Sunday, March 5, 2023


All hail junk movies! This has been a particularly good couple months for low-expectations genre pictures. If the health of the movie industry, and theatrical distribution, can be measured in the sheer number of simple, passably diverting matinee programmers, then 2023 is already looking up. It has given us, variously, killer robots and missing persons and bad flights and a drugged-up bear. Are these great movies? No. But they deliver on their modest promises, and sometimes that’s exactly enough.

Take M3gan, for instance, a killer robot movie pulled off with some panache. It stars Allison Williams as a workaholic toy designer who gets custody of her orphaned niece. To cheer the child up, she brings home a prototype of her latest device—a life-sized A.I. doll in the form of a tween with dead eyes and blonde bangs. The expensive toy takes its programming to protect her new owner a little too seriously. Soon it’s slipping loose from the bounds of its algorithms and hunting down snarling dogs and sneering bullies. There’s not even an iota of suspense as to where it’s all going—it’s a robot-amuck slasher in form, and a cracked Amblin family story in mode, with a bit of arch genre play in its tone. But the telling is fun, with committed performances, particularly from Williams’ frosty yuppie, her cute, sympathetic ward, and the eerie smooth gestures and seamless contortions of the dancer-like stunts from the eponymous robot. There’s even a soupçon of Silicon Valley cynicism to her tech giant’s willingness to crash through ethical concerns to get M3GAN to market. They’d wish they hadn’t, if they live to tell the tale. You couldn’t claim the movie is a fount of originality, but it does precisely what it sets out to do and does it well enough. That’s a fine matinee.

The latest all-on-a-computer-screen movie is Missing, yet another in what could be on its way to its own neat little sub-genre. The best of them remains 2015’s spooky haunted-Skype-call Unfriended, which is exactly as unsettling as the internet and its effects on our young people can be. This new one comes from the screenwriters who brought you the desktop thriller Searching, a movie with John Cho, in a fine performance, stretching credulity by having an improbable number of tabs open and FaceTimes running while looking for his vanished daughter. Leave it to Missing to get a better balance, partly because its Gen-Z lead (Storm Reid) is the one looking for her MIA mom (Nia Long), and partly because everyone knows this is an overheated mystery. It’s mostly compelling all the way through, as Reid clicks around through Gmail accounts and TaskRabbit prompts, scrolls through TikToks and Snapchats and Venmos, and stumbles onto some pretty lurid twists that are pleasingly shocking. And there’s a moderately clever resolution, too, that uses the logic of its technological screen-based gadgetry for a fine finale.

In Plane, Gerard Butler plays a pilot who’d make nervous fliers in the audience feel a little bit better about their next trip. After all, if the guy flying the plane would go through all this to save his passengers, then surely he can safely get you to Detroit on time. The movie finds Butler’s study blue-collar professionalism well-matched for a simple thriller. His plane gets hit by lightening, and he miraculously lands safely on an obscure island ruled by brutal pirates who’d love to have some hostages. Tough luck. The movie then devotes itself to hoping the passengers can dodge violent dangers while the pilot attempts to call help and repair the vehicle for an emergency escape route. The picture itself is merely functional thriller mechanics in style and pace and script, but the professionalism on screen makes it work. Butler is a believably sturdy man of action, a regular guy who can stumble through a fist-fight with the best of them. He’s weary, but worthy. The others in the cast support well, from the anonymous growling villains (a touch stereotypical, perhaps), to the passenger with a shady past willing to help take up arms (Mike Colter), to the guy in the command center back home (Tony Goldwyn). It’s one of those movies that barely feels like its working, but doesn’t not work either, and then has me thinking “go-go-go!” by the time the thing’s about to attempt take off.

Elizabeth Banks directs Cocaine Bear with a cheerful disregard for the value of human life, and, all things considered, a fairly permissive and blasé attitude toward cocaine. (When one innocent kid admits to having sniffed a little, a motherly nurse says, “ah, you’ll probably be fine.”) It’s loosely—looooosely—based on a true story about a 1985 drug runner who dumped his stash in a state park, and then a mama bear got high on it. This telling makes her into a CG serial killer, which makes the movie a bit of a cartoony goofball slasher picture, with a wide range of buffoonish characters traipsing around until they’re inevitably mauled in a variety of half-suspenseful sequences. On one side you get the likes of Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson hamming it up with big comedy energy. On the other you have Keri Russel and the late Ray Liotta acting more or less like it’s a straight drama. Straddling both approaches are Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. They all are serious-ish, but know where the jokes are, and toss them at unexpected angles. I suppose they need all of the above to pull off such a strange mix, with sloshing sentimentality and pitiless gore and a queasily sliding morality. That it works at all in its base, dumb way is credit to Banks’ willingness to commit to the strange premise, and the workmanlike excellence of a talented cast and crew that you rarely catch condescending to the material.

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