“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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #80 – “Steve Jobs” (dir. Danny Boyle)

Poster for "Steve Jobs"

In this week’s revolutionary podcast, Glenn and Daniel change everything forever (32:29).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6/10 (Daniel); 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is two tracks from Bob Dylan that appear on the film’s soundtrack, “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” and “Shelter From the Storm“.
  • You’ve probably either seen the original, or one of its many parodies: Ridley Scott‘s “1984” Apple Macintosh Super Bowl ad.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #63 – “The Interview” (dir. Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg) (bonus episode)

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Glenn and Daniel just couldn’t resist shooting their mouths off in the face of two regimes – both Kim and Rogen/Goldberg. Tune in for this special end-of-the-year bonus episode as we discuss The Interview, the Sony hack, the DPRK regime, and whether it was really all worth it. You already know the answer, but it’s a fun conversation nonetheless (24:55).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: N/A out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is Katy Perry‘s “Firework”. Duh.
  • You can find metsuken‘s comment in the Asian-American subreddit – we only discussed a portion of it, but it’s a good read overall.

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

Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors” – A raucous ode to the ethical fratboy

Poster for "Neighbors"

My worldview as I approach my thirties can probably be summed up like this: I realize I don’t know everything about everyone, and I’m a bit more willing to dismiss the annoying behavior of people in a different stage of life than me. Whether a crying baby or a drunk reveler in public crashing into me, I total up the minuscule degree to which they’re actually affecting my life, slip on my noise-canceling headphones, and think to myself, “Well, that’s just what they do.” It won’t last, I’m sure. But it’s certainly the correct mindset to enter Nicholas Stoller‘s latest comedy, Neighbors, driven as always by a cadre of well-defined, occasionally sympathetic, and constantly hilarious characters. This is a film that is driven by the right kind of central conflict – one between two sympathetic sides with mostly legitimate grievances, who take turns pushing things way too far. This is full-bore comedic warfare between a frathouse, led by metaphorical brothers Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), and their neighbors, new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).

And as always, Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) – along with comedic editorial alumnus Zene Baker (This Is the End) – has a brilliant sense of pacing, spending just enough time with each group initially to establish them all as sympathetic characters before the mayhem begins. This is Animal House by way of “Game of Thrones”, and I don’t make the latter reference lightly. The film’s script is sprinkled with subtle nods to the George R.R. Martin series, including plying the smallfolk of the neighborhood with the labor of an army of pledge-slaves. The frat brothers also spend several minutes expounding on the dubiously-sourced history of their group (which includes the invention of beer pong and the toga party), then recite an oath fit for a raunchier version of the Night’s Watch. They’re even desperate for their exploits to earn them a place on the Wall. And President Teddy is the consummate ethical fratboy. He refuses to abuse his power and simply place his group’s picture onto the wall until they’ve done something legendary to earn it.

Still from "Neighbors" movie

The dynamic between the Radners is equally complex – Kelly is a tailor-made excuse for Rose Byrne to use her native Aussie accent, as well as a brilliant undermining of the typical dynamic between irresponsible husband and henpecking wife. Rogen’s character has the audacity to call out Kevin James films as the chief offenders in this regard, but let’s be honest – this is just a slightly less dysfunctional sequel to Rogen’s own Knocked Up (notwithstanding the sequel it actually spawned). In a way, this feels like a 90-minute apology for every film in which the wet-blanket wife is relegated to sensible interference with the hero’s insane antics – and as an aside, it’s also an apology for every movie in which the sole black member of the fraternity is relegated to dealing nothing but inane catchphrases. It’s not as if Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) is a main character within the frat (any more so than Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) or Assjuice (Craig Roberts)), but he at least has a personality, a few lines of dialogue, and some desires of his own. In terms of racial dynamics within a college comedy, it’s a modicum of progress.

But back to the Radners for a moment – Rogen is funny as ever, but he’s not straining himself here. If you like the way he drops F-bombs, consumes narcotics, and takes off his clothes, there’s plenty to enjoy. But Byrne delivers the latest in an impressive run of comedic performances, following Bridesmaids and Get Him To the Greek, proving more than a match for Rogen as they gradually escalate the situation. Mac’s plans start off gross and destructive – smack a water pipe with an axe, and flood the basement. Kelly’s are manipulative and borderline sociopathic – infilitrate the group and subtly sabotage the interpersonal dynamics. And occasionally, they swap strategies. It’s some pretty demented stuff – and it’s executed brilliantly. Speaking of demented, Ike Barinholtz was as strong and disturbing as ever. Best known for his breakout role on The Mindy Project, Barinholtz seems to specialize in characters with a skewed sense of reality, and he’s a ton of fun here. Carla Gallo isn’t bad either, and Lisa Kudrow gives a crack-up performance as the college’s deadpan dean.

