Macho Los Angeles Police Department detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) schedules eye surgery at the same time that notorious, quick-footed drug lord Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) reappears on his radar, their previous run-in resulting in the murder of his partner, Sarah Morris (Karen Gillan), which took place six months earlier during a brutal street chase. While tortured by the idea that Oka is still on the loose, Vic’s neglected daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) books him an Uber ride to ensure that he attends her art exhibition opening later that night.
The unfortunate receiver of this Uber call is Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a well-meaning, simple guy with problems of his own. For starters, his department store boss Richie Sandusky (Jimmy Tatro) is an absolute jerk, dubbing him ‘Stuber’ for his after-hours taxi gig; he’s also helplessly friend-zoned by his soon-to-be business partner Becca (Betty Gilpin), and despite Stu’s efforts, his Uber rating is dropping with every ride.
Even with Vic’s superior, LAPD Captain Angie McHenry (Mira Sorvino), pushing him away from his long-standing case, a hot tip from his informant, Leon (Amin Joseph), about the whereabouts of Oka, who’s making a heroin drop on the very same night as his daughter’s arty shindig, gets the vision-impaired Vic back on the hunt, pulling the meek Stu into driving him around for a wild night of bullet-riddled chaos.
Two guys, one pup.
Once upon a time, in the ’80s to late ’90s, adult-aimed buddy-cop action-comedies were a staple, producing titles like 48 Hours (1982), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Bad Boys (1995). Since then, the genre, while never truly dead, hasn’t quite flourished like it did during its heyday, with the best contributions in recent years being 21 Jump Street (2012) and its sequel, along with The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017). It’s the latter that I believe gave the confidence boost to produce Stuber, sharing with that film a hilariously unexpected penchant for bloody violence and an attempt to soften some of its harder-edged aspects with moments of heart-to-heart. Director Michael Dowse, Goon (2011), doesn’t quite hit a home run here, but within the modest confines laid out by screenwriter Tripper Clancy, Hot Dog (2018), at least knows to keep the pace up.
Mostly playing like a low-key spoof of Michael Mann’s outstanding thriller Collateral (2004) meeting the dark and wild comedy sensibilities of Game Night (2018), Stuber is really just an opportunity to laugh at two opposing personalities in increasingly violent confrontations. Stars Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick (2017), are game to play off their natural personas and it generally works pretty well — the hyper-masculine Vic versus the more progressive Stu. The funniest scenes between the pair tend to be where they’re both let loose at each other, the height of which is a relentlessly prolonged battle with an assortment of hunting weapons at Stu’s work after hours. I feel there was even more slapstick potential between the duo that could’ve been exploited throughout the film as some of the softer, scripted stuff tends to fall flat.
‘… this wasn’t in the employee handbook.’
On the sidelines, *spoiler warning* poor Mira Sorvino, Mimic (1997), is virtually a cameo in such a woefully underdeveloped character, LAPD bureaucrat Angie McHenry. I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it if it weren’t for the fact that she is revealed to be the head villain of the piece, and unnecessarily so at that — there was already enough motivation for Vic in the way of revenge against Oka without another baddie having to pop up. In attempting to keep audiences in the dark (well sort of, but not really), Angie appears randomly here and there just to remind us that she’s still around before her true intentions come to light. I honestly didn’t understand what the Captain’s beef was and why she had set things up, even with her obligatory expository scene, which sounded like lousy improvisation more than anything. I’m not sure who’s more at fault for this one — the director or the screenwriter — but either way, it’s a huge and unfortunate oversight. After all, heroes can’t be particularly great without an intimidating villain and tangible odds against them.
The action scenes, when they do come into play, aren’t too bad, though they’re slightly hindered by that overly shaky cam technique, most notably in the opening on-foot pursuit. Needless to say, it’s a shame, especially when you have such amazing choreography on display by The Raid’s superstar Iko Uwais who, like Sorvino, is also kinda sidelined. I get that English isn’t his first language, but filmmakers could’ve certainly made more use of his intimidating martial arts abilities.
There is, however, a genuine attempt to mix in levity with the bullets and blood, some more successful than others, the best gag being the goriest with an explosive can to the face during a brief but welcome car chase. Other attempts tend to just raise question marks, like the short-range shoot-out in a veterinary clinic fused with random cuts to an outside shot of a VET walking some dogs, listening to the calming ‘Can’t You See’ performed by The Marshall Tucker Band, that becomes the backdrop of the fiery confrontation — a peculiar choice indeed.
With the rise and rise of ‘one size fits all’ type PG-13 action entertainment, I’m delighted that purely adult-aimed movies like this haven’t completely gone for good, even if it’s only occasional these days. Stuber is a classic case of ‘what you see is what you get,’ a no fuss, decently paced action-comedy, ideal for a Saturday night with mates, pizza and a six-pack of beer. I totally understand if most meet the movie with a shrug, but if the trailer had you smirking, then you’ll do just fine in this rideshare.
Cult director Gregg Araki gets conspiratorial in this minor but enjoyable effort from 2010, which puts sexually fluid university student Smith (Thomas Dekker) on the trail of a clandestine cabal that might hold the secret to both his own identity and the ultimate fate of mankind — but then again it may not.
Woolly, witty, overtly sexual and self-consciously hip, Kaboom makes for an interesting companion piece to the recently released Under the Silver Lake (2018). Indeed, everything that David Robert Mitchell tried to do in his It Follows (2014) follow-up, Araki did first, backwards, and in heels — or at least with a more complex and palatable approach to sexuality than was embodied by Andrew Garfield’s skeevy, bad-smelling ladies’ man.
