The Mitchells vs The Machines

What happens when a family of odd balls come face to face with a robot uprising while on the worst road trip ever? A heartfelt and frenetic animated movie that I had a lot of fun with.

Katie Mitchell is an aspiring filmmaker who is leaving her quirky family to go to film school. After a dinnertime argument her dad, Rick Mitchell, decides to drive the entire family across the country to deliver Katie to school in a last ditch effort at family bonding. Along with the regular family road trip antics, a robot uprising takes place threatening to destroy not only the Mitchell family but all of humanity.

It took me a few minutes to get into this one. The wild energy and offbeat sense of humor felt a little too hyperactive in the opening minutes. Jokes come flying at you constantly. There are big visual gags that bend the verisimilitude of the film almost to the breaking point. We don’t get enough time establishing the world of the film before they’re already bending it with a constantly stream of gags.

I had to adjust my expectations for the film, but once I did I got totally swept up in the adventure and the rather heartfelt family story at the center of the film. Rick is lamenting the fact that he and Katie have grown apart over the years. Katie is angry that her father seems to make no effort to understand her. She makes all kinds of movies for YouTube and her technophobic father has never watched any of them. It’s a very relatable family dynamic, and the film commits fully to this relationship. It grounds the absurdities that follow. Those absurdities involve an army of robots that attack humanity after a smartphone feels spurned by her creator and decides to destroy all human life.

The movie has a wonderful sense of humor that made me laugh out loud many times. As a tech mogul unveils his army of robots the first thing he says is that they definitely won’t rise up against us just then they rise up against us. There’s a very funny moment where the evil smartphone unleashes her doomsday plan… she turns off the wifi. All over the world we see chaos reign because there is no wifi. My favorite moment involves a heard of Roombas as they ride in to attack, but are thwarted by a flight of stairs. It’s a very bit. The film has a lot of clever moments and genuine laughs.

Where it really succeeds though is the family story. This is a family that is genuinely weird and quirky. They are strongly defined characters and their relationships are really well developed. Their plight is very relatable and is played with deep sincerity. I had a strong emotional reaction to the climax of their story. It really works for me, and I think it will for you too.

Final note, I love the animation style here. It’s a combination of hand drawn and computer generated imagery that creates a unique look. It’s reminiscent of Into the Spiderverse from a few years ago, but it’s cranked up to eleven here.

There’s a lot to love in this goofy movie. I definitely think you and your family will get a lot out of it. There’s fun stuff for the parents and the kids. It is currently streaming on Netflix. Give it a chance.

It’s my cup of tea. A-

Things Heard & Seen

This movie feels like a strike out when all the bases are loaded. You want so badly for a success, but it doesn’t happen. Every element in this movie is poised for a gland slam, but it never happens.

This latest Netflix release follows Amanda Seyfried and James Norton as Catherine and George a seemingly happy couple who move their slofie year old daughter out of the city and into a remote country house when George gets a teaching position at an arts college. Things seem idyllic until Catherine starts sensing a ghostly presence in the house.

We’re going to start with the good because there’s a lot of it. On first base we have a classic set up with some solid suspenseful sequences. It’s hard to go wrong with a haunted house tale. They have a good looking ghostly presence and a great seance sequence that got my hairs standing on end. These elements are approached in a slightly off kilter way that makes them less obvious and therefore more intriguing.

On proverbial second is a really strong look. I like the way the film is shot. There are really beautiful compositions in this movie. There’s a nice use of natural light that creates some beautiful shots.

Finally they have an incredible cast. Amanda Seyfried has grown into an incredible actress since her Mamma Mia days. James Norton has mastered the art of smarmy charm bellying something deeper and possibly sinister. F Murray Abraham is here! I love F Murray Abraham. He does a great job here. He has a fantastic scene where he comforts Seyfried’s character regarding her ghost. He just teens with compassionate energy. He’s excellent here.

So where does it go wrong? Well strike one is the direction. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini share writing and directing credits. They get good performances, they create an intriguing tone, but they fail to create consistent tension or suspense. The movie doesn’t build in its conflict. Individual scenes have tension, but whenever the scene ends the tension also ends. While the tone is consistent, the narrative engagement is not.

Strike two is the ending. Nothing about the ending worked for me. There was inadequate buildup. The scenes are shot in a muddled fashion. The narrative switches perspectives and feels jarring. The thematic implications are disappointing. I can enjoy a bad movie if it has a great ending. I can’t enjoy a good movie if it has a bad ending.

