Bad Trip

Florence Pugh Takes a Nightmare Trek to a Freak-Out Swedish Festival

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Midsommar
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor & Will Poulter
Directed by Ari Aster
R

What a trip. And I mean that in more ways than one.

When a group of young Americans trek to Sweden to attend a midsummer folk festival at an isolated commune, they find a colorful pageant of quirks and oddities.

In the pastoral village of Hårga, miles and miles from any city, everybody’s smiling, dressed in white, dancing and prancing. The solar light shines 24/7; it’s never dark beneath Sweden’s “midnight sun.” There are hallucinogenic ‘shrooms and drinks to share. People are tooting on flutes, strumming on strings, drumming on drums. It’s hippy-dippy, like a Nordic Bonnaroo.

Skol!

But this is a film by director Ari Aster, who last year gave us the supremely unsettling Hereditary, the hellzapoppin’ horror flick about a family that discovers something terrible and toxic just beneath the surface of its gene pool. There’s something terrible and toxic going on underneath the pastoral surface in Midsommar, too, and it doesn’t take long before it starts to show.

Like Hereditary, this movie is a slow-burning trip into the swirling vortex of a living nightmare, with characters who gradually discover the hallucinatory horrors that have unhinged, and overtaken, their normal world.

MIDSOMMAR

Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (right)

British actress Florence Pugh anchors the story as Dani, who accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on the trip, along with his bros, horndog Mark (Will Poulter) and cultural anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’ve been invited by their Swedish university friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up as an orphan in the commune and considers it his family. “It’s lots of dressing up,” he says. “Like theater.”

Dani is recovering from an almost unfathomable family tragedy, and her four-year relationship with Christian is showing some troubling signs of wear and tear. In Hårga, Christian forgets her birthday, and he begins flirting with one of the young “locals.”

So guess where all Dani’s grief, loss, anxiety, dread, worry, resentment and anger break loose and come pouring out, in a terrifying torrent of outrage, empowerment and awakening?

On one level, Midsommar is about a couple going through a really bumpy spell—a really bumpy spell, surrounded by eerily eccentric people dressed in white smocks, in the middle of nowhere, where things get creepier, and creepier still, and then really creepier, with every passing minute.

Director Aster masterfully cranks up the tension and the dread with every scene, taking his sweet, suspenseful time. This is horror as high art; there aren’t monsters that jump out of the shadows—for one thing, with no nighttime, there aren’t any shadows. It’s an elegant, deeply unnerving disturbia that scorches dark recesses of the imagination with savage, searing grotesqueries that will linger long after the credits roll (to the tune of the 1960s hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”).

MidSomIMDB_5 (72)

Will Poulter

What are those oversize mallets for? You’ll find out. What’s the deal with that big brown bear in the cage? You’ll find out about that, too. Why can’t anyone go into the triangular-shaped building at the end of the field? The weird drawings, glyphs and pictographs—on the walls, on the ceilings, everywhere? They all tell a tale, one that will play out for our characters, eventually. And that thing sticking up in the garden…is that a—

At the festival, visitors quickly learn a few basics—or at least they should: Don’t pee on the sacred tree. Stay out of the henhouse. No pix of the holy book! Beware the love runes. And go easy on the strained tea, the meat pies and the mushrooms. These villagers have some pretty strict rules, they take their traditions seriously and they believe in a rather rigorous, unforgiving system of punishment.

Who becomes the festival’s new May Queen, after a grueling maypole dance competition? I’ll give you one guess. What happens when old-timers age out of the “circle of life”? Apparently, Hårga doesn’t have retirement communities. And when girls are old enough to have sex, it’s a real community affair—making for one of the most queasy, bizarre, unerotic sex scenes of any film in a long time.

Pugh is on a roll playing strong women. Having previously rocked Lady Macbeth (2016) and Fighting With My Family (2019), in December she’ll star as “little sister” Amy March in Little Women, alongside Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and Laura Dern. Here, as Dani, she transforms tragedy and hurt into something fierce, ferocious and twistedly triumphant.

MIDSOMMAR

Midsommar shows you sights you never thought you might see. It’s a demon’s view of an outer circle of hell, a perverse celebration of darkness in full daylight, and a wickedly warped travelogue that makes good ol’ home sweet home look sweeter than ever.

What a trip, indeed. At a time when people are worried about going to the Dominican Republic, travel agents should be steering people away from places like Hårga. Midsommar takes you on a crazy, what-did-I-just-watch journey into a finely calibrated, macabre mind-scrambler of movie madness. You’ll be thankful you’re only visiting a fictional festival in a fictional place, in a film. But believe me, it will almost certainly revisit you—when the sun finally goes down, in your deepest, darkest nightmares.

In theaters July 3, 2019

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Spidey finds action, adventure & romance—and learns superheroes don’t take summers off

Zendaya (Finalized)

Zendaya gets a lift from her friendly neighborhood Spider-Man

Spider-Man: Far From Home
Starring Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jon Favreau & Samuel L. Jackson
PG-13

The combative, catastrophic events of Avengers: Endgame, earlier this year, were hard on superheroes. The Marvel casualty count was high, most notably Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Everybody needed a break after that cosmic battle royale, which marked the official finale of the Avengers franchise.

So you can’t blame anyone involved for wanting to chill out. Like Peter Parker (Tom Holland), the teenager who moonlights as Spider-Man, who’s really looking forward to his senior summer trip to Europe. A trek Over There is going to be a nice getaway with his friends, a chance to leave behind his super-suit—and his superhero responsibilities—and hopefully an opportunity, finally, to make a play on his crush, his oddball classmate MJ (Zendaya).

