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Thirteen Lives: Rescue on an epic scale

Docudramas give audiences first-hand insight into intense, intimate moments of real people, disasters, and inspirational experiences. 

Usually tagged with the keyline “based on a true story,” these films bring viewers on a plane bound for the Hudson with Sully himself, on the deck of an exploding oil derrick in the middle of the sea in Deepwater Horizon or on a harrowing quest to free Americans trapped overseas in Argo.

While often docudramas focus on one or two individuals to showcase the larger event, Ron Howard’s latest film goes extremely wide to highlight the epic scale of people coming together to help prevent a tragedy. 

Thirteen Lives recreates the global effort to aid in the 2018 rescue of a boys’ soccer team trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave in Thailand. Working from a screenplay by William Nicholson, Howard’s film attacks the 18-day ordeal from a wide range of perspectives from the team themselves to their parents and Thai government officials to an international group of rescue divers. 

The scale of the effort is demonstrably clear throughout as the cast of characters plus extras must be in the hundreds. Despite this fact, Howard consistently keeps audiences oriented and in the moment so that it never feels overwhelming and the film’s 147-minute running time gives the director enough space to flesh out characters in multiple arenas. 

The drawback, however, is that in keeping things so wide open, it’s far easier to viewers to disengage from the story without a consistent character to identify with and endear to. 

There aren’t many recognizable stars throughout the first third of Thirteen Lives, and while the story clips along at a decent rate, it isn’t until Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen appear as British rescue divers volunteering to aid in the search that any real appreciable character work happens.

Most of the problem is in the screenplay, where individualism is kept to a minimum to maintain a broad scope and the only memorable Thai characters are the boy who asks to go into the cave before his birthday celebration and the governor forced to stay on and take the fall if disaster strikes.

Even the international dive team, played by famous character actors like Farrell and Joel Edgerton and an Oscar nominee in Mortensen, don’t really have a compelling story arc and any nuance to their personalities takes a backseat to moving the story forward.

The rescue itself takes the largest chunk of Thirteen Lives and the cinematography orients audiences well in the visual geography of the cave as divers make their way to the boys. This is further aided by graphics along the way that track the team’s progress into the cave although it becomes somewhat unnecessary in the final stage of the film after the same graphic has appeared many times. 

Audiences will definitely get a claustrophobic feeling at times thanks to the exceptional underwater cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the fantastic sound design that fully captures the horrifying audible terror of endless rushing water and the sinking feeling of drowning potential at any moment. 

In fact, if there’s any Oscar potential at all for Thirteen Lives, it’s likely to come in the sound category where the mastery of the technical element truly enhances the narrative as well as the audience experience. 

While Thirteen Lives enjoyed a limited release in theaters, it’s much better suited for its home watching experience on Amazon Prime, where it dropped last Friday. It’s a prime candidate for more episodic viewing in 20-30 minute chunks rather than all at once, where the scope feels a bit laboring.

Those who are particularly interested in the story will likely find last year’s exceptional documentary The Rescue from Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin to be far more compelling cinematically and from a narrative perspective, though Thirteen Lives is a well composed feature docudrama that will help supplement the larger experience.

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Bullet Train: No planes, no automobiles

Remember when summer blockbusters were fun?

The plots rarely matter, the set pieces entertain, and the characters were memorable for their quirks regardless of how flimsy or one note they might seem.

Bruce Willis climbs through an air vent and walks on broken glass; Arnold Schwarzenegger crashes through a window with a machine gun; Tom Cruise runs from explosions.

What happens along the way and why are irrelevant. Somehow meaning became essential to having a good time or else the film had to be based on a comic book or some other IP.

David Leitch’s new film leans heavily into the dialogue-heavy, strangers destined to collide by coincidence or fate style of writer/director Guy Ritchie and Leitch’s Bullet Train aspires to be a more action heavy version of Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

The premise feels like an amalgamation of samurai films, British gangster flicks and outrageous comic book action.

Five killers unwittingly find themselves at odds with each other and mysterious onlookers as they seek a briefcase stashed on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. 

While each assassin is given their own motivation and storyline, audiences are driven through confounding series of events mainly through the eyes of Ladybug, a self-proclaimed “snatch-and-grab” guy with a bad luck streak that pushes him away from violence. 

Bullet Train simply doesn’t work without a very game, yet endlessly casual Brad Pitt at the center of it all as Ladybug. 

Pitt elevates what would otherwise be a very mediocre movie with a laidback charisma reminiscent of his scene-stealing turn as Chad in the Coen Brothers’ 2008 black comedy Burn After Reading. No matter how absurd or avant-garde the situation Ladybug finds himself in, Pitt can stabilize and center the scene with affability while holding his own in some unique hand-to-hand combat sequences. 

It’s rare to see an actor of Pitt’s caliber perform as many of his own stunts as the Oscar winner does in Bullet Train though Leitch’s film doesn’t have the same amount of action that one might expect from the director of Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. But each moment is hard-hitting and only relies of CGI effects in the third act to hammer home the finale with bloody gusto.

