Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence. 

Movie Review ~ Pokémon Detective Pikachu


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a private eye goes missing, his son is prompted to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Pokémon and Harry’s former partner: Detective Pikachu.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Ken Watanabe, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, Rita Ora

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: By the time Pokémon made its debut in 1995, I had graduated from being the target audience for the global franchise. Starting as video games, as so many million-dollar empires do, before expanding into books, tv shows, comics, toys, etc. the brand was revitalized in 2016 when Pokémon Go became all the rage. Finally tapping into a more adult base, this scavenger hunt game was a sensation and the subject of many issues with players traversing onto private property or into oncoming traffic to “capture” their Pokémon. During the summer of 2016, you were either playing Pokémon Go or rolling your eyes at those who were.

If there was one area left for the Pokémon to conquer, it was live-action film. Over 20 animated films were released over the past two decades but when Pokémon Go reignited interest in this country, studios looking to capitalize on the craze sought out the rights to bring the characters to new life on the big screen. Using the popular 2016 game Detective Pikachu as inspiration, four screenwriters collaborated on Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Warner Brothers locked down an A-list star to provide the voice for it’s title character. Now…would the audiences come out and play?

The relationships between humans and Pokémon have evolved at the start of Pokémon Detective Pikachu. While they still “choose” their own Pokémon who become their semi-sidekicks, humans are no longer training them to do battle against others. This is all thanks to the vision of Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, About Time), the creator of Rhyme City where everyone co-exists in harmony. In the prologue, an experimental laboratory comes under attack and a dangerous next-gen Pokémon is released, causing mayhem and what looks like a deadly car crash.  Jumping outside of Rhyme City, we catch Tim (Justice Smith, Paper Towns) and his friend Jack (Karan Soni, Safety Not Guaranteed) trying to locate a Pokémon for Tim. Once interested in being a trainer, now Tim has his eyes set on climbing the corporate ladder for the insurance company he works for. Everything changes with the news his private detective father has died in Rhyme City, and when Tim starts to dig into the secrets his father was trying to expose it brings him face to face with his father’s Pokémon, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Life).

Usually, only the human that choses the Pokémon can understand what their little friend is saying but somehow Tim hears Pikachu loud and clear. Pikachu has lost his memory, only being able to piece together that he was also in the crash with Tim’s father. Just as invested in finding the evil Pokémon and who might be behind their actions, Pikachu teams up with Tim and they begin to sleuth around the city for answers. Along the way they encounter an eager junior reporter (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back), a gruff police detective (Ken Watanabe, Transformers: Age of Extinction), and a plethora of wacky Pokémon.  In one particularly notable bit, Pikachu and Tim have a run-in with Mr. Mime, an excellent but mischievous pantomime with an act that was a highlight of the film.

Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) knows how to work with blending live action and the computer animated Pokémon creations and most of the visual effects are impressive. It’s not as seamless as it could be, though, and that gives the film a second-tier feeling that doesn’t befit a release from a first-rate studio. The screenplay is fairly basic and hinges on a twist that becomes rather obvious within the first thirty minutes. Smith is not that appealing as a leading man (already proven by audiences actively asking for him to be eaten in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and the charismatic Reynolds is relegated to being merely a voice which only gets at half of what makes him so engaging. Yet, the film bounces along, working almost in spite of itself with a handful of nice gags and chuckle humor that was appealing. It’s not the raucous comedy of Long Shot but it doesn’t elicit deadly silence either. For what it’s worth, my audience absolutely roared with laughter at obvious insider Pokémon references that went right over my head. One thing is clear, the film wants you to invest in the Pokémon brand – it’s almost a feature length commercial for their line-up of characters which will equate to mass dollars being spent on products.

I can’t honestly tell you what a fan of Pokémon will think about Pokémon Detective Pikachu but as an uninitiated viewer I found the film to be sporadically funny, rarely boring, but almost instantly forgettable. The kind of ho-hum pre-summer flick that arrives before the bigger players in the hope of cashing in quickly before vanishing from screens in time to be a back-to-school gift on BluRay. There’s nothing particularly bad to report but it’s all so pedestrian and uninspired you’d think a little more effort would be put in to mask the blatant consumerism on display.

