The central character is a whirling dervish of a “party starter” who, behind the scenes of his admittedly small-time New Jersey public persona, is experiencing his own struggles to launch his personal life at the beginning of his twenties in a sweet, thoughtful and unpredictable movie. The second feature film written by, starring and directed by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth (B+) is a triumph of emotion and characters; and even when some of the plot strands coalesce as awkwardly as the protagonist’s philosophical search for career, romance and meaning, the journey is a winning and watchable high-wire act. Raiff is captivating and charismatic as the extremely talky lead whose so-called motivational dancing is the least of his charms, but it’s two women who steal the show: Dakota Johnson as a mysterious mother who attends a series of bar and bat mitzvahs where Raiff is holding court and Vanessa Burghardt as her autistic daughter whose droll deadpans are a welcome yin to Raiff’s yangs. Johnson in particular has rarely been better as she plays shy vulnerability and gets to open up in some very engaging scenes including one signature discussion over vintage blue raspberry and lemon-lime popsicles. Among the many pleasures of the film is the intermingling of generations: Raiff riffs with the likes of his curious teen younger brother (Evan Assante), his supportive mom (an excellent Leslie Mann) and a variety of characters his junior and senior with plain spoken and plaintive exchanges about the nature of happiness and romance. The music is also a propulsive, delight ranging from the title party tune and familiar works by the likes of Lupe Fiasco to gems by bands such as Homeschool and Harmony House. This isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy nor is it a conventional romcom, but it will reward those who enjoy a tug at the heartstrings and a good “I’m still coming of age” film. Sometimes no matter the station or season in life, a little bit of party pep can put a spring in one’s step.
Phone booths, penny arcades and locomotive cabooses may all be things of the past, but the safe space to rhapsodize about bygone icons is the stuff of immortality. Director Lisa Hurwitz deftly turns her attention to the most democratic of U.S. food chains in her sweet and sentimental documentary The Automat (B+), and in creating this nostalgic work, she traces nearly a century of imagination, immigration, wartime, fluctuating finances plus transformations in American tastes and temperaments. Horn & Hardart was the venerable “lemon meringue” phenomenon with the novel approach to quality fast food, home to the slot-machine lunch served in Art Deco cathedrals. In its heyday these restaurants were as universally accessible as the NYC subways and nourished nearly ten percent of Philadelphia’s population; everyone from bums to billionaires shared the same elegant communal tables, with newcomers marveling at the marble, crooning over the chrome, wistfully wondering at the windows how this magic gets made. Hurwitz rounds up an auspicious cast of eyewitnesses to the eatery, lunching with the stars including consummate entertainer Mel Brooks and Starbucks’ enterprising Howard Schultz as well as late greats Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner. It’s a treat to crack open the multimedia archives and learn from people involved in the heart of house at the business; it would have been additionally insightful to hear from nickel throwers and commissary craftspeople, but presumably many of these company men and women are also lost to history. The director’s bento box of treasures includes a look at the origins of the European technology, the silver dolphin-head coffee spouts, the prescient retail shops and even the TV and movie tie-ins associated with the chain. Her requiem for the brass, the pillars, the cuisine and the chatter earns its place among the Edward Hopper paintings and Audrey Hepburn movies immortalizing the institution. In lionizing the American automat, Hurwitz helps viewers re-live a simpler epoch when meatloaf, cream spinach, strawberry rhubarb or coconut custard pies were just a token away and when a melting pot of consumers could intersect and simply savor timeless moments together.
