Paved with some sort of intention

Follow-up post about Late Night With the Devil, with a few spoiler-filled questions and criticisms

I was content with my take on Late Night With the Devil for a while. I was happy to declare it as a movie that worked on its own terms, even if it didn’t work completely on mine, and I could appreciate it as a lurid haunted house-style throwback. I was even a little proud of myself for watching a movie and for once, not overthinking it.

And then I started overthinking it.

I thought that this was a movie that didn’t feel any need for subtlety. The characters tell you exactly who they are, the performances are broad, the effects are over-the-top, and it was overall intended more to be fun than genuinely scary. (Even I, as one of the biggest scary-movie cowards, never felt my heart rate go up even a tick except for a scene where a man intentionally cuts his hand with a knife). The thing I ended up liking the most about the movie was that it knew what it wanted to be.

But I read a few reviews — a couple from outlets I’d expected to be a lot more cynical and less charitable than my take — that were so effusive that I started to wonder if I’d missed something while being condescending.

The main question I had — and I won’t go into details until after a spoiler warning — was whether the movie was intended to be surprising. And I think it’s kind of interesting, because my initial takeaway was that it didn’t matter.

I’m definitely not a proponent of the whole “death of the author” line of thought. Even if it did have value when it was coined, it has no place now, and it does nothing but promote shallow and overly-literal takes on art. (And occasionally, get used by people who want to use progressive ideas like diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural sensitivity as a bludgeon).

But here, it seemed to me, was the rare case where the intention of the filmmakers didn’t actually matter, since it works fine either way. I thought I understood the story from the opening montage, so I spent the movie enjoying the tension of watching that story play out. That’s the main difference between horror and something like suspense or mystery stories: it’s not about the twists, but about watching the inevitable descent, knowing that you can’t do anything to stop what’s coming.

So I was initially confused that the ending of Late Night With the Devil spent so long belaboring the details that I’d just assumed the audience already knew. Eventually, I figured that it was a case of the movie having it both ways: if the ending surprised you, good. If it just showed you a horrific take on what you already knew had happened, also good.

But it still doesn’t fit with some aspects of the movie that I thought were unclear or just plain didn’t make sense, and for that, I need a spoiler warning.

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One Thing I Like About Late Night With The Devil

The story of a 1970s late night talk show that aired a live demon possession

The moment Late Night With the Devil clicked with me is when I stopped comparing it to the movie I’d been expecting, and started watching it for what it actually is.

The intriguing premise suggests a period piece found footage horror movie: a narrator1Michael Ironside! sets us in the late 1970s, recounting the story of a late night talk show called Night Owls that can never seem to compete with Johnny Caron’s Tonight Show. Against the back drop of the political and cultural turmoil of the late 70s, and the satanic panic, the show’s host Jack Delroy spent years trying to build popularity for his show and get out from under Carson’s shadow. What we’re seeing is the “master tape” from the Halloween night broadcast, which featured a stage psychic; an Amazing Randi-style skeptic; and a parapsychologist with her troubled patient, a 13-year-old girl who survived a cult worshipping the demon Abraxas.

For a while, it does seem like they’re going for verisimilitude. The set direction feels spot-on, not just for a 1970s talk show, but specifically one made in New York. (It’s good that the money went into perfecting the set, since almost the entire movie takes place on one set). There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the opening montage showing a character who looks a lot like Orson Welles in his 1970s talk show era, and for those of us who watched those shows during our formative years, that one image establishes the setting perfectly.

But as the movie continues, it becomes apparent that Late Night With the Devil is more interested in telling its story than in being a pitch-perfect found-footage movie. The performances are pretty broad, always hovering in the zone between realism and camp. There are minor, nit-picking anachronisms; shots that wouldn’t have happened in a live broadcast; cross-fades that weren’t in style even if the technology to do them was available for live TV; “behind the scenes” shots that simply wouldn’t have been possible; and a bunch of other things that imply that whenever the filmmakers had to choose between reality and setting a mood, they always chose the latter.