The Future is Calling
Now, our hero is Smith, who is more or less gay except when he’s not — but he himself eschews labels. He lusts after his surfer dude roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka, who milks the unwitting homoeroticism of bro culture for all it’s worth), but tumbles into bed with a British exchange student, London (Juno Temple). If you’re at all familiar with Araki’s oeuvre, especially his loose trilogy of Totally F***ed Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997), you know to expect a whole lot of attractive young people pretty much clustered around the middle of the Kinsey scale sexing each other up and swapping droll, deadpan snarker dialogue in between trysts, and that’s exactly what we get here.
The point of difference is the introduction of science fiction and other genre elements, which come in at an oblique angle by way of Smith’s best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), who is dating a girl, Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who says she’s a witch and may have the mojo to back up her claim. Meanwhile, Smith is having prophetic dreams involving an animal-masked cult, which his long-absent father may be the leader of. Are they trying to bring about the end of the world? Is Smith their messiah? And what does ‘ontological void’ mean, anyway?
Sometimes they’re out to get you …
This isn’t the first time Araki has employed apocalyptic themes, but never so overtly. Still, the end of all things is no reason to take the focus off oneself, and Smith is yet another Araki character who believes that his personal angst is more important than anything else that happens to be going on at the time. And the film agrees with him. Smith’s self-absorption is seductive, and as the narrative continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that he may be onto something — he just might be the most important person in the world.
If this kind of late-adolescent navel-gazing is of little appeal, then neither will Kaboom be; solipsism is baked into its DNA. Still, it’s drily, dirtily funny, effortlessly stylish, and Araki regular James Duval turns up for an extended cameo. For fans, it’s everything you could want; newcomers may want to test the waters cautiously, though.
Everyone in the World Has Forgotten the Beatles. Everyone Except Jack …
Based on a nifty hypothetical, ‘what a world without The Beatles (the most influential and innovative band of all time) might look like,’ and with Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), an accomplished Oscar-nominated filmmaker at the helm, Yesterday seemed destined for greatness — I was instantly sold on its trailer. But even with a little help from some friends (John, Paul, George, and Ringo), Yesterday struggles to live up to its screwy potential, squandering a brilliant premise by focusing most of its attention on a generic feel-good romance plot — ‘All You Need Is Love’ … umm, maybe not!
Written by the great Richard Curtis, with story assist from telly scribe Jack Barth, Yesterday throws out one helluva nifty ‘what if’ but doesn’t commit to unpacking it in any depth or detail, using the quirky concept as nothing more than a mere plot device. So, while Yesterday is fuelled by the notion that The Fab Four — along with other pop culture staples like Harry Potter and Coca-Cola — have been expunged from existence, wiped from everyone’s memory except from that of our aspiring muso protagonist, it fails to explore the ramifications of this absence on the world at large — which could’ve been pretty neat. Instead, what we get is a generic romance-comedy storyline about a down-on-his-luck artist, which, of course, is sprinkled with upbeat Beatles covers and some good ol’ British humor to boot; honestly, the fact that this film is so standard-issue comes as a bit of a surprise, given that Curtis more or less redefined the schmaltzy rom-com genre with movies like Love Actually (2003), Notting Hill (1999), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) — I guess everyone’s allowed their off day, Curtis included.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Yesterday tells the story of Jack Malik (played by relative newcomer Himesh Patel) whose troubles, you see, are not so far away — in fact, they’re very here and now. It’s been a hard day’s night for Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who stacks shelves for a living at a superstore in the seaside UK county of Suffolk. But that hasn’t stopped Jack from trying to achieve musical glory, scoring small-time gigs thanks to his childhood best bud Ellie Appleton (the always fetching Lily James), who, when not molding young minds in the classroom, moonlights as his manager. Jack’s shows, however, aren’t exactly pulling in large crowds, and poor Ellie seems to be the only person that believes in his God-given gifts, having instantly stamped Jack as the ‘next big thing’ after hearing him sing Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ at a school talent contest some two decades back — and she’s been blindly devoted to him ever since. But after a string of feebly attended performances — including a little tent gig at the prestigious Latitude Music Festival in his hometown — Jack decides to hang up his dreams for good, claiming that it’d take a miracle to change his fate, despite Ellie’s pleas to keep pushing on.
Ask, and you shall receive, as a little miracle soon flips Jack’s world upside down. While riding home on his bicycle that very night, a freak 12-second global blackout leads Jack to get hit by a passing bus, which sends him soaring through the air before hitting the pavement below. Jack soon wakes up in the hospital with Ellie sitting by his side, visiting for support — sure, he looks a little silly, missing his two front teeth, but he’s happy to be alive.
‘Hey, dude …’
Once discharged, Ellie tries to brighten up Jack’s spirits by taking him to their friends Nick (Harry Michell) and Carol’s (Sophia Di Martino) home for some R&R, which is where goofball slacker Rocky (Joel Fry), an old friend whom Jack bumped into at Latitude, is staying for the time being — the screw-up was fired from his roadie work at said festival. Anyway, Ellie surprises Jack with a gift, a spanking new guitar to replace his old one, which was shattered during the accident. Naturally, Jack christens it by gently strumming The Beatles’ 1965 ballad ‘Yesterday.’ But for some inexplicable reason, no one seems to remember it: ‘When did you write that?’ A stunned and speechless Ellie asks. Jack, however, feels like he’s the mark of a practical joke, labeling the tune ‘one of the greatest songs ever written’ — which, in fact, it is. His friends seem happy with his newfound confidence but are a little surprised and confused at how OTT he is acting.
After rushing home and doing a quick Google Search, Jack realizes that he’s in a ‘really, really, really complicated situation,’ trapped in a world that doesn’t remember The Beatles or their revolutionary music. In an effort to try and preserve the band’s legacy, Jack starts scribbling down the lyrics to as many of their songs as he can recall. This initially earnest gesture, though, soon spirals into a weighty moral dilemma when fame comes knocking on Jack’s front door, the absence of Beatlemania paving the way for his star to shine bright. Should he claim the songs as his own, or educate mankind on the musical legends that, through some weird cosmic intervention, have been totally forgotten?
