‘Come Play,’ Says the Leggy Monster on a Tablet

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Come Play (CREDIT: Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

Starring: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: Jacob Chase

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Spooks and Terror

Release Date: October 30, 2020

Did The Babadook fully sate our appetites for creepy bedtime story characters breaking out into the real world to spook a little boy and his mom? Come Play sure hopes that there’s room for one more! But it’s going to be very hard for it to avoid being referred to as “The Babadook, but the dad’s alive.” There’s even a moment when Gillian Jacobs echoes Essie Davis almost exactly when she shouts, “Can you just be normal for one second?!” There are some elements about Come Play that are worth recommending, although while I was watching them, I wondered if I was enjoying them mainly because of residual positive feelings for The Babadook. That’s far from the worst thing in the world, though. It’s at least better than resenting it for its resemblance.

The vibe of the game in Come Play is disconnection. Sarah (Jacobs) and her husband Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) have been struggling to communicate with their non-verbal autistic son Oliver (Azhy Robertson) his whole life. Really, though, it’s Mom who’s bearing the brunt of the struggle. It comes down to the typical split of household labor. Marty is mostly fine with the way Oliver currently talks, which is by pushing word buttons on a cell phone that vocalizes for him, but Sarah is constantly frustrated, partly because she spends a lot more time at home. Into this angst-filled situation crawls Oliver, a long-limbed creature on a tablet who would like his tale told to the end so that he can become a real monster who can be friends with Oliver forever and ever.

As Larry makes his presence more and more known, he spreads to Oliver’s parents and friends as a sort of supernatural infection. He’s like the Entity in It Follows or the certainty of death in She Dies Tomorrow: once you’ve been exposed, you cannot deny his existence. Voices of reason try to insist that this is just a case of powerful empathy with Oliver, which almost seems to be playing out as a sort of shared delusion. Of course, we know it’s not that, because the terms of the genre that we as audience have agreed to assure us that Larry is as real as any monster can be. But the emotional tethers that Oliver is attached to and the terror transported along them are quite telling. Larry represents and draws upon loneliness. Anyone lacking connection or fighting so hard to maintain an emotional bond is vulnerable. He can sting your heart, and that’s what really makes him memorable.

Come Play is Recommended If You Like: Horror Movies That Remind You of Other, Better Horror Movies But Still Have Enough to Say on Their Own

Grade: 3 out of 5 Legs

‘Underwater’ Delivers Deep-Sea Monsters, While Merely Hinting at Something More Insidious

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CREDIT: Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Mamoudou Athie, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: William Eubank

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Attacks On and From Sci-Fi Horror Monsters

Release Date: January 10, 2020

The opening of Underwater promises intense pressure and pitch black scenarios, but honestly? It could’ve had even more pressure and been even more pitch black. That’s not to say that those prone to extreme claustrophobia should give this one a chance. It is, after all, about deep-sea researchers who have to walk to safety across the ocean floor after their vessel becomes damaged by an apparent earthquake. But it’s almost a little too bright, a little too out in the open. The creepy-crawlies that turn out to be lurking in their path are effectively monstrous, but the point of escape appears clearly within reach such that I was never fully worried. Maybe not everyone would make it through alive, but surely some of them would. The ingenuity and grit devised for getting around the beasts are fairly satisfying, but I found myself craving, or at least anticipating, more danger and mystery.

Going right along with the vibe of shining more light than expected, both the opening and end credits inform us that this misadventure will remain very much classified when all is said and done. But the thing is, we’re seeing the classified story. This whole movie is a peak behind the redaction! So why let us know that there is a cover-up when we’re already within the covers? Perhaps there is meant to be an implication, in thoroughly true blue X-Files spirit, that in the real world there are actually terrors in the deep running amok that most folks have no idea about because certain people have decided we’re not supposed to know about any of that. Alas, all that conspiracy flavor is merely the thinnest spread of icing. But by golly, if you’re going to tease us about what your monster is really all about, then please follow through with it.