In the end, the tone of the movie is much more like a Hollywood Horror Nights house than a modern found footage movie. It has a ton of ideas about theme, mood, character, and story, and it throws them out like an interconnected series of funhouse horror vignettes. The commercial breaks and behind-the-scene moments are more like transitions between broad story beats than like actual behind-the-scenes footage.

And when I say the performances are broad to the point of being camp, I don’t mean that disparagingly. David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy has to be the most nuanced, managing a performance-within-a-performance that has to shift from corny to sincere to craven to haunted within the same scene. I was even more impressed by Ingrid Torelli as the young possessed girl Lilly, especially for perfectly playing the eeriness of someone who won’t stop staring directly at the camera. On the whole, though, the performances felt more like those of the scare actors inside a modern horror house, shouting out their lines every 60 seconds to make sure the audience gets the point of the current story beat.

Ultimately, that horror house feeling is what I liked2But didn’t ever quite love most about Late Night With the Devil. It feels like a fiercely independent movie3It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning, where the filmmakers had a very specific idea about the tone and the mood and what they believed was important, even if it didn’t fit into the modern Blumhouse mold. Even more than the sets and costumes, it feels like a throwback to the late 1970s. Especially the pre-1980s horror that valued creepy and scary moments over intense realism.

If on the other hand, you’re interested in an independent film that does commit completely to its premise, I’ve got to give another recommendation for Deadstream. It goes much more for horror-comedy than Late Night With the Devil, and in my opinion does more with its modest budget. The movies have very little in common apart from a single set and a nod to live broadcast (and both being on Shudder, I guess), but that shows how much room there is for creativity in horror movies without big studio intervention.

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    Michael Ironside!
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    But didn’t ever quite love
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    It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning

One Thing I Like About Poor Things

The best moments in Poor Things are the ones you can appreciate empirically

I went in hoping, and fully expecting, to love Poor Things, but it never really clicked for me. So it’s a good thing I’ve got a series called “One Thing I Like,” because there’s an awful lot to like about this movie.

The art direction is outstanding, delivering on the promise of the trailer and then some. It’s full of fantasy versions of cities (and a ship) that are beautiful and familiar, but just surreal enough to suggest that you’re seeing them for the very first time, and just sinister enough to suggest that there’s always danger lurking just outside of your field of view. The beginning calls back to The Bride of Frankenstein and Metropolis, just directly enough to make sure that we make the connection, but not so directly that it feels just like a reference.

And Emma Stone, obviously, gives herself so completely into this character that any trace that it’s a performance disappears within a few minutes. There’s no way the movie would’ve worked without her commitment. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent, acting as if he were a character borrowed from an entirely different movie, which is exactly what’s needed for the character. Willem Dafoe is at the stage in his career where yet another exceptional performance from him isn’t all that exceptional. And I think Ramy Youssef deserves credit for playing the straight man against so many showy performances; he has to function as the audience’s guide into a Victorian horror story, but one in which the story abandons its narrator a third of the way through.

Also, there are brief black-and-white interstitials when the story moves to a new location, each seeming like we’re getting a peek into Bella’s bizarre and beautiful dreams. But none lasts long enough to make any sense of them. Like a real dream, they seem to leave an after-image on the mind, even if we can’t reliably recall details.

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One Thing I Love About Wonka

My favorite thing about Wonka is how it effectively chooses songs from the original, and then goes off to do its own thing

When I first saw a link to a trailer for Wonka, a 2023 prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Timothée Chalamet, I was prepared for the worst. And I was pleasantly surprised when I could find nothing wrong with it; it looked perfectly charming.

After seeing it, I was happy to see that it is charming (albeit far from perfectly) from the start. It begins with the three repeated notes from “Pure Imagination” — which work so well because they are vaguely creepily discordant — before launching into an original opening song confidently introducing Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka.

