Once again it’s movie time! Similar to my last movie review roundup I watched all of these movies from home, although now that most of us are vaccinated a few theaters have reopened. Personally I can’t see myself going back to theaters until things are fully back to normal — no temperature screenings, masks that stop you from eating popcorn, etc. That’s my big hope for the movie review roundup next time: actually seeing movies in theaters again.
Or maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Either way without further ado, here are the movies I watched in the first half of this year.
Steve and Dennis, a pair of paramedics in New Orleans, come across some victims with unusual injuries. The injuries turn out to be related to Synchronic, a new recreational designer drug. At first this might sound an awful lot like the 2011 film Limitless but the similarities end there.
See, the hallucinogenic effects of Synchronic are not hallucinogenic at all — the effects are the result of unpredictable time travel. When Dennis’ daughter disappears after using the drug Steve takes it upon himself to administer the drug on himself in order to rescue her.
Sometimes this movie is listed as a sci-fi horror, yet it’s more of a sci-fi drama. After the mysterious opening sequence it’s not scary or suspenseful enough to be a horror movie at all.
The main problem with this movie is it takes the concept and explores it in an interesting way, but then takes it way too seriously for how ridiculous and illogical it is in the first place. The tone is very uneven — personally I think it would have worked better as a comedy as some of the film’s strongest beats are firmly in the comedy realm.
Best moment: Steve systematically exploring and documenting how Synchronic works.
After experiencing car trouble a mysterious mute unnamed tough guy (Nicholas Cage) accepts a job for one night as the janitor at Willy’s Wonderland — a dilapidated Chuck E. Cheese knockoff — in exchange for car repairs.
The small town where Willy’s is located has a surprising number of missing persons cases, all of whom had accepted a similar offer in the past.
Where did they go? Well obviously the animatronics at Willy’s come to life at night and murder people. A band of young townsfolk arrive to burn the place down and warn the new janitor, only to find he’s completely unphased by the situation.
Armed with nothing more than cleaning supplies and a steady diet of caffeinated sodas, Cage’s janitor takes on the deadly animatronics one by one, tearing them apart before wrapping their remains in garbage bags as though they are nothing more than the trash he was hired to remove. Unfortunately most of the locals aren’t so fearless.
Played more for laughs than scares, Willy’s Wonderland is like if you took a supernatural slasher movie and then tossed in an action hero with predictable yet satisfying results. It’s simple, dark, and funny in all the right ways. While it’s far from perfect I wish more ridiculous films like this existed.
Some people have pointed out the similarities between this movie and the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series. While there’s certainly a resemblance, I think this isn’t entirely fair for two reasons. First the idea of animatronics coming to life is only a slight twist on the age old nightmare about statues coming to life. Second, the overall stories are otherwise dissimilar.
My main caveat with this film is the sloppy fight scene editing. I realize this was shot on a low budget with a tight schedule, but these scenes are so integral to the story that it would have benefited from having a fight scene coordinator to give these scenes a coherent flow. That said the puppeteering work does capture the threatening nature of the animatronic creatures.
Best moment: When the first animatronic draws blood and Cage’s expression slowly turns to an evil grin before he goes absolutely apeshit.
Chris (Eric Andre) gets into an embarrassing situation with a vacuum cleaner at a car wash right as he spots his high school crush, Maria, for the first time in years. Meanwhile his best friend Bud is working at a computer repair store when Bud’s sister Trina pulls up in a bright pink car and robs the store.
This sets a few events into motion: After getting fired from the car wash Chris gets a new job at a smoothie shop and runs into his crush again, who tells him she has an art gallery in New York City. Trina is sent to jail, while Chris and Bud decide to “borrow” her pink car to take a road trip from Florida to NYC in an attempt to track down Chris’ crush again. Unfortunately for the two of them, Trina breaks out of jail, steals a police car, and chases after them to retrieve her beloved pink car.
To be clear the story is really nothing more than a loose framework on which to hang a bunch of hidden camera pranks. Like most comedy films the story both supports the jokes and occasionally feels like padding for time. However some of the funniest and most extreme moments aren’t in the trailer which is very unusual for a comedy.