Suspend your disbelief and strap yourself in for an unexpected stunt spectacular with equally epic heart. S.S. Rajamouli’s go-for-broke bromantic adventure RRR: Rise Roar Revolt (A-) is the breakneck tale of two intertwined freedom fighters on a mission to save a little girl and discover the bounds of brotherhood and loyalty before ultimately liberating the nation of India from British Raj rule in the 1920s. Viewers must excuse some goofy special effects and cartoonish performances from some of the imperial villains and perhaps learn to relish a touch of tonal shifting and delirious dance breaks while exploring this wonderland of spicy cinematic bonbons. It’s an imaginary account of two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, played with absolute relish by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. respectively, and a deliriously inventive gonzo action showcase with parkour and pull-ups, a truckful of wild animals attacking a crowd, a defiant mid-flogging song that incites a riot and so much spectacular more. The fictional friendship between two superheroes has hints of Hindu mythology and fervent nationalism, underscored with rousing M.M. Keeravani music. The kinetic emotional arch as the protagonists emerge from strangers to brothers-in-arms ushers in an elaborate series of escapades with shades of Braveheart, Ben-Hur, Face/Off and Indiana Jones (there’s even a role for that series’ Allison Doody as a bloodthirsty baddie). Chances are you won’t see a more joyful set of performances, more delirious derring-do and a more exciting parade of panache on the screen anytime soon.
Although largely a by-the-books action comedy, Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City (B) is handsomely produced and features Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum each doing what they do best. It’s a lot like Romancing the Stone with a novelist who gets embroiled in one of the types of exotic anthropological excursions ripped from her own fiction. Bullock is appealing in both her physical humor pratfalls (she performs several sequences while tied to a chair and many in a glittery jumpsuit) and in her authorial interplay with Tatum’s dim witted character who is cover model of her elevated bodice rippers and unexpected co-adventurer. Daniel Radcliffe feels like he’s cameoing in a different movie as a caricatured villain whose best sequence involves a whirlwind of charcuterie; meanwhile Brad Pitt is a delight in his brief sequences as a charming mercenary, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph also hilariously steals her scenes as a publicist at wit’s end. This movie handily delivers on its populist fun and sometimes transcends its formula, even as its pacing sometimes misses the mark. Both the leads utter some pretty funny lines under their breath that hopefully won’t be missed in all the activity. Bullock’s character finally gets out of the house, which is an apt metaphor for movie audiences seeking escapism amidst the almost post-pandemic zeitgeist.
Maneuvering the manic minefield of the female Chinese-Canadian tween growing up in early aughts Toronto can be a lot to handle: from flip phones to flipping out, juggling pimpled cuties and temple duties, hoarding both Tamogotchis and tampons and in general trying to find one’s way while on the brink of something new. Domee Shi’s Turning Red (B) leverages a fusion of anime stylings and daydreams with dollops of photo-realistic Pixar aesthetics to craft an animated adventure. But why simply chronicle the protagonist’s amusing and illuminating semi-autobiographical coming of age story when you can also foist an extra forced metaphor of turning into a giant red panda when emotions get heavy? It’s a balancing act for the filmmaking team ultimately working out the story kinks. Glimpses into the bonds of female friendship and some fascinating Cantonese cultural cues enliven the sillier moments, and the film works best when pursuing the genuine embarrassments of adolescence as opposed to plumbing the land grabs for plush merchandise sales. Rosalie Chiang gives a spry central voice performance, and Sandra Oh is effective as her demanding mom who thankfully can relate to her daughter’s strife with more haste that a recently frustrating animated Colombian abuela. Although this film is not a musical, the score and songs by Ludwig Göransson plus Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, respectively, keep proceedings lively, especially in some amusing boy band parody sequences. No doubt this will be the latest Disney endeavor to play on repeat for a good part of the upcoming season, so thankfully it’s a ritual with rewards.
A contemporary tale of political intrigue, a serial crime spree mystery and a noirish adaptation of comic book legend blend spectacularly in The Batman (A), assuredly directed by Matt Reeves. Similar in style and tone to Seven and L.A. Confidential, with twisty themes and commentary on urban decay and perverse forms of achieving justice, this superhero drama is dead serious to the core. This bacchanal of cinematic delights includes transfixing production design, purposeful action, wondrous gadgetry, stunning cinematography and a triumphant score to herald the latest movie series epoch with Robert Pattinson as a brave and brooding Batman/Bruce Wayne. A political assassination sets the dense narrative into motion, with Pattinson’s protagonist juggling several layers of intrigue to cut through corruption and discover unsettling truths. No mere retelling of the origin story, this installment charts unconventional courses into unexpected places. Pattinson proves to be a grim and winning hero with impeccable acting ability. Zoë Kravitz as an avenging spy Cat Woman, Paul Dano as a cunning crackpot Riddler and Colin Farrell (unrecognizable under makeup) as an old-school gangster Penguin all lend dynamic supporting turns, and Jeffrey Wright and John Turturro are also wonderful in less showy ensemble roles. Reeves creates a lived-in universe of pulpy nightclubs, sprawling cathedrals, sinister lairs and sky-high vistas for epic action sequences and showdowns and continuously raises the stakes of his widescreen canvas. Many topical themes are unusually prescient, yet the stirring central storyline never falters. The sheer notion at all points that anything could happen makes it continually watchable despite a considerable running time. This sets a new high watermark for the genre and is sure to thrill both hardcore fans and discerning general movie audiences who don’t have to know backstory to enjoy a propulsive path forward.