The third strike is the biggest issue. It’s a bad script. Berman and Pulcini wrote a disjointed script that never fully commits to any of its ideas. The ghost story is set up then ignored in favor of an infidelity plot line that never feels believable. There’s a haunting as metaphor for marital strife theme that is never really explored and mostly abandoned. It is implied that Catherine has suffered from eating disorders in the past. Everyone is concerned about her eating. This is brought up many times, but there is no payoff. There’s a throwaway line about people think she’s seeing things because she’s malnourished, but that’s it. George has a series of scenes in which his secrets are revealed, and it feels like they threw in everything but the kitchen to make him look like a monster. Revelations like this need some buildup or some kind of foreshadowing. There are none to be found in this script.

All this amounts to all the potential and none of the payoff. Every good element is left stranded while the bad elements take over.

It’s not my cup of tea. I was originally going to give it a C, but I give it a B- for how good each of the actors are. They deserve better.

Mortal Kombat (2021)

This is a bad movie, but I did have fun with it. It has a bad story, mediocre characters and truly painful dialogue. But it has inventive action and a great look. I ended up having fun with it.

Based on the popular video game franchise, Mortal Kombat follows a group of fighters chosen to compete for the fate of earth in the great tournament of Mortal Kombat.

I might spoil some plot details, so if you want to be surprised stop reading now.

The movie opens with the wonderful Hioryuki Sanada as a warrior in feudal Japan. His wife and son are murdered by Bi-Han, played by Joe Taslim. Bi-Han has crazy ice powers, and Sanada has a gardening trowel and a length of rope that he uses to slaughter a dozen or so guys before going toe to toe with Bi-Han. This revenge story is the most compelling in the entire movie, but it gets set aside for 90% of the runtime. I don’t know who thought shelving their most imteresting and compelling characters would be a good idea, but they were wrong.

We pick up with Cole Young played by Lewis Tan. He’s a washed up MMA fighter who used to be champ. He’s pulled into the world of Mortal Kombat when Bi-Han returns to assassinate him. (Bi-Han is now going by the name Sub-Zero in a very silly moment that reminds me of an angst teen reminding his parents to call him by his cool new nickname that he made up for himself.) Anyway, we are treated to a sequence of name drops in which Cole is introduced to people in super dramatic fashion. “ This is… Kung Lau!” “Meet… Kano!” “This is… Lord Raiden!!!” This is very silly because Cole has never heard of these people. The name Raiden means nothing to Cole. The dramatic reveal of Kung Lau is just silly if you don’t know who he is. If you’re a fan of the games I’m sure these intros will be super cool. If you’re not it’s just silly.

Anyway Cole meets Sonja played by Jessica McNamee. She’s ex special forces. Which is just lazy screenwriter shorthand for inexplicably great fighter. She has been tracking the legends of mortal Kombat for years. She bribes Kano, played by Josh Lawson to take her and Cole to ancient temple no one can find. Kano is good fun as a character. He is brash and arrogant and provides a welcome irreverence for the proceedings. He has more personality than anyone else in the movie. Our trio arrived at the temple to find Liu Kang, played by Ludi Lin. Liu Kang says he’s been looking for them for years. This is narrative redundancy. Sonja is piecing details together about the tournament. Meanwhile someone who has all the answers has been looking for them the whole time! Basically Sonja and Liu serve the same narrative purpose; assemble the team and explain the rules. The story is so thin and the characters so plentiful that they have to do double duty on simple narrative functionality.

It turns out that the sinister denizens of Outworld are breaking all the rules in order to guarantee victory in the upcoming tournament. Much like with the heroes there’s a sequence of dramatic introductions that didn’t mean much to me. What’s worse is there’s no motivation for the villains. If they win the tournament they get to invade earth. Why do they want earth? Do we have resources they need? Is there an ancient grudge? This might be answered in the wider franchise, but within this narrative, there’s nothing.

The movie divides its time evenly between great action and terrible dialogue. When they’re fighting, the choreography’s interesting and unique. The action is imaginative and fun. The special effects are fantastic. Sub-Zero’s ice effects are particularly impressive. However whenever they stop fighting and start talking I’m just squirming in pain. It’s all bad exposition, stilted backstory, and half naked character development. At one point I said out loud “just shut up and start punching each other again.”

