Review: Stuber (2019)

Michael Dowse’s Stuber follows Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a man working a soul-crushing job at a sporting goods store earning some extra cash by driving for Uber. One day he picks up Dave Bautista’s detective Vic, who forces Stu into his hunt for the man who killed his partner. Will Stu learn how to be a real man?

Whether intentional or not, that question appears to be the heart of Stuber, a film that feels a decade or two behind the curve, or at least written from the perspective of someone longing for the day men return to being ‘real men.’ Predictable for a film so stuck on classical gender roles, the characters that inhabit this movie fill simple niches and pursue shallow goals.

At times, Stuber threatens to say something, sometimes dabbling with the concept of toxic masculinity. Yet that central figure, detective Vic, is free to cause mayhem, the film gleefully embracing his violent acts to satisfy its action needs. Whatever backwards views he pushes, it feels that Stu is the one being prompted to change.

The problem with this is rooted in the film’s treatment of police. Vic is indisputably a bad cop, essentially going rogue and at one point straight up torturing a suspect. The film only rewards him for these actions. There’s a suggestion that police brutality is acceptable as long as the victims are bad people and if it serves as a means to an end. When it comes time for the leads to tear each other down, it’s not Vic’s brutality but his failure as a father that is treated as his defining flaw – it’s as if the film views these violent acts as emblematic of a certain flavor of masculinity, treating it as a legitimate alternative to Stu’s reserved nature. This is a buddy cop film that never convinced me to view one of its two protagonists with sympathy.

Being an action comedy, one would hope it could deliver on either front, but the very first scene gives us fair warning on how underwhelming that first descriptor will be. We begin in a shootout, the camera shaking and staying far too close to the action. When we do get a clear picture, the action is too simple in its choreography. This is all cut at such a rapid pace to cause disorientation – the whole experience is a chore, and the action sequences that follow are much the same.

The comedy is similarly shoddy, much of the humor living up to the easy pun in the title – it feels as though the team behind this film was setting itself up for ‘Stupid Uber’ jokes. That name is given by Stu’s boss at the sporting goods store, a complete caricature of annoying coworkers, so dully constructed that any joke he’s granted falls flat due to his artifice. Similarly, due to Vic’s failure to garner any form of sympathy, his banter with Stu carries little pulse.

The characters of Stuber are guided less by logical decision-making and more by the raw needs of a shoddy comedy writer. I never once believed Stu would stick around, his motivation literally limited to trying to earn a 5-star review to keep his Uber rating above a certain threshold. We at least have it established that Vic is desperate to find his partner’s killer, but would he really start that hunt a few hours after receiving LASIK eye surgery? Yet another highlight of his total lack of sympathetic traits, this quest begins with him barreling down a street and crashing into a manned construction site. He proclaims a desire to keep drugs off the street while happy to make himself a more immediate threat while under zero pressure – he is simply following the first lead at that point, so why the desperation?

The one positive that keeps Stuber above water is Kumail Nanjiani, this desperate driver caught between awful jobs and an inability to express himself. He does an excellent job capturing the ball of anxiety named Stu, and I wish he was dealt a better script. His characters spends much of the movie choosing between enabling Vic’s violence for a good Uber rating and visiting a friend for sex right after her breakup; the only reason he manages any sympathy is due to Nanjiani’s charisma.

Stuber is a largely mean-spirited action comedy that rarely lands its punches. It stumbles to establish any major themes, sometimes even seeming to embrace toxic masculinity and police brutality. The worst sin of all, however, is that it’s a comedy that rarely garners a laugh.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

The latest Spider-Man arrives in an unenviable position. Not only is this the first solo MCU to handle the fallout from the latest crossover event, but it’s coming hot on the heels of an unrelated Spider-Man film that completely showed up the entire MCU.

Far From Home follows Peter Parker and friends as they go on a European vacation, touring several cities as their trip is hijacked by Nick Fury, who demands Spider-Man’s assistance in a still recovering world as a group of elementals spread mass disasters. Assisting is new hero Mysterio, a supposed multidimensional traveler who’s certainly not among the series’ most iconic villains.

