They Cloned Tyrone, The Passengers of the Night, Theater Camp, and Cobweb are part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

It was at almost exactly this point in 2017—the last time I attempted My Summer of Summer Movies marathon—that I started to fall dangerously behind on my reviews. Seeing all the movies that come out in a summer is a daunting but manageable task: It's finding the time to think and write about each one that inevitably gets me into trouble.

(Honestly, I was doing fine until Barbieheimer. Those were the two big movies of the year—and the longest reviews I've written so far this summer—and they set me behind schedule.)

I keep a big whiteboard in my office where I try to keep track of the films I've seen but still need to write about, the films already out that I still need to see, and what's coming down the pike next. As I write this, I've got four of the first category, two of the second, and at least three new movies opening this weekend. Basically, if I don't catch up today, I'm thoroughly screwed.

So—just as I did six years ago, almost to the day—I'm cheating, and writing a single post of quick "mini-reviews" to clear my backlog. It is no reflection on the movies themselves—all of which are at least as deserving of a full review as some of the other crap I've written about at length this summer—but it's just how the schedule shook out.


Jamie Foxx, Teyonah Parris, and John Boyega in THEY CLONED TYRONE

Juel Taylor's They Cloned Tyrone (2023) is by far the best movie in this group, the one I'd most like to take the time to process through writing, and the one you should go watch right away if you haven't already done so. (I first saw it during it's short run in theaters, then caught it again on Netflix, where it's now available.)

On the other hand, this works out conveniently well, because They Cloned Tyrone is a film best seen unspoiled, and I'm not even sure how I'd write about its pleasures without giving away any of its surprises. Filmed in a gloriously grainy imitation of 1970s Blaxsploitation flicks, Tyrone focuses on a drug-dealer named Fontaine (John Boyega), who teams up with a pimp named Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) and a prostitute named Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) to uncover a sinister conspiracy beneath The Glen, a disenfranchised Black neighborhood in an unnamed American city.

With its "dealer, pimp, and ho" trio of amateur detectives, They Cloned Tyrone leans deliberately into "ghetto" stereotypes, setting up assumptions and expectations that the film then goes on to intelligently interrogate and hilariously explode. All three leads do career-best work. Boyega, getting his best role since his mesmerizing debut in Attack the Block, shoulders the weight of the film's serious side: he's the tormented center of the film, which also means he plays perfect straight-man to the rapid, pop-culture infused banter of his partners. (Slick Charles' and Yo-Yo's constant sniping at each other wouldn't be half as funny if it weren't traded back and forth across Fontaine's stony, unamused presence.) Parris is the film's joyous heart, a sharp, street-smart, Nancy-Drew loving delight. And Foxx has become such a good dramatic actor that I'd almost forgotten he got his start in comedy as one of the stars of In Living Color, but he reminds us all here.

A best-of-all-worlds mashup of comedy, action, sci-fi thriller, and smart social-satire, Tyrone begs, and earns, comparison to some of the best such genre hybrids of the 21st century so far, including Get Out, The Cabin in the Woods, and Sorry to Bother You. Like those films, it's a very funny movie with very serious things on its mind, and it would take more space than I have—and more spoilers than I want to spend—to unpack the complicated, smartly tricky metaphors it is employing. (Even after two viewings I'm still undecided about a few of its satirical choices, specifically in moments when it seems to suggest Black Americans are complicit in their own oppression.) But at its center, They Cloned Tyrone is such a poignant, perfectly apt examination of real-life (and far more sinister) systemic forces that shape Black communities in America, its clever conspiratorial plot almost stops being a metaphor.


Charlotte Gainsbourg and Noee Abita in THE PASSENGERS OF THE NIGHT

Dropped into select American theaters during a summer of giant robots, super spies, living toys, and other corporate I.P., Mikhaël Hers' small, naturalistic French drama The Passengers of the Night (2022) looked like a precious cinematic oasis of normal, genuine human experience. And that’s what it is, I suppose—but it is such a low-key, naturalistic affair that even reality-starved cinephiles may be wishing for a little old-fashioned Hollywood artifice by its end.

The effortlessly enchanting Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Elisabeth, a Parisian mother struggling to find her feet and independence after her husband has left her and their two late-teen children to run off with another woman. Opening on the night of François Mitterand’s election in 1981, and playing out over the next decade, we watch Elisabeth re-enter the workforce and build a new life. Through her job as a call-screener for the host (Emmanuelle Béart) of the late-night call-in show that gives the film its title, Elisabeth meets a young girl who calls herself Talulah (Noée Anita, excellent here), a sweet, Heroin-addicted lost soul whom Elisabeth almost instantly folds into her re-formed family.

