Monday, July 15, 2024

Thanksgiving



Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Nell Verlaque, Addison Rae, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Milo Manheim, Tomaso Sanelli, Gabriel Davenport, Jenna Warren, Ty Victor Olsson, Karen Cliche, Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R
 
★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When Eli Roth's 70's-inspired trailer for the fictitious horror film Thanksgiving appeared during Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse in 2007, many assumed a feature would be right around the corner. Nearly seventeen years later, it came, even as clips hinted at a project far different from the grainy, low budget VHS homage most anticipated. But in appearing to invoke 2000's era remakes like Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine or even Rob Zombie's Halloween, Roth still goes old school, with his movie sharing similarities with both those titles and the originals that inspired them.

Aside from the unimpeachable classics any entry in this genre is judged against, horror constantly lifts ideas, themes and even specific shots from other works, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's what you do with it that matters, and longtime slasher fanatic Roth again goes to his grab bag of influences, incorporating a variety of different elements. Rather than break new ground, this instead accomplishes all that's needed by being a well made, ridiculously entertaining ride that cleverly mixes gore and humor.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, a crowd of anxious, unruly shoppers are gathered outside RightMart for the annual Black Friday sale. But when they notice the store owner's daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque) her boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks) and classmates Gaby (Addison Rae), Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) and Yulia (Jenna Warren) sneak in early, the mob breaks through the doors. After trampling a security guard and rushing past Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) and store manager Mitch (Ty Victor Olsson), a full blown riot breaks out, with tragic results. 

The next year RightMart callously prepares for another sale when a mysterious killer wearing a John Carver mask goes on a killing spree, targeting those responsible for the Black Friday massacre. As Jessica and the gang realize they're next, Bobby's sudden reappearance in town only complicates matters, with suspects and bodies continuing to pile up. Everyone's in danger of being picked off by Carver, who's in no mood for any leftovers this Thanksgiving.

Setting the bar high with a graphic, wickedly satirical opening sequence that terrifies in spots, Roth immediately makes his goal clear. It may not be the full-fledged throwback most expected, but the blueprint and execution of those retro slashers are prevalent, especially as rabid customers kill each other for discounted waffle irons, transforming this big box superstore into a human slaughterhouse. 

Jeff Rendall's script gets a lot out of the thrillingly staged RightMart catastrophe and its ramifications for everyone directly or indirectly involved, with only a tension filled parade scene and Carver's third act feast coming close to equaling it. That everyone truly is a suspect gives Carver more than enough opportunities to get creatively gruesome in ways that'll have viewers wincing in disgust and rolling with laughter. Roth also makes good use of social media as both a tracking device and an indictment on our obsession with going viral.

Nearly every character could be affixed a backstory or motivation that qualifies them as the murderous pilgrim in retrospect. But Roth does a better job than most playing that game and the enormous cast makes sense once you realize Carver needs enough heads at the table to host dinner. If there's a Final Girl, it's Jessica, played by relative newcomer Nell Verlaque, who makes for a likable, charismatic presence as the group member with the most guilt to bare. 

As Jessica's dad and store owner Thomas Wright, the great Rick Hoffman gives another masterclass in corporate sleaze, with Patrick Dempsey covering the same law enforcement territory he did in Scream 3, but faring even better. The rest of the cast deliver exactly what's called for, even if the real star is Carver himself, (voiced by Adam McDonald and physically portrayed by stuntman Adam Armbruster), who's very much patterned after iconic horror villains like Michael, Jason and Ghostface, complete with that memorably creepy mask.

A whodunnit horror plot loaded with suspects will always invite Scream comparisons, but if that franchise takes an entirely meta approach, Roth allows the content serve as its own self referential wink. And while it's easy to argue this doesn't exactly stand out from the pack, there's really little need. Thanksgiving is what a film like this should be, earning its inevitable sequel and a place alongside the seasonal slashers it pays homage to.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Back to Black

Director: Sam-Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Marisa Abela, Jack O' Connell, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Juliet Cowan, Sam Buchanan, Pete Lee-Wilson, Thelma Ruby, Matilda Thorpe
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)   

In Sam Taylor-Johnson's Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, everything clicks into place for the film's lead, who reminds us just how little we do know about the late English singer-songwriter's beginnings. Putting aside what was covered in 2015's acclaimed documentary, Amy, there's a strangeness to initially seeing her without the beehive hair and tattoos that shaped a unique persona matched only by the talent itself. And much of this is found in Marisa Abela's performance, even well before Winehouse skyrockets to worldwide fame. 

