Sunday, March 20, 2022


And now our most recent cycle of horror reboots comes for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 genre landmark. The 2022 iteration, called Texas Chainsaw Massacre (drop the article, close the space), ignores all other attempts to continue the original story in order to claim status as a real continuation, like David Gordon Green’s Halloweens. It catches up with Leatherface, the hulking masked brute wielding the murder weapon of the title, who is about to unleash terror once again after decades sitting dormant. You see, instead of youths in a van stumbling into a murderous family’s house in the middle-of-nowhere Texas, there are social media influencers coming to his small dead-end Texas town in hopes of revitalizing it. Easy targets, no? Director David Blue Garcia, from a screenplay in part by Fede Alvarez and collaborators who did the excellently vomitous Evil Dead reboot, uses the premise to stage a predictable slasher picture that never gets out of the shadow of its vastly superior inspiration.

It puts in a slick effort, though. Too slick is more like it. The new cast (like Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, and Jacob Latimore) is quickly characterized as troubled and idealistic youths. They’re waiting on a bus of tech investors and streaming stars to help them buy up the town, in the process accidentally displacing the unfortunate Leatherface. Eventually they’re joined by returning final girl Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouere), grey-haired and ready to fight, having evidently taken her lifestyle cues from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie. (Isn’t it more than a little depressing that such thrilling survivors are constantly shown in these sort of follow-ups to be stuck in place waiting for a sequel well into their elderly years?) Garcia directs the ensemble through a routine number of slaughter sequences, with tons of splatter and viscera, including sloppy disembowelments and spraying decapitations, often carried out with bloody convincing and coldly detailed makeup effects that are certainly a mark of talented craft. But attempts to update its premise are laughable. One guy live-streaming Leatherface declares, “if you do anything, you’re cancelled, bro.” And there may be no more sad commentary on the drop from the original than a final moment riffing on the iconic back-of-the-pickup-truck gasp of cathartic laughing screams that trades it in for a Tesla self-driving into the sunset with its passenger staring helplessly back.

But these filmmakers run into the same problem that all who attempt to follow up the original eventually encounter. Their movies inevitably feel just like movies. Turns out, each new Massacre emphasizes all the more that Hooper’s original isn’t merely a movie, but an unreplicable nightmare. It’s a deceptively crafty work of extreme low-budget ingenuity that resulted in something that plays, to this day, as a work of filmmaking that feels less like a movie, and more dangerously real, with judicious gore, perfectly amateur performances that are plain and raw, and implied terrors so upsetting just outside the frame that the whole picture plays as if its jagged edges threaten to tear loose from the sprocket holes and burn away before our very eyes. Its smallness and its suggestion, combined with its seemingly unaffected naturalism and rough-hewn design, make it so purposely rough and unformed that it truly does feel like anything’s possible. There’s real danger in it. This latest attempt is simply a proficient gore machine, running through the motions, gliding easily down a path the original tore open. It is too neatly packaged to feel truly dangerous.

Far better to find inspiration in the raw materials and do something else. Take X, writer-director Ti West’s return to horror after a decade away. (He’s done lots of television episodes and one Western in the interim.) This effort is a neat genre exercise from an early practitioner of the throwback artisanal horror pictures that are all the rage of late. It’s also a good reminder that West is one of the better filmmakers with knowing how to do long-fuse horror. He takes a simple situation, populates it with a fun cast, and then gives it a few predictably unpredictable variables, drawing it out until, inevitably, the whole thing tips over into inescapable frights. His 2009 House of the Devil finds a babysitter falling into a Satanic plot. His 2011 The Innkeepers has two front desk clerks confronting their hotel’s possible haunting. He trusts his audience to like hanging out with his leads as the films wind their way to the genre’s demands. It’s no different with X, which sends a van of youths into rural Texas in 1979. How Chainsaw Massacre of them. They’re a group of amateur filmmakers planning to rent a guest barracks from a crotchety, ill-tempered elderly farmer and his confused wife. There, unbeknownst to the old couple, the group will shoot what they hope is their ticket to the big time: a pornographic feature called The Farmer’s Daughter. One would see the potential conflict on the horizon right away, even if the movie hadn’t started with a sheriff pulling up to the bloody aftermath of a mass murder on that very property before flashing back 24 hours. We know where this is going.

