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The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

I very much enjoyed 2017’s The Babysitter from the very start. The characters had such vitality to them, Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) gave a star-making performance, and it was a wild ride while also having an emotional core with the relationship between the babysitter and her charge, a designated Satanic sacrifice. It was silly, clever, but also satisfying with its character dynamics, and it proved successful for Netflix so they felt, well, why not do it all again? The Babysitter sequel, subtitled Killer Queen, has a strong whiff of desperation trying to awkwardly rekindle the good times. The original writer, Brian Duffield, is not here as a writer but returning director McG is one of the credited writers, which made me wary. Sequel-itis plagues the story as our surviving teen Cole (Judah Lewis) gets into ANOTHER tight spot with ANOTHER group of Satanists looking to sacrifice him to make their dreams come true, and it also happens to also include the SAME supporting villains from the first movie. Even the cheeky onscreen titles go, “Again?!” Why must these killer Satanists only obsessed with this one specific kid as a sacrifice? Diversify your options, folks. It all feels more of the same but just not as good, not as memorable, and not as entertaining. It’s a low-investment movie, something where your ceiling of demands is already pretty generous, so if you enjoy comically over-the-top gore then there are a few moments that might make this sequel palatable. It’s a movie with a “so what?” attitude, adopting a flippant nihilism that makes the attempts at drama a little more forced and inauthentic when they occur, not that the comedy is much better outside the splatterhouse violence. The ending is also rather anticlimactic because it simultaneously involves a deus ex machina while also finding a way to be derivative of another very memorable ending of another Samara Weaving movie. I didn’t think a sequel was needed, and I wasn’t expecting much from a sequel, and I got about what I was expecting. The Babysitter: Killer Queen is a fast-paced and amenable work of cinematic junk food, a genre movie that might have enough genre elements to prove tasty, but by hewing so close to the original, Killer Queen feels more imitation than imagination, and it’s clearly inferior to the original.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Veronica Mars (2014)

rs_634x945-140110122132-634.veronica-mars.cm.11013More people know the name Veronica Mars now than probably combined from its short-run on TV from 2004-2007, and that’s squarely because of its record-breaking haul brought in through the fundraising site, Kickstarter. Within hours, the project had already raised two million dollars, on its way to over five and a half million, enough for a long-awaited movie that fans have been teased with ever since the series cancellation. Creator Rob Thomas and his actors were beside themselves in gratitude to their fans (dubbed “marshmallows”). Fueled by the eager hopes of its fans, the movie went into production and is now available for digital download to many of its donors and in a handful of theaters.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has left behind her hometown of Neptune, California. She’s on the verge of signing with a major New York law firm, and an old friend comes calling. Veronica’s former flame, Logan (Jason Dohring), has recently lost his pop star girlfriend, also a Neptune graduate. He’s suspected of being the killer but he swears his innocence. With the promise of her assistance only lasting a few days, she flies back home and reunited with her old friends (Mac, Wallace, Weevil, Dick) and her father, private investigator Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni). Veronica should go back to New York with her boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), she should accept the job offer from the firm, but she can’t help herself fall back into old patterns. She misses the danger, the intrigue, and maybe enough, Logan himself.

VERONICA MARSThe curious case of Veronica Mars: The Movie is that it was truly made for the fans, those 90,000 people who contributed to their Kickstarter goal. It’s not made for the casual moviegoer who has no foundation with the television series. That’s not to say that Thomas doesn’t try and make the film more inclusive. The neophyte could reasonably follow along, and there is a fast-paced prologue to catch the audience up on the major developments of the series, though almost all from season one. A non-fan could watch this movie but I have no idea what they would get out of it because they would be missing all the connections and context that provide the depth. In a way, this situation reminds me of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Unless you were a fan of Lynch’s iconic thought short-lived TV series, there was no way you were going to follow along or be interesting in following along. It was a movie made for its fan base, and there’s nothing wrong with that though it always helps to provide enough entertainment to prove to the newbies why they should be fans in the first place. I don’t think the Veronica Mars film is able to achieve this. Sure, I enjoyed myself but that was because of my pre-existing fan club and my years-in-the-making desire to finally see proper closure to the characters I came to care about. I feel like someone without that devotion would watch the 105 minutes of Veronica Mars and question what all the fuss was about.

