‘Spies in Disguise’ Preaches Weirdness, But It Could Stand to Be Weirder

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CREDIT: Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox.

Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka

Directors: Troy Quane and Nick Bruno

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Pigeon Eating a Band-Aid, and the Like

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Spies in Disguise has two credited directors and two credited screenwriters (and a third writer with a “story by” credit), and it’s based on a 2009 short film made by someone who is none of the aforementioned writers or directors. Yet it feels like a very singular, personal vision, as though it were willed into existence by someone who really loves pigeons and wanted the world to know that they’re not just rats with wings, but rather, dignified and eminently capable creatures. The world of animated children’s films is filled with plenty of talking animals, so this isn’t out of the ordinary in that regard. But I haven’t gotten the sense that movie-going tykes have been clamoring for the pigeon niche to be filled in this genre. And yet that’s what has happened, with about as triumphant a premise as possible, as the fate of the world hinges upon what super-awesome spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) can accomplish when he turns into a pigeon.

If there are any pigeon aficionados out there, you will certainly be pleased by how lovingly they’re treated in this film. For everyone else, you’ll probably be floored by how out of time Spies in Disguise comes across. It feels like something that should have come out twenty years ago, when CGI animation was in its infancy and Smith was known primarily as a Man in Black. I actually appreciate some of its musty style, as it commits to a full-on opening credits sequence (a rarity in this era) that follows not one, but two, cold opening scenes.But the rest of my reaction to this film is basically being flummoxed by its outdated, non-specific definition of “weird.”

The other main character is socially inept young gadget guy Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), who is the one who accidentally turns Sterling into a bird. He’s spent his whole life believing that the world needs more weird, just like his mom assured him when he was a boy. But the thing is, while he may be a little awkward, I find it hard to believe that his line of work wouldn’t consider him weird so much as technologically essential. And while a man becoming a pigeon may be unusual in our world, it’s standard practice in this sort of movie. Spies in Disguise, you need to follow your own advice and be more weird.

Spies in Disguise is Recommended If You Like: Therianthropy

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Spies in Da Skies

‘The King’ is a Slog Through Shakespearean Henriad History

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CREDIT: Netflix

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Tom Glynn-Carney

Director: David Michôd

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Messy War Combat

Release Date: October 11, 2019 (Limited Theatrically)/November 1, 2019 (Streaming on Netflix)

Once more unto the breach, dear friends? It’s awfully muddy in that breach. That seems to be the big advantage of turning Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2!) and Henry V into a movie in 2019: you can make it as muddy as you need it to be! And director David Michôd sure wanted that breach to be muddy. And Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script with Michôd) won’t let us forget it. Not that we would have been able to miss it anyway.

I majored in English literature in my undergraduate days, so watching The King is like revisiting old friends for me, but excessively grim versions. I know right from the get-go that wary-of-the-crown Prince Hal will soon enough become King Henry V, Beloved War Hero. But even if I’d never read one verse of Shakespeare, I would have been able to figure that out easily enough. That’s how these narratives tend to play out after all, and also Timothée Chalamet is so hot right now. But that predictability is not necessarily a problem. Shakespeare did not establish his reputation on twisty plots, but rather on wonderfully poetic language. Alas, The King does not have the wit to match. I of course do not demand nor expect that every new Shakespeare adaptation feature iambic pentameter, but if there is going to be as much dialogue as there is in The King, it would be nice if it were at least somewhat exciting. But alas, it seems that war is not only hell, it’s also boring.

As we make our way through the muck into the Battle of Agincourt, The King eventually comes alive somewhat in the form of Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the French side’s secret weapon, at least in terms of charisma. He seems to have been warped by the warring status quo between France and England into some sort of almost inhuman, devious little sprite. He is less interested in victory or survival than he is into sucking out the life force of his rivals. I haven’t seen any of those Twilight movies, so for me, this feels like the first time Pattinson has ever played a vampire on screen. If only the other combatants had the verve to match.

