All posts by Brent Leuthold

Fair Play

One of the very best film debuts of the year, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play is a bracingly taut psychosexual thriller that leaves an impact. Acquired by Netflix for a hefty $20 million sum after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s the kind of serious-minded adult drama that could gain gobs of traction if it doesn’t get lost in the algorithm after its release. Increasingly, Netflix’s content machine is more focused on producing disposable entertainment that checks off demographic or genre boxes rather than rewarding exceptional filmmakers with attentive audiences. It’s a common practice now for people watching TV at home to also have their smartphone out in front of their face at the same time, effectively creating a “two-screen” experience. Fair Play is a movie that demands your single-screen attention.

We meet Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) at the wedding of the latter’s brother, where the couple sneak off for an unexpectedly messy bathroom tryst. An engagement ring falls out of Luke’s pocket, a hasty proposal is carried out and the happy couple covertly leaves the wedding in lovedrunk bliss. But the 4:30 AM alarm comes all too soon and the two go about getting ready for their workdays, which we soon learn take place at the highly competitive firm Crest Capital. They’re keeping their relationship a secret from everyone at the office, desperate not to break company policy in front of their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan). After the calamitous firing of a portfolio manager, analysts like Emily and Luke wait with baited breath to see who will fill the new opening but after Emily gets the promotion, Luke’s jealousies and insecurities bubble up and threaten their relationship.

Though there have been plenty of tense movies set in the world of high finance, what makes Fair Play especially fraught is the personal stakes atop the high pressure setting of the hedge fund world. Emily first hears a rumor that Luke is next in line for the coveted PM position and when she tells him, they’re both excited at the proposition. There’s implicit gender bias at play when Emily is expected to be happy for Luke and report to him with no issue but when the roles are reversed, he is clearly uncomfortable with her being the boss. He fakes excitement upon hearing the news but after just the first day of working under her, he’s clearly bitter and pouts at a bar when the work day is over. From there, the passive aggressive missives get less “passive” as the story steams ahead. Even though their relationship gets more toxic and twisted over time, I somehow still wanted things to be reconciled between the two of these characters.

The pair of performances at the center of Fair Play are nothing short of electric. Dynevor has a more complex role, given that she has the biggest shifts between how she represents herself in her personal life with Luke versus how she runs her professional life in the office. Emily puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself not only to excel in her new position but to salvage a relationship that used to be filled with passion and understanding but is becoming more doomed by the day. Dynevor is incredible in so many scenes but the one in which she begs with Luke to try to refer him to another firm so that he can save his career and their engagement was particularly heart-wrenching. Ehrenreich has the less empathetic role as the rampantly petulant Luke but his unnerving level of ambition certainly makes him a compelling antagonist. Between this and his rewarding work in Oppenheimer back in July, Ehrenreich is continuing to carve quite a career out for himself.

As with many thrillers, the pace is critical to keeping the audience hooked and Domont along with editor Franklin Peterson assert a sprinter’s clip through the almost two-hour runtime. There are moments that mirror one another, as when a phone alarm first goes off early in the morning but each subsequent instance of it appearing finds one or both of the protagonists already wide awake, drearily looking at the phone in anticipation. I particularly loved a timbre match cut late in the film, where a character yelling an expletive merges seamlessly into a train brake screeching outside. Speaking of sound, there are also soulful doo-wop tunes embedded throughout the film which call to mind that this should be this couple’s honeymoon period instead of their unraveling. It may not be the easiest watch but in its ruthless examination of sexual politics and cataclysmic competition, Fair Play is riveting and unmissable.

Score – 4/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Exorcist: Believer, a supernatural horror sequel starring Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn, in which the parents of demonically possessed girls search for help by way of Regan MacNeil’s mother from the first The Exorcist.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Totally Killer, a horror comedy starring Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to 1987 determined to stop an infamous local serial killer before he can start his spree.
Premiering on Paramount+ is Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a horror prequel starring Jackson White and Forrest Goodluck taking place 50 years before the original Pet Sematary, where a young boy first discovers a local cemetery where the dead can live again.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Flora And Son

Few people have translated to film the unique and powerful way that music brings people together better than writer/director John Carney. His films Once, Begin Again and Sing Street aren’t exactly musicals, in the traditional sense, but they all involve characters who are transformed by their musical experiences with one another. As one may imagine, they all also feature terrific original songs too, with Once‘s “Falling Slowly” even picking up an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008. In these ways, his new film Flora And Son fits in very nicely with the rest of his filmography, retaining the traits of Carney’s other work while breaking the mold some with characters that have a bit more of an edge to them. The movie is ultimately as earnest and sweet as the other entries in what could be considered his “Music Cinematic Universe” but I appreciated that he made the main players here a bit more messy.

The titular character in Flora And Son, played by Eve Hewson, is a single mother in Dublin trying her best to keep her troubled teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) out of trouble. Money’s tight and jobs are scarce but after leaving her babysitting gig one day, Flora finds a beat-up acoustic guitar that she fixes up at a local guitar shop to give to Max for his birthday. It turns out he doesn’t care to learn guitar, favoring hip hop and electronic music instead, so Flora decides to take initiative herself and start guitar lessons online with California-based teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s a development that comes to the surprise of her ex Ian (Jack Reynor), whose rock and roll days as bassist in a band seemed to be behind him but could return if it means getting closer to his son Max.

