The Bikeriders

Based on an evocative photobook of motorcycle club members from the 1960s, The Bikeriders works best as a mood movie if nothing else. Writer-director Jeff Nichols conceived of a story around the images from Danny Lyon’s photojournalist chronicle but the narrative mainly serves to weave together punctuated character beats. It’s a film fixated on faces, how they move and how they linger from moment to moment. We often talk about blockbusters or big action movies as those that demand to be seen on the big screen but this is an instance where a “smaller” production benefits from the larger format. The gorgeous cinematography from Adam Stone allows images from a specific subculture and setting to wash over us with a power uniquely tailored for the theatrical experience.

Set between 1965 and 1973 in Chicago and the surrounding areas, The Bikeriders centers around three central figures involved with the motorcycle gang known as the Vandals MC. The outlaw group is led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), a wild card who rarely speaks without a cigarette tucked between his lips. Johnny treats younger member Benny (Austin Butler), who puts up a tough front but hides a sensitive side, like a younger brother and a protégé who can keep the club roaring forward once he bows out. When Kathy (Jodie Comer) sets foot inside their bar one evening, everyone sets eyes on her but it’s Benny who takes her home on his bike at the end of the night. Things in the Vandals are good for a time, until unwieldy expansion and culture clashes threaten to tear the group apart for good.

Using a framing device in which Danny Lyon is actually a character in the movie (played by Mike Faist) documenting the events, The Bikeriders shares DNA with the more modern crime saga Hustlers. Both feature a similar structure, where an interview chronologically after the events of the movie sets the scene, even if the criminals they’re depicting have entirely different backgrounds and motivations. As much as Hustlers was influenced by Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas, The Bikeriders similarly bears the master’s mark and also draws inspiration from Casino as well, with its focus on a trio of two men and a woman witnessing the slow decline of a criminal enterprise. If you’ve seen any of these films already, you’ll likely be ahead of Nichols as he tells his years-long story but the foibles of these characters keep things relatively fresh.

Though the roles they’re playing aren’t always the most three-dimensional, each of the actors bring an entrancing and even endearing quality to their ne’er-do-wells. Jodie Comer is best known for playing characters who also sport her native British tongue but she pulls off a rapturously authentic Chicago accent here and has all the trophy wife mannerisms down pat too. Never one to shy away from a dialectical challenge, Tom Hardy carries over the accent he learned to play midwest-based gangster Al Capone and also brings his unpredictable propensity for violence. Reprising the animal magnetism he culls from playing Elvis Presley a couple years ago, Austin Butler is effortlessly cool as a wayward scamp who needs more guidance than he knows.

A charge has been brought against both movies and TV shows of the past several years that dialogue has gotten more unintelligible, forcing many to opt for subtitles when available. There are several potentially guilty culprits for this concerning trend: poor sound mixing or stylized sound mixing that favors effects over dialogue, more understated performances or smaller speakers in the case of home viewing. Regardless, I need to give kudos to the sound team on this project for working hard to capture dialogue on-set — or after the fact with lines that weren’t obviously voiced over — that was never difficult to understand. Butler and Hardy are two actors who certainly aren’t known to project or enunciate in a good amount of their roles but it was a relief to hear them loud and clear. The engines may roar in The Bikeriders but thankfully, they don’t drown anything out.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is A Quiet Place: Day One, a horror prequel starring Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn rewinding back to events before the first Quiet Place when bloodthirsty alien creatures with ultrasonic hearing first invade New York City.
Also playing in theaters is Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, an epic Western starring Kevin Costner and Sienna Miller which chronicles a multi-faceted, 15-year span of pre-and post-Civil War expansion and settlement of the American west.
Streaming on Netflix is A Family Affair, a romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron about a young woman, working as the personal assistant to a self-absorbed Hollywood star, who discovers that her boss is having a secret romantic relationship with her widowed mother.

Inside Out 2

Insofar as the covid pandemic turned everything inside out, fewer studios took a harder hit than Pixar. Onward‘s March 2020 theatrical run was abruptly cut short, their next three movies debuted on Disney+ and their theatrical return with Lightyear in summer 2022 drastically underperformed at the box office. Even Elemental‘s sleeper run last year after a weak opening weekend cast doubts on the Pixar brand as the money-making juggernaut that it’s been for almost 30 years. A sequel to one of their best films certainly seems a reasonable way to get things back on track and while I have no doubt Inside Out 2 will put Pixar in a better place financially, it’s a strong achievement artistically as well. This is the studio’s best follow-up to an original IP since Toy Story 2, one that unpredictably builds on the magic of its predecessor in exciting and enchanting ways.

