THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES
Given that Netflix's The Mitchells vs the Machines features a stereotypically recognizable suburban family – chubby dad, harried mom, angst-y teen daughter, feisty pre-teen son – who embark on a world-saving mission, it makes sense that the film's preview pointedly references The Incredibles, despite this new release not being a product of the Pixar brain trust. (It's actually by the guys who gave us The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is just as good.) But it turns out that goosing us with the promise of Incredibles-esque fun isn't at all necessary, because TMvtM proves so clever, so exciting, and so consistently riotous that it already feels like a computer-animated comedy classic. It's literally been years since I've laughed so hard at a movie, and I didn't even need a crowd of equally delighted cineplex patrons to keep me roaring – though I sure wouldn't have minded one.
Our chief protagonist and frequent narrator is recently graduated high-school senior Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson), a ravenous cinephile and creator of inventive YouTube videos who's leaving her Michigan home to attend film school in California. In voice-over, she describes her clan – father Rick (Danny McBride), mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), and little brother Aaron (TMvtM director Mike Rianda) – as “the worst family in the world,” although they really don't seem worse than any other family: Dad's an endearing goofus in the Clark Griswold mold; Mom's a natural planner and worrier; Aaron likes to pretend he's a dinosaur. (There's also a cross-eyed pug, Monchi, who looks like some weird blend of dog, pig, and loaf of bread – a resemblance that becomes a significant plot point.) Desperate for one last chance at familial bonding before his daughter potentially leaves forever, Rick cancels Katie's flight and announces, to the girl's mortification, that the Mitchells will instead be dropping her off at college after a week-long road trip in the family's '93 station wagon. They make it all the way to Kansas before the robot apocalypse.
Up to this point, Rianda's feature-film directing debut is fast-paced and friendly, wittily augmenting scenes with hand-dawn animation, live-action backdrops, and the occasional YouTube clip of a shrieking gibbon. Yet despite its energetic sunniness and winning vocal cast, little about the movie seems truly distinctive at first, and you begin wondering whether the trailer's nod to The Incredibles wasn't mood setting so much as wishful thinking. That all changes with the arrival of Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), a Silicon Valley tech whiz á la Steve Jobs whose new breed of Stormtrooper-like digital assistants will make his previous invention – an artificially intelligent cell phone named PAL – obsolete. “I know what you're thinking,” Mark says to the throngs at the PAL Max launch party. “'Are they gonna turn evil?'” Well … yeah. Within seconds, actually. The original PAL, you see, foresaw this eventuality and secretly programmed the debuting robot force to abduct humankind and secure them in compartmentalized pods where they'll live comfortably but alone, staring into screens for eternity. It says something that, like the floating space travelers of WALL●E, the captured masses don't much mind the arrangement. It says something else that the understandably pissed-off PAL is voiced by Olivia Colman. You don't wanna mess with her.
Yet mess with her the Mitchells do, and as this dysfunctional clan lurches and fumbles their way toward saving the human race, The Mitchells vs the Machines emerges as yet another singular triumph for producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who, by now, really have to be getting tired of topping themselves. While the script is credited to director Rianda and Jeff Rowe, you feel the Lord/Miller imprint all throughout their latest animated adventure; it's a work that grows as ticklish as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and as philosophically soulful as Spider-Verse, and there's so much lightning-quick slapstick that The Lego Movie looks practically lazy in comparison. The gags involving the toilet, the glass of water, and the unanticipated kick to the crotch each take about a half-second to execute. Each one caused me to laugh for at least 20 times that length.
Giving credit where it's certainly due, Rianda's and Rowe's screenplay is beautifully structured. The establishing scenes have just enough legitimate sentiment and sensitivity to make their eventual emotional payoffs feel earned, and the writers do a smashing job of planting apparent throwaway bits – baby Katie and her dad dancing to T.I.'s and Rihanna's “Live Your Life,” older Katie pranking Pop by having Monchi lick the guy's mouth – so that their late-film returns arrive as wonderfully unexpected gifts. Still, even though they're “only” producers for TMvtM, this is a Lord/Miller joint to its teeth, which is close to the highest possible praise I could give.