I Feel Fine
While there are sprinkles of inspiration and a handful of hearty laughs — a scene where Jack attempts to play ‘Let It Be’ for his folks for the very first time hits all the right notes, comedically — Yesterday fails to carry the weight. Sure, it’s fun to watch pop sensation Ed Sheeran in a self-deprecating role, almost parodying himself — at one point, the ginger-haired artist suggests changing the lyrics of The Beatles’ 1968 chartbuster ‘Hey Jude’ to ‘Hey Dude’ — but instead of commenting on the state of today’s music scene, which it blatantly tries to satirize, Yesterday uses the contemporary landscape for cheap, irreverent humor. All its messages and ideas never come together (image is seen to be more bankable than talent, but this goes nowhere), and its scattered story beats amount to very little, thematically. The big question is, if erasing The Beatles seems to have no visible or significant impact on society or the music trade, then why bother having a story that celebrates their supposed value and influence?
Both Himesh Patel and Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), are charming in their respective roles and share genuine chemistry, but their characters are too thinly sketched to elevate the material, making it hard for audiences to invest in their perpetually stunted relationship. Admittedly, Patel does shine during many of his lively guitar-led renditions of classic Beatles tunes, but poor James hasn’t got a lot to do, and a ham-fisted love-triangle subplot wholly emphasizes this — Ellie almost feels defined by the men in her life and is given next to no personality. When it comes to the supporting cast, they’re generally all okay, with Game of Thrones (2011) alum Joel Fry being the real MVP, providing many of the flick’s laughs as Jack’s bumbling buddy Rocky, who follows him around on his globe-hopping tour. Oh, and Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters (2016), pops up too, playing a cutthroat, money-grubbing music industry bigwig, who replaces the more sincere Ellie as Jack’s agent.
… yesterday, he was a nowhere man.
With garden-variety direction by Danny Boyle, who usually excels at tackling stories about everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations — see A Life Less Ordinary (1997) or 127 Hours (2010) — Yesterday plays out like an overly mawkish music video mash-up honoring the Fab Four from Liverpool, Boyle’s artsy kinks and garnishes mostly absent from the proceedings.
While I appreciate the film’s overall sentiment, wanting to introduce the timeless tracks of The Beatles to a whole new generation, Yesterday could have been so much more. Even as a fantastical-romance, 2007’s Across the Universe, which also tributes and samples songs from the best-selling band in history, is far more fruitful, and a lot more inventive and entertaining. Ultimately, this is no magical mystery tour and scrapes by thanks to some spirited musical ditties and the rock and roll music of The Beatles. In short, Yesterday is not worth the ticket to ride.
Look, the easy shorthand for Crawl is ‘The Shallows, but with alligators instead of a Great White,’ but that’s doing it something of a disservice — there are other key differences. For one thing, it’s set in Florida during a savage hurricane rather than on a remote Mexican beach. For another, it stars Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner (2014), rather than Blake Lively. And instead of a wounded seagull, we have Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan (1998), as a wounded handyman. That has to count for something, right?
We also get Alexandre Aja, The Hills Have Eyes (2006), on directing duties and, much like 2016’s The Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra, the French filmmaker knows exactly how to pitch this sort of thing, acknowledging the drive-in movie roots of his fun, ferocious creature feature, but still employing every trick in the book to rachet up the tension. And that’s the essential appeal of this sort of thing: knowing it’s all contrived pulp and going along for the ride anyway. This is a B movie made with A-lister skill. Your intellect may think it’s above all this nonsense, but your endocrine system will still dance to the beat Aja is playing. Really, the sly digging at the parallels between Collet-Serra’s shark flick and Aja’s ‘gator-jam are all in good fun — they both know what they are and make no bones about it. Hell, they’d make a nigh-perfect double feature.
Nowhere to run
The plot is suitably simple: as a Category 5 hurricane thunders toward them, would-be champion swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) braves the worsening weather to check on her estranged dad, Dave (Barry Pepper), who is fixing up the house he used to share with her mother (divorce and familial strife comprise the thin but serviceable back-story). She finds him wounded in the basement, hiding out from a large and hungry ‘gator, and we proceed from there: Haley’s dodging hungry reptiles and contending with worsening weather, rising water, and various resource management issues while wounded pops kibitzes from the sidelines and reminds her that she’s a fighter, dammit! (As an aside, the sheer amount of bodily damage that Pepper’s character stoically endures is absolutely insane).
A few other characters show up to feed the beasts (who would be a cop in Florida, I ask you?) but this is largely a two-hander — three, if you count the family dog who is also along for the ride. Exorcising family trauma through the medium of a siege is a familiar theme in genre circles — it seems that in these ‘bottle episode’ movies, someone’s always got a lot to get off their chest before the seemingly inevitable doom outside their flimsy sanctuary chews through the door. In this case, Dave is feeling guilty over pushing Haley too hard in her swimming career, which seems a little petty given the circumstances. Compare Lewis Teague’s Cujo (1983), based on Stephen King’s novel, where Dee Wallace’s adulterous housewife is trapped in her car, along with her young son, by the titular rabid Saint Bernard and must wonder if God is punishing her — now that’s pathos. Come to think of it, Teague also directed the 1980 monster movie Alligator, which also has obvious points of comparison with the film at hand.
If you move, you’re food!
Aja gets a lot of mileage out of his setting. The basement crawlspace where we spend most of our time is a dark and dripping labyrinth, all creaking pipes and wet brickwork, and — as Jaws (1975) taught us — it’s often what we don’t see that creeps us out more than the actual onscreen creatures. You spend a lot of time wondering why Aja has left so much space at the edge of the frame in his compositions, and why we have such a clear view of this or that particular patch of empty water — surely at any moment something scaled and toothy is going to burst forth.