For a film that relies heavily on an ensemble cast to surround Pitt with, Bullet Train is a heavy mixed bag of good and bad performances.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry often steal the show as a pair of professional yet bumbling British mercenaries with a pension for Thomas the Tank Engine and shooting first, asking questions later. Much of the film’s humor comes in moments with their Lemon and Tangerine squaring off verbally with Pitt’s Ladybug and a tighter focus on these three hitmen could have made for a more compelling narrative.

Sandra Bullock appears just often enough to work in limited time as Ladybug’s handler in a straight-forward role, while more puzzling performances are given by Michael Shannon, Joey King, and Zazie Beetz. What at first glance might be a gimmick cameo from rapper Bad Bunny actually brings a lot of needed variety to Bullet Train as his assassin codenamed “The Wolf” has the most compelling backstory and the rapper gives a strong enough effort in his biggest role to date to make the character work.

Stylistically, Leitch propels Bullet Train down a fast track with swift camera movements that accentuate the action and flashy, artistic sequences that develop the backstories of each assassin. Though it doesn’t always land with the same gusto and occasionally feels repetitive, the direction and cinematography have a unique flair that sets Leitch’s film apart from the average action flick and helps engage audiences in times their attention might wander.

Bullet Train might not hit as hard as some viewers might like from an R-rated action flick, but there’s enough powering the film’s engines to give audiences a casually entertaining feature to see in theaters during the August doldrums at the box office.

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Vengeance: Far from the Big Apple

B.J. Novak’s debut feature film opens with the former star of “The Office” on a New York rooftop in vapid, existential conversation with musician John Mayer, playing a somewhat exaggerated version of himself.

The pair pontificate about having everything in life figured out and the ease of mindless dating women saved in their phones like “Random House Girl.” Then Novak’s Ben – a journalist and aspiring podcast host – talks to his producer about the division and unrest in America because of time.

It’s a sort of existentialism that one might expect from a Woody Allen film and the primary framing device of Novak’s Vengeance, a film that seeks to create a conversation about America by bringing elitist New Yorker Ben to the wild emptiness of West Texas, where the family of old fling Abby insists that he come to her funeral and help investigate her death they’re certain on “gut” was murder.

But it’s clear over the course of 90 minutes that Novak doesn’t learn the lessons that he hopes his protagonist – Novak writes, directs and plays the lead in Vengeance – will learn and his dark comedy, while funny and entertaining, misses the mark about what separates us politically and socially.

Much of the issues that hold Vengeance back from being an exceptional independent film come from the mixed tonality as Novak tries to make a crime thriller, a biting dark comedy and a richly cynical observation piece all at once.

These elements work in part but never coalesce into a complete film as it often feels like Novak is trying to do too much in front of the camera and not focusing on the bigger picture behind the camera.

As an actor, Novak excels at creating a character known for feigning mild interest in others to survive awkward moments and his Ben slowly progresses to admiration of this Texan family he befriends with relative believability. Some of the major leaps in logic and character development around Ben in the third act seem to be much more a result of the screenplay rather than his on-screen work.

The film’s humor largely comes from the actors portraying Abby’s family despite how one-dimensional they appear on the script page.

Boyd Holbrook shows some genuine emotion despite the rural naivety stereotype Vengeance often leans into as Abby’s older brother Ty; Louanne Stephens relishes in the moment having all the best one-liners as no-nonsense Granny Carole and Elli Abrams Bickel brings the most heart in the entire film as the younger brother nicknamed “El Stupido,” completely overcoming a somewhat insulting depiction with innocence and charm.

Among the more famous cast members, Issa Rae is well suited to be Ben’s witty, supportive producer Eloise while Ashton Kutcher is terribly miscast as a West Texas record producer who chooses to spend his fortune seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Directorially, Novak takes the most risks in the opening moments as he establishes a quick paced editing style that bounces back and forth between dialogue in choppy bits to help symbolize the disperse, fleeting nature of New York conversations and elongates these moments as Vengeance heads south.

The centerpiece of this film should be Novak’s witty script, which has moments of sharp reflection and some genuinely funny interactions between his fish-out-of-water New Yorker with West Texas culture. But his view of Texas life is so often skewed by loose caricature that it’s unclear by the end if Novak has learned any of the lessons his film tries to preach.

Yet somehow in spite of itself, Vengeance has enough disjointed parts to be one of the summer’s most entertaining and original features that audiences looking for something fresh should consider checking out in theaters or at home closer to the end of the year.

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Nope: Terror in the California desert

Excelling at genre movies is a tricky thing to pull off consistently.

When a filmmaker becomes known for creating original, inventive content in a similar space, it becomes easy or derivative to praise them unabashedly as the next Spielberg or Hitchcock; or to go too far the other way, suggesting that their work isn’t as good as prior films and dismissing it outright.

Things are somewhere in the middle for Jordan Peele, a terrific comedy writer/actor in his own right who seemed to come into his own directorially with his Oscar-winning blend of drama, horror and comedy in 2017’s Get Out. His sophomore feature, Us, followed up with a critically acclaimed take on the body double subgenre in horror that lacked the same commercial appeal but kept the filmmaker firmly in the conversation for most anticipated future projects.