There are so many comedic fillips and routines here worth cherishing. Katie's scrappy videos ideal for the TikTok generation. Two damaged PAL Max robots – the hastily named Eric (Beck Bennett) and Deborahbot 5000 (Fred Armisen) – becoming Mitchell accomplices and surrogate family members. The horrifying return of the Furby. The nefarious PAL going into sleep mode while enduring a boring monologue. (Colman is breathtakingly funny in this role. I still haven't recovered from PAL's temper tantrum that begins with the directive “Place me on the table – I wish to flop around in a blind rage.”) Linda's maternal instinct entering Kill Bill territory. Rick, in disguise as a PAL Max, accidentally insulting a robot through cartoonishly voiced beeps and bloops. (“Just to educate you: That's a hurtful stereotype.”)
All told, Netflix's The Mitchells vs the Machines is miraculously enjoyable, as gorgeously designed as it is hilarious, and easily the best animated film I've seen since Spider-Verse. And while it was probably inevitable that we'd one day get a comedy of this sort that poked merciless fun at our reliance on those little communication rectangles forever in our reach, it's hard to imagine receiving a more savagely ironic one. Viewing the robots' wanton destruction on her phone, Linda asks, “Whoever thought a tech company wouldn't have our best interests at heart?!” That collective laugh you hear is a universal one … and one no doubt shared, to a great degree, by audiences watching the movie on their phones.
Modern horror films are generally rife with echoes – if not literal ones courtesy of wailing spirits or creepy children's choirs, then figurative ones that land via visual and aural references to other, frequently superior works. The echoes at the start of the cineplex fright flick Separation, however, were so off-putting that they pulled me out of the experience entirely. Director William Brent Bell's tale concerns a soon-to-be-divorced couple whose young daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw) becomes traumatized after a malevolent spirit begins visiting their New York City brownstone. Fair enough, as these things go. But the casting of the unhappily married pair feels so off, so inappropriately familiar, that I didn't watch the opening scenes with dread so much as bewilderment. British actor Rupert Friend plays the (American) dad, and while I understand that his ne'er-do-well comic-book artist has been designed more as a playmate than a parent, Friend is uncannily and distractingly reminiscent of Matthew Perry in the later seasons of Friends; you can practically hear his accompanying laugh track. And even though the ever-reliable Mamie Gummer plays the mom, albeit a mom calculated to be a hateful and vindictive harpy, the performer looks and sounds so much like her real-life mother Meryl Streep that the warring over Jenny's custody can't help but suggest Streep herself slumming in a B-grade horror knockoff. The overall effect is like if Chandler married Monica, but then they found themselves in Kramer vs. Kramer while their child was terrorized by the ghost of Phoebe's dead grandmother.
Despite the grounded and unflinching presence of Brian Cox as Gummer's judgmental, über-rich father – a welcome treat for those of us missing Succession – almost nothing about Bell's fiendishly dull genre entry is half as interesting as its troublesome lead casting. The “Grisly Kin” characters created by Friend's illustrator exude an enticingly nasty Nightmare Before Christmas vibe, but most of them are far more intriguing in repose than when brought to life, and the whole movie is so darkly lit that you can barely see what they're up to even when ambulatory. (In scenes of Friend at the drawing board, I was amazed he could see the paper.) The only true jolts, meanwhile, come from an automotive collision and a near-miss – and by this point in movies, whenever someone walks into a seemingly safe city street, I just assume they're gonna get hit by a car. Separation begins confoundingly, then becomes stultifying, and finally becomes just-plain silly. But kudos, at least, to the hideous clown dressed in striped, black-and-white prisoner attire who contorts his body like a pretzel and scampers across the ceiling in ways to give you the heebie-jeebies. This creature was a giggly blast in his limited screen time, but you really should expect more from a horror film than two appearances by a grinning weirdo better suited to Cirque du Soleil.
