Friday, April 6, 10:05 a.m.-ish: Call me an optimist, or maybe just a nitwit, but I was really looking forward to starting my day with Blockers, director Kay Cannon's tale of three middle-aged parents who attempt to foil their daughters' prom-night plan to lose their collective virginity. Sure, its central conceit, as several characters here point out, was sexist, retrograde, and more than a little icky, and there was bound to be an awkward blend of slapstick and sentiment, and the previews' comedic highlight was the sight of John Cena chugging beer through his anus. Still, though: Potential belly laughs! Likable leads! John Cena chugging beer through his anus!
Yet that turns out not to be the movie's funniest bit, and my biggest problem with Blockers was that, even if pressed, I couldn't pinpoint what was, and not because there were too many options to choose from. Cannon's directorial debut is a perfectly harmless time-waster, but at no point is it inspired, or surprising, or truly subversive; tone down the language and excise a few naked body parts, and it could be a super-size TGIF sitcom complete with life lessons, hugs, and a studio audience sighing “Aw-w-w-w!” (While Cannon didn't write the screenplay credited to Brian and Jim Kehoe, there's far more bite to be found in her 2012 Pitch Perfect and the numerous scripts she wrote for 30 Rock.) Set in a Chicago suburb that doesn't look remotely like a Chicago suburb, the film merely sends Cena, Leslie Mann, and Ike Barinholtz on their misguided mission and tosses in a few low-comedy set pieces before the leads have a teary reckoning regarding their selfish stupidity. At which point, with a half-hour to go, they continue with their misguided mission, and all hopes for intelligence, insight, and even basic sense fly out the window – as do the laughs, which dry up the instant we're asked to believe that these hyperactive cartoons are in possession of actual beating hearts.
In the end, I suppose the disappointment of Blockers shouldn't be unexpected. But it was still unfortunate, if occasionally mitigated by random bursts of personality. Kathryn Newton (getting a far happier ending than the one she received in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Gideon Adlon, and the live wire Geraldine Viswanathan play the teen daughters with just enough distinction to be memorable, and among their beaus, Miles Robbins is a hoot as a slacker with a man-bun whose habit of adding drugs to everything has earned him the nickname “The Chef.” Barinholtz and Mann bring their ace timing to sketchy roles, the latter's portrayal only compromised by a sadly phony flow of CGI tears. And Cena, who has morphed into a wonderful screen comedian, continues to suggest the human equivalent of the animated Ferdinand the bull he voiced in December: a freakishly buff softie you can't help but want to hug. At one point here, Barinholtz tells Cera, “You're not Schwarzenneger!” So true. This guy's way better.
12:15 p.m.-ish: Anyone familiar with John Krasinski through his nine seasons as The Office's Jim Halpert knows that the man, with his priceless takes to the camera, scored many of his finest moments non-verbally. I have no idea if that at all inspired Krasinski's decision to act in, direct, and co-write the burgeoning horror smash A Quiet Place, with its original script by the Bluebox Films duo of Bettendorf natives Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. But Krasinski is clearly getting a lot of mileage out of the “silence is golden” concept, because not only is this intensely clever nerve-frayer the easy highlight of the former Jim's post-Office career, but one that reminds us – both thrillingly and sometimes frustratingly – how much cinematic pleasure can come from the complete absence of sound.
Everyone I know adored the movie's initial preview and its easy-to-grasp hook: Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and their two screen children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe, the latter so great in Suburbicon and Wonder) are living in a world beset by monsters who will, or can, attack only if they hear you. That largely mute trailer was sublime, and promised a fright film in which you almost couldn't help but hold your breath for fear of breaking its spell (or causing the unseen beasts to turn their attentions on you). But it was the damnedest thing: Every single time I saw it at the cineplex – which was easily over a half-dozen times – the preview was accompanied by audience members talking through it, or making too much noise getting to their seats, or, in one instance, accepting a phone call. I worried that A Quiet Place's very patrons would mar the experience. It turns out, though, that the movie's true enemy of silence is the movie itself, because Marco Beltrami's über-insistent score keeps unnecessarily underlining emotions, themes, and shocks that are already being beautifully presented by Krasinski, the wisely hushed and exaggerated sound effects, and the deeply empathetic performances. Who needs pushy music cues when we have compositions this richly evocative, cacophonies this resonant (some of them coming from the monsters' POV), and the shattering expressiveness of Millicent Simmonds' face?
