Mark Wahlberg and Ukai in Arthur the King

Most people, I think, would agree that box-office returns aren't necessarily an indicator of quality; if they were, Madame Web would be almost five times the artistic achievement that The Zone of Interest is. But it was still a bit disheartening to discover that of the five movies I caught over the weekend, the two I most enjoyed were the titles most likely to leave the area when the new Ghostbusters gobbles up screens this upcoming Friday.

In order from highest-grossing to lowest- … and also in ascending order of enjoyment … .


Imagine if Benji starred in an inordinately long and pricey Mountain Dew ad that was designed to win its pooch an Oscar. That's Arthur the King, a fat slab of manufactured uplift by director Simon Cellan Jones and screenwriter Michael Brandt. There's no denying the sentimental pull of the true story it's based on, in which a team of adventurers gets an unanticipated mascot: a stray dog from the Dominican Republic who tags along through much of their 435-mile endurance race. How the mixed-breed mutt manages to catch up with the competitors who've already been running, cycling, mountain climbing, and zip-lining for hundreds of miles (and roughly half the film's running length) remains a mystery. The bigger question is why the christened Arthur would want to hang with these folks, given that headliner Mark Wahlberg's aggressively obnoxious performance transforms what should've been a sweet, simple heartstring-tugger into an insufferable display of grandstanding.

Wahlberg can be a delight in comedies, and his inherent brashness has served him well in dramas directed by Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David O. Russell. But earnestness and sensitivity don't come naturally to the guy, and Wahlberg works so hard at approximating sincerity here that everything he says sounds desperately insincere. In a prelude set three years before the Dominican Republic race, our introduction to his Michael Light reveals the adventurer to be an arrogant blowhard whose egotism costs his team their presumed victory. Arthur the King is consequently a redemption saga about a man who has to learn to treat others, even a feisty pup, as equals. Yet the narrative arc doesn't take, because Wahlberg's overacting italicizes Michael's every moment of personal growth, and the thuddingly obvious dialogue and score (the latter by composer Kevin Matley) don't do the star any favors. We're made so aggressively aware of Michael's betterment through T-shirt-ready sloganeering, pushy music cues, and Wahlberg raising his voice to a whispery high tenor when talking to Arthur that no one, not even the dog, is allowed to be Michael's equal.

There's one moderately suspenseful set piece in Jones' film, when one of Michael's teammates (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) gets trapped high above a valley halfway through a ziplining attempt. And only a dyed-in-the-wool cat fanatic might be underwhelmed by the Australian shepherd/border collie/bouvier mix Ukai who portrays Arthur, and whose replication of a wounded front leg is more convincing than Wahlberg's replication of tears. (The actor's screen suffering always has the strangest effect on me, as the wetter Wahlberg's eyes get, the drier mine get.) Yet there isn't a surprise to be found in the whole of Jones' very long 105 minutes – except maybe when Michael returns home from overseas and is so concerned about Arthur that he forgets to hug or kiss his awaiting five-year-old daughter – and poor Simu Liu is stuck in an unfunny “funny sidekick” role as a self-absorbed Instagram celeb who, like Michael, has to be taken down a peg or two. There's nothing inherently unpalatable about corny, lump-in-the-throat melodrama, but what we're subjected to in Arthur the King isn't corn. It's merely corn starch.

Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding


Whatever else it is, writer/director Rose Glass' Love Lies Bleeding is certainly one of the weirder major releases I've seen in years – and perhaps ever, considering that I can't think of any other violent crime thrillers that turn into comedies 20 minutes before their end credits roll. Or was this a comedy all along and Glass and co-screenwriter Weronika Tofilska simply forgot to include the jokes?