That’s because at feature-length, Veronica Mars is really more of an extended episode of the TV show, and not one of the top tier episodes. As a debut film director, Thomas does a serviceable job of recreating the series noir visuals. The mystery is sufficient if a little dull, lacking a strong sense of urgency throughout most since Logan is already walking around free of charges. The real anchor of the story is bringing Veronica back to Neptune and bringing her back into the family business. The class injustice was a hallmark of the TV series but it’s merely one more slightly malnourished storyline cluttering up the narrative. There are no real reasons to check in on so many characters beyond the fact that it provides resolution for fans. A ten-year high school reunion seems engineered just for this purpose, allowing the new old faces to all reappear again and catch us up. There are characters that appear in near-cameo form (though the surprise celebrity cameo is quite amusing). Even the romance feels mostly grafted onto the story because the core audience demands Veronica and Logan reunite, in all senses. It just becomes a matter of time waiting for the inevitable, as it is with all romantic comedies, except the romance is sidelined here until it isn’t. As a film, it doesn’t feel organically handled that Veronica would leap back into Logan’s arms, and so soon, unless, of course, you are one of those fans (I know MANY) who have been waiting seven years for that moment. Fan service is one thing but it shouldn’t detract from the internal logic of the featured story.

vm3What does still work are all the hallmarks of the TV show, even if they are less effectively showcased for first-timers. The plucky, sarcastic nature of Veronica still turns her into a heroine worth rooting for, a force of will that has her flaws as well. Bell (Frozen, TV’s House of Lies) can just about do it all, from goofy to heartfelt to ferocious. It’s clear how much she adores this character she helped bring to life ten years ago. The father/daughter relationship is warmly affectionate without dipping into sappy territory. The dialogue is still snappy, though having late twenty-somethings saying it rather than high schoolers has dulled some of the edge. There’s also the sleazy addition of older men hitting on Veronica now that she’s officially out of high school, so hooray. The season-long mysteries of the series, while satisfying and twisty, were secondary to the characters, and watching the overall jovial camaraderie of the cast, is a reminder at how much fans adore these people.

I can objectively critique the faults in the film, as I’ve tried to do for a couple paragraphs, but this is a movie where I set aside my critic hat and merge with the fans. I too contributed to the Kickstarter because I’ve been dying for a sense of closure for one of the best TV shows in the mid-aughts. The finale of season three left much of the show in doubt; Thomas was not counting on cancellation. While fan fiction can run rampant in these circumstances in order to cater to fan demands, it doesn’t compare to the creator being given a reprieve to tie up as many loose ends as possible. That’s the greatest accomplishment of the Veronica Mars movie is that it feels like a genuinely satisfying sense of closure for the fans. While not every storyline is wrapped up, like for instance Weevil’s path, it ends on a point where you can reasonably guess where the characters would continue from here onward if we were never to check in with them again. This is a good resting place. But given the runaway success of the Kickstarter campaign, maybe Warner Brothers could be convinced there are more stories to be told here. I’m cautiously optimistic but really Thomas has already given the fans just about everything they could want, unless they were the Veronica/”Piz” minority of shippers.

Whatever you think of the final product, Veronica Mars: The Movie has changed the way movies can get financed. Smaller boutique films with a passionate fanbase can now get the ball rolling, putting their money into a down payment on seeing their dream movie becomes a reality, convincing studio heads to roll the dice with less risk. I invite all newcomers to watch the series, since that is where it was best. As a film, it’s enjoyable enough and satisfying for the fervent fans, supplying needed closure. However, for people that don’t already have connections to these characters and this world, I don’t think there’s enough going on in the movie to attract a larger discipleship.