Homecoming was one of my favorite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe largely due to how it managed to carve out its own space in an increasingly formulaic franchise. It matched a burgeoning young hero with a smaller scale, also managing to capture Parker’s playful charm in a way previous attempts at the character failed. Far From Home, unfortunately, has fallen entirely into the familiar MCU mould, perhaps harder than any of the other solo sequels. This barely feels like a Spider-Man film; between a reliance on Tony Stark’s technology and Nick Fury’s constant interference, Parker acts as a mere pawn in a game that seems to lie largely outside of this particular film. Far From Home operates as a bridge for a wider story.

The film offers up the usual spectacle, but action with little depth doesn’t add up to much. The MCU rarely offers compelling choreography, and it’s even messier when the enemies are nearly shapeless CGI elementals. Early fights in this movie carry little stake with knowledge of the inevitable twist.

Far From Home really fumbles its lead roles, Spider-Man and Mysterio. Too much time passes before Spider-Man is allowed to play hero, or even act as a protagonist. He’s literally dragged into this story against his will. There’s nothing compelling or heroic about a lead character constantly being forced into action instead of making that decision himself. This is especially laughable when he’s forced into fights against creatures he’s virtually incapable of fighting against. He takes a constant backseat to Mysterio, which calls into question why Nick Fury keeps dragging Parker along. This story is guided by a character who keeps making nonsensical decisions.

Mysterio is one of the more entertaining supervillains around, an absurd showman – but we have to spend the first half of the film caught up in his illusions. While that seems like a logical enough decision, it really drains any weight out of earlier action sequences. It isn’t until the most obvious plot twist in film history takes place that the film finally begins to operate as a hero’s journey, Spider-Man having to make his own decisions to fight back against a threat he’s actually equipped to confront.

If the MCU could lean into the meta and poke fun at itself for a bit, they could have made a fun statement about how difficult it is to craft compelling action sequences while relying on CGI. Unfortunately, they decided to twist Mysterio into a legitimate physical threat by backing him with overwhelming firepower. The fun of breaking through an illusion doesn’t mean as much when the elements behind an illusion are just as dangerous as the image they’re trying to present.

Far From Home feels like a misfire within the MCU. Comparable to Captain Marvel, it hits all the expected notes of a modern blockbuster while struggling to find a voice of its own. It’s fun enough, and crafted as well as most other MCU films, but it doesn’t amount to much beyond a by-the-numbers entry in a franchise that probably has too many. Spider-Man can offer so much more.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Midsommar (2019)

Following up on last year’s phenomenal Hereditary, Ari Aster returns with a markedly similar film. Midsommar follows two college students in a bitter yet unending relationship, Florence Pugh’s traumatized Dani Ardor more unwilling than unable to recognize her boyfriend Christian’s desperation to leave. What was once an escape for Christian turns into a shared vacation to a pagan Swedish festival that quickly turns into a violent ritual.

Ari Aster holds a stellar command over the atmosphere of his films, but what surprised me here is how much Midsommar operates in the reverse of a traditional work of horror. The most terrible moments are upfront and brutal; by starting with such high tension, Aster is able to slowly lessen the load and twist it toward surprising directions. What starts as violent realism descends into surrealistic madness, the once solid turning metaphysical. This is a film that carries the surface style of a work like The Wicker Man while brooding within a certain existential phantasmagoria that transformed Ingmar Bergman’s career around the middle of his so-called Trilogy.

Aster manages to be such a compelling director because he imbues his metaphorical works with so much precision; the pagan ritual carries as much weight as the underlying pain of a relationship being dragged well beyond its death. The result is mystifying; both elements are so unpredictable, yet when the pieces fall into place, there’s a slick cohesion between the two.

As such, Midsommar certainly feels built for a certain audience; you have to drop any notion of this being a straightforward narrative experience before it begins. Aster asks you to join him on a descent into emphatic chaos, where emotions weigh heavier over plot progression than narrative logic.

The characters are simply defined, pawns in a twisted moral tale. Though their motives are straightforward, they still carry a heavy impact. Like Toni Collette in Hereditary, Florence Pugh puts on a performance well above the usual expectations of a horror film, one that should solidify her as one of the finest young actresses working today. Few of the film’s horrors would hit as hard without her ability to reduce herself to a puddle of despair, sobbing with such force that it becomes less bearable than the terror she’s witnessing. There are absurd moments to this movie, some of which are certainly intended to be funny, but all Aster has to do is show Pugh reacting in despair and any humor ceases immediately.

