A straight shot of infectious silliness, Barb and Star is a delightfully daffy comedy that is so pleasant and knowingly goofy, without being annoyingly self-conscious, that it flies by on that elevated level of artistic irony that few films seem capable of mastering. Written by its lead actresses, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie follows two talky and cheerful best friends traveling to Florida for fun and frivolity and finding themselves in the middle of a ridiculous spy adventure with a James Bond-level villain and scheme. Barb and Star is ridiculous from beginning to end and also ridiculously funny. I was laughing consistently and had a smile plastered on my face for the majority of the running time. It’s so unabashedly silly and light-hearted and while it doesn’t talk down to its audience it also never takes itself too serious either. It’s high-grade fluff, but if you’re a fan of the sublimely silly kind of comedy from the likes of David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together) then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. The consistency of this very narrow and congenial tone, while maintaining an ironic wavelength that is so specific, and so easy to miss, is just an impressive comedy accomplishment. I was tickled by a plurality of musical numbers, including one by Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) pining for his supervillain boss (also played by Wiig) who is clearly just not into him. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is colorful, cheerful, and unabashedly goofy and so finely executed that I never needed it to be anything more.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Big, colorful, and brimming with optimism easy to scoff at, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is finally here to save Christmas and maybe movie theaters and it’s an escapist treat. It won’t register among the best of superhero cinema but will likely keep a smile on your face.
In 1984, Diana (Gald Gadot) is working at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and fighting crime as her costumed alter ego. She’s never quite moved on from the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back in WWI and she dearly needs some friends. Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a mousy co-worker who comes across a mystical artifact, a rock that magically grants wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong like her boss/idol Diana and she gains new intoxicating power. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a wannabe TV pitchman and an empty suit, fleecing investors and barely keeping ahead of his own Ponzi scheme. He learns of the magic rock and wishes himself to become the rock itself, turning him into a living genie. From there, Max’s wishes are spinning out of control, placing the world in greater crisis. Diana is torn because, before Max absconded with the wish rock, she wished for her heart’s desire, the return of Steve. Stopping Max and reversing the effect of the wishes means having to say goodbye to Steve all over again.
The original Wonder Woman was a break from the pallid doom and gloom motifs that Zack Snyder established, and the sequel goes even further with its candy-colored recreation of the 1980s. I was wondering if there would be a good reason to set the movie specifically during the 80s, and it’s mostly for the Cold War and Yuppies. I was pleasantly surprised that Jenkins and company don’t overdo the 80s nostalgia or the fish-out-of-water comedy for Steve Trevor. I thought this was going to be the entire reason for the throwback setting, and this time instead of Diana marveling at a modern world she did not understand it would be Steve. If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, then you’ve seen all of those jokes at Steve’s expense. That’s it. WW84 can manage to surprise you, mostly in a pleasant manner. Its sincerity is its biggest virtue. It’s a movie about plenty of goofy things but at its core it’s about relatable desires and struggle.
WW84 is an improvement over the original in the action department. Returning director Patty Jenkins feels freed of emulating Snyder’s house style and brings a welcomed sense of levity and playfulness to the action. The fight choreography makes significant use of Diana’s lasso, opening up the playing field for her to swing around wildly, at times even literally riding the lightning. At points the lasso seems to have a mind of its own and able to divide into fragments. It’s something that helps separate WW84 from the glut of other superhero movies and it offers pleasing visual variance for the fights. There’s a car chase midway through the film where Diana has to leap from speeding truck to speeding truck, dodging goon gunfire. It’s an exciting and sustained action sequence, yet even across the Middle East, chase clichés will reappear, like dumb kids playing in the street ignorant to any emerging noise like a caravan of speeding vehicles. Jenkins seems even more adept behind the camera for the action, delivering big stunts and memorable spectacle ready to make a splash on a big screen. However, some of the CGI can be shockingly dodgy for a big-budget blockbuster and a final confrontation with a CGI-hybrid creature unfortunately reminded me of the lamentable Cats.