One of the ways Flora And Son expands on the music-centric inclinations of Carney’s previous output is the way that he depicts how technology can shorten the distance between people trying to make a connection. In a funny montage, Flora scrolls through various YouTube guitar tutors and is turned off by their ostentatious openers and tiresome theatrics. She admits to Jeff that the reason she chose him as a virtual guitar teacher is because he seems more authentic than the rest of the “posers” out there on the Internet. Remote learning certainly existed before the pandemic and certainly still has its obstacles but Carney reminds us how miraculous it is that we can communicate with others across the planet in real time. When you bring music into the equation, the connections can become that much more inspiring and soul-strengthening.

Carney’s films are often hopelessly romantic and Flora And Son is no exception. Though Hewson and Gordon-Levitt initially communicate through their respective laptops, it doesn’t take long for movie magic to depict them in the same setting, even though they’re not actually physically present with one another. It’s a smart directorial choice, allowing the two actors to break out of the limitations of a computer screen and occupy the same shared space. The duo have an easy chemistry with one another and relay their fears and dreams with heart-on-one’s-sleeve abandon. Gordon-Levitt has a bit of a softie persona as is and while it’s undoubtedly a welcome sight to see him singing his heart out with an acoustic guitar, it’s also exciting to see Hewson’s character soften her edges some as the movie progresses.

I’m also encouraged by how Flora And Son drives home how relatively easy it is for anybody to engage with music creation in one way or another. Though Max turns down the guitar, Flora finds out later on that he’s been making beats and crafting verses in GarageBand, a music program that comes pre-installed on all Apple computers. When he unplugs his headphones and plays a track of his through a set of Genelec speakers, Flora sees her son in a new light and even starts improv singing a hook over the music bed. It opens up a new world for them and also opens the door for some reconciliation with Flora’s ex-husband Ian too, who has been adrift in life after giving up his music. Flora And Son knows that life as a professional musician isn’t for everyone but even a little bit of musical expression in one’s life can be massively rewarding.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Creator, starring John David Washington and Gemma Chan, is a sci-fi action thriller set in a future where humans are at war with artificial intelligence, in which a former soldier finds a robot in the form of a young child who holds the key to a world-ending weapon.
Saw X, starring Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith, is a horror sequel that takes place weeks after the events of the original Saw, where the Jigsaw Killer travels to Mexico after learning of a potential “miracle” cure for his terminal cancer.
PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie, starring Mckenna Grace and Taraji P. Henson, is an animated sequel in which a magical meteor crash lands in Adventure City and gives the PAW Patrol pups superpowers, transforming them into The Mighty Pups.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dumb Money

The always whip-fast and sometimes whip-smart finance comedy Dumb Money opens with a definition of its title: a term for what Wall Street investors call amateur day traders looking to get a piece of the action. It functions as a cheeky biopic of very recent history, when individual “retail investors” took arms against the hedge funders who claimed to know the market better than everyday people. Based on The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich, the author whose The Accidental Billionaires served as the basis for David Fincher’s The Social Network, this alt-finance David and Goliath story cuts corners to maintain its nimble pace at the expense of its characters. But in their tightly-allotted screen time, every member of the impressive ensemble cast cashes in with moments of wit and humanity that pay dividends.

It’s the summer of 2020 and YouTuber Keith Gill (Paul Dano) has a bit of a wild idea. As his social media persona Roaring Kitty, he tells his fanbase he’s invested over $50,000 of his personal savings in video game retailer GameStop, which was trading for about $3 a share at the time. Thanks to the hive mind of the subreddit r/WallStreetBets, users from all walks of life, like college students Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold) to nurse Jennifer (America Ferrera) and store clerk Marcus (Anthony Ramos), begin to invest. Soon enough, the phenomenon of the “meme stock” is born, to the chagrin of hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), who have effectively bet against GameStop. The short squeeze triggers a congressional hearing that also implicates Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), the mind behind the brokerage app that made the tsunami of trading possible.

The reasonable question to ask going into Dumb Money is “how much do I need to know about investing to keep up with this movie?” While director Craig Gillespie won’t expect you to know the intricacies of the stock market or the purview of the House Banking Committee, it would help going in to know how apps like Reddit and Robinhood generally work. Thankfully, Gillespie doesn’t resort to the glib fourth-wall breaks that plagued The Big Short and his previous biopic I, Tonya. He trusts scribes Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo to lay out what we need to know on the financial side and have the interpersonal conflicts fill in the gaps. The script also throws out fun tidbits like the fact that GameStop was able to be deemed an “essential business” during the covid pandemic simply because they sell computer mice.

