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.
A tone poem of gorgeous atmosphere and production design, Kogonada’s futuristic After Yang (B) probes questions such as, “What would you do if an android who is a major part of your family becomes terminally ill?” It’s a quite lovely and contemplative film and a showcase for an understated Colin Farrell as the soft-spoken patriarch. Jodie Turner-Smith as the mother Justin H. Min as Yang the “techno sapien,” Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as his sister and Haley Lu Richardson as a mysterious friend of the cyborg are all delights in quiet roles. The talented Sarita Choudhury stands out as a museum curator interested in immortalizing the memory banks of the unresponsive robot. There are some wonderful grace note sequences such a flashback of Farrell and Min discussing the indescribable bliss of a good tea, and there are pensive drives through modern cityscapes to bring dimension to the talky proceedings. For many it will be a quietly moving meditation on the mysteries of life while it may be a little too dramatically inert for others.
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.
Welcome to the game of poems as Peter Dinklage spryly assumes the titular character of Joe Wright’s unusual romantic comedy musical adaptation of Cyrano (B-). To assess this Sicily-set film’s patchwork charms, one has to separate the generally high quality of the story and production values from the confounding and often distracting music and dance choices. Dinklage is quite charismatic and empathetic as the misfit linguist and warrior, and Haley Bennett is a luminous and appealing Roxane in a classic tale of seemingly unrequited love. Surprisingly for a film so steeped in words, the lyrics of the songs by members of the band the National are pretty consistently banal. Dinklage and co-stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as dashing Christian and Ben Mendelsohn as diabolical De Guiche display a bit of a “gargling with razor blades” vocal quality. Thankfully Bennett is in lovely voice as the lone member of the ensemble who doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the shower. Like its lead character, the film has a sly and scrappy approach, and there are mercifully a total of three music sequences that work at least on some levels. Expect to be slackjawed at times and bowled over at others as the film struggles mightily with its sense of time and place and its curious sonic structure. It’s a scruffy, uneven mess with occasional madcap moments of blissful romance. The movie is recommended for viewers who would naturally find this kind of lavish, cerebral content alluring and not so much for others.
The W.C. Fields admonition to never work with children or animals gets a hard pass when those stars are one of the screen’s charming rejuveniles and a canine companion trained for war but imbued with empathetic instincts. Dog (B+), the feature film co-directing debut of Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, is a rare breed of heady human/animal bond pictures with a dramatic undercurrent about the aftermath of war and just needing someone to talk to about it. The film stars Tatum as an Army Ranger who must escort the Belgian Malinois military working dog of his fallen commander down the Pacific coast to her handler’s funeral. It’s packed with funny and dramatic road trip elements, some slapstick sequences and some moments of profundity along the journey as both man and dog overcome emotions for which they were never trained. This is an ideal vehicle for Tatum’s wry, affable Everyman demeanor, plus the animal is ever a winning screen partner. There’s definitely some content in the film not appropriate for younger kids, but the portrayal of a duo facing PTSD as they attempt to move on in civilian life makes this an unexpectedly moving story.
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.