On a visual level, Midsommar is a true gift. The cult grounds mix beauty and macabre, loaded with colorful paintings of horrible scenes. Structures carry a certain intrigue, a bright yellow pyramid hanging over the movie as much as the ceaseless sunlight. The cult members are garbed in white, combining with the over-saturated footage to create a sense of midday haze. These designs reach a high anytime the characters achieve the same, their drug trips causing the image to pulsate in a way that suggests life where there shouldn’t be.

Key editing choices really guide us to the heart of the film, keeping the narrative focused on Dani despite the madness surrounding her. So many scenes search out her reaction that we stay rooted in her journey; the brutality is there to heighten her anxiety, and like many of the best horror movies, it builds a sympathetic bond between protagonist and audience. The movie reaches its peak as Dani finds herself lost in dance, the scene descending into a volley of superimposed shots as she flickers between confusion and mad glee, the image itself becoming a blur of layered images.

Through all these empathetic techniques, I was surprised to find that this film was building not to horror but a violent cathartic release. Midsommar so perfectly captures the desperate anger one feels toward a partner for the harm they have caused, ultimately embracing what is better repressed in reality.

Midsommar is a worthy successor to Hereditary, pursuing a similar trail of interpersonal relationships but casting it in an altogether different light. Aster merges theme and atmosphere like few others, to the point that his works almost transcend horror to something entirely new. These are stories of trauma and the need for release, milking human sympathy to create something altogether revelatory.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

I committed myself to writing two reviews a week at the beginning of this year, really not that long ago; yet even in these early months, certain movies come along that reduce this to a repetitive task, works so simplistic in their presentation and goals that there really isn’t much to say. Annabelle Comes Home is my seventh horror review over the last three months, and it adds almost nothing to the conversation. It’s certainly not the worst of the bunch, and that might be the problem – it’s as mundane as horror comes.

The Annabelle series highlights a certain surface level horror that mainstream Hollywood films rely on, largely at the expense of building more lingering fears. The Annabelle doll has been a laughable concept since its appearance in the first Conjuring. It looks scary, yes – but that’s the problem. Absolutely no one looks at that monstrosity and believes an actual child would treat it as a plaything. The ‘real’ Annabelle is a mass-produced Raggedy Ann, which suggests a comparatively terrifying idea that evil will attach itself to anything that happens to be there. But, no, these movies have to let us know in every way to keep away from Annabelle.

It’s difficult to resist comparing this to The Curse of La Llorona, another Conjuring adjunct released only two months ago. La Llorona was an exercise in poor horror movie choices, tossing character development aside and consisting of ceaseless jump scares. Where it was a terrible slog to sit through, it at least makes me realize where Annabelle Comes Home actually worked.

The characters here aren’t particularly compelling, but they’re full enough to have meaningful arcs. Judy Warren is grappling with her own unrelated visions before the horrors begin, while Daniela’s triggering of these curses comes not from the usual horror movie idiocy but a desperate attempt to contact the spirit of her father. Babysitter Mary Ellen serves well enough as the audience surrogate, the disbeliever dragged into chaos.

The horror at the heart of Annabelle Comes Home feels random, as if writer/director Gary Dauberman simply grabbed a few pieces of Warren lore that caught his eye. The film’s excuse is that Annabelle is merely a beacon for these other spirits, suggesting anything could happen. It goes too far to really feel rooted in Annabelle herself, but also not far enough to feel like a full-force tour; Dauberman is happy to cycle through the same handful of threats throughout.

As such, it all feels rather aimless. The movie feels too safe, as I don’t remember any moment where I was truly worried for the characters. It’s less of a haunted house than a fun house, an obstacle course for our protagonists to navigate.

Despite the overall simplicity of this work, its atmospheric structure is sound enough to create some moments of tension. Dauberman is at least considerate enough to build up a scene and not immediately end it with a jump scare every time, unlike the team behind La Llorona. Unfortunately, the payoff is always the same; something startling happens, but nothing carries enough weight to linger.

Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home is a fun enough pop horror movie that will be forgotten about as soon as it’s over; this isn’t exactly high praise, but it’s a welcome change of pace when so many of these horror movies have been either bland or simply gross. With Annabelle, you’re at least getting what you’d want from it.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Jim Jarmusch has always been an oddball director, with works ranging from his ultra-minimal breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise to successfully understated genre works like Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive. He has proven to have a certain range where he could work in any genre and add a certain twist only he can provide. The Dead Don’t Die is a suitably odd addition to his oeuvre, taking the zombie comedy and draining it to a dry husk.