The film’s conceit locates the intersection between grungy horror and narrative porn, two types of variably disreputable filmmaking bubbling out of the midcentury indie film markets, built on teasing suspense, suggestive editing, and goading audience reactions with sudden explicit reveals. They each, in their eye-popping way, make use of what Berkeley film professor Linda Williams calls “the frenzy of the visible.” They’ve also long had the most, ahem, robust amateur scenes. Especially in the 70s’ regional cinemas (from whence we get Hooper as well as other horror-makers Romero and Craven and Raimi), both genres found purchase in the extremes of mainstream acceptability or just beyond—and, in retrospect, that both had viable theatrical models at the time is almost unbelievable to consider from their current cultural position. Back then, ambitious filmmakers could scrounge up a shoestring budget, and find their rough-hewn howls of creativity speckled with real ingenuity driven by a desire to grab attention. That’s what makes a breeding ground for greedy hucksters and thoughtful artists alike, bound together by exploitation concepts, dubious financing, and corner-cutting illegalities, ultimately becoming the foundation for the boom of American indies in the decades after.

By setting his new movie in the 70s, West sells it partially as a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirt of low-budget moviemaking. The director in the movie (Owen Campbell) says he wants to do more than give the audience what they want, experimenting with the editing “like the French do.” (West obliges, by giving X some stutter-step transitions between scenes and a beautifully ominous split-screen music montage rising action just before things go from bad to worse.) This independent filmmaker brings along his girlfriend (Jenna Ortega) to operate the sound equipment. She didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be making, and is off-put, but also a little surprised how much she likes seeing the performances in front of the camera. The smarmy producer (Martin Henderson) just wants to strike it rich, and make his fiancĂ© (Mia Goth) a sex symbol. The other performers (Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi) just want to celebrate something they enjoy, and enjoy sharing. West shows us the satisfaction they all take with the creativity, not just the physical act, of their art. They enjoy framing shots and talking ideas for new scenes. They own up with a frankness to their pursuits, and are eager to have their work seen by the masses. After all, they say, why not have fun before they’re too old. “To the perverts!” they toast after their first day of filming, in a sequence of cozy camaraderie that the film’s promised bloodbath drawing closer makes inescapably melancholy.

The back half of X is devoted to the backgrounded creepiness of the old couple escalating to deadly consequences. This results in a series of creatively gross murder sequences, with bodies penetrated by knives and pitchforks and nails and gunfire and…well, I won’t spoil them all. The effects are good gooey gore, with the makeup work on wounds, torn flesh, and fragmented bones cringingly well-done. And the ways West builds suspense and release with jumps and twists—some people die in exactly the way it looks like they will, while others have more sudden or surprising exits—are satisfying in a jolting horror movie style. The more we see of the elderly duo who are resentful of these beautiful young libertines and only grow more so the more they see of them—quite literally—the more it’s clear they’re acting out of deeply repressed or thwarted desires of their own. West pushes a bit too hard on the fright factor of the elderly—I’m not sure wrinkly skin and various dermatological issues are as inherently icky as the movie leans on—but their behavior makes them suitably, pathetically villainous. Everyone has their role. Overall, it’s a horror movie in love with being a horror movie, playing with tropes throughout. There’s evident delight taken in setting up a charismatic cast we hate to see slaughtered and then admire how the filmmaker pulls it off. It may be no less predictable or derivative for it, but the affection shines through every satisfying twist of the plot—and the knife.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022


It’s a shame the bottom fell out of the theatrical Young Adult books adaptation cycle as it was moving away from supernatural and dystopian metaphors and into more quotidian lived experiences. If it’s valuable for teenagers to see their emotions and concerns blown out into allegorical genre dimensions—and, at their best, the Twilights and Hunger Games and Divergents of the world hook into those with a sugar-high power—then surely it’s also worth exploring those same mindsets in something closer to real life. Somehow it’s been eight years since The Fault in Our Stars found bittersweet love between teen cancer patients, and got big box office in return. The years since have given us just a handful of similar efforts to take something serious teens might face in their actual lives and put them on screen. As good as something like The Hate U Give—about police brutality—or The Miseducation of Cameron Post—set at a gay conversion camp—can be, the majority of mainstream teen screen stories are now cheap Netflix rom-com programmers or distended cable series with preposterous coked up shock value. Sure, kids these days also have their flood of digital noise on TikTok and Snapchat, but those can be as unreal, and mind-numbing. I miss feature films that treat a young adult audience as, well, young adults.

