Film Review: Free Guy (no spoilers)

Spoiler-Free Review!


Free Guy (2021)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
out of 4 stars.

I’m pretty neutral on Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy his brand of comedy for the most part but my interest in Free Guy sparked almost entirely from the casting of Joe Keery and that Shawn Levy was the director (because I’m a huge Stranger Things fan). In looking over Levy’s filmography as part of my research for my Coffee & Contemplation podcast, I realized that I often like his style and the stories he tends to tell; in particular, the Night at the Museum franchise, Arrival, The Famous Jett Jackson, and, obviously, Stranger Things. Like those properties, Free Guy seemed to be another effective blend of pastiche and originality. Plus Taika Waititi was in the cast, too? Sign me up.

The film itself far exceeded my expectations. Free Guy is celebratory rather than pretentious in its homage. While others are citing The Truman Show, The Lego Movie, and Wreck-It-Ralph as influences, I also detected a lot of the original Tron. Yet Free Guy carves out its own style, its own characters. How it manages to do so is nigh untraceable but it doesn’t really matter because you’re too busy enjoying the result. There are scant few things I didn’t enjoy about it — more on that later — and even in the spots where it doesn’t quite work, there’s a palpable spirit of enthusiasm. Some reviews criticize the film for not delving deeper into the more serious questions and concepts Free Guy indirectly presents — the nature of Artificial Intelligence, corporate strategy, sequels versus original IP, what qualifies as a soul — but I would argue that the film doesn’t avoid these subjects outright, either. The trailers also make it very clear that deep, intellectual exploration is not the point here. Science-Fiction is rife with such explorations and there’s plenty to be found elsewhere if you’re looking for that. In Free Guy, meanwhile, you can expect a buoyant, fun energy at its core. However, I was surprised at the — go with me — level of subtlety at play. No, seriously. There is no shortage of loud, brash, even salacious humor but it never goes too far off the rails and is even quite effectively balanced by some aspects that practically fly under the radar, along with some surprisingly sweet messages.

The real-world and Free-City-world feel equally balanced along with the arcs of the characters in each, both in the writing and the visuals. The cinematography (George Richmond, Rocketman) deftly shifts between cinematic and gaming styles. The cameos and Easter eggs are present and delightful but don’t distract from the center narrative. Guy’s story is our A-Plot, the Soonami story is the B-Plot, but the characters’ comparable screen time, combined with (I believe) dynamite performances by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Britne Oldford, all synchronize successfully. Many critics are ragging on the real-world characters but I buy the characterizations and believe their performances are deeper than they’re getting credit for. Where some have cited that the Soonami storyline drags the film down in the middle, I would question whether Guy’s story — genuinely fun and entertaining though it is — would be able to sustain itself alone, without a supporting plot. Maybe, but I, for one, appreciate the range.

The only pieces that didn’t work for me mostly surrounded the underuse of Taika Waititi as Antwan and some of the humor. For all that the marketing emphasized his role, Waititi seems to be doing a lot with so very little. The film’s antagonist might be the one aspect where the film would have benefited from easing back on the humor in favor of complexity. Waititi would have been more than up to that task; but perhaps it weighed the film down too much? In any case, I’m hoping for a plethora of deleted scenes awaiting us on the eventual Blu-ray. And, apart from that, I found myself tired of the “gamers are lame dudes who live in their mom’s basement and never get laid” joke even just after watching the multiple trailers. It’s directly at odds with the appearances of Professional Streamers. I’m not sure that we needed that particular brand of degrading humor in a movie that is otherwise very uplifting – even respectful – of gamer culture.

Beyond that, though this is an overwhelming net positive. I already want to see the film again and look forward to the conversations that it will inevitably inspire. Will it change the world? No, but it is a huge mood boost, and amongst these dark times, sometimes that’s exactly what we all need.


Read Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Film Festival Today review here!


Film Review: Free Guy (spoilers)

This review contains spoilers.


Free Guy (2021)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
out of 4 stars.