Two years after Inside Out, our protagonist Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) is officially a teenager, which spells trouble for the five anthropomorphized emotions in her head. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (now voiced by Tony Hale), Disgust (now voiced by Liza Lapira) and Anger (Lewis Black) seem to have a good system down, until a “Puberty Alarm” on the mind console blares out the night before Riley heads to hockey camp. Suddenly, new emotions pop up in headquarters and start taking over, the most quarrelsome being Anxiety (Maya Hawke). Less bothersome but still impactful are others newcomers Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser). Anxious to take over, Anxiety banishes the original five from the control room, who spend most of the film working their way back to balance out Riley’s emotional state.

As much as Inside Out was a coming-of-age story about the value of the basic emotions in the human experience, Inside Out 2 examines the more complicated feelings that crop up as we get older. Anxiety, then, is something of a perfect antagonist this time around, as it’s not simply happy or sad as it’s ceaselessly energetic. Maya Hawke does a terrific job at capturing the manic and infectious timbre that approximates the sounds anxiety would make if it could be personified. Amy Poehler is excellent again as Joy, who tries to align her goals with Anxiety but demonstrates that the paths to get there are drastically different. Of course, the ideal would be to have a balance of all these emotions but the teenage years are all about things being thrown out of whack and the bustling power struggle between Joy and Anxiety is a superb cipher for this stage of life.

Just as Inside Out 2 makes room for more complex emotions and thornier narrative implications, it also deepens the original’s adroitness for visualizing psychological concepts. Building on the lessons learned from that chapter, Joy creates a “Sense Of Self” section of Riley’s head, where the multi-colored memory orbs introduced in Inside Out float on a translucent lake where elegant strands spring out of the water. When plucked, these strings echo affirmations like “I’m a good person” and analogize one’s self-esteem. After Anxiety takes the wheel, these threads turn jagged and contain thoughts like “if I make the hockey team, I won’t be alone.” Now, a more simple animated movie would have these be purely negative thoughts that obviously need to go but “if I’m good at hockey, I’ll have friends” isn’t a bad sentiment on its own. The issue is how Anxiety applies these thoughts to Riley’s psyche, beautifully capturing how logical fallacies, thought loops and cognitive biases can crop up in our brains.

Building upon the incredible “abstract thought” section of Inside Out, the sequel implements different animation styles for several new characters that pop up during Joy and company’s journey back to headquarters. 2D remnants from a TV show Riley watched when she was younger, Bloofy and Pouchy (voiced by Ron Funches and James Austin Johnson, respectively), toss out questions to a non-existent audience in the back of Riley’s mind. There’s also the Final Fantasy-influenced Lance Slashblade and ominous Deep Dark Secret, who incidentally looks like the Paul Walter Hauser-voiced character from this year’s Orion And The Dark. There’s also a frantic setpiece involving a house-of-cards cubicle farm of Projections that sneaks in clever references to both 1984 and the “distracted boyfriend” meme. As much as I love Inside Out, I didn’t expect to enjoy a sequel to it quite this much but Inside Out 2 is a fully-realized successor that delights and surprises with its imagination and ingenuity.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Bikeriders, a crime drama starring Jodie Comer and Austin Butler which tells the true story of the Chicago outlaw motorcycle club known as the Vandals MC as their club evolves over the course of the 1960s.
Also coming to theaters is The Exorcism, a supernatural horror film starring Russell Crowe and Sam Worthington about a troubled actor who begins to exhibit a disruptive — and possibly demonic — behavior while shooting a supernatural horror film.
Streaming on Netflix is Trigger Warning, an action thriller starring Jessica Alba and Anthony Michael Hall following a skilled Special Forces commando who takes ownership of her father’s bar after he suddenly dies and soon finds herself at odds with a violent gang running rampant in her hometown.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Marvelous Mrs. Meryl: The Deer Hunter

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine that another performer will top Meryl Streep’s record for Oscar nominations in the acting categories. Over the past 45 years, she’s been nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress a combined 21 times. It’s a mind-blowing figure and while acting awards don’t mean everything, they certainly contribute to Streep’s status as one of the most gifted actresses in film history. Her first Oscar win came in 1980 for her work in the divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer but her first nomination came the year prior for a film that had nominations in 8 other categories and wins in 5. Though The Deer Hunter can be seen as a movie dominated by masculinity, Streep provides a crucial counterbalance in a role that helped shoot the young actress into stardom.