The most perplexing aspect of Matthew Greenhalgh's script is how it avoids casting blame for the singer's death, almost hoping we're absorbed enough in her highs and lows to overlook it. Of course, they'll always be skeptics nursing Dewey Cox hangovers and refusing to give any musical biopic the time of day. But as a respectable entry in that detested and mocked genre, this at least focuses on a more contemporary artist whose legacy hasn't yet been exhausted by a myriad of screen dramatizations. And while it's odd referring to an artist whose breakthrough album was released nearly two decades ago as "contemporary," it's at least a designation Winehouse easily earns. 

Raised in a Jewish, musically inclined home by father Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), Amy Winehouse (Abela) is performing at local pubs when her vocal talents catch the attention of manager Nick Shymansky (Sam Buchanan), leading to a contract with Island Records. But prior to her debut album's 2003 release, Amy takes a step back after creatively clashing with the label, soon meeting and falling for charismatic video producer Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O' Connell). 

Between Amy's alcoholism, bulimia and violent outbursts and Blake's cocaine addiction, their rocky relationship seems doomed from the start. That and an unexpected tragedy provides the groundwork for Amy's universally acclaimed sophomore album, "Back to Black," which catapults her to critical and commercial success. With it come unpleasant consequences, as she spirals into full blown drug addiction that even a stint in rehab and a period of sobriety can't rescue her from.

While this follows a strict chronological trajectory that might provide further ammo for those tired of the format, it's also an effective snapshot of a relatively brief, unexplored flicker in time. Due to this, it avoids coming across as a history lesson that crams decades of a person's life into two hours, skipping years and events to fit a regimented framework. More disciplined in staying the course, this rarely feels like an exploitive collection of her lowest points.

Because Amy's brief but memorable ascent feels as if it occurred yesterday, there's an immediacy to the story that's more culturally relevant than usual. Having paved the way for Adele and the many other British soul singers who've emerged since, the experience of watching becomes oddly inseparable from the hypothetical question of how the rest of her career would have turned out.

Abela is tremendous in the role, all the way from the opening scene of Amy reminiscing with her grandmother to when she eventually implodes later on. The huge surprise is that the actress does her own singing, faring unusually well given the insurmountable challenge of replicating Winehouse's unmistakable vocal stylings and stage presence. The elephant in the room is how the film handles Amy's addiction, contradicting much of what's been reported. If her substance abuse issues have long been tied to Blake's toxic influence, this paints a far different picture, with him even controversially painted as a victim at various points. 

The pair's initial meeting might be the film's best sequence with O'Connell's finding just the right blend of dangerous sleaze and charm, as we wait for Blake to emerge as the monstrous, abusive instigator we've heard so much about. And though he's far from a positive influence and destructive in his own right, that doesn't really materialize here. Instead, Amy just can't seem to quit him, and while a refusal to go to rehab results in her most iconic hit, by the time she actually gets there, it's too late. Eddie Marsen's Mitch is a constant presence as her dad/manager, in denial and overwhelmed by the harsh reality of his daughter's situation.

Given the family's involvement in this production, it is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of an artist lost to addiction, sidestepping the same tawdry treatment Amy received from the media while she was alive. That the movie captures a certain authenticity can be attributed to an actress who foregoes outright impersonation to embody an insecure family girl with a giving heart who briefly became the biggest pop star on the planet. The hows and whys are sometimes frustratingly murky, but Taylor-Johnson gets a lot right in exploring the gap that separated who Amy was from what the public perceived her to be.                     

