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.

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

One Thing I Like About Quantumania

Spoiler: It’s MODOFK.

Reading reviews about Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania gives me the impression that a lot of critics have negative reviews pre-written, much like celebrity obituaries. Ironically, they complain about the corporate-driven sameness and lack of imagination in every installment, in a way that’s so repetitious and over-familiar that I’m getting deja vu that I’ve made this exact same complaint in previous blog posts about MCU projects.

Somehow, they never seem to mention that it’s corporate-driven content that keeps them submitting reviews for movies that they’re predisposed to dislike. Imagine going back to a pre-Siskel & Ebert/Pauline Kael world, where critics only had to write about things if they had an interesting observation to make!

To be fair: Quantumania does have plenty of signs of Creeping Marvel Fatigue. It never reaches the level of “why exactly does this movie exist, again?” that Eternals did, but it does lapse into the feeling that it’s going through the motions. They’re grand, sweeping, extremely expensive motions, granted, but still.

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One Thing I Love About Disneyland’s New Fireworks Show

“Wondrous Journeys” is the exceedingly rare case of a “nighttime spectacular” that feels like more than just spectacle

Concept art used in this post is from the Disney Parks Blog.

I love fireworks, and I’ve been going to Disney parks for around 50 years, but I’ve still only seen two fireworks shows that I’d call perfect. One was the show for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, which used sound clips and songs from the various attractions to celebrate the history of the park itself.1The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.

The other was Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot, which used pyrotechnics to represent the dawn of creation and an LED-covered globe to tell an optimistic story about human civilization. From the pre-show music, to the opening narration blowing out the torches around the lake, to the spectacular conclusion, it’s still in my opinion the best show that Disney’s ever produced.

Almost all of the others I’ve seen have been fine but mostly forgettable. I get why people get misty-eyed over Wishes or Happily Ever After at the Magic Kingdom, but they’ve never made me “feel” anything. None of the songs or flames or projection effects really add anything to the experience; they feel more like they’re there only because they have to be. Disney can’t just launch off a bunch of fireworks and be done with it; people have paid money to see some real spectacle.

So I had low expectations for the new fireworks show that Disneyland has for the studio’s 100th anniversary. For starters, it’s called Wondrous Journeys, which I had to go look up right before writing this post, because it’s exactly the kind of forgettable Magical Word Soup that Disney insists on using to name things. It also starts out following the predictable pattern: introduction from a narrator talking about the importance of wishes or dreams or imagination; an inoffensive pop song done in whatever style is popular on Disney Radio at the moment; and then a series of songs from Disney TV and movies all grouped by theme, from the hero’s “I wish” moments, to the “scary” bit, to the end.

But by the end of it, I was in tears, and I felt like I’d actually seen something new from Disney entertainment, for the first time in over a decade.

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    The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.

1 Thing I Like About M3GAN

M3GAN is a PG-13 horror movie filmed entirely on location in the Uncanny Valley

There’s a scene mid-way through M3GAN where our protagonist has driven her troubled niece Cady to the first day of an alternative school. It seems necessary, since Cady has gotten overly attached to her robotic friend M3GAN, and she needs to socialize with other human children. The school’s teacher comes up to the car and cheerfully and kindly introduces herself to Cady, then asks if she’s come with her sister, at which point M3GAN turns to look at her, causing the teacher to involuntarily shout “JESUS CHRIST!”

That’s one of my favorite moments in this surprisingly good movie, because it perfectly captures the confidently silly and relentlessly sinister tone that makes the movie so much stronger than its premise would suggest.

Blumhouse and Universal have gone all-in on marketing the movie as a campy, creepy, successor to the “evil doll” subgenre of horror movie like Child’s Play and Annabelle. That’s a good call, since the promise of something silly and fun is what got me into the theater in the first place.1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch. But what makes M3GAN so unexpectedly clever is that it doesn’t settle for being a self-aware rehash of its too-familiar influences; nor a winking deconstruction; or even an undeservedly high-minded re-examination of them. Instead, it takes all of its familiar elements and uses them at face value, but combines and re-contextualizes them to make them just as uncanny and eerily not-quite-real as its villain.