When they do burst forth, it’s very satisfying. The ‘gators in Crawl don’t act ridiculously contrary to their nature in the way the shark in The Shallows (or any shark movie) does, although any herpetologists reading are invited to school me if I’m off the mark here — I spend way more time around sharks than crocodilians. Interestingly, they’re not malevolent — they’re just hungry, and here, and that’s simply bad luck for all concerned. The threat they represent feels grounded, even as the film spirals up into a delirious climax of wind and rain and teeth and tails — ‘gators, after all, will opportunistically prey on humans, while sharks, in general, will not.
But this is not an Attenborough joint, folks — this is a monster flick, and it knows what it’s about. We’re here for big beasties gnawing on hapless humans, a canny hero using her wits and inborn abilities to escape gruesome death, and MVP Barry goddamn Pepper, who here looks like a Lynyrd Skynyrd song come to life, and on more than one occasion shows more concern for the life of his dog than his only daughter — there’s a point where hurling the poor mutt into the water as chum is the most obvious course of action to save a human life, and the possibility never even enters the characters’ minds. Beautiful.
Crawl is not going to change any lives, but there is something to be said for a knowing and expertly crafted genre exercise. There’s so much fun to be had here, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you turned your nose up at it. Like, say, Anaconda (1997), or Deep Rising (1998), or the genuinely great The Relic (1997) (and wow, that was a good run we had there), it has such an affection for the genre and its tropes, and such a commitment to wringing the maximum amount of thrills and chills out of its premise, that it practically dares you not to enjoy yourself. Why be a holdout? I generally find obvious ‘call to action’ closers obnoxious, but for real: get a big gang together, pre-load with a few adult beverages, and go see this one in a cinema with a good sound system. You. Will. Have. A. Time.
Recently released after a 12 month hitch in prison, young, working-class Scottish woman Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) harbors dreams of hitting Nashville and making it as a country singer, but must balance them against her responsibilities towards her two under-10 children, and contend with the enormous hurdles in front of her presented by her class and her country.
The universe is trying to tell me something this week. Less than 24 hours after I published this screed about class issues in the arts and its wider implications, I was blindsided by director Tom Harper’s heartfelt and often harrowing film. I went in expecting something along the Billy Elliot (2000)/ The Full Monty (1997) spectrum, something a bit hard-bitten, but essentially uplifting — arts-as-meritocracy, the low-born dreamer/ ingénue breaking through the glass ceiling by sheer dint of talent and charm. What I got was a considerably more complex and unsentimental film, yet one that still hits its emotional beats with serious impact, by turns devastating and uplifting.
A Country Girl Can Survive
Wild Rose is, in essence, a character piece, and its success hinges on its central figure, brilliantly performed by Jessie Buckley, Beast (2017), and conceived by screenwriter Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (2017). Rose-Lynn is a complex figure. She’s no saint. She drinks, she swears, she takes advantage of people and, crucially to the film’s central dramatic tension, she puts herself and her career ahead of her children, Lyle (Adam Mitchell) and Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield), who have been in the care of her no-nonsense mother, Marion (Julie Walters), while Rose-Lynn was inside. Marion wants her wild child to pull her head in and do right by her kids but dreams of stardom at the Grand Ole’ Opry beckon.
Glasgow, Scotland, where the film is set, has its own Opry, where Rose has been a local star since her mid-teens, her singing talent compensating for her hard-drinking, hard-fighting ways — although, as she accurately notes, Johnny Cash was a convicted criminal, too. It’s an odd little cultural outgrowth, a hatted-and-booted country music colony in the grey Scottish city, its appearance at odds with its location. But appearances and assumptions are core to Wild Rose; everyone we meet is harboring secret hurts, difficult upbringings, and sometimes, bigger hearts than they at first let on. Even Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), the wealthy woman that Rose-Lynn becomes a cleaning lady for, reveals a past living in a rat-infested flat in one confessional moment. In terms of plot, Susannah represents an economic opportunity for Rose-Lynn — her connections and wealth can catapult our heroine several rungs up the ladder. Thematically, she shades the potentially homogenous approach to class issues with welcome complexity; everyone is from somewhere. Everyone struggles.
But class is at the heart of Wild Rose, even more so than music. Indeed, with its focus on country music, the film is an astute but emotional look at how class is mediated and communicated through art. The contrast of Western finger-picking against dour Glasgow skies seems incongruous at first, and then you realize how much Country music is about just trying to get through the working day, keep body and soul together, and do right by your family, and it all makes sense. And really, how far from the Scottish brogue is the Nashville twang, anyway?
A Glaswegian gal walks the line …
Still, the signifiers of a working-class background are a heavy chain to bear — Susannah, despite her confession, presents as upper class, her impoverished past entirely hidden by her current social façade. For her part, Rose-Lee dreams of a more romantic manifestation of raw-knuckle poverty, she laments that she should have been born in America and conceals her curfew-enforcing ankle bracelet beneath white cowgirl boots. Her challenge is to reconcile both her artistic aspirations and her working-class heritage, to let one inform the other, the voice speak for the heart. That this tension is maintained almost to the film’s final frame is simply astonishing.
That final frame isn’t a happy ending, though — what Wild Rose promises is not the fulfillment of dreams, but the continuance of life; the understanding that the struggle will go on, but can be made bearable with temperance, forbearance, love, art, and music — everything good and fine in the world. And we get all this in the story of a troubled Scottish girl who wants to sing country songs. The result is not just a good film, but one of the best of the year.
A Superbad (2007) for the contemporary Gen Z crowd, actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde couldn’t have hoped for a better debut. Instead of following the usual gross-out route that teen party flicks generally traverse, Wilde and her screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), and Katie Silberman, Set It Up (2018), spend their time crafting strong complex characters, creating a zany, riotous coming-of-age story and an ode to life-long friendships and the whole high school experience.
