Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton Get ‘Freaky,’ and a Bloody Silly Time Will Be Had By All

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Freaky (CREDIT: Brian Douglas/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck

Director: Christopher Landon

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Stunningly Over-the-Top Gore and Bluntly Disturbing Profanity

Release Date: November 13, 2020 (Theaters)/December 4, 2020 (On Demand)

When the elevator pitch for a movie is “A serial killer swaps bodies with a teenage girl,” how could its title be anything other than “Freaky Friday the 13th”? Maybe litigiousness was a concern, or perhaps brevity really is the soul of witty knifeplay, as co-writer/director Christopher Landon and company ultimately settled on the shorter moniker Freaky for this breezy and deadly concoction. Landon is best known for mashing up slashers and time loops in Happy Death Day and its sequel, and now he’s got another unlikely complement for his preferred horror subgenre. The hallmarks of the two formulas mix together mostly seamlessly, as mystical mumbo-jumbo and a race to a point-of-no-return countdown are punctuated by buckets of gore.

The teenage girl in question is Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), who’s been going through life in a bit of a daze ever since her dad died about a year ago, while the serial killer (Vince Vaughn) is known as the Blissfield Butcher, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about him. Freaky‘s slasher approach is most directly inspired by the Friday the 13th franchise, particularly the early sequels in which the be-masked Jason Voorhees’ motivation gradually drifts away from revenge and more towards a general unquenchable thirst for killing. For Newton, that means playing the Butcher in Millie’s body as mostly a silent stalker, while occasionally dropping piercingly vulgar threats of violence. If the Butcher is motivated by anything, it’s shiny objects, as he is positively entranced by a beautifully kitchen knife, while his fashion sense leads him to outfit Millie’s body in a striking blood-red jacket.

Vaughn has a much more effervescent role to play, which he tackles with a level of relish that is always ready to be tapped whenever he’s given the right material. With arms akimbo and his heart on his sleeve, he nails the looseness of someone who suddenly finds herself a foot taller and about one hundred pounds bigger. Millie’s fascination with all the nooks, crannies, and appendages of her new body is infectious and an inspiration for all of us to celebrate the vessels we’re currently living in, body swap or no. Good on Vaughn for being so fully up for anything!

As for the actual story, Freaky lacks the emotional oomph present in the best of the body swap genre (or the best of the slasher genre, certainly). The thematic heft of the body swap tends to be driven by the swappers ultimately coming to an understanding with each other, but that’s not exactly going to work when one of them is basically an embodiment of pure evil. So we must be sated by the goofball charm, of which there is plenty, and the absurd graphic violence, of which there is even more. Landon is clearly here to revel in the most baroque excesses of the slasher world, as the Butcher utilizes the likes of a toilet seat and a tennis racket in profoundly lethal ways. Also there’s apparently a cryogenic chamber in a high school locker room. All that AND there’s a “Que Sera Sera” needledrop. Quite frankly, I think Freaky knows exactly who its audience is.

Freaky is Recommended If You Like: Friday the 13th Parts 3 through 6, Grindhouse-style gore, The continued relevance of Vince Vaughn

Grade: 3 out of 5 Magic Daggers

Movie Review: ‘Detective Pikachu’ the Movie Demonstrates Its Potential Worth as a TV Show

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./Legendary

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Rita Ora

Director: Rob Letterman

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Explosions, Lightning Bolts, and Suspicious Gas

Release Date: May 10, 2019

The promise of a significant chunk of ’90s has been crystallized in the form of Detective Pikachu. Pokémon is a franchise that has endured for decades, but unlike say, Star Wars or the Muppets, it is not the sort of property that its fans continue to love, or love in the same way, as they grow older. Instead, it is tinged with nostalgia at the same time that it enthralls subsequent generations with new chapters. With its mix of live-action humans and CGI monsters and its expansive approach to Pokémon mythology, Detective Pikachu takes a rather meta stance towards a significant piece of culture. I enjoyed watching it, but I also had the sense that it was not as perfectly constructed as it could have been. It soon dawned on me that there was so much potential Pokémon goodness missing from this world that could be fleshed out in a TV version.