Friday, July 5, 2024

Dune: Part Two


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Lea Seydoux, Souheila Yacoub, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem 
Running Time: 166 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)     

Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel Dune always seemed intended as a giant, visually impressive spectacle that doesn't primarily rely on its story to succeed. You could even argue it benefits the viewer not to think too hard about the details for risk of ruining the experience. That definitely holds true for its 2021 predecessor, where Velleneuve overcame the challenges of introducing a world populated by characters who needed to hold our interest through two or more sequels. 

Most of that first film felt like setup, abruptly ending before the main course arrived. Now, after what felt far longer than a two and a half year wait, the sequel arrives. Only this dark, heady, somewhat odd property isn't your usual franchise tentpole, carrying the risk that some fans may find themselves playing catch up with the story. But with its mind boggling vistas, astonishing effects and flawless sound and production design, it does qualify as "epic" in every sense of the word, noticeably bigger and more ambitious than what came before.

Picking up almost immediately where the last film left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) aligns with the Fremen following the destruction of House Atreides by House Harkonnen. Against his pregnant mother Jessica's (Rebecca Ferguson) wishes, Paul is taken in by tribal leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) as "the chosen one," forming a close bond with Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya). Now with friend and mentor Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) back by his side, Paul aims to avenge his father's death while the Harkonnens escalate their attacks to gain control of Arrakis. 

Meanwhile, the incompetent hothead Rabban (Dave Bautista) proves himself a failed leader of the Harkonnens, prompting his Jabba-like uncle Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) to transfer the reigns to ruthless younger sibling Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler). And as Paul settles into his new role with the Fremen, Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), daughter Irulan (Florence Pugh) and the Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) brace themselves for retribution. With fighting between the two factions reaching its boiling point, only a showdown remains in determining Paul's final destiny.

Overflowing with plot and characters, you'd think this follow-up would lend credence to all the skeptics who still consider Dune one of those notoriously unfilmable novels. So it's to Villeneuve and co-writer Jordan Spaihts' credit that they manage to balance it all out and wrangle the themes into a straightforward, digestible package. If someone bypassed the 2021 entry and came into this cold they may not be completely lost, especially since the world itself is as much a draw as the actual narrative.

Paul's journey takes detours and excursions, but all roads leads to his gradual transformation. While we're given some voiceover from Pugh's Irulan, the opening hour mostly consists of his assimilation into the Freman, the burgeoning relationship with Chani and a handful of spectacular battle sequences. Originally, Chalamet was considered a divisive choice for the role, but everything about the character's arc in this sequel lends more credibility to his that casting, as the actor quietly builds on the groundwork laid out in the last film, paving Paul's path from insecure, reluctant outsider to burgeoning leader, despite Chani's legitimate reservations.

Zendaya further extends her 2024 on screen winning streak with her extended take on Chani, conveying just the right mix of stubborn skepticism and practicality opposite Chalamet. We detect her character's unease over what's to come and it won't be long before discovering just how right she is. And as the dangerous consequences of mixing politics and religion remain constant, Rebecca Ferguson's hooded, face tattooed Reverend Mother Jessica (who telepathically communicates with her unborn daughter) will come to represent the inflection point for that conflict.  

As everything converges in Empire Strikes Back style by its end, so too does the rise of the ruthless Feyd-Rautha, terrifyingly played by a pale, unrecognizably demonic Austin Butler. Tasked with stepping into the role originally filled by Sting in David Lynch's '84 attempt, he definitely makes it his own, especially during a black and white coliseum showdown stunningly shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser. 

The more our "hero" avoids fulfilling his prophecy the closer he gets, with that ongoing sense of inevitability hovering over every scene. By the time he eventually reaches his perceived goal, it won't come without major sacrifices he'll continue to weigh as this saga continues. Some of the metaphysical elements are a bit much, but at almost 3 hours, Joe Walker's masterful editing ensures there's no extra fat on the bone, as everything at least feels important and unmissable. Once pulled into this expansive, oddly hypnotizing universe, any uninitiated viewers' concerns should wash away, replaced with anticipation for where Villeneuve plans to go next.  