The King is Recommended If You Like: Shakespeare minus the poetry

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chainmail Suits

Movie Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a Blast of Low-Key Wonder

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CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence That Tends to Cause Nosebleeds

Release Date: March 8, 2019

It’s been a while since I have felt consistently sustained excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of superheroes, and Marvel in particular, but I’m a bigger film buff, and I often find myself in a weird liminal space where I want to have more unbridled emotions for these movies, but it is hard to feel that way about a series sticking to a formula that is so much about ticking off obligatory long-term checkpoints. Captain Marvel does not burst free of that formula, but it has enough of its own magic to make it the first MCU movie in quite some time in which I left the theater wanting to re-watch it. It could have just been the way it happened to hit me on one particular day, but I think it has also something to do with its vibe of ignoring all the noise and getting on with it mission.

The plot is a little too complicated to easily synopsize, which Disney and Marvel are surely happy about, as they do not want us spoiling any of their MCU flicks, particularly this one, as it is uniquely dependent on backstory reveals and memory retrieval. Suffice it to say then that Vers (Brie Larson) is an intergalactic warrior fighting for the race known as the Kree, but she is also plagued by visions of a past life as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. The Kree are stuck in a long-term struggle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, which leads Vers to Earth in 1995 in a race for a powerful energy source. This is a typical McGuffin-focused Marvel film, but this particular McGuffin is unusually resonant, touching on themes of refugees and the perils of deep psychological deception.

Captain Marvel is also your standard MCU movie insofar as it builds to a climax with an unengaging, undistinguished action set piece. But luckily, that is not the main attraction. Vers teams up with a pre-eye patch Nick Fury, resulting in a buddy flick that serves as Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest showcase thus far in this franchise. His and Larson’s dynamic is one of instant respect that still leaves plenty of room for clowning around as they save the universe. That feeling is matched by a strong sense overall of the film being aesthetically tuned in. I cannot think of any other superhero movie that features a steady stream of crickets chirping amidst characters talking outside.

Captain Marvel is not massively revolutionary. While it may be the first MCU movie fronted by a female hero, it is not about femininity the way that Black Panther is about blackness. But while it does not respond hard to the big questions, it gets so many of the little things right.

Captain Marvel is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Nineties Rock, Friendly and Intelligent Aliens Who Speak English or At Least Have Universal Translators

Grade: 4 out of 5 Supreme Intelligences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ready Player One’ Wrings Some Beauty and Profundity Out of Empty Calorie Storytelling

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Explosions (Both VR and Real Life), Threats of Gun Violence, Partial Referential Nudity, and PG-13’s One Free F-Bomb

Release Date: March 29, 2018

The premise of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is basically nerd wish fulfillment writ large: in a dystopian future, a gamer completes a series of puzzles based on pop culture touchstones in a massive virtual reality simulation for the prize of a billionaire’s inheritance. As it plays out, though, (in both the book and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation) it is more of a Robin Hood fantasy, with the winnings serving as the golden ticket to end income inequality. The improbability and the wish fulfillment are all well and good, but they do mean that everything wraps up a little too perfectly, so satisfaction must be found in the details and the execution. Spielberg has remained a proficient craftsman his entire career, so even though Ready Player One’s separation between right and wrong might be a little too stark, it still pulls off some genuine wonder.

The film keeps the same basic outline at the novel, save for switching out some of the homages, both because Spielberg wanted to limit references to his own past work and presumably because of rights issues. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time as his avatar Parzival in the VR world known as the OASIS, partly because his real life is situated in a ugly heap of metal, literally, as his home, like many in 2045, exists within one of many trailers stacked on top of each other. He hangs out with his crew of fellow gamers, whom he only knows virtually, which frankly isn’t all that different than how it is for some folks already in 2018. Wade of course falls in love with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a bit of a legend in the OASIS, who feels like she is specifically engineered to be the perfect girl for him, which is a bit of a pain, but at least Sheridan and Cooke keep it charming.

This crew’s quest finds them at odds with Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the brazenly stereotypical asshole CEO of a global conglomerate who employs an army of corporate drones to win the inheritance because he wants to turn the second biggest company in the world into the biggest company in the world, and he’s not averse to killing to get his way. He is plenty scary, but RPO could have benefited greatly from actually exploring what makes him tick.

It is appreciated that Wade is not a chosen one archetype so typical of the genre. The reason he succeeds is because he puts in the relentless work to understand the parameters and intricacies of the journey. That we get to see his process makes his racing a DeLorean around King Kong actually thrilling instead of just a prompt for ticking boxes off the reference checklist.