Luckily Josephine Decker brings us The Sky is Everywhere, a picture of a grieving teenager that creates a close emotional association with its lead’s mental state. Here an artistic, musical, creative teenager (Grace Kaufman) misses her recently departed older sister like a phantom limb. She aches for her presence. They’d been living with their grandmother (Cherry Jones) since the death of their mother some years prior. She asks her uncle (Jason Segel), her mother’s brother, if grief ever goes away. He looks at her warmly and answers: I don’t think so. Here’s a movie that’s honest about its situations, even as the screenplay, adapted by Jandy Nelson from her novel, loads itself up with YA turns of dramatic and romantic complications. There’s a cute new boy in school (Jacques Colimon). There’s her sister’s ex-boyfriend (Pico Alexander). There are friends to chat and classes to attend and futures to plan. It leaps between these peaks of teen drama and finds the shadow valleys of mourning between.

But what keeps the movie above the routine of such things is Decker’s commitment to visualizing her main character’s active mind. Like in her previous pictures—the loose artistic tension of Madeline’s Madeline and the stormy grit of Shirley—style follows from psychological cues. When the lead moves into her flights of fancy, colors are over-cranked, backgrounds can turn into dioramas, montage might become magical realism, flourishes of dance or poetry performance can fill the frame. Befitting her musical abilities, the score might be intrusive, or fade away. This makes for a movie that’s not overstuffed with quirk, but instead fancifully interior, an outpouring of precocious passionate imagination and surging adolescent curiosities and urges. It wisely meets its lead and its prospective audience where they are, and then, through its ability to add shading and texture to its side characters—Jones especially has a moving moment of perspective-bringing near the end—help them grow beyond.

Another new movie that’s a picture of teenage grief is The Fallout. A finely realized debut feature for writer-director Megan Park, heretofore best known for a role on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the movie is less dreamy and sad than Decker’s. Instead, it’s teetering on an edge with depression and despair. But it’s so tenderly observed and warmly sympathetic to its characters that it understands all-too-well the difficulties they have readjusting to something like normal in the wake of a tragedy. One gets the sense in the opening scenes that it would be an appealing, low-key high school coming-of-age dramedy if not for the swerve into an unexpected awful event. Isn’t that always the case with these moments? It begins with a teenage girl (Jenna Ortega) talking with her sister (Lumi Pollack) and parents (John Ortiz and Julie Bowen), with friends and acquaintances and teachers (Will Ropp, Christine Horn). It’s the start of a normal day. She ends up in the restroom during class—avoiding class, really—and talks to a more popular classmate (Maddie Ziegler). That’s when they hear gunfire in the hallway. Screams. Slams. They hide. It seems to last forever, but then…that’s it. It’s over. They survived. Their school, their classmates, themselves, are now just another statistic.

The school shooting movie has, sadly, become something of a tradition now. It reflects the way this has been allowed to become a grim fact of life. In our politics, we hear an awful lot of whining about the supposedly deleterious effects of something like wearing a mask to go to school during a global pandemic. These complaints are usually coming from the same people who have never had anything meaningful to say about the far worse effects of getting shot to death in school. So here it is in the movies. Gus Van Sant’s floating camera in 2003’s Elephant and Denis Villeneuve’s grainy black-and-white 2009 Polytechnique make intense in-the-moment works of dread and violence. Last year’s Mass was a talky, probing look at parents grappling with deaths of this nature years later. Recent documentary Bulletproof shows the preparation for the possibility of such events—lockdown drills, kevlar backpacks or hoodies, potential classroom fortifications—as just another back-to-school routine, cut into its flowing montage of teacher trainings, band practices, sports drills, and assemblies. How sad that we’ve had over twenty years of reactions to mass deaths like these and protests against the very gun laws that encourage such destruction, and yet little has changed. What The Fallout brings to the conversation is not the violence, which is largely implied, but a softer touch and intimate detail, keyed into its leads’ numbed aimlessness in the aftermath.