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    There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch.

Four Things I Like About Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s horror series for Netflix are so thoughtful and ambitious that even the ones that don’t work for me are still fascinating. Spoilers for the entire series.

I seem to have a trend going where I’m always a year behind on the Mike Flanagan-led horror series for Netflix. I’ve kept it up for the third year in a row, using a miserable weekend being sick as an excuse to watch Midnight Mass, long after the buzz has already died down around it.

None of the series has worked for me as well as The Haunting of Hill House did, but I’d still consider myself a fan. They’re all so thoughtful and ambitious, clearly trying to do something new with the horror genre by giving them some weight and thematic significance, without losing the fun of monsters, ghosts, and jump scares. I love that they’re not quite an anthology series, but have that feel because of the same actors appearing over and over in significantly different roles.

And you can see why actors keep wanting to work with this team again, too. I don’t know anything about the actual production — although Flanagan and Kate Seigel do seem like genuinely cool people with a real love of horror stories and what can be done with them — but it’s evident that these series give actors plenty work with. Similar to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and spin-off projects, which give actors the chance to go completely over the top, Flanagan’s series give their actors weighty monologues where they can rhapsodize about the nature of what it means to be alive.

So Midnight Mass is smart, thoughtful, frequently moving, full of some really strong performances, indelible imagery, perfectly understated visual effects, and a few genuinely scary moments. It’s also meandering and overlong; I think calling it “a slow burn” is a little too charitable, and it would’ve benefited from having two or three fewer episodes. It’s full of monologues that undermine any sense of urgency in the story; a character will drop a bombshell of information that needs to be acted on immediately, only for the other character to start going on a lengthy tangent about germ theory or 9/11 or a story from their childhood. (“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”) It peaks about mid-way through, then kind of fizzles out through its ending. It’s all very well done, and it takes a while to realize what a big swing it’s making with its ambition, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

It’s too dense to pick just one thing I like about it, so here are four:

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One Thing I Love About the She-Hulk Finale

She-Hulk literally delivers its mission statement directly to the camera, but still manages to leave all of its implications for the audience to figure out. Lots of spoilers for the series.

Here’s an example of how blatantly obvious you have to be about something before everyone will get it: the entire time Jennifer Walters spent addressing the mysterious KEVIN in the finale episode, I kept thinking that it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t put a baseball hat on top of him. In fact, KEVIN was clearly, blatantly, designed to look like he was wearing a baseball hat, and this is shown on-screen for long stretches of time, but I completely missed it.1I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.

I mention that as a disclaimer that all of the things I think are subtle about She-Hulk are probably not subtle at all. But really, that’s the thing that’s impressed me the most about the series as a whole: it hasn’t ever been subtle about telling the audience exactly what it’s about, but all of the gags and guest appearances and stunt casting and lamp-shading in-jokes haven’t been just a layer of frivolous comedy, skipping along the top to keep it from being too strident or too serious. Instead, they’ve been like a stage magician throwing out one misdirection after another, leaving it until the big finish to show that they’ve been one step ahead the entire time.

The final episode spins last week’s downer of an ending into an over-the-top barrage of self-aware parodies and silly gags. I think it would’ve been completely successful even if it had just stayed on that level, defiantly asserting itself as a light-hearted comedy series proudly existing in the middle of a superhero action-movie juggernaut. When you’re part of a franchise that makes literally billions of dollars, mostly by iterating on a template that’s known to be successful, it’s bold to be able to say, “Nah, we just want to be goofy.”

I admit that while I’ve been enjoying the series a lot — even the episodes that seemed the most frivolous and least “necessary” — it’s been bugging me how often Jennifer Walters seemed to be getting sidelined in her own series. They even had her acknowledge that early on in a fourth-wall break about the audience wanting to see more of Wong, but at the time I just assumed that was a semi-apologetic bit of self-awareness. “We’re going to keep doing this, but we want you to at least know that we’re aware that it’s at the expense of the main character’s story.” The introduction of Titania as an archenemy seemed to be a huge anti-climax and a waste of a hugely charismatic actress. Side characters like Madisynn came in and seemed to steal all the attention away from the lead character. It felt like the series was swimming against the current of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still managing to be silly and fun, but with all of its franchise obligations keeping it from being as solid as it could’ve been.