With the film set in Nowheresville, New Mexico in 1989, Kristen Stewart plays Lou, a restless gym manager whose boring day-to-day is enlivened considerably by the arrival of Jackie (Katy O'Brian), an intimidatingly buff bodybuilder who appears from out of state to train for a competition in Las Vegas. In short order, the women have sex and fall hard for one another. Their burgeoning romance, however, is quickly tested by the actions of two of Lou's relatives: her father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), the local bad-ass who apparently controls the town and its police force, and her brother-in-law J.J. (Dave Franco), who tends to mercilessly beat Lou's sister Beth (Jena Malone). Adding the meth addict (Anna Baryshnikov's Daisy) who carries a torch for Lou, that's pretty much the full list of significant Love Lies Bleeding characters, and it's easy to cite the movie's influences: James M. Cain; the Coen brothers of Blood Simple; 1958's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. (I'm not kidding.) It's also easy to have fun at Glass' controlled, confident blend of period noir and modern A24 flourishes – at least for a while. Stewart and O'Brian share sizzling chemistry, the atmosphere is rife with suggestions of pungent debauchery, and Ed Harris is as quietly, hypnotically malevolent as he's ever been despite Lou Sr.'s flowing brown locks (occasionally tied into a ponytail) that might constitute the absolute worst wig a revered actor has ever sported onscreen. So maybe Glass and Tofilska didn't leave out all the jokes.

Yet following a particularly grisly murder, the nasty kick of the movie begins to slowly yet irrevocably leak away – which is odd, because it seems to happen in conjunction with the script discovering its previously hidden funny bone. That killing leads to a series of near-slapstick scenarios involving Lou attempting to cover up the crime and shift potential blame to someone else. Lou's labors, however, grow increasingly implausible, if not downright impossible, and the detour involving Jackie's bodybuilding competition, though initiated as a major plot thread, turns out to have almost no bearing on the narrative. By the time two theoretically intelligent FBI agents investigated Lou's apartment yet didn't bother to ask why the couch was pushed out a full two feet from the wall, and Jackie was enduring steroid-fueled hallucinations, and Ed Harris was munching on a live bug, I had given up trying to fathom what tone Love Lies Bleeding was going for. All I knew for certain was that it was requiring Stewart, a master of minimalism, to begin acting with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety, and that Lou was seemingly becoming aware that her life was a farce – a revelation that didn't match the film's former adamance that it was, in truth, a tragedy. The whole thing is kind of like Ed Harris' ponytail: unexpected, yes, and somewhat amusing, but also so, so wrong.

Anthony Hopkins in One Life


Lots of moviegoers, several of whom were clearly in my Arthur the King auditorium, reflexively sniffle at courageous-dog sagas. Others get weepy at YA romances involving fatal diseases. What immediately initiates my own cinematic sob-fests is the sight of Anthony Hopkins crying. I can't stand it. All it takes is me thinking about the Oscar winner in the last minutes of The Father and I'm too watery-eyed to see the laptop document in front of me. (Not that, you know, this happened just now or anything … .) So if you, too, have this instant reaction to Sir Tony losing it on-screen, be apprised that director James Hawes' One Life finds its star discreetly wiping away tears several times, as well as briefly bawling outright. I'd say it's a shame that the rest of Hawes' biographical drama doesn't approach the emotional gut punch delivered by Hopkins, but it's also probably for the best. Ushers would have to escort audience members out of the theater with a squeegee and a mop.

With its bifurcated narrative by screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake based on a memoir by its subject's daughter Barbara Winton, One Life finds both Hopkins and Johnny Flynn portraying English stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who engineered a system to take Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s and set them up in British foster homes. It's an astounding piece of World War II history, partly because Winton was so self-effacing about his miraculous humanitarian mission that he waited nearly 50 years to inform the public of it – and even then it wasn't Winton who shared the story. (Rather, it was the team behind the popular BBC series That's Life!, a reality-based program largely known, and frequently derided, for its cheesy comedy bits.) The focus of Hawes' film is split in two, with roughly half of its time spent with Flynn's Winton in the '30s, demonstrating how the life-saving process was initiated and carried through, and the other half devoted to Hopkins' septuagenarian Winton, in 1988, as he struggles with finding the proper home for his scrapbook of achievements and heartbreaking personal failures. The '30s portion engaged me. The '80s portion wrecked me.

The only significant detriment here is one that many, if not most, of its viewers will actually consider a perk, because if there were a dictionary entry for “Handsomely Produced British Character Drama,” a still from One Life would likely accompany it. Hawes' staging is conventional, his pacing unhurried, his approach resolutely unthreatening; it's a coffee-table movie. With '30s-era Winton so sheepish and admirably modest, there's also little evident passion or electricity even when the material demands it, and Hawes lingers perhaps a bit too long on the downtrodden faces of the soon-to-be refugees. It's important to understand how haunted the elder Winton is by the faces of those he did and didn't save, but the litany of traumatized-child closeups veers dangerously close to overt manipulation.

