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2017 Alt-Summer Movie Preview: Haunted Dolls, Docs and Tupac

Horror flicks, hot docs and a long-awaited hip-hop biopic – your alternative guide to what to see at a theater near you this summer

Man can not live on superhero tentpoles and fifth-verse-same-as-the-first franchises alone – occasionally, a moviegoer wants to see people without capes or magic lassos, folks who are neither pirates nor giant toy robots, discuss more intimate topics than the impending end of the world. Maybe, in the age of fake news, it’d be nice to see a feature-length nonfiction take on a topic. Or a film that isn’t in English. Or something idiosyncratically goofy and/or gnarly, the kind of low-fidelity gem that you can tell was made with an individual sensibility. Or something that simply gives you a different flavor of experience then fast and/or furious.

We’ve already laid out your complete blockbuster viewing schedule for the summer; now here’s everything else that doesn’t quite fit neatly into those one-size-fits-all multiplex boxes. (Full disclosure: There is one studio-sanctioned sequel/spin-off nestled in here, of the horror variety – a modestly budgeted genre flick that we felt compelled to include.) There are documentaries on cult photographers, Cuban musicians and our slowly dying coral reefs. There are missives from outside the U.S., including one sure-to-be-controversial drama on teen terrorists. There are movie stars going gritty, A-list comedians going quirky and Brad Pitt chewing scenery. Cannibals, children hanging out with giant superpigs and carnally knowledgeable nuns? All present and accounted for. There’s even the year’s most eagerly awaited biopic on a hip-hop icon, one that all eyes are on. Welcome to your alt-summer movie viewing guide.

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‘Buena Vista Social Club: Adios’ (May 26th)

Wim Wenders’ 1999 doc on the Buena Vista Social Club re-introduced Cuban music to the masses, garnered an Oscar nomination, produced a hit album and gave a host of the island’s musicians a chance to be heard around the world. Now, almost 20 years later, this sequel-of-sorts checks in to see what they’ve been up to since then – and to explore how celebrity and the seismic changes of their home country has affected what they do. Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel) takes over the directorial reins, though the songs – and the urge to get up and dance in the theater will, we imagine, remain the same.

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‘War Machine’ (May 26)

Based on journalist Michael Hastings’ book The Operators (and the award-winning Rolling Stone article that inspired it), David Michod’s broader-than-Broadway satire follows a certain gung-ho general named Glenn McMahon – any resemblance to real-life figures are not coincidental – who’s brought to Afghanistan to manage the ongoing conflict circa 2010. Government bureaucracy, hedonistic cronies, corrupt politicians and a lack of clarity regarding the end game, however, end up miring the military hardass in a good ol’ fashioned FUBAR. To say that Brad Pitt “plays” the general would be the wrong verb – this is the sort of bombastic, scenery-chewing, nail-spitting, over-the-top performance you don’t get to see A-list stars do anymore. Come for the journalistic ethics and soliders-under-fire subplots. Stay for Pitt tearing into the role with pure off-the-leash gusto.

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‘Beatriz at Dinner’ (June 9)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A fish-out-of-water visitor at a fancy dinner party becomes a social-norms disruptor and forces people to reassess their perspectives. So why, you ask, would this indie be worth your time? Because the person who ends up at this swank shindig is a New Age healer and Mexican immigrant, who finds herself going up against a rather Trump-like business mogul (metaphor alert); because the performances by Salma Hayek and John Lithgow as the heroine and the douchebag, respectively, are rumored to be amazing; because you will see anything with Nashville‘s Connie Britton, playing a guest, in it; and because this reunites the Chuck and Buck team of director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White. Much like the appetizers, you’re about to get served, snobby rich jerks.

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‘The Hero’ (June 9)

You know his voice – a deep, gravelly, mega-masculine baritone that’s graced everything from Dodge Ram commercials to Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s misadventures. You know his face – a weathered, handsome mug blessed with the world’s greatest mustache. The man is a legend, and people should treat him as such. And after folks see the showcase that Sam Elliott gets in this tender indie character study about an aging Western movie star dealing with old-age, new romance, familial regrets and mortality, they’ll remember that this gentleman is a national treasure. Director Brett Haley does for the lanky actor what he did for Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams, e.g. give an older performer a chance to play their age without playing overly codger-cute or sappy sentimental. Do not miss it.