A quarter century of death stab for cutie culminates in the sights and sounds of settling. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s 2022 reboot of Scream (C+), which is essentially the fifth movie in continuity in the meta horror whodunit series, takes place 25 years after the streak of fatal stabbings from the original film as a new killer dons the Ghostface mask and targets a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the small California town’s deadly past. The traditional cold open – this time featuring Jenna Ortega as the ingenue who gets a threatening phone call while alone at her house – is promising with its insider discussion of what makes an “elevated modern horror movie,” but alas the film that follows doesn’t further deliver on the premise to forge a more creative path with artier intentions. Instead we follow an ensemble of newcomers ranging from Melissa Barrera to Mikey Madison to Mason Gooding who are all given scant dialogue with which to work and collectively evoke minimal chemistry or empathy. Only Jack Quaid gets some funny throwaway lines as the character who perpetually states the obvious about the horror tropes the group is experiencing within the “rules of the requel,” kind of a sequel many years later bringing back familiar stars to extend a franchise. The film’s third act finally hits high gear as those original movie stars get their hand at revenge and redemption, with Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette all effective in resurrecting their wise and weary characters. The final thirty minutes is a hoot and while still not “elevating” the horror to any new plane at least delivers what fans of the series have come to expect and love: twists and turns of the knife and events. So ultimately the slow-burn pays off for the new directors taking over for the late Wes Craven , but it’s regretful the intro and finale have more impact than the sometimes sluggish songbook in between.
A wry walk on the wild side buoyed by a ripsaw of a central performance, an antidote to the confines of cancel culture and a gloriously observant excavation of black-market communities not often chronicled, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (A-) is mondo movie mayhem from the opening shot to the last. Against the backdrop of gulf-side Texas with equal bursts of imposing industrial complexes, day-glo donut shops and pastel pink bungalows, Baker sets the stage for simultaneous drama, comedy and action as penniless adult entertainer and gifted scam artist Mikey Saber (former MTV personality Simon Rex) returns to the modest home of his estranged wife Lexi (a blissful Bree Elrod), and her feisty mother Lil (Brenda Deiss, also a delight). A promised short stay becomes an escalating series of shock and awe escapades incited by Rex’s despicable but sympathetic antihero with at-minimum balls-out abandon. Rex is a chaotic force of nature in the role, and viewers have permission to tag along to his Texploits free of moral obligation to agree with his actions. He resembles a Seussian Thing Three with his madcap mannerisms and grab bags of grift; it’s among the most memorable unhinged performances of the past few years. The reunited family at the film’s center is an absolute delight, backed up by a sterling supporting cast including Suzanna Son as a Lone Star Lolita named Strawberry, Ethan Darbone as “driver to the star” Lonnie and Brittney Rodriguez as illegal pharma liaison June. This is a challenging film with daring subject matter; it’s not for the faint of heart nor for family night at the movies. After his lauded and ambitious The Florida Project, Baker’s devil-may-care whirling dervish of a detour is certain to continue his upward trajectory among filmmakers.