Understandably, the easiest way into this story is through Gill and Dano continues a strong streak of lived-in and accessible performances that shed the self-conscious insularity of his earlier work. While the movie seems to sell Gill short in terms of his real-life sound financial analysis, instead portraying him as more of a cat-crazy goofball, Dano imbues the character with a spirited underdog quality that makes him difficult to root against. Pete Davidson also serves as a fun comic foil to Keith as his slacker brother Kevin, who teases him both in real life and behind an internet cipher, all while borrowing his car without asking. When Keith sets Kevin straight on the difference between Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett, Kevin retorts, “see, you’re neither of the Buffetts!”

In addition to the The Accidental Billionaires connection, Dumb Money aims to be the rabble-rousing younger brother to The Social Network in several other ways. Its brisk pace across numerous players and locations is assured by editor Kirk Baxter, who won an Oscar with Angus Wall for assembling David Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece. The misguided music score by Will Bates tries desperately to mimic the nervy propulsion behind Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s brilliant music for that same movie. But of course, both films are telling true stories based around technology that were turned around into the cinematic realm quite quickly; The Antisocial Network is just barely two years old and we already have a movie based on it. Dumb Money may be short-sighted in its summation of the real-life events but it’s a flashy and fun way into the rapidly-changing world of DIY investing.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Expend4bles, an action sequel starring Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone continuing the adventures of a band of mercenaries who have been tasked with a mission to stop a terrorist organization that aims to ignite a conflict between Russia and the U.S.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is It Lives Inside, a supernatural horror movie starring Megan Suri and Neeru Bajwa about a teenager who has a falling out with her former best friend and, in the process, unwittingly releases a demonic entity that grows stronger by feeding on her loneliness.
Streaming on Hulu is No One Will Save You, a sci-fi thriller starring Kaitlyn Dever and Dari Lynn Griffin following an exiled anxiety-ridden homebody as she battles an alien who’s found its way into her home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Shiva Baby writer and director Emma Seligman teams back up with its star Rachel Sennott for Bottoms, another sex comedy that’s paradoxically weirder and somehow more mainstream than Seligman’s 2020 debut. As co-writers this time, Seligman and Sennott have created a vision of modern high school life so farcical that it occasionally makes John Hughes High from Not Another Teen Movie seem authentic by comparison. The football players are effeminate wimps who dance to “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” during chore time, while the cheerleaders forgo choreographed routines in favor of wet T-shirt displays. A prominently-displayed poster in the hallway implores “You’re prettier when you SMILE! He could be looking at you right now!” My advice for those going into this movie is don’t take it too seriously because it certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Bottoms stars Sennott as PJ, a brash but awkward high schooler who spends almost all of her time with the comparatively more reserved Josie (Ayo Edebiri) as they pine for a pair of cheerleaders. PJ fancies Brittany (Kaia Gerber), while Josie has a thing for Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), though neither of the girls have the social currency to make the relationships happen. A so-called violent altercation with star quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) causes Josie to lie to their principal about a self-defense class that she runs with PJ, one that they subsequently start when they get the sense it could draw Brittany and Isabel in. Loosely supervised by their teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch), the program quickly devolves into a “fight club” where classmates like Hazel (Ruby Cruz) use the opportunity to vent their frustrations through fisticuffs.

The central conceit of Bottoms plays with Gen Z’s concepts of masculinity vs. femininity and spectrum sexuality but its treatment of the material harkens back to pervy throwback comedies from Animal House to Revenge Of The Nerds. Anyone going into this film expecting something more buttoned-up because it depicts a generation some perceive as “perpetually offended” might be surprised how far the humor goes in places. There were a couple jokes involving sexual assault and suicide that I thought tested the boundaries of good taste and even though my laughter was laced with nervousness, I laughed nonetheless. Some of the seemingly one-off bits also set up running jokes, as when Josie uses shorthand with the school janitor to ask him to paint over presumably often-written homophobic slurs on her and PJ’s lockers.

Though it’s not as strong a film as Booksmart, Bottoms feels like even more of a spiritual successor to Superbad than Booksmart does in hindsight. Sennott channels the loudmouth desperation of Jonah Hill’s Seth, while Edebiri echoes a placid sweetness similar to that of Michael Cera’s Evan. Like Hill in Superbad, Sennott occasionally pushes her character into places of unpleasantness that can make her difficult to root for at times but her comedic sensibilities remain strong regardless. Edebiri continues her superb streak of summer successes with a winning combination of brains and charm that flourishes most during the movie’s myriad scenes of improvisation. But the biggest surprise is Lynch, the former NFL running back whose comedy career may have begun the day he repeated the phrase “I’m here so I won’t get get fined” to the media leading up to Super Bowl XLIX. He has a great knack for delivery and I hope directors continue to find ways to use “Beast Mode” in comedies down the road.