What I’m saying here is that I would love it if it turns out that Detective Pikachu is just the first chapter and that we get a new mystery for the adorable electric mouse to solve every week, with a few more big-screen adventures as well if anything gargantuan turns up. Surely Pika’s deerstalker hat of choice points to his sartorial inspiration as a possible model to follow for ongoing detective work. There is just so much untapped potential here in Ryme City, a land in which humans and Pokémon live alongside each other on equal terms. It’s not unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but a lot more adorable. With hundreds of Pokémon available to play around with, necessarily only a small percentage are spotlighted. But more could have had their moment to shine, and hopefully more will.

But the Pokémon who do get their chance to shine give us some delightful, occasionally anarchic deployments of their unique powers, especially a frustrating charades-based interrogation with a Mr. Mime. What makes Detective Pikachu work as well as it does is its total lack of winking within its meta framework. As the voice of the title crimesolver, Ryan Reynolds is basically doing a PG version of Deadpool, which turns out to be just subdued enough to be plenty palatable. Among the rest of the cast, Kathryn Newton stands out as an underpaid digital news intern who is basically a doing an impression of a mix between a noir femme fatale and a His Girl Friday-type. Occasionally the film gets bogged down in heavy mythology that may be too much for even some Pokémon devotees, but when it maintains its full sense of playfulness, it is a commendably unique cinematic achievement.

Detective Pikachu is Recommended If You Like: Pokémon with a spritz of Minions and a soupçon of Deadpool

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Deerstalker Caps

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ben is Back’ Mixes Familial Addiction Crisis with Suburban Thriller

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CREDIT: Mark Schafer/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

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

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for The Profanity of Familial Frustration and Some Drug Use

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

Ben is Back reminds me quite a bit of Good Time, despite the two being wildly different in tone and purpose. But their narrative structures and momentum match up strikingly. Both are about all-night attempts to retrieve a beloved family member, with secrets, subterfuge, and drug use along the way. It just goes to show you that when it gets right down to it, outer borough dwellers who resort to crime aren’t all that different from upstate suburban families.

Where Good Time was about Robert Pattinson springing his brother out of jail after a botched robbery, Ben is Back follows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) as they track down the beloved family dog in the wake of Ben’s history of bad decisions catching up with him. Ben has just unexpectedly showed up at home from rehab on Christmas Eve, and he promises that he is making an honest effort to stay clean. But then someone comes to collect a debt by kidnapping the dog, and the temptations to relapse shoot up exponentially.

Movies with premises like Ben is Back‘s tend to make a double-edged promise to their audience: they feature tremendous, heartfelt acting and have thoughtful and open-minded things to say about the opioid crisis, but they are also stressful and depressing viewing experiences. Beautiful Boy is a prime recent example that was overwhelming in its anxiety. But Ben is Back bypasses that disquiet, or at least sets it aside for the moment, with the urgency of its plotting. It makes for a cinematic experience that is not exactly fun, but certainly thrilling. And it’s not like it avoids the hard questions. Indeed, the matters of whether or not Holly can ever trust Ben, and how much his brain is even in control of how much he can be trustworthy, are brought into sharp relief by the occasion of finding the dog. This is what the opioid crisis looks like during the holidays for one family – there might be enough hope for them to make it through.

