Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy


Throughout most of director Shawn Levy's action comedy Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds walks and runs and drives around with an expression of awed, smiling wonder. That was pretty much my expression throughout the film, too. I literally can't remember the last time extravagant visual effects in a non-animated movie were employed almost solely in the service of joy, but this cinematic video game is nothing but joy – a brainy, imaginative, unexpectedly touching Hollywood blockbuster that, in a refreshing change of pace, isn't trying to overpower us. It's merely trying to tickle us, and Levy's outing is easily one of the most ticklish mass entertainments that 2021 has yet delivered.

Free Guy will likely be even more fun if you're hip to the current gaming scene – which, despite my adoration for AppleTV+'s Mythic Quest, I most assuredly am not. That didn't, however, prevent me from following the storyline, convoluted though it is. In Reynolds' world, he's Guy, a mild-mannered bank teller in a blue shirt whose daily life – like that of The Lego Movie's Emmet – is one predictably happy moment after another: extending a morning greeting to his goldfish; ordering the same cup of coffee from the same friendly barista; checking in with his best buddy Buddy (Lil Rey Howery); getting robbed at gunpoint by an endless cycle of masked thieves. In our world, though, Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in the elaborate, open-world video game Free City, whose coding was stolen from its original creators (Jodie Comer's Millie and Joe Keery's Walter) by douchey developer Antwan (the pricelessly funny Taika Waititi). The film consequently finds Millie entering the game as her avatar “Molotov Girl” in order to find proof of Antwan's larceny, while Guy finds himself acting in increasingly uncharacteristic fashion after falling instantly in love with his city's new visitor. And then things start getting really complicated.

To discuss screenwriters Matt Lieberman's and Zak Penn's plot in detail is to risk making it sound nonsensical, and also to risk making it sound like an unwieldy mishmash of at least a dozen other movies and TV series. There's the “same day every day” element familiar from Groundhog Day and Palm Springs and Russian Doll, as well as the “your world is not what you think” scenario from The Maxtrix and The Truman Show. The movie is video-gamey in the way of Ready Player One and (ugh) Hardcore Henry; cartoonishly violent in the manner of Looney Tunes' “Duck Season/Rabbit Season” short; apocalyptic in the style of nearly every comic-book adventure ever. Yet the tone remains exceptionally lighthearted, as if Levy's movie were taking its cue from the unremitting sunniness of its star. Reynolds is unfailingly winning here, with Guy so jazzed by the prospect of life beyond the norm that he can't help but win over (most) everyone in his orbit, among them the real-life Free City players who don't understand how this background figure has suddenly become the game's biggest draw. (Commentary on the escalating lunacy is provided by actual video-game streamers including Jacksepticeye, Ninja, and Pokimane … all of whose presences will undeniably mean more to others than they did to me.) Guy is Truman Burbank, he's George Bailey, he's Ted Lasso – he's the one who makes you feel anything is possible. Watching Free Guy, you start to believe that anything is.

Jodie Comer and Joe Keery in Free Guy

Levy's film wasn't even a half-hour old before I lost track of how many set pieces and random throwaways floored me with their cleverness and invention, and man alive, they just kept comin'. Guy donning a pair of avatar sunglasses and seeing his familiar world newly bursting with available cash prizes and awesome weaponry and, as the screen shows us, “subtle product placement.” Avatars of less capable gamers manically jumping in place or attempting to climb un-climbable walls. Channing Tatum showing up as an avataristic bad-ass whose slithery dance moves get a li-i-ittle too close to Guy for comfort. (His and ours; Tatum is freaking comedy genius in this role.) Reynolds' face superimposed on a hulking, monosyllabic monolith named “Dude.” Waititi's Antwan working so hard at Gen-Z conversational stylings that he seems to be speaking in a made-up language all his own. And beyond the inspired silliness, Free Guy manages to give us not one, not two, but three legitimately affecting romances: one in which Guy falls for Molotov Girl; one in which Millie falls, knowingly yet impossibly, for Guy; and one in which Walter pines after Millie through a coded message we keep waiting for her to discern. (Comer is absolutely magical in the film and a wonderful screen partner to Reynolds, who, despite his looks and talents, has a shockingly paltry supply of romantic leads on his résumé.)

I could have done without the oppressive sentimentality attached to the “Live life to the fullest!” and “Be whatever you want to be!” moralizing that was far more effective in The Lego Movie, and there are six or seven endings when two or three, really, would have sufficed. I was also momentarily bummed (though in no way surprised) when I learned that after only one day in theaters, a sequel was already being planned. For now, however, let's rejoice: Free Guy isn't a sequel. It isn't based on a comic book – or any other example of “intellectual property.” It just is. And it is delightful.