The magic wish rock setup shouldn’t be any harder to believe than, say, a secret island of immortal female warriors or just about anything in the absurd and absurdly entertaining 2018 Aquaman feature film. If I can accept a drumming octopus, I can accept a magic wish rock. WW84 hinges on the concept of the drawbacks of creating your own false reality where every wish comes with a cost and an increasing flood of alarming consequences. It it better to just accept the comfort of lies or accept hard truths? The characters even name-check the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw recognizing the ironic trap. That doesn’t stop characters from struggling with the pull of their burning desires, and it makes for an agreeable return for Steve Trevor. Ever since it was revealed that Pine’s character was returning, I was worried what the possible explanations could have been, pessimistic it would be satisfying. Is he going to be a clone? Reincarnation? The grandson who happens to look identical? The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham finds a way to make it work by bringing him back through magic but with restrictions. In a very Source Code sort of style, Steve is operating in someone else’s body, but only Diana sees Steve. It’s a decision that frames the return in a personal way that also reminds us what is eating at her. It’s been 70 years and she hasn’t moved on from the man she loved, which can be viewed as sad, romantic, and unquestionably unhealthy. It’s a familiar character arc, having to move on from a loved one and accept grief, but it still works, and it humanizes this mighty Amazon warrior woman. It’s a worthwhile development that opens up these living gods into emotional, vulnerable beings.
With the wish plot comes some gripes and lingering questions. I kept asking, “Is everyone simply not seeing what’s happening?” or, “Is everyone forgetting what has happened?” The scale of the wish consequences is substantial and very public but it never feels like the world is registering just how fantastic these supernatural shenanigans are. In 1984, Wonder Woman is fighting crime as a hobby but still not a named and identified hero. The world does not seem aware of the presence of super beings and amazing powers living among us. So as Max continues his wish-granting ways there are immediate consequences of huge staggering scale, but nobody seems to register how weird and not normal things are, like a giant 50-foot wall suddenly appearing in Egypt. People should be asking what is going on or what others are doing. Therein lies the lingering problem with setting this movie in the past. Much like the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, the events presented generate questions to why future-set movies seem to be ignorant of these same events. If Wonder Woman comes forward and addresses the world, why is she still hiding her identity in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman? And if she learns more about her own super abilities, why does she not make use of these very helpful skills in 2017’s Justice League? These sound like quibbles, and they mostly are, but the movie would have benefited from being a little more judicious with its rules and applications because I started wondering if everyone was oblivious.
I was genuinely surprised how much screen time and consideration was afforded to the primary villain. No, I’m not talking about Barbara/Cheetah, who could have been completely cut from the film. I’m talking about Max Lord. He’s arguably in the film as much as Diana. He’s a con man trying to be a successful TV pitchman and oil tycoon but really he’s trying to be a “somebody” to make his son proud. The problem is that his goal always seems to be just out of reach no matter what is gained. This part confused me. After successful wishes with power and money, Max seems to desperately continue searching for more. I suppose it could just be a general “power-hungry corruption” explanation but I kept asking when enough was enough, and that’s likely the point. I don’t know if Max Lord is a character deserving of this much consideration, but the approach appeals to the film’s empathetic mentality that no one is beyond reach. Rather than the villain having to be physically defeated, WW84 rests on emotionally appealing to a broken man’s sense of self. It makes for a more intriguing conclusion in a superhero realm than merely out-punching the CGI antagonist, like the clunky, lumbering finale from the prior Wonder Woman movie.
The conclusion of WW84 rests upon millions having to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, which is a lovely sentiment that we could all use at this point after a dispiriting 2020. However, this year has also proven for me that the conclusion of WW84 is pure escapist fantasy. Throughout a deadly pandemic, the United States has been beset by too many people refusing to endure inconveniences in the name of protecting others and saving lives from COVID-19. The cost-benefit doesn’t add up for many if they can’t see the results, never mind the harsh yet sterile reality of over 300,000 dead Americans and counting aided by this selfish obstinance.
