Get Out – After the Campaign Review

You could be forgiven if you went into watching Get Out expecting something more or less like many other horror films. Assuming you hadn’t given in to the urge to check out spoilers or change your assumptions based on the extensive press coverage it’s received since its release almost a year ago, you might think it was simply a horror film with racial overtones. That’s essentially what was sold through the film’s marketing campaign, but it’s not at all what’s delivered.

The story focuses on Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man who’s leaving for a weekend in the suburbs with his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). While they’re presented as enlightened liberals, a series of incidents involving them and the two black servants they have around the house begin to put Chris on edge. That only gets worse when an entire party of rich white people happens and Chris begins to put a more definite finger on what’s bothering him. Still, he had no idea what’s actually happening and his problems only become more severe.

Continue reading “Get Out – After the Campaign Review”

After the Campaign: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Look closer,” Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) says to Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as the two of them are in the middle of a rogue mission that could help save the floundering Resistance from the threat of the First Order.

That same advice could be handed to those who have felt the film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, fell short of being worthy to stand as the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.

The movie picks up seemingly within a day of the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens, with the Resistance having destroyed the First Order’s Starkiller Base but far from victorious against the enemy. Without going into spoiler territory we then follow the continued adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she works to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to show her the ways of the Jedi and what her place in the universe is. Meanwhile Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) keep the Resistance fighting as best they can with the help of Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), an effort Rose and Finn are ultimately instrumental in. On the other side of the battle, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) continue vying for the affection of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Most all of that was presented in the massive, albeit time-compressed, marketing campaign mounted by Disney over the last seven or eight months of 2017. That campaign presented a dark chapter in the saga, one that was fraught with the potential for danger. Would Rey succumb to the Dark Side of the Force? Would the Resistance and all its heroes be snuffed out for good?

None of that prepared me for what might be the most thoughtful and thought-provoking entry in the entire Star Wars saga.

MILD SPOILERS BELOW. DON’T CLICK IF YOU’RE STILL WAITING TO BE SURPRISED.

Continue reading “After the Campaign: Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

The Book of Henry – After the Campaign Review

The Book of Henry did not have a positive box-office reception. The movie has a paltry 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and while that score isn’t a perfect measure it’s representative of the savaging it received upon release. This isn’t a case of a movie being “for the fans, not the critics” either, as audiences essentially ignored it. The mix of disappointing box office and critical snubbing, along with a few stories of poor on-set behavior, is at least part of the reason director Colin Trevorrow was eventually let go from Star Wars: Episode IX.

The story in the film follows Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), a precocious and incredibly intelligent 12 year old boy who takes care of his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan never seems to have her life together and relies on Henry to pay the bills and manage the finances while she plays video games. One day Henry realizes the girl next door Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is likely being abused by her stepfather, who has avoided previous accusations by virtue of his position as the chief of police. Through a series of incidents I won’t get into because they spoil the story, Susan must take on the role of savior for Christina, enacting a plan devised by Henry that will lead to Christina’s freedom.

One of the primary points of criticism for the movie was that it was unexpectedly dark. It’s true. The characters act in ways that are much different than they would in other films that have more commercial appeal. It’s a difficult film and, admittedly, there are more than a few plot inconsistencies that should leave viewers scratching their chins.

I’m convinced, though, that much of the reaction came as a result of the movie’s tone and story being vastly different from what was presented in its marketing campaign.

The trailer does indeed lay out much of the story’s outline for the audience to understand, starting with the home situation of Susan, Henry and Peter and continuing through Susan’s execution of the plan left for her by Henry to help Christina. Left unexplained is why Henry is missing from the latter half of the story, a twist that likely caught many a critic and brave viewer by surprise.

But the rest of the campaign, especially the posters, presented a much different film. Those posters make the movie seem as if it’s along the lines of Flight of the Navigator or E.T., a story of adventurous and inventive kids getting in slightly over their heads and having an adventure. The image of Henry wearing his homemade goggles became a common element in the campaign, meant to convey that sense of childhood exploration as well as his intelligence.