Like her 78-minute feature debut Shiva Baby, Seligman paces Bottoms breathlessly, barely allowing for any character development and sometimes stepping over jokes that could use a little more screen time. There’s a subplot involving a conniving footballer played by Miles Fowler that is such a cliché that the excuse Sennott and Seligman would likely come up with about how it’s making fun of said cliché doesn’t quite cut it. The film works best when it briefly subverts teen comedy beats rather than relying on them for the narrative, as when a female classmate proclaims “I’m going to reverse-stalk my stalker!” after Josie delivers an impassioned speech. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a comedy is the strength of its jokes and more often than not, the laughs in Bottoms are tops.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is A Haunting In Venice, a new Hercule Poirot mystery starring Kenneth Branagh and Kyle Allen, in which the famed detective has another case to solve after a séance he reluctantly attends produces a murder.
Streaming on Netflix is Love At First Sight, a romantic comedy starring Haley Lu Richardson and Ben Hardy about a couple passengers who spontaneously begin to fall for each other on their international flight from New York to London.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is A Million Miles Away, a true story starring Michael Peña and Rosa Salazar which tells the tale of the first migrant farmworker to ever travel to space.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Equalizer 3

When it comes to Hollywood math, only one sequel doesn’t quite square the equation and so, nine years after vigilante actioner The Equalizer, we have a trilogy capper in the form of The Equalizer 3. Only somewhat less unnecessary than the 2018 follow-up that preceded it, this final chapter is the shortest of the three films, even though it doesn’t always feel like it due to the uneven pacing from returning director Antoine Fuqua. Though this does have some of the brutal violence that’s come to define this series, The Equalizer 3 is also the least action-heavy in the trilogy but at least it’s in favor of a more contemplative character study about a hitman coming to terms with his life of murder. The movie luxuriates in its coastal Italian setting with gorgeous cinematography from Robert Richardson and tries to capture the nuances of Italian culture when it’s not indulging in farcical stereotypes.

We open in Sicily, where one-man wrecking machine Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is waiting for a mafia boss at his winery with a dozen of his bodyguards dead throughout the compound. McCall finishes his business there after the kingpin arrives there but sustains a bullet wound in the back during the action that ensues, leaving him scrambling near the Amalfi Coast. He’s taken in by a friendly doctor named Enzo (Remo Girone) back to his quaint home town of Altamonte, where McCall takes time to recover from his injury and, in the process, finds a soft spot for the kind people who have welcomed him there. Despite the peaceful locale, trouble brews under the surface as mob enforcer Marco (Andrea Dodero) shakes up local restaurant owners for money and crosses McCall in the midst of his misdeeds.

When McCall inevitably dispatches Marco and his accompanying thugs, the aftermath triggers involvement from a young CIA agent played by Dakota Fanning, who travels to Italy to sniff McCall out. Washington and Fanning previously worked together for Tony Scott’s Man On Fire when Fanning was just 9 years old and aside from the novelty of the reunion, the two have a fun cat-and-mouse energy that gives The Equalizer 3 a boost from time to time. Unfortunately, her character’s presence also comes with strings attached in the form of a superfluous subplot steeped in the Syrian drug trade that makes the story more complicated than it needs to be. There’s a stretch in the middle of the film where Denzel disappears from the movie entirely and alternating scenes of interrogation and tough guy intimidation temporarily render the narrative indecipherable.

Naturally, this movie needs Denzel and apart from the scant scenes of savage score-settling, The Equalizer 3 finds a bit of a groove in McCall reckoning with the violent life that he’s led. The first two films find his character trying to pass the time and distract himself by working at a hardware store or as a Lyft driver but this entry feels like a proper “retirement” installment. Though action movies from earlier this year like Fast X and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One had detours in Italy, this movie actually finds purpose in the location and goes a bit deeper than the picturesque scenery. McCall strikes up a kinship with a waitress played by Gaia Scodellaro, who serves as his guide around the village as he gets to know the shopkeepers and street merchants in the area. He feels as though he could live the rest of his life there and Fuqua adds some elegant touches that make us believe it.

Conversely, the antagonistic forces in The Equalizer 3 couldn’t be implemented much more inelegantly than they are. Marco is really the only villain with even a trace of a personality to him and when he’s offed, it’s up to his big brother and his attaché of goons to pick up the slack. This series isn’t known for its richly-rendered baddies but at least Fuqua and recurring scribe Richard Wenk had the good sense to give the over-the-top villain of the inaugural entry a fittingly ridiculous name of Teddy Rensen. None of the faceless thugs here come close to the menace that Marton Csokas creates in his performance as Rensen in The Equalizer or that Pedro Pascal does for The Equalizer 2, which is problematic for a concluding chapter. If you’re not going to have a strong villain, at the very least don’t have a scene of henchmen chewing on pasta and gulping wine as they stand around a table trying to figure out how to deal with the protagonist like they do here. Fans of Denzel Washington can at least celebrate the fact that The Equalizer 3 means the equation is complete and the venerable actor can lend his considerable talents elsewhere.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Nun II, a supernatural horror film starring Taissa Farmiga and Jonas Bloquet about a strong evil that haunts a town in 1950s France as word gets out that a priest has been violently murdered there.
Also coming to theaters is My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, a romcom sequel starring Nia Vardalos and John Corbett which finds the Portokalos family on a trip to Greece for a family reunion after the death of one of their beloved family members.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Sitting In Bars With Cake, a dramedy starring Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion which follows two best friends in their 20s navigating life in L.A when one of the pair receives a life-altering diagnosis.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bobby’s World: Raging Bull

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

When Robert De Niro was given a copy of Jake LaMotta’s autobiography Raging Bull: My Story from the boxer himself in the early 1970s, it came with a personalized inscription. LaMotta made it out to “the only actor in the world that could play my crazy ‘whacked out’ life and make it come alive again,” words that would seemingly resonate with De Niro as he read the memoir while filming The Godfather Part II. Taken with the pugilist’s story, he went to Martin Scorsese, who had recently directed the actor in Mean Streets, with the idea to turn the book into a film. Uninterested in making a sports picture, Scorsese turned it down several times, until parallels with the filmmaker’s personal life brought him back to the idea. The box office failure of New York, New York in 1977 is said to have contributed to Scorsese’s subsequent cocaine overdose, an incident that left him shaken and ready to tell LaMotta’s tragic story of self-destruction at last.

