Quick Reviews: 'The Kid Detective', 'The Empty Man' | Adam Brody's Mystery, Ambitious Horror Picture
THE KID DETECTIVE
From the obscure land that's also known as Canada comes director and writer Evan Morgan's first feature film The Kid Detective which had a festival premiere last fall and then found its way to digital platforms where movies mostly go to live or die based on the amount of word-of-mouth momentum they can pick up. It's notably a great sign if you see a title pop up a few times in completely different contexts and this little mystery comedy managed to reach that barrier and you can totally understand why that would be the case.
Comedies especially have a hard time with that as they are naturally a bit divisive, amplified further when the jokes and themes are on a darker side like here. When everything in that mix just flows naturally, it's easy to champion those underdogs more in a time when studio comedies have shifted shapes and forms. This film's mix is wonderful; funny bits hit home, sincere moments have their spotlight, editing is brisk and the lead is perfectly suited for their role.
That lead is Adam Brody who stars as the eponymous private detective Abe Applebaum who got his start and the nickname as a teenager when he began to solve mysteries around the town of Willowbrook. Abe is now 30, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and feeling rather stuck when he gets an offer from high school student Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) to solve her boyfriend's murder, something cops couldn't do and one which would be Abe's first murder case. Since it is essentially a whodunit, the mystery is better left unexplained but over the course of Abe's investigation, he is also facing himself for the first time—formerly being the ''star of the town'' and then turning into a washed-up loser who had a case as a kid about his friend that he was never able to solve. It's a genuinely great story which isn't predictable at all and one that reaches beyond the mystery at hand.
Putting mysteries aside for a second, it's important to remember that we are talking about comedy and how that is brought to life with a specific style of humour and how it's delivered. The dark humour used is great but it's also emphasised by unusual physical qualities such as in a scene where Abe confronts local emo kids, perhaps highlighting his emotional immaturity. Those moments give the film real spirit and they are also where Brody really shines. He's not quite your typical leading man but this really screams a perfect match of character and actor as deadpan quirks with a thoughtful ending for Abe has a great arc for Brody to delve into. His comedic timing stands on its own, however Morgan and editor Curt Lobb also seem to have the same metronome ticking, making the jokes land even harder.
There are some fleeting moments in the film where things are built around the characters but don't really give viewers anything valuable (Abe getting arrested, his assistant and roommate, final reveal). That, however, is pretty common in one's first feature and when you find your directing voice later, those smaller moments with characters typically become more impactful. Until then, we'll just enjoy this mystery.
Smileys: Humour, Adam Brody, editing, story
Frowneys: Minor issues with characterisation
One could pitch this concept as a miniseries for anyone willing to listen, just saying.
THE EMPTY MAN
Following a cursed trend of movies that were finished a long time ago and getting acquired by another studio just to see light of day now is The Empty Man, a supernatural horror adaptation of graphic novel series of the same name by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey, directed and written by David Prior in his feature debut. After a prologue in which four American hikers explore Bhutan in 1995 just to come across some abnormalities that give context to later events, we find James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a former cop, begin to investigate a disappearance of his friend Nora's (Marin Ireland) daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) that might've involved a cult and some supernatural forces. These things offer a lot of interesting territory to explore but when something desperately lacks style and perspective in several areas, much of it doesn't play well enough to ultimately work.
The above-mentioned Bhutan escapades in the beginning are a great example of how ambitious the film actually is because that part is probably around 30 minutes on its own, even stylistically it is a separate story altogether. Then the title card hits the screen and we're off to Lasombra's story which is a hard left turn that I personally appreciate—especially in big studio horror features—as the survival horror turns into a crime thriller momentarily. Going more in depth to that shift would require some spoiler talk as far as the plot itself goes but to dance around it a bit, the movie sets up these things and investigations so nicely that it's awfully annoying how the payoff isn't exactly at the level it should be.
In many cases we're constantly in a new location which really highlights Craig Lathrop's production design; buildings and sets are icky and funereal in the best way possible which is crucial when maintaining a creepy horror atmosphere.
As much as there is some truly killer stuff here, there is also so much filler. The main problem that the film has is that there is no true distinct voice in Prior's blocking or his aesthetics which would make sure that scenes would have a smooth flow. Pretty much every actor just seems to be roaming from one mark to another or from location A to location B and whenever there are conversations happening, you can feel them just reading lines and waiting for the other one to finish theirs. Scenes often lack emotion, intensity and purpose that would make us care about anyone or where they end up. That's why there are entire sequences that just seem to go on and on as you sit there and wait for Lasombra to figure out even one mystery.
Cinematographer Anastas Michos' uneven, murky lighting of spaces where you can't accurately distinguish eyes, props or even handwriting also causes a lot of the movie's lacking intensity and a sense of danger. Your eyes aren't being guided by the director or the visuals to focus on anything specific happening on the screen which is a shame because the potential was there. Maybe the glass won't be half-empty the next time.
Smileys: Production design, structure
Frowneys: Lighting, directing, pacing
I don't think we'll be seeing an emptier or the emptiest man based on how this was dumped by the studio.