That said, the movie is still fantastic, albeit the sort of fantastic that's frequently indistinguishable from unbearable. Nothing on Krasinski's résumé hinted that he was capable of producing such marvelously sustained scenes of tension and terror, but there are oodles of them here, and he pulls off equal parts excitement and nightmarishness in sequences involving a grain silo, flooded basement, and soon-to-be-legendary exposed nail. (This bit is handled with so much “I can't look but I have to” panache that you barely have time to question why on Earth that nail would ever be sticking out of the basement step the way it is.) There are superbly rendered visual details regarding everything from the monsters' possible origin to the fastidious steps taken to ensure survival, with added invention coming from genre conceits that initially seem like overkill – “What if the mom was pregnant? What if the daughter was deaf?” – but wind up raising the emotional ante in wildly satisfying ways that never feel forced. And in a film with only six speaking roles, the four leads create a family dynamic so tender, complex, and moving that A Quiet Place emerges as the incredibly rare scare flick with the power to make you bawl your eyes out, especially in one potent closeup on Simmonds (the deaf wunderkind from Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck) in which you watch the girl's childhood end in one horrific act of violence and one supreme act of love. I couldn't be more delighted about what the movie's considerable early success might mean for Beck and Woods, who already have loads of future projects lined up. Let's hope one of them is being tailored expressly for Simmonds, because just like the Bluebox talents, that kid deserves to be a star.
1:40-ish: Because A Quiet Place runs a just-right 85 minutes (not including end credits), I manage to not miss a second of Chappaquiddick, which details the personal and political ramifications of the fatal 1969 accident that found then-Senator Ted Kennedy driving his car off a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island and his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne – a former aide to Ted's deceased brother Robert – losing her life. We seem to get these sorts of cinematic explorations into the Kennedy-clan mythology on a nearly annual basis, and whether they're blunt (last fall's LBJ), austere (2016's Jackie), or loopy (2006's Bobby), they're generally greeted with an understandable measure of solemnity. So it was with immense, though not unamused, astonishment that some 30 minutes into the screening, nearby viewers and I heard a front-row patron loudly voice an unusual sentiment regarding the film's protagonist: “He was a dumb son of a bitch!” It would've been a harder moment to laugh off if director John Curran's movie weren't suggesting that this vocal patron may have been right.
This isn't meant to impugn Kennedy's intelligence, or to imply that portrayer Jason Clarke was delivering a simplistic or insulting performance. Far from it, as the actor was actually giving a phenomenally tricky, complex, and rewarding performance, showing the Kennedy scion to be so tortured by expectation, birthright, and basic heredity that he no longer knew – if he ever did – how to behave as a functional adult. (One of the meaner yet more telling moments in Taylor Allen's and Andrew Logan's script finds Ted miserably upset over news footage of his actions and switching the channel to a black-and-white episode of Davey & Goliath, which finally brings a smile to the man's face.) But Chappaquiddick, to its credit, doesn't at all try to hide the notion that its subject – at least during and after that horrific July accident that led to the Senator, almost immediately, telling associates "I'm never going to be president" – may in fact have just been a dumb son of a bitch. No one but Ted Kennedy and the deceased Kopechne will ever really know what happened that night, and Curran's film doesn't try to offer answers, though it does offer hints of answers. (Behind the wheel, a seemingly drunken Ted looks only semi-conscious and -coherent, and there's a quick flash of him and Kopechne leaving their positions on the hood of Ted's car right before making their fateful drive.) But the movie does dive deep and hard into what Ted's incomprehensible behavior led to: police fishing Kopechne's corpse from the lake while the senator enjoyed a leisurely brunch; smoke-filled rooms of men in ties exploding at the legion of post-accident stupidities; Robert McNamara (a very good Clancy Brown), upon hearing about an idiotic lie told to the press, growling, “Bay of Pigs was a better-run operation.” Despite being a film without definitive solutions, the searching, potent procedural Chappaquiddick delivers a hell of a fascinating mystery, and it deserves props for its twinned refusal to deliver either blind hero worship or equally blind idol-smashing.