Set during the late 60s in the Southern Steel Valley near Pittsburgh, The Deer Hunter centers around the relationship between three close friends before, during and after their deployment in Vietnam. The leader of the trio is Mike (Robert De Niro), who everyone seems to instinctually follow out of the steel mill when the 5 o’clock bell has rung. Right by his side is Nick (Christopher Walken), who is housemates and likely best friends with Mike as well. Then there’s the soft-spoken Steven (John Savage), who may not have Mike or Nick’s assertiveness but has loyalty to spare, evidenced by the fact that he’s marrying Angela (Rutanya Alda) even though she’s pregnant with another man’s baby. Shortly after Steven and Angela’s spirited wedding, the three men go off to war and what they experience together alters their relationship with each other and their community forever.

Streep plays Linda, whose soft features and warm demeanor have captured the affection of both Mike and Nick. She’s introduced in The Deer Hunter adorn with a lovely bridesmaid’s dress while anxiously preparing a meal for her alcoholic and abusive father. In an attempt to flee from his monstrous presence, she asks Nick if she can stay at their house while they go on a hunting trip and later when they go overseas to fight. Later at the wedding, Nick returns the favor and hastily ups the ante with an even more serious question: asking if she’ll marry him. Even though glances across the dance floor imply that she also has feelings for Mike too, she excitedly says “yes” to Nick’s proposal and awaits their return home so they can have a wedding of their own.

The second act of the film largely centers on the three brothers in arms during their time in the Vietnam War, which leave each of them broken in different ways. Steven loses both of his legs due to a fall from a helicopter, while a PTSD-ridden Nick goes AWOL and recklessly drifts from one Chinese gambling den to another. Mike returns to his small hometown of Clairton and while Linda is overjoyed to see him, she is understandably worried about her absent fiancé. The final act is where Streep’s performance really shines, imbued with quiet yearning and shattering heartache that realigns the emotional core of the film. After Mike finds Linda crying in the grocery store where she works, Linda laments “did you ever think life would turn out like this?” to him in the car a moment later.

As it turns out, Streep may have been mining from ongoing personal experiences when crafting her Oscar-nominated performance. During the filming of The Deer Hunter, Streep was in a committed relationship with John Cazale, who also stars in the movie as one of Mike’s hunting buddies in his final film role. Tragically, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer that quickly spread to his bones, a fact that he withheld from the production studio EMI because he was worried he would be pulled from the production for insurance reasons. Robert De Niro was fully behind his friend and co-star, threatening to walk if the EMI dismissed him from set and, as it was finally revealed just a few years ago, De Niro was the one who paid Cazale’s insurance premium so he could stay on. Since the clock was ticking, director Michael Cimino shot all of Cazale’s scenes first and sadly, Cazale passed shortly after filming wrapped.

Even though Streep and Cazale don’t share many scenes together in The Deer Hunter, the real-life events give both of their performances an added layer of sorrow even independent of one another. ”I was so close that I hadn’t noticed his deterioration,” Streep later said of Cazale. ”John’s death came as a shock to me because I didn’t expect it.” In the film, Linda doesn’t deal with the same circumstances that Streep had to travail off-set but her character does suffer heartbreak and loss all the same. When Linda first embraces Mike upon his arrival home, she lets out such a cry of relief and surprise that it hits the senses like a thunderbolt. But when she realizes that Nick isn’t going to make it back, her spirit sinks as high as it rose when Mike hugged her at their door. Streep doesn’t have an abundance of screen time in The Deer Hunter but she pours her heart into every second that she’s on screen.

The Watchers

This summer, one Shyamalan simply isn’t sufficient. While M. Night Shyamalan has the concert-set thriller Trap due out this August, his daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan has struck first blood with The Watchers, a supernatural horror offering based on A.M. Shine’s breakthrough novel. Though she’s worked as second unit director on her father’s recent films Old and Knock At The Cabin, while also writing and directing a handful of episodes for the Apple TV+ series Servant, this is Ishana’s first time writing and directing for the big screen. Her directorial debut displays promise from the outset with a tantalizing hook and properly spooky atmosphere but eventually comes undone with inconsistent pacing and telegraphed third-act developments.

