Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.
Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?
It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.
The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.
Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.
Nate’s Grade: A-
After the end of 2012’s Red Tails, I said to myself that those men of history deserved a better movie. By the end of Hidden Figures I was thinking the same thing for the unheralded African-American women of NASA in the 1960s Space Race. It’s an inherently engrossing story that the public knows precious little about, and the biggest problem with director/co-writer Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is that is rarely breaks free from its formula for feel-good mass appeal. Rather than allowing us to absorb the complexities of the three women featured (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) the movie wants us to just know about their struggles over injustice and inequality. That’s a fine starting point but rarely do these women become fully fleshed out. They’re kept as symbols, put-upon figures, and less as people. That allows them to have their Big Acting Moments where they uncork a snappy retort to institutional prejudice that is the kind of stuff meant for Oscar clip packages. Henson is given the most significant part but even her math genius feels like a crude Hollywood extrapolation of a stereotypical movie nerd. Monae was the one who left me most impressed with her feisty attitude and swagger. It’s all a pleasing and moderately entertaining package but the presentation and artistically stilted character development hinder the movie’s message. I would have preferred a documentary on the same subject, something that would allow further depth as well as the direct testimony of those women involved. I believe Henson’s character is still alive and in her 90s, so there’s no time to waste. Hidden Figures is a safe yet still appealing biopic that hits some of the right notes but lacks greater ambition. Not all films have to try and redefine their genre, but when you’re giving the titular hidden figures of history their much-deserved spotlight, maybe a little more effort is deserving and necessitated.
Nate’s Grade: B
Truthfully, I likely never would have seen No Good Deed in the theater if it weren’t for two events. It’s not that it looked especially heinous, just ordinary and not worth rushing out to see. The first event was my father’s newfound love of Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Mandela) as an actor, an appreciation I too share for the charismatic leading man. The other event is a tad uncommon. Being part of a critics group, I regularly get e-mails from publicists about upcoming screenings. At the last minute, I received an e-mail informing me that an advanced screening was canceled, but what piqued my curiosity was the stated reason: there was a late twist/reveal that the studio did not want getting out. Really? What appeared on the surface like an ordinary home invasion thriller suddenly became a tad more intriguing, tempting my mind with possibilities. And so, with all of this achieved, I watched No Good Deed waiting to be surprised. My lack of surprise was the only real surprise, because just as I believed, this is your standard home invasion thriller that wastes the talents and time of just about everyone on screen.
Colin Evans (Elba) is a very bad man serving a five-year prison sentence for assault, though it’s believed he’s responsible for several missing women and former girlfriends. During his parole hearing he escapes and heads to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kate del Castillo) home. Colin doesn’t appreciate that she’s moved on to another man, and so he strangles her to death. He then leaves and drives off the road, an accident as the result of a powerful thunderstorm rolling through Atlanta. He comes to the door of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a mother and wife whose husband is away. He asks to use her phone and then take shelter from the storm. She lets him inside. Big mistake.
Doggedly formulaic, there is nothing about this story that separates it from the rest of the tired, dim-witted thrillers that prey upon fears of home invaders. If you removed the high-wattage stars from the film it would be completely at home on the quality-starved Lifetime Network, another poorly made suspense thriller about a bad man stalking a woman with subtle allusions to punishment for viewing the man as a sensual, dangerous opportunity. I was able to accurately guess every step of this story and I imagine you will have no problem with it as well (more on that “twist” later). How come there are no news stories about an escaped and violent convict? Colin severs the phone cords… but does nobody have cell phones in the neighborhood? In the opening credits, both Elba and Henson are listed as executive producers, which means that they attached themselves to this project because they wanted it to get made. They used their collective power to ensure this story would leap ahead of the thousands of other notable and compelling scripts in Hollywood (ahem). And the big question is why? I suppose there may be some fun from an acting standpoint to play such stock thriller roles as brooding boogeyman and bewildered ingénue. Except there’s nothing to these one-note characters. The screenplay does the minimal amount of effort to establish them as victim and victimizer, but you’ll never care about them or find them slightly interesting. Terri keeps making dumb decision after dumb decision; when you bash the bad guy in the head, you don’t stop after one blow. She’s a former prosecutor who worked in the homicide division, and yet she seems absentminded when interacting with mysterious strangers that appear in the dead of night at her doorstep. She’s lacking all street smarts. There’s nothing that sets apart Colin either (that name is a non-starter as far as striking fear). For a supposedly charismatic and brilliant narcissist, he doesn’t do anything that smart.
