Ready or Not and Midsommar

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L&D opted to watch the Bears flame out against the Packers this past Thursday night, hence skipping the week’s somewhat slim cinematic offerings.  But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out and about.  Indeed, over the past couple weeks we managed to see a couple of movies that we were initially reluctant to see, movies that were seemingly as different as night and day…

On the night side we saw Ready or Not, and if you’ve seen the trailer for this one, you pretty much know the gist of how it plays out. Grace (Samara Weaving) is a beautiful young family-less woman who is slated to marry into an eccentric family, heirs to a board game fortune.  As part of the spousal initiation, she must draw a card from the family heirloom box that selects a game to play with the family, something mundane like checkers or Jenga. But once every generation or so, the game is hide-and-seek, the kind where the incumbents have until dawn to track down the spouse and sacrifice him/her to the cause, with the cause being another generation of familial fortune.  So, by definition this one is mostly an overnight affair, mostly played out in the confines of a spooky old house, with mostly comedic-style violence, and an ending that is mostly never quite in doubt.

You have to give the filmmakers some credit here:  they gave away the broad strokes of the plot from wire-to-wire up front and they were still able to make thing reasonably compelling. That’s a pretty good trick, isn’t it?  I went in with low expectations and this one soared over the $5 bar.

 

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That brings us to the day side, where L&D finally got brave enough to take in Midsommar (Ari Aster’s extended director’s cut, no less), where the sun shines deep into the northern Swedish night, and the idiosyncrasies of IKEAesque paganism are out in the open for all to see, at least in principle.

The movie doesn’t start off that way, however, instead setting us up stateside in the dark, dark snowy days of winter, where we see snapshots of the fractured relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her idiot boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).  The opening salvo of a murder-suicide in Dani’s family is troubling enough that Christian decides not to pull the trigger on the breakup, and instead somehow bungles his way into inviting her to tag along with him and his grad student anthro buddies for the Midsommar festival hosted by the commune of his buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

So that gets us to Sweden, and after a few Shining-esque overheads, director Aster literally turns the world upside-down on us as the kids make their way into the sun-drenched village of Harga; the movie is not light on symbolism. I’m guessing an aggressive Google search would turn up a few hours of reading of the myriad meanings of the white frocks, the various shapes, and the character archetypes trotted out — the intellectual, the opportunist, the skeptic, and, of course, “the fool” (remarkably similar to the anthro buddies I had in college, I might add).

On top of the over-the-top symbolism, the movie isn’t terribly shy about foreshadowing, either.  In good Chekov fashion, if you see a picture on the wall of a woman trimming her nether regions and baking the clippings into a cake in the first act, expect to be pulling that hair out of your teeth before things wrap up, okay?

Between the visuals and the music and the director’s patience with scenes and the hyper-deliberate pace of the plot-lines, the movie does a spectacular job of inducing dread. It wasn’t terribly scary scary, but it was unnerving and more disturbing than your average bear.  The violence has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t show up in most comedic or antiseptic violence that characterizes much of what comes through the theater these days.  It’s a provocative movie.  Indeed, I am still thinking about the face plant and the “blood eagle” all these days later.

Also way over the $5 bar.  L&D approve of this extended message.

 

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Although these two films are cut from different cloth, they each explore a central question of the day:  how insular groups treat outsiders (with the protagonist(s) being the outsiders in both cases).  Where you want to take this metaphor  — capitalist v. collectivist societies, the upcoming U.S. presidential election — is up to you.

The Ready or Not clan absorbs outsiders subject to a few caveats.  First, these outsiders are selected by a member of the family (i.e., prospective spouses).   Second, the new prospective member must play this game business, which tacitly makes entrance to the family renouncing any previous allegiances. The bride is an orphan and any of her family or friends that were around for the wedding were certainly not around for the wedding night (This is almost certainly done for expositional simplicity, but a reasonable person can connect a few dots).  Then the million billion dollar question is whether the family actually has to adhere to the commitments of its forefathers or not — what are the consequences of reneging on a deal from the past?  This question is somewhat latent through most of the movie, but shows up spectacularly down the stretch.

Here is the thesis of the movie:  the really wealthy really are mostly indifferent toward you. They are ruthless, possibly incompetent, certainly deluded, and they get to make most (but not all) of the rules up as they go along.  If you’ve been watching HBO’s brilliant Succession, this theme should resonate with you.  They don’t necessarily have much in common with one another, other than a mercenary intensity in maintaining their lives in the lap of luxury.  At least you know where they stand, right?