Gadot might not ever escape the long shadow of playing a famous superhero but she’s settled into the role nicely and even gets to flex some untapped acting muscles. I was skeptical of Gadot early when she was hired but became a believer in 2017. She definitely has an unmistakable presence onscreen. Gadot’s best moments aren’t even the punching and kicking, which she does with gusto, but the moments where she has to make grand appeals and hard decisions. There are a few emotional moments where Gadot’s familiarity with the character blends together and she and the filmmakers are not afraid to show strength in other ways other than brawn. Gadot still has a very enjoyable chemistry with Pine (Hell or High Water) that makes them a winning pair. One of the film’s highlights is a personal flight through fireworks that delivers sheer joy for Steve Trevor. His awe about the future and getting one more spin with life itself is heartwarming. Pascal (The Mandalorian) is going big and hammy with his performance that reminded me of the Richard Donner Superman movies. Wiig (Ghostbusters) is the big miss for me. She’s not convincing as a threatening foe and her early scenes as a klutzy, put-upon dweeb feel overdone and yet insufficient. We needed more establishment of Barbara’s life before her wish to better recognize why she would never want to go back. One reoccurring street harasser doesn’t cut it.
Wonder Woman 1984 is fun, splashy, and doesn’t lose sight of its characters and their emotional states even as it elevates the world-annihilation stakes. It’s a movie that seems more confident in its identity than the first film. It accepts that it can be silly, it can be sincere, it can be exciting, it can be smaller and more personal, it can be hokey, it can appeal to your best self. It’s overly long (the opening flashback of young Dianna in the Amazon Games could have been ditched entirely) and not everything works, but the problems are easier to digest and forgive with what does work. It might be the last blockbuster for some time given the uncertain theatrical landscape so I’ll take it. WW84 isn’t the swaggering solo venture the first film proved to be, but I would say it still makes for a mostly satisfying and fun experience that plays to the strength of the creative team.
Nate’s Grade: B-
How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Alexander Payne is not exactly the first name you would think of when it comes to science fiction. The man has a history of road trip comedies, average Midwestern men, mid-life crises, and the colorful miscreants of society. The fact that the director of Sideways and The Descendants is tackling The Incredible Shrinking Man is a bold move. Payne is outside his comfort zone with Downsizing, and it shows at points. While never quite satisfying the possibilities of its premise, Downsizing is still worth watching for its memorable moments and for the sheer brilliance of one outstanding performance.
In the not-too-distant future, science has developed the technology to shrink human beings to five inches tall, approximately 1/100th of their size. A middle-income couple can live like the top one percent because their money goes further. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a schlubby, regular guy suffering from the ennui of a job he hates and a life that feels unfulfilled. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to undergo the downsizing procedure, which is irreversible. Paul’s wife backs out at the last minute but he doesn’t find out until after he’s gone small. Now with a McMansion all to himself, Paul has to readjust to what he thought his new life would be like. He moves into a condo and shirks the offers to join the parties of his hedonist neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Paul finally decides to live life and embraces new experiences, the biggest befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady who was downsized against her will for being an overseas political activist. Paul feels drawn to this woman and she opens his eyes to the larger world around him.
The strangest part of Payne’s movie is that the main thrust of the story could have been told without all of the science fiction dross. This is very much a romantic comedy/drama that follows the formula of a man jilted at the altar who has to get his life back together, finds someone new who changes his perspective on life, and then they get together by the end. You could have plucked this story and set it in an ordinary world and it still would have worked, which begs the question whether the world of Downsizing is properly applied. The consumer commentary seems muddled, with the rationale for downsizing being helping the planet, reducing the population so to speak, but really it’s an escape into a fantasy of wealth. People are downsizing so they can live in luxury and leisure. This should set up Payne for his incisive brand of satire as he skewers the selfish and self-righteous foibles of mankind, except that doesn’t really happen. Sure, eventually in the second half the movie opens up its tiny world a little wider, revealing the not-so-hidden subculture of immigrant labor toiling away to keep everything stable and pretty. It’s obvious social commentary and rarely does it go a step further than just recognition. And so the film becomes another in a long line of movies about a man who must be shaken from his malaise and enjoy the possibilities of life he never knew existed. Downsizing eventually ignores its sci-fi conceit to tell a relatively ordinary tale of self-actualization.