I’ll highlight the small handful of moments that stood out to me, which will include the ending and that presaged “twist.” Henson is 44 years old and a very good-looking woman, though it’s a tad odd when the movie contorts to place her in a T&A scenario. Colin, covered in fire hydrant discharge, insists she get in the shower with him so he can get clean. For the remainder of the sequence, the terrified Henson is shaking in her white tank top, her body alerting us to her cold. When was the last time a woman six years away from 50 was purposely squeezed into a moment of gratuitous titillation, let alone a non-white actress? Another part about Terri is that she’s a mother, a fact that Colin routinely relies upon with veiled threats of harm to her little ones. The funny part about all of this is when she has to sneak around the house that Terri has to grab her 4-year-old with one arm and the baby carriage with another, creating an awkwardly comical image. And it happens again and again. She sets the kids down, then goes back to carry them out, and then repeats. It made me laugh every time because it’s just so unwieldy. Another example of the botched screenwriting: Terri has a baby and at no point in the film does the conflict of keeping the baby quiet surface. She has to quiet the child or else Colin will find them. It’s a natural setup with such a young baby. Instead the baby is completely silent for the entire movie, peacefully sleeping though lots of physical activity, screaming, gunshots, a thunderstorm, and tree branches smashing through windows. This baby is unreal. How could this never be utilized? Again, more wasted potential, whatever slight potential there was to start with.
But this brings us to the so-called twist, which I will obligingly refer to with spoilers but rest assured, if this is the working definition of twists nowawadays, we’re all getting a little too carried away. When Colin takes Terri and her kids back to his dead ex-girlfriend’s home, the recently murdered woman’s phone rings. Who’s on the other end? Shocker, it’s Terri’s husband, who has been having an affair with this same woman. And… that’s it. That’s the twist, which is really more of a plot reveal but nothing along the magnitude of a “Bruce Willis is dead” revelation. As it happened, I thought, “Okay, that can’t be it, can it?” Oh, it was. What’s even more frustrating is that No Good Deed doesn’t build off this reveal. Colin was headed over to Terri’s address to make her husband suffer, but then what? Afterwards, Terri runs around the house and eventually dispatches Colin, and the movie ends with her moving out on her own, essentially the least complicated and most boring ending it could formulate. My father had a far more morbid rewrite that I’ll share with you, dear reader. His version would climax with the husband coming home and Colin casually murdering Terri and both of her young children, leaving bad hubby to forever suffer with guilt over the repercussions of his infidelity. While this ending would be controversial, it makes more sense in connecting the plot beats and at least stands on its own. At least it would be memorable.
No Good Deed isn’t a horrendous movie. It’s just dull from start to finish, never attempting to be anything beyond a mediocre thriller. Its complete lack of ambition is even more upsetting with the quality of actors who helped to get this film made. The direction is hackneyed, the visuals are poorly lit and clumsy, and the thrills are too generic and often stupid to be entertaining. The characters are dumb, the story is dumb, and the movie is dumb. Worst of all, it’s boring, the ultimate sin for a thriller. Unless you’re hard up for some precious Taraji P. Henson T&A (and no judgment, she’s a very beautiful woman), there’s no good reason to venture out and catch No Good Deed.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Was this ever a refreshing revelation. This transplanted Karate Kid remake takes the basic elements of the seminal 1980s underdog sports film and makes a rousing, satisfying, and surprisingly emotional experience. It sounds like sacrilege to take on a classic and fill it with an aged Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s progeny, but by God it works. It all works. It’s clear that pint-sized Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is a chip off the old block; he’s got a natural charm and feels like he can turn it on at will. His acting doesn’t come across as forced, and the kid can even tackle the heavier dramatic stuff with shocking ease. The other benefit to Smith is that he LOOKS like a true 12-year-old kid, gangly and scrambling for protection and self-confidence. Ralph Machio was in his early 20s when he was waxing on, waxing off. Smith and Chan have a bristling chemistry, and I ended up eating my words when Chan channeled a succession of teary emotions. The teacher/student dynamic leads to enough satisfying moments to feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The same lessons of discipline get a fresh coat of paint. There’s no real reason that a Karate Kid remake needed to be made (it feels like China funded it as an unashamed tourist commercial) especially since there were three sequels of varying quality. While a little long with an overextended kung-fu tournament, Karate Kid is a family film that won’t melt your brain.
