“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (dir. Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic) – It’s-A-He! Mario!

“Everyone knows Mario is cool as fuck.”

Phil Jamesson (Philosophy 101 paper)

How does a world-weary millennial approaching middle age with two kids even begin to discuss The Super Mario Bros Movie? By establishing his Nintendo bonafides of course. I won’t bore you with a list, but my first of 11 Mario games (plus another half-dozen Warios and Donkeys Kong) was Super Mario Land for Gameboy – the first portable Mario game ever released, and the one that became my sole obsession from that Christmas to the following June. I spent hundreds of hours playing Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo 64. And I spent a significant portion of AP Calculus in the back of the classroom tapping away on an unauthorized ZShell port of Dr. Mario on the TI-85 graphing calculator. The video game series has sold nearly 400 million copies, and I am so sure that anyone reading this also grew up with these characters that I’m cutting off the nerd solipsism right there. Truthfully, I adore Mario Mario (Chris Pratt), his brother Luigi Mario (Charlie Day), his pals Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), his pet Yoshi – whose brief, shelled appearance after the end credits is the closest thing this movie has to a spoiler but I don’t care and neither do you – and of course I love Bowser (Jack Black), as well as the waves of expendable weirdos he sends after me to be smashed and roasted and frozen and knocked aside as Koji Kondo‘s classic themes proclaim in a cheery symphony what an awesome job I’ve done – Brian Tyler allegedly composed an original score for this movie, but he was more of a DJ this time.

The reason why I love these characters is because they’re nothing more or less than they ever needed to be – bog-standard adventuring archetypes to support the world of a then-groundbreaking and still entertaining 2D side-scrolling platformer. And eventual 3D platformer. And eventual open-world game. And eventually other game mechanics. Mario the avatar, Mario the instrument – that Mario has always made sense to me. He was there to be a bright and colorful escape whose appeal was always ultimately in the sense of triumph he handed to whatever child overcame the mechanical difficulty of gameplay, whether it was you, the neighbor kid, an online strategy guide, or a call to a Clippy-like Luigi who ultimately led you to victory. And Shigeru Miyamoto is owed a debt of admiration by children of all ages for his iconic creation that can only be repaid in $60 installments to see what wondrous new game mechanics Nintendo’s skilled developers and hardware engineers have come up with this time.

Still from "The Super Mario Bros Movie"

But Mario the movie? It’s bright and colorful and well-made. Up to the standards of big-budget 2023 animation. Its characters and enemies and vehicles are studiously faithful to their most recent 3D game renditions. And The Super Mario Bros Movie succeeded in its supremely limited ambitions. I mentioned the voice actors above, but with the exceptions of Day and Black, they all essentially disappeared into bland characterizations with motivations and backstories whose simplicity was calibrated precisely for the 4-year-olds who will be seeing it next weekend. Including my own! And I am genuinely looking forward to seeing the delight on the faces of both my kids as they watch their favorite characters come to life on a gargantuan screen. But as an adult, I hoped that the appearance of Pratt heralded the arrival of something more like The Lego Movie, whose shallow, corporate, brand-promotional premise was handed to a pair of bonafide storytelling filmmakers who turned it into something that stands beautifully on its own, rather than a 92-minute unskippable cutscene that you’d watch once, admire for what it is, and then button-mash your way past to get back to the gameplay, the promotion of which is ultimately and transparently the only reason why this movie exists.

The plot: The Mario Bros are plumbers in Brooklyn whose mostly-mustachioed family (including a father voiced by original Mario voice actor Charles Martinet) doesn’t believe in their lofty, unrealistic dream of quitting a plumbing business to open a plumbing business. Then they’re sucked into a portal to the Mushroom Kingdom, and everything I just mentioned ceases to matter at all. Bowser, the Incel King of all Koopas, is invading every level of Super Mario World (including, eventually, the Mushroom one) with a Star power-up, which he will use to impress Princess Peach enough that she’ll overlook his status as a conquering warlord and agree to marry him. Princess Peach, a human from worlds unknown who was raised by Toads in the Mushroom Kingdom, strikes out to get the assistance of the Kong army, and allows the newcomer Mario to join her on this critical mission for the same reason she was elevated to rule the Mushroom Kingdom in the first place: Humans rule in this place, because they’re the ones who can learn the gameplay mechanics and interact with the powerups – rendered here as Mario reluctantly eating fist-sized mushrooms even though – like the four-year-olds he’s speaking to – he thinks he doesn’t like them despite how powerful they make him.