The finale says not just that they’re aware of it, but that it was the point all along. Jen’s dream of a gender-swapped version of The Incredible Hulk‘s credit sequence works fine as just a gag parody, and it also works within the fiction: the injustice of her being perceived as a savage monster just for responding in anger to criminal levels of abuse. But it also fits into the theme of the episode and the series as a whole, repeating the question that Jen has been asking outright all along: why can’t she have an identity of her own outside of just being a lady version of a male character?2I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

By the end of the show, she’s not just re-writing her finale, but re-defining her whole character. She says outright that the finale was taking things in a weird direction, when it should’ve been about her being able to finally reconcile both of her identities. And that idea is plenty strong enough for a “legal comedy” (if that’s what you prefer to call it). But the finale also draws attention to how it’s spent the last nine episodes reconciling a character that’s been almost entirely defined by men, to one that can actually exist as a voice for women. Even the well-intentioned attempts to redefine or re-invent She-Hulk over the years have still resulted in her being an almost cartoonishly literal representation of “female empowerment.” This series says that instead of giving yet another version of the character that’s defined by how she reacts to sexism and anti-feminism, and how she reacts to the standard superhero cliches, why not just let her define herself?

The finale emphasizes that the audience has been focused on the wrong things all along. Instead of thinking of it as a superhero origin story that uses stolen blood and fight scenes as metaphors for a personal struggle, we should’ve recognized that all the “A plots” were just MCU connective tissue, vehicles for the real story about a woman who stops letting herself be defined by other people. It still works well as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be a superhero, but I think it’s more interesting as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be herself.

You can go back through the episodes and see how the stuff that might’ve seemed like meandering side-plots, or throwaway gags, or plot-lines that ended up fizzling out into disappointing anti-climaxes, were never the point in the first place. The first episode is about how women are taught that their anger and power are something they need to be ashamed of and keep under tight control. The second is about people trying to take advantage of her superhero status and exploit it for their own gain. Throughout, she’s trying to deal with the men who only want her as She-Hulk instead of Jen, before eventually being reminded that the problem is letting men define her self-worth. (I was especially happy that we never saw Josh in the finale; the victory wasn’t seeing him get his comeuppance, but in Jen’s finally realizing that he never actually mattered). Titania is set up to be her super-powered arch-nemesis, but instead ends up being an illustration of how powerful women are so frequently set up just to fight each other. And it might be a stretch, but I like the idea that Madisynn exists as an example of a big sloppy mess of a person who can enjoy herself without caring what anybody else thinks.

For a while it seemed like the series was in a weird position, where they were obligated to include fight scenes, even though the fight scenes didn’t fit thematically and were doomed to be anti-climactic when the main character is invulnerable. So I really liked that they gave Jen an obligatory “hallway fight” in which she’s fighting not against the incel bad guys, but against Marvel’s super secret strike force. The show confidently insists that the fights don’t matter, and the franchise tie-ins don’t matter, and then finds a way to include both, all on its own terms.

Since WandaVision was the first MCU TV series, Marvel’s already shown that they’re perfectly willing to indulge in some meta-storytelling. But I’d been assuming that She-Hulk‘s version was just meant to stay true to the comics and to keep the series feeling light and silly. There’s always a risk when you try to be too self-aware and break the fourth wall, that you’re dooming yourself to shallowness: if you’re coming right out and telling the audience what you’re doing, then you’re not leaving them with anything to interpret for themselves. So I’m really impressed that She-Hulk manages to have it both ways: keeping it fun and self-aware while also filling the series with valid-albeit-shallow “grrl power” messaging; but then also defying the template enough to invite you to go back and re-contextualize what the show’s been saying this whole time. This mediocre white man gives it a big thumbs up.

