I Saw ‘Free Guy’ and Then ‘Don’t Breathe 2’ Immediately Afterwards: Here’s What Happened

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures; 20th Century Studios/Screenshots

Free Guy:

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Taika Waititi, Channing Tatum

Director: Shawn Levy

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Theaters)

Don’t Breathe 2:

Starring: Stephen Lang, Madelyn Grace, Brendan Sexton III

Director: Rodo Sayagues

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Theaters)

In Free Guy, good vibes beget more good vibes. When Guy the NPC gains self-awareness, he focuses on self-improvement, and that leads to all the other NPCs in Free City becoming better versions of themselves, and even some of the real people playing the game start to adopt a more positive view of the world. As it turns out, that tendency was in Guy’s programming all along. He’s got a fantastically complicated algorithm that allows for so many wondrous possibilities. It’s infectious, even for a Ryan Reynolds skeptic like me.

Contrast that with Don’t Breathe 2, in which hate begets more hate. The first Don’t Breathe effectively toyed with our sympathies regarding Stephen Lang’s blind Norman; the sequel tries to do the same, but his negative characteristics are a bit too overwhelming to fully root for him. (Also, his blindness isn’t utilized to the same thrilling effect.) Furthermore, the people who target him this time around have a sympathetic reason for doing so, but basically every action they take in the name of their mission is pretty despicable. At least the young girl isn’t similarly hate-filled – there’s no Bad Seed vibes here. But otherwise, the blood and the pain just pile up and pile up.

GRADES:
Free Guy: 4 out of 5 Skins
Don’t Breathe 2: 2 out of 5 Light Switches

‘The Suicide Squad’ is Silly, Violent, Imaginative, and Easy Enough to Follow

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The Suicide Squad (CREDIT: Warner Bros./Screenshot)

Starring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Flula Borg, Steve Agee, Storm Reid, Taika Waititi

Director: James Gunn

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Various Body Parts Getting Torn Apart, a Full Roster of Potty Mouths, and a Little Bit of Nudity

Release Date: August 5, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

The Suicide Squad feels like it came from another dimension. It shares a few characters with 2016’s (no “the”) Suicide Squad and has essentially the same premise. It’s ostensibly a sequel to that earlier effort, but it’s effectively a do-over. There are plenty of reboots every year at the multiplex, but rarely do we have such an unabashed mulligan. The multiverse theory posits that there is an infinite number of realities with any number of minor or major variations, and it seems that we’ve somehow been visited by the one in which James Gunn directed a Suicide Squad movie instead of David Ayer. Adding to this surreal state of affairs was the fact that I was in a bit of a fugue state while watching The Suicide Squad. It was a 10:00 AM screening, my first morning trip to a movie theater post-pandemic. My body was confused by the lack of sunlight at the early hour and thus my brain was unsure if it should be waking or dreaming. Either way, heads were always fated to explode.

The Suicide Squad takes a cue from Suicide Squad by having multiple beginnings, but this time it’s a cheeky bit of purposeful misdirection instead of stinky studio manipulation. Suicide squads are famously expendable, and it turns out that there are degrees of expendability, as one squad is introduced with plenty of fanfare only to serve as a diversion. Everyone involved clearly wanted to feature as many characters as possible to essentially say, “Can you believe all of the colorful ridiculousness that has actually appeared in DC Comics?” The team that we spend most of our time with consists of the ever-popular Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a couple of sharpshooters (Idris Elba, John Cena), a queen of rodents (Daniela Melchior), and a guy who shoots polka dots out of his mouth (David Dastmalchian). They’re sent to the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese for some top secret political meddling, but a date with the fantastical awaits them.

I wasn’t prepared for the Big Bad in The Suicide Squad to be a giant starfish, but that is indeed what awaited me. And quite frankly, I’m glad that that’s what we got. I can take or leave the gleeful over-the-top violence; it’s good for a few laughs, but after a couple of hours, I’m exhausted by the fact that I’m not really meant to care about any of these characters (although a few do manage to find a small place in my heart). So I’m grateful that there’s a surplus of visual imagination to appreciate. Way too many extraterrestrial cinematic CGI creatures of the past 15 years or so are some variation on big bad bugs, so a massive starfish that squirts out hundreds of smaller starfish is a relief. I’d be happy to see Starro rolling around every future corner of the big-screen DC universe, whether or not the reject crew is around.

So in conclusion, if you like kooky superpowers at their absolute kookiest and rats getting their time in the spotlight, you’ll probably have a decent time with the Suicide Squad.