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Hit Man

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Gralen Bryant Banks, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Hit Man finds director Richard Linklater again in top form, transforming a potentially clever premise into one of his most rewarding efforts in years. But even more importantly, its smart script provides an ideal acting showcase for Glen Powell, who we've already suspected has all the talent and charisma to emerge as a major movie star. That it hasn't happened yet is somewhat perplexing, but this brings him another step closer, further confirming his underappreciated range as an actor.

After building strong word of mouth on the festival circuit, Netflix's decision to sit on this film for a year caused understandable skepticism. But it's Linklater we're talking about, who somehow always manages to subvert expectations when adapting quirky, esoteric material. Similar to his 2011 crime comedy caper Bernie, it's loosely based on a Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth. Except he aims higher this time, making for an even more fulfilling experience.    

Gary Johnson (Powell) is an ordinary, mild mannered psychology professor at the University of New Orleans who moonlights assisting police with undercover sting operations. But when sleazy cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) is suspended from the force, Gary's chosen to temporarily fill his position as a fake hitman, obtaining confessions and payments from suspects. Tailoring unique personas to each suspect, he quickly impresses co-workers Claudette (Retta) and Phil (Sanjay Rao) with both his acting and eventual conviction rate. 

When Gary adopts the cool, slick guise of "Ron" to extract a confession from a woman named Madison (Adria Arjona), he finds himself instantly attracted to her. She wants her abusive husband killed but their meeting seems more like a date, with him advising that she keep the money and start a new life. Criticized for letting a potential conviction slip through his fingers, Gary/Ron later begins secretly seeing Madison, raising the ire of her volatile ex. But as Gary attempts to conceal his actual identity from Madison and this relationship from police, an even larger problem emerges that will put his true feelings for her to the test.  

What's so clever about this script is how it constantly keeps us off balance, lulling us into thinking the plot will play out exactly how it usually does in a movie like this. Gary will become romantically entangled with Madison and her ex becomes a factor, but that's where the predictability ends. Linklater lays out his thesis in the opening minutes, with an awkward, bespeckled Gary dryly lecturing his disengaged psychology class about how people hide their true selves, instead projecting the persona of who society expects them to be. 

The question of whether anyone can really change lays the story's foundation, with Gary's ex-wife Alicia (Molly Bernard) very skeptical he has the capacity. But this new undercover police gig brings something out of the self-professed science geek and avid bird watcher he didn't even know existed. And after meeting Madison, the line between Gary and the more confident Ron becomes blurrier, eventually evaporating. 

The most memorable sequence is a montage of him at work, sliding in and out different disguises, personas and accents, resembling everyone from Tilda Swinton to Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. There's a particular restaurant scene where we watch him in action from start to finish and it's sort of a revelation seeing how desperate suspects assume this total stranger will risk everything and commit murder for a bag of cash. But as Gary narrates in a sparse, effective voiceover, their minds are made up long before they call him. He just gives them that last little push.  

While discovering his psychology background provides the perfect tool for reading hapless, unsuspecting sting targets, he encounters one who breaks all convention. And the more Madison gets to know Ron the harder it becomes for him to tell her he's Gary, and even convince himself of the same. The enjoyment is in how Powell plays both sides, subtly revealing glimpses of each persona residing in the other. But reconciling both will prove to be his character's biggest challenge.  

Without giving away too much, the actual danger comes in the potential exposure of this relationship, but it's loads of fun watching the back and forth between a pair who practically ignite the screen with their chemistry. As strong as Powell is in a deceptively difficult role, the delightfully funny and expressive Arjona equals him, bringing a playful energy to the proceedings we don't often see in this genre. If he's a star on the cusp, she's one in the making, and their scenes together are a big reason why so much of this clicks. Austin Amelio also impresses as this slimy cop Jasper, who's either much dumber or smarter than he looks. 

A lesser film would ratchet up the violence and sight gags to grab our attention, creating an obvious predicament where our lead becomes an overnight action hero. But this operates on a more sophisticated level, with intelligently written characters engaging in an unpredictable chess game full of twists and turns. And much of that success can be traced to star and co-writer Powell, who gives multiple performances as a likable, seemingly milquetoast protagonist dragged into an increasingly dark, noirish situation. Arriving at a point where almost anything can happen, Hit Man explores the lengths some go to not only hide their identity from others, but themselves.               