That said, the acting in the WWII segments is first-rate – in addition to Flynn, we get Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, and Alex Sharp – and barring an unconvincing setup to Winton's first That's Life! appearance, just about everything in the '80s segments works terrifically well. This includes the contributions of Lena Olin as Winton's wife Greta, Marthe Keller as the instrumental wife of a media magnate, and, in a wondrous one-scene cameo, Jonathan Pryce as a member of Winton's original escape-strategy team who remained a decades-long friend. (Hopkins and Pryce exude the same relaxed, playful chemistry – iconic actors exuding absolute joy in their profession and their shared company – that they demonstrated in 2019's The Two Popes.) Needless to say, though, it's Hopkins who makes the whole of One Life fly, filling his Nicholas Winton with so much expressiveness, motivation, and staggering empathy that the apparent ease of the achievement is nearly breathtaking. At age 86, the stage and screen legend hardly needs to keep giving topnotch, complexly thought-out performances; Hopkins has already given us more than his share. But here's hoping he never stops.

Justice Smith in The American Society of Magical Negroes


In all honesty, I'm more than a little baffled by the collective critical “meh” unleashed upon writer/director Kobi Libii's The American Society of Magical Negroes, because the movie appears to be getting dinged for being exactly what I loved it for: edgy social satire positioned within the strict confines of, as Ted Lasso would call it, “rom-communism.” On Rotten Tomatoes, where the film is currently sitting with an undesirable 30-percent “freshness” rating, the site's consensus calls the comedy “too timid to fully engage with its most provocative ideas.” But it's about a timid guy. And the magical-Negro trope is based on characters expressly designed to not provoke. And I thought Libii's feature debut delivered among the funniest, smartest, sweetest, most surprising two hours I've spent at the cineplex in ages. It even produced a climactic visual punchline so clever and unexpected that it inspired half of our screening's patrons, myself included, to applaud. I'm betting the other two patrons enjoyed the gag, as well.

Justice Smith, in a role that would've made him an instant star if enough people bothered to see his work, plays 27-year-old Aren, a fledgling fiber artist so cripplingly deferential that he can't cross the lobby at his own art-gallery showcase without apologizing to a half-dozen (white) attendees for being in their flow of traffic. His obsequious shyness catches the eye of the event's bartender Roger (a sublime David Alan Grier), who eventually reveals that he's part of the titular national cabal: a group dedicated to keeping white folks as stress-free as possible in the hopes of making everyone's lives more tolerable. This is, it should go without saying, a risky comic gambit – Libii suggesting, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the best way for Blacks to survive among Caucasians is through flattery, fawning, and the complete eradication of their own personalities and desires. And after he's admitted into the society himself and granted the supernatural powers accompanying the position, Aren discovers precisely what a hardship that will be when his appointed mission is to make life more fulfilling for society “client” Jason (the perfectly cast Drew Tarver of HBO's The Other Two), an obliviously entitled software designer who has his eyes on Aren's new crush Lizzie (An-Li Bogan).

Well before the rom-com aspects of TASoMN kicked in, I had already laughed at Libii's satire, by rough estimate, about a zillion times. Almost every one of Smith's incredulous asides and Grier's bombastic pronouncements elicited giggles, while the visualized spoofs of such magical-Negro “classics” as The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile were nothing short of uproarious. (Later in the film, we're also given a satisfying zing at Driving Miss Daisy.) While I'll agree with some reviewers that the specifics behind the society's magical powers is sketchy, the Harry Potter-esque universe-building is a consistent riot – Nicole Byer is essentially cast as Dumbledore – and that deadpan dynamo Michaela Watkins effectively steals all of her scenes as Aren's clueless real-job supervisor.

