Texting is vexing, words are blunt instruments and smartphones illuminate the unexpected in Halina Reijn’s dark comic horror movie Bodies Bodies Bodies (C+). This meta whodunit featuring a quintet of Gen Z actresses playing wealthy semi-strangers engaged in hardcore house-partying trades magnifying glasses for digital devices to examine a killing spree. The film, with its land grab of lewd lexicon and triggering aplenty, feels oddly hatched in a sassy sociology class. Reijn is fixated on allegory over actual scares while uncovering the carapace and contradiction among women of gentle demeanor becoming merciless in an Insta. Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalava seize some of the best acting moments, and Pete Davidson is a riot as a slacker and truth teller. The film’s most distinctive features are its lighting and cinematography, exploring a gleefully glowing aesthetic in the increasingly dark domicile. Whether the ensemble is intended to be the object of affection or ridicule, the group is fairly unlikable, which can distance the viewers from caring deeply. Despite some occasionally curious satirical ideas, this movie is hardly more frightening than a wi-fi outage.
Don’t doubt the mind and might of an 18th century Comanche tribe healing woman or the power of the seventh installment in the Predator movie franchise – a prequel, no less – to surprise with dexterity and delight. Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (B+) turns out to be a corker of an action film set in the Northern Great Plains with fierce actress Amber Midthunder making an indelible impression as Naru, a skilled medic, warrior and tracker protecting her tribe against a highly evolved alien. Although the menace of the sometimes transparent antagonist is absurd as ever, Midthunder (accompanied by an incredibly cute dog) is wholly convincing in her oneupmanship. Trachtenberg skillfully plays with pace and suspense and keeps his eyes squarely on the central clash of Naru and the Predator, a heat-seeking hot pursuit. His tight plotting and action sequences pay off again and again, as grizzly bears and fur trappers emerge in the great wide open of the film’s gorgeous landscape. The film boils to a stunning denouement and closes the chapter of what could easily be just a great self-contained movie for those who haven’t followed the series. This installment is also notable for its representation of Indigenous Americans, with insightful themes about how a close-knit community intersects with a hearty helping of sci-fi horror on the side.
Director David Leitch builds a better mousetrap out of the snatch-and-grab genre on a modern-day Orient express in the Tokyo-set anything-goes action yarn Bullet Train (B). Fond homages to Kill Bill and The Warriors abound as a rogues’ gallery of antiheroes assembles aboard a speeding locomotive with vengeance embedded in its steam-pipe ethos. With unusual chronology and flashes of back story, it becomes clearer why the ensemble is aboard the vehicle. Brad Pitt is the zen protagonist imbued with super-chill talents of snark and imaginative stunt choreography in equal doses; it’s fun to watch a reformed assassin in progress as he quietly observes the folly of his ways to Sandra Bullock in an earpiece while clashing with the cavalcade of obstacles in his way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry are among the most amusing denizens of the whistle-stop whirling dervish, a droll duo with killer banter. As an elder with manga and martial arts magnetism, Hiroyuki Sanada is another effective standout in the star-studded cast. Leitch unleashes a blood splattered bubblegum hued environment with endless invention, the kind that surprises, delights and sometimes wears out its welcome. Overall it’s gonzo action-packed fun, though, with surprises around every turn.
Spelunk-tacular! Ron Howard’s real-life survival film Thirteen Lives (B) chronicles the daring 2018 rescue of a dozen young soccer players and their assistant coach trapped for 18 days in Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave after heavy rainfall flooded the structure and blocked their way out. It’s sometimes an uneven match of the endlessly optimistic director and the sometimes mundane mechanics of the procedural plot, but once the expert divers played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell discover the trapped entourage and enlist Joel Edgerton who also dives and offers additional medical skills, it’s a battle of brains and brawn to get everyone out safe and sound. The narrow passageways and the deluge of water compound the scope and scale of the disaster film, with some rather remarkable underwater cinematography. The familiar actors bring notable realism to the screen, and Teeradon Supapunpinyo is an underused gem as the empowering coach who keeps his players’ hope alive during the grueling ordeal. The first hour is sluggish but the second and third acts pick up the pace. Howard ultimately wrings a heartfelt message from the global story of cooperation between 17 countries to complete the miraculous mission. It’s a noble and inspiring work with takeaways for nearly every family viewer.