Monday, June 24, 2024

Civil War


Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoyo Mizuno, Jefferson White, Nelson Lee, Nick Offerman
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

It seems the biggest obstacle still facing those on the fence about seeing Alex Garland's unnervingly realistic dystopian thriller Civil War is the worry it's too political. Trailers and commercials have done little to alleviate those concerns, prompting many to already file this under "the last thing we need right now." But the biggest surprise to come out of this harrowing war drama and road trip movie is just how apolitical it actually is. Instead, it's the harsh immediacy of Garland's fictitious scenario that stands out, rarely offering a breather from the emotional and psychological trauma engulfing these characters.

Clearly intended to serve as a cryptic warning, Garland knows it isn't about picking sides, but crafting a sci-fi parable where there are no easy choices. What separates us destroys us and that certain details remain vague feels fitting since audiences will just end up projecting their own beliefs and viewpoints onto it anyway. Everyone sees themselves as the hero in their own story, with the film far less interested in the cause of this polarization than its potentially dire consequences.

The United States is in the midst of a civil war and an authoritarian government led by a third-term president and accused fascist (Nick Offerman) is on the verge of surrendering to the Western Alliance, consisting of armed militias from Texas and California. With the entire nation split into various factions, jaded war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and her Reuters colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) plan on driving to Washington D.C. to interview the embattled president. Their mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) views it as a careless suicide mission, but joins in to get a ride to Charlottesville, Virginia's front line. 

Also tagging along is aspiring young photojournalist Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny), who Lee encountered during a previous bombing and is none too happy about "babysitting" on this trip. Soon, all four are thrown headfirst into deadly situations few in any profession would be capable of handling. Evading sniper fire and ruthless militants, they continue their trek to D.C., unsure of the violence that awaits, providing they survive long enough to experience it.

There's no voice-over telling us who's in what faction, why certain states seceded, nor are we given an extensive recap detailing the background. Like the characters, we're just kind of dropped into this hell and given enough respect to figure things out on our own without sermonizing or judgment, making the unfolding atrocities all that much scarier. And while valuable information is frequently dispensed, most of it comes through these journalists as they struggle to objectively navigate this brutal situation. 

Texas and California's union indicates the script isn't tipping its hand in either direction, as it shouldn't since these events are presumed to be taking place in a hypothetical future. That detractors have ignored this is a credit to the film's realism, further supporting its point that a similar scenario is right around the corner if work isn't put in to prevent it. Well beyond politics, wars often begin for crazy, pointless reasons that only seem logical to those who start them, yet always remain preventable before, during and after they're already underway.    

This is far from Lee's first rodeo, mastering the art of compartmentalization because no photograph is off limits. For her, Jessie's presence is an irritant, most likely because the sensitive, inexperienced Missourian represents the younger version of herself she had to leave behind to do this. If Lee's flattered by Jessie's idolization of her, she sure won't show it, which is hardly a surprise coming from someone who admits she wouldn't hesitate photographing her newest protege being killed. And when a traumatized Jessie freezes during a scary gas station encounter, Lee's stone cold reaction only confirms it.

While unquestionably an ensemble effort, it's Dunst's movie, barely hinting what lies beneath Lee's numb outer shell as it finally starts to crack, the lines and expressions on her face telling us everything we need to know. And having recently played a naive, impressionable character thrown into a world she can't comprehend in Priscilla, Spaeny portrays another odd woman out in Jessie, who's underestimated at every turn. Wanting nothing more than to walk in the shoes of her idol, she'll get that chance, but this rite of passage won't be worth celebrating. 

If Jamie represents who Lee was, it's Sammy she fears becoming, and veteran character actor McKinley Henderson plays him with a plainspoken sincerity and wisdom that comes from experiences the rest don't yet have. A New York Times field reporter aging out of his job, he knows the score and despite his awful, sinking feeling about this trip, he's not quite ready to ride off into the sunset. Of the four, Maura's Joel is the risk-taking adventurer, but even he'll realize this is way more than any of them bargained for. None have the luxury of denying reality, unlike the residents of a quaint, unaffected rural town they'll pass through, as if it were a stop in The Twilight Zone.

