It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I don’t automatically hate Tyler Perry’s alter ego/monstrous matriarch, Madea. I didn’t even hate the first Boo film, but its sequel is exactly everything Perry’s critics have accused his films of being. This is the movie everyone thinks the Madea films are. This feels like 90 minutes of vamping, where there clearly wasn’t a script and Perry hoped each new scene would somehow stumble into hilarity. The premise could have worked, placing Madea in a Friday the 13th scenario, but they play it as a lesson to teach the youth about their fool ways. It’s so listless and repeats itself often, stretching to fill out the running time of a feature film. It’s poorly developed, poorly planned, and none of the characters matter as they sometimes change abruptly by the moment. There was clearly no plans to do a sequel for the first Madea Halloween movie, until it became the second highest-grossing film of his career. Everything about this movie smells of desperation. Everybody is just dancing around on screen, speaking in circuitous improv jags that go nowhere, and there’s even an extended sequence of twerking from a famous dancer. This is a punishing movie that plays to Perry’s worst instincts. Let the Boo franchise die.
Nate’s Grade: D
Taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pixar’s newest animated wonder is a leap into a fantasy world with a young protagonist trying to get back to his family through trials of courage. A young boy wants to be a musician but his older grandmother forbids it, blaming music for luring away her grandfather and almost ruining the family. He steals a famous celebrity’s guitar from his crypt and is transported to the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The boy is able to meet his departed family members but if he can’t make it home by the end of the night he’ll stay there forever. This is a pretty dense film with a lot of rules to remember and yet the movie’s wonderfully structured story doesn’t give you more than you can handle. One rule leads to another organically, and you’re fully invested in the world and the characters. The Mexican culture and heritage is portrayed with extreme reverence while still being playful. This is a movie about death that treats it seriously but can still have fun when it counts. It’s lively, joyful, and sneaks up on you emotionally, as all great Pixar movies seem to do. I was wiping away tears by the end, and I’m sure fathers will be wiping away even more. The screenplay takes staid concepts (power of dreams, importance of family, respect for elders) and finds meaningful ways to personalize them. It’s ultimately a story about sacrifices and relationships between generations, how we honor and remember those we cherish. The visuals are colorful and gorgeous, though I didn’t feel the world of the dead was as memorable in its various locations and developments as the characters. Coco is a funny, charming, heartfelt, poignant, and vastly entertaining movie that soars with great imagination, story development, and an enrichment of characters to fall in love with.
Nate’s Grade: A
Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Nate’s Grade: A-
With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.
Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.
Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).
Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.
The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.
Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.
Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I’m in a movie. That’s a pretty vain opening sentence but I wanted to get it out of the way. I was one of the very fortunate horror fans to attend the Nightmares Film Festival, which in two short years has already vaulted to being one of the top film festivals in the nation. I came to see the premiere of Bong of the Living Dead, a stoner zombie comedy that filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in 2013 (oh what a simpler time). I had the good fortune to be a zombie extra, and wouldn’t you know, my shambling, bloody, stupid self made the final cut. I mention this not out of braggadocio but out of a desire for transparency. I am friends with many of the people in front of and behind the camera on this movie. I have personal connections to the production, Backwards Slate, and I’ve worked with several of the actors on other projects and plan to work with them again. I am going to write the most objective review I can for the film, as you would expect of me dear reader, but you should know of my potential personal biases. I was really dreading writing a review if the movie sucked. Happily, Bong of the Living Dead is still an enjoyably fun comedy even if you regrettably don’t happen to know anyone involved.
The zombie apocalypse is coming to Clintonville, Ohio, and our group of stoner friends has been waiting their entire lives for this moment. Childhood friends Hal Rockwood (Dan Alan Kiely), Christ Moser (Eric Boso), Tara Callahan (Laura E. Mock), and Jon Lance (Dan Nye) spend most of their time smoking pot and pontificating on the minutia of zombie pop culture. Christ is trying to hook up with a spacey new girl, Danielle DeWitt (Cat Taylor), and Tara and Jon seem to have something unspoken between them. Dr. Kate Mitchell (Tiffany Arnold) has been hearing strange cases of an infection passed through biting. Sure enough, the dead rise up and feast on the flesh of the living, and our stoners barricade themselves inside their house and gear up for the onslaught to come.