The Dead Don’t Die appears beyond proper criticism, a work so dense it’s difficult to get a sense of what, exactly, Jarmusch is trying to accomplish. It’s an intentionally bad film, one where it’s a struggle to differentiate between knowing humor and legitimately failed jokes within that context. This is a film that cycles between several characters and disposes of them in largely unceremonious ways, and in at least one case seems to completely forget about a group.

There’s a certain juvenile edge to a lot of the humor; Adam Driver’s Officer Peterson (get it, because he was named Paterson in Jarmusch’s previous film?) has a tendency to break the fourth wall, and I can’t tell if this is supposed to be read as clever or taken as intentionally dumb. A lot of the humor can be summarized in this way; it feels as if certain lines are repeated to the point of annoyance. There are constant references to the theme song (by Sturgill Simpson), which perhaps could be a clever suggestion that they had a low budget and could only afford one original song and wanted to milk it for all it’s worth – but this is tedious the sixth time around.

Perhaps my problem is that The Dead Don’t Die runs off of an imitation of constraints, a forced low budget feeling while being absolutely loaded with stars. Is that part of the joke? That this movie obviously isn’t as bad as it looks since you can name the actors?

Loads of people make intentionally bad films, and they always lack the charm of the unintentional works that become cult classics. There’s no sense of heart involved, no sincerity. The six other Jarmusch films I’ve watched are all great; I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe the hokey presentation on display, which was never the point – the real sin here is that the film is rarely clever enough to do anything with that artifice.

We can call it satire, but what is it satirizing? Low budget horror movies? What’s the point of making fun of that? These works are largely passion projects of people with less opportunity than Jarmusch. Sure, he’s a king of the indie scene, but he’s also flexing with his casting here – he only makes these quieter works because he’s choosing to remain in that zone. It doesn’t help that he’s making fun of works that tend to carry unintentional humor – by satirizing that, he’s instead removing the source of comedy.

I almost feel this has to be a satire of the concept of satire. The specific kind of zombie film Jarmusch is tackling here is low-hanging fruit- there has to be an awareness that this is too easy of a target. The question is, do I want to believe Jarmusch is working on such a level when his other displays of meta-humor are so surface level? But if this is the case, wouldn’t those surface level failures be part of the overall joke?

Despite rarely finding this supposed comedy funny, I walked away with a more distinct reaction; complete and total bafflement. This is a feeling largely reserved for existentially surreal horror films, and that Jarmusch managed such a reaction purely through my failed attempts at reading what this film is trying to accomplish is truly astonishing.

I also don’t know if that feeling is worth much at all.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Child’s Play (2019)

It feels necessary to preface this review by saying I have never watched a Child’s Play film before yet still feel this film had no reason to carry that name besides easier marketing. This is essentially Siri in the form of an uncanny, child-friendly toy, an electronic babysitter gone awry. In fact, its weakest moments stem from its need to engage with the elements that defined those earlier films.

From the earliest scenes, I feel Child’s Play sets itself up as effectively campy. An angered worker in a Vietnamese factory essentially flips Chucky’s kill switch to on; he quickly removes safety protocols which are presented in such a way that suggests violence was a default state that had to be programmed away. It’s the type of absurd statement that immediately frames the movie in a certain light, that nothing here is to be taken seriously. Child’s Play is knowingly trash cinema, but in a surprisingly sufficient way. Where many films that intentionally engage with low quality premises slack off with presentation, this is a surprisingly sleek work.

This is a horror comedy, and a large problem with this genre is that most films that label themselves as such are merely comedies with a horror setting; they rarely attempt to actually be scary. Child’s Play goes all in on the absurd, yet certain sequences carry a surprising sense of dread.

What makes the first half of this film so effective is the relationship between Chucky and his owner, Andy. As a robot companion, Chucky is presented as wanting nothing more than making Andy happy. His tendency toward violence is hilariously established as being based around watching Andy and his friends enjoying a horror movie; the film has a lot of fun with showing how Chucky becomes so twisted despite starting innocently, making him border on sympathetic.