Jennifer Hudson in Respect


It's no doubt the role of a lifetime, but you kind of have to feel bad for anyone cast as Aretha Franklin, because for the love of Pete, what performer could possibly live up to that challenge? (It's kind of like getting cast in the role of God, and even though George Burns, Morgan Freeman, and Steve Buscemi have all taken a crack at it, I'd be astonished to learn that any of those guys definitively nailed Him.) Yet while I haven't caught up with Cynthia Erivo's Emmy-nominated rendition of The Queen of Soul for National Geographic's Genius series, I'm here to report that, in director Liesl Tommy's Respect, a singer/actor proved so believable and moving as Franklin that I was practically in tears all throughout her performance. And guess what: The singer/actor I'm referring to isn't Jennifer Hudson.

She's actually a youth named Skye Dakota Turner, and she plays Aretha as a 10-year-old, and for the 20-ish minutes she's on-screen at the start of Tommy's musical bio-pic, the movie is utterly transfixing. By now, we all know the deal with movies of this type: We'll be given a little bit of the subject's childhood before being introduced to the adult version, in which the dogmatic genre tenets – humble beginnings, first brush of fame, road to superstardom, intense personal crises, artistic downfall, rehabilitation, triumph – will fall neatly into place. This is the first cinematic ode to a famous musician I've seen in which I wanted the film to only be its childhood section.

Granted, such a take would have kept us from hearing any of Franklin's signature hits. But it would also have given us two hours in the company of Turner, who, even at her very young age, is already such a beautiful singer, naturalistic actor, and captivating presence that I never wanted her scenes to end. She's marvelous opposite her equally committed co-stars Forest Whitaker (as Aretha's father C.L.) and Tituss Burgess (as family friend James Cleveland), and when the 10-year-old sits at the piano and croons alongside Audra McDonald as Franklin's mom (the stage legend is fleetingly employed as an icon, and as you'd expect, she's spectacular at it), the love and tenderness that radiate from the screen are enough to warm the entire auditorium. For those 20-ish minutes with Turner, Respect is close to perfect. Then Jennifer Hudson takes over, and only the songs are perfect.

Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige in Respect

This isn't meant to demean the Dreamgirls Oscar winner, who certainly gives her borderline-impossible role a solid shot and does about as well as anyone could under the prototypical circumstances. But beyond not looking like Aretha and, in truth, not sounding much like her, Hudson isn't a fundamentally interesting-enough actor to make screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson's rags-to-riches progression triumph over its inherent clichés. Too much of Hudson's screen time is spent with Franklin looking dazed and distracted by her circumstances (and this is when the character is sober), and when the star's alcohol-fueled “demons” come to the fore, they feel like hollow, context-free acting exercises that allow Hudson to rage and teeter and slip into catatonia, but don't feel connected to the scenes that proceed and follow them. They're merely clips – or, more specifically, Oscar clips.

Most musical bio-pics play like filmed Wikipedia pages with accompanying tunes, and Respect is no different, dutifully giving us the figures we expect (Marlan Wayans is abusive husband/manager Ted White; Marc Maron is record producer Jerry Wexler) and the scenes we expect (Aretha singing at MLK's funeral; the recording of Franklin's seminal Amazing Grace album). But they don't have a satisfying through-line, and Hudson doesn't deliver an emotional equivalent in her portrayal. What made this woman all but abandon her two young children? What made her become such a fierce advocate for civil rights? What makes Aretha tick? By the end of Respect, unfortunately, you won't have a clearer understanding of Franklin than you did at its start. (Incredibly, with only a couple minutes to do it in, the extraordinary Mary J. Blige makes you feel that you know her Dinah Washington inside and out through one incensed action and one grudging act of détente.)

But lord almighty – those songs. She may not be entirely vocally reminiscent of The Queen, yet Hudson gets there a few times (especially on her climactic rendition of “Amazing Grace”), and even when she doesn't, she's still a vocal-powerhouse force of nature. Plus, there are all those other smashes to consider from the movie's 1958-to-'72 repertoire: “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Ain't No Way,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Spanish Harlem.” Hudson's acting in Respect is generally iffy, and it's not completely her fault when it is. But her vocal performances are divine, and the music makes Tommy's directorial debut worthwhile even when you're not particularly enjoying the experience. This is a movie that, in its wondrous Skye Dakota Turner section, features a dining room full of family members singing “Happy Birthday,” and when was the last time you wanted to give that composition a standing ovation?