The Watchers centers around Mina (Dakota Fanning), a young American stuck in the haze of her troubled past while working at a pet shop in Ireland. Tasked with delivering a prized parrot to a customer hours away from the store, Mina finds herself lost in the deep Irish forest with a broken down car. Soon night falls and worrisome noises draw her to the only building in the area and a woman called Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who is standing by the open door offering Mina shelter. The situation doesn’t get any less strange when Madeline demands that Mina stand with her, along with two other lost forest dwellers Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), in front of a one way mirror so the quartet can be observed by an unseen entity. Can the four of them find their way out of the woods before the creatures they call “The Watchers” penetrate their bunker?

Like her father’s most memorable movies, Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers has a high-concept premise perfect for an enticing teaser trailer, which fittingly debuted before fellow Warner Bros release Dune: Part Two earlier this year. From a marketing perspective, it’s fortunate that the clip features the most accomplished stretch of filmmaking front-and-center. The four members of “The Coop”, the characters’ name for the enclosure they find themselves in, kill time playing records and DVDs until the sun goes down and ritual dictates that they gather in front of the glass to be “watched”. It’s a juxtaposition between mundane domesticity and paranormal ceremony previously employed by similarly grabby entertainments like Lost and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

It’s never an easy thing to follow up on such a persuasive pitch with a narrative that cleverly unpacks the opening gambit and that’s where The Watchers predictably falters. The more we learn about the titular observers, the less interesting the story at large becomes. Instead of focusing on the troublesome and tense aspects of sharing a confined living space with three other strangers, Shyamalan decides to press forward with the more generic horror elements of her tale instead. It’s not necessarily that the reveal of who The Watchers are is disappointing but as a director, Shyamalan can’t exactly figure out where she wants to take things from there. Once the bird flies the proverbial coop, it doesn’t land in territory we haven’t seen dozens of times before.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have appealing aspects. It’s exceptionally well shot by cinematographer Eli Arenson, who beautifully captures both the haunting beauty of the Irish countryside and the chilly interiority of The Coop. The shots of Mina and the others interacting with the one way mirror are aided by gorgeous computer-generated effects that gorgeously render reflections that point to the movie’s theme of doubles and competing halves of one’s identity. It’s also nice to see Dakota Fanning in a starring role again after a smaller part in last year’s The Equalizer 3. Even if her character’s personal journey isn’t quite as interesting as the supernatural elements at play, Fanning makes Mina a protagonist with whom it’s easy to sympathize. The Watchers isn’t the strongest start for Ishana Night Shyamalan but there are still seeds of a promising storyteller to watch for.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Inside Out 2, an animated sequel starring Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith following the personified emotions of a teenage girl as new feelings like Anxiety and Envy enter the mix.
Screening at Cinema Center is Tuesday, a fantasy drama starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lola Petticrew about a mother and her terminally ill daughter as they’re visited by a size-altering macaw that’s the personification of death.
Streaming on Hulu is Brats, a documentary about the Brat Pack, a group of young actors who frequently appeared together in coming-of-age films in the 1980s, and the impact on their lives and careers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

In A Violent Nature

Years ago, GEICO had an ad spoofing the stupidity of horror movie protagonists where a group of teens on the run from a killer opt to hide behind a wall of hanging chainsaws over hopping in a running car. Following their decision, we get a close-up of the killer standing right behind them, who lifts up his mask to reveal how befuddled and somehow disappointed he is by their idiocy. The new Canadian slasher film In A Violent Nature hinges on a hook left hanging by the ad: what if we spent a whole horror movie following the deranged murderer instead of the clueless campers? There have been so many Friday The 13th sequels, it’s a wonder they hadn’t tried it before but now that it’s finally here, I only wish that it had come sooner; it’s the best movie of its subgenre since last year’s Thanksgiving.

We open on a static shot of a locket hanging on a beam in a deep woods abandoned shed, where voices talk out of frame and a hand belonging to Troy (Liam Leone) reaches out to nab the jewelry. Little does he know, that necklace is all that was keeping the decades-old corpse of Johnny (Ry Barrett) buried in the ground and moments after Troy departs with his buddies, the zombified Johnny wriggles free from his earthy prison. We stick with him as he wanders through the forests of Ontario, silently watching over a campfire where the group of friends swap scary stories. They eventually bring up the White Pine Slaughter, an urban legend where an unseen force allegedly got brutal revenge on a group of loggers who covered up the murder of the “mentally hindered” Johnny when he was just a boy. Unfortunately for them, the revenge isn’t quite over yet.