Many reviewers compared this to the Borat movies but I think that largely misses the point — the majority of the people being pranked in the Borat movies are completely aware they’re on camera, whereas here they are only made aware they’re being filmed after the fact. This is made clear in scenes played over the credits with the people being pranked laughing with the actors and crew as the hidden cameras are pointed out to them.
The more obvious comparison is to the film’s star Eric Andre’s The Eric Andre Show which features hidden camera pranks in every episode. There’s one prank in this movie that’s essentially recycled from The Eric Andre Show but fortunately it’s a good one, and the reaction here is more shocking.
As a fan of The Eric Andre Show I think other fans will enjoy it, as will fans of cringey hidden camera pranks in general. Be aware there’s a lot of dick jokes, fake vomit, etc. If you’re on the fence go watch an episode of the show first to get a sense of the type of humor involved since each episode is only 11 minutes long.
I have to point out that Tiffany Haddish who plays Trina here is absolutely perfect for the role. She comes across as both sympathetic and terrorizing, and in one memorable scene repeatedly whips the patrons of a diner into an absolute frenzy.
Best moment: The ending, which I should have seen coming in hindsight.
“Dreams aren’t what you think” has been a staple premise in scary stories since… well probably as long as humans have been around.
Come True takes this basic concept and tosses in some science fiction in a way that makes you think “Hey, remember Inception? I could be watching that instead.”
The story focuses on a teen runaway named Sarah who joins a sleep study just for a place to sleep. All is not as it seems of course, and this mysterious dream study which turns out to be a slight twist on the “Ever dream this man?” meme.
While Come True does an admirable job of amping up the suspense, it never quite manages to build to anything worthwhile. It’s like a rollercoaster with a really big lift hill but the drops aren’t very sudden and the corkscrew loop is pretty boring.
I’m not going to beat it around the bush: the ending to this movie is both dumb and completely unoriginal. In fact, given the topic of “dreams” I bet you’ve already guessed what it is. Yeah, it’s that bad.
Despite flaws in the story I will say Julia Sarah Stone is great in the lead role. Credit where credit is due.
Best moment: Sarah learning the truth about the sleep study.
Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is presented as your average suburban dad. One night his home is invaded by a pair of robbers. After deciding to let them go — there wasn’t much to take anyway — he feels emasculated. Something in him is re-awakened; specifically his past work as “auditor,” which turns out to be more of an asskicker role than a financial one.
Borrowing his dad’s FBI badge, Hutch tracks down the thieves only to find they’re extremely desperate. He gives up but on his way home a bunch of young Russian punks terrorize a girl on a bus. Hutch resolves the issue by beating all the punks to within inches of their lives.
Naturally, one of the guys he beat up on that bus is related to a scary Russian mobster, leaving Hutch no choice but to single-handedly take down an entire mob.
Much of what makes this film work is the casting choices. Bob Odenkirk is totally believable as a suburban dad, but as a one man killing machine? It’s just so ridiculous that you can’t help but to laugh. Likewise for Hutch’s dad, a scary ex FBI agent with a huge stash of guns played by — who else? — Christopher Lloyd.
This is one of those films where if you watch the trailer, you pretty much know what you’re in for. That isn’t to say there are no twists or anything but if the trailer is appealing you’re going to enjoy the movie.
One thing I personally found amusing is that most of the time when you see characters in a movie using a computer, it’s either product placement, some generic operating system that looks like it could be either Windows or Mac OS, or something completely ridiculous like that 3D file system in Jurassic Park. In this film we see a Russian hacker running Ubuntu Linux with its recognizable custom Gnome 3 shell… something a real hacker might actually use.
Best moment: The spectacular way in which the gangsters’ plan to kidnap Hutch backfires.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Barb and Star, a pair of eccentric middle aged women who “worked” in a furniture store find themselves laid off and directionless. Ostracized from their group of equally eccentric middle aged friends they decide to take a vacation together to — you guessed it — Vista Del Mar.