This feels like it was plucked out of the 90s, and I do not mean that as a criticism at all. It feels like the kind of movie Kevin Smith would have made in his geeky prime (a mischievous recitation of randy porn titles seems wholly inspired from Smith). The core idea allows genre satire as well as genre self-indulgence: what if a group of pop-culture savvy potheads became embroiled in the zombie apocalypse? They speak in rapid-fire, hyper-verbal references because that’s how they process the world, as one long catalogue of pop-culture footnotes and influences. These characters are downright giddy with the prospect of finally getting to live within the realm of some of their favorite horror cinema, plus the added bonus of violence without a wider set of consequences. They get to be the stars of their own movie now. Except, to the credit of writers Tim Mayo and Max Groah, they don’t even know that they’re still the bit players. They oversleep a zombie cleanup mission and wake up late into the morning to discover much of their neighbors having already taken care of the task (one of them makes the entrepreneurial step of starting a zombie-aided car wash). Hal can’t hide his disappointment: “The whole point of the zombie apocalypse is that there’s not supposed to be any people around.” The apocalypse isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and so the characters retreat and sulk, their knowledge of pop-culture raising their expectations to a level that could not be fulfilled.
It’s this clever undercutting of genre expectations where Bong of the Living Dead breaks from the mold of other zombie comedies. These characters are obsessively aware of zombie lore, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of the audience will have a loving knowledge base as well. They quickly accept their world-ending situation and it barely fazes them, perhaps still too inured by the inoculating effect of comparing it to the movies. It keeps the reality of the horror at a safe distance. Even while boarding up windows they can’t help but argue the merits of fast zombies versus slow zombies. A character makes a meta reference to breaking out a weapon that has never before been mentioned, and it was a big gut-busting laugh. Another clever undercutting is when the film transforms into more of a drama in the last act. I don’t know if enough has been established to make the leap from the Act One cartoon versions of the characters to the Act Three dramatic versions, but it was an interesting and unexpected development.
There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies this dramatic pivot best while still undercutting the genre expectations (some spoilers). After all the close calls and zombie bashing, a character collapses and convulses not from having been bitten but simply from an ordinary and common medical emergency. The other characters are helpless and we watch the fear permeate the scene as everyone comes to the awful realization that this person is going to die from and there’s nothing that can be done. The panic in people’s eyes is genuine. This moment is without setup but I think it works better that way, placing the audience in the same confused and helpless position as the other characters. Groah, as director, gives the scene its necessary breathing room. In this world people can still die in ordinary, everyday ways, and death is not something that’s cool and distant. It’s terrifyingly real.
The loose, genial vibe of the overall production seeps into the script as well, especially during the lackadaisical second act that involves a lot of our characters just sitting around. Bong is a movie that finds time for little comic arias that other movies would blithely skip over. The loose feel allows the movie to find extra weirdness. There’s an ongoing run of silly media satire that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s social commentary. There’s a glib news anchor (Ralph Scott) trying to make the most of the dour news cycles, an opportunistic politician (Vidas Bardzukas) already promising to protect his constituency, a spookily spastic exercise host, a Spanish shopping channel host making love to the camera with his eyes, and a series of cheesy barbarian movies called Swords and Bitches with an evil whip-wielding arachnid queen (Brianne Jeanette). Bong of the Living Dead is chock full of little comical asides that you wouldn’t expect to be so good.
Though it’s also during the second act that I wish more had been going on. I wanted more examination on the difference between their perception of a zombie apocalypse and the reality they’re stuck with. I wanted a bit more setup for the payoffs, like maybe revealing that smoking pot slows down the zombie virus, etc. I wanted more of the VHS-quality flashbacks with the perfectly cast younger versions of the main gang. There aren’t as many central plot elements to make the bridge from start to finish. For much of the middle period, our characters kind of just sit around. They hang out, debate cereal superiority, and even go to the last remaining video store on Earth. It feels a bit like the movie is stuck in neutral, which might have also been the point to communicate the characters’ general malaise. I understand the absurdity of asking for more plot in a stoner comedy but this isn’t any ordinary stoner comedy, as its dovetail into heavy drama indicates. The first act is a lot of fun, the third act is effectively dramatic, but I wanted a bit more connective tissue. The characters could have been better developed (what exactly do they do when not smoking?) but I still cared when things got serious.