Ben is Back is Recommended If You Like: Good Time but if it were about the opioid crisis

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Relapses

This Is a Movie Review: Three Teenage Girls Make a Sex Pact, But It is the Parents of ‘Blockers’ Who Are Behaving Badly

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures

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

Starring: Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon

Director: Kay Cannon

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Girls Talking About Sex Without Any Shame, Butt Chugging and the Like, and a Concerning Amount of Drug Use

Release Date: April 6, 2018

What to do with a movie that has a really great message but that plays fast-and-loose with any sense of realism? You take the good, you take the bad – the facts of life! I didn’t go into this meaning to name-check a classic ’80s TV theme song, but as it popped into my head, it just felt remarkably right. At its core, and at its best, Blockers emphasizes the fact that teenage girls have sexual desires and treats that truth as matter-of-factly as it deserves to be treated. This isn’t some “girls can be gross, too!” twist on a “boys will be boys” classic. The sex here approached with maturity and it is often romantic. Any grossness in Blockers is due to insecurity or lapses in plausibility.

Have sex pacts ever occurred in real life? If so, I hope they are as supportive and sweetly motivated as the one in Blockers. On the occasion of her senior prom, Julie (Kathryn Newton) announces to her lifelong friends Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) her intention to lose her virginity tonight to her boyfriend. Sensing an opportunity for a shared anniversary, Kayla and Sam declare that they are in as well. They may not be in as serious a relationship as Julie is, but they’ve got guys who they like well enough and who have the necessary equipment. But when Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s dad Mitch (John Cena), and Sam’s dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) catch wind of the pact, they are not going to stand idly by as their girls become women.

It is distressing that these parents have such regressively protective attitudes, though it is encouraging that they are presented as the ones so clearly in the wrong. And what’s more, their motivations are more complicated than not trusting their daughters. Lisa is a single mom who has raised Julie alone her whole life. She is struggling through deep-seated separation anxiety, worrying that Julie getting closer to her boyfriend means she will attend college thousands of miles away, which means that she could disappear forever. Director Kay Cannon and her team of screenwriters handle this unflinchingly, and I wish they would have devoted even more time to it. Hunter, meanwhile, knows that Sam is gay and is worried that her friends are forcing her to do something she doesn’t really want to do. Originally introduced as a deadbeat screw-up, he ends up coming off as the most open-minded of the trio, though the film does lose focus a bit on that tack for the sake of gags. Mitch is really the only one who comes as the stereotypically overprotective parent, and though Cena does imbue him with a fair amount of sweetness, he feels out of place in what the film is ultimately saying.

Blockers’ message that teenage girls should be allowed to make their own sexual decisions, especially if they are with boys (or otherwise) who they like and respect, is indisputably valuable. While it may be underlined a little too obviously, perhaps it is a message that needs to be repeated. It is also heartening to see a group of supportive teenage female friends on screen. Julie, Kayla, and Sam have their stark differences, but their loyalty runs deep. That well of positivity offsets a bit the parents’ surplus of bad behavior, which stretches the bounds of credulity a bit too much. Seriously, Blockers, you’re plenty funny without having to resort to butt chugging beer. That is to say, this is a movie that is much more sure-footed when it comes to romance (somehow making licorice the perfect food for declaring love) than when it swerves into the territory of illegal behavior.

Blockers is Recommended If You Like: Superbad and other Judd Apatow productions, particularly if they feature insecure parents, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Clueless

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sex Pacts

This Is a Movie Review: Seeking Justice for a Cold Rape/Murder Case, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is the Timeliest Dark Comedy of 2017

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CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Željko Ivanek, Kathryn Newton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Cussing, Police Abuse, and Arson

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)

The release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not be any more timely. We are currently living in a moment unprecedented in terms of the rate at which prominent sexual harassers and abusers are being exposed. By putting up the titular billboard triptych calling out local law enforcement for its inability to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is instantly a symbol of this age. Unsurprisingly, she butts up against a fair deal of racism within the Ebbing police department. But that discrimination isn’t coming from Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, though he may be a bit hard-edged, is absolutely well-meaning; he so wishes he had physical evidence in the Hayes case. And the racist officer in question might actually have some good detective in him and maybe even some decent humanity.