I should admit from the start that I was almost hoping to find fault in Chalamet’s performance, and by the end of the first song, I gave up and just resigned to having to acknowledge that sometimes famous people are just good at stuff. I think he did an exceptional job creating a version of the character that is at the opposite end of Gene Wilder’s version — all of the optimism and kind-heartedness and almost-compulsive showmanship and eagerness to make people happy, but before decades of seeing people’s greed (and excessive gum-chewing and TV-watching) put a darker and more melancholy spin on it.

Which is, more or less, my most significant criticism of the movie: it delivers exactly what is promised on the poster, wonderfully, but no more than that. It’s an often-delightful and imaginative children’s movie about imagination and hope, with tons of people doing excellent work to sell every moment, but there’s little sense of a unique voice.

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One Thing I Like About The Marvels

The Marvels is full of moments that remind you it’s essentially the polar opposite of Captain America: Civil War

The Marvels is undeniably a little bit of a mess. It’s abundantly clear that there were too many ideas that people got attached to, and the filmmakers tried to cram everything into it. In addition to what was undoubtedly tons of edits due to studio interference and so on, the result is that moments don’t land as well as they could have, and the movie ends up feeling both overstuffed and slight.1I also feel like there was a continuity error more glaring than I’d ever expect from an MCU installment: I’d swear that Kamala goes from wearing the Ms Marvel costume her mother made for her at the end of the series, to wearing a T-shirt and flannel, with no explanation for the change. I don’t care all that much, but I bring it up because I never ever notice that kind of thing, which makes me think it must have been glaring.

But I honestly don’t believe it matters a bit, because there’s more than enough charm and fun to carry the whole thing through.

The thing I kept thinking of throughout the movie was, oddly, Donald Glover’s story about his meeting Billy Dee Williams to try and get some ideas on how to approach the role of Lando Calrissian: after all the setup and research and questions, Williams’s response was simply, “Just be charming.”

I think it’s tough for post-Endgame audiences to appreciate just how much of the MCU was built on simply that mantra: just be charming and accessible. While looking for images from The Marvels, I couldn’t avoid seeing a review snippet that complained that the MCU was floundering now that it has lost all of its “heavy hitters.” I realize I need to remember that the franchise is over 10 years old at this point, so people might not remember, but I still can’t get over anyone suggesting that Iron-Man and Thor were “heavy hitters.” People need to realize that this entire franchise was built off the B- and C-listers. And the franchise was started by treating Iron-Man as a romantic comedy with also robot suits, with the overriding idea being “just be charming.”

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    I also feel like there was a continuity error more glaring than I’d ever expect from an MCU installment: I’d swear that Kamala goes from wearing the Ms Marvel costume her mother made for her at the end of the series, to wearing a T-shirt and flannel, with no explanation for the change. I don’t care all that much, but I bring it up because I never ever notice that kind of thing, which makes me think it must have been glaring.

Talk to Me, or, Good Grief!

Talk to Me seemed like a fun, scary movie, but it commits to the premise too hard to be that fun. Contains spoilers.

We chose to watch Talk to Me as a fun, scary teen horror movie for Halloween night, and reader, it was not as fun as I’d been led to believe. This is a very well-made movie that accomplishes almost everything I think it sets out to do, but I definitely didn’t enjoy watching it.

In fact, it’s as if I had the opposite of the suspension of disbelief while watching it. The premise of the movie is absurd, but perfectly in the way that befits a fun horror movie: teenagers have a new party craze in which they use a weird hand sculpture in a ritual to summon a dead person and briefly become possessed by them. It reads like a novel take on Ouija or Bloody Mary, where it’s spooky supernatural fun until something goes horribly wrong.

But watching things go horribly wrong in Talk to Me felt miserable — like, The Exorcist‘s relentlessly depressing scenes about loss of faith and how we fail each other as humans — instead of ratcheting up tension. The last third of the movie does have a structure similar to other horror movies, where the teens try to figure out the “rules” of what torments them. But the centerpiece sequence of the movie is so intense and violent, and the situation is so bleak, that I never once felt there was any glimmer of hope for these characters.