Peele’s third directorial effort leans less into dark horror and is perhaps his most accessible film to date, blending science fiction with summer blockbuster to thrill and chill audiences with a visually dynamic, genre-bending tale that makes up for a confusing and lackluster narrative by providing unmistakably brilliant cinematic moments.

Nope follows brother-sister duo Otis Jr. and Emerald as they run their family Hollywood horse-wrangling business after the mysterious and untimely death of their father. Strange occurrences in the sky months after his death prompt the pair to investigate alongside a bumbling electronics salesman and reclusive cinematographer.

The narrative twists and turns of Nope aren’t as dynamic as Peele’s other features – he won an Academy Award in 2018 for the Get Out screenplay – but what truly gives his movies, including Nope, life is the terrific performances he’s able to draw from every cast member in his films.

After a star-making turn in Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya reteams with Peele for a much less showy, but nonetheless tonally perfect turn as Otis Jr. Kaluuya melds the character’s general aversion to outsiders with deep family bonds and a blue-collar work ethic for a gruff, yet relatable protagonist that audiences can rally behind.

Kaluuya’s more subdued work allows for Keke Palmer to break out in a major way as the bombastic, sarcastic Emerald. Palmer is exceptionally expressive both in tone and with her facial expressions that perfectly capture the incredulous nature of the moment. Adding Brandon Perea’s quirky Angel into the mix midway through the second act really makes the narrative more engaging as well.

Thought the film lacks a traditional antagonist, Minari star Steven Yeun gives Nope a deeper layer of social commentary with a charming, yet somewhat underhanded turn as a former child star turned theme park owner living at the ranch adjacent to Otis and Emerald.

Nope has a ton of impressive, memorable moments throughout and it’s clear that Peele has a clear vision for the project from early development onward.

But it’s in the visuals and non-verbal moments – those created in the director’s chair rather than on paper – where Nope really hits its stride.

This is large part thanks to a strong collaborative effort between Peele and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, a frequent cinematographer for director Christopher Nolan.

Nope is Peele’s first foray into shooting with film instead of digitally and Hoytema does a masterful job of making the movie’s seven night sequences both menacing and layered in shadows. Conversely, bright daytime shots give the added sensation of a blistering desert heat with wide panoramas that accentuate the emptiness of the surroundings as well as the height and depth of the action taking place.

While it’s unlikely to be as lauded as Get Out was come awards season, Peele’s film does have a solid shot in some technical categories, especially for the sound work.

The less audiences know and the more open minded they are heading into a screening of Nope, the greater the opportunity they will have to become captivated by the quality cinema Peele presents over two hours despite its narrative flaws.

A terrific ensemble cast paired with exceptional technical wizardry make Nope the premiere popcorn blockbuster of the summer and the last must-see box office hit in theaters before September.

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The Gray Man: Action for the sake of action

No one seems to mind when every romantic comedy follows the exact same plot.

Boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, something outlandish happens to separate them, love brings them back together. Rinse. Dry. Repeat.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that moviegoers have lost their appetite – or perhaps more aptly, critics have lost their taste – for by-the-numbers action films that focus on big fight sequences and a standard plot because of too many franchises churning out the same thing over and over again.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, known for big, bombastic Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, take on the action genre from a comic-book free perspective with a relatively original tale about a convicted criminal turned CIA assassin trapped in a world of political espionage and intrigue.

And while the screenplay from Joe Russo along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly doesn’t break any new ground in the genre, their film The Gray Man delivers solid entertainment with some terrific action sequences, a convincing cast of character driven actors and some inventive stunt work.

The film finds Six stuck in prison without a hope of parole for decades when a CIA officer hands him a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for lifetime service as a company hitman taking out bad guys off the books at Washington’s request. When Six is asked to take out a spy with compromising intel on the new bosses at Langley, he’s forced to go on the run in search of answers.

It’s clear from the outset that the titular character is intended to be an offshoot of Matt Damon’s famous Jason Bourne character without the memory loss and in reality, this shouldn’t work as anything more than a subpar copycat. But Ryan Gosling’s exceptionally dry performance offsetting his natural charisma gives Six a more well-rounded personality than one might expect from what’s on the page.

Even as things become more chaotic and the world around him spins into disarray, Gosling’s performance is unfrayed. Six’s motivations are rarely in doubt and his skills never questioned simply due to the instant gravitas Gosling brings to the role and the commitment he has to the drama in fight sequences.

Lines in the script like “You want to make an omelet? You gotta kill some people.” are especially cringy, but Chris Evans does such a terrific job relishing the over-the-top nature of his villainous mercenary Lloyd that the ridiculous becomes comical in the best way. Evans plays up every moment with a zeal befitting an 80s wrestling heel, complete with an absurd crewcut/macho mustache straight out of a Jean-Claude Van Damme direct to DVD release.

The Gray Man also boasts a bevy of very capable supporting performers smartly cast to accent the two leads. No Time To Die scene-stealer Ana de Armas proves why she rightly deserves her own action movie with a wonderful blend of defiant energy and stunt prowess, while Billy Bob Thornton and Alfre Woodard are exceptional as Six’s former handler/father figure and a CIA station chief respectively.