The cast, too, is mostly sensational. Ed Helms is a tad too shtick-y for Ted's relationship with brotherly cousin Joe Gargan to fully register, which it needs to for the humiliating sight of Gargan holding Ted's TV-address cue cards to hurt as much as it should. But fellow comedian Jim Gaffigan makes for a hushed and haunted Paul Markham, the ever-adroit Olivia Thirlby is a welcome presence as aide Rachel Schiff, and Bruce Dern is frighteningly forceful as Ted's father Joe Kennedy; even paralyzed by a stroke, the man is utterly terrifying when grabbing his son by the back of his neck and insisting “You will never be great.” Kate Mara, meanwhile, is lovely and sad in her few scenes as Chappaquiddick's Kopechne, though I'm frankly surprised she agreed to the role. After that subway-station encounter with Kevin Spacey in her final House of Cards episode, Mara should really have known better than to leave herself alone with another politician.
4:05-ish: My quadruple feature wraps with The Miracle Season, director Sean McNamara's inspirational – and, needless to say, real-life – sports drama that follows the astounding road to state championship as 2011's Iowa City West High School volleyball team regroups and rallies after star player Caroline “Line” Found dies in a tragic moped accident. I'm praying that I'll like the movie, partly because I always want to like movies, but mostly because the film's setting and characters are obviously near and dear to the hearts of many area viewers, and nobody wants to be the spoiler. And I do end up liking … a few things. Such as the heartbroken decency of William Hurt as Line's grieving father, even when this salt-of-the-earth doctor has to deliver wincers such as the one he utters to Line's best friend and the team's new captain Kelly (Erin Moriarty): “I may be the surgeon, but you're the healer.” Helen Hunt brings no-nonsense tough love to her role as coach Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan, despite the performer's self-conscious accent and all-too-obvious character arc. The girls playing Line's teammates are genial. Danika Yarosh, who plays Line, resembles her subject accurately enough and apparently took to heart the mention of her as “the sworn enemy of pauses in conversation.” And I smiled when a November bus trip to a climactic match found the vehicle passing through acres upon acres of deep snow, suggesting that whomever had done the research on a typical mid-to-late-fall in Iowa had definitely done his or her homework.
But while I spend nearly 100 minutes hating myself for it, I don't like McNamara's movie. I don't like that it opens with a shot of corn, which serves as both a patronizing state signifier and a warning about the type of film we're in for. I don't like the golden-hued, slow-motion reverie that follows it, nor that composer Roque Baños, on every single lump-in-the-throat moment, accompanies the images with mournful horns and rumbling timpani that helplessly, almost litigiously, bring to mind James Horner's iconic score for Field of Dreams. I don't like how Kelly narrates at the movie's start and then doesn't narrate again for over an hour. I don't like that the volleyball scenes don't show continuous play beyond bump-set-strike, or that there are zero surprises in how the matches – or the narrative – will turn out, given that Brez tells her team they have to win 15 out of 15 to make it to state and the film's title is, of course, The Miracle Season. I don't like that Kelly tells her boyfriend (Burkely Duffield) “I'm so sorry I've been MIA lately” when we haven't seen her MIA with him at all. I don't like that the film introduces Line's dying mother (Jillian Fargey) for manipulative tearjerking, and then never tells us what happened to Mom, even in the end-credits update. (For those left wondering, Ellyn Found passed away just 12 days after her daughter's death.) I don't like the Katy Perry songs used as replacements for honest emotion … twice. I don't like the snow angels made in “snow” that may as well be confetti. I don't like that, when Line and Kelly tape game-night posters on Iowa City storefront windows, they tape them on the windows' exteriors, which no one in their right mind would do. Hell, I don't like that Iowa City is being played by Vancouver, for Pete's sake.
But all the reasons I don't care for the film are inconsequential. Because during the scenes surrounding Line's death, and particularly during her funeral, a girl sitting in or near the back row of our screening was sobbing so hard that it immediately made moot any complaints, legitimate or otherwise, you could make about The Miracle Season. I have no earthly way of knowing whether this patron actually knew Caroline Found, or any of her friends – or if, quite possibly, she was one of those friends. What I do know from her vocal reaction was that she was either reliving some kind of pain or feeling some kind of catharsis from the experience of McNamara's tribute – as will, no doubt, many others in the area. So no, I didn't care for the film. I hope that those wanting or needing to see it anyway know that my opinion doesn't matter a damn.
6:00-ish: I head home and, over dinner, catch a few minutes of TV before heading out for the evening. There's a commercial for Blockers, and my immediate thought is, “Oh, I want to see that!” Clearly it's been a long day.