I’m pretty neutral on Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy his brand of comedy for the most part but my interest in Free Guy sparked almost entirely from knowing that Joe Keery was in the cast (because I’m a huge Stranger Things fan) and also that Shawn Levy was the director. In looking over his filmography as part of my research for my Coffee & Contemplation podcast, I realized that I often like his style and the stories he tends to tell; in particular, the Night at the Museum franchise, Arrival, The Famous Jett Jackson,and, obviously, Stranger Things. Like those properties, Free Guy seemed to be another effective blend of pastiche and originality. Plus Taika Waititi was in the cast, too? Sign me up.

The film itself far exceeded my expectations. Free Guy is celebratory rather than pretentious in its homage (Tron, anyone?) yet carves out its own style, its own characters. How it manages to do so is nigh untraceable but it doesn’t really matter because you’re too busy enjoying the result. There are scant few things I didn’t enjoy about it — more on that later — and even in the spots where it doesn’t quite work, there’s a palpable spirit of enthusiasm. Some reviews criticize the film for not delving deeper into the more serious questions and concepts Free Guy indirectly presents — the nature of Artificial Intelligence, corporate strategy, sequels versus original IP, what qualifies as a soul — but I would argue that the film doesn’t avoid these subjects outright, either. Many critics are ragging on the real-world characters but I buy the characterizations and believe their performances are deeper than they’re getting credit for. Where some have cited that the Soonami storyline drags the film down in the middle, I would question whether Guy’s story — genuinely fun and entertaining though it is — would be able to sustain itself alone, without a supporting plot. Maybe. But I, for one, appreciate the range. The trailers also make it very clear that deep, intellectual exploration is not the point here. Science-Fiction is rife with such explorations and there’s plenty to be found elsewhere if you’re looking for that but in Free Guy you can expect a buoyant, fun energy at its core. However, I was surprised at the — go with me — level of subtlety at play. No, seriously. There is no shortage of loud, brash, even salacious humor but it never goes too far off the rails and is even quite effectively balanced by some aspects that practically fly under the radar.


SPOILERS AHEAD!

Continue reading

Film Review: “Vivo” Is Fun but Surprisingly Emotional

My review for Vivo on Film Festival Today!

I enjoyed it very much but it also really shocked me. It’s surprisingly intense, emotionally-speaking. This is a spoiler, but I think it’s important for anyone considering watching it: Vivo is primarily a grief story.

Vivo boasts absolutely stunning animation​… the soundtrack is catchy and charming and the songs span a wide range of genres​… the real magic occurs, though, when Vivo and Gabi harmonize, musically and narratively.​ ​It’s worth noting, however, that this is a grief story, which hits unexpectedly hard. Moments in which multiple characters express regret and desperation reach Pixar levels of potency in their ability to conjure tears​.​.. Yet, at other times, the story careens into side-quests, almost like a series of Odyssey-style vignettes, needing to overcome obstacles and, sometimes, literal monsters.

Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Vivo” Is Fun but Surprisingly Emotional


Series Review: Disappointment Abounds In “Jupiter’s Legacy”

My series review for Jupiter’s Legacy on Film Festival Today.

This one was tough to write. If you’re planning to watch Jupiter’s Legacy, brace yourself. One thing I don’t cover in this review is the cavalier attitudes towards mental illness, addiction, and suicide.

Screen Shot 2021-05-13 at 11.50.21 AM

With the yo-yoing back and forth between centuries, plus an overcrowded cast of characters, plot threads get muddled or abandoned altogether … which causes the symbolism to grow murky and elicits uncomfortable questions… A few moments manage to shine, including an Episode-Seven fight sequence featuring the non-super-powered Hutch (Ian Quinlan). The show really would have benefitted from more of such ingenuity.

The ideas of generational divides, idealism vs. harsh reality and, perhaps the most important and underused of all, action vs. inaction, may be worthwhile in theory, but they just don’t deliver in execution.


Source: Disappointment Abounds In “Jupiter’s Legacy”

Film Review: “The Water Man” Deftly Blends Realism and Fantasy

My latest review for Film Festival Today: The Water Man!