Emilia Jones in CODA


Believe it or not, a performance of “Happy Birthday” also plays a significant part in the other musical drama that debuted this past weekend: CODA, writer/director Siân Heder's tale of a teenage child of deaf adults – hence the titular acronym – who longs to leave her family's Massachusetts-based fishing business and embark on a career as a singer. (The film began its AppleTV+ streaming on Friday and opens August 20 at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey.) It's a sweet, formulaic, modestly touching entertainment with a lot of friendly humor and a heart as big as the sky. It is not, however, in any way deserving of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Audience Award it received at this January's Sundance Film Festival, to say nothing of the record-breaking $25 million that Apple paid to secure distribution rights. I'd say that the Sundance air in Park City, Utah, was perhaps unusually thin this year for such fervid overreactions to take place, but considering the movie screened virtually, that theory really doesn't hold water.

Frankly, not much of CODA does. Ignoring the relative novelty of the film's three deaf characters being played by three deaf actors (Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and Oscar-winning icon Marlee Matlin), this is traditional coming-of-age schmaltz to its teeth. Our high-school-senior heroine Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) has one best friend and one cute crush and suffers indignities at the hands of her school's token Mean Girls; Ruby fights her parents for independence while they remain adamant that she stay protected at home; she wows the Berklee College of Music faculty despite showing up to her audition a half-hour late without her requested sheet music. (Details like this make me crazy, because in real life, Ruby would've been booted from that audition before ever stepping on stage.)

Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, and Marlee Matlin in CODA

Oh, and of course Ruby has an eccentric choir director to push and harangue and champion her, and because this stereotype is played here by Eugenio Derbez, he's even more of a blight on the proceedings than usual. (The guy isn't without skills, but every time Derbez pops up on-screen, he immediately, helplessly turns his material into aggressive sitcom shtick.) Even though it's based on a 2014 French film, CODA kind of boasts everything I generally can't stand about YA-lit adaptations, and at times, Heder's well-meaning flourishes are utterly confounding. Yes, it's endearing that Ruby eventually both sings and signs Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now” in front of her family. But would the clan really be beaming quite so euphorically after Ruby, staring directly at them, got to the lyric “I really don't know love at all”?

Still, the movie has its merits. Jones is an appealing presence with a gorgeous voice and a welcome sardonic streak, and she has lovely scenes with each of her deaf co-stars; Durant reveals impressive internal fire as Ruby's Tinder-obsessed brother, Matlin is earthy yet luminous as Ruby's former-beauty-queen mom, and Kotsur, who plays Ruby's dad, delivers the film's biggest laughs and lump-in-the-throat moments. (The parents' insatiable sex life is the source of most of the film's humor, and an unexpectedly rich source it is.) And while its particulars are sometimes vexing – the Rossis' continued financial crisis is solved in the sitcom-iest manner imaginable – the basic plot is a sturdy one for coming-of-age melodrama. CODA is pleasant and amiable and watchable. It just isn't very good. I'd like to think that the Sundance awards and dough it amassed simply mean that the film's competition was worse. But then again, because we'll be seeing even more Sundance titles in the coming months, I really don't want to think that, either.

Stephen Lang in Don't Breathe 2


In 2016's Don't Breathe, a blind man and former Navy SEAL named Norman (Stephen Lang) got revenge on his home intruders in increasingly gruesome fashion, and because five years between the release of horror flicks and their sequels is pretty much an eternity, I get why no one I've spoken to even remembers that the first film exists. Yet it does, and it's terrifying, and director Rodo Sayagues' Don't Breathe 2 is an equally effective, if understandably less novel, piece of work – not a lot of fun, to be sure, but crafty and admirably repellant, and boasting another tremendous portrayal by Lang.

This one finds a group of louts (led by the eternally loutish Brendan Sexton III) attempting to kidnap Norman's “adopted” 12-year-old daughter for queasy purposes initially left unexplained. Norman goes ballistic. That's essentially the whole movie. But that turns out to be plenty given Sayagues' gifts for sustained tension and scuzzy atmosphere; the uncommonly fine performance by Madelyn Grace as Norman's charge; Norman's satisfyingly nightmarish attack methods; and, of course, revered stage actor Lang, who seems aware that he has the low-rent opportunity of a career and is prepared to make a meal of it. It's entirely possible that people on set told the actor he actually wasn't playing King Lear, but if they did, I'm glad he didn't listen or agree; with his raspy high voice offsetting his physical and emotional fearsomeness, this is as close to a full-throttle Shakespearean portrayal as modern fright films will likely ever give us. Its genre simplicity makes Sayagues' follow-up somewhat hard to recall even a day after the experience. Yet it's completely arresting in the moment, and I won't soon forget the wittiness of the command issued to Norman's daughter, and to us, in Don't Breathe 2: “Breathe.” I was so conflicted.

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