The film's scariest moment comes when the four encounter a sadistic militia leader played by Jesse Plemons in a brief, terrifying turn that makes his Todd from Breaking Bad seem like a boy scout. It's also the point where Garland draws a line in the sand, forcing us separate the few details we know about this conflict from evil in its purest form. And in a film filled with jarring, unforgettable shots from cinematographer Rob Hardy, this sequence provides its queasiest, paving the way for a brilliantly shot action finale that sees Western Forces descending upon D.C. in search of a secluded president running low on options.

It's hard to believe a picture this gigantic in scope runs just under two hours, but Jake Roberts' editing ensures that the pacing never lags and there's barely a minute to come up for air, with fear and dread intruding on even the quietest of scenes. Zeroing in on the involuntary instincts that kick in when confronted by humanity's worst, these adrenaline-addicted journalists are rightly scared to death, but joined by a shared obsession to tell the story through their lens, whatever the cost. In depicting a nation fraying at the seams, Civil War recognizes the media's reckless ambition, while also acknowledging just how much of themselves get lost in the process. Everyone thinks they're ready, but it isn't until entering the belly of the beast that they'll find out.                                  

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Challengers

Director: Luca Guadignino
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O' Connor, Mike Faist, Darnell Appling, Shane Harris, Nada Despotovich, AJ Lister
Running Time: 131 min.
Rating: R

**The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers For 'Challengers' **

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Luca Guadignino's romantic sports drama Challengers almost has no business being as good as it is, exploring an extremely complicated relationship between three characters that spans over a decade. They fail, succeed, grow and emotionally tear each other to shreds while its non-linear structure serves as a window into their conflicting personalities. And if the use of multiple timelines often come across as narrative gimmicks in lesser instances, this really gets it right, enhancing the story through multiple eras. 

Highlighted by Guadignino's eye-opening directorial flourishes and gripping performances, it also benefits from playwright Justin Kuritzkes' incisive screenplay which along with a thumping, propulsive score from Trent Rezor and Atticus Ross give these proceedings the urgency of a high stakes thriller. With actual tennis scenes that easily eclipse 2005's embarrassing Wimbledon and the mediocre Battle of the Sexes, its action compares more favorably with King Richard. But the real difference comes off court, where this takes a less conventional approach than each, raising the sport's spotty record on screen. By bothering to get into the headspace of these athletes, we get a funny, wildly entertaining ride full of surprising twists that only enhance the love triangle at its center.  

It's 2019 and pro Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) comprises one half of a famous tennis power couple with wife and coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former collegiate standout forced to retire after suffering a knee injury while playing for Stanford. Now with Art a U.S. Open title away from completing his career Grand Slam, he's in a slump, with multiple losses chipping away at his confidence. Thinking Art still has a last run left, Tashi enters her husband as a wild card in a lower level ATP Challenger event in New Rochelle, New York, hoping some wins can return him to top form.

On the other side of the draw is Art's former best friend and junior doubles partner Patrick Zweig (Josh O' Connor), who's barely scraping by on tournament earnings, his pro career marked by disappointment and an inability to move past Art marrying ex-girlfriend Tashi, ending their longtime friendship. With Art having never beaten Patrick, they'll now face off again in the finals with Tashi in the stands, and much more riding on the outcome than just pride and prize money.

When we're first introduced to Tashi and Art, it isn't immediately apparent that the scruffy nobody standing across the net will be his toughest opponent, if only due to their complicated personal history. What appears to be just another match in the opening minutes will start to take on an increased importance, as Guadignino utilizes the dual timelines to constantly inform the trajectories of these three intrinsically linked characters. 