Spanning between the years of 1941 to 1964, Raging Bull follows middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta (De Niro) from promising up-and-comer to burned-out club owner. His younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci) helps manage his career, talking Jake through his setbacks while trying to introduce the possibility of taking the help of mobster Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) for a title shot. While Jake is a formidable force inside the ring, he seems utterly lost when he steps out of the ropes into the real world. Though he’s already married, he strikes up a friendship with 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and leaves his wife for her years later. Their happiness is short-lived, as Jake’s jealousy and sexual insecurities perpetually get the best of him and eventually lead him to violently alienate himself from his friends and family.

De Niro, of course, has countless indelible film performances but his work in Raging Bull feels like the Citizen Kane of the actor’s unforgettable roles. Like Orson Welles in that film, De Niro undergoes a physical transformation with the help of makeup and prosthetics to demonstrate the passing of time but he famously took it further than that. It’s reported that De Niro gained approximately 60 pounds to accurately recreate the paunch that LaMotta procured later in his life after he no longer had to make weight for matches. To further replicate LaMotta’s appearance, makeup artist Mike Westmore crafted a nose mold whose crooked disfigurement reflected years of abuse at the hands of various boxing gloves. These facial fittings would also allow for the required fake blood to be squirted from De Niro’s cheeks and mouth for the close-ups inside the ring.

The performance obviously extends far past appearance and the psychological complexity with which De Niro is able to imbue LaMotta is one of the largest reasons Raging Bull comes across as much more of a character study than a typical boxing movie. From his first scene with Joey, Jake expresses lament for his “little girl’s hands” and, in a misguided attempt to reinstate his masculinity, goads Joey to hit him in the face repeatedly. When taken with Jake’s last interaction in the film with Joey, a desperate attempt by the former to reconcile with the latter, we see how it’s impossible for Jake to separate his life in the ring from life outside it. The way that Jake forces an overly-long hug on Joey notably resembles how two fighters would clinch in the middle of a boxing bout. For Jake, even a loving embrace mimics hand-to-hand combat strategy.

Romantic relationships add a layer of sexual anxiety to De Niro’s performance that make it even more difficult to watch but nevertheless impressive from an artistic perspective. Jake first meets Vickie behind a chain link fence, their vision of one another obscured and the distance between them inevitable. She is a prize that he can’t help but fight to win. De Niro is understandably at his most charming in this scene, a trait he lends to many of his film performances, but there’s an obvious undercurrent of menace that Jake bobs and weaves around while trying to make a good first impression. Once married, things don’t get easier from there, as Jake has such low self-esteem that he can’t respect a woman who would sleep with him. A scene where he puts a sexual encounter with Vickie on ice, so to speak, perfectly encapsulates Jake’s carnal hang-ups and the bitter jealousies that they create.

Expecting Raging Bull to be his last major movie for a while, and possibly ever, Martin Scorsese pulled out all the stops for the project. Teaming back up with Who’s That Knocking at My Door editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has subsequently edited each of his films since, Scorsese was exacting with how the film was to be cut. This also applies to the sound design as well, which brings home the brutality of the boxers’ blows to their bodies. In addition to the impact noises, sound editor Frank Warner also incorporates clips of elephant braying and horse neighing during LaMotta’s fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. This contrasts with Jake’s insistence late in the film that he is “not an animal”, unintentionally mirroring another black-and-white movie released in 1980 that was also nominated for 8 Academy Awards.

The Sugar Ray sequence remains Raging Bull‘s most brutally memorable scene, the sound dimming to silence as Jake waits on the ropes to receive his punishment at the hands of Robinson. De Niro’s look of defeat and self-loathing as he waits for the punches tells the entire story of what this guy is about in a single frame. As Jake takes his licks, Michael Chapman’s monochromatic cinematography obscures the difference between blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a baptism of bodily fluid in keeping with co-writer Paul Schrader’s career-long fascination with perceived penance and turbulent absolution. But it’s De Niro who puts a blood-stained cherry on top of the scene, sauntering with a pulverized face over to his opponent’s corner and bragging “you never got me down, Ray.” While watching LaMotta tear himself down doesn’t necessarily make Raging Bull one of the more enjoyable collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro, it remains one of their most accomplished.

