A biographical sports drama, triumph-of-the-underdog crowd-pleaser, and video-game “adaptation” all rolled into one, director Neill Blomkamp's Gran Turismo opens this upcoming Friday – though if you reside in the Quad Cities, it's understandable if you thought it actually opened several weeks prior.
Advance previews designed to generate word-of-mouth are nothing new, of course. But I've never seen a release strategy quite like the one that's been prefacing Gran Turismo's official debut, with the film in full, at the Davenport cineplex, being shown at least three times – over three separate days – during the first 10 days of August, and just as many times last week, and just as many this past weekend. (Between Friday and Sunday, a movie that “hasn't opened yet” enjoyed more screenings than the still-running Sound of Freedom and Jules.) A sneak preview or two makes sense, but more than a dozen of them? Isn't Sony Pictures siphoning viewers who otherwise might've shown up for Gran Turismo's premiere and helped buck up its box office, giving the film a fighting chance at dethroning the Barbenheimer behemoth? (To be fair, the new Blue Beetle – see below – did end Barbie's four-weekend B.O. reign.)
Whatever. It's Hollywood, so obviously they know what they're doing. And having caught one of those advance screenings myself, I have a new theory regarding the kind of word-of-mouth Sony may have hoped to generate – the kind that insists to friends “It's not as bad as you think it'll be.” Not that quality, in terms of Gran Turismo's potential earnings, would necessarily have mattered; The Super Mario Bros. Movie is largely steaming-hot garbage and that hasn't stopped it from making in excess of 1.3 billion worldwide. But while I won't go so far as to call Blomkamp's feature good, it's still a pretty-good time, and certainly a better one than those obnoxious here's-the-entire-movie-in-two-minutes trailers suggested.
Heaven knows the casting helps, and Blomkamp's ace in the hole turns out to be British actor Archie Madekwe, the startlingly charismatic 28-year-old who plays this bio-pic's gaming/racing legend Jann Mardenborough. Living at home in the Welsh capitol of Cardiff with his mother (Geri Halliwell), brother (Daniel Puig), and stern father (Djimon Hounsou) who, naturally, can't understand his son's obsession with “this silly video-game business,” university dropout Jann is in desperate need of motivation and direction. He finds both in the announcement of the GT Academy competition – a contest pitting sim drivers, particularly Gran Turismo obsessives, against one another in legitimate race cars, with the champion earning the chance to receive their racing license and compete professionally under Nissan sponsorship. Because of his many hours spent at the arcade and with the simulator game in his bedroom, Jann knows that he has what he takes to win the competition and make his lifelong dreams come true. But does he?
Spoiler alert: He does. Of course he does. And in screenwriters Jason Hall's and Zach Baylin's telling of Jann's tale, not a single incident or event from the well-worn inspirational-sports-flick playbook is unaccounted for. Each connect-the-dots inclusion, meanwhile, is exploited for maximum last-second anxiety. Jann just barely makes it in time for his qualifying simulation contest that he just barely wins. He just barely makes the cut of the main competition's top five and just barely ekes out an ultimate victory. (All of the young man's speedway triumphs, it should go without saying, find his car crossing the finish line, like, a half-millimeter ahead of his rivals.) Jann just barely gets his racing license on his last possible attempt before just barely surviving a catastrophic accident that crushes his morale. He just barely finds the will to compete in France, where he just barely avoids a complete racetrack meltdown. And if you're wondering whether our hero will wind up on the championship podium at the end of the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance test, well … . You know. Suffice it to say that I had fun at this thing. But just barely.
With nothing of originality or invention to be found in the narrative, it's up to Blomkamp and his performers to keep the figurative engine running – and happily, to a large degree, they succeed. Technically, the movie is a marvel. With cinematographer Jacques Jouffret's camera swooping over crowds and speedways and sometimes under banners and into the cars themselves, the film's racing sequences actually resemble a video-game, and one less bound to realism that the Gran Turismo simulator itself. Blomkamp maintains the aesthetic with imaginative visuals that, for instance, turn Jann's three-dimensional vehicles into the imagined ones from his bedroom console, and the director makes sure that we always know the young man's position in varying races via freeze-frames revealing what place he's in and animated arrows and numbers positioned above Jann's cars. (In a witty touch, whenever we view Jann-in-motion from a reverse angle, those numbers are displayed backward.) Add to this the auditorium-shaking sound effects, razor-sharp editing, and engulfing first-person perspectives behind the wheel, and the racetrack scenes are thunderously exciting – or would be if there was ever any doubt about how the competitions would end.