The one sore spot in the cast, unfortunately, is Bridgerton star Rene-Jean Page, whose turn as a CIA deputy director with secrets to hide doesn’t rise to the same level as Gosling and Evans, making his Denny Carmichael miserably weak and ineffective, almost totally skippable as audiences await a Gosling/Evans faceoff.

Action sequences litter every inch of The Gray Man with engaging hand-to-hand combat moments transitioning in and out of much larger, showy sequences with massive explosions that ramp up both the violence and the unbridled entertainment. For a movie about rival hitmen, The Gray Man puts the most creativity and passion into its action, which makes it immensely watchable regardless of the relatively flimsy premise that surrounds it.

While it’s a film that probably benefits greatly from a big screen setting like its limited theatrical debut last week, its ease of access as The Gray Man hits Netflix on Friday makes it an easy choice for action genre fans and those willing to turn off their brains for a couple of hours for mindless entertainment.

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Thor Love and Thunder: Thunderstruck

As has been the case for several films now, Marvel Studios finds themselves at a crossroads in a post-Avengers: Endgame era of their cinematic universe.

Many of their most popular characters are gone from the franchise and the massive decade-long arc came to a head several years ago now, leaving fans clamoring for the breadcrumbs of what’s to come in every single new movie, post-credit sequence or hidden Easter egg.

It’s as if in the indecisiveness of figuring out what’s next and who Marvel is going to be, everyone forgot about the simple fun of heroes beating up bad guys.

Taika Waititi’s second foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe challenges this unease by ignoring it altogether, opting for a relatively straightforward comedy with some deep seeded emotional stakes that doesn’t care about what’s happening in the larger picture. It’s honestly refreshing, harkening back to the early days of the MCU where films were less serial and episodic and more bottled into one storyline that ends when the credits roll.

Thor: Love and Thunder is technically the fourth film to feature the Norse god turned superhero and Chris Hemsworth’s lighthearted performances in recent Marvel films as the titular Thor culminate in a genuinely nuanced turn for a largely comedic actor with the physique of an action star.

Waititi’s film finds Thor at a similar crossroads to Marvel, somewhat bloated and unsure where to go next. When a wayward devotee to a different god loses faith completely, Thor must stop this alien Gorr before he slaughters every god across the galaxy.

Hemsworth is giving perhaps his most well-rounded turn now eight Marvel films deep as Thor, relishing in every opportunity to ham it up comedically but also finding the range to be more convincing emotionally. It’s especially difficult to pull off when working opposite computer generated images and Hemsworth is equally adept at subtle facial comedy playing off an ex-girlfriend, new girlfriend gag with Thor’s axe as he is at deeper moments opposite Natalie Portman.

Christian Bale – best known to superhero film fans for his work as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – takes a walk deep into the shadows for his haunting turn as Gorr the God-Butcher. With a look reminiscent of Voldemort from the Harry Potter films and a horror-influenced demeanor, Bale is largely unrecognizable for much of Thunder and drives his performance through genuine emotion and character work often lacking in MCU films.

In reality, it’s pretty clear that Bale hasn’t seen many – if any – Marvel movies and is approaching Gorr more dramatically than most villains in the series, which helps make Gorr one of the best antagonists in the entire franchise.

It also helps that Waititi’s strongest moments directorially are in the visuals surrounding Gorr’s character, stripping color and boosting the contrast to the brink to bring the shadow world the character creates to its maximum haunting potential.

Although the CGI doesn’t always land crisply throughout the film, the hyper-stylized black and white contrast in these sequences add a lot to both the character development and horror-tinged elements of Thunder.

Portman returns to the Thor films after a nearly-decade long hiatus and is funnier than one might expect in a naivety sort of way as love interest Jane Foster and it’s her ability to bring emotional gravitas in needed moments that helps round out Thor’s character arc relatively smoothly.

Thunder firmly sits as a middle of the road entry in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, not offering enough in either long-term world building nor fully engaging storyline to crack the top tier of MCU movies. But it’s hard to question the film either as it’s clearly superior to many of the early sequels like the second and third Iron Man films and especially Thor: The Dark World.

Waititi and Hemsworth’s complete transformation of the Thor character from where it was in 2013 as a stiff Shakespearean caricature to arguably the most entertaining Marvel superhero outside of Spider-Man needs to be recognized.

Thunder does exactly what it needs to, help bridge the gap for Thor after the losses in “Avengers: Endgame” and craft a clear path moving forward. 

A quirky comedy with a decent amount of heart and some entertaining action sequences along the way, Thor: Love and Thunder is probably a Marvel film ardent fans of the franchise will grow to appreciate more after its theatrical run.

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Minions The Rise of Gru: Tiny laughter

Studios often bank on the fact that younger audiences don’t really care about what they’re watching, as long as it’s entertaining in the moment.

That’s probably a large part of the reason why Universal has crafted five films around yellow henchmen that ramble in an incoherent blend of languages indecipherable beyond an occasional word or generic phrase that helps kids figure out what’s happening.