Gran Turismo

Sony takes another shot at adapting a popular PlayStation series for the big screen with Gran Turismo, a stock sports biopic to go along with their stock action-adventure Uncharted from last year. This year’s offering inherently has a bit more going for it, as the racing genre naturally translates to the cinematic and tying the video game to real-life events also hits Hollywood’s penchant for true stories. There are some reliably exciting race sequences in the film, and some augmented effects that help unpack the mechanics of the sport, but the narrative itself is frustratingly frictionless. Outside of the actual race scenes, director Neill Blomkamp isn’t able to develop or sustain authentic stakes for his characters, instead relying on ineffectual antagonists that get shuffled around chumps like at the bottom of a leaderboard.

The film begins with marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitching an idea to Nissan International that involves getting the best Gran Turismo gamers in the world behind the wheel of actual race cars. Soon enough, GT Academy is born and Moore has to find someone who can turn these virtual motorists into qualified competitors on the racing circuit. Enter Jack Salter (David Harbour), a gruff, washed-up former driver who would rather take a chance on bedroom dwellers than suffer the arrogance of affluent posers who think they can buy their way into the sport. An online tournament is held and 9 sim racers are selected for the Academy; among them is Cardiff-based Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), whose father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) was a notable pro footballer. Despite their differences in temperament and skill set, Jann and Jack weave through the obstacles of the international racing scene together.

The mentor-mentee relationship between Jack and Jann is just one of the many tropes Gran Turismo indulges in its narrative but Harbour and Madekwe give everything they can to characters that are routinely underwritten. The pair is also saddled with repetitive and derivative dialogue at every turn; if I had a dollar for every time Jack barked some variation of “this isn’t a video game; this is real life!”, I’d have enough to buy my own Nissan GT-R sports car. Despite this, their performances are about the only thing worthwhile off the track in the movie and the scenes where their characters find ways to relate their experiences to one another are the clear high points. Bloom, on the other hand, is playing to the rafters with every line and lends zero discernible personality traits to his already paper-thin character.

Where Gran Turismo fails as an underdog sports movie is giving the audience a sense of how the protagonist actually works his way up from the bottom to be a champion. This seems like a given but the actual “how” behind a video gamer turning into a pro racer leaves plenty to examine in ways that an okay boxer turning into a great boxer in another story would be self-evident via training montage. Sure, Gran Turismo has montages where Jann deftly avoids the chopping block at the Academy and seems to progress as an actual racer but the movie never really delves into what prepares him for expertise in this world outside of knowing the tracks from the game. Too often, Blomkamp sidesteps process in favor of platitudes and keeps us out of the driver’s seat when it comes to involving us in Jann’s evolution.

With its central theme of partnership in racing and a climax set during the 24 Hours Of Le Mans race, it seems inevitable to compare this movie to 2019’s Ford v Ferrari, which smokes Gran Turismo in every category. But the most important way that film succeeds in comparison is that it works hard to convey the sensation of how it feels to be behind the wheel of one of these powerful vehicles. For all of its footage of competition and cars zooming by, Gran Turismo feels comparatively artificial and less tangible, likely due to the sometimes jerky CG effects in the sequences where cars collide with one another. The film is based on a video game and, at times, simply feels like watching a video game play out. For fans of the Gran Turismo franchise, that may be enough to rev up their engines but most moviegoers will feel like they got stuck with a lemon.

Score – 2/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Hill, a sports biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Colin Ford about the real-life journey of baseball player Rickey Hill and his struggle with a degenerative spinal disease as his fights to join Major League Baseball.
Premiering on Netflix is You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah, a family dramedy starring Sunny Sandler and Samantha Lorraine about a pair of best friends whose plans for their respective coming-of-age parties are threatened by middle school drama.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends 2, a buddy comedy sequel starring Lil Rel Howery and John Cena about a couple who meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico and sees their friendship take an awkward turn when they get back home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Last Voyage Of The Demeter

Earlier this year, the boisterous action comedy Renfield reimagined what the world of a modern-day Dracula might look like through the eyes of his beleaguered assistant. Though the film comes undone the more it moves along, and ultimately doesn’t work on the whole, at least it has a fresh take on the material and a few well-constructed gags along the way. Comparatively, The Last Voyage Of The Demeter offers almost nothing of value when it comes to the legacy of Bram Stoker’s timeless creation. An extrapolation of a single chapter from the 1897 landmark novel that gave birth to the Count, the inexplicably 119 minute-long movie is utterly rudderless in terms of narrative conviction. It doesn’t surprise me that the project has languished in development purgatory for a couple decades but Universal’s decision to theatrically release it during a crowded summer movie season is confounding.