There’s a lot working in Passengers, beginning with Gainsbourg’s achingly authentic performance, and director Hers’ sensitively observed attention to cultural and emotional detail. But the film ultimately feels unfocused, eschewing dramatic artifice so deliberately and thoroughly that almost nothing ever actually happens. Every potential source of dramatic tension—Elisabeth’s search for a job, her various love affairs, the presence of Talulah in the home and her sexual tension with Elisabeth’s son Mathias (Quito Rayon Richter)—either dispels too easily or plays out so gently that we begin to crave any source of conflict.

There is drama and inspiration to be found in everyday life, without resorting to phony melodrama. But Passengers cuts its “slice-of-life” story so finely that the resulting pieces feel thin and a little flavorless. The members of this family definitely feel like real people we would know, but it wouldn’t necessarily occur to anyone else that we needed a movie about them.


Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in Theater Camp

A near-perfect marriage of form and function, Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman's gentle mockumentary Theater Camp (2023) has all the disproportionate passion and shambolic makeshift charm of its subject. For decades, the fictional AdirondACTS—a less-than-solvent performing arts camp—has provided theatrically-minded children a rural safe haven to learn their craft and trod the boards. Now, however, crisis has struck: visionary founder and legendary camp elder Joan (Amy Sedaris) has suffered a strobe-light induced seizure during a recent fundraising trip, and fallen into a coma. ("It was the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County," a solemn intertitle informs us.)

This means creative-director duties for the camp's season fall to veteran instructors Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), life-long aspiring actors who met at the camp as children and never left (either it or each other). Meanwhile, the business-side of the bankruptcy-teetering institution falls into the eager but uncertain hands of Joan's clueless son Troy (Jimmy Tatro)—a self-styled "en-Troy-preneur"—who is exactly the sort of alpha-male dude-bro all the theater kids came here to get away from.

Expanded from a short film, Theater Camp is written by Gordon, Platt, Lieberman, and Noah Galvin: all close friends and lifelong theater people. (The film uses a real picture of Gordon and Platt performing together in Fiddler on the Roof when they were about five.) Which is to say they know this world intimately, and they mine a lot of very real, very funny comedy from child actors and amateur productions. (“I do believe her as a French prostitute,” Amos whispers during casting, about a pigtailed 10-year-old’s audition.)

But the comedy is unfailingly affectionate, and so is the film: Theater Camp accurately and gleefully skewers the narcissism and self-important pretensions of theater people, but it also touchingly celebrates the small but still valid dreams of people who will never be stars. (This is a place where a child’s leaving the camp because she landed a commercial is like being whisked off in a LearJet to stardom, and an opportunity to perform on a cruise-ship—“It’s not even a featured part!”—can threaten to destroy a lifelong friendship.) Mostly, it’s a tribute to places like this where like-minded, limited-talent oddballs can find each other, and even the most amateurish stage productions can reach for—and occasionally find—a truly transcendent moment.

COBWEB (2023)

Eight-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) listens for noises in the wall in COBWEB.

Finally, if you haven't heard of Cobweb (2023), I won't be surprised. It seems to be a film that not even its studio wants you to see, as it has been given the most limited of "limited releases." (Here in Chicago it is playing in exactly one theater, for exactly one showing per day: a critic-punishing 10:45 PM slot.) Basically Lionsgate dumped this thing like you or I would dump a body, hoping no one would notice it during the hype of the big Barbieheimer weekend. That's usually a sign of a studio's lack of confidence in a film, but—as little horror movies go—Cobweb isn't so bad.

Woody Norman (C'mon C'mon) plays Peter, a quiet and bullied eight-year old who lives with his extremely odd parents (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr) in an old house with creepily terrible wallpaper. (It's the sort of old grey patterned wallpaper that looks like it's moving if you stare at it too long—and maybe it is.) When Peter begins hearing noises in the walls, his parents rush to assure him he's imagining things—but then the noises become a voice, warning Peter that his parents are not what they seem.

Cobweb is well-directed by Samuel Bodin (making his feature debut), and the performances—including Cleopatra Coleman as a substitute teacher who grows increasingly worried about Peter's well-being—are strong all around. The story, however, is fairly dumb, entirely too predictable, and padded grotesquely to draw what feels like a creepy little short story out to roughly feature length. (A late sub-plot with a group of bullies just screams "we need about 15 more minutes of movie here.") Still, the film is consistently atmospheric, and Bodin achieves moments of derivative but fairly effective chills. Mostly, I appreciated that Cobweb—especially for a film with such a young protagonist—has a genuinely dark heart. It operates with the nasty, ruthless glee of the darkest fairy tales and the creepiest campfire stories. It's not exactly a good movie, but it's kind of a fun one: When it inevitably hits streaming services in a week or so, you could do worse than to pop it on to watch on a late rainy night.

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