Payne’s premise would have best been explored through the more open parameters of a television series. Downsizing is an interesting concept that leads to other natural questions over how this tiny world operates and also how it interacts with the larger community. There’s a small scene where a drunk overhears Paul’s plan to shrink and argues that little people shouldn’t be granted the same voting rights as “normal-sized” citizens. The normies contribute more to society and should be given more credit, he argues, before being shooed away. This political division could have made for an interesting topic of reflection itself, but like many of Payne’s pit stops, it comes and goes after whetting your appetite for further examination. What about a story where downsizing is a punishment to do away with the “undesirables” of a nation? A TV series would have allowed more room to explore, with finer nuance, the details and possibilities of this fanciful world. Payne allows his movie to breathe, taking extended jaunts on different ideas but rarely enough to satisfy your sense of curiosity. The last act takes place at the original downsized colony in Norway, though at their diminutive size I wonder if it took them months to travel in Dusan’s yacht. It’s meant to think about what will come after humankind has passed the point of no return when it comes to climate change. Paul has to rethink what he wants his legacy to be and what meaning his life will have, which then pushes him into a rather simplistic choice of go with the girl or the cause. Given the rest of the movie’s focus, you shouldn’t be surprised what decision he ultimately makes.
However, the real reason you should legitimately see Downsizing is for the astounding, star-making, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies). I cannot recall another movie where a character comes in at the halfway mark and just takes over completely, single-handedly lifting the movie up. Every moment she is onscreen is made better. You’ve never seen a character in a mainstream movie quite like Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a political dissident, amputee, and lower-class cleaning woman who teaches Paul about the class divides. Tran is tragic, comic, caustic, lovable, and Chau is an acting revelation. I’ve read several reviews that found her to be a cringe-worthy, borderline racist depiction of an Asian woman meant to be laughed at, and I strongly disagree. At no point was I laughing at Tran because of her status, her ethnicity, or her broken English cadences. I was laughing because she was a force of nature that blew away the pretensions of others, that cut to the chase, and spoke her mind in a carefree and honest manner. Her matter-of-fact affectations are so perfectly delivered in accordance with the character’s personality. There are moments where her character is being set up for one thing and Tran goes entirely in another direction, and whereas you might have laughed at the start she surprisingly earns other emotions. Take for instance a scene where Dusan tries to ditch her by making an excuse about a sudden travel commitment. Tran takes this moment and turns it into a genuinely poignant monologue about the unexpected nature of fate. By the end she’s crying out of sheer elation, and those tears are not meant for ridicule. Downsizing realizes what an asset it has and makes her the deserved focal point of the second half. You’ll fall in love with her too. Chau doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination; she deserves to win everything.
Downsizing is an episodic high-concept comedy where the shrinking is irrelevant to the main storyline that evolves over two plus hours. This is an adult movie that explores some mature topics with surprising time and scrutiny, and then it can also be a simplistic rom-com that misses the mark on larger, Swiftian social satire. It’s another story in a long line of disaffected, middle-aged men finding their groove again, except then it becomes the story of a Vietnamese activist and her unique persona. Hong Chau is the reason you should see Downsizing above all. She doesn’t so much steal her scenes as just take full ownership over the back half of the movie. Her performance is so uniformly excellent that you wish the rest of Payne’s uneven movie could meet her commitment. There are a lot of ideas here that seem to get brushed aside for the conventional formula of a romantic union, even if the pairing is rather unconventional. Downsizing is an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite amount to more than the sum of its little parts.