Still from "The Super Mario Bros Movie"

While a few brief action sequences in our world attempt to demonstrate that Mario has some natural aptitude for platform mechanics (by way of construction scaffolds, cars, and other real-world things), these mechanics become literal and unexplained once the Marios enter the Nintendo gameworld. Mario undergoes a sports training montage with Peach, as she teaches him about the powerups, and he leaps and slides his way through a 3D platform environment that just kinda floats over the Mushroom Kingdom. I managed to spend a few seconds pondering how the Mushroom Kingdom’s grasp of biohacking and gravity-defying metamaterials might, in time, make them formidable adversaries for Bowser’s warmongering, but the movie helpfully handwaves all of that away in the same manner as the games: Look, the platforms are only there so Mario has some way of hopping around up there to jump on Bowser. The Toads are just there to look helplessly adorable (one of them even explains this in dialogue), and Bowser is an unstoppable nemesis until you manage to jump on him three times and then he collapses like a neutron star. And in this movie, all of those same things will occur, but a camera will swoop around Mario impressively as he looks a bit frightened that he won’t make it, before he ultimately makes it. Peach kindly explains that not everyone gets it the first time, before strongly implying that she did. And even as we get a glimpse of the subtle evolution that Peach has made over the decades from being the object of gameplay to a sorta-protagonist, this movie contains no shortage of reminders that it has literally nothing to show you that you haven’t already seen in a video game.

There’ll be some driving, of course. The Kongs toodle around on Mario Karts, and the Rainbow Road highway chase was everything that a colorful pursuit through a formless void with shells and banana peels being thrown around can be. And Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) was certainly a character who appeared in this movie. I’m so tired. I don’t want to dunk on The Super Mario Bros Movie anymore, I really don’t. And it’s not necessary. It’s headed for a $225 million opening weekend. Everyone already knows the emperor has no clothes (preferring to stomp around in a spiky shell), and they’re going to come see the parade anyway. Let it never be said that I can’t appreciate shallow spectacle – I did, after all, put Avatar: The Way of Water into my Top 10 for last year. I appreciate its entertainment value for a demographic I used to be in, and its mere existence won’t stop me from shelling out for the next Mario launch title whenever Nintendo gets around to releasing a new system. Which means that if nothing else, the movie was effective. I just wasn’t one of its desired effects.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five-Year Engagement” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Five-Year Engagement"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

When I first saw The Five-Year Engagement back in 2012, my fiancée and I were three weeks out from our own wedding and in the thick of last-minute event planning nonsense (following a much shorter engagement than five years). She took a well-deserved night off in our shared apartment, and I did the same – far away, by myself in a second-run movie theater where I saw this film for a grand total of $3. I even drafted half a solipsistic review about the unenviable position of being in the perfect state of mind and position in life to find a film super-relatable. Then, true to form, I was too busy to finish and post it. I’m relieved that’s the case, because I was riding high on goodwill for Nicholas Stoller‘s previous films, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek (the former of which held up to 10YA scrutiny a few years back). If I’m being honest now, The Five Year-Engagement is not as good a comedy as either of those, even if Stoller’s understanding of the emotional stakes and reality of a couple putting so much stock into the planning of a single event remains as strong as ever.