The performances across the board are good to great, with every actor, no matter how small the part, finding their specific comedic lane to work within. The biggest breakout performer is definitely Kiely (Axe Giant, Horrors of War) who is, to put it in a topical and never-to-be-dated analogy, the Tiffany Haddish of this particular Girls Trip. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep you entertained. Hal is the character that gets the most excited about the zombie apocalypse. The other characters are interesting but fairly subdued for the most part, as one would expect prolific stoners to behave. When Hal first sees a confirmed zombie, his wide-eyed expression is like a child on Christmas morning, and it’s the biggest applause moment for the film. Kiely is a live wire of energy that jolts every scene he’s in. His eyes speak a devilish madness. He reminded me of Jason Lee’s raucous debut in Mallrats, a full force that sweeps you away. After watching Bong of the Living Dead, you’ll wish every movie had a Dan Kiely in it.
The rest of the ensemble find their moments, giving all the other moments to Kiely and his glorious beard. Arnold (Born Again, Seven Hells) is playing the most straight-laced of all the characters, a doctor trying to make sense of the irrational. Arnold has an instant screen presence and poise that causes you to sit up and pay attention. Her softer moments shared with Hal also help provide a nice antidote for the no-nonsense doctor. As much as Kiely is the draw of our attention, it’s Arnold that is often the one who grounds the picture. Boso (Underground 35) relentlessly pushes his character outside the box of socially awkward outcast. There’s a heaviness he feels from the consequences of getting close to others, and he doesn’t know fully how to deal with his frustrations with himself and the apocalypse, so he embraces his darker, nihilistic impulses. Boso is such a memorable film presence that it feels like he stepped off the set of a Richard Linklater film. Cat Taylor has a charming sense of daffy innocence to her. You can’t tell whether she’s dazed, cheerful, or not altogether there, and it fits very well for her character joining the group. She reminded me of Hannah Murray from the BBC’s Skins series. Nye (Harvest Lake, Dark Iris) is movie star handsome and has some sharp moments of comic aloofness. The romantic undercurrent he shares with Mock (The Tribunal) allows both of them something at stake that the audience can invest in. Nye and Mock have good heated exchanges that wake up the audience and allow each actor to effectively broaden their character range.
And then there are the little performances that make the most of their abbreviated screen time, like Ralph Scott’s (Stitches) wonderful clench-jawed bravado, Bardukas’ (The New Mr. Phillips) hilarious loose-elbow springiness in front of a green screen, Bill Koruna’s (The Shoes) crotchety neighbor, Ben Brown (After) as a powerfully self-loathing jock jerk who is wonderful fun to hate, Sarah Starr as a ditzy and easily bored sex object prone to gratuitous nudity, and the entire team inside the Conan-esque barbarian videos are a hoot for how committed they are to being silly. Just thinking about the Spanish home shopping host and his faces makes me smile and giggle to myself.
Bong of the Living Dead is a shaggy, scrappy, loose and lively zombie comedy with a charm all its own. It’s reliably fun and finds hidden gems of comedy from its deep supporting cast of oddballs. The main characters do fine work pushing at the boundaries of their stock archetypes, with Kiely as the wild man standout. There’s a definite love for the material here, over zombies and dumb comedies and the bonds of friendship. It’s evident in the care taken to creating a movie that doesn’t seem like it was churned out of a Hollywood assembly line, or something calculatingly checking the genre boxes (though the nudity does seem to linger a bit long…). Not everything always works but it’s a movie that tries a multitude of options. Bong of the Living Dead zigs instead of zags, undercutting the characters and our own expectations, finding ways to surprise as well as elate, and that includes going all-in on drama toward the end. It’s a silly movie that just might make you feel something by the time the credits roll. I don’t know what the release plans are for this homegrown horror flick, so stay alert for it on the horizon. Toke up, Backwards Slate Productions. You’ve earned it.