Although the community in Midsommar is also pretty selective about who gets to come in, the community here is a true socialist paradise.  They eat together, sleep together, pray together, and do a lot of other things together that you might not immediately think of as community activities. That’s true at least in terms of what is out in the open and bathed in the sunshine.  Who knows what’s going behind closed doors?  Although there is a titular head who is ostensibly in charge, it is pretty clear that that’s not who is actually in charge.  Of course, the community rules are the community rules, but there is more than a hint that these rules are subject to selective interpretation of the higher ups. As a result, the treatment of outsiders is pretty much on a case-by-case basis and by the end here you can probably make the case that there wasn’t much of a doubt about how this one was going to play out.  

Although the movie is ostensibly about a break up, it is much better as a meditation on the pursuit of the collective good, whatever that happens to be.  Pro tip: be careful when someone tells you that your sacrifice for the cause is going to be painless.

Ultimately, I would argue that each of these films explores how we think about and how we treat those outside of our immediate circles, however defined.  More pointedly, each explores the danger and limits of extremism (are there limits of extremism?), whether the source is a self-interested patriarchy or the socialist matriarchy.  The upshot is that maybe night and day have more in common than we are willing to admit.  And, it is possibly instructive to think about which of these worlds is more resilient and durable.

Or maybe that’s just how it is in the movies.

Good Boys

Film Title: "Good Boys"

It’s late summer, the Valley’s fried chicken madness is now at a full boil, and the movies seem to be coming fast and furious, including the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise (which evidently still has a lot to say).

Well, we didn’t see that, but instead bit the bullet and spent our late Tuesday evening watching sixth graders drop F bombs. 

Yes, we saw Good Boys.

As advertised, Good Boys is Superbad light, with the boys being a little younger and the kids’ objective somewhat less sensationally objectionable than in its muse film. The script is pretty high quality and the acting is pretty solid for what it is, though the pacing seemed off to me.  It is pretty funny despite many of the marquee jokes being featured in the trailers, and we did laugh out loud a lot, possibly more than the target audience laughed. Indeed, I think we laughed at a lot of stuff that we weren’t necessarily supposed to laugh at.

A very large portion of the humor involves the disconnect between what we believe sixth graders know and what an over 17 audience knows, particularly pertaining to alcohol, recreational drugs, sex, and adult sex products. Oh, and navigating the suburbs (how exactly should one cross an interstate?). The movie is remarkably restrained in its expression of vulgarity, with the simple appearance of a taboo item enough to elicit laughter in most cases. It’s pretty well done.

This all adds up handsomely for the backers:  the theater was packed, there isn’t a single A-list actor in the movie, and the production budget must have been trivial (though it had considerable promotion campaign). By my calculations, this movie is making the big big money and what they will do with the big big money is probably make more films like this, with the writing quality being swapped out for more explicit verbal and visual content.  I’d put $5 on that.

Speaking of $5, this one is way over that bar with the caveats that you like your humor blue and aren’t offended by kids swearing like actual kids swear when you aren’t around. Clearing the bar is especially easy given Marcus is offering a free popcorn and drink to anyone who flashes this coupon between now and September 2.  We arrived at the theater and our special guest, Bb, was peacocking with his free bounty.

The verdict: it’s not half Superbad.

And that’s pretty good.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

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Is she in there?

L&D had tickets in hand for the new foul-mouthed boys movie that premiered Thursday, but took a detour for an exclusive viewing of the new Richard Linklater project, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  The fact that we were the only ones in the theater perhaps does not bode well for the film’s legs.  And this may well turn out to be the lowest-rated film of Linklater’s career, which has included Dazed and Confused, Slacker, the various Before offerings, and the much ballyhooed Boyhood.  That sort of poisons the well for the review now, doesn’t it?

But bad by Linklater standards is still pretty good for most of what passes through the theaters, and L&D liked a lot of things here.  The movie is adapted from Maria Semple’s smash literary hit of the same name (which I bought for my wife in no small part due to its spectacular — and now oft imitated — cover design) and there are a number of glimpses of why this might be a fascinating read. Whatever was going on in the novel clearly presented some challenges for Linklater, who opts to provide a considerable amount of backstory via the now familiar “character watching YouTube videos” technique.

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I went into the movie cold, knowing virtually nothing about the plot or characters, and really enjoyed how it initially unfolded. The main tension in the movie is between plot, which has its moments, and character development, which has Cate Blanchett.  My guess is that how you feel about Blanchett in the title role is pretty much how you will feel about the project more generally; some critics say she was brilliant and others say she was anything but. But this is our review and we agreed that she carried the movie and she makes it worth seeing.