Meanwhile, a group of villains are planning on killing the entire population of Vista Del Mar using deadly mosquitos. In an “Austin Powers” like move both Star and lead villain Sharon are played by the movie’s co-creator Kristen Wiig. Sharon’s murderous intentions stem from being embarrassed as a child at Vista Del Mar’s annual seafood festival.
Barb and Star wind up unintentionally taking drugs and dancing with one of the evil henchmen, Edgar, accidentally disrupting the plan.
The movie never quite finds its sweet spot, wavering between a journey of self discovery in the Barb and Star subplot and the ridiculous scene chewing in the villain’s subplot. It doesn’t help that Barb and Star come across as mildly annoying and half fleshed out characters.
While the overall premise is funny, what this movie lacks is connective tissue between comedic beats up until the last quarter of the movie. By that point I can’t help but to feel the average viewer may have sighed and thrown in the towel.
This is a difficult movie to rate. As a comedy it’s occasionally dull until the end when it all comes together. The problem is there’s a runtime of 107 minute but maybe 80 minutes of it feel necessary.
Best moment: The reveal that both Barb and Star are each running away with Edgar separately.
Roy, a former soldier turned alcoholic is stuck in a Groundhog’s Day style time loop where he’s the only one who recalls the previous events. But unlike Groundhog’s Day this isn’t merely about trying to improve his life, it’s about maintaining it: the same killers come after him every day and he has to learn how to fight them all off, dying day after day just to get one step further.
Oh and to make things worse he has no idea who’s after him or why. To the audience it’s all clearly connected to a military project run by an evil contractor (Mel Gibson, surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke) and his unwitting scientist, Roy’s ex-wife (Naomi Watts.)
Without saying too much throughout the violent action/sci-fi/comedy there’s a recurring video game motif (hence the name of the movie) that only sort of makes sense toward the end without ever coming completely full circle.
While it’s by no means a great film, there’s enough campy, quirky humor with some genuinely great quips where I could see it become one of those B-movies which eventually lands as a sleeper hit. This assumes the right audience finds it though, and to be honest I have no idea what the “right” audience would be for this film.
Again I don’t like to include spoilers in these reviews but the ending is deeply lacking and unsatisfying. Supposedly they filmed more than one ending, so it’s totally possible this gets re-released as a better film in the future.
Best moment: When Roy finally realizes killing all the bad guys isn’t nearly enough.
Normally I only review new movies in these blog entries, but here I’m reviewing a new cut of an old movie — a movie that’s pretty much universally hated — the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie.
There’s a lot of backstory as to why the film was such a disaster, but the short version is that co-creators Morton and Jankel had a vision for the movie that significantly clashed with what Hollywood Pictures (aka Disney) had in mind. Specifically, Morton and Jankel were the creators of Max Headroom and wanted to create something with a similar gritty steampunk vibe. The studio on the other hand wanted a family friendly film. The result? A movie with a wildly inconsistent tone and a story that’s borderline incomprehensible.
This new cut is the work of artist Garrett Gilchrist who took an early workprint of the film on VHS, restored it, and re-edited the entire movie to include missing scenes and even restored/modified some of the soundtrack. According to Gilchrist there will be a cut that incorporates better quality footage from the Blu Ray release in the future.
The footage that was edited back in is very obvious as it includes timestamps over the footage, as was typical of workprints at that time. This additional footage ranges from short sequences which add a small amount of context to entirely “new” scenes that were edited out of the theatrical cut.
At the end of the day the real question is, does this edit redeem the movie? The short answer is no; the story is a mess, but a much better organized mess. The longer answer is that it’s still an improvement over the original cut and I think for those interested in watching this movie as a historical curiosity this is the best cut to watch of the two available. I also want to point out that like some movies released around the same (Jurassic Park, etc.) the special effects and early computer graphics largely hold up.
So for this edit I’ll give it an A for effort but… there’s only so much even the best editor can do to polish a turd. Still, aside from some missing audio here and there and a brief moment with missing composite effects this is clearly an improvement over the theatrical release — but mostly because it’s not bafflingly incoherent.