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    I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.
  • 2
    I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

One Thing I Like About Werewolf By Night

Werewolf By Night wasn’t quite as bold as I’d been hoping for, but it pushed the limits of what you can do within the MCU

When I saw the trailer for Werewolf by Night, I thought that Marvel had finally abandoned the notion of making multi-billion dollar global entertainment product, and had become a boutique art house making stuff personally tailored just for me. It felt as personalized as a custom-recorded birthday card.

Since I consider myself one of the internet’s leading evangelists for The Beast Must Die!, I was getting hit with every single one of the right vibes. My only trepidation was that the trailer seemed to be pushing it directly into Universal Monsters territory, instead of making it a 1970s period piece.1Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids. I was holding out hope, though, since the CBS Special Presentation-inspired opening, along with the narration, freeze frames, quick cuts, and fake film effects, all suggested that the movie might be kind of a mashup between 1930s-40s Universal and 1970s Castle Horror.

As it turned out, I was thinking too small. Werewolf by Night was stylistically better than either of those options, since it went for a mash-up of a bunch of different styles, instead of just a pastiche of a single one. There are stun batons, gramophones, and magic amulets, gothic architecture coexisting with art deco and brutalism. It ends up feeling timeless, as if it’s able to draw from a century of genre fiction instead of trying to emulate just one specific period.

It’s become popular to criticize the MCU for its feeling of same-ness — a criticism it often deserves, as genuinely novel concepts so frequently devolve into people flying around punching or shooting lasers at each other. So the current phase of the movies and series have impressed me by how much they’re willing to draw from Marvel’s scattershot library. Is it just super-heroes, or is it a horror story, or sci-fi, or fantasy, or legal sit-coms? The answer is yes.

Werewolf by Night often feels like it’s pushing at the boundaries of the MCU, trying to see how much it can get away with while still fitting into the universe. Unlike a lot of the other MCU entries, it’s most interesting not when it’s showing us a new interpretation of the familiar, but when it’s adding a flourish that’s completely new.2Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards. The main character Jack transformed completely from a WASP-y, long-sideburned teen into a Mexican man with face paint to honor his heritage. A wind-up, talking corpse. A somber man playing a flaming tuba, for some reason.

So I was a bit disappointed to see it just turn into a bunch of fight scenes, and to see that after all the build-up to the appearance of the title character as being the most fearsome monster of them all, he ended up being only like the fourth most brutal and scary character in this movie alone. But that build-up had so much pure style that I’ll gladly give it a pass.

One thing I like in particular about Werewolf by Night is how brazen it was about simulating old-school filmmaking techniques with all of the tools that a MCU-budgeted film in 2022 has available. It does lay on the affectations so thick that it sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — film grain, rough cuts, reel change markers, overall the kind of stuff you might expect to see in an After Effects tutorial. But I think it all balances out to a feeling of near-campy enthusiasm. Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s never been less than awesome in anything I’ve ever seen, goes gleefully over the top throughout, so it sometimes seems like the direction is just trying to keep up to her energy.

And it results in a couple of really neat flourishes. The red of the bloodstone every time it’s shown, with the added bonuses of colored lens flares in a black and white movie. But my favorite is in a sequence where the werewolf is ravaging some generic bad guys in a hallway. The action is all in silhouette against a blinding white doorway that’s slowly closing, with the only other light being the occasional flashes of stun batons. It doesn’t show any of the monster or the violence close-up — seemingly a stylistic choice to preserve the mystery instead of a technical limitation, since they don’t hesitate to show Ted in extreme detail. As the carnage goes on, blood is splashed against the camera lens, obscuring more and more of the view. By the time it’s over, you can only imagine what happened.

Was it a visual effect, or a practical one? I don’t actually know, and that’s what I like about it. I’m so used to CGI being omnipresent in these projects that I tend to assume everything is done in post-production, and I’ve gotten harder and harder to impress. However it was done, it was done with so much style and thought to its purpose instead of simply its spectacle, that I stopped caring about how it was done. Instead of zoning out during the fight scenes, like I typically do, I appreciated the point of the scene: to suggest a new monster that was so fearsome, they weren’t even allowed to show it to us.

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    Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids.
  • 2
    Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards.