After this bit of exposition, In A Violent Nature doesn’t bother to explain much more along the lines of character motivation as, in one sense, we’ve seen this movie before. Once Johnny claims his first victim, the survival instincts of the remaining campers reliably kick in and they attempt to take actions that won’t instantly doom them. By keeping the perspective on the zombified killer as he lumbers through nature, it could be said that Johnny is the closest thing the film has to a true protagonist. We aren’t exactly rooting for him to kill everyone in this group…but aren’t we? He’s modeled very similarly to Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked face of the Friday The 13th series who drowned as a boy at Camp Crystal Lake due to the negligence of the staff. If Jason can be seen as the “hero” of that franchise, then it’s not difficult to view Johnny in the same way here.

Though In A Violent Nature has long takes and a slower pace, don’t let that fool you into thinking that the movie takes itself too seriously. Some of the kills here are the most gloriously over-the-top that I’ve seen in a slasher, including a cliffside slaughtering that is so immoderate that it’s difficult not to chuckle. That’s not to say that this is a horror comedy but it certainly knows where it came from and leans into the camp of its predecessors. In his debut, writer/director Chris Nash has clearly done his homework, thought about what we’ve already seen before in these films and then commits to how to give us a new perspective. Plot-wise, this movie is hardly reinventing the wheel but in terms of direction, it’s pretty much one-of-a-kind.

Another way that In A Violent Nature carves out its own path is in its audio presentation, which forgoes a musical score for the eerie sounds of the deep forest and the detailed sound design during the slayings. It’s another way that the movie is a subtractive exercise, taking away the conventions upon which audiences typically rely to heighten the overall experience. In a brief sequence that is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, one of the characters is running fast enough that her white shirt is barely visible and her screams are barely audible over the ominous symphony of cicada chirps. It sets up a denouement that is more tense and unnerving than the brutality that precedes it, capping off In A Violent Nature as appointment viewing for horror fans.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Bad Boys: Ride Or Die, a buddy cop action comedy starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reuniting a pair of Miami PD’s finest as they investigate corruption in the department but subsequently find themselves on the run.
Also playing in theaters is The Watchers, a supernatural horror film starring Dakota Fanning and Georgina Campbell following a young artist who gets stranded in the forest and becomes trapped alongside three strangers, who are stalked by mysterious creatures each night.
Premiering on Netflix is Hit Man, a romantic action comedy starring Glen Powell and Adria Arjona involving a professor moonlighting as a hit man for his city police department who finds himself attracted to a woman who enlists his services.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

Back in 2015, the Mad Max franchise got a fast and furious revitalization with the universally-lauded Mad Max: Fury Road, which introduced the fearless Imperator Furiosa, portrayed by Charlize Theron. To fill out his Mad Max universe a bit more, mastermind George Miller has returned to direct Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, a prequel that doesn’t necessarily improve its predecessor but at least gives us an excuse to revisit this vivid and distinctive cinematic landscape. For some, the film will come across as a sampler platter that cobbles together aspects of the franchise to make a decent enough meal. For others, this could be seen as the most accessible chapter in the series and might be an unexpected favorite for those who haven’t spent much time in this world yet. For me, it’s an improvement on Fury Road but still falls short of the mark of greatness.

Filling in for Charlize Theron, Anya Taylor-Joy and Alyla Browne play younger versions of the Furiosa we knew from Fury Road. We first meet her in the heart of the Green Place, an oasis in the otherwise barren wasteland of post-apocalyptic Australia. When a biker gang from the outside world stumbles upon their paradise, Furiosa is kidnapped and taken back to the gang’s leader Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) as a bargaining chip to find the Green Place once more. That plan doesn’t come to fruition, so he later trades her to warlord and Citadel leader Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) in exchange for control over an oil refinery called Gastown. The agreement between Dementus and Joe doesn’t take long to sour, leading Furiosa and fellow Citadel soldier Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) to lead an assault on Gastown and reclaim it for the Citadel.

Where Fury Road was essentially a two hour-long chase with brief interjections of character development, Furiosa is more conventional in terms of its narrative arc. It’s still an action movie through and through but there are more scenes that are dialogue-driven and meant to dig in deeper with their characters. Ironically, Furiosa is a very tight-lipped character and even fakes being mute for a section of the film, which leads one to wonder why Miller thought this was the best character to put at the center of a spin-off. Fortunately, Anya Taylor-Joy is able to tell much of Furiosa’s backstory with her expressive face and impressive physicality. As good an actress as Charlize Theron is, I’m glad they didn’t try to cast her again and de-age her with CG effects. Taylor-Joy does a tremendous job filling some presumably sand-filled combat boots.