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‘My Cousin Rachel’ (June 9)

Oh, so you like a little intrigue, paranoia and murder with your period pieces? Then you’ll dig this adaptation of this 1951 novel by (Hitchcock’s favorite author Daphne du Maurier, about a young man (Sam Claflin) who believes a comely distant cousin named Rachel (Rachel Weisz … is this part of the namesake series?) may be trying to poison a former father figure and gain his estate. Then the enterprising gent meets this potential femme fatale, and guess who’s smitten – and possibly a victim? The story is beguiling. Weisz is bewitching. You’re buying a ticket.

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‘All Eyez on Me’ (June 16)

From a revolutionary’s son to gangster-rap superstar to cultural icon – the question is not whether Tupac Sjakur deserves a biopic so much as why did it take so fucking long for him to get one? Newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. (who resembles the late hip-hop deity so much that it’s uncanny) paints on the Thug Life tattoo and takes on the role of a lifetime; Jamal Woolard is Biggie Smalls, who he also played in that musician’s biopic Notorious; The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira is mom Afeni Shakur. Expect a recreation of the California Dreamin‘ music video, some serious Suge Knight shade and a killer soundtrack.

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‘The Book of Henry’ (June 16)

Take one precocious, preternaturally mature 11-year-old kid (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher). Add in a single mother (Naomi Watts), a literal girl next door (Dance Moms‘ alumna Maddie Ziegler) and a somewhat shady stepfather (Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris). Add a little bit of vintage Spielbergian boy’s adventure and a whole lot of Rear Window, then give it to Colin Trevorrow, taking a break in between Jurassic World flicks and directing the final Star Wars film. We have to admit we’re very curious about this one.

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‘The Bad Batch’ (June 23)

She gave the world the greatest black-and-white Iranian-vampire spaghetti Western horror movie ever – now writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) has blessed us with an even stranger genre hybrid: the postapocalyptic female-empowerment cannibal buddy-flick road movie. A young woman (Suki Waterhouse) finds herself caught between a cult-ish leader (Keanu Reeves, in sleazy–Jim-Jones mode) and a weight-lifting outlaw (Jason Mamoa) with a taste for human flesh; with the latter’s daughter in tow, our heroine has to avoid being impregnated, eaten or simply left to die in some savage outlands. Also Jim Carrey shows up as a homeless wanderer, because of course. You’ll want to see this with someone you love. And then you’ll want to go out for a nice vegetarian meal afterwards.

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‘Okja’ (June 28)

Imagine an Eighties Spielberg movie weaned on laughing gas and The Omnivore’s Dilemma – that’s the most concise way of describing South Korean Bong Joon-ho’s fantastic, funky-as-hell tale of a young girl (Ahn Seo-hyun), the genetically modified giant “superpig” she loves and the anaimal-rights activists that are trying to keep the beast from becoming superbacon. Seriously, where else this summer are you going to find a CGI Totoro-lite creature, a strong anti-corporate message, Jake Gyllenhaal doing 32 different variations of daffy (while sporting Geraldo Rivera’s mustache) and not one but two Tilda Swintons? Trust us, it’s even stranger – and surprisingly more tender – than this synopsis makes it out to be.

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‘The B Side’ (June 30)

He’s profiled war criminals, Holocaust deniers, convicted felons and beauty-pageant winners gone bad – so exploring the life and art of photographer Elsa Dorfman must have seemed like a tropical vacation for Errol Morris. The venerable documentarian returns with an intimate portrait of an intimate portrait-taker, who began shooting famous folks in the 1970s and became known for using a mammoth Polaroid camera for her shutterbug portfolio in the 1980s. The title refers to the “reject” pictures her paying clients passed on, but it could also describe this Morris project overall – the flip side of his best-known, heavier deep-dive “singles” that still brims with his sensibility, curiosity and deep sense of empathy.

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‘The Little Hours’ (June 30)

We’re all big fans of the epic 14th-century story collection The Decameron – right? – and if you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered, why the hell have today’s crop of hot comedic actors not down their own bawdy adaptation of those classic sex-and-nuns stories? Finally, our prayers have been answered! Alison Brie, Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Dave Franco and a host of other funny folks bring Boccaccio’s boisterous tales to life, good taste and shyness about nudity be damned. Bring on the blasphemy, we say.