One Thing I Like About Barbarian

Barbarian doesn’t just mock “Don’t open that door!” moments in horror movies, but explains why you would open that door. (No significant spoilers)

The whole point of my choosing “One Thing I Like” was to keep myself focused instead of spending hours rambling about something I enjoyed, and also to avoid reducing an entire work of art to the one thing that I think it “means.” But it’s backfired, somewhat, since now I tend to go into every movie or video game looking for the one thing I’ll choose to call out.

With Barbarian, I even went in with an idea of what it was going to be. I’m almost completely unfamiliar with Whitest Kids You Know, but I did know enough that the writer and director of Barbarian had experience with comedy. I went into that looking for signs of how horror and comedy so often overlap, and how many of my favorite (or at least most memorable) horror movies were made by filmmakers who also had a good feel for comedy. There’s a lot of overlap: both require you to be completely aware of the audience’s expectations and how to subvert them.

There is a lot of that going on in Barbarian, but I don’t think the comedy angle is the most interesting part of it, at all. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that I didn’t find it that funny — not in the same way that Malignant and Orphan: First Kill are darkly funny, for instance — but more satirical. That does keep it from being the type of fun, over-the-top horror movie that I’d expected based on what I’d been hearing, but it does make it a stronger movie overall. There’s a bit of weight to it.

What turned out to be the One Thing I Like about Barbarian is how it’s aware of all the expectations and assumptions of horror movies, and it subverts them not just to be clever or surprising, but to make a point.

Barbarian has a long list of horror movie elements that it sets up and then either inverts or expands on. I won’t say more than that, because even comparing them to “classic” horror movies would give too much away. But they’re so familiar at this point, an entire additional list of elements has evolved to counter-act them: the assumption that you can’t give the protagonist a cell phone or a car, for instance, without ruining the whole premise. Barbarian runs through almost all of them, to the point of often feeling like an exercise in setting up expectations and then knocking them down.

So there are several classic horror movie moments, where the audience is screaming at the protagonist “don’t open that door!” or “don’t go into the basement!” only for the protagonist to go ahead and do it anyway. What makes Barbarian so interesting is that it doesn’t just draw attention to them, like Scream, or come up with a self-aware justification, like Cabin in the Woods.

Instead, it introduces a character who does all the right things for a horror movie protagonist, but it still goes horribly wrong. And it gives us a protagonist who does open that door, and does go into the basement, not just because the plot demands it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

One Thing I Like About Confess, Fletch

A re-vitalization of Gregory MacDonald’s 1976 novel that somehow feels timeless

Confess, Fletch came out in 2022 (with seemingly no promotion from the studio), but one thing I like about it is that it feels timeless. It feels like it could’ve been released any time in the past 40+ years since the novel was released.

That’s kind of an absurd claim to make, since it’s by no means a period piece. It’s firmly set in the present. The very first (and last) line of dialogue sets it within the past 10 years, and Fletch spends most of the movie catching Lyft rides.1IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber. And that’s before the movie explicitly references the pandemic, or Oxycontin addiction.

But I might be biased or overly nostalgic, based on the movie’s poster — and come on, that is a great poster — and my love of the first Fletch movie. Back in high school, I thought it was just fantastic, and I loved it enough that it led to a minor obsession with all of the Fletch and Flynn novels by Gregory Mcdonald.

The movie hasn’t aged very well, and I’m not sure how much of that was due to the huge disappointment that was Fletch Lives. If there’s anything good to be said about that movie, at least the tone-deaf Song of the South parody distracted from the first movie’s rampant, casual sexual harassment. When I was a teenager, I thought “Why don’t we go in there and lie down, and I’ll fill you in?” was the absolute ultimate in witty double entendre, which probably says a lot about the level of maturity the movie was aimed at. It’s still funny enough to be a classic, but it says a lot that the fantastic Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack, which dates it squarely in the early-to-mid-1980s, might be one of the least dated things about it in 2022. It also didn’t try too hard to be a faithful adaptation of the novel, since it was pretty clear it was just a vehicle for Chevy Chase to do comedy bits while the people around him acted annoyed or confused.