Between the new family in town, the somewhat-haunted forest, a local legend, one dying parent, an estranged relationship with the other, and running away from home, one might expect The Water Man to feel like a bundle of strewn-together clichés. Instead, David Oyelowo’s directorial feature debut is a well-paced and cohesive expedition into that strange and wondrous place where imagination meets reality…


I enjoyed “The Water Man” tremendously – even if it made me a bit misty-eyed.

I am really looking forward to whatever David Oyelowo is planning to do next!



Source: Film Review: “The Water Man” Deftly Blends Realism and Fantasy

“Stranger Things 4 Will Not Be the Show’s Final Season”

ScreenRant Article by Rachel Gibson: 
Matt and Ross Duffer…announce they are not ending the series after season 4 and know how it will conclude.


If you know me at all, you know how much I love this show. Including season two, unlike the rest of the world, apparently. However, I did not love season three (also unlike the rest of the world). The seasons have grown steadily less restrained; from season one’s cool, austere tone and brilliant efficiency in its storytelling, to season three’s broad humor and presentation. Personal preferences may vary, but from what I’ve gathered, the general response from both the fandom and casual viewers alike seems to be that season one continues to reign supreme among the three. I’m left to wonder if the show overall has strayed into “too much of a good thing” territory. That said, when the credits rolled on the final episode of season three (prior to the post-credits scene), I was a bundle of mixed feelings.

*minor spoilers ahead*

The thought of never seeing the characters again – leaving most of them suspended in circumstances that ranged from bittersweet and sad to disheartening and inconclusive – the idea of never returning to wrap up certain arcs? It stings.

At the same time, I also found that the massive reveal in the season four teaser trailer did not generate excitement or relief, but frustration. I’m glad that a certain character will make a return – that he’s not, yanno, dead – but I feel unnecessarily emotionally manipulated. Almost resentful over the emotional turmoil we were put through last season, just to have it get magically undone. Somehow. Because reasons. Meanwhile, I  can also appreciate the difficulty the creators were faced with because it’s been my belief that the show had neither reached a natural conclusion nor has it struck an organic flow to continue.

So, the ScreenRant article’s headline may have induced a heavy sigh from me, but the content therein actually led me to be cautiously optimistic. I still think the sentiment of “know when to walk away,” is called for, but this specific quote jumped out at me:

Ross [Duffer] went on to explain that the Covid-19 pandemic has given them the time to reflect on the direction they want to take the show in. They have been able to fill out more of the story’s plot and have discovered just how long they will need to finish the story while giving the series the best possible ending.

I personally felt that season three felt uncharacteristically rushed, even a bit bloated. There were definitely aspects that I enjoyed – I continue to be impressed with Steve Harrington’s growth as a character, I’m completely on board for more of his friendship with Robin (not to mention Robin as a character overall), and the scenes between Karen and Nancy Wheeler are some of the best scenes in the whole series. I loved getting to see Lucas land some seriously impressive blows with the wrist-rocket, Alexei was a delight, as was Murray speaking Russian and his eventual bonding with Alexei, Dustin calling Erica out for being a nerd was super satisfying, and – separate from the “Neverending Story” sequence – I love Suzie and hope to see her return in the seasons to come. 
 
Still, those positive pieces felt outweighed by the bigger missteps, where it seemed to lose focus, lose the emotional connection with some of the characters (namely with Mike and Hopper). So I’ve got my guard up. Reading the SR article, though, if the Duffers really mean what they say, if they’re sincerely taking advantage of this forced pause in the proceedings and they’re actually building towards a deliberate conclusion rather than just keep barrelling on ahead without any clear finish line, then I’m on board to at least give it a chance.
 

Of Elves, Gamers, and Paintball.

“There’s a little bit of ‘geek’ and ‘hero’ in all of us.”