Similarly, you can successfully predict nearly all of the characters' arcs from the moments of their first appearances, be they Jann's chief GT Academy rival (Darren Barnet) who serves as the de facto Iceman to Madekwe's Maverick, or Jann's obligatory love interest (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), or Jann's initially disapproving father, whom you just know will eventually unleash torrents of Djimon Hounsou tears. Aside, however, from those cast as one-note louts – the chiseled competitors who play dirty on the track and taunt Jann with the likes of “Take that, sim boy!” – the actors are so expressive that you barely mind how merely functional their presences are. Although stuck with a confusing role as an ethically compromised yet fundamentally decent corporate suit, Orlando Bloom has been absent from major releases long enough for us to miss him, and with his added years, he's relaxed and winning here; “grinning potential slimeball” turns out to be a great look for the guy. David Harbour could no doubt play gruffly lovable sardonic mentor in his sleep, but he's happily wide awake as Jann's racetrack father figure, giving each of his lines an unexpected spin and contributing the vast majority of the movie's laughs and heart, sometimes in the span of a single sentence.
As for Madekwe, he cuts a singular figure, and Gran Turismo would be a far lesser achievement without him. Tall and thin, with a resplendent smile and a voice much lower than you anticipate, he's both the precise image of an archetypal video-game nerd and an unassuming heartthrob, and he provides dozens of affecting moments: beaming and shrieking with joy at Jann's hard-earned victories; marveling at his trainer's anecdotes and really listening to him; reacting with annihilating sorrow and guilt when told that his car crash resulted in a spectator's death. (On that subject, Blomkamp's film does engage in a particularly gross bit of chronology-tinkering, as the accident recounted here actually took place years after Mardenborough's Le Mans debut and not, as the film tells it, as a months-before impediment on his way to Le Mans.) Madekwe is even convincing as someone who preps for his competitions by listening to Kenny G and Enya, and I can't remember the last time a performer gave such depth to his delivery of the simple question “How?” Gran Turismo is okay. When Archie Madekwe is around – which, blessedly, is almost all the time – you may be fooled into thinking it's much, much finer than that.
A nonthreatening, sweet-faced kid finds a magical tchotchke and turns into a superhero. You may think you've seen this movie before. “Yes!” I can hear DC Studios executives saying. “But you haven't seen it with Latinos!”
I really, truly hate feeling this cynical about Blue Beetle, partly because representation should of course extend to the entire cinematic-comic-book universe, and partly because any excuse to see Adriana Barraza in a significant role is a good one. I also believe that director Angel Manuel Solo and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer – granting the titular costumed crime fighter his first feature since the character's original iteration debuted in 1939 – had worthy intentions beyond box-office domination. Yet as much as I enjoyed the employment of frequently subtitled dialogue and the references to Latino entertainments and pop-culture figures I previously hadn't heard of, I couldn't help feeling that the only interesting thing about this DC-B-team entry was its hero's ethnicity. Remove the Mexican-American Reyes family's cheerful squabbling and sentimental monologues about the importance of family and what you're left with is a sub-par Shazam! that doesn't celebrate its characters' heritage so much as embrace stereotypical assumptions about that heritage. Not to suggest that Solo and Dunnet-Alcocer may not have had complete creative control over their DC Studios project, but I pray that having George Lopez drive around in a low-riding truck called “The Taco” whose horn blares the “La Cucaracha” theme was someone else's idea.