But not so fast. Trouble follows Peter to Vienna, where a massive, roaring water monster rises up out of the canals to wreak havoc—and a strange new character swoops in to defend the ancient city. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the eye patch-wearing former director of the superhero agency S.H.I.E.L.D, gives Peter the lowdown: That flying, fishbowl-helmet-wearing, caped Mysterio is an ally from another dimension who’s arrived to fight the Elementals, cosmic monsters who’ve arrived on our planet to take their powers from air, water, fire and earth.

And since Peter’s already in Europe, and none of the other Avengers are available, Fury recruits Spider-Man for Mysterio’s cause.

Tom Holland (Finalized);Jake Gyllenhaal (Finalized)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Mysterio

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, in his first comic-book-movie role, and you can add this to his long list of “interesting” characters—the gay cowboy of Brokeback Mountain (for which he was Oscar-nominated), the creepy news photographer in Nightcrawler, the obsessive, driven detective of Prisoners, the deeply disturbed novelist in Nocturnal Animals. He brings something special, compelling and sometimes unnerving to every movie in which he appears, and you can rest assured that his Mysterio—a shady character who’s been in the rogue’s gallery of Spider-Man comics for ages—lives up to his name.

As things move across Europe, from Venice to Prague and finally to London, the story builds on two parallel tracks—Spider-Man, Mysterio and the Elementals, and how all that complicates Peter’s plans to hook up with MJ, especially without revealing to her, or anyone else, his secret identity.

Samuel L Jackson (Finalized);Jon Favreau (Finalized)

Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau

Fury has a new suit (all-black) made to help Peter do his Euro web-slinging without anyone knowing he’s really America’s Spider-Man (the locals start calling him the Night Monkey). Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with Stark Industries strongly implies to Peter that the late Tony Stark/Iron Man had high hopes for the young man—and his potential not only as an Avenger, but as a leader. He gives Parker a set of high-tech, multi-billion-dollar “smart” eyeglasses, called EDITH (you’ll laugh when hear what the letters stand for), that make Alexa look like a Tinkertoy.

Marisa Tomei returns as Peter’s Aunt May, with a new romantic interest of her own. J.B. Smoove and Silicon’s Valley’s Martin Starr get chuckles as hapless class chaperons. Ned (Jacob Batalon), Betty (Angourie Rice) and Flash (Tony Revolori) reappear as Peter’s classmates and also help keep the humorous high-school vibe flowing.

There’s action and laughs, danger and derring-do, comedy and close calls—and surprises and shockers and one real golly-whopper of a game-changer, and if I say much more about the movie, readers will hate me.

It may not be quite as polished and punchy and near-perfect as director Jon Watts’ first Spider-Man outing with Holland, Homecoming (2017). But it’s still a fine entry in the post-Avengers MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) franchise, which now looks to other superheroes to carry the torch—and drive the formidable box office. Even though he’s now 23, Holland still manages to convey the youthful angst of one of Marvel’s most popular characters as he grows into the responsibilities that go with his sticky superpowers.

“I didn’t think I was gonna have to save the world this summer,” Peter laments.

Superheroes, Spider-Man learns, don’t get summers off—even when they’re Far From Home.

In theaters July 2, 2019

 

Get Back

Lily James & Himesh Patel Imagine There’s No Beatles

Film Title:  YesterdayYesterday
Starring Himesh Patel & Lily James
Directed by Danny Boyle
PG-13

A struggling musician gets his big break when a freak accident bestows him with a cache of musical gold in this magical mystery tour from the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 127 Hours.

In Yesterday, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a young Indian-British singer-songwriter who’s been slogging it out for years, singing his tunes on street corners, in coffeehouses and hotel bars. With his dreams of success quietly fading away, he finally tells his faithful manager, Ellie (Lily James), his schoolmate chum who’s now a schoolteacher, that he’s had enough.

Film Title:  Yesterday

Himesh Patel with Lily James

“It’ll take a miracle” to make his career happen now, Jack says. “We’re at the end of our long and winding road.”

That very night, Jack gets his miracle. He collides with a bus while riding his bicycle home—at the very moment of a mysterious, 12-second worldwide blackout, a glitch in the global power grid. When he wakes up in the hospital, he’s mostly OK, but the world is a bit askew: Nobody except him remembers a group called the Beatles, or any of their songs.

Can you imagine? A world that never knew “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? That never swooned to “Something”? Or grooved to “I Saw Her Standing There”?

The blackout has somehow given the entire planet a very specific, very weird musical amnesia—and Jack apparently dodged the Beatles bullet because he was conked out by the collision. It’s as if all those songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo never existed. (There are a few other quirks, too, which Jack will eventually discover, involving a certain globally popular soft drink, the tobacco industry and at least one character in one blockbuster book-to-movie franchise.)

Jack realizes the Fab Four’s vast catalog of already-hits could be a surefire way to reignite his sputtering career. So he starts performing Beatles’ tunes, passing them off as his own, and becomes a megastar.

And no one’s the wiser…at least for a while.

British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Directing) in 2009, was about another young man—from the slums of Mumbai, India—with an improbable, life-changing, rags-to-riches story. In Yesterday, Boyle sets up a fanciful, almost fairytale-like scenario, inventively digs into one of richest musical treasure troves of all time, and shapes it around a crowd-pleasing story fashioned by screenwriter Richard Curtis, the maestro of British rom-coms (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, About Time).

Film Title:  Yesterday

Ed Sheeran plays himself.

As Jack’s fame increases to mind-boggling proportions, performing Beatles songs like “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need is Love” and passing them off as his own, so does his guilt as a fraud and an imposter. He gets a major-label recording deal, relocates from Liverpool to L.A., tours with Ed Sheeran (who plays himself) and gets a steely manager (Kate McKinnon) who promises him the “great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame.”

Will Jack come clean about the songs that have made him a superstar? Will he change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” at Ed Sheeran’s suggestion? Will he finally realize that there’s someone back in England who’s loved him all these years—and that he’s loved her, too?