As the disheveled Patrick, O' Connor definitely makes an entrance, begging to stay free at a local motel, sleeping in his car overnight in the club's lot and mooching food off a tournament official. There's a lot of humor in these scenes, mainly because it feels like an authentic, unflattering portrayal of what the bottom of the barrel looks like for a struggling pro, each loss further paving his path to obscurity. And of the three, O' Connor is the most believable player, investing the sometimes explosively tempered Patrick with realistically weird quirks, like his character's unorthodox serve.     

To understand how these former friends got here the film flashes back to 2006 when the newly crowned U.S. Open junior doubles champions become infatuated with up-and-coming prodigy Tashi, who definitely knows it. We're not sure exactly what she's planning when agreeing to stop by their room after a sponsorship event, but a sultry, magnetic Zendaya turns on the sarcastic charm and takes over in these flashback scenes. Tashi slyly pits the two against each other, wrapping them around her finger as things get steamy. But it's more noteworthy for the power dynamic that emerges when she proposes Art and Patrick have a match to earn her number. 

Faist and O' Connor do an exceptional job subtly conveying their characters' distinctive personalities, with the quieter, less experienced Art seeming miles removed from a far less motivated Patrick, the rebellious bad boy used to getting what he wants. They don't necessarily change or worsen when Tashi enters the picture, nor do our opinions budge that they're fairly good guys, but she knows all the buttons, to push, bringing their weakest qualities and biggest insecurities to the surface. 

When Tashi's playing future is wiped out, the first obvious signs of jealousy emerge between friends, forcing us to contemplate the possibility she desperately needs to be with a winner to feel complete, whomever that is at the moment. Patrick's unwillingness to become a "Duncanator" fan club member and his casual dismissal of their relationship turns her off, but him failing as a pro is the bridge too far. 

While Art worships the ground Tashi walks on and takes his feelings for her more seriously, that may  not be a plus. Hardly the white knight, Art's more than willing to stir the pot, planting seeds of doubt in Tashi's mind about his friend's intentions. But we know better, as she and Patrick couldn't be more similar, constantly putting up barriers to hide just how much they really do care, investing nearly all their emotional energy into pretending not to give a damn. 

Despite the extensive training she received by tennis great Brad Gilbert, Zendaya still has to overcome audiences preconceptions enough that they buy her as a top player and coach on screen. It's something fellow Spider-Man alumnae Kisten Dunst and Emma Stone know all about, having both tackled a similar task in their tennis-centric films. But with better editing, direction and material that emphasizes Zendaya's strengths as a performer, most of her rougher patches are smoothed over. 

Ironically enough, Zendaya's best tennis scene is her last, while when Tashi's practicing with Art following her injury, she demands he not hold back, only to painfully realize it's over. She's done. And it's here where the actress seems to fire on all cylinders with the groundstrokes, racquet throw and subsequent tantrum. Yet none of this matters nearly as much as how well she rides the ups and downs of her character's shifting loyalties over the course of thirteen years. 

The brief shot of Tashi sitting under a tree contemplating the enormity of what's happened feels like the film's defining shot, not to mention an inflection point for all three. With Patrick out of the picture, Tashi pours everything she has into Art's career, living vicariously through his accomplishments. More wrenches are thrown into the equation before returning to the pivotal 2019 final. For Art, a loss means not just the end of a career, but possibly his marriage. And for Patrick, this may as well be his last chance at anything.

Filled with slo-mo, crazy POV camera shots from the perspective of the competitors, ball, and even underneath the court, the match hinges on a huge call-back, with Guadignino completely pulling the rug out with a Whiplash-like resolution. He directs the hell out of it, even if many will be thrown by his loose interpretation of the sport's rules, and maybe even the laws of physics itself. But that's the strictly literal reading of a scenario where all three characters are reunited by the addictive thrill of competition that first brought them together. 

The film's hook is how its backstory fills in the blanks, leading us back to where we began, only with more on the line than initially expected. Smart and stylishly made, some might consider Challengers' unpredictable outcome controversial, but it sure has a lot to say about the games people play with each other, both on and off the court.                           