Regarding the other ideas in Blue Beetle, they fall somewhere between expected and lame and expectedly lame. As I've likely raised the hackles of the comics-devout from my first sentence, I should mention that the metallic blue beetle itself isn't a “tchotchke,” but rather an alien life form that melds with our young hero's body (or something), effectively turning Jaime Reyes – who made his comic-book debut in 2006 – into a less-disgusting Venom, at least if you don't look at his back. Yet everything else appears equally caked in been-there/done-that mothballs: the slapstick scenes of Jaime (Xolo Maridueña, as endearing, pretty, and bland here as he is on Cobra Kai) awkwardly attempting to harness his powers; the character-building tragic death that's entirely foreshadowed in the eventual victim's first appearance; the battle of wills between Susan Sarandon's power-mad Big Tech CEO Victoria Cord and Bruna Marquezine as her socially conscious niece Jenny. (Is it intended as irony that, of all the film's cast members, Sarandon is the only one acting as though she's in a particularly soapy telenovela?)
In fairness, the chief villain, a scarred Robocop played by Raoul Max Trujillo, is allowed some unexpectedly poignant backstory in the film's final 10 minutes. But this moderate surprise doesn't begin to make up for the movie's many sad bummers, beginning with said bad guy's comic-book-balloon exclamation of “You should have killed me when you had the chance!” To that list I think you can add the absolutely unconvincing burgeoning romance between Jaime and Jenny; Lopez's Uncle Rudy being a genius-level computer whiz who – due to racism, I guess? – spends his unemployment ensconced on the Reyes-family couch; and, whenever our perspective shifts to the inside of Blue Beetle's helmet, poor Maridueña only being allowed to emote with his eyes. (At least we got Robert Downey Jr.'s full face in Iron Man garb, and whomever is in the Batman outfit gets to also act with his mouth and chin.) Were it not for Barraza, who's traditionally wonderful as the sweetly doddering Reyes grandma who knows her way around advanced weaponry, I might not have had the energy to leave the theater and bemoan the unpolished effects, deadening storyline, and threat of Blue Beetle sequels. Alas, here we are. Even in an umpteenth superhero adventure, marginalized demographics deserve stronger representation than this.
In the trailers for Greta Gerwig's summertime smash, her movie was smartly, accurately advertised with the following: “If you love Barbie, this is the movie for you. If you hate Barbie, this is the movie for you.” I'm both disappointed and thrilled that the same approach wasn't embraced for director Josh Greenbaum's profane-talking-dog comedy Strays, albeit with “A Dog's Purpose” or “A Dog's Journey” in the place of “Barbie.” Had there been advance reference to either of those excruciatingly cloying puppy-love sagas, I likely wouldn't have laughed quite to hard when Josh Gad, the voice of those films' frequently reincarnated canine, delivered Strays voice-over as a devoted pet whose serial-killer owner sweet-talks ladies in order to murder them. And I wouldn't have practically fallen out of my theater seat cackling when Purpose and Journey star Dennis Quaid showed up, marveled at the sight of a mid-air eagle with two dogs dangling from its talons, and said, “That's the craziest shit I've ever seen. And I've seen some shit! I'm Dennis Quaid!”
The Strays previews you perhaps did see don't leave any confusion as to what the movie, in full, will entail: A neglected and abused Border Terrier named Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) is dropped off and left for dead hundreds of miles from home by the worst's most hateful human (a bravely loathsome Will Forte); a trio of similarly unappreciated canines (Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park) take the newly abandoned Reggie under their wing; and the pack eventually heads back to Reggie's former owner so the enlightened pup can, in his own words, “bite his dick off.” Call me an easy target, but that premise boasts more than enough comedic promise for a 90-minute, dirty-minded slapstick, especially when the talking-animal effects are as spectacularly rendered as they are here. As usual in works boasting this sort of trickery, the feelings evinced by the dogs' eyes don't always match what (generally crude) sentiments pour from their mouths. But they mostly do – and nearly always do in Reggie's case – and the obscene amount of animal-wrangling work that clearly went into the pups' choreography is a live-action feat as visually astounding, in its way, as James Cameron's Avatars. That professionals toiled so hard merely to give audiences an hour-and-a-half of unapologetically raunchy shenanigans is one of those things that occasionally makes me want to give all of Hollywood - and especially the seemingly unassailble producing team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord - a collective bear hug.