But while the movie is scoring points for its wickedly sharp commentary on socialized race relations circa right now, it's also producing a genuinely endearing and affecting (initially platonic) romance between Aren and Lizzie, the latter of whom Bogan portrays with spectacular natural sass and warmth. Contrary to some reviewers' opinions, I'd argue that Libii's satire isn't unfortunately consumed by the romantic-comedy angle. It's fulfilled by it, because it's Aren's building jealousy of Jason – the privileged d-bag who gets everything he ever wanted without working for any of it – that makes the artist question the entire, offensive notion of the worth, the need, for the “magical Negro” stereotype. Toward the end of the movie, Smith delivers a speech that's not unlike America Ferrera's famed Barbie monologue in terms of voiced representation, and damned if I wasn't moved to tears by the eloquence and fire of Aren's deservedly righteous anger. Libii's movie isn't timid. It's about the perils of timidity, and that's hardly the same thing. I can't wait to see The American Society of Magical Negros again. But if you want to see it yourself on the big screen, I'd suggest getting there fast.

Conor Sherry and Gabriel LaBelle in Snack Shack


When I first saw Gabriel LaBelle as the chief protagonist of The Fabelmans, I was awed by his channeling of a young Steven Spielberg, but also wondered how this obviously gifted Canadian would ever work again without immediately conjuring memories of Teen Steve. Writer/director Adam Carter Rehmeier's Snack Shack gives us the answer: by LaBelle swerving so far from the earnestness and delicacy of The Fabelmans as to produce whiplash. I've honestly never seen a 180-degree pivot quite like this, especially with an actor who only recently turned 21. Within his first 60 seconds as a horny, conniving, effortlessly magnetic 14-year-old in Rehmeier's surreptitiously moving comedy, LaBelle talks a mile a minute, hungrily puffs on a cigarette, argues the odds at a dog race like a seasoned Damon Runyan smoothie, and performs so many aural gymnastics on the word “f---” that he'd easily win an Olympic event dedicated to the feat. I was floored that I wound up adoring a movie titled Snack Shack. I was even more floored to realize that, in a movie titled Snack Shack, Gabriel LaBelle was treating us to maybe the year's most unexpectedly stunning screen performance to date.

I'm well aware that I'm likely building expectations too high for what is, at heart, an agreeably slapdash teens-hanging-out-in-the-summer-of-'91 flick, one that finds LaBelle's Moose and Conor Sherry's A.J. acting as burgeoning entrepreneurs when they take over the abandoned concession stand at their Nebraskan public pool. (In one of several gags that local viewers will appreciate, the besties get in serious trouble early on by sneaking off from their field trip to spend time in Iowa.) As in Richard Linklater's genre masterpiece Dazed & Confused and more specfically 2009's undersung Adventureland, not much and yet everything happens to its young heroes, who learn a lot about life and love while, in no particular order, getting drunk, getting high, swimming, smoking, enduring the wrath of bullies, getting revenge on bullies, and falling head over heels for a slightly older teen – a lifeguard hottie with a car! – who appears to like and loathe the boys in equal measure. If you're going to get hung up on the abject ridiculousness of two 14-year-olds running a legitimate business that no 14-year-olds would ever, in a million years, be entrusted with, much the way some people I know couldn't buy Cooper Hoffman's central character in Licorice Pizza, Snack Shack will definitely not be the movie for you. That's okay. The rest of us will be having a ball.

For close to half of the film's admittedly indulgent 112 minutes, the mood is pure slapstick mayhem. The buddies' “playful” punches to the throat and groin land with such punishingly loud force that you wonder if most of Rehmeier's comedy will take place in an ER, and no adults or kids seem to notice or mind when Moose concludes Snack Shack transactions by telling the youths to “Get the f--- out of here!” (That's one of his kinder adieus.) But slowly, almost imperceptively, the giddy tone somewhat darkens, and we realize that real-life consequences may be awaiting the dudes' seemingly innocuous interactions with both each other and those in their periphery, among them that lifeguard Brooke (a profanely beguiling Mika Abdalla) and the college-bound family friend Shane (the wonderful Nick Robinson, who appears to have been consuming nothing but protein shakes since his 2018 breakout in Love, Simon). Even A.J.'s parents, played by don't-know-the-name-but-definitely-know-the-face character aces David Costabile and Gillian Vigman reveal hidden depths, and when a tragedy landed in the final act and the camera circled A.J. and Moose in a fierce hug of sadness and apology, I found myself emotionally undone. (It'll be tough for another 2024 couple to match the exquisitely rendered bromance between Sherry and LaBelle.) Rehmeier's indie outing, which averaged a lowly $686 per screen on its opening weekend, may already have left the area by the time you finish reading this. But remember the title: Snack Shack. Fun to say. Way more fun to watch.

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