Ortega takes center stage in tight focus for a character who is convincingly drawn. She expertly plays teen angst as a sort of normal acting out refracted through her vulnerable and raw post-trauma days and weeks as she claws back to a sense of self. There’s something convincing when she throws a thrashing little “God, mom!!!” flailing fit, and in the way she and Ziegler become friends bonded by their survival. They clung to each other as the chaos boomed outside; now they cling together to make it through. They’re contrasts—Ortega loose and swimming in baggy clothes, Ziegler clenched and poised in tight outfits as an Insta glamour princess—but connected. An early scene in which they text back and forth late at night is expert at conjuring that sort of intimacy—a flurry of closeups of eyes, fingertips, ellipses. And then they’re back to school, back to friends, trying to find their way in a string of episodic moments. By turning the mechanisms of a gentle Hollywood slice-of-teen-life style on the wake of a mass shooting, it makes a bitter sting of grief and hopelessness all the more affecting.

The film sees how the tragedy works its way through the community of characters, and watches as its impact shifts dynamics, closes off some old habits, and opens up new avenues of potential harm and growth alike. Bowen and Ortiz bring good detail to shaken, frustrated, and loving parents, while the other young actors sell a wide range of responses. Most telling, perhaps, are a few scenes where Ortega visits a sympathetic counselor played by Shailene Woodley. Aside from making viewers of a certain age feel old that this former Fault and Secret Life star has now aged enough to play one of the grown-ups, there’s an interesting disconnected connection Woodley and Ortega forge, with one’s insistence that things might get better personally, and the other’s looking at society around her with justified suspicions. I hope the potential young audience for this movie takes away some of these visions of humanity, and recognize something true in it.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Face the Change: TURNING RED

Pixar’s Turning Red is a fast-paced, heartfelt, adorable computer-animated cartoon about the emotional intensity of eighth graders. It does so with one of the bubbliest lead characters in recent memory—13-year-old Meilin. She’s a relentlessly chipper, totally type-A student with all the goofy jokes, funny friends, pop culture addictions, and passionate crushes of many girls her age. The movie—all rounded edges and cartoony colors—brightly and bouncily opens with her interior monologue, teeming with loose and silly and exuberantly positive self-talk. She’s confidently herself, navigating her classes and friends and family obligations with ease. That is, until adolescence really starts to sink in, and with it its attendant embarrassments of self—bodily and socially. One associates that time with fleeting passions, roiling interior lives, and explosively convulsive stretches of upset and excitement. It’s only natural. And so here’s a movie about what it means to grow up into a state of crippling self-awareness and have to readjust to find one’s sense of self again. In her case, though, this isn’t just about embarrassment. The blushing implied by the title does double duty, for when she’s overwhelmed and overstimulated, she turns into a big red panda.

This unexpected side-effect of puberty is a family curse. The first time it happens, her mother patiently explains how this happens to every woman in their family, and there’s a ritual they can do once a lunar cycle to suppress it. (There’s the ticking clock Pixar loves so much.) This makes the movie overtly a metaphor for the onset of menstruation—and adolescent urges of all kinds, what with this 2002-set middle-school friend group innocently lusting after a boy band (crooning catchy new period-appropriate music by Billie Eilish and bro). Writer-director Domee Shi, whose short Bao’s motherly affection for a personified dumpling is a similarly fantastical approach to raw familial feelings, and her co-writers approach these facts of teen girl life with frank symbolism, breezily and naturally. There’s none of the tortured hand-wringing one might associate with more timid filmmakers of any sort, let alone the Hollywood animated family picture. As the movie quickly and agreeably develops its fantasy conceit, Meilin learns that being a grown-up doesn’t mean independence, or cheap rebellion from family traditions, or even any pat be-yourself rebellion. Instead, Shi draws out a lesson of complicated self-knowledge and personal growth, that to be yourself draws upon your influences from family, friends, and cultures past and present. Now that’s getting older. And maybe a little wiser.