The most effectively horrifying moments of this film come not from the evil doll but Andy coping with how this device keeps twisting his words into increasingly horrifying acts. It’s a story of backfiring desires, Chucky playing a genie granting what it interprets to be wishes. These acts hang over the film, Andy racking up guilt as Chucky explains his twisted logic by linking it back to what Andy has said.

The problem is that this is a Child’s Play film, and it feels the need to get to the point where the doll goes from dangerously ignorant to intentionally malicious. The camp joy is largely seeped out when Chucky switches from trying to make Andy happy to jealously seeking revenge. It was a surprisingly novel idea to have the antagonist believe he was somehow helping the protagonist, why change it to something so overplayed halfway through?

I was expecting nothing from this film going in, and I was surprised at how effectively it carried its atmosphere. The campiness, the incredibly dark humor, the legitimate sense of dread at times, it seemed a step above the average movie that settles into an attempt at becoming a cult classic. That it returns so suddenly to the familiar is a shame; there’s something unique at the heart of this film that couldn’t be sustained while being used in the eighth work of a semi-mainstream franchise. You can only stray so far.

Child’s Play feels like a minor success that doesn’t seem sure of its own audience. I can imagine many fans of the franchise being annoyed with the change to Chucky’s drive, while non-fans are likely less inclined to give it a shot and will likely be distracted by the change in focus.

At its peak, however, Child’s Play operates as a delightful spoof of the ‘evil technology’ ethos that fuels works such as Black Mirror, and it’s successful enough in that regard that I am willing to give a reserved recommendation.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Woody makes his triumphant return in Toy Story 4, meeting a colorful array of new characters while also reuniting with Bo Peep. This is Woody’s journey to find purpose under a new owner, one who is likely to leave him in the closet and wouldn’t notice if he ended up missing. Other classic characters also appear, but they feel like clear afterthoughts. Buzz is reduced to a bit role while the others are stuck waiting in an RV while Woody rescues Forky.

Toy Story 4, despite all its positive qualities, struggles to get past this feeling of being a side story. There’s a sense of finality to a certain extent, but it rarely seems all-encompassing. Toy Story 3 reached a high point by treating these characters as an ensemble; following that up with a sequel so focused on just one of those characters feels wrong, even if his journey is a strong one.

Luckily, everything else about this movie is on point, with two of the new characters being among the series’ best. Forky is an instant classic, taking the underlying existentialism of the series and ramping it up to a crescendo. He asks a question most of us didn’t think to ask; what makes something a toy? His gleeful declarations of being trash is certain to resonate with a certain class of self-deprecating millennials, and his mere existence as a suddenly conscious being carries a certain level of horror – in muted Pixar form, of course.

Where Forky seems to serve a more meta-purpose, Gabby Gabby acts as one of Pixar’s most complex antagonists. A defective doll abandoned in an antique shop, she is driven to repair herself when she realizes Woody shares the same style of voice box. Where previous Toy Story villains are rather straightforward in their sinister nature, Gabby instead acts out of lonely desperation. Part of what makes her work so well is the fact her philosophy largely lines up with Woody’s; like him, she simply wants to make a child happy. Her antagonism is defined by a need instead of power.

Purpose is the driving force of this movie, which might be why I keep thinking about those characters sidelined to the RV. They are allowed to happily continue with a new owner, never having to question their purpose and therefore not being required to take much action. By so easily being granted purpose in their lives, they are stripped of purpose on a narrative level. They exist as set dressing, a reminder that Woody has a sense of belonging somewhere. It’s fine to toss aside characters like Mr. Potato Head and Rex, but it feels wrong that Jessie is put on the same level.

Ultimately, Toy Story 4 carries a lot of the same strengths as the previous films, just with a different set of characters. The series has served as a barometer on the evolution of animation, and this is certainly a visually impressive film. The screenplay is perhaps the funniest in the series, though it also lacks the emotional weight that granted those earlier films a more lasting impact.

This is a satisfying journey, but where the first three films felt like complete stories on their own, Toy Story 4 can’t shake the feeling of being a mere diversion until its final act. Woody’s journey here is one of the stronger character arcs Pixar has come up with, but the film as a whole seems to be missing convincing stakes. It’s notably lighter than the other pieces.

Toy Story 4 is the weakest film in its franchise, but being weaker than a collection of near-masterpieces still gives it enough room to be a great film.

4 Stars Out of 5