That couple is Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), and about the best thing I can say about them is that they’re each very funny in turns (one of only a handful of comedy roles Blunt has done), and their characters noticeably change and grow over the course of the film. Segel, who was most of the way into his run of How I Met Your Mother at this point, seems to be doing his very own speed run of sorts (which, unlike Ryan Reynolds’ version in Definitely, Maybe, does a bit more to justify its premise), shifting his attitude about his impending nuptials in parallel with satisfaction and stability in his own life. Much of the film’s conflict stems from his dissatisfaction with the couple’s life together in Michigan, where Violet is in her dream job, an academic posting in a university psych department, which required Tom to give up his dream job of being a head chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. The script is not at all shy in interrogating the gender dynamics of such an arrangement (which so often goes in the other direction), and after a mere decade, this dilemma feels no less emotionally resonant. One of Tom’s most earnest moments is when he dopily, but honestly, asks Violet if she knows what it’s like to be “the guy in a relationship and not have a job that you’re proud of”. My temptation here is to boast about how much I’ve grown since seeing this the first time. To pretend as if I don’t still possess dumb, arbitrarily gendered notions of what it means to provide for my family, or to act like we no longer live in a political economy which constantly reinforces those notions in every way from wage inequality to the religious right’s unrelenting attacks on reproductive rights and the autonomy and existence of people outside of heteronormative gender roles. But the truth is, society hasn’t changed that much on this front in the past decade, and the fortunes of women have backslid significantly during the pandemic. And even if I’m more capable of interrogating my own gut feeling that cooking weekend breakfast is just such a dad thing for me to do, it’s not as if those sexist ideas have retreated from me in any real way. It’s the sea we swim in. And as Tom finally, cathartically screams: I hate it here.

Still from "The Five-Year Engagement"

This movie was honestly a bit of a fucking slog this time – it took me two days to finish. Much of the comedy – of that Apatow-produced sort where you just put a bunch of funny people in a room and let them improvise – landed fine then, but mostly just made me impatient this time. A still-goofy Chris Pratt, a passably British-talking Alison Brie (who gets one of the film’s best scenes, in which she and Violet have an argument using Sesame Street voices) were enjoyable as ever. Professional awkward muffin Brian Posehn delivered the only jokes that were clearly intended to make everyone in the room as uncomfortable as the audience (at one point he lovingly describes Violet as a fuckable Disney princess). Rounding out Professor Winton’s (Rhys Ifans) marshmallow pop-psychology lab were three seasoned comedians: Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, and Kevin Hart. Only the latter’s character still worked for me this time around, because of the movie’s commitment to his experimental obsession with masturbation, and because he finally gets a moment in which he gets to stop being a comedy character and become a bit of a drama character – a nasty one, to boot. A barely-formed Dakota Johnson gets a nasty moment as well – the only moment in which she is a proper character, not a mere 23-year-old object of temptation, and also the one in which she reminded me she was already better than this material at that age.

The romantic rivals are a real problem in this film. Tom gets two co-workers – Audrey (Johnson), whom the script never takes seriously, and a bizarre non-entity of a chef, Margaret (Tracee Chimo), whose sole specific character attribute is some awkward nonsense involving potato salad. For Violet, there’s Professor Winton, and Ifans really did try with this character – Winton seems genuinely conflicted about his attitude toward Violet (his student and subordinate!) both personally and professionally, even as his intellectual brain allows him to spin a coherently self-serving defense of his libertine antics (we’re all running on “caveman software”, you see). But Aldous Snow – Russell Brand in Stoller’s previous two films – this is not. Stoller still seems to fundamentally understand that a romantic rival to the Official Couple needs to be both comically interesting and romantically desirable (something that many rom-coms don’t bother with), but the lack of narrative confidence in this character shines through the script, which resorts to shallow gimmickry like parkour and literal magic tricks to make Winton seem more like a showman and less like a chimera of random comic personas. And we have quite enough of that from his grad students.

Still from "The Five-Year Engagement"

All of that said, the movie’s emotional arc is coherent enough – I just found it substantially less affecting this time through. This is a couple whose problem, fundamentally, is that they have an idea of marriage that is all wrapped up in achieving perfection and stability beforehand, as well as the fairytale notion that it’ll all be wine and roses after you say, “I Do”. I’m ten years in with my wife, and I’ll spare you my reflections on the nature of marriage here (head over to my 10YA review of The Kids Are All Right for those), but it’s fair to say that at this point in my life, I find these insights a bit quaint and obvious. Also quaint at this point in the COVID pandemic (which Dr. Fauci told me this week is no longer “full-blown“): putting so much stock into big group event planning. You can’t have a wedding? Who fucking cares. Head down to the courthouse and get it done. I attended my first in-person wedding in two years a few weeks ago, I can tell you, while it was marvelous to make a comeback, it was a lot of work dressing to the 7s (my fashion peak), drinking someone else’s booze, and betting on the future of a love and happiness that I have zero control or genuine understanding about, except for my vague (but sincere!) impression that the couple seems to be good for each other. Love gets compared to multiple stale pastries in this film – a day-old donut, a perfunctory cookie – but the film’s ethos all adds up to “Love the one you’re with,” because you can’t be sure anything else is coming in the future. I can’t even call this cynical. It’s not. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen many versions of – that “The One” is just whomever you happen to be dating when you’re ready to settle down, and they’re hopefully someone you can negotiate a shared life with.

