Solo: A Star Wars Story(5/27/2018)

Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began.  That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told.  It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something.  A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.”  This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.”  The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him.  What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that.  Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame.  As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.

Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess.  This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia.  There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to.  Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not.  From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot.  We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.

Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue.  To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie.  It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to.  He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie.  He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.

Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role.  The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes.  Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length.  We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of.  That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it.  Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe.  If anything I feel like it should be the other way around.  The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here.  Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.”  I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals.  On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo.  At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up.  However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.

***1/2 out of Five

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Deadpool 2(5/21/2018)

Let it be known, while I look pretty closely at box office figures week to week I am not always that great at predicting what’s going to catch on and how big.  That was certainly the case of the first Deadpool film, which I expected to find an audience but I never imagined it would make $132 million in its opening weekend and go on to make nearly $800 million worldwide.  There might have been a little personal bias there because by 2016 I’d been pretty frustrated by the “comic book adaptation with attitude” genre as exemplified by such films as Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service.  As such I skipped Deadpool in theaters and when I finally caught up with the movie on Blu-ray I can’t say I particularly regretted that decision.  Deadpool was a fun movie but it certainly didn’t stand out to me as any kind of zeitgeist capturing triumph.  Some of its profane fourth-wall breaking antics were amusing but hardly the funniest thing I’d ever seen and ignoring the jokes it was a pretty dull origin story with a bland villain and it’s lower budget was readily apparent in its small-scale action scenes which couldn’t really compete with the giant superhero spectacles that Hollywood has been regularly churning out.  And yet, I find myself more inclined to see the film’s sequel in theaters than I was for the original, which maybe has less to do with the movies themselves and more to do with the fact that Hollywood didn’t have the balls to put out anything in the two weeks following Avengers: Infinity War and I was jonesing for an action movie.

Deadpool 2 picks up a few months after the end of its predecessor and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has embraced a life of doing mercenary work against criminals while easing into his relationship with his fiancé Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) until one day one of his enemies follows him home and kills Vanessa in front of him.  Deadpool dispatches the responsible parties quickly but is overcome with guilt and tries to kill himself explosively only to have his healing powers save him once again.  Seeing that Deadpool is hurting Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) try to rescue him and bring him into the X-Men fold once again.  Deadpool plays along, but on his very first mission he finds himself shooting someone to save a troubled mutant teen named Firefist (Julian Dennison) and both he and his friend are arrested and placed into a special mutant prison where everyone wears collars that suppress their powers.  All hope seems lost when the prison is attacked by a time traveling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) who seems oddly hellbent on killing Firefist.

One of my biggest problems with the original Deadpool is that is just seemed kind of, well, cheap.  I got why it was cheap, the studios were clearly as skeptical as I was about how much of a mass audience the Deadpool character could draw, but given that it was competing with any number of actual blockbuster superhero films its rather meager action scenes were a problem.  That has been solved in the sequel, which is perhaps to be expected given that the budget has almost doubled and one of the guys behind the “John Wick” series has been brought on to direct.  It would have been a massive disappointment if the action scenes in this thing weren’t a major step up, but they are.  That’s not to say that this is some kind of action movie classic but on scales of spectacle it does hold its own against most the other more conventional superhero movies and the R-ratedness of the film’s violence does give it a flavor that most of those movies don’t have.

This time it’s actually the comedy I’m a bit shaky about.  Having only watched the original Deadpool in a fairly casual fashion I didn’t really have firm opinions about the comedic stylings of the series but watching this sequel it’s clear that what’s basically going on here is that the movies are taking the “throw everything at the wall” approach to comedy that movies like Airplane! took except that it’s working with a much larger budget and only one character is really allowed to break the fourth wall.  As tends to be the case with this approach some jokes work and some don’t, and in this movie I’d say the ratio is maybe one in three landed jokes, which could be worse, but some of the jokes that don’t work are kind of cringey.  The movie really wants to seem cool and subversive but in many ways its not as smart as it thinks it is and you can really see the way it does things that seem aimed at a very wide and frankly kind of basic audience.  Like, this is a movie that feels the need to throw in parodies of the boombox scene from Say Anything and the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct as if the world didn’t already have enough of both and even feels the need to announce exactly the movie they’re referencing in the latter example.  The weird thing is that every once in the blue moon the movie actually will reference something that’s a little bit more obscure like when someone casually brings up the 2005 Australian film The Proposition or when Deadpool makes the occasional inside joke about the comic books, but a lot of these jokes just seem kind of like low hanging fruit rather than subversive digs.