The Suicide Squad is Recommended If You Like: The trailers for 2016’s Suicide Squad, bodily mutilation played for laughs, Mouse Hunt

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rats

‘Jojo Rabbit’ Never Met Any Tonal Disparity It Wouldn’t Embrace

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Children Getting in the Line of Fire and Witnessing Victims of Public Hanging

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

If a ten-year-old boy declared that his best friend is Adolf Hitler, would his story be embraced by the masses? Apparently so, apparently especially if he hangs out with an imaginary version of the Fuhrer played by Taika Waititi, seeing as Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I first heard the premise of Jojo, I thought, “Wow, really? Okay.” Now, that initial bit of shock is by no means a dismissal. I encourage all filmmakers (and indeed, all people in any profession) to embrace a challenge, and this is certainly A CHALLENGE. The potential pitfalls go beyond the difficulty of trying to make a mockery out of the Nazis. That really isn’t a problem, as there have been numerous memorable spoofs of Hitler over the decades, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks, and comedy can be one of our most potent weapons against hate. Ultimately, the possibility for trouble comes in the form of the whimsical tone, which does not promise to mix so easily with the deadliness of the wartime setting.

My verdict is that Jojo Rabbit does not fully overcome its inherent tonal disparity, though I appreciate its audacity. There is something to be said for the value of presenting a violent world through a child’s perspective. However, it’s a little harder to justify constantly placing preteen characters in the path of gunfire and explosions (while insisting on drawing out consistent guffaws), which Jojo Rabbit does a distressing number of times. And on top of that, the adult actors are so uniformly goofy. Their performances indicate that this is a straight-up parody, while the effects work counter that no, this is actually supposed to be harrowing and realistic.

I’m almost willing to forgive, or at least overlook, that tonal whiplash, because the inner conflicts at the heart of this film are actually rather affecting despite the tightrope they must walk. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) fully embraces Nazism, though he does not really grasp what that means. He buys into the nastiest stereotypes of Jews, believing that they are horned, scaly creatures who hang upside-down like bats. But it turns out that while his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has enthusiastically been sending him to a Hitler Youth camp, that’s all a ruse, as she’s secretly been working against the Nazis, even hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her house. Jojo discovers her and naturally develops a crush, as he gradually realizes that his anti-Semitism is not sincere but rather based on some fanciful lies that were attractive to a kid with an active imagination. If Jojo Rabbit is trying to teach us that hate can be cured if the disease is detected early enough, and especially if the antidote is love, well, that’s true, but no great revelation. But if it’s trying to remind us that a childlike perspective of the world is chaotic, but also somehow fun, and weirdly revelatory, well, that’s a useful reminder. Although, maybe sometimes movies should be less messy than real life.

Jojo Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: Life is Beautiful, Monty Python crossed with Schindler’s List

Grade: 3 out of 5 Grenade Explosions

This Is a Movie Review: The God of Thunder Gets Stranded in the Louche ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel

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

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Colorfully Stylized Action Violence and a Glimpse of Hulk Butt

Release Date: November 3, 2017

Even in its stronger outings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently exemplified the distressing 21st century trend of “franchise film as trailer for its upcoming sequels.” But putting at the helm Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director behind vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and coming-of-age charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would perhaps signal a willingness to kick back with an idiosyncratic one-off effort. And indeed, Thor: Ragnarok is not particularly burdened by setting up the next “phase” for all the other Marvel heroes, save for the mandatory post-credits scene as well as an early rendezvous with Doctor Strange that at least has the courtesy to be completely ridiculous. But as Waititi is not creating something out of whole cloth, it is still a bear of a job to wrap his sensibility around Thor’s personal history and Asgard’s extensive mythology.

One of the biggest disappointments of most MCU films, and what made Doctor Strange so satisfying when it bucked this trend, is their lack of imagination in design and music. Their craft is far from ugly, but it is no more than workmanlike. Ragnarok has plenty of personality, but it kind of gets in the way of itself. Mark Mothersbaugh’s prog-rock synth score is entirely fitting, but it never really fully rocks out until the end credits. All the new supporting characters make a convincing case to be the breakout star, but there is only room for so much of that in a busy 2 hours. I would never willingly sacrifice Cate Blanchett’s evil diva goddess Hela, or Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric sensualist Grand Master, or Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking and unapologetic Valkyrie, or the most hedonistic version of the Hulk we have yet seen on screen. But this is a series of solo acts, not a supergroup. They play nice together, but they only intermittently gel as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly straightforward, but a little overwhelming in its climax, due to the surfeit of moving parts. The titular end of Asgardian days is threatening to come to pass with the return of Hela, the long-imprisoned goddess of death and sister of Thor. Thor and Loki broker one of their many peaces to team up and save their home realm, but they are first waylaid onto the Grand Master’s home planet, where they get caught up in some gladiatorial combat.

By the end of it all, I found myself confused about who was defeated and who was victorious, and how much so on either count. Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo any prosaic interpretation for the sake of embracing a more expressionistic experience. This is not hard to do, as there are plenty of blasts of pure imagination (punneriffic reference perfectly intended). Trouble is, the story does matter to the people who made this movie, and even if it did not, it is too imposing to disregard. By the end of all these affairs, Ragnarok is the type of feast that overloads you with deliciousness but leaves you crashing instead of the kind that fills you up and floods you up with endorphins. It is adequately cromulent, but not very transcendent.

Thor: Ragnarok is Recommended If You Like: Doctor Strange, ’70s Glam Rock Stars, Kiwi accents

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nonsense Circles