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‘City of Ghosts’ (July 7)

Where do you look for your next subject after you’ve just embedded yourself on the edge of the Mexican border’s drug war? If you’re Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman, the answer, apparently, is Syria. The documentarian covers the story of an anti-ISIS resistance movement that secretly filmed the terror group staging executions and spreading hate in the city of Raqqa; even once the group is forced to flee the region, they still combat the jihadists via getting their message out through international organizations and journalists in the West (and yes, Sundance-feted filmmakers). It’s harrowing stuff, and a grounds-eye look at what Syrians are doing to counteract what often seems like a no-win situation to those of us viewing the conflict from a safe distance.

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‘A Ghost Story’ (July 7)

If you’d told us that one of the most moving, profound movies we’d see this year prominently involves Casey Affleck walking around with a sheet covering his entire body – like those makeshift Halloween costumes you’d wear as a kid when you ran out of options – we’d have laughed ourselves into a coma. And yet, those two words are the best adjectives we can think of to describe writer-director David Lowery’s look at the spirit of a recently deceased man (played by the Manchester by the Sea Oscar-winner) who forlornly watches his wife (Rooney Mara) go on with her life. Think Wings of Desire, if that classic of posthumous stalking and moody contemplation took a hard left into Weirdsville in its last half yet never lost its soulfulness. There are few things more satisfying than watch a filmmaker and actors take a major gamble on something and have it pay-off. Bring tissues, and a beating heart.

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‘Chasing Coral’ (July 14)

From the folks who brought you Chasing Ice (no, seriously) comes this literal deep dive into the ocean’s reefs, tracing how many of these fantastic underwater gardens have been reduced to fossilized aqua-graveyards. Eco warriors, marine biologists and various citizens concerned about climate change (including an ad exec who doubles as a save-our-waters publicist) weigh in on the damage done and possible solutions, while viewers are treated to gorgeous nature-documentary photography and the occasional chart and/or graph. Sink or swim, people. Sink or swim.

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‘Lady Macbeth’ (July 14)

It’s a typical story: Boy meets girl (actually, it’s more like Victorian landowner buys girl to be ineffectual son’s wife). Girl, who’s not into the idea of being treated like property or a farm animal, begins having an affair with a hot stablehand (Cosmo Jarvis) during her husband’s absence. Boy returns home, Girl decides she’s going to upend the power structure on the estate and all holy hell breaks loose. Choosing a semi-famous novella by Russian author Nikolai Leskov as the source material for his first film, British theater director William Oldroyd crafts a historical drama that draws blood – the only thing more dangerous than a woman scorned is a young lady willing to destroy the patriarchy or die tryin’. It’s one of the most impressive debuts in ages, and in Florence Pugh, he’s found an actor who can turn a 19th-century heroine into someone who’s believably 21st-century fierce.

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‘Landline’ (July 21)

Every unhappy family is unhappy in their own unique way – and the family at the center of filmmaker Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to Obvious Child is unhappy in a very mid-1990s Manhattan middle-class way. As her Clinton-era clan deals with everything possible infidelities to potential club-drug problems, moviegoers get to watch an ensemble cast featuring indie-cinema veterans (Edie Falco, John Turturro), next-gen stars (Jenny Slate, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock) and one promising newcomer (Abby Quinn) mine laughs and tears. At this rate, Robespierre and Slate may end up being the Scorsese/De Niro of neurotic thirtysomething New Yorker dramedys.

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‘Menashe’ (July 28)

Set in the insular world of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s gentle comedy-drama about a widower (Menashe Lustig) trying to raise his young son and keep the relatives and neighbors who think he needs to remarry ASAP doubles as an immersive experience; you can tell the writer-director comes from the documentary world by the way he lovingly draws out details of the environment, the culture and its customs. And Lustig, an Internet sensation, knows how to make this mournful mensch seem both lovable and flawed. It has left-field sleeper hit written all over it.

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‘Person to Person’ (July 28)

Inexperienced crime reporters, sexually experimental teens, vintage-vinyl enthusiasts – the characters in writer-director Dustin Guy Defa anthology of witty vignettes feel like they might have stepped out of a particularly wry, cracked short story collection. You’ll come for the cast, which boasts not only alum from Arrested Development (Michael Cera), Broad City (Abbi Jacobson) and Seinfeld (Philip Baker Hall), but also Rookie editor-in-chief and fashion icon Tavi Gevinson.