That’s one of the remarkable things about Confess, Fletch: it’s not just closer to the books2Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them, it gives pretty much everyone in the cast the chance to be funny. Hamm plays Fletch less like a charming asshole and more like an exasperatingly charming screw-up who somehow proves to be competent in the end. He’s very funny3I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else., but it’s less like he’s always doing a bit than that he exists in a world where everyone is kind of weird and goofy. Annie Mumolo has a fantastic scene in which she’s basically giving a huge exposition dump of clues to the mystery, none of which you can pay attention to because of the chaos around her. And Marcia Gay Harden goes over-the-top with a character that absolutely shouldn’t work, but she somehow pulls it off.

Also, it’s got to be said: this is the perfect role for Jon Hamm, both because he clearly enjoys doing comedy, and because he’s one of the only actors who could make this character believable. It’s hard to believe that any real person could be as annoying as IM Fletcher and get away with it so often, unless he looked like Jon Hamm.

My only real complaint about the movie is that the mystery itself isn’t very satisfying. Honestly, although I’m pretty sure I read all the books, I can’t remember the plots of any of them except the first, but that’s kind of understandable since I read them so long ago. But I couldn’t really recount the actual murder in Confess, Fletch even though I just finished watching the movie about an hour ago. I can’t remember if it’s any stronger in the book. The only details I can remember about the books are that Fletch spends a lot of time in his car waiting for something to happen, and that Mcdonald seemed to include a lot of passages describing how Fletch found makeshift ways to shave4But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty..

The main thing I loved about the books was that they all shared a similar plot device. At first I was reluctant to spoil it here, but one of the most remarkable things was that even when I knew it was going to happen, I could never predict exactly how it was going to play out. The books all had two seemingly separate mysteries that turned out to be connected by the end. And Fletch would seem to spend the entire story stumbling through the mysteries, reacting to people getting angry with him or wanting to kill him, until it was clear that he had a better handle on what was going on than he’d let on to anyone, including the reader. There’s some sense of that at the end of the movie version of Confess, Fletch, as you see various different plot lines getting satisfyingly tied up in one montage sequence.

So I guess what makes the movie feel timeless to me is my nostalgia for the books. It’s a cliche to say “they don’t make movies like this anymore!” but it’s pretty accurate in this case: it feels a bit like Knives Out, with a bunch of great performances in a somewhat old-fashioned murder mystery that succeeds on charm and cleverness more than anything else.

I don’t know why Confess, Fletch hasn’t been promoted at all — I probably wouldn’t even have heard about it if not for a tweet from Patton Oswalt — and am guessing it might have something to do with the shake-up at Miramax? In any case, I’m hoping that it can turn into something of a surprise hit, because it was hugely entertaining, and there are still nine other novels out there waiting to get adaptations as good as this one.

  • 1
    IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber.
  • 2
    Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them
  • 3
    I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else.
  • 4
    But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty.

One Thing I Like About She-Hulk: Attorney At Law

Watch me take a few hundred words to say “Tatiana Maslany”

Some people online tried to turn it into A Big Thing when Mark Ruffalo compared the MCU to Star Wars, saying that the MCU lets different projects have different voices, while with Star Wars you’re always getting the same thing. I was happy to see that it failed to drum up that much publicity, since it’s a pretty uncontroversial observation: Star Wars is mostly tonally consistent, while the MCU tends to be more experimental with styles and genres.1That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things. 2Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That’s most evident with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. There have been two episodes so far, and the first episode had a training montage, a little bit of comical fighting, and then a climax with exactly one punch. The second had no action scenes. I was impressed that Marvel was unapologetic about making Hawkeye an action-comedy, but She-Hulk seems to have taken that even farther. They’ve gone all-in on being a comedy series.

There are dozens of ways that could’ve gone wrong3And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.. I’ve tried reading John Byrne’s She-Hulk comics, but I always bounce off of them, because they’re in a voice that sounds like John Byrne, not like Jennifer Walters. It’s a kind of comedy that’s pretty common in comic books and video games, where it’s written for an extremely specific audience of comic book readers or video game players. (And to be clear, I have 100% been guilty of writing like that!) And the MCU is usually more successful when they try to be wry or clever than outright funny; their attempts at comedy have been inconsistent at best.