The movie also spends a lot of time showing us teenagers being absolute remorseless sociopaths. I remember my teenage years as being brutal, but not to the point of being openly hostile to everyone for no good reason, or hanging out with people who showed me (and each other) such open contempt. I don’t know if it was a case of teens these days being even crueler than they were in the 80s, commentary on bullying and social media pressure, or justification for why these characters would keep treating something so obviously horrific as if it were a fun game. It’s likely a combination of all three.

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Destination_final-final-edit-usethisone_final.review

Recommending the first few entries in the Final Destination series, and reconsidering my previous reviews

As we approach Halloween1Which seems to be taking over a year at this point, since people keep getting started earlier and earlier, I keep seeing recommendations for good scary movies to enjoy. And I feel left out, because I’m not very good at horror movies and haven’t seen a lot of them.2In case you were wondering, I have been to Knott’s Scary Farm and Universal Hollywood Horror Nights since writing that, I enjoyed the heck out of both of them, and am now a regular haunt-goer. But I realized I can do a better job at recommending the Final Destination movies — or at least, the first three, which are the only ones I’ve been interested in watching — than I have in the past.

I was surprised to stumble onto my old reviews written right after watching the movies for the first time — which I won’t link here, for reasons that will soon become obvious — and to discover that they suck. I really enjoyed the series, but my blog posts about them are pretty insufferably condescending about them. There’s a sense that I need people to understand that I liked them but was well aware the entire time that they aren’t high art. If there is a recurring theme of this now-decades-old blog, it’s that I’m very focused on getting it, but it’s rare that I actually get it.

Anyway, these movies are clever, brilliantly manipulative fun, and they get better the more I think about them. They’re essentially horror movies reduced to their most basic components and then reassembled, making full use of their formula instead of being weighed down by it.

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    Which seems to be taking over a year at this point, since people keep getting started earlier and earlier
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    In case you were wondering, I have been to Knott’s Scary Farm and Universal Hollywood Horror Nights since writing that, I enjoyed the heck out of both of them, and am now a regular haunt-goer.

One Thing I Like About The Haunted Mansion

Sometimes it’s just nice to feel targeted.

I really enjoyed The Haunted Mansion. I hadn’t expected to like it, to be honest, because movies based on theme park attractions don’t have a great track record, and I tend to be possessive about the source material.

And it does feel overstuffed, as if there are a few too many characters, a few too many distracting cameos, a few too many plot lines, and a few too many rewrites. But then, you could say the same thing about the ride itself. Honestly, the movie shares a lot of the feeling of the ride — a ton of talented contributions towards something that’s unfocused and disjointed but memorable.

It gets the tone right, too: it’s both creepy and funny but never too goofy and never too scary. LaKeith Stanfield goes harder than he needs to, honestly, but his performance is a huge part of keeping it from feeling just like a commercial IP synergy exercise. It often feels like Danny DeVito’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were leftovers from earlier drafts of the screenplay, but at the same time, the movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if any of them had been edited out. It ends up feeling surprisingly like an ensemble movie, where everybody in the ensemble is more talented than they need to be.

But one thing I like about The Haunted Mansion is that it is so deeply committed to paying homage to the theme park attraction that it finds a way to include both Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s versions.

Most of the movie takes place inside Disneyland’s New Orleans plantation house version of the mansion, but there’s a side trip to another historical house that looks exactly like the Magic Kingdom’s northeastern version. An especially nice touch is that the establishing shot of the house is seen from exactly the same angle as you see when entering the queue of the Magic Kingdom attraction, much like the “main” mansion is most often seen from the same angle as the entrance of Disneyland’s queue.

It is 1000% fan service, and the movie is full-to-bursting with it, and I was entirely on board for all of it. Just about every scene of the ride gets a depiction in the movie — the only scenes I didn’t see were the body trying to get out of its coffin in the conservatory, and the singing busts in the graveyard. Several of the ghosts depicted in paintings throughout the queue and the ride are made significant characters. All of the rooms make an appearance, most notably the stretching room and a version of the seance room. The movie even finds a way to include the rhyming headstones from the queue.