Monday, June 10, 2024

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Director: Gil Kenan
Starring: Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, McKenna Grace, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, William Atherton, Celeste O' Connor, Logan Kim, Emily Alyn Lind, James Acaster
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★½ (out of ★★★★)   

We've been waiting so long for a true Ghostbusters sequel that when Afterlife finally arrived in 2021, it couldn't help but feel a little anticlimactic. With Jason Reitman taking the directorial reigns from his late father, a total overhaul wasn't just necessary, but inevitable, placing him in the difficult spot of rebooting this property with an entirely new plot and fresh characters. Now after mixed results, it earns another go-around with Frozen Empire, as co-writer Gil Kenan steps in, moving the story back to the city where everything started in 1984. 

Reitman's decision to have the previous sequel focus on an Oklahoma based ghost busting team of Spengler grandchildren aided by their mom and science teacher seemed to please more fans than it offended. So even as legacy cast members were sidelined and its ending felt cribbed from the original, it still had enough moments to wipe away the bad taste of Paul Feig's 2016 attempt at reviving the franchise. But despite a familiarly nostalgic setting that does help alleviate certain creative issues, some of the same challenges persist, with the film struggling to utilize its packed cast in what should be a relatively simple, straightforward story. 

Three years after the previous film's events, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon) and boyfriend Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) have moved to New York City with her kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) to help original Ghostbusters Winston (Ernie Hudson) and Ray (Dan Aykroyd) reestablish operations at the old firehouse location. As longtime nemesis turned mayor Walter Peck (William Atherton) looks to shut the business down and jail them for employing an underage Phoebe, she befriends teen ghost Melody (Emily Alyn Lind) in the park, realizing they have more in common than either assumed.

Meanwhile, a man named Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani) claims to have inherited a strange brass artifact from his grandmother and convinces Ray to purchase it for his curiosities shop. But when the team discovers the mysterious orb houses the evil god Garraka, research reveals his release will lead to the recruitment of an undead army to freeze and conquer Earth. With this demon's sights set on the firehouse's ecto-containment unit, the Ghostbusters will need all hands on deck to save the city and world from complete annihilation. 

Packing up and heading to NYC for the follow-up wasn't just an inspired idea, but a necessary one considering that's where this incarnation of the franchise belonged to begin with. Still, it's hard to begrudge Reitman for continuing the story he built around Egon's family, even if parent/teen team isn't exactly what fans envisioned as the next generation of Ghostbusters. Auxiliary players like Lucky (Celeste O' Connor) and Podcast (Logan Kim) are back, but more than a few others are added, like  returning antagonist Peck and another classic favorite in Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts). That the latter's appearance feels more like a cameo is almost a foregone conclusion given everything Kenan and Reitman try to jam in. 

Of the three originals, Akyroyd inexplicably has the largest, most involved role again, though he does well with what he's given. The underused Hudson and Bill Murray believably slide back into their suits, but it's clear they won't factor in until the climax. This is really about the Spenglers, with a script building on that dynamic and including enough callbacks to please fans, like Slimer and those mischievous Mini-Puft marshmallow men. As for the action sequences, they're mostly on par with its predecessor, which is to say they accomplish what's necessary. 

If this demon Garraka looks and feels like it just stepped out of The Upside Down on Stranger Things, the film's also noticeably overstuffed with supporting characters and excess plot. Patton Oswalt's public librarian and James Acaster's Dr. Lars Pinfield (who oversees Winston's new paranormal research center) are superfluous additions while Kumail Nanjiani delivers the same comedic schtick he's been doing in every other project lately. 

Exiled from the team and quietly rebelling from her family, Phoebe's bond with this droll, sarcastic spirit Melody is the film's most successful attempt at meaningful character development, as the relationship carries both positive and negative repercussions for the sensitive teen. Sincere enough that it's almost too dramatic for Ghostbusters movie, her arc is easily the best thing in the sequel, with much of that due to Grace's believable performance.

This installment comes closer to working by superficially invoking vibes similar to the original two. But it's also full of plusses and minuses that put it at or around the same level as Afterlife, if only slightly higher. The good news is that Reitman stepping aside wasn't the red flag many assumed since it's unlikely he could have done any better with this material than his replacement. Enjoyable enough, Frozen Empire is about as good as we're going to get right now, so at least that's something.