Always a class act
Mostly taking place throughout one crazy night, Booksmart centers on two studious types who crave success — a couple of feminist nerds that are depicted as intelligent people who still know how to have fun. We have overachiever Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and the lower-key Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) — BFFs that have spent the bulk of their schooldays with their heads stuck in their books, avoiding any type of social gathering (apart from sleepovers with one other and the odd political protest) in the hopes of attaining top grades for their futures. You see, Molly is prepping to go to Yale while Amy is taking a gap year, traveling to Botswana in South Africa to help the needy before continuing on with her studies; with Amy being the Salutatorian and Molly the Valedictorian and student-body president of their Californian school, they are, of course, seen as being pretentious stuck-ups by their peers.
On the day before their high school graduation, however, Molly discovers that their hallway enemies have achieved similar academic successes (getting into prestigious schools or impressive workplaces) after having spent most of their time goofing around in class. Shocked to learn that such bad behavior is being rewarded, Molly hatches a plan to crash a big house party that’s being held at jock Nick’s (Mason Gooding) suburban home, to make up for lost time, cajoling her best bud into her scheme by letting her know that Amy’s lesbian crush, skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), will also be in attendance. Although Amy’s openly gay, she’s somewhat inexperienced with the whole thing (she hasn’t kissed a girl yet), and eventually agrees to go to the end-of-year shindig to try and ‘get with’ Ryan before their time together runs out. The problem is that neither of the girls knows Nick’s address. Thus the dynamic duo spends the night trying to locate the home in question so that they can experience an A+ party before their high school days are up.
Ready to get an A in nap time.
Episodic in its structure, the witty script (penned by four women) sees the brainiacs visit a number of unusual gatherings, including an empty bash on an expensive yacht that’s being hosted by a lonely rich kid named Jared aka Jar-Bear (Skyler Gisondo) and his loopy, drugged-out girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd), and a murder mystery party, that’s put together by theatre saps George (Noah Galvin) and his sassy partner Alan (Austin Crute) — here, we’re treated to an awesome hallucinogenic stop-motion trip that’s clearly homaging Todd Haynes’ 1988 experimental short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Naturally, there are lessons to be learned along the way, with Wilde showing affinity for her characters as Molly and Amy experience first love and heartbreak, realize that there’s more to their rival classmates than what’s on the surface, and find out (the hard way) that their ‘ride-or-die’ won’t be around forever — we also get the usual drinking, drug-taking, and vomiting that goes hand-in-hand with these types of teen joints.
Key to the success of the whole shebang is the cast. Leads Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12 (2013), and Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird (2017), extrude genuine chemistry together, and feel like real-life besties whose friendship existed long before the cameras started rolling and will continue after the final credits; they support one another, are culturally and politically alert, have their own lingo (one of their words is ‘Malala,’ a shutout to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai), complement each other on their wardrobes, have in-jokes, and muck around just like real friends would.
‘Nobody knows that we are fun.’
Their school, LA’s Crockett High, is also populated by a bunch of believably diverse support players who make a lasting impression. Molly Gordon, Life of the Party (2018), is wonderful as a girl nicknamed Triple A due to her promiscuous reputation (a discussion where Molly and Triple A aka Annabelle bond over being stereotyped is terrific), while newcomer Mason Gooding does a great job making the popular footballer feel like an actual person rather than just a beefy cardboard cutout. Noah Galvin, Assassination Nation (2018), absolutely nails it as George, a literal over-the-top drama queen who, in my opinion, provides the film’s biggest laughs. Equally notable is Skyler Gisondo, Vacation (2015), who’s endearing turn as an über-wealthy youngster who isn’t an absolute jerk, shows us that not everyone is as happy as they initially appear. Then there’s Billie Lourd, Scream Queens (2015-16), who steals the movie as wild-child Gigi, an eccentric, off-the-rails Fyrefest-type Millennial who pops up everywhere without any sort of explanation — sure, her character didn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s what I loved about her!
The grown-ups are just as notable as the teens with Jason Sudeikis, Horrible Bosses (2011), leading the charge as Principal Brown, whom the girls have a sticky encounter with when he picks them up as an Lyft driver (where he works on the side). Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James (2017), is solid as the ‘cool’ teacher Miss Fine, who (somehow) winds up getting together with graduating senior Theo (Eduardo Franco), a hippy kid who’s off to work for Google! Heck, even Michael O’Brien, Staten Island Summer (2015), leaves an mark as a weird pizza delivery guy. I just wish we saw more of Lisa Kudrow, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), and Will Forte, MacGruber (2010), who portray Amy’s well-meaning yet slightly awkward folks, Charmaine and Doug respectively.
‘… let’s be a little bit dramatic.’
The whole thing is capped off by the colorful, almost dream-like cinematography of Jason McCormick, Lemon (2017), while editor Jamie Gross, Game Night (2018), uses slow-mo to excellent effect, the whole thing possessing a kinda hip indie music video vibe, one you’re most likely to stumble across in the midst of a Saturday night jam. Additionally, the soundtrack is totally boppin,’ featuring tracks such as ‘Double Rum Cola’ by Fata Boom and ‘Nobody Speak’ by DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels.
A refreshingly hopeful portrait of youth, Booksmart is not only tremendously entertaining, but also offers some sound advice to youngsters (well, everyone really), the film urging people to balance work and play, and reinforcing the age-old saying, ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ Sweet, smart and better than 2017’s acclaimed Lady Bird, I’d say that Booksmart is the best teen flick of this era, and will hopefully attain cult status somewhere along the line (it sadly failed to make any money in the US), as Booksmart is in a class all by itself.
‘What if our toys were alive’ is a premise that’s been bouncing around for decades. One path it could take is that of 1994’s family-friendly Toy Story, where we discover that our playthings literally live to make us happy, getting satisfaction from seeing their owners grow. Another way it could go is that of 1988’s slasher Child’s Play. Brought to life by Don Mancini, Child’s Play centered on a Good Guys doll named Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) who’s possessed by a serial killer and goes on a murderous rampage. Either route has an audience as both films have gone on to spawn respective franchises; Toy Story is now up to its four entry, while Child’s Play has had about six sequels.