Nate’s Grade: B

In a World… (2013)

In_a_World_posterActress Lake Bell’s writing/directing debut, In a World, is a comical look inside the world of voice acting, particular in the field of movie trailers. It’s an interesting world and told with enough comic acumen by Bell (TV’s Children’s Hospital), a serious student of vocal artists. She plays Carol, a woman who breaks into the trailer voice over biz, causing ripples in a field dominated by baritone-voiced men, like her legendary father (a perfectly unctuous Fred Melamed) who holds to sexist dictum. There’s a cute romance involved with Demetri Martin, an effective subplot about Carol’s sister having an affair, and an ongoing commentary about the uncomfortable infantilized voice many young women utilize. The story is threatened by a percolating mistaken identity rom-com convention, but thankfully regroups for a third act pitting father against daughter in vocal performance, as it should be. As a director, Bell has a steady feel for her scenes, following a subdued comic rhythm that also feels eccentric without going overboard. As a writer, she gives her characters space to grow, to make mistakes, and to triumph but not without complications. As an actress, Bell is charming and a terrific lead anchor for a film filled with likeable, quirky characters. In a World is a little movie but it’s effortlessly cute, winning and pleasant in the right places, and filled with a great cast of comic actors. Beware: upon exiting the film, it is unavoidable that you will do your own fake trailer “In a world…” impressions.

Nate’s Grade: B

For a Good Time, Call (2012)

Given the success of the female-centric mega hit Bridesmaids, it was only a matter of time before we got a slew of girls-behaving-naughty R-rated sex comedies. Enter the phone sex comedy For a Good Time, Call, which has the distinction of being co-written by Seth Rogen’s real-life wife, Lauren Miller, who also stars in the film. It advertises a good time and mostly delivers, though you might not think as much about the movie in the cold light of day.

Lauren (Miller) has just been dumped by her self-involved boyfriend and fired from her job. She’s looking for a new place to live when a mutual friend sets her up with a huge New York City apartment. The catch: her roommate is Katie (Ari Graynor), an acquaintance from college she has despised ever since a very horrifying party foul of seismic proportions. Katie’s going to lose her posh home unless she gets a roommate, so the women reach a mutual understanding. Then one day, listening to Katie’s hyperactive sexual noises, Lauren discovers how her roommate really pays the bills. She’s been running a phone sex line and getting guys off for $3.99 a minute. Lauren decides to get involved in the business end, and before long the ladies have become a professional outlet and roll in their riches. Invigorated, Lauren starts experimenting herself, letting her freak flag fly, and before long she’s also getting in on the calls.

Graynor is no stranger to stealing a movie, as she did perfectly in the sweetly unassuming 2008 teen romance, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. This girl has had the markings of a star for years and finally she’s found the vehicle to showcase her comedic vivaciousness. To say Graynor makes this movie is an understatement to her talents. Graynor is this movie’s pulse, its lifeblood, its font of energy, its wickedness, its exuberance, its very soul. This woman is amazing. She can take a simple line and with an effortless dose of comedic verve, it can become a gut-buster. I could watch twelve movies in a row with Graynor playing at this level of exciting excellence. The part is pretty familiar, the dirty girl who has problem with a filter, but Graynor makes the most of every opportunity. I loved her adorable theatricality, like a foxy, younger, brassy Bette Midler (God, did I ever think I’d string those words together?). I loved her enthusiastic hip shake, wearing large body stockings, while singing, “I’m ready to beat date rape!” Naturally, Katie gets all the best lines but her interplay with Lauren also works well. When the movie focuses on Lauren, and by extension the unremarkable performance by Miller, you start to feel things slag. Lauren is passive becoming active, but really even by the end she can still be cited as boring. Katie is active, hungry, brash, charming, and wonderfully portrayed by Graynor, and when she dominates, you’ll ask for more.

Except for the lively theatrics from Graynor, the movie can often feel hung up on generic sitcom plot devices and character generalities. The premise itself is perfectly fine, but the movie seems to exist in some randy fantasy world. We still have a main character in the world of publishing that will obviously be offered the Big Job at an inopportune personal time (as movies have shown, every human being on the planet either works in publishing, advertising, or theater). And then there’s the Bad Boyfriend, who breaks up with our heroine in the opening moments of the movie because they are “boring” together. Any guesses whether he shows up late as well, begging her back? I’d probably be more forgiving of these contrived plot turns if the movie did more to present Lauren and Katie as real characters. As written, they are pigeonholed into opposites (prude/wild woman) and rarely do we learn more about them. Lauren loosens up, Katie gains some self-respect, and they girls becomes BFFs. That development I found rather unconvincing, probably because there was little development. All of a sudden Lauren has an interest in joining the business, and one montage later, the girls have buried the hatchet. It feels like everything changed overnight. The attempts to ladle in some forced sweetness feels, in some regards, more crass than the sex jokes. I’ll credit the movie for keeping me amused while watching, but upon further reflection, the girls and their relationship feels rather slapdash and rote.