Movie Review ~ Ben is Back


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A drug addicted teenage boy shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Well, we’ve all (hopefully) survived another Christmas and many of us will have spent Christmas Eve with our families.  While you may have weathered your fair share of withering relatives, bad fruit cake, and are coming home with yet another taupe turtleneck from Aunt Marge, you’ll likely not have had quite as eventful a day as the family featured at the center of Ben is Back.  Taking place over one 24-hour period in the lives of a family that’s all in a recovery of one form or another, this is the kind of harrowing familial drama that makes you glad you’re just dealing with an uncle with opposing political views.

It’s Christmas Eve in a small town in upstate New York.  On the way back from a church program rehearsal with her three children, Holly (Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias) is shocked but overjoyed to see her first-born son Ben (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) standing in the driveway waiting for them.  For Holly and her two youngest children, Ben’s arrival is met with joy but for her daughter (Kathryn Newton, Lady Bird) and husband (Courtney B. Vance, Office Christmas Party) the return is anything but a Christmas miracle.  Burned in the past by Ben’s addiction to drugs and the horrific behavior that it brought out, both are leery that he’s changed enough to be trusted.  Holly chooses to believe her son has finally turned his life around and that his 77 days sober is enough proof for her family to see that he’s on a new path.

With her eye on her son (and her medications and valuables safely locked away), Holly spends the next day trying to focus on the holiday at hand while nervously watching for signs that he’ll disappoint her.  He’s manipulated her in the past and she’s ready to call him on any indication that he’s not being fully straight with her.  They go Christmas shopping, they attend an AA meeting where Holly gets a first-hand account of what recovery looks like not only for her son but for the men and women continuing to struggle with addiction in their later years.  Later, they’ll go on another more complex journey both physical and emotional that takes them through painful memories.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), Ben is Back has a fairly solid and tension filled first half that eventually gives way to a second act I didn’t enjoy quite as much.  It’s at that midpoint the movie switches things up from a stress-inducing drama focused on the devastating effects addiction has on families to a more traditional storytelling arc that feels like something we’ve all seen before.  It’s as if the scripts for two separate and half-finished movies dealing with the same subject were cobbled together. That being said, I wasn’t ever sure how things would turn out for Holly and Ben and for that I was grateful.

What makes the movie so very watchable are the two lead performances, namely Roberts in one of the best roles of her career.  A true Hollywood A-List star, Roberts has coasted a bit in the years following her Oscar win for Erin Brockovich, taking on projects for fun (Mirror Mirror), in support of prestige leads (August: Osage County), or what had to have been as a favor (Mother’s Day).  She’s back in full force in Ben is Back, going total mama bear as she fights to protect her son from himself and fend off all others that may stand in her way.  Through it all, Roberts layers her character with idiosyncrasies and flaws that show she’s not perfect either but reinforce she’s human like the rest of us.  For someone so recognizable with that mega-watt smile, she’s remarkably adept at blending in with ordinary folk.

She’s matched well by Lucas Hedges (yep, the son of the director) as a man reckoning with his past misdeeds over an already stressful holiday.  Back in the town filled with memories that might derail his progress, the real reason he’s back isn’t revealed until late in the movie and makes what has transpired that much more heartbreaking.  Lucas does right by Ben and the audience in never letting us in on how much he’s telling us is true and how much is a put-on façade for the benefit of others.  While Lucas has less meat on the bone to chew on in the second half, he proves to be a good scene partner for Roberts and brings out colors in her that have long been dormant.

Acting as another somber reminder on the struggle with drug addiction in America (though not a preachy PSA), Ben is Back is most notable for the performances of Roberts and Hedges but also has a nice way of creating an atmosphere of tension that keeps you on edge for most of its 103 minutes.  You never quite know which way the movie is going to veer and even though the latter half of the film isn’t a strong as the first it eventually finds its way back to the heart of the family with a whopper of an ending.  Though it might be as manipulative as our titular character, the final shot of the movie really hit me hard.