Come Play

Come Play

By: Kevin Jordan

There’s an app for everything.

Parenting during the pandemic has been quite a challenge. All of the things that are important for children – attending school, being around other kids their age, spreading their time across multiple activities, not being around parents 24/7 – have been completely disrupted. Among those things is limiting screen-time, an issue that has become as divisive as video-games-causing-real-life-violence (of which multiple studies show no causal links). There are plenty of books and research studies looking into the effects of screen-time on children, but now we have a film – Come Play – literally trying to scare the screen-time out of us.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – For the movie, not the books and studies.)

Unlike most horror films, Come Play gets straight to the plot within thirty seconds of the film beginning – a monster is living in young Oliver’s (Azhy Robertson) phone. This is revealed to us by the camera zooming in on Oliver’s phone, then switching to a view of Oliver from behind the phone screen. It is a clever technique, as it puts us into the eyes of the monster for a moment (we can also hear the monster breathing). The monster then adds his own app to Oliver’s phone, a story book called Misunderstood Monsters, which appears front and center and cannot be closed unless the monster allows it. In order to escape the phone, Oliver must read the book to its end. How do I know this? It says so in the book because this movie is not subtle.

The other thing we learn right away is that Oliver is autistic. This is only important to the plot (and the monster) in that Oliver is mute and uses the phone to literally talk to people (with an app). Oliver’s autism doesn’t make him more attuned to the monster or the monster more attracted to Oliver. In more than one scene, the monster jumps to Oliver’s dad’s (John Gallagher Jr.) phone and terrorizes him for a while. On top of that, Oliver’s actions are wildly inconsistent. In some scenes, Oliver is terrified of the monster and in other scenes, Oliver is playfully curious about the monster. I know next to nothing about the full range of autism behaviors and characteristics, but it seems like whenever the writers needed the characters to do horror movie cliches – like investigating a flickering light as they are literally rushing to get out of the house – they used autism as the reason for it.

The film also goes out its way to convince us that Oliver’s parents are morons. Early in the film, some bullies throw Oliver’s phone into an overgrown field and Oliver is unable to find it. He tells his mom (Gillian Jacobs) his phone is lost in a field (where she found him frantically searching for it), but all she can do is fret about how expensive phones are and gives it up for lost. Hey idiot! Call it. It will make noises and light up, making it really easy to find. For something so vital to Oliver and his parents, plus they seem to be short on cash, they sure aren’t in any hurry to find the several-hundred-dollar device that is its own tracking mechanism.

On the positive side, the movie is legitimately creepy. Not the phone part, that’s absurd, but the monster is one of the scarier looking movie monsters I’ve seen in a long time. And his name is Larry. Fuck that. What is more terrifying than a nightmarish creature with a normal name? Nothing.

The movie hits its groove when Oliver’s mom organizes a sleepover for Oliver. As the kids are trying to go to sleep, Oliver is humming and staring at a closet he threw his iPad (stolen from lost and found by Oliver’s dad, shortly before abandoning Oliver and Sarah, Oliver’s mom) into. This was one of those times when Oliver was terrified of Larry. Anyway, the other kids find the iPad and Larry’s app is cued up for them. One of the kids starts reading and gets further into the story than Oliver had previously. Light bulbs start popping and the kids start screaming. Oliver uses the iPad to find Larry and the kids scream even louder. Somehow, this does not alert Sarah, giving Larry a chance to try to snatch one of the kids. Larry fails, but this sets the rest of the movie on a proper scary movie course and, really, just in time since the movie was kind of annoying prior to this scene.

It also leads to the explanation for Larry’s existence, the moral of the story, and more horror movie cliches. I do not want to spoil the whole movie for you, but the question of “why Oliver?” is never answered and becomes even more muddled when Larry’s book tells us how Larry came to be. Plus, eventually, Larry just starts paging through the book himself, which pretty much negates the rules of his book. And, if that counts as reading it, could they have defeated Larry by just shutting their eyes? Also, if reading the book is how Larry gets out (of another dimension, we’re told), why is he able to affect Oliver’s world while he is still in his dimension? Rules? There are no rules here.

Having said all that, I really did enjoy the movie. Truly creepy monster movies are few and far between and it is even tougher to be scared by a movie right now given how horrifying real life has been in the year 2020. Like most monster flicks, there are some glaring holes and contradictions, but Larry makes them forgivable (well, maybe not the final scene – that was just bullshit in every way possible). Maybe the most important thing to forgive is that the movie is essentially calling all screens evil. I won’t advocate a screen being a babysitter, but parental sanity is just as important to a kid’s growth. Where’s the app for that?

Rating: Ask for a dollar back and try to get some sleep. Larry says you are on your phone too much.

Underwater

Underwater

By: Kevin Jordan

Seven miles shallow.

