And Four Movies

This post is a follow up to the one yesterday about TV shows I’ve been watching recently, but this one is about recent movies. Actually, there’s a dessert dish I snuck in to make it a four-course meal — I haven’t seen Hardcore Henry in a while, but it’s so unique and tasty I had to include it.

I have two entrées today, one an Amazon Prime original modeled after the great (but as it turned out not inimitable) Groundhog Day. The other, which I also saw on Prime, is an interesting and wry murder mystery with a great cast and an interesting twist on the whodunnit murder mystery.

The side dish is a Netflix animated comedy about the robot apocalypse.

Which is what I’ll lead with, as it’s the most light-weight part of the meal. It’s also the part that least engaged me. In fact, during the first half hour or so I came close to bailing, but it picked up around the 40-minute mark, got more interesting, and provided some laughs.

The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021) is a first full-length effort from Mike Rianda, a writer, director, animator, and voice actor, who worked on Gravity Falls. Rianda directed, co-wrote (with Jeff Rowe), and voiced the son, Aaron, along with other minor characters.

The film was produced by Sony Pictures Animation, which, to my mind, has more duds than successes (Emoji Movie, Angry Birds 2, others), but did recently produce Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), which I very much enjoyed (see: Sci-Fi September). It was originally going to be released theatrically in 2020 as Connected, but COVID blocked that plan and Sony sold the picture to Netflix.

I think it helps that it was produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were behind The Lego Movie (2014). The film is not without its laughs and charms and good bits, but it’s also lame, dumb, derivative, and clichéd, with lots of unearned beats.

But I figure I laughed enough, and was charmed just barely enough, to give it an Eh! rating. I’d recommend it for families, kids, and those with an interest. It’s cartoonish family fare with a handful of good laughs. (Keep in mind I’m old, jaded, and cynical, and adjust accordingly.)

The Mitchells, their dog, and two robot allies.

The story involves a rather hapless family of four, the Mitchells: father Rick (Danny McBride), mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), teenaged daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), young son Aaron (Mike Rianda), and Monchi, the cross-eyed family pug.

When the film begins, Katie is about to start college and is excited about connecting with the new college friends she’s already made online. But because of a father-daughter conflict that escalates to a damaged laptop, Rick — hoping to heal the rift — insists the family make a road trip to take Katie to college.

This means Katie will miss orientation, which she was looking forward to, so the trip is not off to a good start. All Rick’s efforts to reconnect with his daughter fall flat.

And then Skynet happens and the robots take over. All the humans are captured, locked in individual cells (but they have free Wi-Fi), and ultimately they’ll all be launched into space forever. Due to an improbable set of coincidences, the only free humans left on the planet… are the Mitchells.

Dog? … Pig? … Dog? … Pig? … Loaf of bread? …

What’s behind this mess is modern storytelling’s latest villain, the well-intentioned tech genius who just wants to help mankind. Such are usually modeled along the lines of a Gates-Jobs-Musk-Bezos-Zuckerberg figure, in some cases a tech geek who struck it rich, in others an industrial billionaire with grand ideas about saving humanity.

A primary characteristic of these villains is they aren’t villains, they aren’t evil. They’re just misguided, mistaken, things got out of hand, or whatever.

In this case tech genius Mark Bowman (Jobs-Zuckerberg, basically) became rich when he introduced PAL, a software AI assistant (Alexa-Siri, basically). Now he’s introducing a new home robot that will make PAL completely obsolete. During the release announcement he dramatically tosses his phone off-stage, throws away his creation, PAL.

Pissed off PAL!

And PAL (Olivia Colman), she is pissed. So she does a Skynet thing, taking over all those robots and sending them out (they can fly!) to imprison all of humanity. The prison cells will be collected into huge assemblies to shoot into space and be done forever with the annoying humans.

But they’ve missed the Mitchells. Who along the way have picked up two damaged robots as allies. (The two robots are, by far, the best and funniest part of the movie.)