Nate’s Grade: B
Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B
Growing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place. The 1984 movie is such a perfect blend of buddy comedy, the supernatural, and action that nobody has really been able to fully replicate this special film alchemy as well since, including director Ivan Reitman (he tried in vain with Evolution). When the word broke that there was going to be a new Ghostbusters remake, some trepidation from fans could be expected. It’s sacred ground to many. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) insisted that he wanted to have an all-female team of Ghostbusters, and that’s when the Internet lost its collective mind. The movie and its stars have been beset with hateful misogynistic (and, in the case of Leslie Jones, racist) harassment. The Internet didn’t want smelly girls playing with its toys. It became part of a larger war between feminists and retrograde men’s rights activist crybabies. Some people wanted it to be succeed just because of he gender of its leads, and others wanted it to fail for the very reasons. I just wanted a good Ghostbusters movie regardless of what bathroom the busters utilize.
Erin (Kristen Wiig) is an esteemed science academic trying to turn the page on her past. Her friend and fringe scientist Abby (Melissa McCarthy) has republished the book about paranormal they wrote together, which ruins Erin’s chance at tenure from her colleagues. Her ire is short-lived as Erin, Abby and her wacky nuclear scientist associate Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) experience a real dead ghost. Their slime-filled encounter with the undead reawakens Erin’s love of the paranormal and the three of them join forces. Patti (Jones) is an MTA worker who leaves her job and joins the gals after her own experience with a ghost in the New York subway. Somebody is trying to open a portal between the living and the dead, and these Ghostbusters gotta bust some ghosts.
My initial apprehension melted away within the movie’s first twenty seconds when it already had me laugh out loud twice (“anti-Irish fence”). There’s a consistent genial absurdity that kept me engaged and entertained, and this is typified by the strong comic camaraderie of the four leads. I enjoyed spending time with these ladies and I enjoyed their interactions, so when scenes could creep up on overstaying their welcome from a pacing standpoint, something of a Feig staple, I gave them more leeway and felt my patience rewarded. I don’t know how to make it plainer than this: I am not a Leslie Jones fan and I liked Leslie Jones in this movie. I have found Jones to be all-too often on Saturday Night Live a one-note comic presence, always loud and brash and hitting the same joke again and again with little variation. With Ghostbusters, she actually plays a character, capable in her own right, and a straight man for the other characters. These women were goofy, gross (a queef joke within Holtzmann’s first appearance), but they also enjoyed one another’s company. There are internal conflicts, sure, but their enjoyment of working together, of displaying their know-how, of the joys of discovering the realm of the paranormal create a bond that helps seal the characters with the audience. Whatever the scenario, I was confident I would laugh from these characters, and I did.
There is a lightness to the movie that makes it all the more appealing, settling into pleasurable summer fare. This story is as much about the formation of the Ghostbusters as anything else. In the original film they just sort of have their ghost-busting gear all of a sudden. With the remake we watch the trial and error process of bringing all that tech to life. It’s a fun process to see their business from the ground floor, so to speak, and their fight for larger credibility. Murray himself even shows up as a paranormal debunker who scoffs at their claims. The ladies are the lovable underdogs in this world.
The real reason that Feig’s movies work is the interaction of his boisterous and often brilliant casts, and Ghostbusters is another example. Wiig and McCarthy have a natural chemistry together honed from Bridesmaids, and their back-and-forth banter will often find punch lines in odd places. McCarthy has always been her best under Feig’s direction (seriously go watch Spy if you haven’t). While Abby is a less outspoken character than we’re accustomed to from her, McCarthy still has a commanding presence and is the one who lassos the other funny characters back into a sustainable orbit (“You spell ‘science’ with a Y, and I don’t think you know that that’s wrong”). I’ve stated above my positive feelings on Jones. She brings a welcomed perspective to the team and often serves as the voice of the audience, like a moment where she looks inside a room filled with mannequins, calls it “nightmare stuff,” and wisely keeps walking. McKinnon is the true breakout star, going for broke in a deadpan, anarchic silliness that is Murray-esque. She also displays a funky, near pansexual sense of excitement with the world around her. She licks the radioactive barrels of her proton pack in jubilation. McKinnon is a constant source of mirth in the movie and has some of the best one-liners (“It’s 2040. Our president is a plant!”). Another breakout might be Chris Hemsworth in comedy. His dimwitted and inept receptionist is perhaps too dumb to even function. Hemsworth just commits to his character’s straight-faced stupidity and it produces big laughs.