That’s not what the movie delivers, though, and the disconnect between the tone of the marketing and the actual movie threw more than a few people off, leading to poor reviews and even worse word of mouth.

The Book of Henry isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. But it’s also not as bad as the reviews made it out to be. We can have a discussion about Trevorrow’s talents as a filmmaker and whether he should be making blockbusters and high-profile character dramas this early in his career. But if you give the movie here a chance and view it free of the somewhat misleading pitch that was made in last year’s marketing, you may not regret it. I won’t say it’s enjoyable from beginning to end and, again, won’t pretend like there aren’t issues that should have been addressed. It’s not the complete trainwreck it was often made out to be, though.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Daddy’s Home – After the Campaign Review

When Daddy’s Home was being sold to the public back in December of 2015, the central theme of the campaign seemed to be that the movie would feature lots of instances of Will Ferrell falling down and putting himself in embarrassing situations. And the movie pretty much delivered on that promise, though it’s not nearly as funny as the studio would have liked you to believe at the time.

Ferrell plays Brad, a bland but exceedingly nice and patient guy who has married Sara (Linda Cardellini) and become the stepdad to her two kids. Entering the picture is Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), Sara’s ex-husband who thinks he wants to win her back. He believes the way to do that is to turn everyone against Brad and so the two engage in a “dad-off” with Brad being his congenial best and Dusty being the worldly, hyper-masculine one as they both strive to impress Sara and the kids and prove they’re the one they should choose.

The movie has so little to say it’s almost shocking. The kids – and even Cardellini’s Sara – are afterthoughts, pawns to be played as the two male characters jockey for position as the alpha. So the entire plot revolves around Brad and Dusty trying to mark their territory and claim Sara as their own while spending money like it’s not a real thing on stunts and tricks to make the other one look lesser in her eyes.

Wahlberg is at least somewhat engaging as Dusty, who’s confident, competent and the prototypical alpha male that attracts everyone’s attention and interest. Ferrell, though, is the most checked-out I’ve ever seen him. I’m not sure if he’s just tired, if he realized he was getting a thankless role or is just ready for a new challenge, but he didn’t appear to even be trying to make Brad anything other than a one-note punchline. At least the lazy performance doesn’t rise to the level of Adam Sandler’s palpable disdain for the audience.

All of that aside, the campaign sold the movie pretty accurately. There are big chunks of what passes for the story that are missing from the marketing, but it never reaches the point of actually inaccurately selling the movie. It promises 100 minutes of Wahlberg and Ferrell going off against each other in exceedingly outrageous ways and that’s pretty much what it delivers. But audiences should know that aside from one or two laughs, there’s not much here that’s funny or engaging, something that should be laid at the feet of the lackluster performances, a lazy script and flavorless directing that offers nothing in the way of rhythm or style.

Going In Style (After the Campaign Review)

Going In Style was sold to audiences as a fun time watching three old pro actors – Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin – engage in a bit of thievery in their golden years. That’s more or less what the final movie delivered, but it could have been a bit more.

The story follows three old friends and co-workers, played by the actors named above, who find themselves in tough financial straits. Mortgages have ballooned to the point of being unaffordable, sickness is creeping in and more. That’s made worse when their already meager pensions, earned from decades of factor work, are eliminated when the company is bought by a foreign firm who feels it’s free from those obligations. After Joe (Caine) finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery he enlists his two friends in a scheme to pull off their own heist to get the money they feel is owed them.

As you’d expect from the trailer, much of the comedy in the movie comes from watching three old men try to take on the physical demands of executing a bank robbery that requires precision timing, flawless momentum and more. And as you’d expect, Caine, Arkin and Freeman all deliver amusing and professional performances, moving through the story with the ease and grace they’ve all acquired in decades of work. All three have at some point been referred to as dependable, even in sub-standard movies, elevating the material they’re given.

That’s exactly what they do here. The movie is enjoyable enough as a light-hearted comedy, which is how it was sold. It left me wanting more on a few fronts, though.

First, if you took out the plot about exacting revenge on the financial system, I’d watch a whole Grumpy Old Men-type movie with these three actors/characters. Again, Arkin, Caine and Freeman are such old pros that they know just how to fit into the characters and work through the story without breaking a sweat and I want to see more of the dynamic here. Just 105 minutes of them commenting on “The Bachelorette” and talking about pie.

Second, go the other direction and fully commit to a story of the impact the impersonal, financially-motivated actions of the financial institutions and international businesses have had on vulnerable demographics like the elderly. Because the movie keeps going for laughs related to planning the robbery it never dives below surface level on that front, saying it’s bad but never really exploring that idea fully.

Third, I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea of Zach Braff taking on more “director for hire” type projects. He has such a reputation with his previous directorial efforts for telling personal stories of ennui and aimlessness in life that I want him to follow his comedic instincts a bit more. There’s nothing here that screams out as a distinct style or approach when it comes to comedy, but I think his fourth such movie down the road could be more interesting. It could be anyone behind the camera here, but I’m curious about what this could turn into.

If you saw the trailer for Going in Style or walked past the badly-Photoshopped poster at some point, you won’t be surprised or disappointed by what the final movie delivers. It’s more or less exactly what you’d expect, with a few surprises and story elements that aren’t explored in the campaign included. So it delivers on that front. I just think there are some other, more fully-committed approaches that could have made it a bit more intriguing.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

What Happened To Monday (After the Campaign Review)

Netflix sold What Happened to Monday? as a dystopian science fiction about the lengths one will go to in order to protect family when society says they are disposable. That’s only part of what the movie delivers.

The story involves seven sisters – all named after one day of the week and all played by Noomi Rapace – who are hidden by their grandfather (Willem Dafoe) because the world is short of food and water and so has enacted a one child per family law. He raises them to all fit into a single persona, which they slip on when they are allowed to go out on the day of the week they’re named for. Eventually such a complicated arrangement begins to fray at the edges. Not only do the sisters, now adults, want to be themselves but they want to be unafraid in the world. When one of their number disappears the six others try to track her down but their efforts only make matters worse in many regards, setting into motion events that will impact not only themselves but the world as a whole.

Netflix’s trailer and other marketing efforts sold the movie as an action drama. Only around the edges of the campaign are there hints at the social commentary of the story involving the sacrifices and hard choices that must be made to ensure the survival of the human race as a whole. Those choices are embodied by Glenn Close, who plays the politician behind the “no siblings” policy.

Unfortunately the action drama elements often overshadow the social commentary in the movie. There are too many sequences of Rapace running away from government agents or engaging in gun battles or other close-quarters fights with them. Some of the violence is shockingly graphic, which took me out of the story more than it served to heighten the reality or stakes in play.

Because it’s so concerned with chases and physical fights the script overlooks some of the messages that it’s trying to convey. More troubling, the script sets up a dynamic that not only is never fully explored but actually winds up subverting expectations in a way that, once the movie is over, is frustrating and disappointing.

SPOILER WARNING

Throughout the film, Close’s character Nicolette Cayman is setup as the villain, the big bad who is ripping children away from their parents and siblings away from each other. She’s heartless and cruel and, of course, the “processing” those children are subjected to isn’t nearly as benign and compassionate as it’s sold to the public. All the actions of the Sisters are taken to not only find their missing member but also, at least in part, to take Cayman down. They want to expose her misdeeds and save the children who are being removed from society because they can’t imagine any one of them not being allowed to fully live.

Cayman has made hard choices and the one-child policy is undoubtedly heartless and cruel. But it’s also necessary. In the backstory that’s provided throughout the movie we learn that the world’s population has outgrown humanity’s ability to feed itself. That, combined with the effects of climate change, has lead to massive food shortages. The only solution is for there to be fewer people.

No one wants to see children suffer and the reality that’s exposed is even crueler than the public is lead to believe. But while Cayman’s solution may not be perfect it’s at least a solution.

The actions of the Sisters exposes what’s really happening to the children who are taken away, exposure that not only undoes her policies but leads to Cayman’s downfall and arrest. At the end of the movie we see a nursery of infants who are all now able to live because people are once more free to have children as they see fit.

What’s the impact of that going to be, though? The movie has spent so much time explaining how the old rate of growth of the human population was unsustainable. The Sisters’ actions result in a reversion to that previous growth rate, the logical conclusion of which is the end of humanity, which will slowly starve itself to death.

That ending undoes, at least for me, anything the story may have earned up to that point. While the Sisters are presented as virtuous and loving, the ending shows that love and compassion are shortsighted and irresponsible. I’m not advocating for mass incarceration or elimination of children, but then why the surviving Sisters smile at how pleased they are with their actions shows they haven’t considered the ramifications of their efforts. By celebrating their victory, the story undoes any goodwill the Sisters may have earned by their devotion to each other.

Again, only parts of the story are hinted at in the marketing, so there are lots of surprises – not all of them great – for the audience to encounter. They may be taken aback at the movie’s attempts at a Blade Runner-type aesthetic and the message of social responsibility. Mostly, though, I think they’ll be surprised at the massive and ill-fitting cop out the ending provides.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Don’t Think Twice (After the Campaign Movie Review)

In the marketing of Don’t Think Twice there was an emphasis on both explaining the concepts behind improv comedy and the idea that chasing your dreams is something that eventually has to come to an end. The movie, I was happy to find, delivers on both of those promises.

The story follows the six members of the New York improv troupe The Commune. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) is a die-hard believer in the art-form who’s dating Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who sees it as a stepping stone to something bigger. Miles (writer/director Mike Birbiglia) is a lifer who’s been doing this for years and has seen fame and fortune pass him by repeatedly. Also there are Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher). Their perfect struggling artist bubble is burst by real life when Jack does indeed achieve stardom, Bill’s dad passes away and the other members all realize the time has come to do something else.

Throughout the movie there’s constant discussion of what constitutes improv. Does it adhere to the rules of the form? Is it coming from a pure place? Is improv a means in and of itself or is it simply a bridge to elsewhere? Birbiglia sprinkles his script, mainly using Samanthas a conduit, with quotes and insights from Del Close and other trailblazers in the genre, providing the audience with a history and background that helps show this isn’t just about working without a script but creating something wholly original as a group each night.

For me the story itself, which sees the slow disintegration of the group as opportunities are seized and passed on in one form or another by all the characters, was less interesting than these more philosophical, historical elements. Thankfully they all tie together relatively well in the end. No one is really the bad guy since they’re each doing what they feel called and drawn to do. Some of those decisions are more painful – and hurtful – than others and cause some of the unrest that upsets the foundation of the group. Everyone is just following, or abandoning, their dreams as they see fit and asking their friends to support that, regardless of the impact they might have.

The group Birbiglia assembled is, of course, wonderful. Just as in any actual improv group, each fills a role and does so well. Jacobs and Birbiglia himself really shine, though, as the emotional core of the group. They’re the true believers, the ones who see themselves as the continuation of a tradition and lineage they find important and worthwhile. When they make big decisions as to how they’re going to seize control of their futures, it guides the direction of the story more than anything else and truly makes an impression on the audience.

Even if you’re not a huge improv fan, Don’t Think Twice is worth checking out as it’s streaming now on Netflix. It’s a great ensemble comedy with a tragic heart.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

War Machine (After the Campaign Review)

When Netflix was selling War Machine earlier this year I wanted to like it. The campaign, which was substantial by the standards of the marketing efforts the streaming service sometimes puts together for its original film, worked hard to position it as a satire of the idiocy of war. In particular, the war in Afghanistan is one that not only suffers from the same problems every war does but because no one seemed to have a clear idea of what victory looked like. At the end of my review of the campaign, I said it looked kind of like a modern version of Wag the Dog.

The movie stars Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, the latest in a string of generals brought into Afghanistan to salvage the mess that’s been made by the previous leaders. He’s accompanied by his crack team of assistants, aide de camps and specialists, but he’s fighting not just the Taliban but a massive international bureaucracy. With goals that are unclear and ill-defined, he does what generals do: Take big risks and try his best. The realities of the situation all seem aligned against him and indeed against the idea of anything approaching the definition of “victory.”

While sold as a satire, it never really comes close to that mark, at least not consistently. That’s because just like the soldiers don’t know exactly what war they’re fighting, the filmmakers don’t seem to know what exactly it is they’re satirizing. Is it the fog of war that settles in and obscures everyone’s vision of what they’re working to accomplish? Is it the innate hubris of generals, who all believe they have the drive and vision to do what no one else can or would? Is it the politicians who send soldiers of all ranks into war without knowing where the finish line is?

The story never really settles on one message or another but flits between those and more. Pitt’s McMahon is a headstrong man. He’s dedicated to the mission and to the soldiers under his command and certainly has clear ideas about what it is he wants to do. But the script seems too determined to keep things grounded in reality and so never fully pushes anything the extra foot-and-a-half that’s necessary to truly satirize.

All of McMahon’s actions seem reasonable. Or at least believable in context. The same can be said of the supporting characters, whether it’s the group of aides and assistants he brings with him or the politicians and advisors he reports to and collaborates with. Everyone’s actions are too real to be satire but too outlandish to be real. So the movie keeps walking the middle line between wanting the audience to be aghast at the kind of ridiculous actions everyone takes while also laughing at their audaciousness.

Pitt is fine as McMahon. I’ve never been a huge fan of the actor and actually prefer him when he puts on as many affectations as possible in a role. That’s why I like him most in Burn After Reading, the Oceans films and a few others (but NOT Benjamin Button). Bury the Pitt-ness of him under as many layers as possible, I say. So the very mannered and deliberate performance here works for me, though again he’s hampered by a script that can’t fully commit to an idea.

The real treat here is Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s long-serving second-in-command Greg Pulver. He’s one of the only elements of the movie that keeps pushing things as far as he can to highlight the insanity of the situation, even while loyally standing by McMahon no matter the circumstances. It’s a surprise to see Hall turn in a performance like this and it should have gotten more recognition when the movie was released. The other is Alan Ruck as Pat McKinnon, one of the civilians McMahon has to coordinate with and clear actions through. He toes right up to the line of satire as he guides McMahon through the political realities he’s in, winking that there’s no clear goal here, he just wants this mess to go away. Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace and others are massively underused in supporting roles.

There’s a good story to be told about the war in Afghanistan and how it’s such a difficult situation for the U.S. We can’t leave because we’re all still culturally traumatized by Vietnam and retreat here would be a tacit admission that the time, money and life expended there would have been largely for naught. We can’t stay because no one wants us there and, as some characters point out, the enemy lives there and so can wait us out. The movie may have been hampered simply by trying to set itself in the real world, where it had to adhere to certain rules. Move it to a fictional country and there would have been more freedom to cut loose a bit, hitting the same notes more clearly and telling a clearer and comically tragic story.

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, check out War Machine for yourself.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie (After the Campaign Review)

When I reviewed the marketing campaign for The LEGO Ninjago Movie I thought the whole effort was relatively harmless, a decent, if half-hearted, attempt to both cash in on the popularity of the toy line that inspired it and sell more of those playsets. There was nothing particularly interesting or motivational about the campaign, it was just…alright.