There are so many references to the ride, and they’re done so faithfully, that it’s impossible to cynically dismiss them as nothing more than an IP cash grab. There’s no question that the movie was made with affection for the attraction, by people putting in the extra effort to do justice to a beloved attraction. It often feels like a fan film made with a Disney budget.

One of the most charming things in the movie is the idea of “ghost winks,” signs that the dead give us to let us know they’re still with us. The movie itself spends a lot of time winking at us, feeling like shared love for a favorite ride.

Subverting the Thing

Barbie, David Letterman, and the impossibility of being a mass-market radical

I didn’t like the Barbie movie very much, but I can’t stress enough how much that doesn’t matter. I didn’t dislike it, because it’s got some really good performances by actors who understood the assignment completely, a couple of stand-out gags1Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie, and it works pretty well as a modern homage to so many classic fantasy movies that inspired it. In that interview with director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, she mentions Barbie greeting Astronaut Barbies and saying “Yay, space!” and it really is a fantastic, charming moment.

The most clever thing about the trailers for the movie was the tagline that went something like “If you love Barbie, you’ll love this movie. If you hate Barbie, you’ll love this movie.” It might simply be that I’ve never had a strong opinion about Barbie one way or the other, so I couldn’t get into this movie. But it’s a toy company spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver an honest and earnest message about feminism to as wide an audience as possible, so what could possibly be the problem?

My biggest issue with it isn’t that it’s bad, but that it was so on-the-nose that I never felt like I had anything to engage with. It was two hours of characters always saying exactly what was on their minds, explicitly delivering a message that I already agreed with. Everything that seemed like an original or clever twist on the basic premise (which I’d already seen on SNL, to be honest) had already been given away in the inescapable torrent of marketing for the movie.

It’d be churlish and hypocritical to be too critical of anything I thought was “just fine overall,” much less one that explicitly comments how the patriarchy demands that women be exceptional just to be recognized as having any worth at all.2And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war. I don’t actually have any strong opinions about the movie, but about the idea that it was subversive.

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    Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie
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    And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war.

Raiders of the Lost AARP

A few random thoughts about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and the series as a whole

I liked Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. It kept up the formula of the series — which is proudly and iconically a celebration of formulaic moviemaking — without feeling like a retread. And it did a good job of completing the arc1No pun intended for its main character, bringing his story to a conclusion in a way that felt meaningful, but without getting in the way of the fact that these are action movies first and foremost.

But that’s after a day of thinking about it and watching videos about it. As I was watching it, I didn’t get it at all.

Usually when I’m critical of a movie’s plotting, it’s because I feel like I understand what the movie’s writers are trying to do, or where they’re trying to get to, but it doesn’t make sense for the characters in the moment. With Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, it was the complete opposite: at pretty much every step of the way, I understood the characters’ motivations, but I was left baffled as to why the movie was making the choices it did.

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    No pun intended

One Thing I Like About Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I liked that the movie had the confidence to slow down and be quiet

I’ll come out as a grouch right of the bat: I didn’t like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse nearly as much as the first movie.1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.

That’s to be expected, though: Into the Spider-Verse was a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. It seemed to come out of nowhere and not just do every single thing right, but to be so relentlessly imaginative that it tricked you into believing that anything was possible.

And the moments when Across the Spider-Verse works best are truly astonishing. It is near-flawless technically and artistically, seemingly designed and art directed with the overriding rule being that absolutely nothing would be dismissed because it was too difficult, or because it didn’t fit.