After a cold open capped by a tacky jump scare, Voyage kicks off with Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) of the transport ship Demeter looking for a few more hands on deck before they set sail from Romania. After learned lad Clemens (Corey Hawkins) and a couple more relatively able-bodied men join the crew, it’s off to London with a crate branded by portentous insignia in cargo. The mariners seem to have the wind in their sails, literally and figuratively, until hidden stowaway Anna (Aisling Franciosi) appears in the hull and gives warning of a monstrous presence onboard. Soon enough, scallywags get picked off one by one by an unseen creature who only comes out at night and the Demeter crew find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Director André Øvredal had moderate success mining literary horror from Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark back in 2019 but where that collection of short stories allowed for ample avenues of adaptation, The Last Voyage Of The Demeter constantly struggles to justify its runtime. Since we know Dracula is obviously going to come out triumphant against this crew, Øvredal is not only expecting audiences to suspend their disbelief for just shy of 2 hours but also to care about these seafaring ciphers. The cast do what they can, with Dastmalchian giving the most engaging performance of the 4 primary actors, but there’s barely enough on the page to cover a feature-length storyline, much less character development. It’s hard to know what at the script level convinced these talented performers to come aboard this project.

Not that every single-location slasher has to have a sterling script but it at least has to have some creative kills and a novel tension to precede them. Unfortunately, Voyage doesn’t have much in that department either, despite a feral and fierce creature design for Dracula that is noticeably different from how we typically see the Count on-screen. Øvredal’s inability to maintain a frightening atmosphere is partially due to an inconsistent visual language between cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Patrick Larsgaard. In both scenes of dramatic conversation and of brutal action, there are cuts made that unintentionally throw off our understanding of where the characters exist in relation to one another. There are also brief lapses in continuity that could certainly be considered amateurish upon presentation but I’ll give the crew here the benefit of the doubt and assume they were rushed to deliver a final product.

After the Dark Universe franchise imploded in 2017 following the failure of The Mummy, it seems Universal has tried to revive their Classic Monsters in standalone efforts instead of trying to create yet another shared cinematic world. Though the two unrelated Dracula-based films they released this year didn’t work, they have the right idea in trying to consider each character individually and attempt to tell a different story. A perfect example of this is 2020’s The Invisible Man, which brilliantly recontextualized H. G. Wells’ tale for victims of psychological abuse. The excellent 1999 iteration of The Mummy wrapped its antagonist in a flawless combination of action and adventure. But if Universal keeps churning out monster fare as ruthlessly unexceptional as The Last Voyage Of The Demeter, then their plans to make their Monsters relevant will be dead in the water.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Blue Beetle, a superhero film starring Xolo Maridueña and Adriana Barraza following a recent college graduate who is chosen to become a symbiotic host to an ancient alien biotechnological relic that grants him a powerful exoskeleton armor and superpowers.
Also coming to theaters is Strays, an R-rated comedy starring Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx set in a universe where dogs can talk and an abandoned dog teams up with other stray canines to get revenge on his former owner.
Streaming on Netflix is The Monkey King, an animated action comedy starring Jimmy O. Yang and Bowen Yang adapted from an epic Chinese tale about an egotistical primate and his magical fighting stick who team up to battle demons, dragons and gods.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Theater Camp

Adapted from a 2020 short film of the same name, the laugh-out-loud hilarious Theater Camp considers what Waiting For Guffman would look like if it attended Tairy Greene’s Acting Seminar For Children. This is the kind of intelligently-rendered comedy that has loads of jokes for general audiences but is also filled with references to musicals and performance subculture that will make theater kids swoon. True to the nature of the narrative, the film was conceived as a collective among a tight-knit group of stage players who have since made the leap to film and television. Co-directors and co-writers Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman both have close ties to star and co-writer Ben Platt, the former an acting collaborator from a young age and the latter a frequent director of Platt’s music videos. Their camaraderie pays off big time here.

Theater Camp is largely set in the confines of AdirondACTS, a summer refuge in upstate New York for young thespians looking to hone their craft. The crew is preparing for a new season when their intrepid leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) suddenly falls into a coma after a strobe light during a rendition of Bye Bye Birdie triggers a seizure. Regrettably, the duties of running the camp fall to her hopelessly half-witted son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a would-be finance vlogger who wouldn’t know a foreclosure from a forearm. It turns out actual fiduciary knowledge would come in handy, as the camp is buried with back payments and capitalist firm representative Caroline (Patti Harrison) is waiting in the wings to buy the facility for pennies on the dollar. It’s up to veteran counselors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt) to salvage the summer program and produce an original musical that will make the parents of the resident theater kids proud.

The almost overwhelmingly talented ensemble of Theater Camp also includes quickly-rising stars Noah Galvin and Ayo Edebiri, the latter of whom appears in 3 films that are currently in theaters right now, with one more (Bottoms) due later this month. Edebiri plays a hastily-acquired replacement instructor who embellishes mask work and other esoteric theater techniques to disguise the fact that she doesn’t know what stage combat is, much less how to actually teach it. Her character Janet, along with Troy and first-time camp attendee Devon (Donovan Colan), underscore an intriguing subtext of the movie. All three being novices to the theater world makes them outcasts in this environment, even though they could be seen as the most “normal” characters in the film.

But, of course, Theater Camp isn’t a searing psychological investigation of in-group/out-group bias; it’s a comedy, and one of the funniest of the year at that. Shot and edited in a mockumentary style, the film captures just the right moments from each character to let us in on their entire worldview with just a couple lines of dialogue. The actual storyline, which involves tropes like lopsided friendships and a scrappy underdog defying the odds to come out on top, isn’t anything new but doesn’t end up bogging down the end result. From the auditions to rehearsals to the final stage performances, there are small yet hysterical moments that immerse us in this weird world that musical geeks call home. Just the way that show tunes “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” and “Give My Regards To Broadway” were quoted through PA pronouncements had me in stitches.