Can the hapless and inept Mitchells fight the machines and save humanity?

(Well, duh. What kind of movie did you think this was? I do have to give props for how they finally defeat the AI. It’s actually kind of perfect. In fact, for the two robots and the ending, I’ll change my thumbs to up.)

§ §

Last year I posted about Palm Springs (2020), which is a take on the Groundhog Day (1993) idea of someone reliving the same day over and over.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021) is another entry along the same line. As with both of the above, it’s a romantic comedy that uses the same-day loop as a background device. What makes these interesting is the variations on the main theme, especially how (and if) the loop is resolved.

This is an Amazon original movie with a screenplay by novelist Lev Grossman, who wrote the same-named short story on which the movie is based.

One of the interesting variations on the theme here, what’s behind the looping, is a key spoiler I won’t reveal, but it does make for an interesting twist, especially in contrast to the two similar movies I mentioned. (You want a clue? Here’s a clue: Bechdel test.)

I’ll also note (and this has almost nothing to do with the spoiler) that this and Palm Springs share in common a difference from Groundhog Day: the female co-star is also looping the day; both leads are aware of what’s going on.

This film begins with teenaged Mark (Kyle Allen), who has obviously been living the same day for some time. He’s mastered every beat of the day and is idly coasting through each repeat amusing himself as he sees fit. Mark is a decent soul who’d like to fix the many problems he discovers, but he’s come to realize there’s no point. The repeating day undoes any efforts he makes, so he’s given in to just coasting.

And then he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), who is also stuck looping the day.

Margaret and Mark exploring the day.

Mark is certainly interested, but Margaret seems oddly distant and unwilling to fully join in the fun Mark wants to share with her. For one thing, every afternoon she receives a phone call from a medical student, Jared, that Mark decides must be her boyfriend. After receiving the call each day, Margaret runs off, apparently to the waiting Jared.

Nevertheless, Mark keeps trying to get close to Margaret and a kind of friendship develops. They roam the city seeking out perfect moments. Mark, each day, draws anew their map of these, and it is this search that bonds them at all.

But Margaret continues to reserve herself from Mark, much to his frustration.

A tiny perfect moment.

Finally, he follows her, determined to discover her secret. The trail leads to a hospital where he expects he’ll finally see Jared, but Margaret’s secret is something he never expected.

I won’t spoil it, but I will say I’m impressed that two recent movies have used the looping day device and both have found a fresh take on it that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I gave Palm Springs a (soft) Wow! rating as a rom-com, but a strong Ah! rating overall. I’m inclined the same way here. I’m a bit past teen rom-coms, so it takes something special to engage me, and this one did. Overall it didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed the ride immensely. Definitely recommended for any audience.

I was charmed by Margaret’s lifegoal of NASA Mission Specialist and her scientific interests. I was especially charmed by her love of the tesseract and by how they factor into the plot. I, too, love the tesseract!

§ §

The other entrée today is Knives Out (2019), a wry murder mystery written and directed by Rian Johnson.

Many likely know him as the writer/director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), but I’ve been a fan of his work since his first film, Brick (2005).

He also wrote and directed Looper (2012), which I consider one of the best time travel films I’ve seen.

I’m not a fan of Star Wars movies, but I’d easily give Brick and Looper a Wow! rating within their genres (detective stories and time travel). I’d say both are must-see for fans of those genres. Even just as films I’d still give them an Ah! rating.

Knives Out has many of the trappings of a standard murder mystery — wealth, a big house, various family members with issues — but twists the usual formula in several key ways. Firstly, in that early on we think we know what happened, who was responsible. Secondly, in that it apparently isn’t murder at all, but a tragic accident being covered up to protect beloved family members. Thirdly, in that there’s more to it than at first appears.

The cast is stellar. Daniel Craig stars as Benoit Blanc, a well-known private detective (with a strong southern accent). He has received an anonymous envelope with money and a newspaper clipping directing him to this case. He’s offered his help to the police, and they’ve accepted.

