‘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not one, but two, cold opening scenes.But the rest of my reaction to this film is basically being flummoxed by its outdated, non-specific definition of “weird.”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

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

Movie Review: ‘Stuber’ Sends Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista Running L.A. Around With Their Heads Cut Off

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CREDIT: Karen Ballard/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Mira Sorvino, Iko Uwais, Jimmy Tatro, Karen Gillan

Director: Michael Dowse

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Explosive Police Detective Work and a Visit to a Strip Club

Release Date: July 12, 2019

Humor hits different people in different ways, so while it’s theoretically possible that some viewers may find Stuber hilarious, I must be honest and admit that I found it tiresome almost immediately. It all starts, or fails to get into gear rather, with that title. Stuber looks completely meaningless, and it essentially is, as so many nicknames are. The “Stuber” in question is Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a big box employee who also works on the side for a ride sharing company that offers the perfect opportunity for an unremarkably simple portmanteau. Is this one big 90-minute long product placement vehicle for Uber? Eh, who cares, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with.

Anyway, Stu finds himself picking up a passenger who keeps him on retainer over the course of one very long day. That would be Dave Bautista as Vic, an LAPD detective who’s supposed to be taking some time to relax because his boss told him that a big drug case is being taken over by the feds and also because he’s temporarily blind from laser eye surgery. So of course Stu and Vic don’t see eye-to-eye, as that is how unlikely buddy comedies work. Alas, everything’s too loud and predictable to be endearing. Although at one point some guy does get his face blown up by a propane tank, a moment that kind of shocked me back to life. So overall, that’s about a minute worth of fresh material.

Stuber is Recommended If You Like: Action Comedies That Don’t Know When to Quit

Grade: 2 out of 5 Uber Stars

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2’ Fulfills Its Blockbuster Duty

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This post was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell

Director: James Gunn

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Space Opera Whiz Bang and Discussions About the Facts of Life

Release Date: May 5, 2017

As fun as this era of Marvel-ous moviemaking can be, a corporate agenda gets in the way of originality. But it is not necessarily the blueprint of interconnected universes that mandates that every superhero movie must end with a fight for the survival of the planet. That is simply this genre’s instinct. If you want to avoid it, you have to fight it. And expanding the setting to multiple galaxies is not the way to do so. That just raises the stakes. Instead of just Earth, it is the fate of the entire universe that hangs in the balance. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 cannot help but be a part of this exhausting pattern, but it does what it can by rendering this gigantic fight as personal as possible.

When Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long-lost papa Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up, Quill suspects that the reunion is a little too perfect. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) convinces him to give his dad a chance, assuring him that if treachery is afoot, killing him is always an option. So they, alongside Drax (Dave Bautista) and Ego’s empathic companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) head off to Ego’s home planet. It looks like an idyllic utopia, but eventually it is revealed that Ego is the planet, and his intentions with his son may not be so aboveboard. The threat of universal apocalypse thereby feels intimate because it depends upon how Quill will or will not be manipulated.

Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are holding down the fort elsewhere and forming unlikely, but satisfying, alliances with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). They must deal with an onslaught from a new race of aliens that I do not feel like getting into. They are probably here because they will factor significantly into future Marvel Cinematic Universe installments, but for now, they are a distraction from the main conflict. I am not opposed in principle to splitting up the main crew. Rocket and Groot, after all, have a delightful C-3PO/R2-D2-style repartee wherever they go. They can do their own thing, it just does not need to be so extensive when the main thrust is already so all-encompassing.

While vol. 2 does fall prey to sequel bloat, the Guardians crew is reliable enough for their adventures to have a pretty high floor. The banter is top-notch, fueled as it is by intergalactic culture clash. Gamora attempts to comfort Quill by referencing his attachment to a certain beloved-by-Germans celebrity, but she totally botches the details. Quill later fires back with a Cheers analogy of their relationship that is adorably confused. Drax demonstrates how his race is quite open about discussing sexual matters with a colorful description of his parents’ experiences. This is all helped along by Mantis’ empathic abilities, in which she can feel others’ emotions and thus open up the dams holding back honesty. The pinnacle of all this sharing is Baby Groot’s opinion on hats (which does not even need Mantis’ prompting).

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is Recommended If You Like: “I am Groot.” “I am Groot?” “I AMMM GROOOOOOOT!”

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sweet Sounds of the Seventies

This Is a Movie Review: The Circle

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This post was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega

Director: James Ponsoldt

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13, Because When You Have Cameras Everywhere, You’re Gonna See Something

Release Date: April 28, 2017

As the tagline to The Circle informs us, “Knowing everything is good. Knowing everything is better.” As the plot of The Circle demonstrates to us, nailing a tone is good; nailing several different tones is really hard.

This film’s titular company should feel intimately familiar to anyone alive and plugged-in in 2017. The Circle is basically Google and Facebook combined, and considering the extensive connectivity in today’s major tech and social companies, that combination is not exactly far from reality. Throw the NSA and its massive data collection into this stew, bandy about disturbing maxims like “secrets are lies,” and you’ve got yourself a formula for a relevant paranoid (or not so paranoid) thriller.

Success in such an endeavor requires a protagonist that makes sense or at least one whose motivations can be tracked. Alas, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), the Circle’s latest recruit, swings wildly between suspicion and full-bore acceptance of the surveillance state. She is wildly uncomfortable in a standout early scene when she is indoctrinated into the corporate culture, but soon enough she is working alongside the company heads (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) and pushing forward their most privacy-invading initiatives. A mysterious Circle employee (John Boyega) warns Mae about the dangers of what lies ahead, and it is never clear if she trusts him or completely ignores him. Ultimately, she seeks to expose those at the top, but an oddly pitched final shot prompts the question, “To what end?”

The one unqualified success of The Circle is the series of online comments that populate the screen at various points. Mae volunteers to record her whole life to demonstrate her belief in putting cameras everywhere, and her online followers chime in with their various observations. Most of them are along the lines of “You go, Mae!” or “Should we be watching this?” But every tenth one is some hilariously banal declaration like “making a sandwich” or “time to go poo.” This type of humor hits you sideways and buoys The Circle – if only this sort of controlled unpredictability could have been maintained throughout.

The Circle is Recommended If You Like: Nerve, Evil Tom Hanks, YouTube Comments, One More Chance to See Bill Paxton on the Big Screen

Grade: 3 out of 5 Cheeses From Last Year