A sequel to the spinoff of the Despicable Me franchise, the villainous Gru and his team of seemingly endless assistants returns for the first time since 2015 with Minions: The Rise of Gru, the summer’s biggest family-friendly animated feature released just in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

Set in 1970s America, this Minions sequel finds the dopey, yet lovable henchmen early in their service to Gru, needing to rescue their pre-teen leader from more experienced villains seeking an ancient Asian relic that would grant the wearer unlimited dragon power.

As with most of these non-sensical animated films, the plot – especially with the relic’s Macguffin nature – isn’t really important and just sets up increasingly ridiculous scenarios for lead henchmen Kevin, Stuart and Bob to overcome alongside Otto, a newer Minion who loses the relic needed to save Gru.

Pierre Coffin, who directed and co-directed the first four installments of the Despicable Me franchise, returns as the solo voice for all the Minions and his vibrant, eccentric tones perfectly synch up with the comedic moments and help differentiate the various Minions’ personalities vocally. 

The film is at its most entertaining when Coffin is essentially talking to himself as Kevin, Stuart and Bob are all alone in an unfamiliar world and the theatricality in Coffin’s cadence and tone helps bring the bright colors alive beyond simple animation techniques.

Steve Carell returns as Gru and while his characterization remains consistent throughout the entirety of the Despicable Me series, there isn’t as much for Carell to do and almost no heart or character development from which Carell can emote like he does in the 2010 original film.

Likewise, the majority of new cast members playing the movie’s antagonists in the “Vicious 6” are nearly unrecognizable vocally even though most are leaning into type like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s lobster-claw toting baddie Jean-Clawed or Dolph Lundgren’s evil skater Svengeance. Almost all the secondary characters are so interchangeable that it doesn’t really matter who voices them.

The primary exceptions are Alan Arkin, who does a solid job being both vengeful and mentor figure to Gru as the original villain Wild Knuckles, and Michelle Yeoh, who comes out of nowhere to steal scenes as a massage therapist and Kung Fu master that trains Kevin, Stuart and Bob in martial arts.

For the most part, this sequel leans on solid animation techniques to maintain the visual style of the Despicable Me franchise and pushes bright color schemes to keep younger children engaged while a bevy of 70s music and other references to the era fly over their heads.

It’s also likely that Minions: The Rise of Gru will be a strong contender for animated awards later this year, although it’s less certain if it will be the second film in the franchise to earn an Oscar nomination after 2013’s Despicable Me 2.

Probably the most forgettable film in the series thus far, Minions: The Rise of Gru still has enough working in its favor to be a mildly entertaining 88-minute ride for younger audiences that shouldn’t offend adults taking their kids out to a summer film.

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Elvis: All shook up

When a film is titled after one of its characters, 99 times out of 100, that movie is almost entirely about that person. (Save for Private Ryan, of course.)

This is even more true when it comes to biopics, especially when the titular character happens to be one of the most iconic musicians of all time, the King of Rock and Roll himself.

But writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s epic, nearly three-hour depiction of Elvis Presley, simply titled Elvis, is only half about the musical legend. There’s a character hiding in the shadows behind the pomp and circumstance that Luhrmann forces into center stage, often pushing Presley to the side for his own redemption and glory.

Much of the rise and fall of Presley is told from the perspective – and often through languishing narration – by his carnival barker-esque manager Colonel Tom Parker to the point where Luhrmann’s overall message about exploitation for profit gets muddled.

It feels unfair to begin a discussion of an Elvis Presley biopic by talking about something other than the man himself because of his irreversible impact on generations of popular culture, music, and American history, but it’s exactly the position Luhrmann wants to take with his film.

Elvis isn’t about Elvis.

At least not entirely.

Oscar winner Tom Hanks turns in his most baffling performance in years as Parker, waffling through a waning, vaguely European accent that feels more like caricature than imitation. Hanks wades frequently into the waters of the conman grifter, then uses his natural charisma to try and charm audiences back in as Parker continues to pull the wool over Presley’s eyes.

It’s a very broad, showy performance that’s audacious and self-congratulatory in a film where audiences are looking for the focus to be elsewhere.

And this isn’t to say that Luhrmann is pushing Hanks to the forefront because the up-and-coming actor playing Presley isn’t worthy of the spotlight. The complete opposite is true.

If Elvis is worthy of consideration for awards in any respect, Austin Butler’s magnetic, almost hypnotic transformation into the man who would become King of Rock and Roll certainly deserves all the praise he will likely get for the next six months.

It isn’t just that Butler sounds like Presley to the point where viewers with their eyes closes couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing and the copy. It’s also not just because expert craftspeople in the makeup and costume departments take a young actor who looks like Presley and perfectly accentuate his look to maximize the effect.

Butler’s physicality, relentless energy, and emotional core transport audiences into everything that is and was Elvis Presley. Concert sequences evolve along with Presley’s musical style because Butler can slowly, then more brazenly contort his body and gyrate to make viewers young and old swoon.

It’s also the way Butler’s able to lift the entire film by connecting with Presley’s heart in such a way that the more tender, emotional moments feel genuine and contrast the bombastic nature of the swirling film around it.