Let me repeat that again: this is the first time I’ve watched this movie and actually understood what was happening.
I should note it’s probably not technically legal to watch this movie, but… who cares? There’s absolutely no reason to watch the original, and even this version is still an exercise in self-punishment.
Best moment: The new (to us) Iggy and Spike rap sequence, which finally explains why Koopa turns against them.
Rating: 3/10 (The theatrical cut may not even deserve a 1/10 so this is intended as high praise to the editor.)
Off the coast of Italy, a pair of small-time fishermen accidentally discover a young “sea monster.” As we soon discover the sea monster’s name is Luca and he lives in an underwater village of his fellow brethren along with some dopey fish. In his society the humans boating around above them are “land monsters” which they’re terrified of. Luca is curious about these land monsters and some of the technology he managed to steal from the fishermen, like a record player (the first indicator of when this story is set.)
After a chance encounter with Alberto, an older boy sea monster, they swim up to the surface together where they do “the change,” transforming into their human counterparts — something Luca was warned never to do by his parents. Yes this is a similar concept as The Little Mermaid but the comparison between the stories pretty much ends there.
The pair slowly learn about human life in Italy circa 1960 through trial and error, making this a fish out of water story in the most literal of ways. I don’t want to spoil the whole story but it involves a somewhat convoluted quest to acquire a Vespa and standing up to a bully.
The animation really nails a realistic looking Italian seaside village and perhaps more impressively the motion of water — something notoriously difficult to animate. Unfortunately this has the unintended consequence of making the human characters look out of place, particularly the ones with more cartoony character designs. Still, that’s a minor quibble as Pixar’s animation has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years and this film is no exception.
At first the idea that Luca and Alberto change back to sea monsters as soon as they get wet is treated like a joke that never quite sticks the landing. However toward the end of the movie it winds up redeeming itself as it becomes integral to the story.
The voice acting is on point in this film especially considering the main roles are all voiced by effectively unknown teenage actors playing against a strong supporting cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen and stand up comedy legend Jim Gaffigan.
Even by Pixar’s standards this is an amazing film, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the entire team was working from home due to the pandemic.
Best moment: The surprisingly happy ending.
Rob, (Nicolas Cage) a local celebrity chef turned recluse lives in the woods of Oregon with his pet truffle hunting pig. Rob trades his truffles to a wealthy yuppie named Amir in exchange for ingredients and supplies. When Rob’s pig is kidnapped in a violent attack, Amir takes Rob back to Portland to find his beloved pig. Despite his disheveled and bloody appearance Rob is still recognized by every chef.
Now any time you have a movie featuring Nic Cage you have to ask yourself, is this going to be one of those “Nic Cage movies?” Willy’s Wonderland (see above) is certainly one of them. Or the Wicker Man remake (“NOT THE BEES!”) But then you have movies like Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas proving Cage is a perfectly serious actor when he’s working with a serious script.
Despite its unusual premise this film fits squarely in the latter category. It boils down to the fact that the mystery of tracking down the pig isn’t really what this movie is about: it’s a portrait of a broken man.
Or should that be broken men? Every single chef Rob meets in the world of fine dining is sketchy, empty inside, or both. While it’s never said outright the theft of the pig merely seems as though it was merely one minor event in some dark underbelly of the restaurant scene. Except of course for Rob — for him it’s personal.
Pretty much everything about this film works. It looks fantastic though some small part of that could be chalked up to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The pace isn’t leisurely though it takes a leisurely pace at the right moments. And while there aren’t many characters they’re all perfectly cast.
First time film writer/director Michael Sarnoski clearly set himself up to win here and he largely did. What doesn’t quite work is the tendency of the story to bring up more questions than answers: we learn a lot about these characters but the film leans heavily on the actors to sell their inner struggles without offering much insight on their pasts.
Best moment: Rob bringing a grown man to tears (I won’t tell you how or why, just go watch the movie.)