With original creator Mancini working on a Chucky T.V. series, it’s a bit weird to have a new remake/ reboot currently playing on the big screen — businesswise, though, it makes a lotta sense, given that nostalgia and brand recognition (in 2019 anyway) bring in the big bucks. It’s also ironic that both sentient toy films hit theatres on the same day; something that the Child’s Play advertising team has clearly taken advantage of (and had a lot of fun with).
‘Mom … that’s not a PS4.’
But here we are — 31 years after the Chuckster’s first appearance, the pint-sized killer is back, filmmakers putting a technological spin on the material (think ‘smart-toy’), ditching all the black magic hocus pocus for a more modern take. The results are somewhere in the middle — certain aspects elevate the material, while other decisions bring the whole benevolent/ evil toy retooling down.
This new film opens in a Vietnamese sweatshop where The Kaslan Corporation is manufacturing their best selling item, a Wi-Fi connected ‘Buddi’ doll that can sync to your gadgets — basically a terrifying version of Amazon Alexa. We then see a disgruntled worker tamper with one of the toys after being scolded by his supervisor, disabling all of its safety features. The employee then hurls himself off the factory roof, and the toy is packed and shipped-off internationally to be sold in stores.
Naturally, the dolls are freighted to the United States, and it’s there that we meet 13-year old Andy (Gabriel Bateman) — ironically, the same name as Woody’s owner in Toy Story — and his single mother, Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza), who’ve recently moved into a run down Illinois apartment. Concerned that her kid is struggling to make friends, Karen (who works as a Zed-Mart clerk) gets him a defective Buddi doll for his upcoming birthday in the hope of cheering him up — this, of course, winds up being the same toy that was tinkered with earlier.
… just a boy and his toy.
Introducing himself as Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill), Andy becomes ‘friends’ with his new Buddi, even though he’s hesitant to give the techno-puppet a go at first. In an effort to be ‘his friend to the end,’ the red-haired Chuck soon develops a stalker-ish obsession with Andy, his screwy programming allowing him to learn how to kill by watching movies on the telly — Tobe Hooper’s horror-comedy classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) to be precise — then slaughtering anyone (or anything) who irks Andy or causes him any sort of grief. As bodies begin to pile, detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry), a cop who lives in the same building and befriends the kid, starts an investigation into the grisly murders, which forces Chucky to up his bloody game.
Making the killer doll more than just another stabby psychopath, this 21st Century updating of Chucky surprisingly succeeds, rookie writer Tyler Burton Smith making the devilish dolly’s motivations (and backstory) much more compelling, the tech-gone-wild concept giving the whole thing a technophobic spin — coz remote control anything is scary, right? Moreover, director Lars Klevberg (whose only other feature, Polaroid (2019), is yet to be released) proves to have a good handle on the tone, with his affection for ’80s horror-comedy clearly shining through, the flick featuring bladed drones, a creepy bedtime jingle and a gleefully gruesome kill that would make Leatherface proud! There are nods to the Amblin/ Spielbergian days of old, too, chiefly 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — Chucky’s index finger lights up when he controls smart-devices in the same way the alien’s did when broadcasting/ reading emotion. With that said, things fall apart slightly in the third act, the closing portion feeling a little choppy/ over edited — it reeks of a studio-mandated 90-minute cut.
‘So … you like mystery gifts?’
Another issue with the film is Chucky’s actual design (who’s brought to life here via a mix of CGI and animatronics). I get that moviemakers were trying to go for a ‘scarier looking’ doll, but this updated version is so outright terrifying that I doubt anybody would actually purchase the darn thing unless it was for a Halloween decoration or to frighten the bejesus out of someone. We’re also supposed to believe that this smart-toy is such a hot-ticket item that folks are physically pushing one another over to get their hands on the newly updated Buddi Version 2.0 — which is even more disturbing, appearance-wise, than the original!!! The ’88 film design worked so well because it looked like a children’s toy from the era, the Cabbage Patch doll — for the most part, anyway. It wasn’t until serial killer Charles Lee Ray used dark magic to possess the plaything that we, the audience, began to see it in a different light, the killer’s nasty expressions and rough voice contorting what would normally look more pleasant that creepy.
Performances are passable for the most part, with Gabriel Bateman, Lights Out (2016), doing a decent job as our protagonist Andy. Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West (2017), is also good as Andy’s widowed mother Karen (until her character development is abandoned), while Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), does the best he can in a hapless detective role, playing a cop who still lives at home with his mom (Carlease Burke). Telly actor David Lewis is believably nasty as Karen’s latest fling Shane, while Ty Consiglio, Wonder (2017), and newcomer Beatrice Kitsos do okay as Andy’s new pals Pugg and Falyn respectively, despite their limited screen time. As expected, Mark Hamill, who’s a pretty seasoned vocal actor and having previously voiced Chucky in an episode of Robot Chicken (2005), kills it here as the demented dummy, his sinister chops elevating the whole blood-soaked affair.
Playtime’s just getting started!
While the first Child’s Play still holds the title of being the best in the series, this modern reimagining isn’t half bad, filmmakers remembering what made these movies so iconic in the first place. Dark, deranged and relatively gory, Child’s Play ’19 definitely has its problems but should, at the very least, scratch the itch for fans of ’80s horror or the slasher genre in general. In any case, I’m open to seeing good ol’ Chuck slay again in a sequel.
The ever-growing haunted mansion that is James Wan’s Conjuring Expanded Universe gets another room added to it in the form of this fin, almost friendly supernatural romp, which takes the focus off of husband and wife demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), and instead puts their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), front and center.