I never played the game, but I know it’s reputation for gruesome violence. That violence is on full display here. There’s some of the most ridiculously over the top kills I’ve seen. A character gets cut in half. Another has his head exploded. It’s ridiculous! It’s also fun if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The movie is a failure as a story because none of its stories are properly motivated or paid off. Cole is a washed up former champion who somewhere along the way lost his will to fight. He trains for the tournament but scrubs out because his heart isn’t in it. He returns to his family where you’d think he’d get the pep talk he needs to get over his mental block and rejoin the fight for the fate of earth. That doesn’t happen. He goes home. They get attacked by a four armed monster. He just sort gets angry and starts fighting again. There is no growth, no meaningful change. He just takes a brief detour before the big final fight. If they had replaced the pep talk with some other motivator or moment of personal growth it would have worked great. They didn’t, so the whole thing just feels hollow.

So why did I have fun? Well it looks great. It has a vibrant color palette and some cool world designs. I like the final ice covered gymnasium. The action is frequent and kinetic. The pace is fast. The actors look great. Kano is fun. The climactic confrontation is really well done. They clearly invested a lot of time and effort into making the fights as awesome as possible. It’s bad, but it checks enough boxes for me to make it a good bad movie. There’s creativity. Someone is going all in. It’s fast paced. It’s a good bad movie for me.

I enjoyed enough of it. It’s half a cup of tea for me. B

Stowaway

This excellent space drama from Netflix is so well made that it had me enthralled from beginning until almost the end.

I have a habit of pressing on movies without knowing anything about them. I saw that Stowaway was new to Netflix. I saw Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim were in it. I hit play. I knew nothing else about the movie. I love doing it because the movie can take me on it’s journey without worrying about the press surrounding it, the spoilers circling the internet, or the buzz built around its quality. Stowaway really captured me and took me on a journey. Because I knew nothing about it every plot point was a surprise and every new development was that much more impactful. I was totally into it. I felt the ending was a letdown, but getting there was a great movie experience. If that’s all you need to check it out stop reading and check it out. If you want more context read on.

The film opens with a shuttle launch. The camera remains firmly inside the cockpit putting us in the perspective of the astronauts. We feel how jarring, shaky, and scary the launch is right alongside our trio of astronauts. They are Zoe played by Anna Kendrick. David a biologist played by Daniel Dae Kim. And Marina the ships commander played by the ever wonderful Toni Collette.

From the opening moments the camera puts us in the ship with the crew. The way the camera steadily moves through the ship gives us a feeling of being on board with them. We are a part of this crew. We are a part of this journey.

Things go pretty well through the first day or so until Marina sees what looks like blood dripping from the ceiling. She opens the ceiling compartment and an injured man falls out. This is Michael played by Shamier Anderson. He is a technician who ended up an accidental stowaway.

His presence creates all kinds of problems. The ship was built on the slightest of margins. It was planned to the exact detail for three people. A fourth throws everything off including how much air they’re going to have.

The movie doesn’t revolve into an action thriller. It has a lot more on its mind than base cliches. It is an existential drama looking at life and meaning. It gives us characters we like and puts them through the hardest decisions anyone could be asked to make.

The acting is stellar. The performances hit every right note. From confrontations with each other to moments of silent anguish these actors bring their A game. It’s wholly convincing.

One of the most interesting decisions was to never show or hear from anyone outside the ship. They make a lot of calls to mission control and to family on earth, but we never see them or hear their voices. This creates a sense of palpable isolation. These people are alone. No one is coming to save us.

My issue is the ending. It felt contrived. A challenge in thrown at our crew that feels unearned and out of left field. This challenge results in an ending that doesn’t feel earned. I just wanted more out of the ending. I wanted more narrative motivation for how the story plays out. I wanted the ending to have a stronger thematic message. I wanted it to mean more. Maybe that’s what the filmmakers were going for, but if that’s the case I didn’t like it.

For the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling I give this one a solid grade. For the ending I have to knock it down a peg because it didn’t work for me. It’s almost a home run. I definitely think it’s worth watching. There’s so much good here.

It’s my cup of tea. B+

Synchronic

This movie plays one of the silliest premises ever in the most serious way possible, and somehow it works.

Synchronic is a 2019 film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival then had to wait out a pandemic until it could get released on Netflix last week. The movie follows Steve and Dennis played by Anthony Mackie and Jaimie Dorian respectively. They are two New Orleans EMT’s who respond to a series of bizarre injuries and deaths all linked to a new designer drug called Synchronic.