As with Fury Road, the main selling point of Furiosa is the impeccably coordinated action setpieces involving overpowered automobiles and the madmen who crawl in and out of them at top speeds. Perhaps I was even more taken with them this time around because there’s more breathing room around them. The film is split up into 5 chapters and the middle section, titled “The Stowaway”, is 30 minutes of stellar action choreography that benefits from being preceded by scenes of more subdued tension. Set around the Citadel’s “War Rig” tanker as it’s being ambushed by raiders en route, the extended sequence features one ingenious moment of kinetic precision after another. Attacks not only come from the ground all around the War Rig but also from the sky, thanks to parasailing bandits who latch onto the tanker.

On paper, Furiosa could be considered a disappointment in terms of what a prequel should do. It doesn’t really expand on the mythology of this world, nor does it give us a much better sense of who Furiosa was before the events of Fury Road. It’s also about 30 minutes longer than its 2015 companion and, at times, feels its length. And yet, the movie delivers simply because the world that George Miller has created is so spectacularly different from anything else out there in the cinematic realm. The characters are so bizarre, the setting is immaculately rendered and the timbre of the action is a gleeful lunacy that no other director can convincingly replicate. Furiosa might be frustrating for those who consider Fury Road an instant classic but I found the balance of action and story worked even better than I expected.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Ezra, a dramedy starring Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne about a stand-up comedian who goes on a life-changing cross-country road trip with his autistic son.
Also playing only in theaters is In A Violent Nature, a slasher starring Ry Barrett and Andrea Pavlovic which follows a mute killer who targets a group of teenagers in the Ontario wilderness, with the events observed largely from the killer’s perspective.
Streaming on Max is The Great Lillian Hall, a drama starring Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates about a beloved Broadway actress who begins to forget her lines and must reckon with the sacrifices she made for her career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

I Saw The TV Glow

A couple months ago, Justice Smith starred in The American Society Of Magical Negroes, a story of a meek young man dealing with identity issues in a world he feels is indifferent to his existence. He now leads the new A24 experimental horror film I Saw The TV Glow, which also tackles the thorny but evergreen theme of trying to find one’s place in their surroundings. While the former movie does so with a combination of racial satire and romantic fantasy, the latter is much more atmospheric and esoteric in its exploration by comparison. It comes courtesy of trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, whose 2021 effort We’re All Going To The World’s Fair garnered them widespread praise for its transportive aesthetic and wholly unique take on a coming-of-age tale. While TV Glow casts something of a similar spell, its unconventional storytelling makes it trickier to grasp, at least on first viewing.

Smith plays the withdrawn and soft-spoken Owen, whom we meet as a seventh grader in the mid-90s. While waiting for his mom to vote at his school that’s serving as a polling place, Owen meets ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as she studiously reads an episode guide for a show called The Pink Opaque. Upon watching the show for the first time, Owen is transfixed by it and a friendship develops between himself and Maddy, who hosts him for sleepovers so they can watch the show together. Their ritual continues for years until Maddy mysteriously disappears one day, leaving him without his only friend and what quickly becomes evident is one of his only tethers to the real world. In her absence, Owen ruminates on the connection and begins to believe that events from The Pink Opaque may not have been contained to the realm of the fictional.

As the lines between reality and fantasy blur for Owen, the passage of time in I Saw The TV Glow mirrors that of mind-benders Synecdoche, New York and last year’s Beau Is Afraid. Similarly, what is actually happening versus what is happening in the head of the protagonist gets more difficult to sort out, which can make the story frustrating at points. Outside of 90s shows like Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Buffy The Vamprie Slayer, which are clear influences for the in-movie young adult series The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun seems to be most inspired by David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks. There’s a transcendent musical performance in a dive bar called Double Lunch with cameos from Haley Dahl and Phoebe Bridgers which calls to mind scenes from Lynch’s series that take place in the Roadhouse bar.

While an otherworldly mood permeates every moment of I Saw The TV Glow, Schoenbrun renders an half-remembered atmosphere that should resonate even more with those of us who were coming of age in the 90s. The first encounter between Owen and Maddy is partially lit by the beacon of a Fruitopia vending machine that’s wallflowering with the couple in a multi-purpose room. The hypnagogic vibe recalls a generation hypnotized by the flickering lights emitted by the cathode-ray tubes of now-massive television sets. If we fall asleep in front of our TVs, how can we be fully convinced of what’s been broadcast when our eyes are closed? Last year’s similarly challenging Skinamarink evoked this lucid-lit state even more directly but was marred by a stubbornly opaque storyline. Schoenbrun does have a narrative in mind with TV Glow, although it’s difficult to suss out what exactly is allegory and what is literal most of the time.

