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Better Than the Real Thing 

The Valet and Spiderhead

click to enlarge You want us to "go back to normal?" Congratulations, I'm back to normal.

The Valet

You want us to "go back to normal?" Congratulations, I'm back to normal.

Not for nothing, I haven't been to the theater in a while. It seemed like springtime had us on a roll, both in terms of plague abatement and promising new movie releases. But the complex network of circumstance — viral, political, artistic and financial — that lately serves to harsh the collective mellow has now reached an apparent state of stasis: international resting bored face.

The dinosaurs, literal and figurative, have been trotted back out (though Top Gun: Maverick had me gleefully eating crow) and it just doesn't feel exciting. Baz Luhrmann's Elvis looms, brightly colored and tone-deaf as can be. Dr. Strange in the Corridor of the What-Have-You (did I get that right?) is still rattling around. Lightyear is likely better than suspect but I'll probably never know.

After years of resurgent hope for the state of cinema art and the movie industry at large, when mid-budget experiments, genre pictures and workmanlike entertainments seemed to be regaining their footing, we've been left with precious little to show for all the would-be progress.

Admittedly, this is a transitional time and the powers that be have yet to crack the code of their own new distribution model(s). Netflix's status as the 800-pound gorilla of the streaming space has come into question and the rest of them, primarily controlled by studios, in turn controlled by tech and telecom conglomerates, have backpedaled from their deep-pandemic home-release frenzy. And so we're back to tent-poles and glitzy prestige pictures and pre-plague holdovers making their way to the big screen, with the rest of the "content" (shudder) relegated to assorted lower-profile platforms with little or no marketing push, often abandoned by the algorithm and lost to poorly designed user interfaces. (Can all those code-monkeys really not figure out how to adapt search engines for this?)

I watched a couple of movies this past weekend that, precious few years ago, would likely have been released in theaters, maybe even hundreds of them. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about the also-recent period when these movies would not have been made at all.

THE VALET. Romantic comedies used to be one of the most reliable revenue streams the movie business had going. Pour most of the budget into star power, find a tantalizing location to shoot and let the crowds pour in to not-really wonder "will they or won't they." They aren't my preferred genre, but enough of them were/are clever and cute and pretty enough to spend time with. They have as ancestors some of the most smartly written movies of all time (screwball comedies), after all. And despite the continued dilution of that DNA, they've retained at least some vestigial charm. But focus groups of AI or whoever seem to have dictated the spiraling demise of the form. Not that they were particularly Important, but their absence seems to speak to the death of something innocent.

While The Valet (a remake of the La Doublure, 2006) probably will not change anyone's life (for better or worse), it plays with its lineage in a way that is true to the genre while subverting some of its tropes. In other words, it does the work of a true romantic comedy, in as much as it relies on romance and comedy while also shifting the conventions of relationship dynamics and hidebound ethnic standards.

Seemingly untouchable mega-star Olivia Allan (Samara Weaving), with a major premiere fast approaching, is carrying on an affair with callow, married billionaire Vincent Royce (Max Greenfield). When one of their clandestine assignations blows up she flees the suite and is photographed in his proximity by the paparazzi. Fortunately for them, well-meaning but unwitting valet Antonio Flores (Eugenio Derbez) gets caught in the frame. And so a plot is devised to present Antonio and Olivia as a couple, thereby defusing any potentially damaging (true) rumors.

What follows is a light, almost treacly examination of love and loneliness that, with jokes as well as respect for Los Angeles' ethnic mix (much of the dialogue is in Spanish, some in Korean, with subtitles), maintains a balance of breeziness and honesty little seen in contemporary comedy. Derbez creates an ingenious Chaplin-like stillness in space and Weaving continues a streak of highly individual, wildly varied performances. PG13. 124M. HULU.

SPIDERHEAD, while another sort of mid-level entertainment altogether, is another example of the kind of thing we might have once gone to see at the movies. Granted, a darkly comedic science fiction satire romance isn't the easiest thing to put on a movie poster, but this one gleams with star power and boasts two of the few name-brand screenwriters in the business and the director of the highest-grossing movie of the year — even if it is based on a George Saunders short story.

Adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (impressive CVs) and helmed by Joseph Kosinski, Spiderhead has Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett as voluntary inmates of a prison/research facility overseen by a handsome, convivial weirdo (Chris Hemsworth). They are subjected to daily experimental drug treatments aimed at manipulating their most powerful emotions while reckoning with the residue of the crimes that brought them together.

While the narrative gets a little soft and loose toward the end, the movie is overall, as my wife put it shortly after the opening frames, "pretty captivating." R. 106M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

NOW PLAYING

THE BLACK PHONE. Blumhouse horror about an abducted boy (Mason Thames) aided by the spirits of his captor's past victims. Starring Ethan Hawke in creepy late-period Johnny Depp drag. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Benedict Cumberbatch dons his cape for another Marvel mind bender. PG. 126M. BROADWAY.

ELVIS. Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in Baz Luhrmann's musical biopic. PG13. 159M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION. Dinosaurs everywhere, I guess. Which is fine. Take the planet and good luck, Barney. PG13. 106M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

LIGHTYEAR. The Toy Story hero prequel with an army of robots and the terrible Zurg. Starring Chris Evans, Taika Waititi and Keke Palmer. PG. 105M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Tom Cruise returns to the cockpit with a note-perfect work of pure energy that sidesteps thorny politics for the pure physicality and mental plasticity required of a modern fighter pilot. PG13. 137M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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