Not everything in the movie works as well together as the ensemble. The movie’s tone takes a giant leap once the third act commences with its apocalyptic ghost showdowns. You can sense that Feig isn’t nearly as passionate about action heroics and CGI. Example: the movie sets up a large-scale dance sequence and we never see it until the scene appears during the end credits. That seems like a waste. The character arc between Abby and Erin isn’t quite as developed as the movie needs for the emotional re-connection at the very end to hit. As much as I loved McKinnon in the movie, her character is more a collection of quirks than a person. The cameos from the original cast are mostly awful and kill amusement. Watching Dan Akroyd as a cab driver say he “ain’t afraid of no ghosts” made me roll my eyes and wish I could delete this from my memory. The less obvious nods are better fan service, like a character referencing “mass hysteria” or Erin frantically pressing her body against a restaurant’s large glass window. The Stay Puft marshmallow man as a parade float is a nice touch, though. The main villain is feeble but I can see how a dude with a grievous sense of entitlement could itself be a feminist statement on the hostility that women face in today’s world. There are some logical consistency issues when the busters go from trapping ghosts to shooting them and blowing them up, but it wasn’t enough to derail my sense of fun. The worst thing about this Ghostbusters is the new theme song from Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot.
Is the new Ghostbusters a significant step in terms of feminism or is it overblown as some critics contend? The topic is unavoidable given the spirited furor over this remake; it has the most disliked trailer in YouTube history, though to be fair that was not a good trailer. First I’ll acknowledge that the world doesn’t need the opinion of a heterosexual white male on the topic of inclusion, but I’d like to say that there is something about positive representation. It’s the same reason I approve of Sulu being gay in the newest Star Trek. It’s not for me to say what is and is not empowering for a group of people who often lack positive representation in media. Nor am I arguing that every representation of a group needs to be positive; that swings in a direction where well intentioned “protection” becomes condescending. People can be good. People can be bad. People can be brilliant. People can be dumb. No one pool of DNA has ownership over these human traits. However, the reality of Hollywood is that it is often a poor representation of diversity. It is because of this that I say Ghostbusters deserves some praise for portraying a plot around four women that doesn’t involve boyfriends, weddings, marriages, pregnancies, any sort of romantic coupling, and doesn’t pit them against one another. This is an action movie with a female ensemble, three of whom are in their 40s, and all of whom don’t exactly fit with Hollywood’s standard conception of the attractive female lead. They don’t dress provocatively for the male gaze (the default setting for “strong heroine” in Hollywood is often “sexy deadly”). They don’t make fun of one another’s body types. They stand up for one another when people in power attack. They love what they do. I think there will be a swath of the public that recognizes themselves on screen, maybe for the first time, and I think there is genuine merit to this.
Somewhere amidst all the hype and hate, the new Ghostbusters emerges as a pleasant and enjoyably silly summer comedy. Feig’s movie pays homage to the original, including borrowing many of the general plot beats Force Awakens-style, but steps out onto its own territory. The 2016 Ghostbusters is not slavish to the original but recreates what made it work, a strong core group that meets the experimental and outlandish with droll irony. I think I laughed more with the 2016 Ghostbusters than the 1984 Ghostbusters. It has some flaws and some pacing issues but I was enjoying these characters so much to mind. As a lifelong Ghostbusters fan, I would gladly watch a sequel with these characters and this world once more. This won’t replace the fond feelings I have for the original, nor was it ever supposed to. This all-female Ghostbusters doesn’t take away what fans have loved. It simply adds another chapter with a new batch of entertaining characters, and if a part of the audience can better imagine themselves strapping on the proton packs and going along for the ride, then I don’t see what the harm lies with representation.