Never one to shy away from audacious cinematography or excessive editing, Luhrmann keeps Elvis at a rigorous pace that has audiences on their toes for much of the run time and it’s only in the final act that the 159-minute feature burdens viewers with the weight of it all. There’s so much going on that often overshadows the brilliant work that Butler is doing in the title role that keeps Luhrmann’s film from being great, or at times even watchable.

But there are other moments, often in concert sequences or the terrific filming of Presley’s 1968 television special meant to be a Christmas ad concert for Singer sewing machines, where Elvis really shines and has Presley’s signature larger than life attitude.

The bloated runtime, excess focus on Parker and the uneven tone of Luhrmann’s extravagance makes Elvis cumbersome to engage with as an audience and this isn’t even to speak of the film’s option not to address Presley’s political and societal implications outside of entertainment.

For ardent Presley fans and those who love Luhrmann’s more avantgarde filmography like Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, Elvis might be worth taking a chance on in theaters. More casual audiences should probably wait until it hits at home rental or streaming services to break the film up into smaller, more manageable chunks.

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Cha Cha Real Smooth: All the right moves

The best movie characters, ones audiences take to and see themselves in, aren’t always idyllic.

Filmmakers find genuine beauty in flaws and imperfections in their personalities and psyches that allows viewers to naturally respond and become more fully transported into another world.

Cooper Raiff’s second feature film – an audience award winner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival – screened this past week at the Tribeca Festival before debuting in select theaters and Apple TV+ on Friday.

The Dallas native wrote, directed and stars in Cha Cha Real Smooth, featuring Raiff as Andrew, a down on his luck recent college graduate working as a Bar Mitzvah party host who befriends an isolated mother and her autistic daughter. It’s a film with boundless heart, flawed characters who don’t always do the right thing and an unflinching, un-fakeable authenticity.

Cha Cha Real Smooth feels more genuine and honest about personal flaws than any coming-of-age dramedy since 2017’s Lady Bird and there’s a sentimentality to Raiff’s screenplay and direction that seeps into every crevasse of the film to tug at viewers’ heartstrings at the perfect moments.

Raiff portrays Andrew with an unbridled passion for life that he just can’t seem to control. His work shows Andrew as a man who wants to be great but has no idea who he is or wants to be come and there’s a frantic energy to every interaction Andrew has in Cha Cha Real Smooth that reflects Andrew’s longing for a real life to start.

There’s a distinct feeling viewers get watching the film that Andrew (as well as Raiff as a filmmaker) cares so deeply about almost every character that he will do whatever it takes to make others as happy as he wants to be himself. The sentimentality of that notion shines through in Raiff’s performance and drives much of Andrew’s motivations.

Raiff’s work is perfectly counterbalanced in the film by Dakota Johnson’s more free-spirited, yet melancholic turn as Domino, a young mother of an autistic teen whose life hasn’t gone the way she probably wanted. The duo creates a chemistry between Andrew and Domino that has a magnetic push and pull of emotional infatuation rather than true romantic connection.

Both Andrew and Domino make decisions in the film that audiences may cringe at, but Cha Cha Real Smooth approaches it through Raiff’s screenplay in such a way that there aren’t really any judgments, rather an appreciation for the complexity of real life.

Every performance in Smooth has to work perfectly for Raiff’s script to shine as much as it does and the acting across the board is nothing short of pitch perfect.

The film’s young actors should be stealing the show, but Raiff and Johnson have a distinct and palpable energy to their chemistry that takes Smooth to another stratosphere.

Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt is heart-melting as Domino’s daughter, Lola, and there’s a winning charm to her interactions with Andrew as she warms up to his presence in her life that the entire movie could have been built around.

Evan Assante’s bond with Raiff as Andrew’s tween brother David and the instantaneous love felt for Andrew’s relationship with Leslie Mann’s turn as his mother allows audiences to warm up to Andrew in a more well-rounded way, showing his inherent sweetness on a familial level as much as an idyllic romantic level.

As a director, Raiff gives his film a very distinct vibe by often turning up the color contrast to deepen the shadows and highlight the bright colors, which especially work wonders during night scenes and the frequent party sequences of the film. It’s as if the visuals match the frantic energy racing through Andrew’s head.

Cha Cha Real Smooth deserves to be a major awards contender later this year, especially Raiff’s wholly original screenplay and Johnson’s magnetic supporting performance. The one downfall, however, may be Apple’s focus on the much more star-studded upcoming Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon that may pull voters’ eyeballs away from a smaller, more intimate movie.

Raiff’s second feature film will be a crowd favorite worth heading to theaters to revel in the humor and emotion with others, though its ease of access on Apple TV+ helps ensure Cha Cha Real Smooth becomes an instant hit with an even larger audience than a normal independent dramedy might.

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Hustle: Hoopin’ with heart

Adam Sandler’s prolific career on Saturday Night Live and a plethora of mid-1990s comedies haven’t kept the funnyman from large swings and misses during the past seven years as his Happy Madison Productions has partnered exclusively with streaming service Netflix to create content.

The laughs haven’t quite landed for the comedian in quite some time, though Sandler has proven to be exceptional playing against type in more dramatic roles with films like 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories and 2019’s Uncut Gems.