Nate’s Grade: B
American Made is a movie that floats by on the sheer enjoyment of Tom Cruise’s charismatic, devil-may-care performance as Barry Seal, a man who flew secret missions for the CIA, Colombian drug cartels, and Nicaraguan contras. It’s an appealing story with fun anecdotes of a scoundrel playing all sides against each other. Seal is unrepentantly without introspection and is simply having the time of his life. Under Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise’s sly performance, the movie flies by on good vibes until its inevitable crash once Seal cannot get out of the mess he’s made for himself. The film doesn’t have much in the way of depth or commentary on Seal’s actions or the CIA’s. Domnhall Gleeson (The Revenant) plays the enigmatic CIA handler who brings Seal into action and plots behind the scenes, and I wish he had a larger presence in the film. His character is the closest the film approaches legitimate satire. Other supporting characters leave little impression or have such limited roles, from Sarah Wright’s complicit wife, to Caleb Landry Jones’ bizarre screw-up of a brother-in-law, to Jesse Plemons as a small-town sheriff, to Jayma Mays as a frazzled prosecutor who can’t take down Seal. The near-escapes and comical skirting of legal consequences provide enough interest without making the film seem episodic. I’m even struggling to say more about the film because that’s how quickly it evaporates from memory. American Made isn’t going to make much more than a fleeting impression, but it’s fun while it lasts and a reminder about how entertaining movies can be when paired with a magnetic actor cutting loose.
Nate’s Grade: B
One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.
James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.
I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.
It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.
As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.
The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.
With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.
The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.
Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.
Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.
Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.
Brigsby Bear: A-
Dave Made a Maze: C+
Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny guy but he also might just break your heart and then mend it. He and his real-life wife Emily Gordon met in Chicago and weeks into their courtship she was placed into a medically induced coma to combat a mysterious unknown infection. She could have died (spoiler alert: she didn’t), and months after she and Kumail married. It’s a very unconventional relationship story (boy gets girl, girl gets coma, boy and girl get together) and the basis of The Big Sick. This romantic comedy, written by Nanjiani and Gordon, was a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is now expanding across the nation. This is a born crowd-pleaser, one of the funniest films in years, and a heart-warming reminder of the pleasures of rom-coms done well.
Kumail (Nanjiani) is a Chicago stand-up comedian trying to catch his big break. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student in psychology. They try and keep things casual but cannot help growing closer to one another. Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family is adamant he marry a Pakistani girl, enough that there’s always one unexpectedly “in the neighborhood” during family dinners with their son. They would never approve Kumail marrying an American woman, and this stops him from introducing Emily to his parents. Kumail and Emily fight, break up, and it’s shortly thereafter that Emily is put into a medically induced coma. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are thankful but wary of Kumail at first, feeling his attention is no longer required on the matter. As the days turn into weeks, Kumail finds himself growing closer to Emily and her parents in the process.
The Big Sick succeeds wildly because it gets the most fundamental principal of storytelling right: we care about the characters. Over the course of the film, you grow attached to Kumail and Emily and their very unorthodox situation. We want them to find happiness and, more importantly in a rom-com genre, we want them to find it with each other. The characters in the movie are beautifully rendered and relatable. Their faults and relationship troubles aren’t the stuff of contrived drama but recognizable differences and cross-cultural pressures of acceptance and disappointment. He may be a stand-up comedian, and she may have fallen into a coma for an unknown medical reason, but you will relate to both of these people. They don’t feel like archetypes. Even as Kumail is making amends for his mistakes the movie doesn’t paint him as a saint worth automatic forgiveness. Considering this was written by the real-life Emily, it should be no spoiler to state that she does eventually come out of that coma. Her life is automatically better and while Kumail has only grown more steadfast in his feelings for her, Emily was asleep. For her, it’s like moments after they broke up due to an incompatible future. She’s thankful for what Kumail has done but she doesn’t want to be with him. That’s the second act break, folks. A lesser movie would have Emily’s awakening serve as its climax and everything would be hunky-dory while an earnest pop-rock song would play over. With The Big Sick, the last act is dealing with the consequences of her coma, and Emily is allowed her agency once more to make decisions all her own. It’s easy to project a progression of romance onto a static being, but she needs to travel at her own speed and on her own terms. I won’t lie; the final act produced some meaty tears from me.