So get on with it if you’re gonna. Some of us have work in the morning.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #163 – “Onward” (dir. Dan Scanlon)

Poster for "Onward"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel roll for initiative with Pixar’s latest foray into the fantastical, Onward (23:51).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6/10 (Glenn), 8/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is magic.
  • Stay tuned afterward for an adorable interview.

Listen above, or download: Onward (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #136 – “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (dir. J.A. Bayona)

This week, Glenn and Daniel take a frustrating slog back to Jurassic World, and the whole thing blows up in their faces (46:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track, “Jurassic Park” by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
  • Lest you think we’re just dino-haters, be sure to check out our glowing review of Jurassic World.
  • Tangent: The movie we mentioned starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick featuring a fake exotic animal feast was The Freshman, from 1990, and it was written and directed by Andrew Bergman, who had an eclectic film career, including a story credit for Blazing Saddles, and subsequently writing/directing the 1996 erotic comedy, Striptease.

Listen above, or download: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #103 – “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” (dir. James Gunn)

Poster for "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and discover their limit of inconsequential action is about the first 90 minutes (53:28).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, from the film’s soundtrack and trailer respectively.
  • After recording this episode, Glenn got into it offline with the hosts of The Spoilers: Wayne & Daryl (not for the first time – Glenn previously crashed their episode of The Seattle After Party podcast).
    Suffice to say, you should check out what these nerds have to say about this film, and expect some guest appearances in the future.
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Passengers here.
  • We called out the greatness of the makeup artists behind these characters, and how well Nebula, Gamora, Yondu, and Drax’s makeup held up in IMAX closeups – but there was one we didn’t even realize. Young Ego (Kurt Russell) was mostly makeup, (applied by artist Dennis Liddiard), with only a few CGI tweaks. Very cool.
  • The video that was ringing in our heads as we evaluated the atrocious character of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) was Anita Sarkeesian‘s most recent (and final) video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, “The Lady Sidekick“. And…wow, was it ever spot-on for this character.

Listen above, or download: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #74 – “Jurassic World”, “Sleeping With Other People” (#SIFF2015 review)

Poster for "Jurassic World"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel tackle their final #SIFF2015 selection, Sleeping With Other People, the upcoming sex-comedy-cum-romantic-drama from Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), who’s reminding us more and more of early Kevin Smith. But first, we tackle director Colin Trevorrow‘s long-awaited return to the highly lucrative land of the dinosaurs with Jurassic World, a film that vastly exceeded our trailer-expectations (54:44).

This show may contain NSFW language.

Still from "Sleeping With Other People"

FilmWonk rating (Jurassic World): 8/10
FilmWonk rating (Sleeping With Other People): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 1000000/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • (02:01) Review: Jurassic World
  • (19:36) Spoilers: Jurassic World
  • (37:58) Review: Sleeping With Other People
  • As of this writing, Sleeping With Other People is scheduled for release on August 21, 2015, via IFC Films (likely VOD and limited theatrical).
  • Music for tonight’s episode is John Williams’ classic track from the original score to Jurassic Park, entitled “Journey to the Island“, as well as David Bowie‘s “Modern Love“, from the soundtrack to Sleeping With Other People.

Listen above, or download: Jurassic World, Sleeping With Other People (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #40 – “The Lego Movie” (dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Poster for "The Lego Movie"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel tackle the latest piece of zany versatility from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The Lego Movie.

Check out our discussion below (22:41).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode includes the delightfully satirical tracks “Everything is Awesome” and “Untitled Self Portrait” (Batman’s song) from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The budget for The Lego Movie is officially $60 million, notwithstanding the “Hollywood math” constraints we mentioned. For more on this, check out Edward Jay Epstein‘s book, The Hollywood Economist. For reference, “the last couple of Pixar films” had official budgets of $185 million (Brave) and $200 million (Monsters University) respectively.

Listen above, or download: The Lego Movie (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)