As I crawl out from underneath a mountain of award-hopeful movies, a look forward at upcoming releases in January reminds me that twenty-five indie/documentary/foreign films in a row isn’t as long as it seems. Bad Boys 3? Gretel & Hansel? Like a Boss? Dolittle? DOLITTLE? Why is Dolittle, a $175 million movie starring Robert Downey and Tom Holland opening in mid-January? What is wrong with it? Then again, after forcing myself to sit through the nearly-unwatchable and completely unbearable Uncut Gems, I needed a good January train wreck to cleanse the palate. Or, an underwater drilling station wreck, in the case of Underwater.

(Side note: Adam Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems is easily the most overrated performance of 2019. Kevin Garnett gave a better performance in the film than did Sandler. Yes, Kevin Garnett, the recently retired basketball player.)

Underwater is two things. It is wall-to-wall action and suspense. And it is completely devoid of coherence. Come to think of it, those two things might also make it John Wick. The difference is that John Wick at least spent a few minutes introducing and establishing characters. Underwater is not concerned whether you care about the characters or understand them as people. Underwater is relying entirely on the fact that you are a human and its characters are human, so you will not root for fellow humans to die. Clearly, this movie has never met most humans.

(SPOILER ALERT. Happy New Year.)

Norah (Kristen Stewart) is a human person working in a drilling station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (roughly seven miles deep in the ocean). She may or may not have a soft-spot for daddy-longlegs and may or may not prefer hanging out in the locker room in her underwear. She is also narrating to us that spending months at the bottom of the ocean can make a person go insane, so all of this may or may not be actually happening. The one thing I know for sure is we will never find out because all hell breaks loose ninety seconds into the film.

I haven’t even had a chance to put my shirt on yet.

I am not exaggerating about how quickly the film jumps into putting its characters into mortal danger. The movie begins with opening credits superimposed over a bunch of newspaper articles, ala Godzilla (2014), talking about drilling and the drilling company denying rumors of mysterious creatures of the deep. After the opening credits complete, the camera pans around to show us three hallways, followed by Norah wondering aloud what a daddy-longlegs is doing down there with them. Then, the drilling station suffers a catastrophe. That is ninety-nine percent of the exposition, character development, and world building contained in this film. The remainder of the film is the entire cast of six people trying to survive after deciding they need to walk some distance across the ocean floor to the drilling platform because the station is going to explode in thirty minutes and the only remaining escape pods are at the platform. Got that? Oh, one more thing – there are aliens or something. Exposition is overrated.

It is tempting to compare this movie to The Abyss or Sphere or Aliens. The opening newspaper shots leave the viewer with no doubt that the catastrophe is the fault of aliens or hollow-Earth creatures released by the drilling or Cloverfield, so we know they are going to confront the things at some point, just like those other movies. The problem with Underwater is it takes all of the tense parts from those movies and none of the setup parts. Underwater is just one long clenched hyperventilation, occasionally interrupted by a gruesome death. All of those other movies take the time to establish the characters, the geography, and the threat prior to shit hitting the fan, which is what makes them so engaging. Underwater ain’t got time for that shit.

Who are you again?

Like in most bad action/horror movies, the characters in this movie are barely a single attribute. Underwater features the Captain (Vincent Cassel), the mechanical engineer (Stewart), joke guy (TJ Miller), the attractive female intern (Jessica Henwick), the guy with the hots for the intern (John Gallagher Jr.), and the token black guy who bites the dust first (Mamoudou Athie). I guess that racist trope is still being used and, just to add insult to injury, the daddy-longlegs had roughly as much screen time as Athie (both of which, and I am not making this up, had less screen time than a stuffed bunny). To be fair, Athie’s death was on screen and bloody, while the spider’s was offscreen and unremarkable, so take that, arachnids. But, I digress.

The point is that if and when any of the characters die, the audience does not care, instead, only reacting at the shock-value of the method of death. This same indifference can also be seen in the world-building and individual scenes as well. After the initial disaster, I was looking forward to exploring the station with the characters as they made their way through the wreckage. Instead, they leave the station, spending much of the film in near darkness, leaving the viewer with little to see beyond the inside of the characters’ helmets and the occasional glimpse of strewn wreckage. Then, there are the scenes that appear to be missing parts of themselves. The characters will venture into a tunnel or cave or shaft, work their way about halfway through with more obstacles ahead, then suddenly appear on the proverbial other side of the tunnel. While the film does a decent job of building suspense at multiple points throughout, it simply drops many of them right on the floor with those jarring leaps forward. It’s like the film is a kid reading a scary book and just jumping ahead several pages to avoid peeing itself.

I feel something running down my leg.