Those harboring horror film history will have a sixth sense of what you get when it’s Kevin Bacon plus sleepaway camp: it’s not a lucky day for the teen participants. John Logan’s new film They/Them (B) is pronounced “they slash them,” and although it’s sometimes more effective as social commentary than horror movie, it’s often a riveting and surprisingly sensitive psychological adventure. Theo Germaine is absorbing as the non-binary protagonist in a talented LGBTQ ensemble, with Anna Chlumsky and Carrie Preston among the standout counselors at an outdoor conversion camp further complicated by the presence of a masked killer. Kevin Bacon is solid as the seemingly mild mannered but possibly sadistic camp leader; the actor clearly liked the concept enough to be a behind the scenes producer as well. The body count is punctuated by sterling doses of intimate drama and even a jubilant singalong to a Pink anthem. Just when folks thought it was safe to be out of the closet, this twisty tale provides refreshing riffs by the queer and loathing, especially when the usual roles occupied by damsels in distress are magnificently reversed and empowered. This is unexpected fare in the streaming wilderness of late summer.
This origin story for the latest batch of superheroes is fetching indeed. Jared Stern’s delightful animated adventure comedy DC League of Super-Pets (B) focuses on Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), Superman’s caped canine companion, and how he and a ragtag gang of four-legged misfits work together to thwart Lex Luthor’s villainous lab rat (a sassy and sinister Kate McKinnon). There’s plenty of lively fun on the surface for the kids, but Stern’s comic book universe references and insider sensibilities are knowing and amusing throughout. It’s a bright, colorful and charming lark with outstanding voice work by top-flight comic talent including Kevin Hart, Vanessa Bayer and Natasha Lyonne. For a film so orchestrated as a land grab for intellectual property adjacent content, it is far better than one would expect. In fact, the women in the voice talent ensemble really steal the show. The sentimental through-lines for a dog to stay relevant to his owner and for characters to recognize the advantages of collaboration ring true in the movie. Stern demonstrates the instincts and insights to deliver an entertaining family fortress of jolly-tude.
Lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (DEJ) almost unilaterally redeems director Olivia Newman’s melodrama Where the Crawdads Sing (B-), rescuing the period piece film from one of the most poorly paced and acted first twenty minutes of a major Hollywood feature (a kind of reverse Saving Private Ryan) and helping draw viewers into what at times magically becomes rather riveting. The movie’s literary roots are showing, from the cloying first-person voice-over narration to the “life under a microscope” earthly allusions. DEJ’s protagonist “Kya” is an outsider loner and novice naturalist of the North Carolina marshes who becomes embroiled in two significant romances and one murder trial. She digs mussels and muscles and may or may not harbor secrets. The soapy plot would be the death Nell to the proceedings were it not for the impeccable work by DEJ as the magnetic central character. She’s surrounded by one of David Strathairn’s few humdrum performances (he’s the kindly lawyer) and even more confounding acting turns by Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson as tall glass of water “good” and “bad” suitors, respectively (Did original song writer Taylor Swift also cast the disappointing dudes from her jilted jukebox burn book?). Somewhere in the middle of it all, though, there’s DEJ’s fierce female performance: a smart, observant and evolving heroine with emotive eyes, piercing pathos and utterly believable physicality. She makes viewers hope and wince and cheer. The story is occasionally rich with bursts of Southern gothic atmosphere, and Newman ultimately gets a grip on the multiple plot threads to lend a sizable chunk of the overlong story a more cohesive vibe. This is all a bit of a guilty pleasure, quite watchable, but hardly revelatory. Except the lead actress: she’s a cinematic savior here and raises the stakes beyond the brays of the crayfish.
Writer/director Jordan Peele keeps his head in the clouds for Nope (B), a genre-defying paranormal action drama sure to raise eyebrows and conversations. Expertly shot and imaginatively conceived, it maintains its slow boil mystery into a fierce final act. Playing with conventions about the extent to which individuals will go to leave a legacy or even how far a filmmaker will endeavor to present a spectacle, Peele skillfully slides into a very intellectual mode for most of the film’s duration even though his film can be simultaneously enjoyed as simply a supernatural adventure. Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya are engaging as siblings who uncover something afoot on their Hollywood horse ranch, and Brandon Perea is trippy fun as their technical accomplice. Steven Yeun successfully fronts a fascinating subplot about an entertainment property in an alternative universe, sometimes more compelling than the primary plot. It’s a delight to watch the cunning gamesmanship of the ensemble in advancing the story, and Peele again earns his place among visionary moviemakers even as he confounds expectations a bit.
