‘Free Guy’

Rated PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references. Opens in theaters Aug. 13.

Movies about video games tend to be more hit-or-miss than other genres. Part of what makes video games great is the interactive experience, while movies force viewers to go along for the ride, even if the protagonist makes choices they wouldn’t if they were holding a controller.

When filmmakers don’t understand what makes video games tick, it comes off as lame (at worst) or pandering (at best). Fortunately, the folks behind Ryan Reynolds’ latest action-comedy seem to understand why they’re so enjoyable. Granted, that’s coming from someone who’s pushing 40 and hasn’t touched a console since the days of “Halo 2” and “Rock Band.”

Reynolds plays Guy, a bank teller who discovers he’s actually an NPC (non-player character) in a “Grand Theft Auto”-style game. Once he starts to make his own choices, the game shifts around him and players in the outside world begin to notice.

That’s great news for Millie (Jodie Comer), a designer who thinks the game’s world is based on her programming, but not for Antoine (Taika Waititi), the rock star CEO who made millions from her stolen work. Now Guy and Millie must work together to find proof before Antoine erases the game entirely and replaces it with a sequel.

After numerous delays, it turns out “Free Guy” is a fun, late-summer surprise that’s finally hitting theaters just as the Delta variant is wreaking havoc and box office returns are getting soft again. Granted, you shouldn’t risk your health for Disney’s bottom line, but it’s worth seeing on the big screen if you’re vaccinated and masked up.

While the premise is familiar — “protagonist doesn’t realize their world is fake” has been done in a ton of other movies including “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix,” along with many others that would require a spoiler alert — putting a video game spin on it changes things up. It’s also a refreshing change of pace to see Reynolds play a genuine, earnest character instead of the snarky, mean-spirited roles he usually gravitates toward.

In supporting roles, Comer is charming as the butt-kicking love interest and Lil Rel Howery is terrific as the requisite best friend, while Taika Waititi has a blast as the scenery-chewing villain. Joe Keery (best known for his work in “Stranger Things”) is also solid, although his role is the most underwritten.

Finally, it turns out all those delays might’ve been for the best. “Free Guy” was originally made when 20th Century Fox still existed, but it’s abundantly clear the crowd-pleasing finale was reshot once Disney bought the studio. The reference-heavy boss battle would’ve been a lawsuit waiting to happen, while the love theme is lifted wholesale from the brilliant Disney short “Paperman” (which you can check out on Netflix). It made me a little mad until I realized Christophe Beck did the music for both projects. I guess I can’t begrudge the guy for stealing from himself.

Grade: B+

‘CODA’

Rated PG-13 for strong sexual content and language, and drug use. Opens in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ Aug. 13.

This poignant coming-of-age drama from filmmaker Sian Heder made headlines earlier this year when it debuted at Sundance to rave reviews and Apple promptly swept up distribution rights for a record $25 million. Ordinarily, that’s far too much pressure for an indie to overcome, but the hype is real in this case. We’ve still got four months left to go in 2021, but right now it’s my favorite movie of the year.

Loosely based on a 2014 French film, “CODA” — which stands for Child of Deaf Adults — centers on Ruby (the phenomenal Emilia Jones), a high school senior who is the only hearing person in her deaf family (played by Marlee Matlin as her mom, Troy Kotsur as her dad and Daniel Durant as her older brother, all of whom are actual deaf actors). She gets a chance to pursue her love of music when she catches the attention of her choir director (Eugenio Derbez) and another talented student (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), but her dream is threatened when her family’s fishing business falls on hard times.

“CODA” doesn’t do anything to reinvent the wheel and most viewers won’t be surprised at how the narrative progresses. However, it’s refreshing to see a deaf family depicted so realistically on screen; it’s clear that Heder loves these characters and gives them interior lives that are sorely lacking in most films about teens on the cusp of adulthood. Each of them could be the center of their own story, rather than play a supporting role in Ruby’s.

It’s startling how quickly I grew attached to everyone — a credit to the outstanding cast and Heder’s insistence on spending actual quality time with the family, even if a particular scene doesn’t technically advance the plot. Fair warning, though: that emotional attachment came with an affecting price. I can’t remember the last time I cried so hard during a movie. I’m glad I was home alone when I watched the screener, considering I was a total mess during the last half-hour. Seriously, make sure you have Kleenex nearby.

Grade: A

“What If…?”

Rated TV-14. New episodes available every Wednesday on Disney Plus.

Marvel’s newest Disney Plus series is essentially their animated version of “The Twilight Zone,” telling brief stories about characters that audiences have come to know over the last 13 years — all with intriguing twists. Each episode reimagines famous events from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in unexpected ways and a ton of actors from the films lend their voices to the proceedings. I’ve seen the first three episodes (out of nine) and they’re pretty good, although — to me, at least — they improve as they go.

The premiere ponders what might’ve happened if Peggy Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell) took the super soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America. The second episode depicts an alternate reality in which Yondu (the blue guy from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” voiced by Michael Rooker) accidentally kidnapped Prince T’Challa (voiced by Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance) instead of Peter Quill. That one, destined to be a fan favorite, is full of cool surprises that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

However, my favorite was the third episode, a genuinely suspenseful murder mystery that shocked me right at the beginning and had me guessing until the final moments. The less said about it the better, since it’s best to go in clueless.

While “What If…?” doesn’t reach the narrative highs of previous Marvel series “WandaVision” and “Loki,” it definitely intrigued me enough to keep watching. Plus, the brevity of each self-contained story might recapture viewers who bailed on the increasingly complex mythology after “Avengers: Endgame” gave them a logical place to jump ship. I’m looking forward to seeing what future episodes have in store.

Grade: B

Twitter: @IAmJoshSewell

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