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‘Icarus’ (August 4)

It starts out as a first-person gonzo doc, with filmmaker and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel shooting himself full of performance-enhancing drugs to see if these banned substances – and the folks who oversee such regulations – are all they’re cracked up to be. Then the director comes into contact with Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, who was in charge of testing the nation’s Olympians for PED usage … and then this film starts getting into some intriguing territory that goes way beyond someone pulling a Supersize Me regarding anabolic steroids. We won’t spoil the rest.

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‘Columbus’ (August 4)

A twentysomething woman (Split‘s Haley Lu Richardson) and a college professor (John Cho) who’s visiting his ailing dad cross paths in the Indiana-based city of the title; their chats about architecture, literature and life are the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Whether it will last past the gentleman’s trip, or turn into something deeper, is tough to say – but the fact the single-named filmmaker Kogonada turns their conversations and wandering around town into something complex, compelling and emotionally convincing is inarguable. It’s not a perfect movie, though it is perfect counterprogramming for blockbuster season.

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‘Wind River’ (August 4)

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has made a name for himself as a scribe with a knack for enlivening genre flicks – see Sicario and Hell or High Water. His directorial debut mines similar ground: a dead Native American woman is found by a game tracker (Jeremy Renner) in the snowy hills of Wyoming, and an out-of-town FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping find out whodunnit. But it also shows the same knack for writing the sort of characters that transcend the usual archetypes (or stereotypes), as well as a facility for working with actors; this may be the best work Renner has ever done. There’s a texture to this procedural that you just don’t find in American movies that much anymore. And if that isn’t enough for you, it also has one of the best men-vs-sniper set pieces in ages.

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‘Step’ (August 4)

A breakout hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Amanda Lipitz’s documentary follows several African-American students in South Baltimore who are hoping to take their high school step-dancing teams to the finals. Over the course of the year, we watch them train, fight, fill out college applications and try to plan their future – and we also get to see how this art form offers a sense of self-worth for these kids, how their situation underlines the options that P.O.C. and young women have in modern-day society and how it takes a village to make sure that talented folks can rise above often trying circumstances. You’ve heard the term “feel-good movie of the summer”? This is a strong contender.

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‘Annabelle: Creation’ (August 11)

Because what’s creepier than a haunted doll, you ask? How about an old-timey origin story involving dead children, demonic possession and 1930s rustic-chic decor? This crazy-spooky prequel to The Conjuring spin-off – try saying that 10 times quickly – goes back to the beginning, as the dollmakers responsible for this Satanic playtoy bring a bunch of orphans into their household. It seems they lost their daughter in a tragic accident years ago, and now a girl (Talitha Bateman) is supposedly seeing their otherworldy offspring around the house, and well, you know the drill. Things go bump in the night. There’s creaking and shrieking. Sudden appearances of a porcelain figure cause audiences to scream. You’ll never sleep again.

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‘Ingrid Goes West’ (August 11)

Cool, we needed a Single White Female for the social-media age. And who better than the astounding Aubrey Plaza – one of the few modern actors who could sell this sexy/menacing/batshit insane TV moment – to play a mentally unbalanced, emotionally unstable young woman who becomes obsessed with Elisabeth Olsen’s SoCal mover and shaker. As the title tips off, our cracked anti-heroine decides to pay her idol a visit, and then befriend her, and then slowly start to look like her, and … well, you can probably guess what happens next.

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‘The Glass Castle’ (August 11)

We need to stop taking Woody Harrelson for granted. No, the actor isn’t wanting for work: IMDb lists him in six movies in 2017, from smaller quirkfests like Wilson to the new Planet of the Apes blockbuster, and he’s filming a role in the Young Han Solo joint slated for next year. But the fact that he’s everywhere sometimes makes you forget just how great an actor he can be – and this adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ memoir about growing up poor and poorly parented doubles as a reminder. Director Destin Cretton’s follow-up to Short Term 12 reunites him with star Brie Larson, who plays the New York journalist dealing with a legacy of familial strife and casts Naomi Watts as her flighty artist mom. But it’s Harrelson, bringing Walls’ free-spirit, spirits-drinking father to life, who knocks you sideways here. Charming and adventurous one second, monstrous and moody the next, he ends up playing the emotional scales here. Attention’s gotta be paid, folks.