Aside from Bernadette, there are four or five other candidates for main characters, including her techie husband (Billy Crudup), her daughter (Emma Nelson), two mothers from her daughter’s school (Kristen Wiig and Zoe Chao), and a friend from college (Laurence Fishburne). Of these, I don’t think any developed sufficiently to turn this into a great movie.  I had high hopes for the daughter and she emerges as the most developed of the main characters, but we never quite get there.  There were also three potential villains and I thought these story lines were poorly handled — trotted out as important, but then dealt with in a perfunctory manner.  Wiig showed a lot of promise as the busybody neighbor, but the script didn’t allow this to rise above caricature.

So that leaves us with the story, which was interesting and thought provoking, but much less of a page turner as the movie hit the hour mark.  It was pretty clear that the movie was headed south (literally, to Antarctica) and I found the back end of the story a little more neatly packaged than it might have been.  That said, the last half hour of the film and the credits are just beautiful to watch.

A secondary tension in this movie is whether it is a comedy or not.  There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments and any number of fun moments, particularly with Laurence Fishburne in the role of the long-lost friend. But the movie almost too-quickly pivots to high drama and at one point I turned to L and said, “This isn’t funny at all.”  If the movie had been more convincing, I would probably led with the mental illness angle, but it is is not and so I did not, and I will just leave it at that.

Of the many questions you are likely to be asking on your way out, “where’d she go” is probably pretty low on the list.  But it is a movie that engages the viewer on many fronts and I thought it was interesting enough to clear the $6.30 bar. L was much more positive, so a fair verdict, I think, is that we are bullish on Blanchett even if we might be a little bearish on Bernadette.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (D)

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is not quite the Tarantino movie I was expecting, possibly because I didn’t know what to expect.  I will start by saying that I was relieved to see L posted his review because, frankly, I wasn’t quite sure where to start with this one.  It’s not that the movie doesn’t give you a lot to think about, it does, it’s just that there are so many things going on and so many things that don’t quite fit together that I found it difficult to conceptualize a coherent review. In that spirit, I will just add some additional thoughts to what L has put out there already.

First off, I liked the movie a lot more than he did, though I admit that I shared his doubts that there was an end it sight.  There are indeed a lot of close ups of people’s legs as they walk from here to there (and from there back to here again).  I really liked the portrayal of late-60s Hollywood and the surrounding environs, and am somewhat surprised that L wasn’t more sympathetic to just taking it all in.   Maybe because we didn’t get out of the theater until almost 2 a.m.?

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (D)”

The Lion King

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I took a group to see the new “live action” Disney’s The Lion King, joining a packed house for one of the Thursday opening presentations.   I didn’t quite know what to expect, as I have somehow managed not to have seen the animated Disney’s The Lion King or Broadway’s The Lion King, or any other incarnations, sequels, or prequels of the clearly beloved story.

From what I gather, the big innovation here is that instead of animation we are treated to computer-generated “real” versions of the talking animals.  To my novice eye this was all quite technically spectacular and those of you into technical spectacularity will undoubtedly enjoy this.  But I’m not sure that if your goal is to anthropomorphize a setting and story that adding hyper-realism to the mix is the route to go.

But I will bypass that line of inquiry and say that I didn’t find this particularly compelling or inspirational, and instead found large swaths of the movie to have brooding overtones and the climax to be borderline apocalyptic.  The little kid who followed me out of the theater told his mother that he didn’t like it and that it was “too scary.”  She started to reassure him and I interjected, saying “Look, when you see a lion falling off a cliff to its certain death and vicious paw-to-paw combat, a little kid is naturally going to be scared…. And did you see that little lion almost get trampled by a herd of wildebeests and then get chased by a pack of hyper-realistic hyenas who were trying to kill him? How do you think that makes your little guy here feel?”

Well, perhaps I didn’t say that, but it wouldn’t have been out of order.  The movie does an excellent job portraying the vulnerability and near helplessness of our young vis-à-vis the evils that men do.  And I will say that the movie does a much better job motivating how the pride got into its various messes than it does convincing us how they could conceivably get out of them.  Yada yada yada, indeed.

So if you are a CGI junkie or just can’t get enough Lion King or you are looking for a cool place to scare the bejeezus out of your small children, head on over and check it out.  Unfortunately, a big would-be blockbuster premiere like this generally preempts release of other movies, so the movie selection otherwise isn’t terribly great.

L&D will return with Tarantino at Thursday evening’s opening.  See you all there.

