The Map of Tiny Perfect Things | 2021 | PG-13 | starring Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen | directed by Ian Samuels | 1 hr 38 mins |
Boss Level | 2021 | R | starring Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Michelle Yeoh, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Ken Jeong | directed by Joe Carnahan | 1 hr 34 mins |
Once a niche subgenre that emulated Groundhog Day, Time Loop movies have come a long way from niche cult films like Timecrimes, Triangle and Edge of Tomorrow to being pumped out every year. Maybe it’s the success of Happy Death Day, maybe it’s the try/die/repeat format of video games or maybe people just feel like their lives are spinning their wheels in place. Movies have branched off into different approaches to the topic – 1) as a mysterious phenomenon our characters are trapped in or 2) an explained scientific breakthrough where technology of some kind controls time. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and Boss Level are both different takes on the time loop movie while at the same time using the fun, and falling prey to the tropes, of this subgenre. Both movies heavily nod to being inspired by video games. Both are… fine, in their own way.
First up, Amazon’s The Map of Tiny Perfect Things takes the approach of 2020’s Andy Samberg vehicle Palm Springs, knowing the audience has seen this set-up before, it drops us into the life of a young man, Mark (Kyle Allen), who has repeated the day so many times by now he has mastered every inch of the day in every corner of the town. Like Palm Springs, his predictable world turns upside down when a girl shows up appearing to share the time loop with him, Margaret (Kathryn Newton, who just had a lot more to work with in Freaky). The film inside the time loop is a teen rom-com that wants to be a snarky teen comedy, doesn’t quite hit, but does have a sweeter heart that saves it. He’s a romantic and she’s a cynic. He wants to break out, she wants to stay in the loop and stay young forever.
Perfect Things takes the ‘unexplained phenomenon’ approach. Like Groundhog Day, the universe is stuck around characters who have created a cosmic wrong and there is some way to right it and start things going again. Both leads are charming and there is some unironic heart here, but director Ian Samuels can’t find a way to make it rise above the pack. Nothing is quite funny, sweet or exciting enough. There is no twist on the genre, although it does avoid the time loop movie’s obsession with vide game death – ie. no wacky death montage here. In the end if feels flat, getting overly-long and winded at only an hour and a half.
Next up, is Hulu’s Boss Level. A movie that puts the video game inspiration more up front than ever, Boss Level is the dumb, violent, action side of the coin to Perfect Thing’s sweet romantic character drama. Knowing the audience has seen this set-up before, it drops us into the life of a man, Roy (Frank Grillo), who has repeated the day so many times by now he has mastered all of the moves the league of assassin’s trying to kill him. Every day he wakes up with a machete slicing at his head and a helicopter with a mini-gun raining bullets into his apartment. Roy races around trying to survive the league of assassins, find out why there is a price on his head and save his wife (Naomi Watts) and estranged son.
The director here is action veteran Joe Carnahan and Boss Level is a very Joe Carnahan-y movie. It’s squad of wacky assassins recalls his own Smokin’ Aces and Carnahan goes absolutely wild over the concepts ability to deliver a series of wacky death scenes. This thing is right up Carnahan’s appetite for carnage. Boss Level has the most gruesome and outrageous of any time loop movie so far. Roy is decapitated, harpooned and dragged down the street, run over. It’s all too cartoonish to be truly gruesome nd some of it is quite funny, like a scene where his rigid body flies through a bus window or another where he just gives up and the assassin’s stab him repeatedly in his bed (it looks funnier than it sounds). Carnahan lets this simple plot get overly complicated, flashed back and forth between his various attempts – we’re supposed to keep track if it’s his 141st attempt or 148th attempt – and Roy says over and over in the introduction that “he’s never seen past this point” at different points in the day making it unclear what attempt we’re on.
For gorehounds, Boss Level moves a lot quicker than Perfect Things. The actual conflict gets completely muddled by the end of it: something about Roy’s wife trying to stop a world ending explosion caused by her boss (Mel Gibson) who invented the Time Loop machine that is guarded by a bodyguard (Will Sasso) and a not-Katana sword wielding assassin. So Roy learns how to fight, pull teeth and become a master swordsman with each version, he also chases down his son in a retro video game arcade – because as video game influenced as these movies are they are still only nostalgic for 8 and 16-bit games like Street Fighter (imagine if movies ever get to Bioshock).
Why in the world are there so many big stars in this goofy movie? Carnahan can’t hide the cheapness behind Boss Level, letting slip the economic casting advantage that Time Loop movies afford for your story.
Here is how it works: I’ve got a small budget, but I can afford to bring in Mel Gibson or Naomi Watts or Ken Jeong or Michelle Yeoh for a day or 2. Because the commitment only requires a day it appeals to bigger stars who are ok with squeezing a days work in between other things. I put them in 1 set – Ken Jeong stands behind a bar and Mel Gibson in front of a high tech instrument panel the whole film – and I can shoot them in a bunch of different takes and reactions with the same lighting and camera setup. Then I string all of those throughout the movie, but the single-location, repetitive script repetition of all of it folds perfectly into the repetition of a Time Loop story where we expect to see the same thing over and over. It’s quite ingenious, giving us the most bang for our celebrity buck with the least amount of story required.
The fact that I was thinking about all of this during Boss Level is a testament to it’s inability to hide the movie magic, but the movie is a fun, zippy little ride. I appreciated seeing an action movie version of this film for a change and Frank Grillo (who I’ve never really understood the appeal of) keeps things light. It will be interesting to see what twists on the Time Loop movie we’ll see next.