It builds on that feeling of confidence that made the first movie so exciting: mixing and matching art and animation styles not just between universes, but between characters and even between shots in the same scene. You can see the sketch marks and guide lines on some characters, the crisp lines on others, and more than one is made from paper or newsprint2And for two completely different story reasons!. When it’s working, the movie captures that feeling of “anything goes” experimentation from comic books, but applied to animation.3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

But still I was a bit disappointed simply because I could see the seams in this one. Into the Spider-Verse was relentlessly inventive but also felt “tight,” as if every detail and every stray idea was in the movie for a reason. Plus it never insulted the audience’s (or at least my) intelligence: you pretty much figured out things at the same time as the characters did, and there were no overly drawn-out revelations, or twists meant to blow your mind that you’d seen coming a mile away. Across the Spider-Verse was frustrating at points, because I was either wanting it to hurry up and get to the point already, or because I was wanting it to just calm down and be quiet for a second.

So much of it was manic. I felt like the first movie was able to throw everything together and make it all work, while the second often felt over-stuffed to me. It often seemed like the team knew they had made a masterpiece, and were now desperately trying not just to recapture lightning in a bottle, but to stretch it out into a franchise, Peter Jackson-style, even if it didn’t fit the story.

But this post is supposed to emphasize what I liked about the movie, and what I especially liked were the moments when it stopped the chase scenes and the constant one-liners and asides, and used all its artistic mastery not to overwhelm, but to just tell a story.

The beginning is excellent, deliberately deviating from the format of the first movie’s manic introductions (with a self-referential first line setting up exactly that) to re-introduce characters and introduce one of the main themes of the movie: that these stories are about characters defined by tragedy. It worked wonderfully and was one of the highlights of the entire movie, combining art and music and melodrama and humor in a way that only this series has been able to pull off.

There’s a lengthy scene with Miles and his mother that had me in tears, just because it was such a fearlessly earnest (but not quite maudlin) description of how much a mother can love her son, and the inevitable sadness that comes from realizing that letting a child reach their full potential means losing a huge part of them.

But my favorite scene in the movie is one fairly late in the movie, when (mild spoiler) Gwen returns to her home and has an extended conversation with her father. The scene itself is well performed by the actors, although I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the one between Rio and Miles. But what makes it so remarkable is that every single aspect of the scene goes towards expressing all the emotion contained in the scene. The backgrounds gain and lose detail. The characters shift between more and less sketchy, full clarity to black shadow, as their moods change. The entire color palette of the scene changes with the characters’ emotional state.

It feels as experimental as the pinnacle of the most inventive Warner Bros shorts, but all in the context of a feature film, and all for a purpose.

I guess that it’s good that I didn’t like Across the Spider-Verse quite as much — and to be clear, it’s like the difference between a B+ and an A++ — because Into the Spider-Verse was almost too perfect in execution. Since these movies are so technically proficient and seemingly capable of absolutely anything, it’s nice to be reminded that there are real, talented, artists behind it all, trying to express something real and personal.

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    To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
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    And for two completely different story reasons!
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    The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

1d10 Things I Love About Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I wasn’t expecting Honor Among Thieves to become one of my all-time favorite action movies.

I rolled an 8.

1. It has tons of fun with the source material, but never makes fun of it.

I never got the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make Dungeons and Dragons accessible to a wider audience, or to translate it in a way that non-nerds could understand, or use just the trappings of D&D in a tangentially related fantasy movie. Honor Among Thieves seems to say “they saw D&D in the title, they knew what they were getting into,” and just commits to it entirely. Even Marvel didn’t get this right for several years, feeling instead like they had to “ground” comic books in something movie audiences could better appreciate.

There’s not even a hint of embarrassment about the game, or an attempt to bring the game to The Normals, that have plagued so much genre entertainment for as long as I’ve been alive.

2. Maybe the best possible role for Michelle Rodriguez.

Rodriguez always gets to play tough characters, because she’s really good at it, but she never seems to get the chance to be funny. This character is just great, and her performance is perfect — still delivering all of her lines with a combination of anger and annoyance, but also with a perfect understanding of why the context makes it hilarious.