Nate’s Grade: B
Here is a classic example of two game comedians elevating substandard material. The contrived premise revolves around an ordinary if somewhat bored married couple (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) being chased all over New York City in an extreme case of mistaken identity. Carell and Fey have a terrific comedic dynamic and watching them play and riff is when the movie feels sharp and alive. Sadly, this is another action comedy that thinks people will lap up action that’s slightly skewed. Note to filmmakers: most action sequences are not inherently funny without effort made via context and surprise (see: Cop Out, Bounty Hunter, Killers, or better yet, don’t). The more bad action comedies I see from 2010, the better The Other Guys keeps looking to me in the rear view mirror of memory. When Carell and Fey switch into action mode is when the comedy takes a back seat to lame mayhem. When the movie manages to squeeze in small moments where the actors have space to breathe and the banter is amusing. At best, Date Night is an amusing excursion when it lets the adults get to behave. When they have to go bug-eyed and yell at all the noise, then the movie just becomes exasperating. Good enough for a rainy day, with some lowered expectations, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly worth watching without the resolute comedic efforts of the two leads.
Nate’s Grade: C+
This lavish and long-winded spectacle is curious, all right. Director David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) has all the technical wizards at his disposal to produce a near three-hour fantasy about life, love, and death. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button works around the bizarre gimmick of a man going through the process of aging backwards. It’s loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and the results are befuddling. Benjamin is a handsomely mounted and incredibly expensive work engineered for one purpose: to win Oscars. Benjamin Button is a film that strives for making grand statements and wringing a maximum amount of tears, but it’s also a film that lives more in a series of moments than as a cohesive whole. It’s a fine piece of work but feels overburdened by its urgent desire to be profound.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born on the day the first World War ended in 1918. He is born as a small infant that better resembles an 80-year-old man (in Fitzgerald’s short story he is born as a full grown old man, which means it must have been fun for his mother). Benjamin is aging backwards but his mind is still as it should be, so while he is all wrinkly, arthritic, and covered in liver spots, Benjamin is like other small kids who want to make friends. Benjamin’s father (Jason Flemyng) is horrified by his son’s condition and abandons him at the steps of a nursing center. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) raises Benjamin as her own child and he grows up (down?) surrounded by a colorful cast of elderly residents (one woman remarks that a young-old Benjamin looks just like her ex husband). It is here that Benjamin meets the love of his life, Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett in her older years). She’s enchanted by Benjamin’s condition but she has her youth to live and Benjamin is left behind. Daisy becomes a trained ballerina and tours the world. Benjamin goes on a series of escapades, like working on a tugboat, traveling to Russia and having an affair with a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and discovering his biological father and the family business of buttons. But he’s always been waiting for Daisy, and eventually they “meet in the middle.”
The very nature of the premise means that the movie isn’t going to have many pure, joyful moments. The idea of a romance that needs to take 40 years to connect, and even then has a limited shelf life before they go in their separate aging directions, is beautiful and heartbreaking. Waiting decades for a glimmer of your happiness with your mate, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Benjamin Button explores a similar situation covered by vampire-immortal romances, where you must endure watching your precious loved ones grow old and die. The entire movie radiates with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. The movie manages to find humor and grace amidst its melancholic dirge. The reflections on mortality are ever-present though rarely profound. It may not say anything new or original but it has many things to say about life, death, and the fleeting moments in between. By that notion, the film is structured so that the beginning, where Benjamin is a young old man, it’s more comic and beguiling, then as he and Daisy match up we finally get the pairing we’ve been pining for from the start. The pent-up passion provides great conflict, and then we barely get to enjoy the coupling before reality strikes. The final twenty minutes of the film, where old Daisy cares for old young Benjamin, are incredibly moving and have an indelible symmetry to them, watching an old lady lead a child by the hand.