Poor Judy — already ostracized at school because her folks are, well, a couple of controversial ghost hunters, she’s stressed about whether anyone will show up to her upcoming 11th birthday party, and she seems to have inherited her mother’s gift of second sight. Things really get rough when, while her parents are out of town and she’s being cared for by babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), the evil doll Annabelle (which is being kept in the Warren’s artifact room) is let out of her protective glass case by Mary Ellen’s curious, uninvited friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife).
It’s not really Daniela’s fault — she’s grieving for her dead dad and clutching at spiritual straws — how was she to know that Annabelle is actually a locus of horrifying supernatural evil. We, the audience, know, of course — the creepy porcelain nightmare (the ‘real’ Annabelle was a stock-standard Raggedy Anne doll, by the way) attracts evil spirits, as well as being home to a malicious demon itself. Since Daniela not only unleashed it but also managed to wind up all the little demonic knickknacks in the Warrens’ morbid museum, the stage is set for a night of frights.
Well, fairly mild frights — Annabelle Comes Home is a very PG-13 horror flick, when you get right down to it — impressively assembled by debut director Gary Dauberman (co-writer of The Nun (2018), It (2017), and a host of other horrors), atmospheric, spooky, and with some well-crafted set pieces and jump scares, but remarkably bloodless. This is the sort of film that might make a good first horror flick for a curious ten-year-old — it doesn’t hold back on scares, but it probably won’t scar them for life.
‘Can Annabelle come out to play?’
Part of the charm is that the film takes it as read that everything the Warrens investigated and all the relics they’ve accumulated are real, and taking something of a Goosebumps (2015) approach (or The Cabin in the Woods (2011) if you’re too cool for Goosebumps) by letting loose a number of ghostly threats for the cast to contend with. So while Judy is menaced by Annabelle and Daniela’s locked in the trinket room dealing with all kinds of horrible nonsense, mainly having to fend off a new entity, The Bride, which inhabits a cursed bridal gown, Mary Ellen is forced to confront a coin-collecting phantasm called The Ferryman, and her would-be boyfriend, the hapless Bob (Michael Cimino), is stuck outside where he’s stalked by the werewolf-like Black Shuck (and might we add, that’s a mighty fine looking werewolf).
It’s all giddy good fun, and the cast commits fully to the goofy, ghoulish premise. Young Mckenna Grace ought to be an old hand at this sort of thing by now — not only was she the young Sabrina Spellman in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) and the young Theo in The Haunting of Hill House (2018), she also recently featured in a TV movie remake of The Bad Seed (2018) and yet another Amityville movie, Amityville: The Awakening (2017). She’s a regular Jamie Lee Curtis.
… at home with horror.
A strong sense of playfulness and atmosphere, and the occasional inspired gag — especially the bit with the movie projector — carry the day. This is a brisk, effective, rather comforting teen horror pic. It probably won’t knock your socks off, but fans will have a frightfully fun time, and kids will enjoy the vicarious thrills and chills, too.
Following on from his acclaimed allegorical horror film It Follows (2014), writer and director David Robert Mitchell leaves it all out on the field with the elliptical, ambitious, and more than a little self-indulgent neo-noir Under the Silver Lake.
We don’t get Raymond Chandler’s Phil Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as our hero in Mitchell’s sun-scarred modern take, though — our investigative lead is the rather skeevy Sam (Andrew Garfield), a directionless low-key conspiracy theorist who takes an interest when his attractive neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), and her flatmates disappear overnight, seemingly skipping out on their apartment lease. Sam doesn’t buy it, however, and starts digging in deeper. His investigations take him up the ziggurat of Los Angelino society and into the dark and nebulous webs of coincidence and conspiracy that underpin the waking world.
A Whiter Shade Of Pale
And that’s your lot, really — one guy, who we are assured on several occasions smells bad — but still manages to have frequent, lackluster sex with a surprising number of attractive women (Riki Lindhome, for instance) — working his way through a labyrinth of clues to arrive at a conclusion that doesn’t exactly seem worth the investment of time and attention it’s taken to get here (the film clocks in at an ungainly 139 minutes). Classical structure and emotional engagement are willfully avoided — this is not a movie for those viewers who need their plot points heavily signposted.
Under the Silver Lake is part of a continuum of metaphysical noir, of course. There’s Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), if not the first then certainly the most important early work to piece the border of the traditional genre to venture into wilder and more conceptually ambitious territory. There’s Alex Cox’s immortal Repo Man (1984), the Coens’ cult fave The Big Lebowski (1998), Richard Kelly’s insanely ambitious Southland Tales (2006), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderfully arch Inherent Vice (2014). Like those films, Under the Silver Lake trades on nostalgia for both Golden Age Hollywood and counterculture rebellion (specifically, Sam venerates Kurt Cobain), but plants its narrative flag in the ruins of greatness. Our hero is a fallen man, and this is a fallen world, and our quest is really to try and discover why the world is so f*cked up.
… he follows.
Ambitious intent, no? That Under the Silver Lake can’t quite grasp what it’s reaching for is somewhat forgivable — at least it’s swinging for the fences. And there are moments of inspired fabulation to be found strung along its loosey-goosey, winding plot — the scene where he confronts a man (Jeremy Bobb) who claims to have written every single popular song of the modern era is a delightfully cynical showstopper, mercilessly skewering both Sam’s pop culture obsessions and, by extension, our own.
But each moment of brilliance is bedded in acres of self-indulgent meandering. A tight, clipped plot is not a necessary ingredient, but if you want us to just kind of hang out in your cinematic world and with your characters then, by god, they better be worth our patience. Under the Silver Lake manages this about half the time; endless film culture nods and pop-art artifacts will only carry you so far, and at some point, we need to be invested not just in what’s happening, but who it’s happening to. Like Jeffrey Lebowski, Sam is a fairly passive and somewhat opaque protagonist, only reluctantly roused to action and notably ineffectual when the chips are down. That’s a potentially fun reversal of the noir norm with its grit-teeth tough guy protagonists but, without throwing undue aspersions at the normally quite watchable Garfield, we have met Jeffrey Lebowski and you, sir, are not Jeffrey Lebowski. Whatever qualities are required to garner our sympathies, Sam doesn’t have them (and if you do find yourself identifying with him, for Christ’s sake, sort your life out).