So it has a slightly more mature premise than the usual kids’ picture, and is so warmly welcoming to its young teen mindset that it carries off lightly what other Pixar efforts wear more tearfully. That’s not to say it’s any less earnest, or doesn’t earn its climactic sentimental moments. But it’s so cheerfully of its time and place, animated with such personality and so particular to the giddy extremes of its character’s age, that it’s a total charmer. This fantastical comedy takes its main character’s mindset seriously—who among us, after all, didn’t sometimes view the changes of teen years as something unusual, or even monstrous—and yet is told with just enough sense of perspective for a wry adult distance to be amused at the young teen’s lack of it. That’s what also makes the movie enchantingly real in its portrayal of mother/daughter relationships, finding a generational intermingling of matrilineal tension and compassion that feels true in the midst of the fanciful scampering. It is, per Pixar’s latest run of originals’ thematic preoccupations, a story about the gulfs of misunderstanding that even good intentions can open up between parents and children, and the bittersweet magic it takes to repair that bond. No surprise that it’s also about a journey of self-discovery, the new friendships one makes along the way, and the old friendships that can sustain one throughout. It’s there in Luca, Soul, Onward, Coco, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, Brave. But none of those, great as some can be, are this poppy and funny and glittery, or build to a lovely moment where ancient family magic and the tunes of a dreamy boy band harmonize—and point the way to a fuller expression of self.

Friday, March 11, 2022


Even after all these years of superhero movies, Batman remains perhaps the most uniquely cinematic. Take Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader, striking fear in the hearts of Gotham City’s villainy, all the way back to his early comic book origins. He’s always been at the intersection—thematically, visually, tonally—of gangster pictures, German expressionism, and film noir. He’s accrued Art Deco shadows and grungy urban doom. It’s sometimes dialed up to goofy midcentury camp (hello, Adam West), sometimes dialed down to mumbling Michael Mann skyscraper canyons (howdy, Christian Bale), sometimes drawn out in luxuriously complicated Saturday morning cartoons (the Animated Series and Beyond) or stretched out in gargantuan backlot artifice (holy Tim Burton, Batman!). But it’s always recognizably this stew of influences, plus his costume a simple silhouette with silent film recognizability. His gadgets and gumshoe approach to avoiding the pain of the orphaned billionaire boy grown up collide with the sick and sicker in his crumbling home metropolis. Even the bad Batman movies are still often fun visions of this world, engaging as pulpy interiority blown out to blockbuster dimensions. The latest, directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, and starring Robert Pattinson as the angular chin and brooding eyes hidden within the cape and cowl, is maybe the most downbeat and dreary version yet, once again stumbling down dark alleys in pursuit of something like justice that’s forever out of reach.

There’s something pessimistic at the core of this hero. When talking DC’s icons, Superman is what we hope America can be. Batman is who we fear America is. No high-flying truth and justice here. Bruce Wayne and his alter ego can suit up and punch villains every night, but the sad truth of capitalist corruption and crime—a city where the cops and robbers are often one and the same, and everyone from the Mayor to the District Attorney to the mob bosses are all part of the same pool of dark money and influence—just won’t budge. So Reeves, an intelligent big budget filmmaker coming off of two interestingly textured and thoughtful Planet of the Apes pictures, visualizes these ideas by making his Gotham constantly overcast, usually raining, generally nocturnal. (It has to be a close cousin to the unnamed city in Fincher’s compellingly gross serial killer thriller Se7en.) There’s always a cloud hanging over the scenes, and the slow, patient drip of detective information about the central mystery takes precedence over slam-bang action. That makes the one fun car chase all the more thrilling, a welcome sparking rattling roar of an engine revving to life as the Batmobile makes its long-awaited appearance tearing off after a slimy bad guy. And it leaves the proceedings to move at a steady trudge, resisting the usual fanfare. To its credit, this downbeat affair that creaks by at a long three-hour run time, is trying for something genuinely wiggly and unsettling in the middle of so much iconography and cliche.