It is well worth noting that while the references draw from decades of pop culture, they are primarily based around the touchstones of the 1980s. That decade was partly defined by Spielberg, and it consisted of Cline’s formative years, but they are very much not the formative years of RPO’s main characters, nor much of the target audience. But within the narrative, they are the formative years for James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS co-creator who designed the game and bequeathed his fortune. Thus, the hours of study that Wade and his crew put in resonate in the way of culture being a way in to understand one’s fellow human beings.

With wizardly blond locks and profound diffidence, Rylance plays Halliday a lot like Garth Algar, but if Dana Carvey had envisioned the Aurora metalhead as the greatest tragic figure of all time. Ready Player One works best as an exploration into this one man’s psyche. His social awkwardness goes beyond any simple diagnosis, and Rylance does not shy away from the discomfort. Creating an all-encompassing VR world may be a bit of an overcorrection to his loneliness, but it is heartwarming that Halliday finds a way to make a genuine connection with the world, though it is more than a tad bittersweet how he accomplishes it.

Bottom line: with so much of Ready Player One rendered as virtual reality, it is frequently an off-putting eyesore. But it has moments of beauty, like Parzival and Art3mis’ free-floating dance; as well as strokes of demented remix genius, as when zombies overrun a rendering of Kubrick’s The Shining. Weirdly enough, the references actually end up having more soul and thoughtfulness than the characters (with the exception of Halliday).

Ready Player One is Recommended If You Like: Heavy referentiality whether justified or shameless, Mark Rylance getting deep into character work, The dance scene from WALL·E

Grade: 3 out of 5 Omnidirectional Treadmills

This Is a Movie Review: Gary Oldman Disappears Into Winston Churchill’s ‘Darkest Hour,’ and the Result is Fascinating But a Little Too Stiff

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CREDIT: Jack English/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Director: Joe Wright

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Talk and a Dash of Naughty British Humor

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

How do you solve a problem like a mumbling lead character? You could make him not mumble, but of course that’s not really an option when he is a real person whose mushmouth is historically accepted fact. So then you could make the difficulty to understand him part of the point, but could that really work when he is known for inspiring his country to plow ahead in a time of crisis? Darkest Hour certainly does not take it easy on Winston Churchill (an exceptionally unrecognizable Gary Oldman). Nobody in Parliament thinks he is up to the task, but somehow he manages to fire up the British citizenry for the war effort without having to tamp down his prodigious appetites. Maybe the men and women on the street appreciate all the bluster thickly surrounding all of his words.

Darkest Hour is the third in 2017’s (accidental) trilogy about Britain’s early days in World War II. First came Their Finest, depicting the production of a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Then of course there was Dunkirk, about the evacuation itself. And now Darkest Hour presents the political maneuverings surrounding these same events.

With Germany holding the upper hand in 1940, the crux of Darkest Hour’s conflict is Churchill wrestling with the decision of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to rally the nation to keep fighting. This is a more complicated narrative than the simplistic version many of us have been told, in which the concessionist Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) gave way to the bulldog Churchill. In fact, Chamberlain’s decision to step down may have had more to deep with his creeping cancer. And I am no expert on British government, but Darkest Hour makes it clear that the executive forces on Chamberlain’s side were very much still present when Churchill ascended.

As a character study, this film is best regarded as a portrait of Churchill awkwardly slipping into the suit of the prime ministership. With his bulbous shape, and that physicality serving as a shield over his lack of self-confidence, so much of Churchill’s life is ill-fitting. Darkest Hour is similarly aesthetically unpleasant, in ways that I imagine were both intentional and unintentional. It cannot be helped that England is often a dreary country, and it is fair that that should be emphasized. Also reasonable but frustrating is the decision is to set many of the scenes in the deepest and most cramped bureaucratic interiors.

So it is quite a relief when Churchill and Darkest Hour trek out into the world, turning to the opinions of everyday Londoners riding the tube. The message here, at least as far I take it, is not so much that the commoners won the war, as much as it is that breaking out of your constrictions is always a good idea, whether you are a prime minister, an Oscar-angling motion picture, or anyone or anything else. So there is plenty of inspiration to draw from this film, though its shape may feel a little stitched-together.

Darkest Hour is Recommended If You Like: Winston Churchill mania (it’s hot right now), The King’s Speech, Chugging a Scotch and Puffing on a Cigar While You Watch Movies

Grade: 2.75 out 5 Litanies of Catastrophe