The tone of the film is pure art house. It feels like Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain. It uses a muted color palette, somber performances, and a really cool set of match cuts to create a sense of deep intentionality that never quite falls into pretentiousness.

The story is a metaphorical dissertation on death and the nature of time. Steve is dealing with a traumatic past and an uncertain future. Dennis is struggling with his family. His oldest daughter is moving out, and he just had a baby. He doesn’t feel he deserves his wife or the life he leads. Both characters struggle with a sense of existential dread that permeates the entire film.

If that’s all this movie was I would have liked it. It is well made as a serious dissertation, but that’s not all the movie has on its plate. It really goes off the rails as they begin to uncover more about Synchronic and what it does. I won’t spoil it here, but it is very silly.

When the silly plot kicks in I thought about shutting the movie off. It’s easy to do on Netflix. “You’ve only committed a half hour to the movie, just shut it off and find something else.” I stuck with it because I found it’s tone and filmmaking engaging. I liked the match cuts, and I found the recurring visual motif of stars interesting. I’m glad I stuck with it because I ended up getting a lot out of the movie.

There’s a deeply felt emotional core to the film that had quite an effect on me. The central relationship between Steve and Dennis (terrible names by the way. Who heard the name Dennis and thought “Jaimie Dornan?”) is heartfelt and sincere. It feels like a genuine depiction of male friendship. I fell for it and saw myself in these characters.

I ended up having a lot of fun with the premise too once I got over how silly it was. This was eased by the strong visual and tonal cohesion that carried me through. The rules for Synchronic are well established and generate great scenes of tension and excitement.

All in all I’m glad I finished watching this one. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen in a while, but it was a solid film. It was well told and engaging. It wrung some real emotion out of me, and I can safely recommend it. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a little mind bending existential sci-fi drama.

It’s my cup of tea. B+

Malcolm X

This is one of the most effective and visceral movies I’ve ever seen. It is a vividly realized depiction of a great man’s life anchored by an astonishing performance from Denzel Washington.

A little history before we dive into the movie. Malcolm X was one of the primary figures in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Before that he lead a varied and colorful life with a lot of ups and downs. He is primarily taught in schools as being the militant antithesis to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s peaceful protester. The film offers a much more complete picture of the man that I got in all my years of schooling. It dispelled some myths and showed me a new side to an historical icon.

The production of the film begins with Marvin Worth who actually met Malcolm X when they were kids in Detroit. In 1967, Worth bought the rights to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He worked for 25 years to get the film made. Eventually Warner Bros. signed on to produce the film with Norman Jewison set to direct. Jewison brought Denzel Washington on board to Star. However, public outcry over the choice of director opened the chair for Spike Lee to take over.

Lee was coming off a string of successes. After the monster smash of Do the right Thing, his two follow ups were met with strong financial reception if not wild block buster success. He had dreamed of making a Malcolm X biopic since his college days and wanted to give this story everything he had as a filmmaker. And he didn’t hold back.

The film opens with one of the best uses of film language I’ve ever seen. A speech from Malcolm X is heard in voice over condemning white violence. This is played over images of Rodney King being beaten by the police. This is intercut with the image of an American flag. As the images and the voice over grow in intensity, the flag catches fire and burns away until all that’s left is an X. It is dramatic, angry, and inflammatory. It’s also incredible filmmaking.

The filmmaking throughout is stunning. It has the sweep and scope of a David Lean epic, but it doesn’t shortchange us on the specific details of its time and place. Massive montages of speeches and cultural changes are married with intimate moments of Malcolm’s family at home. And every moment is infused with energy and vibrancy. Early on young Malcolm has his hair straightened. The way Lee films the disgusting looking chemicals used. The way his edits get faster and faster. The way his framing gets tighter. It all adds up to an incredibly intense and suspenseful scene.

Malcolm begins as a street hustling kid who becomes a violent criminal, running numbers and selling drugs. He falls under the wing of “West Indian” Archie played by the inimitable Delroy Lindo. He’s a gangster who makes being a gangster look so cool. He’s suave and charming then steely and frightening. His ultimate fate and Malcolm’s reaction to him is one of the most incredible scenes I’ve seen. It’s powerful in the most subtle way.