3. It seemed to never take the easier or cheaper way out.

First, it’s fantastic that they used as many practical effects as they did. The CG creatures were almost universally great (especially the dragon), but there was one scene with a cat woman1A Tabaxi, according to the wiki and her kitten that made me say “AWWWWWW” loudly and unashamedly.

But even more than that, I was surprised over and over again when a character would start describing something in flashback, and we’d actually flash back to see it all played out. I thought for sure they’d choose to save the money and just have a character tell the story in the present, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t film every single scene. Even big battle scenes, or special-effect-heavy crowd scenes, or even quick 10-second gags.

4. It always knew what to take seriously and what to have fun with, and it was rarely what I expected.

Honor Among Thieves is relentlessly, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes with a line of dialogue but just as often with a perfectly executed visual gag. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it an action-comedy, since its actual story is just as earnest as you’d expect from a more traditional fantasy story, or a more straightforward and predictable action movie. Instead, it stays true to its story, its world, and its characters, and then finds every way it possibly can to make that fun.

As a result, an encounter with a dragon — which is supposed to be one of the most intimidating master-level adversaries in the game — ends up being completely charming, and a genuine threat that takes several moments of inspiration2Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms to get past.

5. It didn’t resort to corny fourth-wall-breaking references to the game, but it did often capture the feel of having to respond to random chance and unexpectedly bad luck.

The entire plot centers on heroes who have to respond to misfortune and find a clever way around it. It’s such a big part of the story that it’s the main character’s super-power. And as a result, you can see the characters have an unexpected bit of luck, followed by what must’ve been a critical failure. All of it presented organically as if it were a natural part of the story, instead of being called out as “this is the part of the movie where we show you what happens when you roll a 1.”

6. Even when I knew what was inevitably going to happen, it still worked perfectly in the moment.

Partly because it nailed that balance between earnest and flippant, but mostly because it was so frequently clever, I felt like the movie earned every single one of its “action movie moments.” Those moments when a magic item is foreshadowed early on, and you just know it’s going to become important during the climax. One of those was so cleverly executed that I never saw it coming. The other, I knew exactly what was going to happen from moment one, but seeing it play out was still completely satisfying. It was all executed so well that it didn’t seem predictable so much as inevitable.

7. Better than many “serious” fantasy movies I’ve seen at depicting what day-to-day life would be like in a world filled with magic.

I almost never like depictions of magic in movies or television, because it always comes across as too rigid in its rules and systems to still be magical, or so completely arbitrary in its rules that it becomes meaningless.

Dungeons and Dragons is one of the main reasons that we even think of magic as having rigid rules and systems in the first place, so I wasn’t expecting anything new here. I admit I did find myself frequently thinking, they’ve already used all their daily spell slots! but it passed quickly as I noticed the interesting ways the story depicted magic as utilitarian but still fantastic.

There’s a clever scene pretty early on that shows us the scale of what people in the Forgotten Realms would find fantastic or surprising, and what wouldn’t impress them at all. (“A five-year-old could do that!”) But even more importantly, the movie establishes that it doesn’t care about the wonder or spectacle of magic as much as the usefulness of it. The most spectacular thing isn’t casting a spell, but finding a clever use for it.

8. It had already won me over early on, so I could just enjoy it in the same way that I used to enjoy movies.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Honor Among Thieves, so I had a good feeling I was going to at least enjoy it. But by the end of the opening sequence, once we’d finally been introduced to Jarnathan, the movie had already won me over. All the hyper-critical parts of my brain happily shut up for a couple of hours and let me watch the movie the way I used to as a teenager.

In fact, every time the movie jumped into a new setting, or set up a new extended action sequence, I kept being reminded of how I felt being at the theater during the “golden age” of action movies when I was a teenager. Seeing things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Big Trouble in Little China and marveling at how they seemed to keep topping themselves. I thoroughly and completely enjoyed Honor Among Thieves in a way I haven’t enjoyed movies in a very long time.

  • 1
    A Tabaxi, according to the wiki
  • 2
    Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms