Insert “The Time Warp” joke here: A critical review of “When We First Met” (2018)

I wasn’t even going to watch this movie, let along review it. “When We First Met” is a romantic comedy, and I am someone who hates humanity, so I do not seem to be the appropriate person to review this film. And yet, we did just knock out two Netflix original distributions in so many weeks, and this does involve time travel, so I guess it sort of counts as a sci fi. Let’s go for a trifecta.

Noah (Adam DeVine) has been in the friend zone for the past three years, and now Avery (Alexandra Daddario), his objet d’amor, is getting married. Consoling himself with far too much booze for a man of his constitution, Noah climbs into a (presumably) magical photo booth, which transports him back to the night he met Avery. He now has the opportunity to live that night over and over, until he can finally end up with Avery, a task easier said than done.

“When We First Met” didn’t set out to be a great movie, but it did set out to be a movie, and it succeeds at that. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to it. The direction, by Ari Sandel, whose greatest claim to fame to date has been high school something-or-other “The DUFF,” never really rises above an MTV level of competence.

That leaves us with the script, by John Whittington, who was one of the five people worked on “The LEGO Batman Movie” screenplay and one of six people who worked on “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” It’s not that funny. There are a few sex jokes, and a few “fish out of temporal water” jokes, but the film never seems comfortable settling into any kind of comedic groove. It’s even worse when it attempts philosophizing on romantic topics. Your reading of the ending as either sweet or bittersweet depends on how you analyze the questions the film clumsily raises, and the script wisely leaves any genuine interpretation out of the hands of any of the characters on screen.

So that that leaves us with the acting, which is not that great either. At least Daddario (of “San Andreas” and, more importantly, the first season of “True Detective” and the hotel season of “American Horror Story”) and DeVine (of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and, to his credit, “The Final Girls”) look like they’re having fun. They chew the scenery sometimes in their depiction of always-just-out-of-sync lovers, but it’s something to grab onto.

There might not be anything truly wrong with “When We First Met,” but there’s nothing that really makes it stand out either. The concept is amusing, but it’s hardly new. Time has toyed with lovers in everything from “Love in the Time of Cholera” to “13 Going on 30.” And is it just me, or is that photo booth basically just the fortune telling machine from “Big”? Even its title sounds familiar; I keep getting it mixed up with Lord Huron’s weepy, indie folk ballad “The Night We Met.”

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting notion: Being a time traveler, like being in love, can wear you out. I just hope a more thoughtful film has thought of it too.


Lost in the woods (again): A critical review of “The Ritual” (2018)

Well lookee here. Netflix dumped not one but two horrifying flicks on us humble audiences this month. We did “Cloverfield Paradox” last week, so why not join some of our distinguished colleagues and try to review “The Ritual” this week? It’s shocking that we’re actually watching another new release instead of something old but not old enough to be cool yet. It’s almost like we’re competent or something.

Well, with that descriptive intro, here’s the review.

Based on a novel that I’ve never read, “The Ritual” starts like a midlife dramedy, with a group of overgrown lads in a pub, planning their next vacation and struggling with the gap between bachelorhood and married life that widens as one slows down. Then one of them gets himself killed in a botched liquor store holdup (he was an innocent bystander, not a holder-upper). A few months later, his surviving friends are taking a hiking trip in Sweden where they hold an impromptu memorial. Things start to get weird on their way back, where they take a shortcut through a forest that throws off their sense of time and space, not to mention the fact that something in there seems to be following them. Surprisingly enough, after a stay in an abandoned house where each man is tortured by nightmares, things don’t get better…

For the most part, “The Ritual” is a solid blend of psychological and traditional horror. The director is horror vet David Bruckner, who’s into the co-directing thing (he was featured in “V/H/S,” which I saw and kind of remember, as well as 2007 “The Signal,” which I forgot I saw but never forgot I really liked). Either way, it’s unsurprising that “The Ritual” looks and feels good. It’s sort of the horror version of the John Ford rule: If you point a camera in some well lit rainy woods, and you don’t fall over drunk while holding the camera, you’re bound to make some atmospheric pictures (the cinematography was done by Andrew Shulkind, who has worked with Bruckner before, and the editing was Mark Towns, who hasn’t). Bruckner does more than that, also using the forest to build tension, add aggression and drive the plot in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I will also say this. For the most part, Bruckner knows when to keep the monster out of sight, which is a smart tactic, but it’s one that can lead to disappointment when the creature finally makes an appearance. However, when he does decide to show the creature…well, let’s say he does OK. Even those who have been less than satisfied with the movie seem satisfied with its creature.

The humans aren’t so bad themselves. A small, tight cast (it’s basically a four man play) ensures that we get to know our characters pretty well in an organic way. They feel real; each actor plays his part like someone you’d meet at the bar, whether they’re bragging drunkenly in the middle of the room or checking their watch in a dark corner. Admittedly, their individual psychologies are not examined in depth, but the connections between their dreams, desires and individual guilty consciences are all brought up. The movie might not be intellectual, but it is clever. Although Lord but those boys do swear a lot.

One complaint is that the film doesn’t do anything new. But is “The Ritual” genuinely unoriginal? Well, yes. Completely. It’s part “Blair Witch Project,” part Algernon Blackwood (please tell me you’ve read “The Willows”), part every crappy camping trip you ever shivered your way through as a kid. However, originality, like depth, is a tall order. A more pressing issue is the ending, which is far too fast. I’m not saying it lack resolution. It just sort of…stops. After so much pleasant–from a horror perspective–imagery, it can be quite disappointing to have such an unimaginative conclusion. Still, genre fans should be willing to forgive less than a minute of disappointment for 90 minutes of quality atmosphere. “The Ritual” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: for the four men on screen, a really poorly planned vacation.

Let’s do the twist again: A critical review of “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018)

One problem with modern media, I think we can all agree, is franchise-syndrome. Cable and broadcast series stay around longer than their plotlines will allow, and film series reboot rather than die with honor. One interesting way of countering that has been a subtle return of anthologies, most notably with TV series like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.” Cinematically speaking, there are the Cloverfield films, which are typically quirky thrillers that get the J. J. Abrams touch: plots that are guarded like jealous lovers and doled out slowly, both in the advertising and the films themselves. Which explains why “The Cloverfield Paradox” is both a bit labyrinthine in its narrative construction and its Neflix release was only officially announced in a Super Bowl commercial. For us here at Idols and Realities, that also means we get to review something new for a change.

After a few rounds of quick exposition–I counted three–we join a cast of international science dudes onboard the space station Cloverfield. Seems they’re trying to kick-start an eternal energy machine to stop people on earth from fighting over oil reserves. After a couple years of misfiring, the machine finally works, but in doing so it breaks and it rips a hole in spacetime. Cut off from the Earth, the crew must try to work together as tensions mount and their minds and bodies are fractured by the chaotic effects of a splintering reality.

If “Paradox” sounds a little familiar, that’s perhaps because it enters that long lineage of films that can be classified as “haunted house in space,” that is, space opera by way of psychological horror occasionally kissing cousin to cosmic horror, as in “Alien” and “Event Horizon,” but sometimes played a little straighter, as in “Pandorum.” If you’ve seen any of those films, just imagine them slightly less coherent, exciting and interesting, and you have “Paradox.”

“Paradox” doesn’t go far to explain its own paradoxes–it’s a bad sign when “Event Horizon” is using sounder science than your film. Presumably some stuff gets jumbled when dimensions collide, which explains the quirky placement of certain objects, but it doesn’t explain why some members of the crew are fine and others get the space crazies. No, there are too many unanswered questions for the film to click as a mind screw. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not weird enough. On the other hand, maybe the film wanted to do something more philosophical, perhaps something about ethics. But that kind of question, while it could be posed, it not. Maybe it was in an earlier version of the script–there are some religious hints thrown around at the beginning of the movie, but they’re dropped pretty quick.

Furthermore, the movie doesn’t get particularly psychological, if only because it would be hard to pull off when all your characters are about as thin as construction paper. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her best with the central, and therefore most complex, character of the film, but she can only so much. I like Elizabeth Debicki as an icy space lady, but that might just be because her haircut reminds me of David Bowie. The best of the bunch is probably Chris O’Dowd, who gets all the funniest lines of dialogue, which is a good idea because he’s Chris O’Dowd. So the movie at least does that right.

Perhaps it lacks an experienced hand at the wheel. Director Julius Onah has years of producing credits, but only one thriller to his name. What the film doesn’t get right or wrong, it simply does OK. The look never rises above handsome, but it never really sinks to genuinely ugly, preferring to stay in a safe, middling middle. Graphics are fine. Special effects are fine. Soundtrack is unmemorable, so it was probably fine. But fine don’t quite cut it.