Drifters and grifters get director Guillermo del Toro’s macabre treatment in the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley (B), an impeccably made and sometimes meandering film noir with a crackerjack Cate Blanchett infused final act. Set in early 1940s America, the movie is a showcase for Bradley Cooper as a mysterious nomad who works odd jobs in carnivals and leverages his talents as a cipher and sponge to become a bit of a mentalist to the upper class. Like many films in this genre, the antihero’s past is catching up with him, but the stakes in this case seem oddly low for much of the film’s prodigious duration. Cooper only occasionally captivates opposite a parade of colorful co-stars ranging from Willem Dafoe to Richard Jenkins to the aforementioned Blanchett (herself the most interesting character of all, an icy therapist). The production design is singularly exquisite, in both the roadside attractions and art deco upper crust sequences, and there is much to like when the characters give a glimpse behind their humble magic tricks. It’s a good but not great effort from a visionary who typically has a bit more up his sleeve.
Although it’s a true story set in medieval France during the Hundred Years War, Ridley Scott’s historical drama The Last Duel (B+) explores timeless truths about gender and power. Relative newcomer to film roles Jodie Comer turns in a phenomenal performance as a woman who is viciously assaulted and refuses to stay silent, stepping forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy and sets the stage for the titular sanctioned death match. Matt Damon plays her often narcissistic and oblivious husband, Adam Driver a friend turned bitter rival and Ben Affleck an enabling playboy. The film is told in three Rashomon style acts, each from distinct vantage points of the husband, the attacker and the wife; and while each adds more to the mosaic mystery, the final episode of the trio is the most stunning. Scott does a good job balancing the grandeur of the opulent sets and gorgeous costume drama while still presenting the building blocks of information in a way that continues to feel fresh up to and through the film’s promised jousting climax. Some of the characters could have been even more deeply observed rather than simply functioning as allegories, but the ripe and ribald dialogue keeps the plot and its people consistently entertaining. Comer is a revelation in a role reflecting the treatment of women in the present day through a fourteenth-century lens. Scott has crafted a glorious film; quite frankly, this is the type of movie in which he most excels. And the message in the battle will stick with you long after the fight to the finish.
Is mansplaining on the marquee, or is this the ultimate tribute to a flawed father? Either way, there’s a lot to love here in a tale of an unexpected visionary. Will Smith holds court as father and tennis queen-maker Richard Williams in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard (B). Smith’s is a sterling performance in an often very good film focused much more on the man whose unconventional methods of parenting and coaching ushered in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis circuit than on the sisters Venus and Serena who actually played the game. The film chronicles the family straight out of Compton through Florida intensives and a variety of dramatic confrontations prior to the young women becoming global champions. Smith exhibits a full gambit of emotions as a sometimes frustrating and complicated character who prioritizes strength of character and values over the quick win, and his acting opposite powerhouse Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Oracene and with talented newcomer Saniyya Sidney as Venus provides ample dramatic fodder for all involved. Usual tough guy Jon Bernthal as happily square coach Rick Macci also sinks his teeth into the tennis tête-à-tête. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Still it’s a largely family-friendly triumph for representation with strong acting on display.
Although it’s a handsomely produced adult crime drama in grand Hollywood style, some inconsistent characterizations and abrupt tonal shifts hinder Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (B) from emerging as the soapy sensation it clearly craves to be. The first hour of the fashion family saga is strongest, centered on a spunky Lady Gaga’s delicious ingenue in a whirlwind romance opposite Adam Driver as the Italian luxury label’s heir apparent, more at home in love than in leadership. Scott’s film soon becomes a different movie focused more intently on the political machinations of the Gucci family business, including mounting tension at work and at home and dramatic stakes of varying proportions, some emotions earned and others not so much. We get a phoned-in performance by Jeremy Irons and a roaring one from Al Pacino as family patriarchs, plus there’s an absolutely unhinged portrayal of the family’s crazed cousin by a virtually unrecognizable Jared Leto. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher if any of these actors feel like they are working in remotely the same universe, and yet mostly the story seems grounded in either Gaga or Driver’s point of view. The empire building is fascinating to behold and most entertaining when Gaga is on screen or when Driver’s cipher of a character discovers his agency. There are also curious choices involving time frames, accents, death scenes and other female performances for which the least said, the better. Still it’s often a crackling affair with much to recommend. Gaga’s performance as catalyst of this catwalk will be the element most remembered from this ambitious and sometimes operatic enterprise.