The constant jokes and digressions here certainly leads to some amusing moments but they also sort of undercut the occasional moments where the movie semi-ironically tries to actually play something straight.  The moments in the film where it tries to fight for the soul of a child and prevent him from becoming a killer seem particularly hypocritical given the general disregard for human life that is otherwise on display in the movie.  This is a movie that begs you not to take it seriously outside of its overwhelming irreverence and given that I kind of wish it had gone for the jugular even more.  The film certainly isn’t making any kind of statement about society and while it does make certain digs at the comic book genre I’m not sure they’re all that biting either.  Of course this isn’t to say that the movie is a complete failure or even a failure at all really.  As summer entertainment goes the movie mostly succeeds and I think there is reason to say that it offers more to the viewer than some of the more cookie-cutter of the Marvel movies.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.  That said I don’t really respect the movie in spite of its entertainment value.  At the end of the day it’s a rather immature work and I don’t think it’s going to age we, but again, there are worse ways to spend your time.

*** out of Five

The Rider(5/18/2018)

You know that big award ceremony that happens in Hollywood every year in the last weekend of award season?  No not the Oscars.  I’m talking about the Independent Spirit Awards.  If you’re not familiar it’s an award show that’s given out every year the Saturday before the Oscars (when all the celebrities are in town) since the mid-80s which were meant to be something of an anti-Oscars where the makers of plucky independent films got together in a large circus tent while wearing casual clothing.  It’s been a bit redundant now given that their definition of “independent” is pretty broad and the real Academy is more receptive to “independent” films than ever and at this point the overlap between the two shows is pretty heavy.  In fact it’s been something like ten years since the winner of the Spirit award wasn’t also an Oscar nominee and even longer since it was won by something that wasn’t pretty heavily on the Oscar radar.  Still, there does seem to be at least some sort of voting bloc at Film Independent that is, for better or worse, interested in highlighting less prominent indie films to the point where they’ve occasionally nominated movies the year before they’ve even come out in general release.  That happened about ten years ago when they gave two nominations to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker months before anyone who hadn’t been to a film festival had ever heard of it.  A similar thing happened last year as well when they gave a “Best Feature” nomination to a movie that had been well off my radar called The Rider despite the film’s general release not occurring until almost half a year later.

The Rider is set in modern rural South Dakota and focuses on a guy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who has just suffered a major injury while performing in a rodeo.  Blackburn appears to be in his twenties and lives in a trailer with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) who appears to be a heavy drinker and gambler and his fifteen year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) who seems to have some sort of mental disability.  As the film begins Blackburn has a large gash across the side of his head under which a metal plate has been attached and as a result of this brain injury he occasionally loses control of one of his hands.  He’s been told that another rodeo injury could kill him and that he needs to avoid riding and rest in order to heal.  Frustrated, Blackburn tries to find a way to make a living outside of his one true skill and to find a way to leave behind his passion for horse riding and the thrill of rodeo performance.

The obvious reference point for this is almost certainly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which also focused on the plight of a guy in a disreputable “sport” who’s told that he’s no longer physically fit participate in said sport and has trouble accepting that he needs to give it up.  Both films focus on their protagonist’s shame at their current state and have sub-plots where they are miserable while trying to get menial day jobs where people recognize them from their previous more glamourous life.  They even have similar titles.  Of course there are differences; Randy “The Ram” Robinson was depicted as someone who had been very famous in his past life and was brought down both by age and by years of wear and tear while Brady Blackburn is a guy who only appears to have had some slight regional success before having his career cut short by a sudden injury.  Now, being similar to another movie is not a deal breaker by any means and there are a number of stylistic differences that make this different in both tone and message than Aronofsky’s film.

Almost all of the characters in The Rider are played by non-actors and all the members of Blackburn’s family appear to be played by actual relatives of Brady Jandreau but the film is scripted and technically a work of fiction even if it does sort of mirror the lives of the people acting in it.  I’m not the biggest believer the use of non-actors in movies.  Every once in a while it works beautifully in something like The Florida Project but for every one of those there are a dozen indie movies made by Rossellini-wannabes that just sort of feel cheap.  I would say this one felt like a bit of a mix of the two.  Brady Jandreau was pretty impressive in the film, especially in the scenes where he’s not speaking and in the scenes where he’s doing his horse training work, which seemed pretty authentic.  I also thought Lilly Jandreau added an interesting presence to the film and felt very real for obvious reasons and it’s probably fair to say that the approach added a number of interesting faces to the movie.  However, the downside of this approach is that there are moments where the amateur nature of the performers comes through, especially in the dialogue scenes which occasionally results in some rather questionable line-readings.