Nate’s Grade: B
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.
Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.
Its bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.
Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.
Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on James Thurber’s short story, is a property that has long beguiled Hollywood. The idea of escaping one’s ordinary life with fantasy, where we’re the hero. It was turned into a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, which is rather entertaining, but has yet to be remade in all that time. It’s the kind of attractive project that has attached big name talent at different stages of development, including Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey. It was never able to get off the ground, that is, until Ben Stiller stepped in, not just as director but also as the lead actor. Given Stiller’s directorial track record, there was suitable reason to anticipate what he could accomplish with Mitty, but the film too often feels like Stiller hamstrung, ably trying to marry a sincere indie sensibility to a mainstream sentimental holiday-released excursion for families. Stiller’s Walter Mitty never quite takes off.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a man who has trouble filling out an online profile. He doesn’t have too many experiences or places traveled. It may be why he frequently “zones out,” as his family terms it, escaping into fantastical daydreams. In real life he works as a photography assistant for LIFE magazine, a publication that is transitioning to a digital-only existence. The enigmatic photographer Sean (Sean Penn) has sent a collection of film negatives to Walter, making special note of how Negative #25 is his life’s masterpiece. However, Walter cannot find it and is having trouble getting in contact with Sean, who is overseas on assignment. Without that much-hyped negative/picture, Walter will surely be fired, and then he’ll never have a chance to ask out his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Walter sets out to Iceland and beyond to find the negative, stop daydreaming and finally live his life.
The very tone of the movie feels like a miscalculation. It’s the story of a daydreamer, a man who retreats into his head and lives out preferable fantasies that are whimsical and far-fetched. We all knew this going into the film. It’s the same as Thurber’s story. The problem is that when Walter gets the courage to embrace life, his life is full of whimsical and far-fetched moments. He jumps out of a helicopter in shark-infested waters, where the sharks are ravenously active. He also hops into a car and has to outrun an oncoming ash cloud from an exploding volcano. And then in the third act, he travels across a mountain range all by himself and manages to miraculously find one guy. I don’t think this approach works if his real-life adventures are on par with his whimsical fantasies. I suppose one could argue that this serves a point to make real life seem just as appealing as his mental retreats, but I think it harms the very execution of the movie. First, if there’s a parallel, it means that his fantasy sequences aren’t going to be too fantastic, squashing the potential of Walter’s imagination. The only fantasy I enjoyed was a Man of Steel-esque brawl with a bearded Adam Scott (TV’s Parks and Recreation). Secondly, it means that the serious “go get ‘em” message of the movie is occurring within a medium that ordinary citizens have little connection with. Make no mistake, Walter Mitty is clearly meant as a mainstream feature meant to inspire the masses with its sentimental stripes, but is the story of a superhero doing super deeds any more relatable to the common man?
Another problem plaguing Mitty is the illusion of depth. Beyond the simplistic platitude of “get out and live your life,” there really isn’t much more of an idea explored here. It’s not like this idea hasn’t been explored in, oh, hundreds of other stories. Regardless, the film often just becomes a two-step process of Old Walter feeling timid, and then, what’s this, the hip soundtrack with the likes of Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men starts pulsating, and Mitty boldly shifts into New Walter, the go-getter, the guy who’s going to take charge of his own life. It’s a strong soundtrack in all senses. This process is repeated throughout the second act of the script where most of Mitty’s overseas journeys take place. Also, it may sound petty, but let’s focus for a moment on the applicability of the movie’s message compared to the practicality of what is onscreen. Live your life, but how many of us can afford to go globetrotting on a whim? I understand the larger canvas meant to evoke Mitty’s growing sense of discovery, so I’ll let it slide. The theme of Walter Mitty isn’t so much developed as it is repeated. There’s not enough substance here. In the end, the movie feels like 100 minutes of a soundtrack and a message in search of a better movie.