Hopefully, Sandler may have found the formula to success with his production company, leaning more dramatic than comedic with his latest Netflix partnership, the sports dramedy Hustle, which finds Sandler portraying a basketball scout traveling the world to find the missing piece of a championship team for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Director Jeremiah Zagar’s film works with a more subdued Sandler perfectly matched opposite real NBA player Juancho Hernangòmez of the Denver Nuggets, who plays a diamond-in-the-rough prospect from Spanish mean streets that Sandler’s Stanley Sugarman must bring to the U.S. and convince teams that Bo has what it takes to be a star.

Sandler leans into the everyman, blue-collar personality of Stanley that’s quiet when he needs to be and demonstrative when he has to be. The character doesn’t truly come alive until he meets Bo, and audiences can clearly see the light come on in Stanley’s eyes when he realizes just how special Bo is as both a player and a person. 

The drive that Sandler showcases in these training scenes with Bo is highly reminiscent of another classic Philly sports movie, Rocky, with Sandler perfectly becoming the Mickey-like father figure to Bo’s Rocky. Hustle leans into this connection strongly, especially in the extended montages and sequences where Bo has to run up a hill faster and faster each day to demonstrate his work ethic and emerging talent, much in the same way as the iconic steps sequence in the Oscar-winning boxing film.

For a first-time actor, Hernangòmez is ideally cast as Bo and while it’s clear that he has the basketball chops to nail the role, what sets him apart from other athletes-turned-actors is the effortlessness he can pull off the emotional moments of the film. It’s rare for someone with as little experiences as Hernangòmez must genuinely develop chemistry with other actors and have a naturalness to his performance that will make audiences forget who they’re watching and live in the world of the film.

This is also true to a lesser extent for other basketball players playing roles instead of themselves. Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards does a terrific job playing the trash-talking antagonist Kermit Wilt-Washington and former Houston Rockets guard and TNT analyst Kenny Smith is a natural as Stanley’s ex-teammate and player agent Leon Rich.

Hustle is also accented nicely with veteran character actors filling key supporting roles with Robert Duvall making a terrific extended cameo as the team’s owner, Ben Foster as his son and a primary antagonist for Stanley, and Queen Latifah as Stanley’s mostly supportive wife.

Zagar does a great job of making Hustle feel more cinematic than the average sports dramedy, cutting the frame to a more widescreen 1x85x1 to elongate the visuals horizontally. This works especially well in the basketball segments to help viewers feel the width and length Bo has as a tall, dominant player as well as the overall chaotic movement street hoops can achieve as audiences watch all the players simultaneously.

Combined with a mood-driven score and heavy contrast on colors, there’s an inherent gritty quality to Hustle that helps establish the credibility of the film overall.

Hustle is exactly the sort of mid-budget sports dramedy that should have been played theatrically, but Netflix also gives the film a much wider potential audiences immediately and Zagar’s film puts Sandler in the right position to make a movie that viewers should go out of their way to check out.

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Fire Island: Summer nights

Nearly 30 years ago, director Amy Heckering transported audiences into the world of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma through the lens of 1990s Beverly Hills high school with Clueless.
The bright, quirky satire provided a clever twist on what might be viewed as stuffy literature and made Austen more accessible for younger audiences.

Comedian Joel Kim Booster found inspiration in another Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, for his feature film debut Fire Island, writing the screenplay and starring as Noah, loosely based on the Elizabeth Bennett character from the original novel.

The Searchlight produced film from director Andrew Ahn debuted on Hulu this past weekend and follows a group of five late-20s/early-30s gay men as they travel to a resort outside New York City for a week filled with debauchery, hookups, and relaxation. Noah has vowed to remain celibate until he can find someone for his best friend Howie, while the larger group laments the fact that this may be their last trip to the island.

Booster is a solid lead actor with a performance that’s easily likable and allows audiences to relate to Noah’s plight, but there’s nothing exceptionally notable about his work apart from the terrific chemistry he has with Saturday Night Live standout Bowen Yang. Clearly, the film works best when these two actors are able to banter and feed off each other’s energy in a friendship that goes well beyond the movie itself.

Yang is the best thing about Fire Island, offering a complex, emotional turn as Noah’s best friend Howie. It’s a performance that immediately draws sympathy while maintaining a good humor and the way Yang can emote naturally without it feeling forced or fake is a welcome quality for SNL alums in their film work.

Veteran comedienne Margaret Cho grounds the craziness of events with a largely calming, yet funny presence as the group’s maternal figure who owns the house the boys all stay at every year.

The breakout star of Fire Island is former Fredericksburg Theater Company actor Zane Phillips, who makes his feature film debut as Dex, a somewhat sympathetic island attendee with secrets that make him both mysterious and controversial. Phillips plays the role with an inherent kindness that slowly melts away as Dex’s true character is revealed.

Ironically, his supporting performance is better than either of the intended love interests, Conrad Ricamora’s Will or James Scully’s Charlie, who lack the sort of effortless chemistry that Booster and Yang showcase as longtime friends.

