owl bears and sorcerers, Edgin (Chris Pine) and his trusted partner, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), are looking to settle the score. They’ve broken out of prison and are trying to gather their old team back together but everyone has a grudge. Forge (Hugh Grant) has betrayed the group for power and especially riches, serving as the city’s reigning lord. He’s recommissioned a gathering of games and sport, drawing crowds back to the city, and with games comes betting and with betting come large sums of money from the rich. Edgin plans to rob from the treasure hold for the games and with that score he can regain his daughter and possibly reclaim a magical totem that can bring his dearly departed wife back.
I have no prior understanding of anything relating to the world and lore of D&D, and I found it to be extremely accessible and engaging. That’s because Goldstein and Daley have put the emphasis of their movie not on its lore or history or locations but on its characters. I appreciate that here is a major work of IP for a studio that is attempting to tell one very good and accessible story for the masses rather than set up a cinematic universe and ready it for possible sequel bait. Get the movie right and have that make me desire more movies rather than establishing a world that has potential but otherwise goes unfulfilled. The very concept of Honor Among Thieves helps to keep things light-hearted and moving. My pal Ben Bailey and I have been clamoring for years for a heist movie set within a fantasy world. It was ready-made to satisfy with the genre structure of heists, and putting a team together that rolls with unexpected adversity, and the cleverness of incorporating fantasy abilities and elements into heist genre familiarities. Thankfully, Goldstein and Daley realized how entertainingly plentiful this combo can prove.
The fun characters are what help to make the movie so enchanting. Rather than settling on a subsection of class representation (one dwarf, one elf, one wizard, etc.), the characters are more about what they bring to the team and what motivates them for character arcs. We have a shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis) who is trying to protect the kingdom’s encroachment on her kind. We have a shaky wizard (Justice Smith) who is battling for his own self-confidence and respect. Nobody feels like a token appointment. Even characters that would seem like a D&D player’s dream, a powerful paladin played by the dashing Rege-Jean Page (Bridgerton), are given more purpose. He serves as a contrast to our hero’s journey back to respectability, and the character is so noble and serious that it’s yet another shade of comedy to explore. His obliviousness to irony and sarcasm reminded me of the very literal-minded Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy). This is a character that would appear in standard fantasy epics, and yet he’s played for laughs just through sheer juxtaposition without ever mocking the reality of this world. At no point will characters condescend to their reality, saying self-aware critiques like, “Well that’s a very inconvenient and stupid place to put a castle,” etc. There is a cameo where the gag is that this person is much smaller. The appearance is played for goofy laughs and yet it’s also shocking in its emotional sincerity. If you removed the size differential, this would be a dramatic and eventful scene (I did enjoy the unspoken preference of this individual when it comes to a romantic partner). The movie is very funny and very skilled at being funny without reliance upon meta genre riffs.
Elevating an already great movie, Pine (Don’t Worry Darling) is robustly charming as a bard/secret agent. He secured my loyalty within two minutes of the movie when he gave up on his prison knitting project and said, summarily, “I’m just gonna make a mitten. Who am I trying to impress?” Pine has long been one of our most effortlessly charming leading men, and playing a rakish heist leader who also sings will only magnify the man’s innate appeal to the masses. He works even better alongside Rodriguez (any Fast and Furious movie after 6) who becomes the real physical presence. This is a career-best performance with Rodriguez sliding right into exactly the comedy wavelength she’s needed for – the gruff and cynical worldview of the weary warrior. They make for a great bantering lead duo.
The set pieces are also tailored to the character arcs while still being memorable and entertaining. This is a movie that doesn’t get complacent over its 134 minutes. Each sequence must stand out, whether it’s because of creative and intuitive fight choreography that makes keen use of geography and circumstance, or a graveyard Q&A with very constrained magical rules to follow that leads to a lot of digging to find the right corpse with the right information, or escaping from an obese dragon (with its “widdle wings”) that resembles a chonky cat, or a dangerous trip through a maze that abruptly reconfigures itself, or a prison escape that doesn’t quite go as you expect, nor at the characters expect. Every scene has a purpose. Every magical item has a specific use, and every set piece sets itself apart visually and from a story standpoint.
Goldstein and Daley have excelled as writers, but they’re also proving to be visually adept directors. With the emphasis on characters, it’s not CGI spectacle for spectacle’s sake. There’s a pleasing physicality to this world. The budget is in the $150-million range, which is quite a show of confidence for the directors, but the emphasis is on what best elevates the moment. There’s a thrilling escape performed as a tracking shot with a zooming camera tracing the escape of our shapeshifter from harm, and there’s fantastic visual inventiveness with a magic portal and its application for the film’s equivalent of a rollicking stagecoach robbery. There’s a noted intention here with the shots and scenes and visual arrangements, so Honor Among Thieves feels like a studio film with vision.
Allow me to take one very fleeting moment to digress just how much care Goldstein and Daley put into even the smallest of details. After we’ve met the last core member of our crew, he confidently leans backwards and falls into a pit leading to an underground cavern. The rest of the crew creep toward the opening and stare down below with trepidation. Simon then says, “I’m going last.” We then cut to the group at the bottom of the cavern. It’s such a small detail, but the previous scene ends on a character-appropriate punchline for Simon reconfirming his squeamishness, but then by transitioning to the entire collected crew together, we know he was last and so we’re ready to move forward. Again, it’s a small detail but it’s a microscopic example that proves, to me, how much thought and care the directors have given.
As a novice to the famous role-playing world, I found Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to be an exhilarating and highly entertaining fantasy adventure where fun is the chief priority. It’s not at the expense of great characters, good humor, and satisfying payoffs with well-developed setups strewn throughout. It’s a reminder how enjoyable and escapist blockbusters can be when you have the right artists using the expansive box of paints. It’s great for all ages and families too. I don’t have any personal connection to this sword-and-sorcery universe but now I want many more adventures if this is kind of quality they’re offering.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The “real” story behind the addictive puzzle game is an engaging tale of underdogs and corporate intrigue that might prove surprisingly fun and complicated for such a simplistic and straightforward game. We zoom back to the late 1980s and two converging storylines: the rise of handheld gaming and the decline of the Soviet Union. Taron Egerton (Rocketman) plays Herk Rogers, an American businessman living in Tokyo with his wife and family who has put all his hopes on the Japanese license rights of a small little game made in Russia. What follows is one man trying to finagle a system of questionable IP rights between scheming businessmen and Soviet KGB agents. The numerous players fighting for dominance over the course of legal copy, meeting rooms, and offers and counter offers was, for me, the most entertaining part of the movie, and the version that felt the most tethered to reality. There are some Hollywood exaggerations in this retelling, especially in the final act where the movie takes a cue from Argo and has its heroes in a careening car chase to get to the Moscow airport and eave the country (externalizing the internal feelings, much like Argo). Since we all know that the game ultimately ends up as one of the best-selling and most iconic, and packaged with the launch of Nintendo’s GameBoy, the appeal of the behind-the-scenes story is the struggle that our heroes overcome, and Tetris succeeds through its accessible but ever-moving plot mosaic that feels like legal knots trying to come undone. I think the movie gets even better when Herk becomes friends with Alexey, the state worker who created the game in his spare time and is hassled by KGB agents for the game harming national productivity. There are a few too many cutesy touches the movie could do without, like the inclusion of 8-bit sprites as visual transitions, something that is layered over the climactic car chase making it look much duller. I also feel like the honeypot twist feels a little too overinflated Hollywood drama for its own sake. There’s already plenty of drama here that didn’t need the help. Regardless, Tetris is a solid drama that stacks up.
Nate’s Grade: B
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