The “rom” in this rom-com is in good hands with Patel (a former star of the long-running BBC soap EastEnders, here making his movie debut) and James, whose numerous credits include TV’s Downton Abbey and the movies Cinderella, Baby Driver and Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. They make a great, believable couple, and you yearn for the “long and winding road” to lead their characters into a happy intersection.

The “com” is in ample supply as well. Joel Fry provides a lot of chuckles as Rocky, Jack’s unkempt but enthusiastic roadie. McKinnon brings her precision, chameleon-like Saturday Night Live satirical chops to her role as an icily efficient music-biz insider whose words both soothe and slice. A mega-marketing meeting finds Jack’s ideas for album titles and designs, based on actual Beatles releases, somewhat lacking—the “White Album” has “diversity issues,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “a lot of words” and Abbey Road is “just a road.”

Film Title:  Yesterday

But Himesh can really sing, putting his capable voice to some 15 Beatles classics, and the movie versions of these familiar tunes—and the way the film shows modern-day audiences going gaga over them—are testaments to the timelessness of the iconic music. The words of “In My Life,” from 1965, reach deep into Ellie’s heart, no matter that they’re more than half a century old. Kids in Russia rock out to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” like it was written just for them. When Jack belts out a punk-rock version of “Help!” from a rooftop stage, the pulsating audience below doesn’t know he’s miserable and singing it as a plea for help—just like John Lennon was when he wrote it.

It’s hard to imagine a world that didn’t grow up with the Beatles, but Yesterday lovingly, respectfully resets the stage of pop culture and does just that, giving us something sweet and charming and fun in exchange—this adorable Brit-centric romantic fantasy romp set in a rock ’n’ roll alt-reality where their music lives anew, life goes on—ob-la-di, ob-la-da—and maybe all you need is love, after all.

In theaters June 28, 2019

Fork in the Road

The toys are back, looking for love, meaning and life beyond the bedroom closet

nullToy Story 4
Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele
Directed by Josh Cooley
G

The Toy Story movies, you know, were always about more than toys.

They drilled deep into emotions that resonated on multiple levels with parents as well as kids—about friendship and loyalty, the importance of imagination and play, and the deep, long-lasting bonds that children can (and do) have with playthings that moms and dads don’t always fathom.

And now, nearly 25 years after the original Toy Story in 1995, the toys have come to a fork in the road.

 

Make that a spork, actually—a brand-new character, Forky, around which this new installment of the celebrated Disney-Pixar franchise crafts its fabulous, fanciful kaleidoscope of a tale.

TOY STORY 4At the beginning of Toy Story 4, things aren’t looking so good for Woody, the original plastic cowboy (voiced as always by Tom Hanks). You might remember that, at the end of the previous film, he and his fellow playthings were given by their previous owner, the college-bound Andy, to a new kid, a little girl named Bonnie.

But now Woody is gathering dust bunnies in Bonnie’s closet. She rarely plays with him anymore, and his sheriff’s star has been pinned on cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack). And Bonnie’s new favorite toy is a crude craft project—Forky—she’s made using bits and pieces of classroom flotsam and jetsam from her kindergarten wastebasket. He’s a plastic spork with gangly pipe-cleaner arms, glued-on googly eyes, broken-off popsicle-stick feet and a mouth made with a dab of modeling clay.

Bonnie adores Forky (voiced by Veep’s Tony Hale), but Forky is oblivious,; he doesn’t even know he’s a toy. He doesn’t know much of anything—he’s only been around for one day, and the only word, or concept, he knows at first is “trash.” Forky thinks he is trash, and he keeps trying to return to his roots, flinging himself into any nearby garbage bin or trash can. Trash is his world.

And all of that is before the movie really kicks into gear—when Bonnie and her family, and her toys, go on a road trip. That’s when Forky eventually makes his break for freedom, Woody sets off to find him, and the setting expands to a carnival, an antique store, colorful new characters and a rousing, rollicking adventure.

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Bo Peep introduces Woody to Boom Caboom.

Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is a cherubic (but creepy) 1950s doll missing more than one thing that Woody has—and she’ll do almost anything to get it, with the help of her crew of silent-sentinel ventriloquist dummies. Woody reunites with the shepherd Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now a “Lost Doll” whose porcelain shell has been hardened even more by life on the “outside.” (“You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen,” she tells Woody. “Some kids play rougher than others.”). Peep introduces Woody to Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an angst-riddled motorcycle daredevil. A pair of carnival-prize plushies (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), Ducky and Bunny, become essential to the plot, and audience favorites.

Gung-ho astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) gets in on the action, but the rest of the old Toy Story crew—Rex the timid dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton)—is pretty much on the sidelines; a line here, a scene there. The real story in Toy Story 4 spins around Forky, and the journey of maturity and self-discovery for Woody to which it leads.

Just as the original Toy Story was never just about toys, Toy Story 4 isn’t just about the new toy made from a spork. First-time feature director Josh Cooley (whose previous experience was mainly with Pixar shorts) steps up to the plate and absolutely delivers (from a script with some 10 sets of handprints on it)—this is another franchise triumph of meta, existential cleverness, pop-culture Easter eggs, high-spirited humor, swelling, sweeping emotions and Disney-Pixar’s typical stratospheric standards of animation excellence. It’s about lost toys that find their purpose, bittersweet partings, happy reunions, and how—as the old saying goes—one person’s trash can, indeed, become someone else’s treasure. It’s about how toys need love, not just batteries.

Toy Story 4 is everything you want in a Toy Story movie, and more—rich with detail, full of fun and adventure, spiced with excitement, peril and bits of darkness, comfortingly familiar and yet—once again—pushing its story into a new direction and expanding its characters and its scope.

It’s about growth, closure, choices, endings and beginnings, friends old and new, family, empathy and understanding, all wrapped up in the eternal mystery of nothing less than life and existence itself.