Rather than harken back to the visual style of Hollywood westerns Chloé Zhao’s visual approach is minimalist and has a very straightforward digital look that emphasizes its realism.  A lot of people have been interpreting the film as a statement about “toxic masculinity” because it’s about the culture that demands that this guy keep doing something dangerous to prove his manhood, and there is a little of that in there but I’m not so sure that people would be seeing all of that had the movie not been directed by a woman.  For one thing, Brady Blackburn doesn’t strike me as a terribly agro individual so much as this thoughtful horse whisperer type and at times the character’s stubbornness clashes a bit with the more thoughtful take that Jandreau has on the character.  Instead, to me this feels like a sort of dark reversal on the kind of “chase your dreams and you can do anything” philosophy that gets espoused by movies like La La Land.  Society loves telling stories about people who overcome injuries and beat people’s expectations but it’s not so interested in telling the stories of people who try to do that and only end up digging themselves deeper into holes.  That’s worth exploring to be sure, but I’ve seen it explored more excitingly elsewhere (did I mention that this resembled The Wrestler?) and the tour through rural America is only going to do so much for me.  There is some skill here though and I can imagine Zhao’s approach working better as it evolves and finds other more original subjects.

**1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Infinity War(4/28/2018)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Shortly after I went to a Saturday afternoon screening of Avengers: Infinity War I went onto Twitter and tweeted the following: “#AvengersInfinityWar All I’m going to say is, if you’re invested in the MCU you’re going to want to see this and do so before the spoilers get to you” and I’d say that’s still more or less what I have to say about the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  Truth be told I’ve found writing reviews for MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as if anyone is looking for advice as to whether or not they should see them is pretty delusional.  That isn’t to say that these movies are “critic-proof” as I do think truly negative reviews of them could take their toll if the movies suddenly took a real dip in quality, but while they continue to live up to expectations the people who are interested are simply going to keep going and this notion that anyone is waiting for little old me to weigh in before they put down their money would be even more egotistical than it would be for most of my reviews.  So, after this paragraph (and the perfunctory summery after it) this review is going to just dive in and talk about everything that happens in this movie and what it means to this whole enterprise and things will probably be a little more informal than usual.

The film picks up right where Thor: Ragnarok left off with the Asgardian refugees spaceship running into Thanos’ giant space base.  The Asgardian ship is quickly boarded and Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appears to have gotten a hold of the Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, makes quick work of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleson), and even The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Thanos then takes the Tesseract, which had been at the center of The Avengers and was re-stolen by Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, and proceeds to kill Loki on the spot and take the space stone from the Tesseract.  Heimdall (Idris Elba) is also killed but as he’s dying he manages to use the bifrost to teleport Bruce Banner back to Earth.  The Asgardian ship is destroyed but Thor, being a god, survives in the vacuum of space and is rescued by The Guardians of the Galaxy, who are chasing down the distress signal that the Asgardian ship was sending out.  From there He, Groot (Vin Diesal), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decide to seek out a weapons forge while Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) go to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) to try to find the Reality Stone from Thor: The Dark World.  Meanwhile, Banner finds himself having been teleported back to earth, where the Mind Stone is in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Time Stone is in the hands of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of his film.  Banner immediately seeks out Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and shortly after warning him and Dr. Strange about Thanos finds New York under attack by Thanos’ minions.

That above summery is a good example of why this is a hard write a normal review of this movie.  It’s a paragraph that will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t already seen eighteen movies that preceded this one, and if anyone has already seen eighteen Marvel movies why the hell would they skip this one?  There are other Marvel movies that you can go to and more or less enjoy without worrying about how they fit into the overall story, but this certainly isn’t one of them.  This also isn’t a Marvel movie that’s trying to be some kind of Marvel infused take on some other genre.  It isn’t trying to be a blockbuster take on the high school movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it isn’t trying to be a comedic space opera that so happens to fit into the universe like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, and it isn’t trying to be a politically charged science fiction film like Black Panther.  This is, at its heart, purely and simply a Marvel movie.  Of course it does need to bring in disparate elements from all those other movies and at times while watching the movie I was almost reminded of the early episodes of Marvel’s Netflix crossover series “The Defenders,” which gave the audience the impression that they were flipping between four different TV series.  Certain sacrifices are of course going to be made.  For instance The Guardians of the Galaxy are generally not accompanied by the 70s music they’re associated with and the trippy visuals associated with Dr. Strange are a lot more restrained here but for the most part the Russo Brothers do a pretty good job of bringing all these characters together efficiently while still providing all the action and witty banter that people expect from these movies.