Even if I hadn’t heard about Rise of the Fellowship through the grapevine of friends and current and future colleagues, its likely that this film still would have crossed my path.  I am a Lord of the Rings fan—both Tolkien’s literary masterwork and Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation (which I rambled on about just a few posts ago)—as well as a fan of fantasy and sci-fi in general and an independent filmmaker myself.  However, I’m not generally a fan of parodies or spoof-style movies so I had some initial concern that Fellow’s Hip—as it was called then—was going to be something more along those lines; a perfectly pleasant romp that, while clever in its delivery, still just retold the same story with a different setting and vernacular.

I was delighted to find, though, that this was not the case at all. The film is distinct and entirely its own, which, truly, is its biggest strength.

Continue reading

Taking Shape

It’s been a hundred years since I’ve given a legitimate update.  But here’s the thing: I’ve been fully engulfed in Genre Wars: Resistance Rising.

GunSlingers_02

I want to start off by saying that it is my delight and privilege to be a part of this project.  From the start it’s been this intangible, but fascinating concept that we’ve been attempting to really grasp and bring into reality.  The process has been amazing for me, personally; the collaboration with Justin and everyone else has been tremendous fun.  The amazing part now is seeing it really start to pick up some traction.  I can see heads turning as the project gains speed and a whole new level of excitement begins as what we’ve been holding onto for so long, we are now really able to start sharing with others.

The last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind of activity for us.  We put a small featurette together (Genre Wars: Resistance Rising FIRST LOOK), we’ve officially cast over half the characters, the sets are beginning to take shape and the scripts, as Justin has mentioned previously, have nearly reached completion.

But the real highlight was last Saturday.  Picture this:

A calm, quiet morning.
The sun drapes across the green, empty field in soft, golden sheets.
There’s a crunch of tires over gravel as the first car pulls into the driveway.
A Pirate emerges along with a 1920’s Mobster and a Mech warrior.

Here we go.

Even long after the Genre Wars concept had been introduced and developed, the possibilities seemed endless; how many different culture-clashes we could create and the fun we could have with the mismatches.  All great in theory of course, but on June 1st, we really got the chance to see how it would look in reality when we gathered a significant group of willing participants, all in full costume and lined them up next to each other.

GunSlingers_03

As we had hoped and predicted, what we got was magical and transformative.  There is no feeling greater than the moment when something you’ve been brainstorming about, developing in your head and obsessing over suddenly takes real shape.  No matter how many projects I do, that transition from elusive concept to reality never gets old.  And I don’t think it ever will.

Our group consisted of Steampunks, Fantasarians, Mechs, Nenjin (or Kabathan-style ninjas), Mobsters, Pirates, modern-day Mercenaries and Vampians.

GunSlingers_01 Aerial-02-copy BTS-02

It was an all-day affair, but, as the saying goes, time certainly flew by as we were having our fun. Everyone who came out to participate was enthusiastic and committed to being there.  The resulting photos and footage are excellent.  Our two photographers, KC White and Jenna Miller (of Jenna M. Miller Photography) really stepped up to the plate and produced some amazing work.  The photos really shine, and especially because of the make-up artistry of Jessica Mungeon and Felicia Douglas.

Make-Up-01Make-Up-02

This photo/video shoot helped put into perspective what it is we’re trying to do.  Several times during the day, people said to me, “I didn’t realize this was going to be such a big deal,” and, “when is the next shoot going to be?” and, “can I read the scripts?”  This was all rewarding for me, personally, because it meant that what we’ve been working towards is becoming clear to others and the excitement, the interest that Justin and I have had in this story and these characters and this world is starting to rub off onto others.  They can see what we see now.  And it’s awesome.

So what’s next?

There will be more shoots, both conceptual ones like this, and of the full cast once the roles have all been officially filled.  There will be more interviews; second looks, third looks and a teaser trailer.  And a poster.  And a full-scale map of Kabathan.  And, eventually, t-shirts!

What are we doing?  We’re bringing something tangible into the world and we’re at the point now where we can finally start really sharing it with others.

It just doesn’t get better than that.

Group Shot 01