Based on his track record, writer/director Martin McDonagh is not an obvious choice to stick the sensitive landing that Three Billboards pulls off. With In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he demonstrated his knack for understanding the foibles of humanity, especially when it comes to souls existentially cast adrift by the whims of fate. Such an approach would not be impossible for a film about an unsolved rape case, but it would be depressing. While McDonagh can be cutting, he is so for the laughs. It is not his bag to make his audience endlessly despair. Thus, while Three Billboards does feature plenty of his signature jabs, he ultimately re-calibrates his typical tone enough to make this effort truly uplifting.

The most astute trick that McDonagh pulls off involves the constant acknowledgement that individuals contain multitudes and are not easy to pin down, even in a story driven by something so obviously wrong as rape. Mildred’s crusade is righteous, but plenty of townspeople wish she would just go away. While much of that has to do with a tendency to defend the status quo, it is also due to her own prickly personality. But to be fair to her (and the movie certainly is), not many people have figured out how to insist upon justice while remaining kind. Willoughby receives the brunt of Mildred’s ire, and while he can be too heated for his own good, he knows what’s right. And because this movie is so generous to its characters, he has his own terminal cancer-fueled narrative. Also coming in hot is Mildred’s relationship with her ex-husband (John Hawkes), which turns especially nasty when it comes to his new much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving). But it turns out that he is with her less because she is a pretty young thing and more because she has instilled in him a Zen calm, noting that anger only begets more anger.
The evolution of Officer Jason Dixon illustrates that proposition best of all. On the page, his transformation might read as too transformational to be believed, even with a writer as skilled as McDonagh. But thanks to the chops of Sam Rockwell, his redemptive arc reads as perfectly natural. When we meet him, Dixon is frequently drunk, openly racist, and constantly abusing his power. But when relieved of his badge, he finds room to make amends, ultimately teaming up with Mildred to fulfill his duty as a decent person. In a world where evil acts continue to be perpetrated, it is nice to know that humanity can persist.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Recommended If You Like: Fargo, M*A*S*H, Groundhog Day

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Fat Dentists

Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Review: An Under-the-Radar Gem Solidifies Itself as One of the Best Dramas of the Decade

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CREDIT: Tina Rowden/AMC

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

Network: AMC

Showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers

Main Cast: Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Toby Huss

Notable Guest Stars: Anna Chlumsky, Annabeth Gish, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs, Carol Kane

Episode Running Time: 42 Minutes

SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses significant plot details of all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. Read only if you have watched the entire series or don’t mind being spoiled.

I have heard the appeal of Halt and Catch Fire described by some of its viewers in a manner reminiscent of that of Lost. Like those who said that the latter was not really about the island and all its mysteries, there are those who would have it that HaCF is not really about the technology industry but rather the people who just happen to be employed by it. To which the correct response is: of course the characters are great, but the reason they are so compelling is because of their relationships with computers. All four of HaCF’s principals – Gordon the tinkerer (McNairy), Donna the explorer (Bishé), Cameron the restless (Davis), and Joe the visionary (Pace) – know that their destiny is inextricably bound by tech. But really, what they are all searching for is connections with other human beings. In the fourth and final season, the indelible impact they have made on their audience is proof of their success.

Each season has served as a fictionalized examination of the major developments in technology. Season 1 concerned the personal computing revolution, Season 2 brought to life the birth of online gaming, Season 3 detailed e-commerce and computer security, and now Season 4 brings it all together with the expansion of the World Wide Web. Gordon and Joe have reunited for a new venture as an internet service provider, but they ultimately convert to a focus on search, almost by accident, when Gordon’s teenage daughter Haley (Skaggs) tools around the office on her own personal website. Gordon and Joe fall in love with what she’s up to, and bring her onboard for the re-tooled company, now called Comet (as in Halley’s Comet), which is basically a highly curated predecessor to Google. But the thing about being a predecessor, as so often befalls this crew, is that your ideas end up ahead of your time while your implementation somehow ends up behind the times.