All in all the movie plays out exactly as most audiences are expecting it to play out in grand entertaining fashion… and then everybody dies.  Now this is an ending that’s going to play out very differently to different audiences.  Personally I kind of saw it coming.  I had vague memories of hearing that something like that happening in the comic books and leading up to my screening I saw a lot of headlines in the early reviews talking about the “shocking ending” in ways that probably seemed vague to the people writing them but which were pretty easy for someone who pays to much attention to this stuff to put two and two together.  It’s also going to be less shocking to the over-informed simply because it’s a lot easier to be cynical about how permanent any of these deaths are likely to be if you know too much about who has what contracts.  We already know that there’s going to be a third Guardians of the Galaxy so there’s no way those characters are really dead and that Sony is trying to build a Spider-Man cinematic universe which ensures that that character is coming back and that there’s no way in hell that Disney is going to let the Black Panther money train movie end here.  However, it is maybe worth taking a couple steps back and considering how that played to the vast majority of the millions of people who are going to see this thing.  While I’m sure a lot of them will also have a hunch that some of these characters are coming back they probably didn’t see this cliffhanger coming and Marvel has done a pretty good job of downplaying the fact that another Avengers movie is coming next year with the general public.  In particular I wonder how the children in the audience would react to seeing the bad guy win and kill a bunch of their heroes.  Is that going to be traumatic to them?  I certainly hope so.

Anyway, the other thing about the movie I want to talk about has less to do with the ending itself so much as what led up to it.  Thanos was really only able to enact his insane plan because a lot of the heroes make a lot of selfish decisions.  Thanos only learns the location of the Soul Stone because Quill fails to follow Gamora’s instructions to shoot her rather than let her be captured and interrogated by Thanos, Gamora makes the same mistake herself by giving Thanos the location rather than see her sister tortured, Dr. Strange ostensibly only gives up the time stone to save Iron Man, Quill screws up yet again by losing his cool when the other heroes are about to take the gauntlet, and of course the possibility of that unhappy ending easily could have been cut of right from the beginning if Scarlett Witch had just yanked the mind stone from Vision’s head and wrecked it.  Absolutely none of these decisions can be justified on any logical level.  The whole damn movie is like a precession of so-called heroes making wildly selfish choices where they put the lives of their friends and family above the lives of literally trillions of other people and in doing so.  It’s like the anti-Casablanca, no one seems to realize that the lives of a couple little people does not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe where a madman wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population with the snap of the fingers… and yet thematically this series of events is not an accident.  The emotional and arguably selfish actions of all these characters stands in stark contrast to Thanos’ philosophy, which takes the notion of “the ends justify the means” to a deranged extreme.  Thanos is willing to kill trillions “for the greater good” and the heroes often can’t even kill one person “for the greater good,” presumably there’s a middle ground somewhere to be found and we’ll have to see if they address this in the as of yet untitled next Avengers movie.

So I guess the last question is why this movie works so well despite theoretically having all the same problems that Avengers: Age of Ultron had.  I called that movie an over-stuffed mess and on paper this movie is even more “stuffed” than that movie was, but it still manages to flow a lot better.  It also manages to find a lot more time to develop its villain than that earlier movie did.  In fact I was kind of shocked at how much effort they put into giving Thanos, a character I expected to have something of a Dr. Evil quality, some real motivations and personality.  Above all I think what makes this work so much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that it has a purpose.  The surrounding solo Marvel films simply hadn’t been building towards Age of Ultron, it was a movie that largely just existed because they needed an Avengers movie in “phase two,” the movie those solo movies had been building towards pretty much since the beginning had been Infinity War and the fact that they actually managed to deliver on that promise and deliver on it this well is quite the achievement.  Now granted, a lot of this movie’s overall legacy is going to depend on whether they stick the landing in the follow-up and that remains to be seen, but if the goal for now was to make us excited for the finale then mission accomplished.