So then why do I feel so hesitant about fully accepting this movie? The story follows a similar Gump like pattern of incidents but the movie refrains from being mawkish. The main character is mostly passive with little personality; he’s nice but take away his unusual condition and not many folks would remember their time with Mr. Button. Before he gets with Daisy the film feels a bit episodic with the chapters of Benjamin’s life, and they are entertaining asides but they fail to amount to much more. Benjamin Button feels like something important is absent; it’s not cold as others have claimed but it feels, perhaps, remote, stopping just shy from being a full emotional investment by keeping the audience at a somewhat objective distance. This may be Fincher’s own design because Fincher ensures that a film about living life to the fullest doesn’t degenerate into sentimental claptrap. The end hits hard but not as hard as it could if I was more invested in Benjamin as a character. The Hurricane Katrina framing device seems tacked on, but then again the story mostly takes place in New Orleans and Katrina is rather noteworthy, you could say. The “elderly lady recalls her life story” is reminiscent of Titanic, and might not even be necessary though it offers Daisy the ability to look back over her years with added insight. The layers of realistic makeup piled onto Blanchett are impressive, though I worry what would happen if the actress had to go to the bathroom.
Technically, the movie is nearly flawless. The visual effects are astounding, seamlessly allowing Pitt to play the role even as a young child. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a glorious experience to watch but a mildly curious experience to register. The film is so meticulously crafted and it has all the right components of a tragic romance for the ages, but it somehow misses the mark. It’s an entertaining and moving film but it leaves something to be desired. The most resonant moments are also the ones that are the simplest, the ones that lack the window dressing of expensive special effects. I appreciated the film’s expressions of symmetry, but I have the nagging feeling that Benjamin Button both tries too hard and perplexingly doesn’t try hard enough. It keeps audience involvement at a distance, wishing to comment on humanity without embracing humanity. It is difficult for me to articulate what is lacking, because it is an enjoyable if overly long movie, but it falls into the “almost” category of poignant filmmaking. It’s almost a challenging movie, it’s almost an affecting movie, it’s almost a movie worth falling in love with. The film’s story and sensitivity and scope cannot match the technical audaciousness.
Nate’s Grade: B
Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Narc) wants to impress an audience so bad with his muscular and macho gangster flick, but his Smokin’ Aces is vapid, nihilistic, and opines not to simply be a Tarantino rip-off, but a rip-off of a Tarantino rip-off. The premise seems ripe enough as we follow a rogue’s gallery of hitmen and killers trying to be the first to knock off a mob snitch/Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) for a million dollar bounty. The colorful characters are introduced and some are quickly and unexpectedly taken out, but Carnahan never fully knows what to do with his bushel of baddies after he establishes their character quirks. The killers don’t really interact that much with one another and some of them hardly have any screen time at all; perhaps less would have been more in this jumbled stew. Carnahan throws out a few nifty visual tricks but it’s all superfluous and empty. Smokin’ Aces moves quickly, doesn’t make much sense in the beginning and end, and little to any of the characters have satisfying conclusions. So much of the writing feels like lame macho posturing without anything new or interesting to add to an overstuffed shoot-em-up. There are cops, robbers, plenty of gunfire, lesbians, and all sorts of convoluted twists, but it never holds together. Carnahan throws a lot of different elements together but they never extend beyond the elemental stage, so every storyline and character feels like an introduction that?s never capped off. The man has no idea what to do with what he’s started, and a karate kid on Ritalin is all the proof I need. Guy Ritchie did this territory far better service with the marvelously entertaining 2001 film Snatch. Rent that instead and save yourself the headache.
Nate’s Grade: D+