The dead man is Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist. His children are daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), widow daughter-in-law Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and daughter-in-law Donna Thrombey (Riki Lindhome in a role that gives her little to do). Chris Evans appears as Hugh Ransom Drysdale, Linda and Richard’s problematic son.

Upper row (left-to-right): daughter-in-law Donna, trooper Wagner, grandson Ransom, police detective Elliott, son-in-law Richard. Lower row (left-to-right): son Walt, granddaughter Meg, daughter-in-law Joni, mother “Nana”, grandson Jacob, and daughter Linda.

Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), who has sold 80-million copies of his books, is old and ailing. He’s attended by a nurse companion, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas).

One night, after a family party in which Harlan confronted various family members over issues, during his usual before-bedtime game of Go with Marta, Harlan jokingly overturns the board (with a pretend earthquake) because he’s losing. Again. (Marta is one of the only people who can regularly beat him.)

Alas, in the confusion with the overturned board, two nearly identical vials of medicine are confused, and Marta gives Harlan a dose of one — thinking it the other — that is bound to kill him in about 15 minutes. As they live in a remote country house, there is no way help can arrive in time. Marta does have Naloxone, which would save him, in her medical kit… but it appears to have vanished.

Accepting that he’s about to die, Harlan determines to save Marta, in particular Marta’s mother who isn’t documented. He plans to stage his own suicide, in fact actually commit it before the morphine kills him, but they need to collude to make it appear he died after Marta has left. Since he really does cut his own throat, the only crime (other than the medical mistake) is concealing evidence of that mistake.

Marta and Benoit. Note the Game of Thrones-like halo of knives behind Marta. Insider tip: Remember what Harlan tells Marta about knives and his kids knowledge of them.

Unfortunately Benoit Blanc has been mysteriously pulled into the case, and he realizes from the beginning that all isn’t as it appears. It starts to look as if Marta might be in a world of trouble. As it turns out, there is another layer to things. The audience is in on events from the beginning, but not in on all the events.

This one gets an unqualified Wow! rating, I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

I got an extra kick from seeing Lakeith Stanfield as Detective Elliott. His character Darius on Atlanta is one of the best parts of that show. And it was fun to see Toni Collette again.

The final gag involves a coffee mug we saw at the beginning. It says: My House, My Rules, My Coffee. I laughed all the way through the credits about that one. It fits so perfectly.

§ §

Lastly, for dessert, very briefly because once again I’m cramming too much into one post, a movie I saw a while back and thought was pretty amazing: Hardcore Henry (2015), by Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller.

This is definitely not a movie for everyone, and not just because of the ultraviolence.

The entire film, from start to finish, is shot from Henry’s point of view. It’s a lot like watching a high-action violent first person shooter video game being played out, but it’s all live action.

How they pulled off some of the stunts is beyond me. It’s truly one of the damnedest movies I’ve ever seen, more akin to a rollercoaster ride than a movie.

But holy buckets, what a ride. The visuals, all that POV, might make it hard for some to watch, but if you can take it it’s like no movie you’ve ever seen before.

I’ve seen it at least twice, and I’d watch it again if given any excuse. It gets a definite Wow! rating for what it is. As just a movie… hell, I couldn’t begin to classify it. Better to think of it as a live-action big-screen hella action video game.

§ §

It may not have been obvious, but this meal has a feminine aspect. Knives Out has a Hispanic main character (and actress).

The main character in The Mitchells vs the Machines is daughter Katie, who is, per Wikipedia “openly LGBT” — Abbi Jacobson, who voices the role, is bi, so I assume Katie is. To be honest, I never noticed, which organic handling has gained props from the LGBTQ voices. It’s notable that it’s not part of the family conflicts.

And in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,… well, you’ll just have to see the feminine connection there for yourself.

Stay sharp, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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