The film is co-produced by married couple Emma Stone and Dave McCary, the latter of whom directed Brigsby Bear in 2017 before moving on to produce several other A24 projects. His lone film has quite a bit of overlap with TV Glow, in that it’s also about an obsession over a children’s television program that spills into the protagonist’s life. The Sun-Stealer character from that movie closely resembles the Pink Opaque villain Mr. Melancholy, although both are clearly influenced from early silent classic A Trip To The Moon. But McCary has an infectious way of channeling his characters’ exuberance of their fandom that Schoenbrun forgoes for anxiety and dread. It makes I Saw The TV Glow a moody but maddening affair that succeeds on the strength of its world-building above all else.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, an action epic starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth which serves as a prequel to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road centering around the titular mechanical-armed heroine.
Also coming to theaters is The Garfield Movie, an animated comedy starring Chris Pratt and Samuel L. Jackson in which the lasagna-loving comic-based canine is reunited with his long-lost street cat father and is forced into joining him on a high-stakes adventure.
Streaming on Netflix is Atlas, a sci-fi thriller starring Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu that finds a data analyst with a deep distrust of artificial intelligence as she joins a mission to capture a renegade robot with whom she shares a mysterious past.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Fall Guy

Last summer, Ryan Gosling manifested Kenergy for the blockbuster phenomenon Barbie and this year, he’s doing his part to kick off the summer movie season with the similarly hilarious The Fall Guy. Loosely adapted from the 80s TV series about stunt performers who also dabble in bounty hunting, the film is a big-hearted action comedy that also functions as a valentine to the art of stuntwork. It comes courtesy of David Leitch, who cut his teeth as a stuntman on dozens of projects since the late 90s and has since risen the ranks as director of non-stop actioners like Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train. While he still struggles with storytelling skills like pacing and prioritization, Leitch taps into the weapons-grade charm of his lead actors and puts forth his most accomplished work from the director’s chair so far.

Gosling shines as stunt performer Colt Seavers, who doubles for hotshot action star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) until an on-set injury leaves Colt with a broken back and a broken spirit. 18 months later, the now-reclusive Colt gets a call from big-time producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), who wants him to get back in the stuntman saddle once again for a new sci-fi epic called Metalstorm. Seavers balks at the opportunity, until Gail tells him it’s being directed by Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), with whom Colt shared a brief romance when she worked as a camera operator on previous Hollywood projects. He makes the trek down to the set in Australia, only to find out that Ryder has gone missing and could be involved in shady dealings down under.

From there, The Fall Guy‘s overly-convoluted plot is mainly an excuse to get Gosling into as many stunt-reliant scenes — be they car chases, shootouts, brawls, or any combinations therein — as possible. Though they wear out their welcome a bit in the extended third act, these sequences are cleverly conceived and as skillfully executed as one would expect from a movie dedicated to stuntwork. The most memorable of these involves Gosling and a personal assistant (played by Stephanie Hsu) in peril, who pop in and out of a seemingly indestructible garbage truck as it tears through the streets of Sydney. Another fun setpiece finds Colt and his stunt coordinator (played by Winston Duke) as they use prop weapons to fend off a gaggle of henchmen. Duke is a hoot as he calls out action stars like Jason Bourne, the way a kid would while playing pretend mid-skirmish, as he puts the hurt on the bandits.

From the romance side of things, The Fall Guy doesn’t care much about creating believable tension that Gosling and Blunt’s characters won’t get together in the end but their chemistry is dynamite regardless. Much in the way that his Ken pined for Barbie last summer, Gosling plays persistent puppy dog in his affections for Blunt’s reticent moviemaker. As terrific as their banter is, my favorite scene between the two is a dialogue-free one set to The Darkness’ “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, in which they choreograph and shoot an action montage in front of the Sydney Opera House. Their characters have a shorthand and playfulness in their interaction that is absolutely infectious and underscores the unique joy in shooting a film on this scale with people who are on the same wavelength.