If a spork, made from bits and pieces from a waste basket, can become a beloved toy…if an inanimate object can be loved, maybe even come to life, just because someone gives it a name, and loves it… Well, anything is possible—maybe even a Toy Story 5.

Where next? To infinity and beyond, of course!

In theaters June 21, 2019

Paint It Black

Hemsworth & Thompson Stranded in Messy, Meandering New MIB Relaunch

1233076 - MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Men in Black: International
Starring Chris Hemsworth & Tessa Thompson
Directed by F. Gary Gray
PG-13

Those pesky aliens.

They keep plotting, keep invading, keep marauding, keep scheming, keep sneaking around the cosmos—and keep the Men in Black in business.

This is the fourth in the Men in Black action-comedy franchise, which began back in 1997 with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as a pair of dapper-cool partners in a super-secret organization that monitored extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Smith, fresh off his TV success as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Jones, an Oscar-winning actor for The Fugitive, went on to star in two MIB sequels.

But they’re not in Men in Black: International, which signals a fresh start for the sci-fi series with new stars and a nod toward gender parity.

Chris Hemsworth stars as H, a top agent in MIB’s London branch. A dashing, devastatingly handsome doofus, he’s certainly got a few cocky strains of James Bond somewhere in his DNA—when he beds a seductive space-alien vixen, for instance, so that they both may get something they want.

Tessa Thompson plays Molly, who comes aboard MIB—as Agent M—after an early-childhood close encounter with a cute-and-cuddly space alien left her insatiably curious about the wonders of the universe.

MIB Intl_2Hemsworth, of course, is best known for playing Thor, in his own spinoff Marvel movies as well as alongside The Avengers. Pop culture fans will connect that he and Thompson aligned previously in Thor: Ragnarok (she played the Norse battle goddess Valkyrie) and in Avengers: Endgame. (Just in case you need a reminder, there’s a whimsical Thor reference, when H needs a quick assist in a fight scene.)

Hemsworth and Thompson synch into a nice, easygoing synergy as MIB partners; he’s always had some fine comedic chops, and she’s a rising star from her roles in Westworld, two Creed movies and Selma. But director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, Law Abiding Citizen, The Fate of the Furious) doesn’t give them much fodder for their chemistry to spark. The movie skips along, from London to Paris to Naples and Marrakesh, without much of a reason—other than to justify the “International” in its title, I suppose.

The sets scream backlot and green-screen projections, and the plot is a knot of messy shoestrings of barely connected ideas about a mole in MIB, a sinister cosmic force called the Hive, and an uber-destructive whatzit coveted by a couple of breakdancing alien assassins (played by French performance artists Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, identical twins who won, as an act called Les Twins, season one of NBC’s World of Dance in 2017).

Emma Thompson (Finalized)

Emma Thompson

Liam Neeson is High T, the head of MIB’s London branch, and Emma Thompson reprises her role from 2012’s MIB 3 as Agent O, the head of the agency’s American division. Rebecca Ferguson plays Riza, a sadistic alien arms dealer—with an extra set of arms.

But a little computer-animated alien character, the pocket-sized Pawney (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), steals the show. He gets the best lines and the snappiest jokes, and the movie’s energy surges whenever he’s on the screen.

Mostly, though, MIB: International strands its cast and its franchise with a script that feels stale and cookie-cutter, underwhelming F/X, a messy, meandering plot and a shortage of the crisp, feisty zip and zing that made the original movie so much gosh-darn fun.

MIB Intl Kamal

Kumail Nanjiani provides the voice of Pawny

There are homages and in-jokes pointing to the franchise’s past, aliens of every shape and size, and lots of shiny, E.T.-zapping guns and weaponry. When Neeson’s character notes the “intergalactic refugees seeking protection on Earth,” it’s difficult to dismiss the connection to real-world refugees. And the vehicles! One car is an arsenal of hidden defensive hardware; subway trains transform into sleek, interdimensional trams; H and M soar around on a jet cycle that, with the push of a button, leaps into hyperspace.

And speaking of leaping, there’s the issue of a woman breaking the glass ceiling and eagerly jumping into a legion of men—the Men in Black. It only took, what, 22 years? Early in her recruitment process, Molly (Tessa Thompson) asks O (Emma Thompson) why they aren’t called Women in Black.

“Don’t start,” O cuts her off. “I’ve had the conversation.” In other words, the MIB patriarchy is solid, established, entrenched—and it is what it is. It’s a man’s world, a boy’s club—and a film franchise that’s already earned some $1.65 billion with “Men” in the title.

But Tessa Thompson enthusiastically makes her “M” mark.

In the end, she’s in the driver’s seat, quite literally—proving M can not only pilot H’s car, but that Thompson can also take control of Hemworth’s summer-blockbuster movie.

“I’m smart, I’m motivated and I look good in black,” M says. Yep, she sure is and she certainly does, especially in a movie that needs all the drive she can give it.

In theaters Friday, June 14, 2019

 

Blast Off

Taron Egerton Shoots for the Stars as Elton John in Gloriously Gaga Musical Biopic

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Rocketman
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell & Richard Madden

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
R

Elton John has never been an ordinary singing star—so why should he have an ordinary movie?

Rocketman, director Dexter Fletcher’s exuberantly unconventional musical fantasia about Sir Elton’s flamboyant rise to superstardom, is framed by the world-famous piano-pounder’s deep-rooted issues that kept him in a quagmire of loneliness and addiction even as his career lifted him to spectacular levels of fame, fortune and excess.

It’s aptly titled. It burns bright, flies high and goes far in telling the story of the young British musical prodigy born Reginald Dwight, who later changed his name to Elton John and became a pop-rock sensation in the 1970s.

Rocketman is a biopic, in that sense, but it’s also a splashy, spangly musical that uses Elton John’s greatest hits (and a few deep cuts) for elaborate, choreographed production pieces in which characters break into solos, duets and choral numbers and take the movie to some truly unexpected places—like underwater, into Elton’s psyche and high into the sky.

And if you thought Rami Malik was da bomb in Bohemian Rhapsody, wait until you see—and hear—Taron Egerton in Rocketman.

Malik won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, the outré front man for the British rock band Queen. But Malik lip-synched all the songs. Egerton does all his own singing in Rocketman, and he pours his heart and soul into all of them.

RM poster crop (72)The British actor—best known for playing a young spy in the Kingsman franchise, and Robin Hood in last year’s big-screen return to Sherwood Forest—puts a fake gap between his front teeth and dons a parade of outrageous outfits (and ornately decorated glasses!) to cover more than a decade in the life of the pop star. He may not sound exactly, precisely like Elton John, but man, he can sing—and sing he does, putting his passionate stamp on nearly two dozen easily recognizable tunes, including “The Bitch is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Honky Cat,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and, of course, “Rocket Man.”

If Malik deserved an Oscar for Rhapsody, Egerton should get two for Rocketman. Director Fletcher, who worked previously with Egerton on the ski-jumping true-story drama Eddie the Eagle, is earning his bona fides as a musical-movie magic man; although he received no credit, he was called in to rescue Bohemian Rhapsody when the original director, Bryan Singer, was canned by the studio as the film neared completion.

ROCKETMAN

Bryce Dallas Howard

That’s Bryce Dallas Howard with a plump Cockney accent in the thankless role of young Reggie’s inattentive harpy mother, Sheila, who seems indifferent to his budding talents. His emotionally cold dad (Steven Mackintosh) isn’t supportive either, telling the aspiring piano player to keep his prancing, practicing fingers off the kitchen table and to stay away from his prized album collection.

It’s no wonder Elton grows up with mummy and daddy issues, along with other, additional baggage he acquires in his zoom to the top of the pops. The movie—officially sanctioned by John, one of the executive producers—doesn’t shy away from depictions of his homosexuality and drug use. It opens with his admission to a support group that he’s an alcoholic, a sex addict, a cocaine addict, a bulimic—and a shopaholic.

And that’s just for starters as the film begins to peel away his emotional layers in flashbacks and kaleidoscopic musical moments, and we’re taken on a journey where the past continually overlaps with the present.

Along the way, we meet Elton’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who got his acting start 19 years ago as the young star of Billy Elliot), the lyricist who’d go on to become the wordsmith collaborator to Elton’s melody-making on more than 30 albums. We also meet the promiscuously gay manager John Reid (Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones), who takes advantage of Elton in more ways than one. Elton records a hit duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon) and has a brief, unhappy marriage with Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), a recording engineer who props him up with some encouraging words during a particularly difficult time.

That doesn’t mean, as Elton finds out, that they were meant to be together.

The film’s musical sequences are soaring flights of imagination that drive the story—and sometimes bring the familiar songs to life with new, deeper levels of color and emotional intensity. Diehard fans may quibble-quabble about dates and facts, but why not just enjoy the sheer spectacle of watching the time warp of adolescent Elton (Kit Connor) morph into young-adult Elton in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” all in one sprawling, song-tastic musical number in which a pub rumble becomes a swaggering carnival?

ROCKETMAN

And maybe Taupin didn’t intend the lyrics to “Your Song,” Elton’s huge 1970 breakthrough single, as an ode to their unbreakable collaborative bond—or Elton’s unrequited feelings toward him. But in one of the movie’s most touching moments, when we watch that song come to life as Elton creates the notes to go with Taupin’s words on the piano, with Bernie looking on, it becomes sweet movie magic.

Likewise, the song “Rocket Man” doesn’t really have anything to do with Elton taking an unsuccessful suicide dive to the bottom of his swimming pool, seeing a childhood version of himself at a miniature piano on the bottom, and reflecting on the lyric, “I miss the Earth so much…” But in the movie, it totally works.

Everything in Rocketman works, in fact. It’s a glittery goblet of tribute to a musical icon, a rollicking twist on rock biopics, and a stupendously inventive musical with a star-making performance by Egerton, who fills it with pitch-perfect performances of classic Elton John songs.

And as the closing scene—a jaunty, faithfully retro-tinged recreation of the video for Elton’s 1983 No. 1 hit “I’m Still Standing”—reminds us, Elton John is indeed still standing, a “true survivor.” Yes, he is.

There aren’t many rock stars like Elton John still standing and still walking the planet, there aren’t many movies like this gloriously gaga rock musical, and there haven’t been many performances as full of sing-out, shoot-for-the-stars gusto as the one Taron Egerton gives in Rocketman.

How long before another one—of any of those—comes along?

Well…I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.

In theaters May 31, 2019

A Whole New Genie

Disney gives Aladdin a live-action make-over & a fem-forward twist

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Aladdin
Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud & Naomi Scott
Directed by Guy Ritchie
PG

The genie is out of the bottle—again.

Or the lamp, as the case may be. Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, 27 years after the release of its original animated classic, adds some fresh, feisty zest to the familiar tale while honoring its beloved roots.

The rags-to-riches story, based on an 18th century folktale with roots in China as well as the Middle East, is a time-honored fable that’s become woven into pop culture in just about every possible way—on stage, in the movies, on TV and in comic books. But most people walking the planet today know it from the 1992 Disney version, about a young street-wise thief, a princess, a magic lamp and a wish-granting genie.

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Jasmine (Scott) and Aladdin (Massoud)

In the new version, the “street rat” is a handsome charmer (Mena Massoud—perhaps you saw him in a handful of episodes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon) who pines for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in the fantasy kingdom of Agrabah. She digs him, too; but she’s also got her sights set on the throne to safeguard it from the nefarious, war-mongering Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), her father’s devilishly duplicitous advisor.

Jafar tricks Aladdin into a mission to seek a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders—where many others have tried and failed—in exchange for his assistance in wooing the princess. That doesn’t go exactly as planned, and Aladdin ends up with the lamp, a whimsical flying carpet, and a genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.

When the trailer was first released for Aladdin, it caused a bit of an outcry among Disney fans. Many of them bristled at the sight of Smith, big and blue and half naked—and certainly not Robin Williams, who imprinted the role of the genie with his unique personality and comedic riffing when he provided the voiceover back in 1992.

nullBut Smith—aided by an arsenal of CGI—wins you over in his first poof! out of the lantern. His genie is a sight to behold, a zany, shape-shifting zephyr zipping and swirling and twirling around with one-liners and quips, happy to be out of his cramped, brass quarters for the first time in thousands of years. Smith is fun, he’s funny, and—yes—he makes the role his own.

There is, however, a nice little nod to Williams (who died in 2014) around midpoint in the movie. Watch for it when Aladdin, in “disguise” as Prince Ali, is looking on a map for a country that isn’t there.

Although it follows the basic plot and story of the animated version, this Aladdin is certainly not a beat-for-beat remake. Fans of the original will enjoy seeing familiar characters “fleshed out” anew, and Naomi Scott makes a fine Disney “princess” for the modern, “woke” era—a contemporary, progressive-minded, role-model female (even though the story takes place centuries ago) who stands up for herself and her people.

“Understand,” Jafar mansplains to her, “it’s better for you to be seen and not heard.” That is not what you say to Princess Jasmine—or any other female—as he finds out. Jasmine even gets her own power ballad, “Speechless” (a brand new number), that defines her position in song.

The costumes are sensational, an ever-changing, eye-candy cascade of gorgeous pastels and vibrant rainbow hues. Director Guy Ritchie—best known for his stylish action flicks about sharp-cookie, wisecracking British lads, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Sherlock Holmes franchise—keeps things moving along at a brisk, lively clip with a couple of well-staged chase sequences, and also shows he’s capable of handling his first bona fide movie musical.

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Marwan Kenzari plays Jafar

The original Aladdin was a rightly considered a “family” film, and so is this one. But there’s a bit of darkness in the story that the live-action version makes feel even darker, especially for younger viewers, since it’s happening to “real” humans and not animated characters—like when a man screams as he’s tossed to his death into a deep, dark well, or others suffer at the hands of Jafar and his sorcery. And the plot’s loaded real-world undertones—about war, borders, allies and the advancement of women as leaders—might be lost in the love story for little ones more interested in the starry tale of how things will work out for plucky Aladdin and spunky Jasmine.

All of the songs from the original Oscar-winning soundtrack—by Disney’s musical maestros Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman—are still there. And some of them are turned into real movie-musical dazzlers. In “Prince Ali,” Aladdin/Ali makes his booming entrance in a grand, carnival-like street procession with elephants, ostriches and monkeys and hundreds of dancers, musicians and attendants. Later, there’s a Bollywood-inspired ballroom-dance fusion of hip-hop, popping and locking. And the flashy cabaret blowout of “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie shows off the spectrum of his skills, ends in a sky full of fireworks.

And of course, there’s “A Whole New World,” the movie’s soaring signature love ballad. Jasmine and Aladdin sing it as a duet while they’re sailing over the city on the flying carpet.

Magic lamps and genies and flying carpets are cool, but Aladdin reminds us that there are some things you just gotta buckle down and do yourself. “I made you a prince on the outside,” Smith’s genie tells Aladdin, “but I didn’t change anything on the inside.”

Aladdin 2019 isn’t a whole new world; it hasn’t changed that much on the inside. It just looks a bit different than it did almost 30 years ago—brighter, bluer, newer and given a significant spin, especially for a modern generation of young viewers who need to hear that princesses have more on their minds than marrying a prince.

 

In theaters May 24, 2019

Lit Chicks

Olivia Wilde’s riotously funny directorial debut is a grrrrrl-power breakthrough

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Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever cut loose in ‘Booksmart’

Booksmart
Starring Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Olivia Wilde
R

Hollywood loves high school.

That’s why it always keeps returning, in movies like Dazed and Confused, Easy A, Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, The Breakfast Club, Superbad, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Duff and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

In the riotously funny, wildly entertaining Booksmart, two high school over-achieving seniors, Amy and Molly, realize they’ve spent way too much time with their noses in books, and not nearly enough having fun. On the eve of their graduation, they decide to take some corrective measures, cramming four years of cutting loose into one wild, raucous night.

In other words, these good girls are gonna go bad.

Their quest is an unsupervised bacchanalia thrown by their studly classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). But getting there won’t be a simple task…

This is basically a high school, coming-of-age buddy-adventure movie with a brainy, bawdy, fem-centric spin. Beanie Feldstein (from Lady Bird and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) plays the savagely competitive Molly, the class president and valedictorian who’s already set her sights beyond Yale to a spot as the youngest female judge on the Supreme Court. Kaitlyn Dever (she’s Eve Baxter on TV’s Last Man Standing) is Amy, her openly gay best friend, who’s headed to Botswana after she gets her diploma to help the locals make eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.

BOOKSMARTAmy and Molly’s odyssey sets them off on a quirky, rapid-fire comedic romp that becomes a multi-hued celebration of sisterhood as they careen from one manic, mapcap situation to the next. The movie is rich in colorful supporting characters, most of whom are fleshed out to become more than simply background props.