The whole thing kicks off with the murder of the mayor by a mysterious killer known only as The Riddler (Paul Dano). More victims follow. At each, he’s recording viral videos and leaving taunting clues in greeting cards at the scene for lead detective Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to give to The Batman. Together, the two men hunt for clues and chase down leads. Sometimes they cross paths with a slinky nightclub waitress Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), whose cat burglar outfit is the best since Pfeiffer’s. She has her own reasons to investigate the goings-on at a club run by the town’s top gangster (John Turturro) and his waddling underling (Colin Farrell buried in a fat suit). Reeves leans into the tight-lipped pathos of these pathetic, wounded characters creeping around the shadows of society, looking for leverage over each other in an attempt to make things a little brighter by any means necessary. Unlike the usual comic book dichotomy—or pat mirroring that leads villains to the inevitable “we’re two sides of the same coin” monologuing—this movie makes clear that everyone’s inevitably shaped by societal forces beyond their control. Batman, Catwoman, The Riddler, Detective Gordon—all are willing to bend rules and skulk around to reshape Gotham toward their ends, some for slightly better, some for way worse. There’s never a sense anyone will actually unambiguously triumph. Michael Giacchino’s pounding score takes that cue, edging along Elfman horns while plucking some “Tubular Bells.”

Here’s a city possessed with an urban rot that no one can escape. This makes for a brooding, brutal, cynical, ice-cold, paranoid and conspiratorial picture. It’s not fun, exactly, but from its opening montage of vandals and muggers spooked by the sight of the Bat-signal in the sky, to an ending where Gotham is significantly worse off than before the movie started, there’s a grimly compelling fatalism that gets its hooks in, even as the plot dwindles to a hesitant close. It’s all of a piece—a mumbled noir narration, a dimly fuzzy filmic-by-way-of-digital-and-back-again look, a sumptuously gaunt color palate, a murmuring collection of careful performances, a superhero movie that resists the overfamiliar spectacular climaxes we’ve come to expect. Like Pattinson’s sunken performance—a rare Wayne that’s not even a little sparkling—The Batman is obsessive, haunting, and unresolved. Sure, that’s partly the usual superhero move of making one feel like a first entry is so much prologue for promised future story. (And, sure, I’ll take another one with this cast and vibe.) But here that lack of resolution has tonal and thematic sense, too. Gotham, as we’ve long known, has deeply rooted systematic problems. No wonder its citizens, good and bad alike, are going mad. Who can relate?

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Good Boys: UNCHARTED and DOG

I distinctly remember reading an article in Newsweek pretty much exactly 20 years ago bemoaning the lack of viable old fashioned Movie Star men. Back then, when we didn't know the Movie Star was on the way out, it was pretty easy, if unfair, to argue that the likes of, say, Matt Damon and Will Smith and Ben Affleck weren’t exactly Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington and Robert Redford. I liked all those guys at the time, but in retrospect, those younger stars actually were among the last of the great Movie Star men, right? We’d love to have someone of their charisma and popularity ruling the box office charts again, able to take a fandom with them to new standalone programmers and prestige projects and would-be franchises alike. That all of the above names are still working to some extent is further proof that we keep relying on the old at the expense of the new. Now, it seems, for a newer actor to reach that top tier, he needs to wed his persona to a superhero to keep the audiences flowing. Just glance at the grosses for a non-Marvel movie for a Marvel star and you’ll get the idea.

Even someone like Tom Holland, fresh off a Spider-Man movie so insanely popular that people were willing to get COVID to see it, is more of a media figure than a marquee star at this point. Audiences love Spider-Man in any iteration. And people like Holland as a social media figure—interviews with his current girlfriend Zendaya (an actual compelling star, the main reason he’s a tabloid staple) and that gender-blurring lip sync dance he did to Rihanna's “Umbrella” some years back are probably as shared as, if not more than, clips of his film work. (The latter’s more memorable and visually appealing, too.) But just put him alone in a cringe over-reaching crime picture like Cherry or half-baked (and off-trend) YA sci-fi Chaos Walking and hardly anyone shows up, while those who did aren’t exactly brewing the cult classic status. He’s a likable bloke, to be sure, with an on-screen energy that comes across as part Tom Cruise hustling charm, part Michael J. Fox smirking underdog. But if audiences don’t give those like him a chance to grow beyond popular characters into their own reliable stardom, we’ll be starved of stars of the future. So far, even Holland’s Spider-Man efforts recognize he’s not his own draw yet, pairing him in each with an actual movie star of some sort—Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey, Jr.—or another—Benedict Cumberbatch—or another—Jake Gyllenhaal—to carry the load.