Crawl

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You know it’s the soft-spot of the summer when the king of squirm himself texts to suggest that we head off to see a scary movie.  Such was the case this past bargain Tuesday, with L&D finding ourselves in the upper-deck of a packed house for the late showing of Crawl, this summer’s addition to the creepy action fare genre.

And it’s not too bad!

The movie takes us to Florida, two hours from Gainsville by car, we’re told, where a hurricane is depositing enough water to flood the place out.  Without giving too much away, let’s just say there are some biggun gators on the loose.  Who knew?  How they terrorize a college student and her hapless father (among others) is the subject of the movie.

The filmmakers definitely did a lot with a little here. I liked the student (Kaya Scodelario) a lot better than I liked the dad (Barry Pepper), though clearly both have some acting chops.  The script was pretty tight and self-contained, somewhat logical as far as it goes, not as annoying as it might have been, and plenty creepy.  It definitely taxed the limits of the L&D Jump-o-Meter that we bring along for such occasions, though it didn’t seem to phase the younger generation seated amongst us.

I think the kids enjoyed it though. If I recall correctly, we even shared some laughs. I particularly liked the ever-so-brief billboard advertising a giant alligator zoo, barely noticeable if you aren’t looking for it, as the main character drove through the storm. Solid all around.

If you are up for some creepy crawlies, check out Crawl.  But I think I will pass on the invitation to join you.  Once is enough for me, thank you very much.

Stuber

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Is that you, Iko?

Regular L&D readers are probably aware that we do not coordinate who, if anyone, is going to write and post the next review.  Typically, we write about things that we are moved to write about, either because there was something we liked, something that made us think, or something particularly irritating about what we just saw. More often than not, it’s all three. One of us usually feels compelled to write something down, and sometimes we both do.  On the other hand, for a number of movies neither of us has the time or the inclination to get something together, so it just hangs out there without comment.

That preamble perhaps provides a glimpse into the delayed response in producing a review for our next feature, Stuber, which we saw on opening night almost a full week ago. As we headed past the Taco Bell, we were vaguely aware that the reviews were tepid.  But we both think Kamail Nanjiani is pretty funny and we both thought he was pretty much the funniest part of the decidedly disappointing MiB offering, so we held out hope that this wouldn’t be a complete disaster.

And I think our low expectations were rewarded.  Without laboring over the plot details (see above), we laughed out loud a few times and found a lot of things to like — for instance, the tremendous scene involving a rogue propane tank tops my list of comic violence.  So I think the movie sort of worked for me and I think at this point it’s fair to say that Nanjiani can carry his weight in a comedy.  As an action movie or a drama, well, let’s just say it works pretty well as a comedy.

Continue reading “Stuber”

Spiderman: Far From Home

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We ventured out for a special holiday week Tuesday opening of Spiderman: Far From Home, playing to a pretty crowded house for the late show.  This is the first major Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) release since Avengers: Endgame, and this fits squarely into the universe with constant reminders to what has come before.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

The movie retains a healthy reliance on Peter Parker’s high school experience, and the writers continue to seem to know their way around the teenager mentality.  After the obligatory opening action scene, we move into a pretty expansive exploration of the class trip to Europe with Peter, MJ, and Flash, along with major roles for Brad and Betty this time around.  Tom Holland and Zendaya and the supporting cast continue to impress in these roles.

Even so, this particular incarnation of the Spiderman arc is decidedly different than anything I’ve seen before. Peter is no longer the poor kid, as evidently he has the resources to get on a plane and jump the pond. Tony Stark (still Robert Downey, Jr.) seems to have stepped in for his Uncle Ben as the father figure, and now Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) actually knows Peter’s secret identity, too (!).

Because this is the MCU thing, we also get a very healthy dose of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, which is generally a good thing, but it is also instructive as to the gets at this Spidey as the heir apparent to Iron Man as the leader of the Avengers.  Jake Gyllenhaal also shows up as the somewhat “mysterious” Quentin Beck, and he plays a rather pronounced role as the would-be hero.  So the movie has more than its fair share of star power.

The verdict: If you like Spiderman or you generally like the MCU (or both), you will likely enjoy what this has to offer. I’m guessing that’s enough folks to make this one the smash hit that it’s become. My kids both saw it on Tuesday and my son was especially excited about the “big twist.”   It’s playing in Peoria.

As for me, I mostly enjoyed it, but thought that it was a decided step down from 2017’s excellent Homecoming. And it would certainly not crack the top three if L&D were ever to get around to publishing our Best Spiderman Movie Rankings (available upon request). Word has it that L might unleash a surprise  Into the Spiderverse review on us.