But what has been consistent in the MCU is fantastic casting, and that’s most evident in the She-Hulk series. Tatiana Maslany so completely and thoroughly understands the assignment that she manages to make even the clunkiest dialogue4I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to. at least a little charming. This material could very easily have come across as too broad or too try-hard, but she approaches every single scene not as if she were an actor doing comedy in a Marvel series, but as Jennifer Walters. She’s a character that doesn’t take much of what’s going on in that world all that seriously, but still exists completely and totally in that world.

Even when she’s breaking the fourth wall, which is kind of a requirement for She-Hulk at this point, but could have been insufferable if any other actor tried it. It feels like the tone of the show is deliberately broad, but she still manages to seamlessly go in and out of a scene, even ones that seem to be begging for her to mug and wink at the camera.

My favorite example so far: in the second episode, there’s a phone conversation between her and and her cousin, where she’s trying to explain why she’s taking the case of a man who tried to kill him, way back at the start of the MCU.5I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue? Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner explains that it’s fine, he doesn’t hold any grudges against the guy, and “that was so long ago, I’m a different person. Literally.”

It’s a pretty solid gag, a pretty funny bit of self-awareness aimed at people who’ve been following the MCU on a casual level.6The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened. The scene cuts back to Maslany, who says “Ha!” at the camera before sailing right back into her conversation. And I think she just nailed the delivery: acknowledge it’s a B+/A- gag, and then move on.

It’s not all broad comedy and winking in-jokes. I liked that they cast Cousin Larry as her dad, and he lives completely within a family sitcom, while Steve Coulter as her boss gets a few of the funniest lines delivered completely straight and sour-faced7“I truly do not care who your paralegal is”. And Josh Segarra as “Pug” struck me as instantly hilarious, even though I can’t explain why beyond the fact that every single line delivery sounded like an unnecessarily weird and 100% correct choice. Maslany’s got to play against all of that, matching everybody’s energy to make all these weird shifts in tone flow together, while still nailing her own delivery.

To be honest, when I heard they were casting her as She-Hulk, I thought it sounded like a bit of over-kill. You don’t really need an actor that good to be in what appears to be a light and goofy comedy series. Now after seeing a couple of episodes, I’m realizing I was wrong. Having an actor that good is the key to making it work at all.

  • 1
    That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things.
  • 2
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  • 3
    And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.
  • 4
    I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to.
  • 5
    I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue?
  • 6
    The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened.
  • 7
    “I truly do not care who your paralegal is”

One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill

This prequel to a 13-year-old movie has no right to be as much fun as it is. (Spoilers for both Orphan movies in the second half)

A few days ago, there was a flurry of buzz about Orphan: First Kill on social media, and I was dead convinced that it had to be some kind of viral marketing campaign. I had a hard time believing that many people even watched the movie, much less were excited about it.

But I was still hooked on the potential enough to watch it with minimal investment while I was doing other stuff. (The prequel and the original are both streaming on Paramount Plus). And I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.

I had never seen the first movie. The poster was all over the place for a while, and the premise seemed pretty straightforward: evil little girl going around killin’ folks. It seemed to just blend into all of the other Blumhouse-style horror movies that were all over the place in the late 2000s, and I wasn’t particularly interested. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, said, “Huh,” and then forgot all about it.

The prequel starts out feeling like it’s going to be more of the same thing, this time with the premise of the “franchise” already spoiled, making you wonder what’s the point of a repeat. But before too long, it starts pulling in some older-style horror movie twists, suggesting that yes, they’re well aware of what the audience is expecting.

Then, just as it seems to be settling back into its formula, it pulls out the One Thing I Like, transforming into what’s practically a different movie. Unfortunately, it’s also the One Thing I Can’t Say Anything About Without Ruining It, so I’ve got to put the rest behind a spoiler break.

I will say that I really enjoyed it, and definitely consider it worth watching, even if you haven’t seen the original, but you know the original’s “twist.” No, I don’t think I could call it an intricately-crafted masterwork, since I don’t even think I’d claim that it all makes sense. But I thought it was a lot of fun. Anything beyond that is a spoiler, and it’s absolutely worth going in unspoiled!