‘Forget about the Silver Lake, what’s under the sofa?’
Under the Silver Lake isn’t a complete misfire, but it’s certainly less than the sum of its parts. If you’re on board for this kind of slipshod, meandering cryptic caper, it’s certainly watchable, but as noted, the films that it is heir to are much more so. Maybe it’s time to dust off Repo Man one more time instead?
On The Road Of Life, There Are Old Friends, New Friends, And Stories That Change You.
Almost a decade after Toy Story 3 (2010) put a pretty definitive cap on Pixar’s saga of talking toys and the children they love, here comes Toy Story 4 to remind us that there’s life in the concept yet, even if it’s not as vibrant and impressive as it used to be. Perhaps new cast addition Forky (Tony Hale) is a metaphor for the whole thing.
Forky, a freakish figure cobbled together out of a plastic spork, pipe-cleaner, and a couple of googly eyes, is what young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) brings home from her first day of pre-school. He thinks he’s trash and keeps trying to hurl himself into the nearest bin (the cosmology underpinning the Toy Story films is still pretty horrifying), but to Bonnie, he’s her new best friend.
Meet Forky. He’s having a bit of an existential crisis.
This is something of a blow to goodhearted cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), who is still grappling with the fact that he’s a bit further down the totem pole being owned by Bonnie than he was when he was Andy’s number one toy. Things come to a head when, while on a family road trip, Woody encounters Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a porcelain nightlight that used to belong to Andy’s sister Molly but was given away years ago. Bo now lives out in the world by herself, doing her own thing as a permanently lost toy, with no kid to tie her down — is this a life that Woody could embrace?
So, yeah, that’s pretty complicated on a thematic level and adds new possibilities to the Toy Story cosmology (look, you may mock, but there are rules and systems at work here — if there weren’t, this would be Shrek). The problem is that Toy Story 3 closed things off perfectly, allowing for a self-perpetuating ongoing cycle of adventures for Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, who picks up a cheque for doing very little this time out) while acknowledging that we don’t actually need to see them — the story, in every really meaningful way, has been told.
So, Toy Story 4 is a kind of Further Adventures of … and it very much feels like it. I’m reminded of how 1999’s Toy Story 2 started life as a direct-to-video sequel and was bumped up to a theatrical release; Toy Story 4 feels, at least a little bit, like it should have traveled in the opposite direction. It’s an unnecessary elaboration, a side adventure that doesn’t feel like a holistic part of the main journey. The reasons for its existence feel, frankly, financial.
‘You ain’t no fluffy!’
Which doesn’t, it should be noted, make it a bad movie. You’re going to have a good time with it if you’re predisposed to enjoy these flicks, and we are a couple of generations deep, audience-wise, into Toy Story being pretty integral to a lot of childhoods. It’s fun to spend time with Woody and … well, mainly Woody, come to think of it — the supporting cast barely gets a look-in this time around, which adds to the episodic feel, so voices like Wallace Shawn (Rex), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), John Ratzenberger (Hamm), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), and Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head) bounce lightly off our timpani without leaving much of a mark.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of new friends with familiar vocals to meet. The film gets more mileage out of Canadian stunt cyclist toy Duke Caboom (man of the minute Keanu Reeves) than you might ever think possible. Comedy duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu (2016), crop up to do their thing as a plush pair of tearaways named Bunny and Ducky, and those guys are never not a blast.
We also get a new villain, the rather delightfully creepy Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (2007-15), a pull-string doll with a broken voice box relegated to life in an antique store, who is accompanied by a small army of silent, synchronized ventriloquist’s dolls. Gabby’s goal is to steal Woody’s own voice box and then find herself a kid to adopt her, which has echoes of Disney’s earlier The Little Mermaid (1989).
Lost and Found
As directed by storyboard artist and Inside Out (2015) co-screenwriter Josh Cooley, here making his feature-directing debut, it’s all well-polished, well-performed stuff (and beautiful to look at — the odds of Pixar falling back from the bleeding edge of computer animation any time soon are slim to none). The pace never flags, the jokes come thick and fast, and there are Easter eggs a-plenty if that’s your thing — classic comedy fans will appreciate voice cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Betty White, and Carl Reiner, even if the reference might fly over the heads of not only the target audience, but their Pixar-raised parents, too (although we must allow for the weird pop-cultural fixation on Betty White).
Still, why? It’s unarguable now that we’re past Pixar’s golden age, and every trip back to the well of previous titles, especially to their original flagship film, has a whiff of desperation to it. Toy Story 4 isn’t the blown shot that Monsters University (2013) and the Cars (2006-17) franchise as a whole so obviously are — the conceit and the cast make that all but impossible — but it’s undeniably inessential, and certainly doesn’t come near the high-water mark left by its predecessors. The presence of big ol’ dangling sequel hook doesn’t bode well for the future of the series, either.
We are, after all, deep into the Age of the Franchise now, and the idea that screen stories will be expanded and lengthened well beyond their natural or even functional life in service to the terrible gravity of brand name recognition is something we need to get used to, like a newly-minted allergy or the loss of an extremity — it’s regrettable, but regret is not going to change the situation.
Pixar Presents Goosebumps: Return of the Dolls
Toy Story 4 is an enjoyable enough children’s film that doesn’t do anything obviously or unarguably objectionable — except be a symptom of far-reaching, systematic, creative malaise. It certainly drags the series median score down a notch or two even if it’s not a complete fumble, and judging by what’s going on here, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a Disney+ series in the not too distant future. After all, it’s the name that counts, right?