So now we have him in Uncharted, a long-gestating video game adaptation that’s sure to have Sony dreaming of sequels already. It pairs Holland as a boyish orphaned Magellan enthusiast with Mark Wahlberg as a jaded treasure hunter. Together, they each need the other to find a cache of lost gold before Antonio Banderas’ scheming rich guy does. The movie, directed with usual bright pop sturdiness by Ruben Fleishcher of Zombieland and Venom and scripted by a typical flotilla of writers, isn’t exactly reinventing the form. It’s an amiable globetrotting adventure with a bit of National Treasure family destiny, some Tomb Raider puzzle-solving, and a splash of Indiana Jones escalating stakes. But the combination makes for a diverting fetch quest, complete with faded maps, missing ships, interlocking MacGuffins, and preposterously elaborate centuries-old scavenger hunt clues. (I would’ve said an even less believable detail is a Papa John’s in Barcelona, but I googled it and, hey, there is one.) The plot has the usual good guys, bad guys, and some who go both ways, and action sequences that are just the right side of entertainingly outsized. I liked best a shootout in and out of a cargo plane, and later a climactic fight between two airborne pirate ships dangling from helicopters—my kind of modern spin on swashbuckling tropes. The whole production is simply a string of passably entertaining adventure sequences spackled together with pleasantly predictable plotting. And the whole thing hangs together on the decent buddy chemistry it whips up between the two leads, with an established star lending his appeal to bolster a fledgling one, a dynamic that mirrors the characters’. Wahlberg’s reluctantly affectionate gruffness balances out Holland’s relentlessly overeager puppy-dog acting, and gives their scenes a low-key charm. Sometimes that, amidst some busy action, is enough to get by.

Speaking of stars: Channing Tatum. He has that whole effortlessly-holding-the-screen thing down perfectly. Like the best Movie Stars past and present, he can simply exist in a frame and have our attention. He has unforced naturalism and shaggy off-handed charisma, the sensitive soul behind the muscled features, a melting heart in a block head. It makes him an interesting presence—and a surprisingly adaptable one. He works as a dancer from the wrong side of the tracks—Step Up—or an action figure—G.I. Joe—or an Olympic wrestler—Foxcatcher—or a Gene Kelly-type hoofer—Hail, Caesar!—or a stripper with a furniture-making hobby—Magic Mike. He hasn’t had a live-action role since 2017, so it’s a great welcome return to see him back on our screens with Dog, a movie built almost entirely around him. Tatum co-directs with his Mike screenwriter Reid Carolin and together they know just how to use what Tatum can do. Posed against a sunset, leaning on the hood of a pickup truck, beer bottle in hand, with his solider past haunting an uncertain future—he’s the complicated state of modern American masculinity at a glance. The character is an alcoholic brain-damaged vet desperate to get his life back on track. His former commanding officer offers a trade: a letter of recommendation in return for driving a troubled military dog to the pup’s deceased handler’s funeral. The idea is clear, the goal is plain, and the plainly framed, unshowy style Tatum brings to the look and feel is a straightforward showcase for what he does best.

The result is a simple, sentimental, and corny movie that finds Tatum and a Belgian Malinois on a road trip from Oregon to Arizona and back again. It’s a one man show, with meandering detours and episodic stops along the way at a variety of eccentric characters populated with quickly sketched character actors at work. Those vignettes never quite lift off the way they should, but the overarching emotional spine of the thing—a “who rescued who?” bumper sticker come to life—is sold entirely on the strength of Tatum’s performance. His humanity shines through, and it’d be hard not to feel for him as his tough exterior and in-his-own-head moping starts to sympathize with the poor dog’s troubles—war, after all, leaves these scars on all involved, man and beast alike. It’s a throwback to the sorts of movies that made stars in the middle of the last century, a simple concept hung on the appeal of a performer, and tailor-made for his skill set. There’s something to this wandering, sight-seeing, small-scale character piece that, even in its predictability, remains totally watchable. One wants to see how this isolated, lonely, frustrated, wounded jock can find his way to heal, even a little bit, by reconnecting to his buried emotional intelligence and recognizing something of himself in another—even if that other is a dog. You have to start somewhere.