There's definitely some repetition, and the humping jokes, in particular, tend to get a bit strained. I otherwise adored Greenbaum's followup to his pricelessly silly Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and screenwriter Dan Perrault – who won a deserved Peabody Award for his excellent Netflix mockumentary series American Vandal – not only evidently loves but gets dogs, providing endlessly funny, relatable bits about, among numerous other idiosyncrasies, their fear of fireworks, hatred of mail-deliverers, incessant need to spin three times before going to sleep, and humans' obsession with putting puppy poop in plastic bags. (Foxx's conspiracy-minded Boston Terrier Bug – who instantly emerges as one of the actor's most joyfully deranged comedy roles – is convinced that people use dog feces to make chocolate, which is why dogs are denied the chance to taste it.) While Ferrell is again in cheerfully clueless Elf mode, it's amusing and fitting, and as Foxx, Fisher, and Park supply the belly laughs, Reggie gives Greenbaum's four-legged gross-out significant heart. Barring a few unwise narrative detours and the typically phlegmatic, blessedly brief appearance of Fleabag's Brett Gelman, I don't merely want to praise Strays. I want to freaking adopt it.
RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE, OF AN AGE, and CLOSE
For reasons both banal and significant-but-not-worth-getting-into, I've had neither impetus nor opportunity lately to simply “Netflix and chill” – or, in the case of the three titles under consideration here, to “Prime, Prime, Showtime, and chill.” But I had the chance this past weekend, and was consequently able to watch, with full attention, the gay romantic comedy Red, White, & Royal Blue, the gay romantic drama Of an Age, and the gay foreign-language tragedy Close. Did my avoidance of streaming titles last longer than I thought and it's now actually next June's Pride Month?
You may have heard of, or have already seen, Prime's recently released Red, White, & Royal Blue, an adaptation of Casey McQuiston's 2019 novel that imagines a world in which the American president's gay son falls in love with, and finds that love reciprocated by, the equally hunky son of the king of England. Now that's a hook – for queer and straight rom-com fans alike, I'd imagine. Yet how high can your praise of a romantic comedy be when you only want to praise its dramatic angles? The impracticality and potential impossibility of a union between First Son Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez) and British Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) is handled with surprising bluntness for this genre, even if the scandal is made manifest by a prototypically scurrilous queer journalist (Juan Castano's Miguel Ramos) who conveniently avoids any personal involvement in the social-media mess. (As bitchy male villains go, Miguel doesn't approach the camp nastiness embodied by the cabal that caused Jennifer Coolidge, in the most recent season of The White Lotus, to exclaim, “These gays! They're trying to kill me!”) To the credit of director Matthew López and his co-screenwriter Ted Malawer, RW&RB eventually treats its leads and their situation with dignity.
Too bad the same can't be said for the rest of the film, which too-often suffers from sophomoric they-hate-each-other-until-they-love-each-other flippancy, tired slapstick plotting, and a crippling lack of spontaneity demonstrated by no one giving a line reading that suggests they're saying words for the very first time. The personality-challenged Zalcar Perez and Galitzine finally get an acceptable rom-com rhythm going after nearly an hour of tedious peek-a-boo, but by then it's way too late to care, and despite the late arrival of Stephen Fry, the only true enjoyment I got from Red, White, & Royal Blue was Uma Thurman's turn as the President of the United States. Theoretically, her casting shouldn't raise an eyebrow; I'd sure as hell vote for her. For anything. But when you blend Thurmna's regal appearance with a purportedly Texan drawl that sounds dipped in a New Orleans mint julep, there's nothing to do but sit back and luxuriate in the exaggerated, honey-voiced ridiculousness of it all. Forget the semi-nude Zalcar Perez and Galitzine kissing and engaging in discreet intercourse – Uma Thurman's performance is what gay dreams are made of.
From fantasy we go to hard-edged reality – if, that is, you can accept the reality of an actor cast as a 17-year-old looking more believably like a 30-year-old. This was my principal hindrance to enjoying the first three-fifths of writer/director Goran Stolevski's emotionally overwhelming Of an Age, which I regretfully wasn't able to catch when it debuted at Iowa City's FilmScene earlier this year. It's also streaming now on Prime, and that age issue aside, this Australian drama is a minor miracle – one of the most deeply felt gay love stories I've seen since Brokeback Mountain, right up there with 2011's genre standard-bearer Weekend. If the movie also brings to mind Richard Linklater's trilogy-starter Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset, that's probably not accidental.