Gordon and Lieberman also nail the tone in their direction, affectionately skewering this off-beat community with just the right amount of snark and wit. This warmth for the material also comes through effortlessly in the performances, particularly Platt as the head of drama (in more sense than one) at AdirondACTS. Given how much of a disaster the cinematic adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen was, it’s nice to see Platt in a role that is perfect for him to inhabit. The movie is also a terrific showcase for Tatro, a standout from Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary American Vandal who plays an endearing moron about as well as any actor I can think of at the moment. Whether you’ve never belted out a tune on stage before or you came into the world singing Sondheim, Theater Camp is certain to delight.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a supernatural horror movie starring Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi depicting strange and horrifying events that befall a doomed crew as they attempt to survive an ocean voyage from Transylvania to London.
Streaming on Netflix is Heart of Stone, an action thriller starring Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan about an intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency who races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Red, White & Royal Blue, a romcom starring Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine about an altercation at a royal wedding between the son of the US president and a British prince that gives way to a blossoming romance between the two.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Talk To Me

Back in April, Evil Dead Rise brought its respective franchise back from a lengthy hiatus for more gruesome thrills at the hands of demonic entities and possessed persons alike. At 97 minutes, it doesn’t give the audience much to hold onto when it comes to empathetic characters but its lean-and-mean delivery makes up for the gaps in pathos. Now we have Talk To Me, another tightly-paced and properly brutal supernatural horror outing with some strong instincts for tension that doesn’t quite add up to much. Comparatively, the Evil Dead movies have their own mythology that is either called back to or explained in each entry but the internal logic of Talk To Me starts to get muddled halfway through. It’s certainly a film that sticks the landing in its final moments but its willingness to play fast-and-loose with the rules of this world takes too much away from the final product.

Our heroine of Talk to Me is Mia (Sophie Wilde), a temerarious teenager whose mother’s suicide years prior puts her at a distance with her father Max (Marcus Johnson) and drives her to cheap thrills in her South Australian suburb. Mia’s best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) takes her to a party one night, where a pair of brash blokes bring out the preserved hand of a medium that they say can conjure otherworldly spirits. If an individual grabs hold of the hand and utters the titular phrase, the ghost appears and if they follow up with “I let you in,” the participant allegedly becomes possessed by the apparition. When Mia experiences the “game” for herself, she becomes consumed with the prospect of communing with his deceased mother but invites other evil inside of her in the process.

With a plot that combines dangerous séances with a cursed totem passed among teens, Talk To Me seems to take numerous cues from contemporary horror hits It Follows and Hereditary. Aside from having more meat on the bone thematically, those two movies also had more clearly defined boundaries in place for their supernatural story elements. Talk To Me starts out with a firm grip on how its spirit world works but starts to loosen up as it goes along, even though the mood and atmosphere itself is always appropriately tense. There’s a plot detail involving the lighting and extinguishing of a candle near the embalmed hand that renders the plot too messy in regards to how and why spirits are able to appear.

In their feature directorial debut, co-directors and twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou strike up individual moments of otherworldly terror borne from meddling with the wrong forces. In particular, Jade’s younger brother Riley (played by Joe Bird) has a couple scenes of facial and cranial trauma that would make Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster grin creepily with delight. Like those two films, Talk To Me is also distributed by the tastemakers at A24, who have made a habit of producing grabby, and sometimes misleading, trailers for their horror selections. Those who walked away disappointed from artsy fare like It Comes At Night or Lamb needn’t have those concerns with Talk To Me, arguably one of the most immediate and least esoteric horror movies under the A24 banner.

The Philippou brothers began their collective creative career under the moniker RackaRacka, piloting a YouTube channel awarded for its mercurial brand of horror comedy videos. Aside from a very occasional moment of levity, as when a carful of teens belts out Sia’s “Chandelier” in unison, Talk To Me doesn’t delight in the same kind of comedic flourishes present in recent horror entries like M3GAN or last year’s Barbarian. While certainly not every horror film needs to have comedy in it, the Philippou twins at least have demonstrated the skill set to potentially include some laughs in future films, should they continue down the path of horror. Despite some eerie effects work and an engaging central performance by Wilde, Talk To Me never quite gets a handle on what it wants to say.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters beginning Wednesday is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, an animated superhero film starring Micah Abbey and Shamon Brown Jr. continuing the saga of the titular Turtles as they go on a hunt for a mysterious crime syndicate.
Coming to theaters starting Friday is Meg 2: The Trench, a sci-fi actioner starring Jason Statham and Wu Jing about a research team who, once again, encounters colossal prehistoric sharks on an exploratory dive into the deepest depths of the ocean.
Screening at Cinema Center is Earth Mama, a drama starring Tia Nomore and Erika Alexander involving a pregnant single mother, with two children in foster care, who embraces her Bay Area community as she fights to reclaim her family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup