Oh, Man…

Jessie Buckley navigates a nightmare of toxic masculinity

Harper (Jessie Buckley) finds herself in a creepy tunnel in ‘Men.’

Men
Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear
Directed by Alex Garland
Rated R
How to Watch: In theaters May 20, 2022

The so-called “battle of the sexes” takes a weird, wild turn in this smart, savage broadside about the abhorrent behaviors of men.

In this horrifically hallucinatory tale, a grieving young woman retreats to the English countryside after witnessing a terrible incident—she watches her husband plummet to his death from the top of their urban London high rise.

Harper (Jessie Buckley) is haunted by the memory of her husband hurtling to the ground, but also by her vivid recall of him screaming that life wasn’t worth living without her. He threatened to kill himself if she went through on her plans to divorce him.

Then she did, and he did. Was his death a suicide, an accident or a departing flourish of frustration about not getting what he wanted? And was Harper somehow responsible?

The troubled widow heads out of town to a quaint countryside village to clear her head. Maybe a week alone in a sprawling rental manor, far away from the city and its reminders of the trauma she’s just experienced, will help settle her jangled nerves.

But, oh, is she ever wrong.

Even though she’s alone in the manse, Harper is never truly alone, and her trauma continues to deepen, intruding into her consciousness with jarring flashbacks. Every man she encounters in the village unsettles her in some way, reconnecting her with the emotional shock of her husband’s violent death.

There’s the overly chatty, socially clumsy owner of the manor; then a scarred, naked man, who follows Harper home from a walk in the woods, appearing to stalk her. There’s a bratty, foul-mouthed teen; a lecherous vicar; a thug from the pub; and a boorish, smugly dismissive constable.

And the men all look the same; for one thing, they’re all played, in a brilliant—and, in one case, CGI-enhanced—multi-character performance by Rory Kinnear (who’ll be recognizable to James Bond fans for his recurring franchise role as the head of MI6). Is the movie suggesting that all men are really, down deep, just the same? That no matter how any man looks, behaves or appears, it’s only a superficial coating, a thin disguise over who he really is? Is Men saying that lust, the drive to procreate and an egotistic need to dominate are the hard-wired motivators of any man…or every man?

The woods around Harper’s manor are creepy. The village is creepy. The absence of other women is creepy; except for a lone policewoman, there aren’t any other females around, anywhere. And the men are all creepy, existing on a spectrum of micro-aggressions that will soon become major aggressions, and creating a rising tide of oppressive, noxious masculinity that seems to permeate the very air that Harper inhales.

They invade the sanctity of her solitude, figuratively and then literally. They oppress her with their demanding haughtiness, insult her with their crude comments and threaten her with their primal yearnings. They intensify her crippling sense of guilt and deepen her psychic wounds. The teen, hiding behind a plastic trick-or-treat mask of Marilyn Monroe, insists to a disturbed Harper that she join him in playing a schoolyard game. The house owner chides her for eating an apple (“forbidden fruit”) off a tree in the yard. The vicar, who piously notes Harper’s culpability in her husband’s death, attempts to rape her.

Rory Kinnear as the vicar

It’s no wonder that her friend back in London (Gayle Rankin, who played the wrestler Sheila the She-Wolf on TV’s Glow) advises Harper on a FaceTime call that the only way to deal with these guys is take an axe from the woodpile and, well, hit ‘em where it hurts. Cut off the problem at its root, so to speak.

Buckley, the Irish actress most recently in The Lost Daughter, seems to relish playing characters who live beyond the surface of the mainstream, or inhabit its enigmatic, unfathomable underside—like the murderous nurse Odetta Mayflower in TV’s most recent season of Fargo, or the unnamed woman navigating the freakish, reality-shifting scenario of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As Harper, she pilots a course teetering on madness, awash in wonder, awe and bewilderment…and ultimately, spiraling into a living nightmare.

Men is the third feature film from British director Alex Garland, whose two previous movies—Ex Machina and Annihilation—were trippy sci-fi hybrids exploring the terrors in the breached boundaries of the known and the unknowable.

And there’s certainly a lot of unknowable spread throughout this film, interwoven with elements of ancient folklore, religious allegory and dreamlike symbolism—and that’s before things erupt in a wild, galloping grand finale of all-out horror and the undercurrent of masculine menace becomes a flood of jaw-dropping WTFs. Men may be several things, but as Harper runs an obstacle course of toxic masculinity, it becomes a bizarro indictment of abhorrent behaviors, tapping into an ancient vein that’s been coursing through civilization since time began.

The naked bloke turns into an embodiment of the Green Man, a mythological figure whose representations appear around the world, representing nature’s eternal cycles of life, death and rebirth. (And ain’t it just like a man, to try to take credit for the work of “Mother” Nature?) When Harper inflicts a grievous wound on one of the men, the same wound appears on all of them. (You’ll never look at a front-door mail slot, or a butcher knife, the same way.) And finally, in a slimy, gross-out sequence during which the men suddenly have the, ahem, genitalia of women, they “birth,” well…different iterations of themselves. And the film’s central premise becomes clear: The unchanging, ever-repeating nature of men is to perpetuate their masculinity, to continually assert themselves in violent, assaultive ways, and to forever feel a pathetic need to control women, minimalize their roles and usurp them.

Maybe some viewers will be turned off by the movie’s sudden shift into goop and gore. Maybe you’ll interpret it all as a truly feminist horror fable. Maybe you’ll remember the 1990s best-seller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, about the fundamental psychological differences between the genders. Maybe you’ll recognize the Elton John ballad, “Love Song,” which plays over both the beginning and the end of the movie. “Love  is the opening door,” he sings. “Love is what we came here for.”

Yeah, love may open the door. But if you’re on the other side, and especially if you’re a woman in the English countryside, in a creepy village where all the guys embody manhood’s worst, most loathsome attributes, it’s also probably a good idea to have a knife handy—or an axe.

A Boozy Mission

Zac Effron brings pop-a-top cheer to Vietnam troops

The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Starring Zac Efron
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Rated R

In select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Sept. 30

There’ve been a lot of movies about the war in Vietnam, and some of them have rightfully become classics: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, The Deer Hunter, Platoon. They all plumbed the intense human drama, the moral and ethical complications and the horrific realities of a prolonged conflict that cost nearly 60,000 American lives, plus with more than 3 million civilians and soldiers in North and South Vietnam.

There’s that league of masterpieces, then there’s The Greatest Beer Run ever. In beer terms, this movie’s a bit frothy and lite.

Zac Efron stars as “Chickie” Donohoe, a hawkish, mouthy New Yorker who decides to deliver some back-home barroom cheer to the neighborhood lads serving and fighting in Southeast Asia. He says he’s going there to hand-deliver them cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the local pub.

It’s 1967, and Chickie is a staunch supporter of the U.S. involvement in the war; he thinks protesters are “Commie bastards” and scumbags, undermining the heroic efforts of G.I.s to spread the American way. He thinks TV shouldn’t report “bad news,” only the great things our guys are doing. He’s a good-time-Charlle boozehound who freeloads off his parents, doesn’t follow through on anything and has made it so far on his cocky charms.

Even though his friends and his family tell him his idea is foolish, stupid, colossally dangerous and likely impossible, Chickie sees his beer run as his way of supporting the troops. “Everyone’s doin’ something,” he muses. “I’m doin’ nothing.”

So off he goes, with a bag full of brewskies.

Director and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the raunchy comedies he made with his filmmaking brother, Bobby, including Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, There’s Something About Mary, The Heartbreak Kid and a 2012 contemporary twist on The Three Stooges. He branched out in 2018 into more “serious” fare with The Green Book, which brought him a trio of Oscars.

Like Green Book, which was based on a true story—a Black classical pianist and his streetwise Italian driver find common ground on a trip across the Deep South in the early 1960s—Beer Run is also based on real retro events as detailed by the real-life Chickie in a 2020 book.

Zac Effron stars as Chickie Donoho in this sudsy saga based on a true story.

Efron, the former High School Musical Disney star, went on to big-screen roles in The Greatest Showman, the movie remakes of TV’s Baywatch, Steven King’s Firestarter and the musical Hairspray, and he played notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. He gives Chickie a kind a contagious, dunderheaded likeability; some of that might be mojo of the moustache he appears to have borrowed from Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds. 

It’s a somewhat whimsical, fanciful tale, about a young, preppy-looking American guy who hops off a U.S. Merchant Marine freighter into the hot zone with a sack of suds. And Farrelly leans on his light-touch comedy chops for running gags, bro banter, punchlines and scenes that point out the tall-tale absurdity of it all. But the movie’s tone is all over the place; the comedy often clashes with the raw, visceral realities of war, and the watered-down production values feel like hammy Hollywood hokum. There’s little “movie magic” to plunge viewers in the mud, blood and teeming turmoil of a country ripped apart by war.

But there’s plenty of magic in that duffel that Chickie dutifully totes around everywhere he goes. At one point, a soldier asks him how many beers are in there. “A bunch,” he replies. Indeed—it seems to be a bottomless pit of boozy sorcery, an endless well of pop-top refreshment. Chickie hands out Pabsts all over Vietnam, on the streets, in barracks, on the battlefield, even tossing them from a helicopter. It’s like Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks, a cartoonish stunt. Maybe Jesus had a Chickie bag full of loaves and fishes at the Sermon on the Mount.

The movie brings up issues of relevance, then and now—about lying government officials, the role and responsibilities of the media, a nation divided and Vietnam’s caustic toll. Chickie’s eyes are gradually opened to what’s really going on, watching in shock as a prisoner of war is tossed from a military chopper, or seeing first-hand the dirty work keeping the war machine humming. He comes to realize that, hey, maybe sending American troops to get involved in a civil conflict halfway across the globe, under the ruse of “fighting Communism,” isn’t such a swell idea. His bag of beer doesn’t change anything in Vietnam, or about Vietnam. It does, however, wash away Chickie’s delusions.

Russell Crowe plays a war photographer.

A chorus of cardboard-thin supporting characters pops in and out; this is Chickie’s movie, based on Chickie’s book, based on something Chickie did 50-some years ago, and everyone else is just along to shore up his chummy chronicle. Some two decades removed from the Roman-arena battlefield of Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays a gruff, weary war photographer. His size is, ahem, formidable, but his duties are small, just like the iconic Bill Murray’s portrayal of the flag-waving WWII-veteran bartender back at Chickie’s favorite Manhattan watering hole.

Don’t look for The Greatest Beer Run Ever to get any champagne toasts at next year’s Oscars. It’s a tidy little diversion, an over-simplified story about a shallow fellow who finally follows through on something and learns something else—something many Americans already knew—in the process. It didn’t end the war, but Chickie’s beer run changed his way of thinking.

It’s no Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, but it has just enough uplifting Green Book DNA to make this sudsy, somewhat superficial tale go down easy, like a foxhole quaff from one of the lukewarm ales rattling around in Chickie’s duffel bag.  

So, drink up. This beer’s on Chickie!

‘X’ Marks the Spot

Mia Goth stars in director Ti West’s stylish slasher-flick prequel

Mia Goth is Pearl, a homicidal maniac in the making.

Pearl
Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet & Tandi Wright
Directed by Ti West
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Wondering how an innocent farmer’s daughter becomes a raging homicidal maniac? Well, then, Pearl’s your girl.

Director Ti West’s carnage-packed, candy-colored creepshow is a prequel to X, his horror hit from earlier this year, which featured the character in an advanced age in the late 1970s, lusting for her youth and lost sexuality while preying on an amateur film crew secretly making a dirty movie out behind her barn. Former model-turned-actress Mia Goth played double roles in X, and she now returns as the younger Pearl.

For anyone who saw X (and that’s probably not a lot of you), Pearl fills in the early years and reveals the twisted roots of the young woman who’ll eventually become lethally handy with an axe and a pitchfork. (And a pet alligator.) If you didn’t see X, well, just sit back and watch the lurid nightmare unfold.

Set in 1918, it’s a slasher-flick homage to lavish, big-screen Technicolor spectacles of yesteryear, with overt winks to The Wizard of Oz, rah-rah musicals, war movies and classic Hitchcock. There’s even a nod to the modern world, as characters mask up a la COVID to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu, fearful of bringing the invisible invader into their homes.

Pearl is a war bride whose husband is away fighting “over there,” while she stays at home with her unyielding, German-immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and invalid, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland). Something’s not quite right with Pearl, and she knows it. “I’m worried there may be something really wrong with me,” she tells her sunny sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro). “I’m not a good person.”

A cooked pig crawling with maggots becomes a metaphor for the rot that eventually eats away the “good,” and the normal, inside of Pearl.

So, what turns her into a psycho? Maybe it’s being cooped up and confined, like the cow and the goat in their pens, inside a quarantined house with an overbearing mother and an unresponsive father. Maybe it’s because she feels no one ever hears her prayers, and the religious zealotry she’s been force-fed tastes bitter and empty. Maybe it’s her conflicted, confused feelings of sexual repression, and her marriage to a husband she knows she may never see again. Perhaps it’s her boiling-over frustration at being stuck in the middle of an American nowhere (actually, the movie was filmed in New Zealand), with dashed hopes of ever getting out and experiencing the bigger world, in Hollywood or perhaps even Paris.

And then there’s the obsessive tug of Pearl’s dreams, her fantasy of becoming a “follies” girl like the ones in the newsreels she sees at the local picture show. At an audition for a touring dancing troupe, she steps onstage, onto the “X” that’s been taped on the floor to show her where to stand—a mark that sets her identity, secures her place in the world, and seals her destiny of destruction. (It also shows that the anxieties—and crushed hopes—of contestants on contemporary TV talent completions, like The X Factor, America’s Got Talent or American Idol, certainly aren’t anything new. But will any of those wannabe’s become psychos? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.)

A bohemian movie projectionist takes Pearl for a ride.

David Corenswet plays the dashing movie-theater projectionist who flatters Pearl, telling her she can be anything she wants to be, go anywhere she wants to go. He also introduces her to his bed, and to pornography, stirring the tangled, matted mess of psychological, pathological madness in her head. (And suggesting that overheated fantasies of being up on the silver screen or the stage, becoming famous, can really mess up impressionable young minds.) When Pearl stops her bicycle to dry-hump a straw man in a cornfield, it’s a crazily carnal twist on Dorothy’s meeting with the scarecrow en route to Oz. Only there’s no Yellow Brick Road on Pearl’s highway to hell.

Goth is a British actress who had a notable supporting role in Emma (2020)—and got her movie start in the notorious two-part Nymphomaniac (2013), an erotic opus about promiscuous sexuality. In a bravura, gutsy performance, she pulls off the trick of making us feel both sympathy and revulsion for Pearl, whose severe emotional damage creates monstrously scary impulses. Is she crazy? Oh, yeah. Is she unhinged enough to lash out at anyone, or anything, that gets in the way of her dreams? For sure. Even farm animals—and prenatal alligators—aren’t safe.

Pearl shows her ailing father her swamp pet…at dangerously close range.

Yes, it’s violent. It’s bloody. It’s meant to be disturbing. But this super-stylized shocker has a wild, freakishly compelling story—about how mental illness and instability can turn almost anyone into a monster, in 1918 or today. And it’s all packaged with a stylish cinematic flourish and flair, and a splatter-y caution that echoes ancient folktales, about children longing to “leave the farm” for the big city.     

“Seems there’s something missing in me that the rest of the world has,” Pearl says at one point. “All I really wanted is to be loved.”

Something may be missing for Pearl, but Goth has certainly found it, in a horror franchise that now plans its third chapter, MaXXXine, about her character from X as the sole survivor of Pearl’s rampage in that film. (Stay through the credits to see the teaser.)

In her case, “X” indeed marks the spot.

Whodunnit?

Sam Rockwell & Saorise Ronan play mismatched cops in a multi-level murder mystery

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan star in ‘See How They Run.’

See How They Run
Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan & Adrien Brody
Directed by Tom George
PG-13

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Who’s up for a whodunnit?

A lot of people, apparently, given the wide popularity of TV police procedurals, hit shows like Only Murders in the Building, movies (Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile) and the evergreen murder-mystery conundrums of author Agatha Christie.

In this cleverly comedic clue caper set in the early 1950s, a London theatrical production—of a real Agatha Christie murder mystery—goes off the rails when an actual murder (Eeeeek!) occurs backstage. Soon, a jaded Scotland Yard police inspector (Sam Rockwell) and an overzealous young constable trainee (Saoirse Ronan) arrive on the scene to investigate.

And then, as they say, the plot thickens, into a zesty swirl of possible suspects, likely motives and dizzying distractions, as the two coppers dig into the dish-y high-drama dilemma. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” Rockwell’s experienced sleuth cautions his greenhorn partner, who’s eager to peg almost everything as a case-closing revelation—and nearly everyone as a culprit.

British director Tom George, who honed his craft with short films and BBC comedy, makes his solid feature film debut with the support of a fine ensemble cast and an affection for the gloriously retro grit and glitz of London’s yesteryear theatrical world. He also shows a witty grasp of turning the time-honored traditions of murder mysteries inside out, then back onto themselves, into something fresh and lively and frequently surprising. 

Ruth WIlson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson—there’s no shortage of suspects!

Rockwell, a versatile American actor with more than 110 movie and TV roles, adds a new character to his eclectic resume, which includes playing a stir-crazy astronaut (Moon), a superstar choreographer (Fosse/Verdon), President George W. Bush (Vice), a Nazi officer (JoJo Rabbit) and a groovy summertime guru (The Way Way Back). Here, he humanizes his role as the wry Scotland Yard veteran—limping along with a battlefield injury from World War II—with a rumpled, crumpled veneer of world-weary experience anchored to sobering physical and psychological wounds.

Ronan probably won’t net another Oscar nomination, to go along with her previous four, for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women. But she serves up a quaint, likeable, restrained turn that recalls her quirky work with director Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Like Rockwell, she subtly adds dimensionality to a role that could have been significantly thinner and more comedically drawn; Stocker, a war widow whose star-struck obsession with show biz is often good for a pun, is also an avatar of 1950s proto-feminism, a working-class mom determined to do her job and advance in it. 

Adrien Brody (who won an Oscar for The Pianist and appeared alongside Ronan in The French Dispatch) plays an American director in London to change whatever he must to refashion the West End stage sensation as a Hollywood movie hit—much to the chagrin of the outraged screenwriter (David Oyelowo), who’d rather adhere to traditional theatrical elements. There’s the film-to-be’s producer (Reece Shearsmith), sneaking around to hide his affair with his assistant (Pippa Bennett-Warner) from his wife (Sian Clifford, who played Claire on the TV series Fleabag).

Why was the theater manager (Ruth Wilson) so anxious to sell the movie rights to the play? What makes the star of the show (Harris Dickinson) and his actress spouse (Shirley Henderson) so smug? And what’s up with the usher (Charlie Cooper)? Does it have something to do with the sandbag counterweight that bonked him on his head?

The movie revels in classic murder-mystery conventions, giving them a deliciously self-aware twist. And it’s all a charming cinematic toast to the works of Agatha Christie, whose stories and novels have been turned into nearly 40 films and numerous plays—including six staged in London during the 1950s. One of them was, in fact, The Mousetrap, which is the very play at the center of See How They Run

On the stakeout.

Many of the character’s names are wink-wink references to other murder mysteries and actors. Director Alfred Hitchcock gets a shout-out, and so does ‘50s superstar Grace Kelly, who starred in four of Hitchcock’s films (including Rear Window, North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder) before she became Princess of Monaco. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard echoes the name of lauded playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, whose many works included a play about—much like See How They Run—a stage production rocked by a real murder. The inspector’s protégé, Constable Stocker, shares her name with the fictional detective Lise Stocker, who appeared in the French TV series Killer by the Lake. The play’s lead actor, “Dickie” Attenborough (playing a detective investigating the crime) might just be intended as a younger version—or a reminder—of the late, great British actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough, whose long career was capped off by his recurring role as John Hammond in the Jurassic Park franchise. The producer, John Wolff, is based on a real-life Oscar-winning Hollywood filmmaker of that same name, who brought several major projects (including The African Queen and Oliver!) to the screen.

Split-screen moments convey the idea that there’s more than one way to see things—quite apt for unraveling a murder mystery, where suspects and clues can be everywhere, anything might be significant, and no detail can be overlooked. A couple of scenes make use of mirrors, “looking glasses” that reflect reversed versions of the same image. At one point, the detective actor goes “Method” and incorporates a physical characteristic of the “real” detective, Inspector Stoppard; Stoppard later mimics—mirrors—the role of the stage actor. This inventive British potboiler, a mirror of classic murder mysteries, playfully blurs the lines between art and artifice, then sends them straight into a merry-mayhem loop-de-loop.

And in the final act of this film about a play being made into a movie, Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson) makes a significant appearance—and the grand dame becomes part of her own drama.

“It’s a whodunnit,” Brody’s director says early on. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Ah, not quite—and don’t be so quick to pre-judge the clue-sniffing charms of this meta ode to murder mysteries, the stage and the screen, which shows there’s still plenty of movie mileage in smoking guns, tainted tea, cocktails, mismatched cops and guys in felt fedoras.

In other words, as Inspector Stoppard advises, don’t jump to conclusions.   

Ain’t Got No Strings

Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ dusts off the age-old tale of the puppet who wants to be real

Tom Hanks plays Geppetto in ‘Pinocchio’

Pinocchio
Starring Tom Hanks, Luke Evans and the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Benjamin Evan Ainsworth
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Rated PG
Streaming Sept. 8 on Disney+

A classic fairy tale comes to magical life once again in this tall tale of a wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy.

Pinocchio, the little Italian marionette, has been around for quite a while—almost 250 years, in fact. His roots are in a novel published in the late 1880s by Tuscan author Carlo Gilodi, and his story “came alive” for American audiences with the beloved 1940 animated Disney film that’s still considered an unqualified House of Mouse-terpiece and a high-water mark for golden-age, hand-illustrated cinematic storytelling.

Following the vintage blueprint of the 1940 version, the new Disney version makes a few notable tweaks; some new things are added, some old things axed for this eye-catching combo platter of live performance and state-of-the-art computer animation. Pinocchio purists may flinch, but hey, the 1883 novel ends with a real downer—the little puppet is hanged and executed. So just keep that in mind; even Disney-fied, this is an existential “hero’s journey” cloaked in danger and a descent into darkness. Ol’ Walt felt the original Italian folktale was too harsh and off-putting, especially for his sunshine factory, so he scrubbed it up considerably in 1940.

Cynthia Erivo is the Blue Fairy.

This new-nocchio features the venerable Tom Hanks as Geppetto, the aging woodcarver and clockmaker who fashions a “boy” puppet to fill the void of what is presumed to be the death of his young real-life son. After wishing upon a star—that his creation of pine could somehow come to life—his cottage is visited by the ethereal Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who grants the wish. Pinocchio (voiced by British newcomer Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) becomes sentient and animated, able to move without strings, but naïve to the ways of the world, its temptations and its treachery. So, Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph-Gordon Levitt), a dapper little insect onlooker, is appointed the role of Pinocchio’s conscious, an important barometer to help him steer right instead of wrong.

The Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that if he wants to be truly real, he must show himself to be “brave, truthful and unselfish.” And, as almost everyone knows, if he ever tells a lie, his nose will know—and grow and grow and grow.

Which, as it turns out, comes in handy.

And so begins Pinocchio’s wild adventures—kidnapped by a pair of street scallywags, a sly fox misleadingly named “Honest John” (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and his scraggly alley-cat cohort; sold as a novelty into puppet slavery to the greedy, bloated showman Stromboli (Italian actor Giuseppe Batson); escaping, only to find himself on Pleasure Island, where its cornucopia-carnival of anything-goes “pleasures” turn out to be only temporary.

And then Pinocchio ends up in the belly a fearsome sea creature known, appropriately enough, as Monstro.

How and this all wraps won’t be any surprise to anyone familiar with the tale, but one of Disney’s new tweaks is the ending—perhaps not as satisfying as a lot of people would wish, and that’s all I’ll divulge about that. But the story’s overtones about honesty, heroism and the importance of good behavior are very much intact. And kids: Stay in school!

Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket

And this being Disney, in the modern enlightened age of flagrant self-promotion, you’ll even get a wink-wink, yuk-yuk reference to actor Chris Pine (who’s starred in five Disney movie projects, including Into the Woods and A Wrinkle in Time), and a cuckoo display of characters from other classic Disney films, from Snow White to Roger Rabbit and Toy Story

Erivo, the Oscar-nominated British actress who’s played slave activist Harriet Tubman and musical legend Aretha Franklin, shines (literally) in her one scene as the Blue Fairy, a beacon of light belting out the memorable tune from Disney’s 1960 version that became a an Oscar winner—“When You Wish Upon a Star.” Another familiar song from the classic animated version is “High-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” and Pinocchio sings “I’ve Got No Strings” while he’s prancing on stage with a squad of can-can marionettes. But Jiminy Cricket is robbed of his signature song, “Give a Little Whistle,” which is a bit of a bummer.

Luke Evans—most recently starring in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers—has an enhanced, singing/dancing role as the coachman, who drives kids to their fates on Pleasure Island, and Lorraine Bracco is the voice of Sofia, a helpful seagull.

Director Robert Zemeckis knows movie magic—he took us Back to the Future in two movie sequels, marooned Tom Hanks in Cast Away and gave the world Forrest Gump. His stylish new spin on Pinocchio is a dazzling display of filmmaking, a seamless integration of hyper-realistic FX and human actors. Appropriate, I’d say, for a story about a wooden boy who longs to become real.

An artful new spin on an old, old tale, it likely won’t become a new-age Disney classic—not so long as the 1940 original is around, anyway. But this solidly fanciful fable vibrantly, creatively dusts off the years from pop culture’s most famous puppet.

And I’m not just pulling your strings.

Murder, She Tweeted

Bloody Gen Z murder mystery slashes conventions of teen slasher horror with sharp satire

Maria Bakalova, Amandla Stenberg, Myha’la Herrod & Rachel Sennott

Bodies Bodies Bodies
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakakova, Rachel Sennott & Lee Pace
Directed by Halina Reijn
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Aug. 12, 2022

In the genre of horror movies, there are some time-honored “rules” that almost always get broken, tropes that set the horror into motion: Don’t go in the basement! Don’t look in the attic! Don’t walk through the woods! Stay out of that creepy old building! Leave that weird doll alone!  

Now we can add: Don’t attend an overnight house party with a gaggle of spoiled, narcissistic Gen Z’s. Especially in a storm.

In this wickedly sharp slasher-flick semi satire, a group of young 20-somethings gather at the well-appointed home of one of their friends to ride out a hurricane they know is about to hit.

Pete Davidson

The young cast is excellent. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, from The Hate U Give and the Hunger Games franchise), a recovering addict, arrives with her new lover, the shy “outsider” Bee (Maria Bakalova, previously Borat’s daughter), a working-class college student from Eastern Europe. They meet the others at the home of Sophie’s childhood friend, the dissolute David (SNL’s Pete Davidson), who’s there with his girlfriend, Emma (Chase Wonders), an aspiring actress. Alice (Rachel Sennott, a standout in Shiva Baby) is a spacey podcaster accompanied by her older Tinder date, the enigmatic Greg (Lee Pace, whoplayed an elven king in the Hobbit trilogy). And the skeptical, smoldering Jordan (Myha’la Herrod, who starred in the British series Industry, as well as on Broadway in The Book of Morman) doesn’t seem to trust anyone.

There are no parents around, plenty of booze, pot and cocaine, and even some playful fun and games. One involves shot glasses and everyone taking turns slapping each other silly; the other is a parlor lights-out whodunnit from which the movie takes its name, wherein the group tries to ferret out the “murderer” among them, using glowsticks and smartphones to illuminate the darkness. What a blast of unfettered, let’s-be-bad bacchanalia! What could go wrong?

Everything, when the electricity punks out, the wi-fi crashes, and someone ends up dead with a slashed throat. And the tempest brewing inside the house becomes a far greater threat than the wind and rain howling outside.

It’s a classic, stormy-night setup with a savage, subversively on-point new-age spin about kids with mega-money, arsenals of sassy ‘tude and easy access to just about anything—who are now faced with the grim reality of maybe losing everything, including their lives. It’s not a “horror movie,” at least in the traditional sense; there are no monsters, ghosts or devil dolls. But it brings the horror, all the same.

Rachel Sennott

Dutch director-auteur Helina Reijn works the time-honored “teen terror” setup but gives it a riotously bloody twist, skewering these young, self-absorbed children of wealth and privilege as the characters begin to suspect—and then turn on—each other with piercing putdowns, vicious verbal backstabbing and sneering jabs of jealousy. Maybe the murderer is him…or her…or Max, who gave David a black eye, then left before everyone else got there.

“You’re so toxic!” Emma tells Alice. “Why are you being so mean?” another wails. And then, “Your parents are f—ckin’ middle class! They teach at a college.”

210608_A24_BBB_Portraits_05__0063.tif

These youngsters, who live in the savvy social-media world of TikTok, Google calendars and group text chats, revert to something much more basic, lo-fi and primal when they have to figure out their for-reals whodunnit…and how to survive the murder-mystery night. Their rich-girl issues about class, gender fluidity, identity, trauma, self-image, mistrust, microaggression, love and sex come spilling out.

And so do the knives, so to speak—as well as a machete, a gun, and a hammer.

As the body count continues to rise, you’ll likely find yourself rooting for another horror-movie trope, the “final girl,” a female character who proves herself virtuous enough—and resourceful enough—to outlast everyone else.

Who will it be? I certainly won’t tell—and I also won’t divulge the gut-punch surprise at the end, courtesy of an iPhone unlocked with some inventive facial recognition.

So, sit back, throw on a neon-hue glowstick necklace and watch this murderously clever Gen Z meltdown—and the pile-up of Bodies Bodies Bodies.   

Yep!

Director Jordan Peele’s masterful space-invader opus is pure summer magic

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea star in ‘Nope.’

Nope
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer & Brandon Perea
Directed by Jordan Peele
Rated R
In theaters Friday, July 22

Something’s up in director Jordan Peele’s epic new sci-fi space-invader opus. Something’s up there. Does it appear to be friendly?

Nope.

But is it exciting, terrifying, horrific and out-of-this-world amazing?

Yep!

Peele, who established his creep-show bona fides with his two previous horror flicks, Us and Get Out, continues his penchant for cryptic, less-is-more titles with Nope, which sets a tone of ominous, unsettled tension at its very beginning. An obscure quote from the Old Testament prophesizes devastation and destruction; we glimpse a horrific incident on the set of a 1990s TV sitcom featuring a chimpanzee; a lethal spew of deadly metallic debris rains from the sky.

Something’s up, indeed. And something’s going down in this masterful flying-saucer extravagana that takes social-commentary swipes at capitalism, kitsch entertainment, animal exploitation, the human need for spectacle, a reckoning for Black history and the American dream itself.  

Daniel Kaluuya, the British actor who also starred in Get Out, is O.J. (it stands for Otis Junior), a level-headed second-generation horse wrangler who notices strange things in the canyons around his isolated ranch outside of Los Angeles, where his family has for decades raised and trained animals for Hollywood movie productions. The horses are acting weird, like they’re spooked. There are unexplained power outages, otherworldly screeching noises, and… something—something enormous—in the sky, hiding behind the clouds.

O.J. and his hungry-for-fame sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), decide to document whatever it is, whatever it’s called—UFO, or UAP, for “unidentified aerial phenomena”—and get the video out into the world, maybe even on Oprah. They enlist an eager local AV tech (Brandon Perea) and a craggy Hollywood cameraman (veteran British actor Michael Wincott) to assist them getting “the money shot” that will bring them acclaim and fortune.

Steven Yeun as Ricky “Jupe” Park

Stephan Yeun (he wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed Minari) has a pivotal role as Ricky “Jupe” Park, the propitiator of a “California Gold Rush”-themed theme park, Jupiter’s Claim (it’s a fictional place created just for the film, but it now has its own website, and it’s been transported and meticulously reconstructed, in whole, at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park). There’s something weird going on at Jupiter’s Claim too, and you’ll start piecing things together as you learn about Park’s traumatic past as a child actor, and notice, hey—isn’t that a spaceship woven into the back of his rhinestone suit?

Space references are everywhere, from a poster of Cape Canaveral—NASA’s famed rocketry site in Florida—to a simian named Gordy (a subtle nod, perhaps, to Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, the youngest of NASA’s groundbreaking Mercury astronaut program in the 1960s),  and our solar system’s largest planet acknowledged in the name of a theme park. Like the American West once was, Nope recognizes that outer space—and its unfathomable, unknowable secrets—has become the new frontier.

Nope is Peele’s most ambitious project yet as a filmmaker, a Wild West space-alien epic with overtures of Spielberg (E.T. and even Jaws) that challenges Hollywood’s time-honored concept of bug-eyed “little green men,” what intergalactic travelers might look like, or do, or why they might be interested in us. Like his other films, its horrors are deep and wide; Peele turns the world itself into a haunted house, full of intense, subversive terrors and impenetrable enigmas. And he knows that things can be even more terrifying when we don’t understand them, can’t compartmentalize them, or find them difficult to rationalize.

There have been many, many other movies about space aliens, spinning the idea that we are not alone in the universe. But has there ever been a movie like this one? A movie that plumbs the existential human condition with an electrifying tale of horse-riding Black buckaroos, a crazed chimpanzee and mega-hungry cosmic party crashers, creating the summer’s hottest, must-see fright flick?

Well, Nope!

All the Small Things

The little yellow nubbins return for more squatty shenanigans

Minions: The Rise of Gru
With the voices of Steve Carell, Russell Brand, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh & Alan Arkin
Directed by Kyle Balda
Rated PG

In theaters Friday, July 1

The fifth installment of the popular animated franchise featuring the small, scene-stealing yellow nubbins goes back to the ‘70s to uncover the riotously funny roots of its central character, the comedically earnest wannabe-villain, Gru. It’s both a sequel and prequel, connected to the preceding Despicable Me flicks and continuing the spotlight on the slapstick shenanigans of Gru’s mini army of squatty accomplices.  

We meet Gru (voiced again by Steve Carell) as a roly-poly schoolboy, where he’s mocked by his classmates for his career aspirations to be the best bad guy of all time. At home, he retreats to his basement—his lair—where dozens of chattering little Minions merrily do his pint-size bidding.  

A recent opening in the ranks of the Vicious Six, a cadre of supervillains, gives little Gru a possible entre to the bad-guy big leagues to earn his evil bona fides. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot—especially when Gru’s efforts to impress the Six with his stealthy thievery backfires and puts him in peril, spurring the Minions to come to his rescue.

Steve Carell provides the voice of 12-year-old Gru

Animator-turned-director Kyle Balda revives the lively, full-throttle comic-book style of the previous films (three Despicable Me flicks and their 2015 spinoff, Minions) with this rockin’ retro riff on the music, culture and movies of the mid-1970s as Gru and the Minions find themselves in the middle of a mighty—and mighty hilarious—misadventure.

Youngsters won’t get a lot of the references, but their parents—and grandparents—will dig the groovy sounds and sight gags, which place the story in San Francisco in 1976. There are nonstop in-jokes about the time and place, from rotary telephones to motorcycle daredevil Evil Knievel and kung-fu fighting. The city’s famous streetcars are used for comedic effect, and both Chinatown and the sea lions of Fisherman’s Wharf are incorporated into bits.

The funny flies fast and furious, equally applied to teeny tiny details and major story blocks—a mention of S&H Green Stamps, a cover of Mad magazine, an 8 track tape self-destructing (Mission: Impossible style) after playing its secret message, a sequence that pays homage to the tomb raiding of Indiana Jones. The funky, feisty bad-ass-ery of Bell Bottom (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), the motorcycle-mama leader of the Vicious Six, is a throwback to the “blaxploitation” movies of the era, like Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and Coffy.

A massive music store—called Criminal Records—is a false front for the Vicious Six, where Gru is admitted by playing a record (appropriately enough, Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”) backwards in a listening booth. (And yes, kids, those used to be a thing.) The clerk at the store gives Gnu a super-handy smart-goo grabber he’s invented, one that he’s nicknamed “Sticky Fingers.” A torture device is a giant turntable and endless replay of The Tramps’ “Disco Inferno.”

Gru dances to a self-stylized version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and the familiar strains of “Funkytown,” The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” all provide pop-cultural grounding as well as sonic hooks to whatever’s happening onscreen. You’ve never heard The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” until you hear it, and see it, performed in a cemetery by a choir of Minions. One particularly zany sequence, on a wild-ride commercial airline flight, is scored to Strauss’ graceful “Blue Danube” waltz—making an in-joke nod to the bedazzling sights of outer-space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That record store clerk (voiced by Russell Brand) will show up again—actually, he’s shown up before—in the Despicable Me-verse. Eagle-eye fans of the franchise will spot plenty of other details, and some characters, that they’ll recognize from previous films.

Other voices are provided by Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays Jean Clawed, a baddie with massive lobster claws for hands. Lucy Lawless is Nunchuck, a nasty nun with awesome nunchuck skills. Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) is a mild-mannered massage therapist who schools the Minions in the ancient art of combat. Alan Arkin has a sizeable presence as Wild Knuckles, an ousted member of the Six who becomes a reluctant mentor to young Gru. There’s also Danny Trejo and Dolph Lundgren, and Gnu’s mom certainly doesn’t look like Julie Andrews, but the iconic Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music star once more returns to the role. Rapper RZA is an Easy Rider-style biker.

Rapper RZA provides the voice of a biker.

French animator Pierre Coffin (who directed three previous Despicable Me movies) again supplies all the hyper-expressive, yip-yappery gibberish of the Minions in a made-up mashup of childlike nonsense babble with occasional bursts of French, Spanish or English.

The younger set likely won’t catch the many flashback cues or be much interested in how much care, creativity, comedic precision and meticulous animation craftwork went into the filmmaking process; it all looks gorgeous, by the way, as its zooms through its brisk, 90-minute runtime. But I can guarantee little ones will tee-hee at the mild bathroom humor, get gob-smacked by the giddy, over-the-top onslaught of visual pop and pow, giggle at the crazy antics of the Minions and rev up to the gonzo-goofball pace of it all.

Another Minions movie? You might be tempted to say “Meh” and take a pass. But you’d miss the undeniable charms churned up by this zippy, laff-riot fun factory and these little banana-colored bumblers. In today’s darkening world of disease, war and division, the Minions again offer the opportunity to come together and bond in a bright yellow light of rampant imagination and unbridled silliness.

And well, yeah—the timeless amusements of butt cracks and fart noises.

The Boogieman’ll Get You

Ethan Hawk goes for real-life horrors as a neighborhood monster

The Black Phone
Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and Jeremy Davies
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Rated R

In theaters Friday, June 24

That old boogeyman, stranger danger, strikes again in this creepy, skin-crawlingly scary tale of abducted kids and a neighborhood monster who trolls for his victims in a van filled with black balloons.

Newspapers and news reporters, addressing the rising tide of missing children, refer to him as “The Grabber” for the way he seemingly snatches kids right off the streets, after which they are never seen or heard from again.

It’s a living nightmare for the residents of this community in North Denver, Colo., where the movie—set in 1978—begins with a closeup of a can of the local commodity, Coors beer, being popped open at a high school baseball game. Everyone’s watching the young pitcher, Finney (Mason Thames), hurling hit-resistant fastballs and curveballs out on the mound.

“Your arm is mint,” says an opposing player admiringly.

Finney’s a smart kid, into model rocketry, and he has a sweet, awkward crush on a pretty young classmate (Rebecca Clark). But he’s bullied at school, until his karate-kid friend (Miguel Cazarea Mora) comes to his aid, with a little bit of advice—namely, that he won’t always be around to protect him. “You’re going to  have to stand up for yourself one of these days,” he tells Finney.

Those days come soon enough, when Finney fatefully encounters the Grabber as he’s walking home from school one afternoon. Wearing ghostly white face paint and a top hat, the stranger stumbles and fumbles out of his van (painted with the word “Abracadabra”), claiming to be an illusionist. “Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asks, before engulfing Finney in a cloud of black balloons, drugging him and tossing him into the vehicle. Finney awakens to find himself locked in a stark, soundproofed basement. Will his affection for science and model rockets, or his “mint” pitching arm and his athleticism, do him any good now? Stay tuned!

“Nothing bad is going to happen here,” the Grabber says while wearing a rubber mask of a grinning, leering devil, which doesn’t exactly reassure Finney—or us. The Grabber is a grotesque, unsettling sight, and he tells Finney to not get any hopeful ideas about the black rotary telephone mounted on the wall of the basement; that old thing hasn’t worked for years.

Finney’s situation seems dire indeed…until the phone starts ringing.

Mason Thames as Finney, who gets mysterious calls on an out-of-service phone

Telephones have an often-overlooked role in the pantheon of horror cinema, from the murder of a babysitter by a phone cord in Halloween (1978) to the sinister inside-the-house stalker of Scream (1979) and the dreaded you’re-about-to-die call in The Ring (2005). Some flicks have been even more on-the-nose, like When a Stranger Calls, Phone Booth and Murder by Phone.

This tale of telephone-connected unpleasantness is based on a story by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of horror-fiction maestro Stephen King. It’s the second film built around one of Hill’s pieces (the first was Horns in 2013), and like his famous dad, he knows how to wrap a deeply disturbing yarn in the snug tentacles of the supernatural. The basement phone is a lifeline to an afterworld realm, where Finney is mysteriously—somehow—connected with the Grabber’s former young victims, who offer him advice on how he might avoid their terrible fates. And Finney’s spunky, potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (a terrific Madeleine McGraw), has troubling “weird” dreams that may be clue-filled portents pointing to the whereabouts of the Grabber and her missing brother. Are her nocturnal reveries rare psychic gifts brought by prayer-time invocations to Jesus, or merely the fruits of a wild imagination? Her volatile, alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) thinks her dreams are signs of genetic psychosis and thrashes her with his belt to drive the thoughts from her head. Under those circumstances, how can Gwen make her father, and the local police, understand?

Madeleine McGraw plays Finney’s sister, Gwen

Once again showing his versatility as an actor, Ethan Hawke dives deep into his deliciously deranged, big-bad-wolf role as the Grabber, drawing us in close to feel—and fear—his unhinged, unpredictable malevolence. Hawke has immersed himself in supernatural weirdness and wonders before, in films like First Reformed and Sinister; he brought home the reign of murder and mayhem in The Purge (the O.G of that franchise, back in 2013) and most recently had a brief but brutally pivotal role in the bloody Viking revenge epic The Northman. As the Grabber, he’s a real-world monster hiding in plain sight, which makes him even more bone-chilling. It’s impossible to miss the connections between the gruesome Grabber and actual mass murderers and serial killers, such as “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and William Bonin, known as “the Freeway Killer,” who murdered 14 teenage boys between 1979 and 1980.

Director Scott Derrickson for sure knows how to get under your skin, as he did in his previous horror films The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister (also with Hawke) and Deliver Us from Evil. (He also directed Doctor Strange.) He creates a stylishly creepy, eerily effective, tightly wound atmosphere of dread, tension and edgy, ever-present danger. The movie’s DNA shows strands of the killer clown in It, the flashback goosebumps of Stranger Things and hints of the “dissociative personality disorder” driving the central character in M. Night Shyamalans Split. Thinking all the way back to Carrie, the 1976 classic that became Stephen King’s first movie adaptation, there’s a similar thread of profane skepticism about the effectiveness of religion in the face of full-on, impenetrable evil. The strong bond between Finney and Gwen might make you recall the young vampire and her devoted childhood bestie in Let the Right One In.

There’s violence and a bit of blood, serious childhood shockwaves and a couple of “jump scares” that will give you genuine jolts. One breathless, bravura sequence in particular—involving booby traps, an axe, a telephone receiver and a snarling, vicious dog—will have you holding your breath.

Jeremy Davies plays the dad of Finney and Gwen.

The attention to the detail of the late 1970s is impressive, from pinball and attire to chatter about TV’s Happy Days and The Partridge Family and kids riding their banana-seat Schwinns up and down the streets. Gwen’s dreams are depicted in sequences that look like grungy, grainy reel-to-reel home movies of the era (or the actual home movies that director Derrickson used to unravel Ethan Hawke in Sinister). Well-placed soundtrack tunes from the Edgar Winter Group, Pink Floyd and Sweet rock the retro vibe, which settles in like Licorice Pizza with a harrowing side serving of doom, fear and madness. It depicts a “simpler” time, before iPhones and internet, when entertainment was drive-in movies and late-night TV…and long-distance communication was done by rotary-dial telephones.

Like the black phone in the basement.

This nerve-jangling tale reminds us of both the tenderness and the toughness of childhood, how danger is always out there lurking and that some men can be monsters—and some monsters are men. It’s a ripping, vice-gripping procedural, a chilling dip into a horrific suburbia disturbia, and a heart-pounding slice of childhood trauma drama built on a troubling foundation of hometown terrors.

So, if you’re dialed into all that, well, The Black Telephone has your number.

All Shook Up

Austin Butler rocks the king-size role of Elvis Presley in ornate new biopic

Elvis
Starring Austin Butler & Tom Hanks
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Rated PG-13

In theaters Friday, June 24

The familiar Elvis Presley rags-to-riches story gets “all shook up” with this baroque, extravagantly epic dive into the life, music and career of one of pop culture’s most iconic superstars—and his manipulative, mysterious manager.

Baz Lurhmann, Australia’s most commercially successful mainstream filmmaker, has never been known for modesty in his movies, which include The Great Gatsby (2013), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Australia (2018). He always leans toward bigger not smaller, more rather than less, and over-sizing everything.

So, he’s perhaps the perfect match for telling the story of Elvis, who became the biggest, brightest, hottest comet to ever blaze across the musical sky. With record sales of some 1.5 billion, he’s often cited as the top-selling recording act of all time. He changed everything that came after him and re-jiggered most everything that came before him. Like Beatle John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Austin Butler is spectacular in the title role; he doesn’t particularly resemble Elvis physically, but he nonetheless becomes him in Butler’s often-uncanny channeling of Presley’s speech, gestures, movements and mannerisms. Add big, black sideburns and some movie sleight of hand, and he’s mesmerizing and believable at every “stage” of the familiar Elvis arc, from a lanky Southern mama’s boy to the lonely, exhausted Las Vegas headliner kept prisoner in a luxury penthouse.

Butler, who appeared in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as an ill-fated disciple of Charles Manson, also starred in TV’s Switched at Birth and The Carrie Diaries. This is his biggest, splashiest, most demanding role by far, and it’s a king-size performance in this king-size movie. He isn’t Elvis, of course. He’s the latest in a long line of actors (including Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Jack White and Michael Shannon) who’ve tried on the bejeweled jumpsuit, with varying degrees of success. But there are moments in the movie, in Butler’s eyes or the sensual snarl of his lips, and with a sprinkle of Hollywood sleight of hand, you’d swear you’re actually watching Elvis onscreen.

But Elvis isn’t just about Elvis—the movie is framed around the entertainer’s fraught relationship with his longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by the venerable Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Hanks, who narrates as Parker throughout the film, gets both the first and the last words of this florid tale. Wearing a fat suit, a fake bulbous nose and loads of facial prosthetics, the Oscar-winning actor lays on thick slabs of juicy Hollywood ham. But the character he’s playing is also a ham, a former carnival huckster who milked Presley as his personal cash cow, while keeping deep secrets about himself and his ulterior motives.

And this ultimate “snowman” turned Elvis into his personal carnival attraction, his closely guarded money machine.

Like Parker, Luhrmann is also a showman. He uses loads of razzle-dazzle to tell—and sell—this tale, a frenetic, whiplash, time-jumping, hyper-stylish fantasia that depicts Elvis’ career as it builds to a crescendo—then progressively consumes him. A childhood sequence unfolds in the pastel panels of a comic book; a photo of Presley on the front pages of the newspaper becomes animated and speaks; a ride on a Ferris wheel transforms into a spinning vinyl record, a visual bridge connecting Parker’s dubious carnival-con background to Presley’s skyrocketing career.

Alton Mason pays Little Richard.

The movie paints a damning picture of Parker, and rightly so. But it gives credit where credit is due when it comes to Elvis, especially in showing his deep musical grounding in Black R&B and gospel, how his cultural foundation was set by both the spiritual and the secular, in juke joints as well as tent revivals. We see Elvis’ early associations with Memphis bluesman B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), piano-pounding Little Richard (Alton Mason), soulful belter “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) and Delta singer-guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Arthur Crudup (played by real-life Texas blue-rocker Gary Clark Jr.). We watch as the young Presley launches his own career with his versions of some of those artists’ songs, notably “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right,” and takes them into the musical mainstream.

We see Elvis’ music shatter racial barriers of the era, as this “white boy” performing “Black music” unsettles stodgy segregationist conservatives, represented in the movie by country hitmaker and Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow (David Wenham)—though Snow’s young singer-wannabe son, Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is quick to grab onto Elvis’s high-voltage sizzle. We see the genesis of the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” and watch how his jaw-dropping onstage gyrations send female fans into spasms of orgasmic frenzy.

Army Elvis with wife-to-be Priscilla (Oliva DeJonge)

For Elvis fans, it’s all here: his beloved mother (Helen Thompson) and his ex-con dad (Richard Roxburgh); his romance and marriage to the lovely teenage Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge); his so-called “Memphis mafia” of close friends; his entry into military service and the spate of cheesy movie musicals he made after his discharge. There’s Graceland… here we are on Elvis’ tour bus… there’s Elvis boarding his personal airplane, named after his baby daughter, Lisa Marie. And there’s Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon), the physician who later joined his entourage to keep the drained, depleted, over-medicated Elvis “up” for his gauntlet of shows, jabbing Presley with a hypodermic needle when he collapses backstage.

As you might expect, there’s lots of music, a sprawling “greatest hits” patchwork that includes “Suspicious Minds,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Trouble,” “If I Can Dream,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Burning Love,” “An American Trilogy,” and what became Elvis’ trademark show-opener, the space-age theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some tunes are performed by Butler, others overdubbed with Presley’s actual voice, and still more pop up in the soundtrack by other artists, including Doja Cat, Jack White, Stevie Nicks, Eminem and CeeLo Green, and a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kacey Musgraves. The movie faithfully recreates landmark, detail-perfect TV appearances and performances—the 1968 Elvis “comeback” NBC special, his record-setting 1973 satellite concert from Hawaii, his four-year run as a sell-out headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Elvis shows how Presley’s music was not only a reflection of his roots, but also a response to the changing times, like the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the horrific murders of the Manson clan. And it depicts Elvis as a moody, broody, quietly ambitious megastar, one who worried about his legacy, who regretted never becoming a bona fide film actor (like his idol, James Dean), and whose oversized appetite for performing, for music and for his fans was a love that could never be requited by any real human relationship.

“You look lost,” Parker tells Elvis when he comes upon him in a carnival house of mirrors, confused by all the reflections. “Maybe I am,” Elvis says.

Yes, maybe he was. It’s easy to lose your way trying to figure out the real Elvis, to discern the real man behind his many reflections—hip-cat rockabilly, gospel devotee, blues lover, matinee idol, cultural agitator, proud American patriot, son, father and husband, Vegas workhorse. He was all these things, or he appeared that way to various people at various times. And he found himself, so to speak, by hitching his high-wire hillbilly wagon to Parker, a man who would later face accusations that his Machiavellian machinations drove Presley to his early death.

Elvis died, alone and in his bathroom, at the young age of 42 in 1977. But his music and his legend continue to live on, across the decades, and now through this gorgeously flamboyant cautionary tale about the high price he paid for his fame.

For his millions of fans, seeing this mega-movie (that stretches into more than two hours and 40 minutes) will become another reason why they “Can’t Help Falling in Love” again, and anew, with Elvis.

All Teeth, No Bite

Dinos roar to close out the franchise, but the iconic ‘Jurassic’ movie series has almost overstayed its welcome

Chris Pratt races to outrun a velociraptor

Jurassic World: Dominion
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern & Sam Neill
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Rated PG-13

In theaters June 10, 2022

You want dinosaurs? Well, here you go!

The sixth and final installment of the dino-rama started by director Steven Spielberg in 1993 is chock full of roaring, rampaging reptiles. They rise like leviathans from the roiling sea; they gallop over the plains and swoop out of the sky; they cause highway accidents and accost campers in parks. And you thought mosquitos, sharks and bear attacks were anything to worry about?

In Jurassic World: Dominion, dinosaurs are no longer contained in exotic tropical-island zoos or research facilities. They’ve busted out of their once-experimental, bio-engineered bubbles and now live as “wild animals,” causing a ruckus across the globe. As the movie opens, a newscast notes “37 dinosaur-related deaths reported last year.”

Forget fossils. These living, breathing alpha predators have become a disruption, a new notch in the food chain, a black-market commodity and a global challenge to humankind’s abilities to coexist and adapt.  

But dinosaurs aren’t the biggest problem. Instead, it’s the shady company BioSyn, which has been genetically making and replicating them, and possibly planning something even darker and more diabolical.

Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) reunite.

Who better to get in the dino drama than all the characters from all the Jurassic movies? It’s a reptile-romp reunion as Laura Dern and Sam Neill (who starred in the original Jurassic Park and its two follow-ups) re-enter the franchise, alongside Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard (from the two newer Jurassic World flicks). Jeff Goldblum, who straddles both the Park and the World, returns for more dry comic relief as chaos theorist/mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm. Another familiar face: B.D. Wong’s pioneering dino scientist, who’s having second thoughts about the havoc he’s helped to unleash on the world.

Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is neck-deep in dino trouble.

Isabelle Sermon reprises her role from two previous films as Maise Lockwood, the now-teenage granddaughter of one of the engineers whose bold DNA breakthroughs helped create the the original dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The fact that she is also a bio-engineered clone, like the dinosaurs, makes Maise immensely valuable for genetic research—and exploitation.

Colin Trevorrow (who directed 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) returns to the director’s chair and throws even more characters into the mix. DeWanda Wise is a tough-cookie pilot who gets involved in the adventure when Maise is kidnapped. Campbell Scott is a hissable villain at the helm of BioSyn, and Mamoudou Athie has a key role as a young rising star there.

It’s a packed movie, with a lot going on and a lot on its mind—the dangers of cloning, the responsibilities of science, our fragile ecosystem, corporate avarice, animal abuse and human hubris. Do dinosaur moms love their dinosaur babies? Where can you buy dino kabobs? Some of those things are addressed, true, in previous Jurassic movies, but they’re really hammered home here. And it’s certainly not a coincidence when a conversation brings up the Greek god Prometheus, whose legend is a mythological caution about the perils of “playing god.”

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a kick to see all the cast members from previous films together. “Wow, this is so trippy,” says Goldblum’s character, and he’s right; it’s a trip, among other things, down memory lane. The movie is full of nods and throwbacks and strains of its own cinematic DNA, like a fateful salute to the greedy, bumbling programmer played by Wayne Knight in the original, and when a fearsome Giganotosaurus attack puts everyone through a scene almost identical to the classic, frightful T-Rex encounter from 1993.

But much of the time, it feels like it’s stuck in its own nostalgia loop, with scenes and setups that don’t break new ground as much as retread it. And it just doesn’t feel very awesome anymore. When Spielberg’s Jurassic Park hit the big screen nearly three decades ago, it was a groundbreaking movie milestone, a benchmark of technological advancement and a gob-smacking wellspring of awestruck wonder. No one had ever seen dinosaurs depicted so realistically. But that was 29 years ago, and we’ve been treated to five subsequent films, each reflecting the newest advances in combining actors with digital dino danger. There certainly are a lot of dinosaurs, more than ever (plus a bonus menace of giant flying locusts) in Dominion. But now, seeing them doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We’re kinda used to it.

It’s a fitting, flashy, action-packed finale for a franchise that introduced the world to a new era of dinosaur movies—and became a hot property entertainment franchise with sequels, spinoffs and even theme-park rides. Our fascination with dinosaurs may never become extinct, but most good things eventually come to an end, and even Jurassic Park couldn’t stay open forever.

“Let’s finish this,” says Laura Dern’s character at one point.

By the time Dominion stomped and romped across the finish line at a somewhat belabored two and a half hours, I pretty much felt the same way.