Men In Black: International

Men in Black: International is chock-full of star power:  Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and a special guest appearance of Kumail Nanjiani.   It is also chock-full of special effects and weird aliens and the like.  What it is not chock-full of is a decent story, suspense, a good villain, or consistent laughs.  It is mostly harmless summer fun, like a snow cone.   Or diet lemonade.

L&D were split on this one, with L seeming to enjoy himself, while D was mostly bored and annoyed.  Nanjiani is certainly mostly solid and often very funny, and is what I would rate as the best part of the movie had it not been for Chris Hemsworth strutting around in pink chinos.

But, ultimately, we have a dull movie.

I will chalk this up to (at least) two major shortcomings.   First, there is no straight man.   MiB worked so spectacularly because Tommy Lee Jones and the staid MiB organization served as a foil to Will Smith’s overall freshness. Ironically, the film took some pains to make Tessa Thompson into the straight man, even though the entire ad campaign around the movie suggested otherwise.   What a mess.   I walked out of International recanting some of the funnier MiB scenes to L that I still remember all these years later; a day out, I’m not sure I remember what was funny about this recent offering.

Second, who is the villain here, anyway?  There are a number of candidates, one becomes obvious, the audience isn’t surprised and doesn’t care.   It concludes with some  Drama-Free Action.

At one point, I was really reminded of the soft spots in the Star Wars movies — lots of aliens and crazy background serving as stand-ins for interesting characters and a compelling plot.   Given the amount of money thrown at this movie, the payoff is abysmal.

We should have seen this coming.   We did see this coming.    The Taco Bell is closed until further notice.

Taco Bell locations were mentioned several times by readers as having long waits in the drive-thrus at various times, and their inside dining rooms were occasionally closed while the drive-thrus were open. 

A call to Pacific Bells, the Taco Bell franchise owner in this area, was not returned.  

A check on the Taco Bell on Appleton’s east side, which was identified by readers as having sporadic issues, showed it was currently open and staffed. But it had reduced hours, now closing at 8 p.m. instead of the advertised 2 a.m.

TBI don’t lie.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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“Wait, that’s not the ending?”

Something unusual is going on at our local Taco Bell restaurants.   As L&D reported last week, from all outward appearances the store was closed as we drove past — the interior lights and the giant outdoor Taco Bell signage were dark, yet the driveup line was sprawling into the street.   Turning the lights off in Paree still won’t keep them on the farm, evidently.

As it happens, I was at a different Taco Bell on the other side of town earlier in the week, featuring both an extended drive up line and a massive back up in the interior of the store.  Indeed, the customers and workers alike shared the sour countenance that you might find at the DMV.  At one point, the manager locked the door to prevent further entry and proceeded to hand out coupons to placate those of us who had been patiently waiting for semi-warm tacoesque offerings.  You read that correctly: the manager locked the door to keep customers out.  This is around 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Peak taco?

And it came to pass that L&D headed out to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters Thursday night, once again the lights were out and we were having trouble locating the building (even the outside sign was dark), but we evidently were the only ones who couldn’t find the building because once again the line was epic, and only the illumination of the drive up window gave any indication that the restaurant was open for business.  I was driving and L shifted excitedly in his seat to survey the situation.  This was easily the highlight of the evening.

Okay, so I was just going to leave the review at that, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters, while terrible, is not entirely bereft of merit.   The sound is incredible and the credits are astounding — the army of animators (?) and sheer number of FX companies that worked on this defies credulity.  How do they put all of this together so seamlessly?

Well, how did they put all of the effects together so seamlessly?, that is.  The plot, the dialog, and the pacing of the movie started poorly and didn’t get much better.  The script is weak and the timing seems off by a beat through much of the film, despite boasting a number of A-list actors in the cast (Vera Farmiga, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance).

In fairness, there are a number of potentially interesting aspects of the movie, including:

  • the overt religiosity;
  • the few attempts at humor;
  • whatever the Monarch agency is and its role in tracking and monitoring the beasts;
  • the various’ beasts effects on the global ecosystem (making the news clips in the end credits a semi-highlight for me).

But even with good potential, some good action, and some amusement, the movie is almost completely inane.  On the way to the parking lot, L lamented the fact that there were actually other movie patrons, as this was the best candidate for “L&D Mystery Science Theater” since Kong.

And, speaking of the big guy, evidently he is on a collision course with the big lizard in Godzilla vs. Kong, set for 2020.   I have a feeling we will be seeing that one, though I kind of wish we wouldn’t.