And definitely don’t think about the many inconsistencies and open-ended thoughts the film doesn’t bother dealing with. I did. When forming their initial escape plan, one of them suggests going to a nearby station (as opposed to the much further away one that becomes their destination) only to have the captain say it is gone. Yet, later, Norah will stumble upon that very station, which she is able to power up with the flick of a switch. At one point, they manage to capture one of the creatures (a small one), noting that it has no eyes. Later in the film, we literally see the glowing eyes of dozens of the creatures. Speaking of which, what about all those newspaper articles talking about rumored monsters? You would think the six humans would have, at the very least, also heard the rumors (ostensibly which would have come from fellow crew members), yet they are completely taken by surprise upon discovering the monsters. And remember how the film begins with Norah talking to herself about going crazy after being underwater for months? Neither did the writers, director, producers, or actors.

While Underwater is a shoddily put-together film, it at least delivers a bunch of suspense and some solid jump scares. If that is all you are looking for in a movie, especially one in January, Underwater has you covered. If not, you will notice that you do not care about the romance between intern girl and that one guy, that Miller’s jokes would land much better if this movie hadn’t ratcheted up the tension to one thousand right out of the gates, or that the director thought he could convince the audience Norah was a Ripley analog by having Stewart running around in her panties for half the film. Still, given the choice between rewatching Underwater or rewatching Uncut Gems, I would take Underwater. But, there are still unwatched movies in that mountain.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back, better known as the you-know-it-is-January tax.

10 Cloverfield Lane

By: Kevin Jordan

Inception-y horror.

Raise your hand if you knew this movie was coming.  Ok, everyone not involved in the making of this movie, raise your hand.  That’s what I thought; me either, and I know about most movies well before you.  I found out about it maybe two weeks ago when the first trailer was released and my reaction was “wait, when did J.J. Abrams have time to produce another movie while doing Star Wars?”  My next reaction (because I’m a nerd) was “another Cloverfield movie?  Niiiice.”  Then, I watched the trailer and, as is typical with Abrams’ movies, learned just enough to think “Niiiice.”

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There are plenty of things to admire and like about Abrams, but my personal favorite is how good the trailers are for his movies.  Most movie trailers ruin 80% of the film or they completely lie about what the movie is actually about.  Abrams does no such thing, instead, choosing to tease the viewer and raise questions that in the viewer’s mind that must be answered.  In the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the trailer shows three people (John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher, Jr.) in a bunker doing trivial things – reading, assembling puzzles, and listening to music.  Then, things start to turn dark with shaking, fires, pointy sticks, handcuffs, and terrified glances.  Finally, Winstead whacks Goodman in the head with a bottle and bolts for the door, getting through the first door (it’s two doors creating a homemade airlock) and locking it before Goodman can reach her.  As she looks out the window, Goodman is screaming at her not to open the door and we see her cover her mouth in horror and…fade to movie title.  Dude.

Now, because we saw Cloverfield (if you didn’t see Cloverfield, what are you doing here?), we have a basic idea why they are in the bunker – rampaging monsters that may or may not be aliens.  After that, nothing.  From the one minute and forty-four second trailer this was what went through my head:

They seem like a family; they’re making the best of a shitty situation; oh there’s John Goodman’s ass dancing in front of a juke box.  (Rumble, rumble) That would be the monsters.  Wait, why does Winstead look terrified of Goodman?  Who’s in the handcuffs?  What’s in the air duct?  FIRE!  Goodman’s little pistol and a sharpened stick are not going to kill those monsters.  Do they have a plan?  Are they all going to die?  Holy shit – she just whacked Goodman with a bottle and made a break for the door?  What the hell is happening here!?  I thought they were a family?  Goodman’s right – don’t go out there!!  Oh my god – what does she see!  (Title screen)  NOOO!! …….. when does this movie open?!?!

Now that is how you make a trailer.  Incidentally, 10 Cloverfield Lane is also how you make a horror movie.  Unlike most horror flicks, 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t stoop to cheap tricks like gory deaths or making things jump into the screen.  It uses actual writing and film elements to scare you and make you tense throughout.  It’s a cross between a whole lot of Misery sprinkled with some, well, Cloverfield.  There are genuine moments that shock you because you really weren’t expecting THAT to happen.  In short, it’s a horror movie inside a completely different horror movie.

I’d see any Abrams movie, so I might be a little biased in saying that this movie is definitely worth the price of admission.  But, even if you aren’t an Abrams fan, you almost have to be a John Goodman fan.  Winstead and Gallagher are both good, but Goodman brings his A-game.  As the subplot of “who is he” unfolds, you won’t know what to think.  Is he good, bad, crazy in an innocent way, or crazy in a Hand that Rocks the Cradle kind of way?  Regardless, you will enjoy his character because Goodman was that – uhh – GOOD.

Like the trailer, I’m keeping this short and not giving away too much.  If you’re an Abrams fan and seen his movies, then you know he can’t resist giving you at least a peak at the monster under the bed.  Whether that monster is Goodman or something outside, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  Remember this movie when you’re NOT being scared later in the year by movies like The Purge 3.