The comedy itself gets too easily complacent with all those naughty words bandied about. Oh sure there’s plenty of effective jokes about sexually frank conversations, and the inherently awkward nature of phone sex mechanics, but For A Good Time, Call seems too easily satisfied. I wish that Miller and co-writer Katie Anne Naylor had pushed their comedic setups further, had taken a few more left turns rather than settling for the familiar sex gag. Here’s an example: Lauren’s prissy parents make an unexpected visit and the girls have to hide their business particulars. That’s a fine starting point, but where else does it go? The comic tension is too easily resolved instead of escalated. Then, surprise, the parents make a SECOND unexpected visit. This time the sex decorations are prominently displayed. We’re waiting for some good comedic tension, some squirming, but again, it’s over before the good stuff can even get going (am I right, ladies?). The Justin Long (Going the Distance) flamboyantly gay friend is never as funny as the movie thinks he is. There’s a scene where Lauren is interrupted while masturbating, but we only realize after the fact when the joke is already over. Why introduce such a scenario if you were just going to settle for a weak “smelly finger” joke? Perhaps I would find the material funnier if I was a woman, relating more to the female dynamic on screen, but do you see how condescending that line of thinking gets? I unabashedly adored Bridesmaids (my #3 film of that year). I don’t think anyone needs to grade a comedy on a curve for any reason, especially if they think they’re trying to be polite.

I’m not going to make more or less of its sexual politics than what is presented. I think there is genuine merit when women take ownership of their sexuality. Why should women feel judged for wanting equality when bedroom activities and impulses are concerned? Whatever helps people build a healthy self-image should be championed, as long as it’s between consenting adults. Watching Katie and Lauren personally grow based upon their unique entrepreneurship is welcomed. However, I can’t help but shake my feelings that there is something lurking, some deeper sub current that is not worth celebrating because the movie seems to play into male fantasy. Even though I adored Graynor, I think it would have served the film better if the more sexually-liberated character, the pro when it comes to working the phones, was actually a less attractive woman, perhaps a mousy gal you’d never expect such lurid behavior from. I think that would offer more comedic potential as well. I think this would also puncture some of the airbrushed fantasy of the film’s cheescake world of a phone sex line.

I have my complaints but I was laughing fairly regularly and enjoyed the experience, so if you’re just looking for a good time at the movies you can consider For A Good Time, Call. Watching Graynor sink her teeth into her role and go full gusto is a rowdy pleasure, and it’s easy to see that this woman is a star. The smutty jokes are fun and offer plenty of ribald laughs, but I always felt like the movie was too complacent, too settled, and curiously clumsy when it came to comic payoffs. The film is pretty flatly directed by Jamie Travis. The characters are pretty thin, and the plot feels ripped from a flimsy TV sitcom, but I laughed aplenty and found the movie difficult to dislike. It’s not the most nuanced sex comedy, or the most ribald, but For a Good Time, Call delivers enough big jokes and Graynor is too sensational to miss.

Nate’s Grade: B

Role Models (2008)

Is there an actor alive more charming than Paul Rudd? The always-affable actor has a terrific sarcastic yet lovable presence that never dips into being glib. Role Models is a great showcase for his sly comedic talents. The plot of irresponsible adults (Rudd, Sean William Scott) learning to be responsible by being big brothers to problem kids (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson) is mostly conventional, but it’s the character camaraderie that makes the movie special. Watching the cast interact is a great pleasure, and they constantly add sustained laughs that seem organic to the plot and the characters. I found myself laughing out loud steadily, and although the ending is a bit formulaic I was amused that film didn’t break character once. It goes for gusto when it comes to embracing the geekery and cheesiness of a climactic medieval battle. There are witty running gags, rewarding payoffs, and the film even packs some heart, though it never gets sentimental. Combine a wicked comedic turn by the daffy Jane Lynch and some added Elizabeth Banks sparkle, and it all adds up into what might be the most satisfying mainstream comedy in a non-Judd Apatow-directed year.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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