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‘Good Time’ (August 11)

Much like his former franchise costar Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson has spent the last several years trying to remind people that he is (and was) capable of much more than blockbuster brooding – and this sumptuously scuzzy, gritty crime drama from the Safdie brothers feels like he’s that much closer to shedding his Twilight-persona skin once and for all. Our man Robert plays an outer-borough bank robber whose literal partner-in-crime – his mentally challenged brother, played co-director Ben Safdie – gets nabbed by the fuzz. He then spends the rest of the film trying to get his brother away from the law while also avoiding capture. Yes, the title is ironic, why do you ask?

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‘Nocturama’ (August 11)

A group of young, fresh-faced Parisians are all traveling throughout the city; they’re all of different social and ethnic backgrounds, they all seem to know each other and they all seem to know something we don’t. When they all later meet up in a closed department store, having each hid in dressing rooms and dark corners until the place shut down for the evening, they began to discuss the day’s events – which turn out to be a highly coordinated series of terrorist attacks they may have been responsible for. French cinema agent provocateur Bertrand Bonello is playing with fire here, and word on the festival circuit is that his exploration of youthful ideology turning into destructive actions has its passionate advocates and equally amped-up detractors. We can’t wait to see which side we’ll be on.

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‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ (August 11)

Having recently graduated college, a bright young man (Green Room‘s Callum Turner), with a bright future and a bright young lady love, strikes up an affair with an older woman (Kate Beckinsale). Then he finds out his dad has a mistress. Three guesses as to who she is. Jeff Bridges costars as, per Deadline, “an eccentric author who lives in the same building … and
becomes his adviser as the grad tries to navigate the chaos,” which is a sentence that makes us undeniably giddy. Marc Webb, he of (500) Days of Summer and that second round of Spider-Man movies, directs.

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‘The Trip to Spain’ (August 11)

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, various exotic locations, incredible food, middle-aged malaise and loads of celebrity impersonations – if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, right? The third of the Brit comic duo’s road-movie travelogues finds them traipsing around the Spanish countryside, sipping coffee and sampling hams and wringing their hands over how empty the endless chase for fame and familial bliss is – so yes, it’s exactly like the first two Trip movies. But what these gents and director Michael Winterbottom have cooked up with these meta-excursions into regional cuisine-porn works well no matter where you drop them, and the fun of spending two hours in their bickering, bantering company hasn’t worn off at all. And their Mick Jagger impressions are solid gold.

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‘Whose Streets’ (August 11)

We all know what happened on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot by police officers – and this you-are-there documentary details the protests, the confusion and the rage as it was happening. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis assemble lots of camcorder footage of angry citizens facing down cops and armored assault vehicles there to “keep the peace,” but they also let the city’s African-American community use the movie as a megaphone, broadcasting their frustrations, their fear and their fury over their treatment by local law-enforcement. It’s both a recording of a moment and a potent cri de coeur.

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‘Patti Cakes’ (August 18)

Her name is Patricia Dombrowski, but you can call her by her nom du battle rap: Patti Cake$. And as played by newcomer Danielle Macdonald, this young New Jerseyite is a bullied misfit, a poverty-class screw-up, the plus-size laughing stock of her neighborhood – and, once she lets loose some off-the-hook lyrics with her group PBNJ, a force of nature that you’d better recognize or else. This crowd-pleaser about a hip-hop underdog going for hers has been wowing folks on the festival circuit since it premiered at Sundance, and you can see why Fox Searchlight went nuts over it – the appeal of a story about a Garden State Rocky with a gift for gab instead of jabs, played by a lead with a dynamic screen presence, is, like its heroine, not to be underestimated.

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‘Beach Rats’ (August 25)

For those who like their indies melancholy, regionally specific and white-hot homoerotic, Eliza Hittman’s scrappy drama about a young dude (Harris Dickinson) bro-ing out with his buds on Coney Island and picking up older men online is pretty much a must-see. It almost feels like a lost movie from the early days of Sundance, when dark (literally and figuratively) character studies didn’t feel the need to wrap everything up in pretty narrative package. And Dickinson is a find – the sort of actor that can suggest Channing Tatum-ish hunkiness and raw, unfiltered moodiness.