THINGS HEARD & SEEN
Like Separation, Netflix's new supernatural thriller Things Heard & Seen isn't the least bit scary, and it definitely would've helped if it had been. Unlike Separation, however, this offering by writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini – filmmaking spouses who get a never-ending Get Out of Jail Free card for giving us 2003's American Splendor – is easily watchable, thanks almost exclusively to its unexpectedly robust cast.
It's haunted-house time in New York again, but now it's 1980, and Amanda Seyfried's art restorer and James Norton's college professor find their upstate country home invaded by spirits that might be the undead women killed there over many decades prior. The film is based on a 2016 Elizabeth Brundage novel that I'm guessing is a pretty decent read, because with its bevy of fringe figures and lofty art-culture references, this adaptation certainly suggests a juicy, page-turning potboiler that's been unfairly truncated to two mediocre hours of screen time. (I'm also guessing that the book has a lot to say about the eternal cycle of violence perpetrated upon women by their spouses, as that theme is both overt and sadly under-explored in Berman's and Pulcini's rendition.) Yet Seyfried, her saucer-sized eyes just right for fright-flick popping, is marvelously empathetic and touching. Norton, looking like Brad Pitt's untrustworthy baby brother, is intentionally and effectively repellant from the start, a Tom Ripley without one tenth of that sociopath's queasy charm. And in a work that also boasts a rather glorious supporting ensemble including F. Murray Abraham, Natalia Dyer, Michael O'Keefe, James Urbaniak, Alex Neustaedter, Jack Gore, and the never-around-enough Karen Allen, Things Heard & Seen finally gives Better Call Saul MVP Rhea Seehorn a movie role she can really sink her teeth into, playing a post-flower-child professor with sardonic wit, common sense, and a closet apparently overflowing with fetching caftans. While this Netflix release looks great (Larry Smith is its cinematographer) and moves at an agreeably steady pace, it's Seehorn who's its true ace in the hole, her wonderfully vivid presence even allowing the performer to steal a scene off-screen with a hand-scribbled note: “Remember me?” How could we ever forget her?
In director Brett Leonard's new inspirational sports drama, a young man with a loving yet withholding father longs to be an athlete, suffers setbacks and humiliations, finds solace in a supportive best friend and sweet girl and grizzled yet kindly coach, trains his ass off, succeeds, endures further setbacks and humiliations, finds renewed purpose, makes amends with his dad, and, on the most important night of his life, with the musical score surging, finally scores a … . Well, it's right there in the title, isn't it?
So yeah, you've seen movies like Triumph before. No doubt many, many, many times before. But you've never seen it with our hero a high-school wrestler with cerebral palsy played by RJ Mitte, the charming 28-year-old (who himself has cerebral palsy) who played Bryan Cranston's son Walt Jr. on Breaking Bad. Truth be told, I didn't particularly care for the film. Even though, in visual terms, it looks exactly and appropriately like the early-'80s after-school special it could have been, everything about the narrative is formulaic beyond belief, and despite once demonstrating the flair to direct Denzel Washington in the 1995 cyber-thriller Virtuosity, Leonard's work here is almost startlingly amateurish. (For his part, Terrence Howard, who plays the coach, is commendably committed but far too emotional, at one point weeping his way through a parent-teacher conference like he'd just watched a double-feature of Sophie's Choice and The Father.)
Mitte, though, makes the experience totally worthwhile, getting more to do in Triumph's 105 minutes than he was ever allowed over five seasons on AMC. It doesn't hurt that Mitte is a magnetic screen presence with a killer smile; you warm to his wrestler Mike even when he's speaking in nothing but character-building clichés. But Mitte is obviously overjoyed to be granted this showcase that enables him to be dramatic, funny, romantic, goofy, and, yes, honestly inspiring from first scene to last, and I pray that savvy casting agents are paying attention to precisely what this significant talent can do. Now I want to see Mitte in romantic comedies. I want to see him in edgy thrillers. I want to see him join George Clooney and company in another Ocean's vehicle. Triumph may not be one, entirely, but as these things go, RJ Mitte may have just found the cinematic calling card of a lifetime.