There are some obscure jokes that will only make sense for those familiar with the Keira Knightley-led film adaptation of the novel or this film’s wayward start as a comedy series for now defunct streamer Quibi.

By in large, the jokes almost always land for a chuckle but rarely rise to the level of hearty belly laugh. This is mostly due to the even keel tone in both Booster’s script and Ahn’s direction that maintains a lighter tone during more serious moments but limits the ability to create large moments of gut-busting laughter required of a theatrically released comedy.

Fire Island is considerably more explicit, even by romantic comedy standards, than films like Clueless or even crude Judd Apatow-produced features like Superbad have been as the R-rated flick skips a theatrical release and heads straight to Hulu. 

Ahn’s film is exceptionally sex positive and open about the number of casual encounters and hookups that occur on the island, being clear and direct to showcase homosexual relationships visually in the same way a director might focus on heterosexual lovemaking. This could easily dissuade more conservative viewers from enjoying the larger film, but for the most part, the sexuality is secondary to the larger story and Ahn never makes a performance out of sex for show, only to further the plot.

While the film may sail over the heads of some casual viewers or put off conservative audiences, Fire Island has a commitment to the notion of found family and genuine entertainment that other viewers might find worth taking a chance on thanks to its easy access as a Hulu original.

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Top Gun Maverick: Cruising at higher altitudes

There’s a moment early in Tom Cruise’s first film in four years where his character must lay everything on the line and push himself beyond all the limits to save his team.

It’s a constant theme in the nearly 60-year-old actor’s latter career as Cruise constantly strives to top himself for the sake of blockbuster cinema, attempting to save theatrical releases by dangling from tall buildings, freefalling from heights unfathomable by anyone who isn’t a stuntman and literally flying fighter jets to show his face in the cockpit at Mach speeds.

Cruise’s endless bravado – a seemingly equal balance of boyish charisma and belief in his own invincibility – propels every choice he has made as an actor the past decade and a half, culminating in a death-defying Mission: Impossible franchise and now the resurgence of his 1980s classic Top Gun.

Director Joseph Kosinski reteams with Cruise for the first time since 2013’s “Oblivion” to modernize the aerial combat action drama, taking full advantage of cinematography advancements and Cruise’s obsession with creating unbelievable movie moments. Top Gun: Maverick puts Cruise back in the cockpit as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a former ace pilot called back into active duty to train the next generation of combat aces for a practically incompletable mission.

As with every film he attaches himself to these days, Cruise carries the weight of the entire project on his back from start to finish as audiences play co-pilot to Maverick’s rebellious nature that makes him the world’s premier dogfighter and rubs most of those around him the wrong way.

It’s a role Cruise has played many variations on over the years, but this return to the character is more self-reflective and emotional than one might expect as viewers can feel the weight of unrealistic expectations Maverick places on himself in Cruise’s face. Although there isn’t as much character work done on the post-traumatic stress that Maverick clearly hasn’t totally worked through, it’s easily overlooked thanks to Cruise’s relentless energy and charisma.

The film’s ensemble cast does well to work around the gravitational pull that the last true movie star brings to Top Gun: Maverick and the next generation of pilots led by a very nuanced turn from Miles Teller as a pilot with ties to Maverick and Glen Powell as his cocky rival help draw viewers into the larger story.

Val Kilmer’s return to Top Gun provides the most emotional impact in the film and his performance is incredibly bittersweet and poignant despite the lack of heavy drama surrounding Maverick’s PTSD amid the burdens he carries.

Fervent fans of the original film will find a lot of similarities in this legacy sequel, from near identical opening credits and orchestral themes to the flight school rivalries and shirtless sporting events that mirror the 80s classic.

Where the biggest changes are, however, are in the visuals.

The most arresting moments of Top Gun: Maverick come in the lengthy, spectacular aerial combat sequences, filmed practically with several IMAX cameras attached to the cockpit and nose of F-18 fighter jets that capture both the dazzling maneuvers flown by true elite Navy aviators as well as the genuine reactions and performances of the actors who are in the planes themselves and not acting in a green screen environment.

Aerial combat has never felt as real and dynamic on screen as it does here, far surpassing the limitations of technology in the 1980s original film and creating a level of harrowing, yet magnetic cinema that viewers could easily watch several hours of regardless of a storyline.

Hundreds of hours of footage captured by these Navy pilots both with the actors and through external jets following the action are meticulously edited into a crisp, supersonic freight train of exhilaration that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats and vault Top Gun: Maverick into contention for the year’s best film.

Though there will likely only be room for one, perhaps two, early blockbusters come awards season, Top Gun: Maverick has the firepower cinematically to edge out The Batman and Everything Everywhere All At Once as the first half of the year hit to earn a Best Picture nomination and it’s all but certain to receive nods in editing, sound and best original song for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” which plays over the end credits.

Top Gun: Maverick has absolutely everything one might expect from a Cruise-led movie: Tom riding a motorcycle, Tom running at full speed, Tom grinning like he just stole something, everyone else around him in awe of Tom being Tom. Cruise’s magnetism and the dynamic thrills of the aerial artistry make this summer hit one of the best blockbuster films of the last 10 years and something cinephiles need to see in the biggest screen possible.