Malcolm ends up in prison where he meets Baines played by Albert Hall. Baines is a convict who has converted to Islam. He challenges all of Malcolm’s beliefs and shows him a different way of looking at himself and his community. There’s a fascinating scene in which they look up the words black and white in the dictionary. White is the color of purity, honesty, and goodness. Black means evil, wicked, and corrupt. The scene angered me the first time I saw it because it demonstrates how racism is baked into the very language we use. This scene and the movie as a whole frustrated me. It challenged me and forced me to think about the world in a different way. I think that frustration is rewarded, but it’s not always an easy film to watch.

Baines helps Malcolm convert to Islam and helps him educate himself. Once he leaves prison, Malcolm falls under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad played by Al Freeman Jr. He’s the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam. It’s another incredible performance in a movie full of them.

It’s during this time that Malcolm becomes the fiery preacher we’ve all heard about. There are several amazing sequences of Washington giving it his all reciting Malcolm’s actual speeches to huge rooms of people. Washington’s ability to subtly change his tone depending on his audience is some exquisite acting.

He also meets and falls in love with Betty Shabazz played by a wonderful Angela Bassett. These two have some beautifully sensitive and tender scenes that perfectly offset the grandiose culture shifts the film depicts. She walks a fine line with her performance and brings so much to this movie.

Malcolm’s journey is absolutely incredible. From a criminal to a preacher to a man who tempers his more extreme views in service of bringing the world together. It’s an amazing journey, and I love it.

This review is threatening to become longer than the film itself which is a feat considering the films gargantuan 201 minute runtime. There’s a lot of life to cover in this one. I found it riveting and worth the runtime, but I know that won’t be the case for everyone. An intimidating runtime could turn people off. If that’s the case for you I would recommend watching it in sections. I think it’s worth seeing even if it isn’t seen all in one shot. It’s certainly a better film than the recent Snyder cut, and that film was even longer.

The film is confrontational. It sets out to challenge its audience. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like a fun movie night to most people. I think the viewing it in pieces is a good way to counteract this too. Watch it in segments. Think about it. Digest it. It’s a movie that demands more engagement than a passive viewing experience.

One final criticism; there are no title cards. I found myself lost and confused a few times in the narrative. What city are we in? What year is it? It pulled me out a little as I tried to piece it all together. For a big movie getting lost in the narrative is a problem.

All that said. I think this movie is amazing. I love every minute of it. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking that totally floors me when I watch it. I love this movie. I think everyone should give it a shot, but I understand if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s currently streaming on HBO max.

It’s my cup of tea for sure. A+

Spontaneous

Very dark comedy combines with a heart felt coming of age drama to incredible effect in this surprise and explosive movie.

A boring math class in an average high school. Senior Mara, played by Katherine Langford, drops her pencil on the floor. She leans over to pick it up. In that moment the girl sitting in front of her explodes. She just goes pop spraying the entire classroom in blood. Mara sits up back to find her entire world changed.

One by one the kids in this one math class inexplicably go pop throughout the film. Mara and her best friend Tess, played by Hayley Law use humor to deal with the stress and trauma of never knowing who could be next. Mara falls for the cute Dylan, played by Charlie Plummer and their very sweet relationship makes up the best escape from the exploding kids surrounding them.

The movie is surprising. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but it really won me over with its mix of sweet and sardonic. From the first kid exploding to the way Mara and Dylan’s relationship unfolds, to the various coping mechanisms Mara uses the film consistently surprised me. It found some wiggle room within the traditional three act structure and created a really fun and thought provoking ride.

I really loved the way the teenagers are written. They are messy. They can be smug and too self assured. They maintain a feeling of invincibility in the face of certain death. It really captures the teenage experience.

The dark as night humor really worked for me too. The sight gag of gallons of blood spraying all over a classroom was really funny to me. And the razor sharp dialogue and asides from Mara and her friends ring genuine laughs out of a horribly macabre set up.

The film was written and directed by first time director Brian Duffield. He brings a playfulness and inventiveness to the story. The characters have overlapping voice overs and often turn to the camera to directly address the audience in order to fill out the story. It’s a lot of fun to see someone having fun with the medium.

This movie really worked for me. It pulled me in and kept me there. It doesn’t reveal deep truths about life and the world, but it has a lot more on its mind than gross out dark humor. It takes the implications of its premise seriously and tells a really compelling story with its high concept.

It’s streaming on Amazon prime. I just happened to stumble across it last night, and I hope you do too. It’s my cup of tea. A-