You really feel like you get to know—and like—the rich, misunderstood, terrifically funny Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who’s spent his high school years trying (unsuccessfully) to buy his way into popularity; he laments that “no one in this entire school knows me at all.” His kooky, crazily hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd, who plays Lieutenant Connix in the Star Wars film trilogy) spices up the evening by showing up everywhere. Real-life skateboarder Victoria Ruesga is Ryan, the androgynous skater girl on whom Amy has a stupefying crush. You’ll find out why Amy and Molly’s classmate known as Triple A (Molly Gordon, who played Nicky Belmont on TV’s Animal Kingdom) hates her boy-toy nickname.

Comedy veterans Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow add some mature seasoning to the young cast. Jessica Williams plays “cool” teacher Ms. Fine.

Stacked and packed with vibrant youthful actors, Booksmart crackles with boisterous, unpredictable Gen Z energy and a zesty embrace of diversity and inclusion. Characters discuss, experience—and explore—sexuality in refreshingly frank and candid ways, but it never feels smutty, smarmy or exploitative. Hormones rage and roar, but here the laws of attraction can’t be found in any textbooks, or plotted along gender lines.

Credit goes to the creative team, starting with four female screenwriters, three female producers and continuing through Olivia Wilde—yes, actress Olivia Wilde, here making her directorial debut. After appearing in numerous films, including Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Love the Coopers and Rush, she seems to have truly found her calling behind the camera instead of in front of it. And the whole project reflects, and projects, a progressive, pro-female sensibility—and sensitively—that never sacrifices, soften or supplants any of the story’s savagely funny, righteously raunchy comedic bite.

In Hollywood, where the “celluloid ceiling” for women working in the movie industry is well-documented and much lamented, Booksmart’s top-down arsenal of female talent scores a  commanding breakthrough.

Booksmart poster

The movie belongs, though, to Amy and Molly. They’ve got the mojo-spark of Girls, the crisp comedic chomp of Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, and they totally sweep you up, up and away in their crazy, intoxicating, swirling rush. Feldstein clearly has some of the same DNA of her brother, Jonah Hill, and Dever (who previously played the drug addict Lauren alongside Timothée Chalamet in the critically acclaimed 2018 film Beautiful Boy) is a star on the rise.

“Nobody knows that we are fun!” Molly tells Amy early in the movie. Thanks to the best, brightest coming-of-age comedy in years, we know it now!

I don’t ever want to go back to high school, but I’d gladly return to this movie. Booksmart gets an easy A+ from me.

In theaters Friday, May 24, 2019

Doggie Do (Over)

Dennis Quaid takes the lead in another canine-reincarnation furry-tale 

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

A Dog’s Journey
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau & the voice of Josh Gad
Directed by Gail Mancuso
PG

He’s been many things—a U.S. president, an astronaut, a baseball prodigy, an Alamo fighter, even piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis—but Dennis Quaid’s career has sure gone to the dogs.

The versatile actor, whose movie and TV resume spans almost 100 roles and weaves through almost every genre, here returns to the canine comedy-drama franchise that became a modest hit in 2017 with A Dog’s Purpose.

A Dog’s Purpose was about the “soul” of a loyal pooch, recycled and reincarnated several times in various dog bodies over the decades as it bonds—and continually reconnects—with a boy, Ethan, who eventually grows into adulthood (and is played by Quaid).

Dogs, of course, don’t live as long as humans, and the heartrending “hook” of A Dog’s Purpose was how each adorable mutt had to die, one way or another, in order to move the story along. That signature plot device is very much intact in A Dog’s Journey, which picks up where the first movie left off.

Film Title: A Dog's JourneyAnd again, it’s based on the source novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who had a hand (with three other writers) in the screenplay. And although the doggie Grim Reaper has to do his thing, the powerfully sentimental tone is (oddly) kid-friendly throughout, thanks mainly to a generous dollop of poo, pee and butt-sniffing gags.

We reconnect with Ethan (Quaid), who’s now a farmer in Michigan with his wife (Marg Helgenberger, who played Siobhan Ryan on the soap Ryan’s Hope in the 1980s), and his faithful sidekick, an aging Great Pyrenees named Buddy. (As in the previous movie, all the dogs are voiced by Josh Gad.) Soon enough, and sure enough—about 20 minutes into the film—we have to say goodbye to Buddy, and we’re off to the next dog, and the next phase.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Emma Volk takes a lickin’, with Marg Helgenberger

But before Buddy dies, blissfully journeying into canine afterlife, Ethan asks him to always look after his precious granddaughter, C.J.—played as a toddler by Emma Volk, then by Abby Ryder Fortson (young Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and its sequel), and finally by Kathryn Prescott from TV’s The Son. That means Buddy’s spirit will be funneled, over the years, into curs of various shapes and sizes, all on a mission—and all sounding like Olaf the Snowman from Frozen—to find and protect C.J., wherever she is.

C.J.’s gonna need some shepherding, for sure. Her mom (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is a major screwup, neglecting her daughter, hating dogs and soaking her frustrations in alcohol. Leaving home and striking out on her own as a teenager, C.J. has a scary brush with a scruffy, abusive bad boy (Jake Manley, from TV’s The Order) before finally reconnecting in New York City with her childhood best friend, Trent (Henry Lau, a singing/rapping pop star in China and South Korea).

There’s a lot of melodrama—and a lot of dogs. Buddy’s reincarnations include a Yorkshire terrier named Max and a female beagle, Molly, and he/she meets others along the way. “What happened to you?!” a bewildered Max asks an ultra-pampered poodle in New York.

The first movie was a bit of a dog, so to speak, with critics, and put Swedish director Lasse Hallström, a three-time Oscar nominee, in swirl of controversy about animal abuse. This time around, the leash is in the hands of director Gail Mancuso, whose previous experience is mostly in TV sitcoms. A Dog’s Journey won’t get any Best in Show awards, but it also likely won’t raise any hackles with PETA.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Kathryn Prescott with “Max”

Prescott (another British actress who can play American characters flawlessly) carries much of the movie and makes the story strongly fem-centric as C.J. struggles with finding her voice as a fledgling singer-songwriter. And the talented Gilpin (Emmy-nominated for her work in Netflix’s female-wrestling drama GLOW) turns her role as C.J.’s mom into something more, and more dimensional, than you may first expect.