Another hallmark of Judd Apatow productions that I don’t think gets enough acclaim is the sheer generosity of the screenwriting. These movies spread out the love to a wide ensemble of characters that deserve consideration. There are stock comedy types that pop in for the occasional easy laugh, like David Alan Grier’s coked-out club owner or Kurt Braunohler as the painfully inept comedian, but as a whole The Big Sick offers a welcomed kindness to its larger cast. Even Kumail’s arranged dates are given the opportunity to come across like people, particularly Khadija (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell) who is tired of not being able to enjoy what seems so easy for others. The fussy Pakistani family is played to be stern and uncompromising but they too have their moments. They are worried about losing their sense of culture through full assimilation, and they have an alternate view of family, one that involves self-sacrifice for the whole. The best additions to the movie are Emily’s parents. They don’t initially know what to make of Kumail but they eventually bond to him in different ways. Beth is fighting to control something out of her control and Terry is trying to keep everything calm. There is still lingering discomfort buried in their marriage from past indiscretions, and during times of crises it can reappear, forcing Kumail into an unexpected position. The movie’s sense of people is so warm-hearted and open, you just want to spend more time with them all, and it’s a simple yet beautiful pleasure to watch them connect.
Oh my lord is this movie funny too, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has seen Nanjiani’s standup routines before (extra points for not overly relying upon standup in the film for easy jokes). I was laughing from start to finish and there’s a consistent placement of jokes doled out in regular intervals. And when I was laughing it was the room-clearing guffaws. I can’t remember a movie in recent years that had me laughing as hard. Nanjiani’s deadpan is a thing of beauty and his comic timing is razor-sharp, and yet his sense of humor doesn’t detract from the weightier moments. Because the movie has such a heavy life-and-death backdrop, it’s important to have release valves for the audience, and that’s what the diligent comedy allows. It’s a bittersweet sense of comedy that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character and the weight of the drama. In fact the least funny parts in the film are likely the standup comedy friends, though no fault to Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, both generally very funny people.
Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley) is a pleasant surprise as a dramatic actor. There are some very dramatic moments when his character is unburdening himself of regrets, fears, and frustrations, and Nanjiani is terrific, pooling emotions you didn’t think were so readily available in his acting toolkit. He makes Kumail a likeable and charming man. There’s also an undercurrent of conflict avoidance, not wanting to upset his conservative family, which leads to holding onto secrets. It’s a flaw that provides an instant direction for character growth, going from avoidant to assertive. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) has the tougher job considering she’s sidelined for half of the movie. Her portrayal of Emily is winsome without falling into a dangerously quirky territory (no Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Thankfully, she’s allowed her agency after waking from the coma, and her scenes with Kumail afterward walk that delicate line of emotions that leave us hanging. Hunter (Batman vs. Superman) and Romano (TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) are both wonderful. They serve as a form of Emily proxies and when Kumail grows closer to them, and they grow closer to him, it feels like this small support group is becoming an appealing team.
The Big Sick is a big crowd-pleaser, lifted to great heights by terrific acting, writing, and direction from Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris). The director actually lampooned rom-com clichés in the hilarious satire, They Came Together, so having someone as instinctively skilled like Showalter guide the production helps steer away from the more expected genre moments. There are a handful of moments that feel pulled in from the Hollywood version of this story (Kumail’s big break timed with a very personal crossroads) but it mostly works on its own terms. These people are layered, allowed to be flawed and interesting human beings. It’s an unsentimental movie that finds ways to big emotions that feel completely earned. If you’re ailing for an enjoyable, funny, and heart-warming movie that respects your intelligence, try The Big Sick.
Nate’s Grade: A-