On top of the character work, the film has plenty of showbiz in-jokes (be sure to stay through the credits) and meta commentary that occasionally hit harder than it needs to in an otherwise frivolous blockbuster. There’s a throughline about deepfake technology that not only feels relevant, given how often the technique is being used in videos we see all the time, but also makes one wonder how long Hollywood has used it to make stunt doubles look like their corresponding stars. Leitch also sneaks in an acute observation about how female directors can be unfairly pushed around by producers and actors on-set, based on the inference that they’re not as willing to stand their ground. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a treatise on gender inequality or the perils of AI; it’s a popcorn movie whose main duty is laughs and stunts, of which it has both in spades. You won’t see a movie all summer that works harder to entertain you than The Fall Guy.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Out in theaters is Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes, a sci-fi action movie starring Owen Teague and Freya Allan involving a young ape who goes on a journey that will lead him to question everything he’s been taught and make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.
Streaming on Disney+ is Let It Be, a recently restored documentary covering The Beatles’ attempt to recapture their old group spirit by making a back- to-basics album, which instead drove them further apart.
Premiering on Netflix is Mother Of The Bride, a romantic comedy starring Brooke Shields and Miranda Cosgrove about a mother who is surprised by her daughter’s spontaneous wedding and is even more surprised to find out that the groom is the son of the man who broke her heart years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Challengers

When I first saw that Challengers, the latest from Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, was being presented in IMAX, I admit to being thrown off balance a bit. After all, this is the director whose previous work was an unassuming indie about star-crossed cannibals on a cross-country journey through the States. But as it turns out, Guadagnino’s releases are perhaps better suited to a more pronounced presentation than most of the blockbusters that the studios decide can make a few extra bucks per ticket by leveling up. With releases like I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the most sensuous filmmakers working today, whose work isn’t meant to simply be seen but to be felt with all the senses.

Challengers chiefly centers around the complicated relationship between three characters over a 13 year period. We begin in 2006, where high school tennis players Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) have made it to the boys’ junior doubles championship match at the US Open. While at the tournament, they sit slack-jawed in the stands as much-touted phenom Tashi (Zendaya) continues to make a name for herself on the court. Art and Patrick are both instantly taken with her and inelegantly try to make passes at Tashi, with Patrick taking the first set as the initial winner of her affections. But as Art and Tashi move onto college ball at Stanford while Patrick goes pro, a palpable love triangle forms when Tashi suffers a career-ending injury and Art is there to pick up the pieces in Patrick’s absence.

Anyone who has watched a tennis match live is familiar with the back-and-forth head motion that one needs to participate in to keep up with the action and in several ways, Guadagnino replicates this experience. After establishing a critical event in 2019 that unexpectedly binds the three characters together, he sends us zig-zagging chronologically at points when both Patrick and Art seem to have the upper hand in either their careers or in their relationship with Tashi. Editor Marco Costa has a ball setting the rhythm of these sequences, with some exchanges between characters emulating a lightning-fast rally and other scenes playing out at a practice pace. Thankfully, the cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom isn’t non-stop whip pans the whole movie but he does judiciously utilize camera movements that evoke the motion of an exciting match.

It’s all set to a propulsive and unforgettable score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who broke onto the film composition scene together with their Oscar-winning work in 2010’s The Social Network. Like that film, Challengers uses a nonlinear narrative that builds up tension like strings on a racket as we throttle through time and gain more context for the individual plot points. I’ve said for years that the advantage with IMAX screenings is necessarily for the larger picture but rather for the more sophisticated sound setup and the music in this film alone is worth the upgrade from standard presentation. The tennis scenes here are among the most cinematic I’ve ever seen, with Guadagnino and his team constantly finding inventive angles to showcase the action, while Reznor and Ross keep our hearts pounding with their galvanic beats.

While Challengers more than holds its own as a sports movie, it mostly functions as a romantic drama between these three complex characters and is just as electrifying as such. Zendaya has been everywhere these days but this is the best place to see her, giving the best performance so far in her young career. It would be easy to see Tashi as a prize to be won by both of these boys but thanks to Zendaya’s boundlessly confident performance along with strong writing from first-timer Justin Kuritzkes, her character always feels in control of her situation and the story at large. One-dimensionally, Art could be viewed as the white knight while Patrick can be seen as a rapscallion but the two trade off between virtuous and wretched often enough that it’s hard to label one as “good guy” and the other as “bad guy”. Challengers is sinewy and sultry filmmaking that truly deserves to be seen in the largest format possible.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Fall Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt about a down-and-out stuntman who must find the missing star of his ex-girlfriend’s upcoming blockbuster film.
Streaming on Netflix is Unfrosted, a comedy biopic starring Jerry Seinfeld and Melissa McCarthy which is loosely based on the true story of the creation of Pop-Tarts as Kellogg’s and Post Cereal compete to see if they can produce a revolutionary breakfast pastry in 1963 Michigan.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is The Idea Of You, a romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine centering on a relationship that develops between a single mother and the lead singer of a popular boy band.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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