The Cloverfield “franchise” has always taken its B-movie subjects somewhat seriously, resulting in either the wicked sense of humor of the first film or the genuine thrills of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” “Paradox” still maintains its predecessors seriousness, but it can’t live up in the other ways. And that ending. Perhaps it’s trying too hard. There are plenty of standard Cloverfield tropes in the plot: not-everything-is-what-it-seems, a decent dose of disaster and conspiracy, and there’s even a trace of that sense of humor. But there are no real thrills, too many questions left answered and all the wrong ones raised to begin with.

The problem is obvious, of course. “Cloverfield” had actress Lizzy Caplan; “Lane” had Mary Elizabeth Winstead–the film was lacking a distant, smoky brunette. I’m sure that would have fixed everything.

You can’t make this stuff up: A critical review of “Alan Wake” (2010)

In a move that was not necessarily the wisest, given rumors of a lack of financial stability, I joined Gamestop’s rewards program. The good news is that all the cheap, used games are even cheaper for the next year. The bad news is that I will feel compelled to purchase them to “make up” the cost of the program’s membership. Well, at least there should be some good reviews in it. After all, it’s 2018, the future and whatnot. Video games is what it’s all about. Nobody wants to read any more. Which is why the first thing I’m reviewing is a game in which you step into the shoes of a novelist.

“Alan Wake” opens with the titular writer being pursued in a dark forest by an even darker presence. This is revealed to be naught more than a nightmare, but Wake wakes (haw) up to an even greater nightmare. He’s going on vacation to Bright Falls, a backwater town in Washington state with his wife, Alice. After meeting some of the quirkier residents, Alice disappears, along with their isolated island getaway. It seems no one can remember their vacation house ever existed, although the local police remember Alice, and Wake himself becomes a suspect. Wake takes the investigation into his own hands, running up against an ancient evil that is slowly infecting the entire area with a gathering darkness.

“Alan Wake” is a game I’d been meaning to play for awhile. The main character, atmosphere and setting, even the soundtrack, give it the feeling of a “Twin Peaks” fan fiction written by Stephen King. A little ambitious, one might think, which is part of why “Alan Wake” is kind of disappointing. Not because it’s bad–it’s perfectly serviceable–but because it’s so just OK. Many of my issues with the gameplay and the story are eerily mirrored by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, so I’ll just leave this link to his video review here. That about sums it up, which is not difficult to do since the gameplay is so repetitive. Walk through the spooky forest for the umpteenth time, shine light here, shoot at that, climb to the top of this to advance to the next level, rinse and repeat.


The game is great at building atmosphere, but then it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Indeed, “Wake” does atmosphere very nicely. There are some interesting affectations, like a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show that plays in the game’s background and the stray novel pages you collect that tease the story along; the song selection is interesting and engaging; and the game has the spooky forest vibe completely nailed down. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because the game thinks of every excuse imaginable to get you into the woods in the middle of the night. You would think that Wake himself would eventually figure out that’s not the best idea, if only because he writes thrillers for a living.

Wake himself is an oddly unbalanced character. He shrugs off pickaxe blows from undead assailants with ease, and he’s handy with multiple firearms, which begs the question: Isn’t Wake is an alcoholic writer? How did he get so good at being so badass? Aside from creating a narrative quirk, there’s also a gameplay problem. Perhaps I didn’t have it on the right difficulty setting, but I never felt threatened. The game lurched between kind of tricky and far too easy. Accordingly, the best level was one in which Wake is on the run from police, weapon-less and dodging enemies rather than fighting them. Coupled with the spooky forest setting, I finally felt the tension.

Wake’s companions are a bit uneven themselves. Publisher and best pal Barry Wheeler looks and speaks like action sidekicks who have been helping heroes investigate haunted houses since the 1930s. Two characters who promised to be the most interesting–art therapist Emil Hartman and unstable FBI Agent Nightingale–are given all the backstory of a shallow puddle. And Wake’s wife has one facial expression: scary. But what if this was all the point?

The existential question is this: Is “Alan Wake” a sloppy game or is it a stealthily meta game? I started to suspect that the events I was playing through were actually happening on the pages of a book, perhaps written by the game’s mythical Thomas Zane. It might explain why Wake himself comes across as such an action hero–seriously, is the game commentary on the hubris of writers always making the heroes of their stories be writers?–and why his friends have such overly written dialogue, as well as those “collect ’em all” novel pages. It’s like they’re all living in a pulp thriller. Interesting? Perhaps. Intentional? I don’t know. There are further Alan Wake installments–but not the promised sequel–and I imagine they might confirm or deny, or at least expand upon, this theory. A more important question, unfortunately, is whether I’d want to play them. The answer is maybe, but I’d need at least one level that wasn’t just set in a spooky forest.