The movie is focused on Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), a member of an elite squad of ninjas who protect Ninjago City from Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), the warlord bent on conquering the city for reasons that don’t extend far beyond “because.” Complicating matters is the fact that Lloyd is Garmadon’s son, something that’s widely known, but because Lloyd’s identity as the Green Ninja is a secret, no one draws the connection between attacker and defender. Things happen and eventually everyone learns a valuable life lesson.

Most of the main story beats were laid out in the marketing, which emphasized the humor that audiences had come to expect from the previous two LEGO feature films. We got the relationship between Lloyd and his father as well as the general personalities of the other members of the ninja team. In fact all those characters formed a big chunk of the marketing, with several series of posters released that featured almost all the characters in the movie.

There are a few things that were in the campaign that aren’t in the final movie, including a major story beat involving Lloyd and his dad. And the framing device of the story isn’t hinted it at all, with the focus firmly kept on the LEGO action and not the way the story is being told, which continues the blending of the real-world and the animated adventures.

The biggest aspect of the movie that was true to the campaign which sold it is that it’s just not necessary. There’s nothing new being told here, nothing unique. Perhaps that’s why this movie hasn’t lived up to the box-office standards set by The LEGO Movie or The LEGO Batman Movie. It’s funny and certainly entertains, particularly if you’re with a younger person who’s more in the target demographic. But it’s just…there. It passes right through within 10 minutes, leaving nothing behind.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie isn’t bad. It’s well made and relatively entertaining. But if you haven’t already seen it, go in with low expectations. There are some decent laughs but by the time you get to the car you’ll have forgotten much of it due to a lackluster story that forgets what message it’s trying to send three or four times over the course of script.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Founder (After the Campaign Movie Review)

When I reviewed the marketing of The Founder earlier this year I wasn’t all that impressed with the scope of the campaign. It sold a fairly standard biopic about someone many people may not know a lot about but certainly had been impacted by. The main draw, and the focal point of the campaign, was star Michael Keaton, still in the midst of a post-Birdman career resurgence.

In the movie Keaton plays Ray Kroc, who we first meet when he’s a struggling salesman hawking milkshake machines to drive-ins in the years following World War II. It’s the latest, we find, in a series of products and schemes he’s engaged in to make a buck and be something more in his life. He happens across a growing burger stand in California called McDonald’s, owned and operated by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc falls in love with the efficiency of their operation. While Dick and Mac are reluctant, Kroc convinces them to partner with him to franchise their concept across the country. Thus is born the McDonald’s empire we know today, though many of Kroc’s tactics are less than exemplary, particularly when it comes to his relationship with the founding brothers.

The campaign didn’t promise anything too innovative in terms of story or filmmaking. What it did promise was the story behind the institution that’s now part of the daily lives of most all Americans as well as people worldwide. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s with any regularity, it’s part of the landscape of the country, seen in every town and city regardless of size and promising a hot, reliably consistent meal as you’re traveling down most interstate highways.

That’s what it more or less delivers. The movie isn’t going to blow you away with the visuals and the biopic format doesn’t allow for much in the way of flexibility, instead keeping the story moving along certain lines that promise to hit particular milestones and amp up the drama to keep the audience engaged.

So it’s good that the marketing’s core message was not just about airing Kroc’s dirty laundry but about selling Keaton’s performance. He’s just as dynamic and entrancing an actor as he was in Gung Ho, Beetlejuice and other movies that let him use his entire body to comedic effect. Now he’s more subdued but no less electric. Even in a montage showing him recruiting franchisees at VFW halls and PTA meetings, he crackles with energy that fills the screen. Just as I thought after seeing him in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Keaton makes the most of every scene not by chewing scenery as some actors do, but by confining the energy of those bigger performances within his own body, like a balloon you’re watching being stretched to its limits.

If you’re curious as to how McDonald’s grew to be McDonald’s, The Founder presents a good insight into the beginnings of a massive corporation that, as the ending states, now feeds 1% of the world’s population daily. That story may not be completely engaging all the time, but Keaton brings his A-game to his performance as Kroc, providing the biggest reason to see the movie.