Dog lovers will likely love A Dog’s Journey, a fanciful, wholesome, feel-good furry-tale that offers an easy, pat answer to an age-old, existential question: What happens when life’s journey is at its end? In the case of dogs like Buddy, Max or Molly, they run through an Elysian-like wheat field in slow motion and get a doggie do-over. It’s a curious kind of Fido-tailored Buddhism that leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Where are all the other dogs? What about cats? When my dog is barking at nothing, is he really barking at Dennis Quaid?

Warm and fuzzy but a bit lacking in substantial bow-wow-wow, this franchise nonetheless feels like it’s turning into a faithful movie companion that’s figured out its own secret to coming back again and again. What’s next? A Dog’s Mission? A Dog’s Tale? Gad-zooks: All Dogs Go to Heaven (But Only For a While)? Sit. Stay. Wait. I have a feeling another do-(r)over could already be in the works, somewhere in a golden wheat field, up there, out there, in Holly-woof.

In theaters May 17, 2019

Cheers!

Diane Keaton ‘brings it on’ in benchmark cheerleading flick

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Poms
Starring Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver
Directed by Zara Hayes
PG-13

Cheerleaders sure are a versatile, adventurous bunch.

Of course, they rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, dance, entertain and perform, at sporting events and competitions. And in the movies, they’ve also sidelined as witches, zombies, ninja warriors, bank robbers, vampires—and—remember Buffy?—vampire slayers. In Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, one grows into a giantess.

“It’s our moment of glory!” proclaims a character in the 1971 cheerleader cheese-fest Satan’s Cheerleaders. “Hail, Satan!”

Poms marks another moment of glory, of sorts, for cheerleader flicks. The first mainstream movie focused on cheerleading grannies, it breaks new ground for the genre with its tale of a group of residents of a retirement community who decide to form a cheer squad.

They’re not witches or vampires or ninjas, just older gals who each have various reasons for picking up a pair of pom-poms at an age when most of their peers—and neighbors—are playing shuffleboard or canasta.

Diane Keaton stars as Martha, the newest resident of Georgia’s Sunshine Springs, a sprawling independent-living complex with picture-perfect swimming pools, hundreds of activities—and lots of rules. Though she’s not officially a grandma, Martha is a bit of a rule-breaker; she’s already decided to break off her cancer treatments, sever ties with her Atlanta physician, and let life’s mortal coil unwind on its own.

Sunshine Springs’ welcome-wagon committee is a bit taken aback when she flatly tells them that she’s come there “to die.”

Martha’s sprightly next-door neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), is a live wire, however, who reignites Martha’s youthful passion for something she gave up long ago: cheerleading. Together they decide to start a group to “bring it on” in an upcoming talent competition…

Keaton has top billing, but it’s Weaver who steals the show. The ever-dependable Australian actress, whose resume includes dozens of TV series and movies (including Silver Linings Playbook, The Disaster Artist, Bird Box and Animal Kingdom) is a 1,000-watt bulb that brightens up every scene in which her character appears—and wisely, she appears a lot. Keaton may have the Oscar (for Annie Hall, 1977), but Weaver gets the laughs.

There are other familiar faces, too, especially for audiences “of a certain age.” Rhea Pearlman (she was Carla on TV’s 1980s sitcom Cheers) is Alice, newly freed from her domineering husband. Pam Grier, the cult “blaxploitation” star of such 1970s fare as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Blacula, plays Olive, who admits her new activities as a cheerleader fulfill some long-repressed fantasies of her hubby.

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Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver

Bruce McGill trades in his roaring chopper from his memorable role as D-Day in Animal House (1978) for a whirring electric golf cart as the community security guard with not a lot to do—except try to keep the crime codes for “rape” and “noise complaint” straight. South Carolina native Celia Weston (who had a recurring role on TV’s Modern Family as Barb Tucker, Cam’s mother) is a natural as Vicki, the Southern-belle foil of Martha and Sheryl.

Poms is obviously geared toward the AARP crowd, but a couple of younger actors (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan, 20, and Alisha Boe, 22, one of the stars of the teen-suicide series 13 Reasons Why) set up a “young love” subplot. It’s a bit of awwwww, cute-kids, added-value for more seasoned audiences—and a calculated push to edge the viewership demo a few clicks “downward.”

Hollywood has discovered that mature viewers buy movie tickets, too, a trend made apparent when The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought in a respectable $46 million at the U.S. box office in 2012. Several years later, Book Club, starring Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen, took in more than $68 million. Those aren’t Avengers numbers by any stretch, but they indicate a market too valuable to neglect.

Director Zara Hayes, making her first feature film after working in the documentary field, keeps things basic and doesn’t ever dazzle, and sometimes the story sags when you want it to soar. You really yearn for these gyrating grannies to bust out, cut loose and fly. They do, mostly, but I kept wishing there was a bit more rah to go with the sis-boom-bah.

But the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s funny, sweet—sometimes bittersweet—and it has an uplifting message about teamwork, friendship and not letting age be a barrier, of any kind.

The Sunshine Springs squad performs their rousing finale on a stage with big, illuminated letters that spell out “Dance” and “Cheer.” Their bit—to a hip-hop version of “The Clapping Song”—makes everyone do just that, in the audience and beyond, in the viral, internet world.

And it will probably make you want to do that, too. Shake your poms and hoist your popcorn. These age-defying cheerleaders are a cause for celebration—because they’re not devils, vampires or giants, just ordinary women enjoying life and doing their thing.

Everyone can cheer for that, right?

Hail, Keaton!

In theaters May 10, 2019