Efron’s character is charming, but not quite as well-defined as the rest. This is essentially a more likable version of Van Wilder – a party monster who isn’t quite ready to graduate and face the real world. The film introduces this conflict with Teddy, Pete, and other members of the frat, but doesn’t do much with it, and semi-optimistically brushes the issue off at the film’s end. Despite acknowledging the imminent responsibilities that these college grads will soon have to deal with, the film doesn’t seem interested in addressing them in any real way. And I suppose that’s fine. The film is certainly funny enough to justify itself otherwise. Some of the raunchier gags (like “Standing here with our dicks in our hands”) worked nicely; others (like a dubious parenting gag involving some fake-looking breasts) did not. By and large, this film is a fun, refreshing take on the college gross-out comedy – easily the strongest since Old School.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

This week, Glenn stumbles forth from a weekend of short film madness to join Daniel and review 50/50, a new comedic drama from director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser, loosely based on Reiser’s own experiences getting cancer at a young age. Can such dour subject matter succeed as a comedy? Tune in and find out (28:54).

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

Show notes:

  • 50/50 is out in theaters this Friday, September 30th.
  • Music for this episode is “Carries On“, from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, which appears in the film’s trailer.
  • In the podcast, we refer to Adam’s two “chemo buddies”, who are played by Philip Baker Hall and another actor we weren’t familiar with. The other actor was Matt Frewer.
  • Stick around for a blooper if you’re game.

Listen above, or download: 50/50 (right-click, save as).

Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” – The hero L.A. deserves?

Seth Rogen might just have found his niche playing detestable heroes. He gave a thoroughly entertaining performance as a psychopathic mall cop in Jody Hill’s pitch-black 2008 comedy Observe and Report, and indeed, his performance in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet bears some similarity. Both would-be heroes are infantile, petty, helpless around women, and prone to occasional bouts of alarmingly skillful violence. But while Observe was an unapologetic celebration of terrible people doing terrible things, The Green Hornet is ostensibly a light-hearted comic tale about a self-styled hero that’s meant to be worthy of our admiration.

Tonally, the film falls somewhere between Kick-Ass and Iron Man. Like the former, Britt Reid (Rogen) is delusional and borderline incompetent, but like the latter, he has all the physics-defying gadgetry he needs to keep himself alive for longer than 30 seconds. In the place of a mellifluous holographic A.I. to build his gadgets, Reid has a Q-ish tech wizard, kung-fu master, and expert barista named Kato (Jay Chou). Kato’s relationship with Reid fluctuates wildly between buddy comedy and guardian for a special needs child – a scene in which Kato explains to Reid why he might need a gas-slinging sidearm is one of the most painfully funny in the film. The audience is left wondering why Kato puts up with his boss’ constant abuse and mockery, but it might have something to do with his seemingly unlimited budget for high-tech toys. In any case, this is not a film for believable (or even comprehensible) relationships.

If The Green Hornet is about anything, it’s narcissistic image-obsession. Over and over again, the characters speak at length about how they look, how they are perceived by others in the story, and what the characters in a violent comic farce should do. Nearly all of the scenes featuring the villainous Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) play like cringe-inducing, metafictional peeks into the writers’ room. “Do I look scary? Is my gun scary? What do you think of my costume? Do you know how many different suits I’ve tried?” Chudnofsky may come with Waltz’s adeptly intimidating presence, but he has no real identity of his own, and feels almost like he is trying to conceive one in front of the cameras. But he’s not half as self-conscious and directionless as our heroes. In a line seemingly tailor-made for the film’s trailer, Reid explains to Kato, “Here’s what will make us different!”

Their grand plan is essentially to start a gang war and kill every criminal in the city. Brilliant in its simplicity, I suppose. But while Black Beauty, the tank-like super car, may allow the Hornet and Kato to viciously slaughter any evildoers with all the subtlety of Depression-era gangsters, it basically just feels like an old-timey and borderline magical version of the Batmobile. What’s more, their grand plan seems as likely to ensnare police and innocent bystanders as rival gangsters. This is Iron Man without a conscience. And strangely, that’s where the film started to appeal to me.

If there is one attribute that has defined nearly all modern superhero films, it’s self-importance. Even in the most schlocky and unwatchable incarnations of the genre (I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four), there are always ponderous questions about what it means to be a hero and how much is at stake if the hero fails. The Green Hornet has no such lofty ambitions, and I was surprised to find its sadistic playfulness and dark humor to be a refreshing change of pace. Nearly every scene in this film is simultaneously exhilarating and painful to watch on some level, from its farcical attempts at romance (for which I give a great deal of credit to Cameron Diaz) to its utterly balls-out action sequences, which are at least impressive on a technical level. They don’t all land perfectly, but I’m happy to see that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) remains as skillful as ever, even with a blockbuster budget. What’s more, he even managed to shoehorn in a dream sequence chock full of practical effects and camera trickery – a skillful display which felt mostly out of place, but by the time it appeared, I was past caring about the film’s lack of consistency.

The Green Hornet is an oddity, to be sure. I didn’t emerge from it without a laundry list of complaints, but I still found the sum of the experience enjoyable. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script feels like it’s trying to be the buddy-comedy spiritual successor to Superbad, and it at least partially succeeds. The writing is very jokey and surprisingly dark, but exhibits a clear understanding of comic book tropes. In a genre that’s gradually starting to wear out its welcome, this bizarre spectacle of a film feels far more like a labor of love than a cynical cashgrab, and that might just be what makes it watchable.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10