**** out of Five

A Quiet Place(4/19/2018)


You never really know that a movie is worth seeing until the reviews start streaming in but that’s especially true with mainstream horror movies.  With prestige dramas you can at least anticipate things based on who’s directing and with tentpole action movies you at least get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting from the trailers and with comedies you sort of know what to expect based on who’s in the cast, but with horror movies things get pretty fuzzy.  Modern horror trailers are pretty formulaic and even when unique and interesting horror movies get made their advertising still makes them look like standard Paranormal Activity ripoff, which is why you hear stories of confused audiences walking into movies like  mother! expecting them to play like Insidious movies.  The new horror thriller A Quiet Place is a good example of how hard it is to tell the promising studio horror films from the not so promising ones.  The film’s trailers made it look like just another standard jump scare movie but with a new gimmick, and it had a pretty questionable pedigree as well.  The movie stars and was directed by John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who does not strike me as a very scary person, and it was produced by Michael Bay’s horror shingle Platinum Dunes which is like and even less ambitious iteration of the Blumhouse studio.  So the movie didn’t look too promising, but low and behold, once it was actually screened for critics it suddenly shot up into the high 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and instantly became a must see.

The film is set in something of a post-apocalyptic near-future.   Earth’s population has apparently been ravaged when non-sentient alien monsters brought by a falling meteor killed a massive number of people.  The thing about these aliens though is that they’re blind, so there are ways to escape them, but if you make any sort of loud sound they spring up and kill you and you never really know where they’re hidden so you have to be quiet all the time.  That is where the family of survivors we follow in the movie come in.  The family primarily consists of a father named Lee (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), a deaf teenage daughter named Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and a younger son named Marcus (Noah Jupe).  For much of the film we watch them as they live on a remote farm they’ve moved to in order to escape as much of the destruction as possible.  There is however trouble on the horizon as Evelyn is pregnant with another child and it isn’t entirely clear how they are going to keep a screaming baby safe in a world where making the slightest sound can get you killed.  With the family also increasingly falling apart over other existing tensions they could be facing quite the test going forward.

The general “quiet” of The Quiet Place is one of the things that makes it stand out the most.  In general horror movies have less volume than most mainstream movies (aside from the occasional “jump” moments when it is very much not quiet) but this one takes it to a new extreme as the characters do everything in their power to keep from attracting the creatures.  In fact American Sign Language could almost be said to be the film’s main language rather than spoken English.  There are actually a lot of neat little world building things in the movie about how these people manage to make lives for themselves without sound.  They walk everywhere barefoot for example and we see them spreading paths of sand everywhere in order to accommodate this.  In this sense the movie actually reminded me a lot of the 2007 film I Am Legend, which was also at its best when it was showing how isolated characters can build a life for themselves during a post-apocalypse with a little ingenuity.  Also like that movie I found myself being a lot more interested by the post-apocalyptic world building than I was by the attacking CGI monsters in the third act.

Ultimately the film doesn’t fall apart quite as hard as that aforementioned Will Smith movie, in part because we’ve progressed to the point where even third rate CGI doesn’t look that bad.  Really the problem probably has less to do with the special effects and more to do with the fact that these aliens lack a certain primal fear factor.  They look less like the things of nightmares and more like the kind of enemies I’d blast with a BFG in “Doom.”  That kind of approach works better when you go all in and just show the snarling monsters in all their disgusting glory ala The Thing but this movie uses them more to be sort of quasi-ghosts who haunt our protagonists.  But at the end of the day that’s not really what’s most important as the threat of the monsters is clearly more of the focus here.  Still, I think there was a better version of this movie, in fact I’m sure there is because it was called It Comes at Night and it came out last year to a great deal of public apathy.  That was a movie with a similar interest in post-apocalyptic survival and family dynamics but was less interested in adding in jump scares and it was more interested in preserving certain mysteries than laying out clear answers.  In many ways this just kind of feels like a watered down and admittedly more audience-pleasing version of that movie and it’s always going to seem a bit second rate to me because of that.  Still, it’s a cool little horror movie and certainly better than I would have thought from a first impression.