Of an Age's story couldn't be simpler: Due to the reckless indiscretion of his longtime bestie and dance partner Ebony (Hattie Hook), the car-less high-school senior Nikolai (Elias Anton) is forced to pick the drunken girl up – and miss their scheduled Big Deal dance performance – with Ebony's brother Adam (Thom Green) in the driver's seat. A full third of Stolevski's movie is that ride to and from their destination, a journey in which the casually out Adam and the closeted Nikolai hesitantly yet irrevocably bond. After that, there's a party, and then a drive home from the party, and an early-morning union, and an aftermath to that union … at which point I began weeping buckets of tears. And we hadn't even gotten to the emotionally overwhelming “11 years later” followup yet.
Getting the dispiriting news out of the way, Anton is nowhere near credible as someone who isn't legally allowed to vote, and no amount of endearingly bashful looks and attempts at subtly hungry adolescent longing can quite overcome that deficiency. It's also unfortunate that Hook's Ebony has been so nakedly designed as a plot device, her inebriated confusion being the reason our romantic leads initially meet, and her probably unwise wedding being the reason they reconnect. Yet Of an Age is still a total swoon. Despite his early miscasting, as Anton is absolutely right for the role when portraying Nikolai as a 28-year-old, the performer is entirely believable and heart-wrenching as a bullied Australian transplant whose faux smarts (complete with opinions on books he's never read) and “Yeah, bro, whatevs” nonchalance don't fool anyone, least of all Adam, for a second. Green, meanwhile, may resemble a more-handsome Aaron Paul, but staggering sex appeal exudes from his every glance, reading, and tortured silence, and when the disarmingly thoughtful and considerate Adam's heart breaks at the prospect of losing Nikolai (twice), damn if yours doesn't break, too. If the climax to Of an Age feels unduly rushed, and is does, that's likely only because of greed. I would have happily spent love-challenged time with these two Melbourne natives for far longer than the 99 minutes we're allowed.
I suppose it's unfair to classify writer/director Lukas Dhont's Close under the umbrella of recently viewed “gay movies” considering that neither of its two middle-school protagonists – intimate best friends Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) – verbally identifies himself as homosexual. But the specter of that possible truth hovers over everything that happens in this 2022 Academy Award nominee for Best International Film (currently streaming on Showtime), a quietly devastating drama whose mid-film “plot twist” would only be considered manipulative – an adjective that several prominent critics have accused the film of being – if you consider it to be a mere part of the movie's story. It's not. It is the movie's story.
Every queer audience (and, I'm presuming, most straight ones) will inherently understand, and hopefully empathize with, Dhont's and co-screenwriter Angelo Tjssens' tale of a friendship between youths that falls apart when Léo realizes it might be wiser, in gaining peer acceptance, to focus on his ice-hockey pursuits rather than attend Rémi's oboe recitals. (Everyone the boys initially meet at their new school assumes them to be boyfriends.) Léo's choice ultimately, if unwittingly, leads to tragedy, and the weight of Close becomes almost crushing, reminding you of every child – and you may have been one yourself – forced to confront and assume bone-deep responsibility for actions they weren't responsible for.
I may now have effectively scared you off from Dhont's movie, and despite the early moments of levity, it is indeed an uncomfortable sit. But like Fran Kranz's masterful school-shooting drama Mass from a couple years ago, this deep-dive into discomforting subject matter winds up nearly cleansing in its emotional accuracy. Dambrine floods his character with so much aching, un-showy feeling – watch his tears silently drop as he's outfitted with an arm cast – that he brings to mind the age-equivalent Christian Bale in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, and his castmates and director are working on an evidently even playing field. (Igor van Dessel is particularly lovely as Léo's consoling older brother.) Close – which I also unfortunately missed during its FilmScene residency earlier this year – may be too sad to watch twice. I was grateful to have seen it even once.