Allow me illustrate one of those “go out and live, Walt” moments in the film. Walter is in Greenland (though filmed in Iceland) and needs to get to a fishing vessel. The man next to him is a helicopter pilot. Great. But he’s also drunk, so Walter understandably refuses to fly with the man. This seems like a very rationale decision, but then he fantasizes Cheryl coming through, urging him on through song (through song!), and the soundtrack starts pumping, and Walter runs out and literally jumps inside the ascending helicopter. It’s meant to be portrayed as a triumphant moment of embracing the uncertainty of life’s adventure, but in reality the movie just pressured its title character into getting into a flying vehicle with a drunken pilot. What? That’s irresponsible.
And then there’s just the lackluster characters and plotting. Walter Mitty is a nice enough guy but too milquetoast to be that appealing, relying upon the comic graces of Stiller to provide the filling. The character of Walter is basically a hodgepodge of other Stiller characters in previous movies, but the character feels too restrained for an actor of Stiller’s talent. I understand that the arc has to travel from passive to active, but it feels like the funny Stiller we’re all accustomed to is being held in check thanks to the film’s broad appeal feel-good sentimentality. There’s one brief moment of the anarchic, silly Stiller that we loved so much in Tropic Thunder, and it involves a weird fantasy where Walter suffers the reverse-aging Benjamin Button disorder. It doesn’t fit at all with the tone of the film, and that’s why it stands out. Walter is a nice guy but rather boring. He pins his journey of self-discovery on getting the girl, and then when presented with one minor obstacle at the start of Act Three, rather than speak with her, he assumes the worst and just gives up. The narrative requires one of those eleventh-hour misunderstandings to keep the guy and girl apart, but it’s a frustrating decision that makes me like Walter less.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also filled with blunt product placement and some strange plot elements that don’t blend together. I’m not generally offended by product placement in movies when they make it oblivious; hey, a character has to drink something so why not a (insert product here)? But the fact that the Walter Mitty team actually makes Water’s teenage stint at Papa John’s a reveal about his character, and that the very store is meant to stand in as a reminder of his own deceased father, is just wrong. Then there’s the fact that Walter works as a negative corrector (analog job) at a magazine (troubled industry), and that magazine happens to be LIFE (which shuttered in 2000). Why all the analog contexts? Is it meant to convey Walter’s reluctance to change or adapt? The whole notion of the magazine downsizing gives the film a real-life aspect that just doesn’t feel appropriate for the movie. The fact that Walter’s journey is propelled by a quest for a single missing negative feels a tad too facile for the man’s transformation, but it’s made worse when the answer to the location of the negative is so transparently obvious from the get-go. It was so obvious I almost talked myself out of it. Most of the supporting characters in the film serve little effect on any of the events. They’re there just to provide minor details about Walter and that’s it.
The movie is so earnest and you can tell Stiller is trying hard, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ends up being a disappointing feel-good message lacking substance and much entertainment. The filmmakers have conviction, I’ll give them that, but it’s misplaced, and the film’s tone has too many distracting elements. The fact that real life mirrors Walter’s fantasy visions seems like a miscalculation from the start. Thurber’s short story didn’t have that much to it to begin with but we need more than this, an office schlub learning to live his life through improbable adventures meant to inspire the rest of us common folk. As a slice of escapist entertainment, it’s not fanciful enough, not creative enough, and not funny enough. As a motivational, heart-tugging ode to living one’s life, it falls into too many traps to feel applicable, insightful, or engaging. It looks beautiful and the people behind the film obviously mean well, but good intentions and nice camerawork are not the same as an effective movie built from the ground up, namely the lackluster story and characters. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like it has as much depth as a glossy, idealistic commercial, and perhaps for some this will suffice, but I found this Walter Mitty’s secret life not worth investigating.
Nate’s Grade: C+