*** out of Five

Blockers(4/5/2018)


I recently took a trip to New York City and was struck by a lot of things both big and small about the city but perhaps the most pertinent thing that jumped out at me was that the week I went there nearly every square inch of Manhattan Island seemed to be covered in advertisements for the movie Blockers.  The amount of advertising for the movie already seemed heavier than normal long before I found myself on the East Coast.  I’ve seen all sorts of TV commercials for it and Youtube seemed to put an ad for it in front of every video I found myself watching, but when I got to the Big Apple I was struck seeing that rooster logo on top of damn near every taxi cab and the poster posted above every subway entrance and also on every subway platform.  I’m sure that people who actually live in the city that never sleeps are used to this sort of onslaught of printed marketing but it seemed a bit novel to me.  Part of this might simply be that I noticed this advertising more than all the advertising for the likes of Truth or Dare because I already thought it was going to be a funny movie and was already king of thinking about seeing the movie.  But maybe the studio knew what it was doing because on the movie’s opening day I found myself unwinding from a busy day of walking around the city by going to the Regal E-Walk 13 on 42nd street to sit back and watch this mainstream sex comedy.

The film is set over the course of prom day and night at a high school in a Chicago suburb.  Specifically the focus is on a group of three longtime friends: The blonde cheerleader type Julie (Kathryn Newton), the athletic and somewhat wild Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and the nerdy Samantha (Gideon Adlon), who has been questioning her sexuality.  As the three are talking about their prom plans it emerges that Julie is planning to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time that night and upon hearing this Kayla decides that she also wants to lose her virginity to her date to “get it over with” and while neither girl tries to pressure their friend Samantha finds herself getting in on the “#sexpact2018” too despite minimal attraction to her male prom date, possibly in a desire to confirm her preferences.  What they don’t know is that their various parents have semi-accidentally intercepted their text messages about these plans. Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena), and Samantha’s estranged father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) all decide for various reasons that they want to stop this from happening and thus become the “blockers” referred to in the title, which is an MPAA approved shortening of “cockblockers.”

Blockers has a bit of a challenge on its hands in that it needs to find a relatively plausible reason for three seemingly progressive parents in 2018 to go to such lengths to “block” their daughters from having sexual encounters something like three months before they go to the even more sexually charged environment that is college.  Of the three parents only John Cena’s character really seems to be going on this journey for the usual patriarchal reasons: his daughter is “daddy’s little girl” and her man-bun toting prom date seems unworthy of her.  The Ike Barinholtz character, on the other hand, seems to be against this whole panic in the first place and when he does get caught up in it it’s mainly because he thinks his daughter (who he knows to be closeted) is being pressured into the situation and the Leslie Mann character just seems overly attached to her daughter and her “blocking” quest is sort of a manifestation of her worries about losing her after it’s discovered that she’s planning to attend a college that’s out of state.  The movie also has a moment at around its midpoint where the Cena character’s wife steps in and gives a big counter-argument about what all these characters are doing.

What makes the film a bit different from other comedies like this is that it basically has six principal characters, and they do a pretty reasonable job of building each of these characters despite how crowded it is but there are moments where corners need to be cut.  As this is a raunchy comedy of the post Apatow era the stories eventually do converge into a sort of sentimental climax and given the ensemble nature of the movie that means there are something like six different “meaningful” moments in the third act as each of the girls has to have a revelation with both their respective boyfriends and their parents, but the movie does manage to juggle all of these pretty effectively.  From a comedy perspective the movie probably could have benefited from a slightly more seasoned cast.  John Cena certainly expands a bit after having dipped his toe into the comedy waters with Trainwreck, but he still sort of feels like a budget version of The Rock, and Ike Barinholtz is mostly just transferring over his not overly memorable character from Neighbors.  The teenage cast mostly shows promise but they aren’t necessarily seasoned comic actors either.

Leslie Mann certainly fares the best of everyone here, but the material is mostly solid and director Kay Cannon does a good job getting the best out of the cast she was given, though I do think she would have done better to leave out some of the more gross-out gags that seem to be in here more out of obligation than real necessity.  The “chugging” scene seen in most of the trailers really did nothing for me and another scene where three people straight-up vomit from drunkenness despite being seemingly sober about an hour later felt like little more than an attempt to one-up other movies.  It really didn’t even need to be this way, if you look back on a movie like Superbad or even something like The Hangover there really isn’t really that much in the way of on-screen bodily fluids in either movie.  Even the diarrhea scene Bridesmaids was almost entirely done with suggestion.  Outside of those two scenes though the movie is a pretty solid comedy that manages to stay on the right side of stupid.  This certainly isn’t a new comedy classic, but it comes after a pretty long drought of respectable mainstream comedy.  In 2017 pretty much the only Hollywood comedy worth a damn was Girls Trip and even that didn’t really do a whole lot for me, so with this one movie 2018 has already beat its predecessor in this one regard.

***1/2 out of Five