Underwater is Recommended If You Like: Overlord, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The X-Files but compressed

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stuff Bunnies

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Garner is a Little Too Successful as a Vigilante in ‘Peppermint’

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CREDIT: Michael Muller/STXfilms

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh

Director: Pierre Morel

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Wanton Lethal Violence

Release Date: September 7, 2018

Early on in Peppermint, Riley North (Jennifer Garner) tells her young daughter that she cannot just go around punching everyone who treats her poorly. It sounds like the sort of lesson that will undergird the whole film. But then Riley decides to completely act against her own advice. To be fair, there is a massive difference in scale at play here. Daughter is upset about a territorial dispute involving Girl Scout cookies, whereas Mom is seeking vengeance against the drug cartel that murdered her little girl and husband. As satisfying as it may be to dispatch people who have committed heinous crimes, responding in kind with violence tends to have unintended consequences and perpetuate a cycle of violence. Peppermint even acknowledges this dilemma, at least momentarily, but then opts to just ignore it.

I don’t want to condemn for Peppermint for advocating for righteous vigilante gun violence. Indeed, I think it is a mark of intellectual health to be able to enjoy explicit violence on screen while understanding it is much less frequently (if ever) justified in real life. But Peppermint makes that reckoning a little difficult by being so slavishly in thrall to its avenging angel. I genuinely worry that this film could be dangerously influential. I normally wouldn’t be so concerned, but the apparent rejection of a sound moral lesson makes this an unusual case.

Ultimately, I believe (or at least hope) that most viewers can understand that this is wish fulfillment of the highest order. Therefore, if Peppermint can establish its action bona fides, then it might actually earn a passing grade. Garner is certainly game, perhaps raring to go hard for a role like this ever since Alias ended 12 years ago. Director Pierre Morel (basically gender-flipping his most famous credit, Taken) keeps the pacing propulsive, but the overall arc is too by-the-numbers, while Riley is too invincible. It’s the kind of affair designed to get you cheering in the moment and not to get you thinking at all afterward.

Peppermint is Recommended If You Like: Death Wish, Taken, Zero consequences

Grade: 2 out of 5 Shotgun Blasts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ is Sure of Itself, Almost Too Sure

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CREDIT: Jeong Park/FilmRise

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle

Director: Desiree Akhavan

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be R for Clear (Though Not-Entirely-Explicit) Sexuality

Release Date: August 3, 2018 (Limited)

There’s something fundamentally unsatisfying about the ending of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. But it would be unfair to be too angry at this lack of resolution, as it is justified both narratively and (I would imagine) by real-life verisimilitude. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the lesbian title character who gets sent by her aunt to God’s Promise, a camp that practices gay conversion therapy. Without spoiling too much, there is hope for her and a few other camp attendees by the conclusion, though there are also still plenty of reasons to be concerned about their future. That ambiguity is fine. But there is a larger impasse at play here that makes Cameron Post feel a little incomplete despite how astute and empathetic it is.

The issue is with the protagonist. To be entertaining, a movie does not require a dynamic, changing lead character, but it does require that if it wants to take us on a journey. Writer/director Desiree Akhavan does want to do that, but Cameron Post is rather static. Moretz does exactly what is asked of her. She is broken up over her family’s inability to embrace her true identity, but she will never believe any of the lies that God’s Promise feeds her. She recognizes emotional manipulation for what it is and is strong-willed enough to withstand it. She is like that when we meet her, and she remains so throughout. Her two closest friends (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck) are similarly just as sure of themselves.

On the one hand, it would make more sense if Akhavan focused more on characters who are having a more difficult struggle. There would be no shortage of options, as multiple attendees attempt to buy into the camp’s teachings while ultimately unable to suppress their urges, some of them resorting to self-harm to deal with the conflict. But on the other hand, I appreciate that we get to spend more time with the kids who are defiantly certain about who they are. There is a low-key hangout vibe in what would otherwise be an emotional minefield. It’s a pleasant enough film, but it sometimes it takes unpleasant confrontation to make a difference.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Recommended If You Like: Saved!, Hangout Sitcoms with Dark Undertones

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Icebergs