Friday, October 13, 10 a.m.-ish: “LIVE HARD. FIGHT HARDER.” So reads the tagline, capital letters and all, on the poster for Marshall, meaning you wouldn't be wrong for anticipating a Bruce Willis action pic or an everyman-superhero tale à la Will Smith's Hancock. (“That guy playing Marshall ... isn't he the Black Panther?!”) But director Reginald Hudlin's period/courtroom/race drama – the pleasant start to my latest quadruple feature – is actually inspired by a 1941 case in the career of Thurgood Marshall, who, of course, later became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. In other words, it's kind of like an origin story for the hard-living, harder-fighting lawyer, and the movie's great surprise is that it's closer in spirit to an enjoyable comic-book yarn than the prototypical Oscar Bait its subject matter would seem to dictate.
You sense this from the very first scene, which finds Marshall ironing clothes and preparing for the day, and finally stepping into the frame with actor Chadwick Boseman – the Black Panther himself – looking sensationally debonair and confident as the film's title appears in proud, magenta block letters. If that's not a hero's entrance, I don't know what is, and composer Marcus Miller's jaunty score quickly indicates that there's no evil our famously upstanding attorney can't vanquish, at least in these specific two hours of screen time. (Not 10 minutes into the film, a trio of racists with a shotgun threaten Marshall's life at a train depot, and he casually brushes them off with a witty retort and the flick of a cigarette.) It should consequently go without saying that those seeking complexity and nuance will have to search elsewhere. Nearly everything here feels overtly simplified and homogenized, from Marshall's burgeoning friendship with fellow defense lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) to the central rape trial, with the innocence of Sterling K. Brown's accused chauffeur telegraphed in the obvious, haughty portrayals by Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, and James Cromwell. And even if you appreciate the overall lightness of tone, as I did, the material certainly demands an occasionally tougher presentation than Hudlin delivers. Did we really need a joke mere seconds after Friedman's wife learned that family members were being sent to the Kraków Ghetto?
Yet Marshall still boasts a fair number of surprises – including the information that, as he was visiting from another state, Marshall wasn't allowed to speak during the film's Connecticut-based trial – and inspires a winning turn from Gad, whose journey from endearing schmuck to righteous defender of the people is practically a superhero arc of its own. Equally likable, if far less expansive, performances are given by Ahna O'Reilly, John Magaro, Jeffrey DeMunn, acting-legend-in-the-making Brown, and the forever-awesome Roger Guenveur Smith. And then there's Boseman, who, having played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall in the span of four years, is starting to suggest there's no groundbreaking 20th Century figure he couldn't convincingly enact with skill, compassion, and deep intelligence. Maybe Amelia Earhart. But even then I'd put my money on Boseman, and if I soon see kids in my neighborhood trick-or-treating in Marshall's wardrobe of trench coats, wing-tips, and fedoras, I won't be the least bit surprised.
Noon-ish: What would a Friday the 13th be without a good horror movie? The answer this time around proves to be “just another Friday,” because instead of a good one, I'm at Happy Death Day. To be fair, director Christopher Landon's comedy-chiller isn't nearly as bad as most. It's just too fundamentally timid and squeamish to be satisfying as either scare flick or spoof. You could pretty accurately describe the goings-on in four words – “Groundhog Day fright film” – given that Jessica Rothe plays a sardonic sorority sister who has to to re-live the same day, her birthday, over and over until she figures out who's responsible for her eventual murder. But you could also describe what's happening in three words – “Before I Fall” – because if you swap murder for a car accident, it's exactly this past February's wake-up/die/repeat outing with Zoey Deutch, which also concerned a popular girl supernaturally forced to suppress her bee-yotch tendencies and become a nicer person. Thankfully, this incredibly specific sub-genre is inherently fun regardless of our familiarity with it. And although Rothe is beautiful yet slightly nondescript here (suggesting ingénues ranging from Deutch to Emma Roberts to Glee's Dianna Agron), she definitely gives the film her all, emerging as both fearless comedienne and first-rate screamer.
Unfortunately, the hardworking Rothe isn't enough to overcome the dispiriting lack of genuine laughs and scares. Its PG-13 rating should probably have implied as much right off the bat, just like its title, which almost seems like a put-on of some kind – the cleverest horror-comedy moniker a team of first-graders could devise. Yet excepting Rachel Matthews, a stitch as the sharp-tongued sorority president, no one comes close to approaching Rothe's farcical assurance, and beyond the funny and inventive Universal Pictures-logo opener and the background killing that's ignored due to texting, screenwriter Scott Lobdell's situations aren't amusing enough to warrant comparisons to Groundhog Day.
The bigger problem, however, is that Happy Death Day is such a bust as a thriller. Bear McCreary's oppressive score nullifies the shocks rather than abetting them, and the movie cheats badly by routinely showing Rothe's tormentor to be a hulking dude and then proposing that her assassin is, instead, a petite woman, when we've had loads of visual proof that he isn't. Intentionally otherworldly plotting or not, precious little makes sense on even a second's reflection, and the sheer tonnage of clichés – vacated hospital, ineffectual cops, climactic bell tower – would be more entertaining if Langdon appeared to be aware of them as clichés. Also, not for nothing: What's with the killer's goofy-ass mask? It's probably meant to freak us out in a so-inane-it's-riotous-and-terrifying way. But there are plenty of Alec Baldwin characters, including one he's currently playing on Saturday Night Live, whose visages would be more comically nightmarish than the one we get here. Despite the weapon, is there anyone who could possibly feel threatened by a knife-wielding Boss Baby?