Director Dean Fleischer-Camp’s novel stop-motion meets live-action dramedy Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (B) is an often entertaining sass menagerie, the A24 Films indie improv build on the likes of Aardman Studios’ Wallace and Gromit clay-making charm with a mix of Pixar-style pathos to punctuate the proceedings. This mockumentary style slip of a story is based on a series of online webisodes and stars the voice of Jenny Slate as the titular anthropomorphic animated character. Marcel lives with his grandmother (dialogue by Isabella Rossellini) in a vacation rental home occupied by a human filmmaker, played by the actual director. Viewers are treated to the one-inch-tall protagonist’s misadventures, gallant gadgetry and droll quips inside the house as he prepares for a newsmagazine TV show to chronicle his quirky life and possibly reunite him with his conch kind. Enjoyment of this movie depends on how captivated you are by Marcel; and while this shell without a filter is indeed hella funny, an elongated series of his outtakes do not a full-fledged story make. The film gets high originality points for its pleasant change of perspective amidst flashier fare. If you listen closely, you may hear tremendous tidal tidings washing over you, but some of the time it’s just treading water.
Director Taika Waititi’s building blocks for his latest Marvel entry include three parts Airplane! style quips and playful pratfalls, three parts romantic comedy and four parts solemn action. It’s a wonder Thor: Love and Thunder (B-) works as well as it does in spurts even though it doesn’t really hang together in a cohesive way. Chris Hemsworth is amusing and swashbuckling as the central hero, although there’s never any real action stakes as he and colleagues march through perfunctory episodes. This installment is largely about the god of thunder regaining his emotional mojo. Natalie Portman returns as a love interest with new powers and an occasionally resonant backstory; she’s good enough to warrant a bit more. As new villain Gorr The God Butcher, Christian Bale is acting in a whole different universe, menacing and maniacal under macabre prosthetics. There’s also an amusing series of sequences involving a convention of deities. The film is often a clever lark, largely inconsequential and a missed opportunity for even more fearless and frolicking fun. This one doesn’t throw down the gauntlet with quite the precision or focus necessary.
Ever wonder why we have to wait until the end of the year for movie awards? Thankfully there’s now a mid-year report from a key critics organization.
On July 1, 2022, the Hollywood Critics Association will honor the best films of the first half of the year, including these Best Film nominees. Winners in a variety of categories will be announced via social media. Here are my reviews of the big contenders. Spoiler: I absolutely agree with these choices!
Step right up as one of the world’s most creative cinematic carnival barkers presents his greatest showmance ever, with the calliope and clamor of the ultimate merry-go-round trapping the gallop of an icon in a rotating pageant, careening toward early immortality. The collision of intertwined workhorses whirling to that inevitable exit stage deft is magic in the making at a mechanical distance and fascinating to watch. One of the most beloved and earnest entertainers in music history and one of the most curious huckster/promoters in that same shimmery sham of showbusiness are twin muses in Baz Luhrmann’s busy but effective Elvis (B+). The eccentric Australian writer/director casts his clever and often keenly observational lens on the Faustian bargain between Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and his handler Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) to maneuver a career equally marked by chart toppers and electric performances as well as a myriad of missed opportunities. The maximalist, impressionistic and sometimes chronological presentation traces the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon of a young man inspired by the sounds of Memphis’ Beale Street being coronated as the King of Rock and Roll and the best-selling solo artist of all-time, all the while hemmed in to the myopic menagerie of a glorified side show act. Butler is truly a star being born, with bona fide revival tent wiggles and shakes plus aw-shucks charm worthy of being one of the most magnetic musicians to grace the stage, screen, airwaves and pop consciousness. This charismatic actor is undoubtedly the surprise main attraction here, conveying genuine connection with his audience and meeting the moment in a time and place of American and world history demanding his singular voice and outlook. The decision to juxtapose the crooner’s life opposite that of his opportunist manager intent on keeping his jack in the box is met with varying degrees of effectiveness. Summoning a strange accent and demeanor, Hanks can never quite bottle the intrigue expected of his uncanny antagonist role. Overall the milieu and music are consistently invigorating; Luhrmann hits emotional arcs strictly out of the ballpark. Viewers will leave the film with additional appreciation for what the pop performer brought to his platform. Building on more conventional biopics Bohemian RhapsodyandRocketman, Luhrmann’s bombastic bonbon ups the ante and the mythology around the man to conceive his epic take on a behind-the-music trope from an unexpected vantage point.