Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Film Reviews: In the Multiplex, a Sports Drama x Shaggy Dog Film = Family Fun (“Arthur The King”) While Two Wildly Different Queer Love Stories (“Love Lies Bleeding” and “Glitter & Doom") Should Satisfy the Art House Crowd

Arthur the King (c) Carlos Rodriguez, courtesy of Lionsgate

Film: Arthur The King 
In Cinemas 

Mark Wahlberg is becoming the John Wayne of the 21st Century in a way that he always seems to pick “Dad-film” projects, which occasionally Venn diagrams with family fare. Arthur The King is probably the best example. This film is an uneasy gerrymandering of a sports movie (an Adventure Racing endurance competition, which this film equates to whatever it is that Bear Grylls is known for) and a shaggy dog story, the kind where Michael Light (Wahlberg) and the dog he dubs Arthur (because like all kings, he lets his subjects eat first – umm, ok) appear to know exactly what the other is thinking. So, there’s a lot of shots of Mike looking concerned at Arthur or Arthur barking portentously at Mike’s team to not go down a path. But in-between these dog cuteness overloads are testosterone-filled sections in which Michael feels he is not a complete man unless he wins this Adventure Race marathon in Costa Rica, which he humiliatingly lost during a team meltdown a few years back. So, he assembles a ragtag team of underdogs (pun intended), like expert rock climber Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel) and the veteran, injury-riddled Chik (Ali Suliman), who people keep asked about his Chekov’s knee. Mark also has to eat crow and try to recruit his former teammate (the one involved in the meltdown) now influencer Liam (a self-deprecating Simu Liu, the film’s VIP of the two-legged variety). The best sequence of this first half is this breathtaking scene that takes place on a zip-line, expertly executed by director Simon Cellen Jones. But then a shaggy stray Arthur (played by the “who’s a good dog” Ukai) joins the group as the honorary fifth member of the team, and the corniness factor is exponentially ramped up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the tonal shift is a bit jarring. The dog sections work, but it takes up so much oxygen in the last half of the film that the finale of the race is almost an afterthought. There’s a lot of fudging to make this a Mark Wahlberg joint (the real Mike Light is Swedish), but ultimately it delivers what it promises: a film the whole family will enjoy, with the only queasy, ick moment being a popped blister (I looked away), although your tolerance for a dog in peril may also be tested. 

Side note: Mark Wahlberg’s Michael is probably as manically driven to win as Annette Bening’s Nyad but somehow, we still find him likable even when he’s driving his friends crazy. It seems like a sexist double standard to me, but maybe if Nyad swam with a dog telepathically linked to her on the boat, cheering her on, the audience would have embraced her as well. 

Love Lies Bleeding (c) A24

Film: Love Lies Bleeding 
In Cinemas 

A few years back, the French film Titane won the Palm d’Or prize at Cannes and started award-season speculation that this sweaty, erotic, body-horror drama by Julia Ducournau could get an Oscar nomination. I never thought the conservative Academy members would ever go for a movie with a main character having sexual encounters with cars. The same reception, unfortunately, will befall Love Lies Bleeding, a sort of Titane-lite lesbian love story that may include Kristen Stewart’s best performance as well as moments that are the most effective deterrent to steroid use. Stewart plays Lou, a grungy manager of a gym (we see her unclogging a toilet with her hands at the start of the movie – subtle this movie is not) who hates her life in New Mexico but stays to be a guardian angel to her sister Beth (Jena Malone), who is married to a physically abusive lout (Dave Franco) and also seems to be clueless about the criminal activities of their menacing father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris, unfashionably quaffed with all the action-in-the back). Enter Jackie (the vibrant Katy O’Brian, channeling her inner Jennifer Beals), a firecracker bodybuilder who is willing to do anything to get to a competition in Vegas, including working at Lou, Sr.’s gun range. The moment the younger Lou meets Jackie at the gym there is immediate electricity, and they soon become entangled in each other’s lives. Director Rose Glass (Saint Maud) then sets our lovers onto a dark and dangerous scheme that includes sex, drugs, violence and the FBI that spirals into over-the-top, Tarantino territory that shouldn’t work, but keeps you enthralled as you realize you haven’t exhaled during some of the more gruesome plot mechanicians and its aftermath. But there is a breaking point to all this, and the finale takes a sort of metaphorical approach that might be a bridge too far. Throughout it all, however, is the dynamic Kristen Stewart, who always seems to be both an introvert and perpetually on edge, even when petting her cat. This role is as far away as she could possibly get from her Oscar-nominated role as Princess Diana in Spencer. At first, she seems impulsive and unpredictable, but as the plot spins out of control, her Lou turns out to be the levelheaded one, which is an impressive acting feat. Katy O’Brian is also a revelation (I only knew her from The Mandalorian) and her chemistry with Stewart is palpable, although her character becomes unrealistically unhinged in the third act just to move the story along. This is a wild ride that may not be for everybody, but I found it a successful mix of Bound, Thelma and Louise and Kill Bill

Glitter & Doom (c) Music Box Films

Film: Glitter & Doom 
In Cinemas 

Gay cinema has never been as twee and enjoyable as it is “Glitter and Doom,” the latest film by director Tom Gustafson, whose husband and screenwriter Cory Krueckeberg wrote the film as a tribute to their own relationship, focuses more on the glitter and less on the doom (although doom always feels like it’s lurking in the shadows, personified by the young protagonists’ mothers, played with uneasy sweetness by Ming-Na Wen and Missi Pye). Oh, did I mention that our young star-crossed lovers are named Glitter (Alex Diaz) and Doom (Alan Cammish)? Yup. Glitter is a clown-in-training who dreams of studying at the Ecole de Cirque in Paris, while Doom is a carpenter by day and aspiring singer-songwriter by dream. And since this is a musical (yup), these songs are great as they are all thankfully from the Indigo Girls songbook. Although there’s nothing inherently Indigo Girls about the story (it doesn’t follow a plot of any of their songs, even the title is from a Tom Waits album), the duo’s imprint is all over the movie, which include appearances by a who’s who of queer culture, including the Girls themselves. The cameos are mostly in the best number, “Get Out the Map,” in which our young lovers take their first (but not last) camping trip together. Diaz and Cammish are cute as lovers, but Glitter and Doom seem to only have one characteristic each (quirky and tentative, respectively), which is rarely deviated from, making for a not very deep story. The film also can’t be bothered with basic stuff like the where (generic small town America?), the when (everyone has cell phones, but the rest of the technology is pretty analog) and the why (Glitter seems to have a pyromaniac’s obsession with fire and Doom has an unremarked upon European accent). You either have to go along with it or you’ll overdose on the sugariness of it all. For its intended queer audience, they will find the sentiments of the love story message mixed with the beating heart of the music irresistible.

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