1:40 p.m.-ish: Movie number three is The Foreigner, and any viewers mistakenly expecting a film version of Larry Shue's slapstick staple for community theatre will have their hopes dashed the moment Jackie Chan's pretty teen daughter, in metropolitan London, gets blown up in an IRA-fueled terrorist attack. Considering the world we live in, it's hard to imagine an uglier, more manipulative way of opening a conventional revenge thriller. I was consequently relieved and rather astonished to discover that director Martin Campbell's offering, despite trafficking in typically disreputable and all-too-literal “explosiveness,” was intent on treating its matters of international terrorism, policy debate, and Irish and British hostilities with a welcome seriousness of purpose. It was Jackie Chan's scenes that made me want to tear my hair out.
Even more surprising than the film's gravity is that its political element – with Pierce Brosnan cast as a powerful government mediator firmly yet secretly on the side of the Irish – usurps about two-thirds of the screen time compared to Chan's one-third. I was totally on-board with the imbalance. Brosnan has spectacularly fiery exchanges with the superb Dermot Crowley's pissed-off militant regarding just how much damage to inflict, and there's mystery and unpredictability in watching divisive IRA factions taking care of internal business. (In real life, there'd be little need for global manhunts if terrorists were this active about offing one another.) Campbell, meanwhile, pulls off some terrific staging in these sequences, with the climactic race to find an airport explosive particularly nerve-racking. But while the in-fighting amongst the IRA gets the lion's share of attention, we're never allowed to forget that this is still a Jackie Chan showcase, and as such, it's a pretty embarrassing one.
Forget that the Chinese star, for all his inherent likability, doesn't have nearly the dramatic-acting prowess necessary to play a grieving mensch with tear-filled eyes and a shuffling gait that brings to mind Tim Conway's Mr. Tudball on The Carol Burnett Show. Adapted from novelist Stephen Leather's less politically correct title The Chinaman, The Foreigner also turns the vengeance-minded Chan into a former Rambo still capable of amazing dexterity and formidable ass-kicking, and one who, just like Sly, can easily booby-trap an entire forest with trip wires and hidden spikes with no one nearby noticing. At age 63, Chan can't be blamed for requiring (rather obvious) stuntmen and green-screen effects more than he used to. But he can be faulted for accepting such a ludicrous figure for his coming-out party as a dramatic actor, as well as a movie that's determined to shift him into “character roles” while purportedly and nonsensically giving us the same ol' Jackie Chan of yore. The man is way too singular a talent to be turned, at this late date, into Liam Neeson.
4:45 p.m.-ish: My first movie of the day opened with a title card reading “Based on a true story.” So does my last movie of the day. But not knowing much in advance about this particular movie, I wasn't prepared for a true story as fascinating, strange, and downright kinky as the one in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women. Writer/director Angela Robinson, whose last feature film was 2005's Herbie Fully Loaded (!), tells of the complicated love triangle (as if there's any other kind) between Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his brilliant and neurotic wife Elizabeth, and his dewy college student who grows deeply in love with both of them. This girl, by the way, is Olive Byrne, the niece of iconic eugenicist Margaret Sanger. The Marstons collaborated on the invention of one of the world's first lie detectors. And the Marstons and Byrne lived together for many years as a functional suburban family, with William the father of two of the women's children apiece. Put all that into a comic-book with multi-colored panels and dialogue balloons, and no one would ever buy it.
Yet I completely bought into Robinson's film, even though, like Marshall, it's clearly watering down a far more complex tale, and boasts an all-too-familiar bio-pic structure in which events of the past are presented through flashback-inducing testimony delivered in the movie's present. I was mostly fine with the latter because Marston's saga was being recounted to a morality cop played by Connie Britton, whose every film (and TV, and talk-show) appearance is to be savored. But I was fine with everything, really, because the narrative was so unusually gripping, because Robinson showed such tender empathy for her leads and their plight, and because Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote enacted their characters' unconventional romance with true feeling and beautifully delineated confusion.
Barely a scene passes, even at the trio's happiest, when flashes of “What the hell are we doing?!” don't flash across someone's face, and the shared devotion and panic make this romance feel intensely delicate and moving, as though it would only take one harsh wind to blow it to pieces. (Instead, it's a neighbor walking into their home uninvited, and seeing Elizabeth and the nude William tied up with Olive holding the rope. You know – that old story.) All three leads, the fiercely direct Hall especially, are smashing. But Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is also a great time for its bevy of grace notes, from the parallels between the protagonists' relationship and Wonder Woman's powers (lie detector = golden lasso!) to our skim through early Wonder Woman comics that demonstrate just how bondage- and S&M-heavy those early works really were. If the movie is any kind of hit, expect an immediate fanboy petition for Gal Gadot to star in them.
6:50-ish: Driving home, and imagining Marston creating a comic-book character named Thurgood Marshall who has to eternally relive the day he avenged his daughter's death. These quadruple features do tend to blend.