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill”

One Thing I Like About Last Night in Soho

An over-saturated experiment in style that was much more entertaining than I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting to like Last Night in Soho as much as I did. Before its release, it seemed to be getting a ton of buzz and promotion, and then it just kind of disappeared. I assumed that must mean the movie was a disappointment.

And I can understand people being disappointed, if they were watching it as the type of mystery/thriller that could work on the strength of its screenplay alone, no matter who was directing it. I went in expecting it to be a case of “style over substance,” and I ended up enjoying it a lot, for exactly that reason.

It doesn’t have the energy, inventiveness, or reckless abandon as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (by far my favorite Edgar Wright movie, and one of my favorite movies overall), but it is recognizable as coming from the same place: a filmmaker with an unabashed love of music and movies and a desire to share and celebrate all the stuff that inspires him.

I’m not quite as big a fan of Wright’s work as My Demographic would suggest — I liked but didn’t love “The Cornetto Trilogy”, and Spaced remains baffling, since on paper it seems like it should’ve been my favorite series ever, but I bounced right off of it. But one thing that’s common to all of them that I’ve seen1I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver is that they feel unapologetically like fan letters.

In Last Night in Soho, the objects of affection are 1960s London and giallo movies. But even more than Suspiria — which I think is the only “genuine” giallo movie I’ve seen — it reminded me of Malignant, which came out around the same time and feels like a “companion piece,” in case you’re planning a double feature2And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.. They’re not even in quite the same genre, since Soho is much more a mystery/thriller, of the kind they used to make in the late 1980s with titles like Lethal Obsession or Consequences of Passion, than a full-on horror movie. But they are both examples of filmmakers who earned the luxury of making a movie mostly for themselves, broadcasting their inspirations right out in the open with little attempt to hide them, and giving the entire project their personal voice.

And they both require the audience to just go with it. Last Night in Soho is a lot more subtle in telling you that it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, even though it starts dropping hints in its first scene with suggestions of the paranormal. (Malignant starts out with a hilariously gothic castle in Seattle (?) and an over-the-top medical procedure, cluing you in from the start that things are going to be wacky). But everything in Soho is dialed up just a little too high — Ellie is a bit too into the 60s, the cab driver is a bit too leering, Jocasta is just too relentlessly an intolerable C-word, Terrence Stamp’s old man absurdly too sinister, Diana Rigg’s landlord too curmudgeonly and old-fashioned to be taken as anything other than a stock character.3How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?

It gets more overt in the first dream sequence, which feels like the sequence that the entire movie was built around4And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.. The entire room is saturated with red or blue light, which lets you know that the filmmakers have seen Suspiria, and the blinking is in time to the song playing on a record player, which lets you know it’s an Edgar Wright movie. What follows is a gloriously romanticized version of 1960s London, presented by someone who clearly believed the lights, fashion, music, cars, and just style of that period was both impossibly magical and also a little sinister.

The highlight is a meticulously-choreographed spectacle of mirror effects, character introductions, banter, dancing, actors switching positions, and tons of directorial flourishes. It’d be easy to point to it as the prime example of style over substance, but of course it’s not; it’s the “mission statement” of the entire movie. It lets the audience feel why Sandie was so optimistic and enchanted with London, why Ellie became so obsessed with her, and why Wright was so taken with all of it that he wanted to make this movie in the first place.

But while it’s my favorite sequence, it’s not what I thought made the whole movie distinctive. That’s in the rest of the movie, the sequences that don’t work as well, but show (what I assume are) Wright’s interests throughout: music, pubs, being a young person in London, and yes, hordes of the reanimated dead. I can understand the complaint that none of it feels “real,” that a lot of the third act is repetitious, or that the movie feels like a pastiche of its inspirations instead of an attempt to build on or reinvent them. But to me, it all felt like it came from a genuine love of those inspirations and an earnest desire to share that enthusiasm with the audience.

  • 1
    I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver
  • 2
    And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.
  • 3
    How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?
  • 4
    And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.