The driving momentum of this final season is the reunion of the core four. After years of manipulation, both real and imagined, Joe and Gordon are finally on fully equal terms, passionately working towards a shared goal. Elsewhere, Donna and Cameron make more halting efforts in being drawn back into each other’s orbit. Recently divorced from Gordon, Donna finds herself overseeing another search website, and accordingly struggles to attain personal success as a professional rival to her ex-husband and daughter. Cameron reunites romantically with Joe; their relationship at the beginning of the series was a tad abusive, but after years of healing and a pivot to total honesty, they confirm that they do indeed have real respect and love for each other. But any efforts for Donna and Cameron to reconcile with each other are much more halting, their wounds more recent and bitter.

About halfway through the season, the reunions are not complete, but everyone is closer to inner peace than we ever have seen them. This sense of contentment is on full display in “Who Needs a Guy,” which represents just about the perfect day for Gordon. But anyone who knows how writers effectively manipulate viewers’ emotions should view such an instance with concern. That hour of television ends with Gordon passing away, finally succumbing to the toxic encephalopathy he was diagnosed with in Season 2. The end of this episode, and the entirety of the following one (“Goodwill”), are incredible reflections on how it feels to lose someone so young who has just found inner peace. At this point, it does not matter at all that this is a tech show – the truth and bittersweet satisfaction it conveys are all just about being human.

I have on multiple occasions made the perhaps crazy claim that a great TV show can be enjoyed no matter what order you watch it in. I (inadvertently) tested that theory with Halt and Catch Fire, having watched the first half or so of Season 1 when it originally aired but then gave up on it, only to hear that it got significantly better in Seasons 2 and 3. So I jumped right into Season 4 for its initial airings while concurrently catching up on every episode I had missed, finishing Season 3 just before the series finale. So when I watched “Who Needs a Guy,” I had yet to see the episode with Gordon’s diagnosis, so his death surely hit me harder than it did most viewers. I enjoyed experiencing Season 1 and Season 4 sort of back-to-back, as they work as mirror versions of each other. Furthermore, with HaCF’s frequent time jumps (including one at the start of Season 4), it is designed to be easily jumped right into more than the average show.

Here now is where I make room to praise the supporting and guest characters. The Clark daughters, Joanie and Haley, were always adorable kiddos in earlier years, but in Season 4, they are now teenagers, with correspondingly beefed-up roles. Kathryn Newton and Haley Clark have the obsessive minds and deep wells of feeling necessary to fit in and thrive with these people. Anna Chlumsky comes onboard easily and delightfully as Comet’s chief ontologist and as a new, perfectly matched love interest for Gordon. Her quick departure after his death captures the ephemerality of some of the best things in life. And then of course there is Bos, who is some combination of mentor, therapist, father figure, and best friend to everybody. Toby Huss’ portrayal of him is and has always been the embodiment of the perfect dadgum Texas folksiness.

In an immensely satisfying finale, HaCF calls back to a credo expressed in Season 1: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” The purpose of all the technological breakthroughs these people have been chasing has never been the point in and of themselves, but rather, the personal connections that they forge is the point. For a moment, it seems like everyone is about to go their separate ways and miss out on the opportunities to hold onto those connections. History is threatening to repeat itself, but then … that repetition is embraced. The patterns of the computer industry, and life, are unavoidable. We end where we begin, hopefully wiser and corresponding ready, and eager, to start all over again.

Best Episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous,” “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Ten of Swords”

How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? Halt and Catch Fire is practically symphonic in how its conclusion wraps around to its beginning. It fulfills the promise that was always there, maybe even confirming that a brilliant plan was in place all along. Thus, Season 4 is the show’s most hopeful, most peaceful, and best.

Halt and Catch Fire is Recommended If You Like: Silicon Valley but want something less cynical, Mad Men but wish every character were the Peggy

Where to Watch: Seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix, and Season 4 is currently on AMC.com.

Grade: 4.7 out of 5 Things