Author Archives: Neil Pond

This One’s For the Girls

ScarJo’s ‘Black Widow’ Shows Some Real Superheroes

Black Widow
Starring Scarlett Johannson, Florence Pugh, David Harbor & Rachel Weisz
Directed by Cate Shortland
PG-13
In theaters Friday, July 9, and also available on Disney+.

Just call her the spy who came in from the COVID.

Scarlett Johannson’s character of the highly trained former KGB agent Natasha Romanoff has been a fan favorite ever since she was introduced in the Marvel movie universe back in 2010 (with an appearance in Iron Man 2). After numerous supporting roles in other superhero sagas as one of the Avengers, she eventually got the go-ahead for her own movie—which had the misfortune of setting its release just as theaters shut down in the growing wake of a global pandemic.

Delayed, postponed or pushed back three times since May 2020, Black Widow, Romanoff’s much-anticipated origin story, now finally makes its way into theaters, and onto the screen. And it’s a doozy—a ripping, globe-trotting, action-packed spy yarn, a heart-tugging hero’s journey, and a tale of sisterhood with a worldwide twist.

Anyone who follows the MCU—the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the superhero movies based on the characters from Marvel Comics—knows there’s a lot to keep up with, like a jumbo puzzle that just keeps growing. Characters overlap and appear in each other’s films, and timelines get crissy-crossy crazy. But that’s all part of the fun, and diehard fans won’t flinch, for example, to realize that the events of Black Widow take place before everything in Avengers: Endgame (2019), in which Johannson’s character, well, meets her end.

But she’s very much alive and well here, all the way back to her childhood, where we come to understand how she became the Black Widow—or, more accurately, one of the Black Widows. She’s not the only little girl who was trained—and brainwashed—to become a lethal assassin, part of a massive covert Soviet spy network. How did Natasha break free from the dark grip of a hidden headquarters called the Red Room, where young women like her are biologically modified to become remorseless killing machines? What do pigs, pheromones, fireflies, Ohio and Don McLean’s song “American Pie” have to do with it all?

Scarlett Johannson & Florence Pugh

Reuniting with her now-grown little “sister,” Yelena (Florence Pugh), another Black Widow, Natasha vows to return to the nefarious Red Room to put an end to its sinister human production line.

Pugh, who’s already demonstrated her movie chops in Little Women, Midsommer and Lady Macbeth,is super-impressive in her debut in a superhero movie. She’s a fireball of tightly coiled droll wit piloting a helicopter in an avalanche, rocketing through the streets of Budapest—or across its rooftops—evading a killer cyborg, or jabbing her big sis for being a media “celebrity,” featured on TV and magazine covers for her do-gooding with her super-friends, the Avengers.

“You’re a poser,” she says, mimicking Romanoff’s spring-to-action “trademark” pose of dropping to a squat, on one bent knee and another leg extended, then jerking her head to toss her red hair out of her face.

We’ll be seeing more of Pugh in another Marvel project. You can count on it.

David Harbour (from TV’s Stranger Things) gets a juicy role as Alexei Shostakov, whose Russian alter-ego, the super-soldier Red Guardian, is comically obsessed with his red-white-and-blue counterpart, Captain America. Rachel Weisz is a seasoned Black Widow and a lead scientist in the Red Room program—with a deep “family” connection to Alexei, Natasha and Yelena. Veteran British actor Ray Winstone plays Draykoff, the devious head of the Red Room, whose overconfident plan for world dominance smacks of the smarmy DNA of some of James Bond’s most devious villains.

Rachel Weisz

But Black Widow belongs to Johannson, who’s waited for more than a decade to move from the superhero sidelines into her own spotlight. And if you’re looking for Avengers or other Marvel characters here, well, they’re discussed, but not displayed. One character mentions the rift in the superhero franchise, depicted in Captain America: Civil War (2016), as “the Avengers getting divorced.” This is the Black Widow’s story, and no one else’s.

The movie’s theme of Natasha’s search for her family—what it is, and what it can be—gives Black Widow a reflective, sometimes melancholy tone, punctuated with humor, style and swagger, slam-bang action and a dark undercurrent about what bad men do to little girls. In an early scene, director Cate Shotland melds images of terrified youngsters, separated from their families, held in shipping containers, soon to be modified and “groomed” for the Red Room. A cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us”) makes it even creepier. They’ll be molded and remade not for sex, but for killing, but it’s still human trafficking, and it’s meant to make your skin crawl.

Superhero movies, like the comic books on which they’re based, have almost always skewed toward a predominately male audience, with only a handful of notable exceptions. And Black Widow is particularly notable, with a female star, a female co-star, a female director, and a redemptive fem-centric message about women putting their lives on the line for other women, un-doing years of damage and righting terrible wrongs.

And these superheroes weren’t born gods and didn’t get powers after being exposed to radiation or finding some magical objects. They’re just women—who were once little girls, now vowing to change things. Now that’s a real superpower, and that’s a superhero.

Pursued in the movie by an antagonistic U.S. government official (William Hurt) intent on hunting all the Avengers down, Natasha doesn’t have time to deal with his nuisance. She’s got more important things to do.

“I’ve lived a lot of lives before I met you,” she tells him over a radio.

Indeed, she has. The Black Widow has been around in comic books since the mid-1960s, where she was a part of the Avengers, the Defenders, the Champions, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Thunderbolts. She’s been in seven major movies, before this one. And now she’s got her own movie, and her own story to tell. And this one’s for the girls.

Hopes, Dreams and Music

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New Movie Musical is a Summertime Burst of Salsa-Flavored Sunshine

Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace star in ‘In the Heights’

In The Heights
Starring Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera & Jimmy Smits
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Rated PG-13
How to Watch: In theaters and on HBO Max June 11, 2021

This is the musical that started it all.

Years before Hamilton made Lin-Manuel Miranda the toast of Broadway, he wrote the songs for this quasi-autobiographical paeon to the neighborhood of his New York City childhood. First staged on Broadway in 2008, In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical.

Now, after a theatrical-release delay of more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it finally hits the big screen with an exuberant summer explosion of salsa-flavored sunshine, a technicolor extravaganza of dazzling sights, a spirit-lifting message about home and family and the hopes and dreams of an immigrant community built on a “corner full of foreigners” where the “streets are made of music.”

Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, in the uppermost part of Manhattan, the story unfolds over a period of several days during a sweltering summer as Usnavi (Anthony Ramos,who played the dual roles of Philip Hamilton and South Carolina statesman John Laurens in Hamilton), the 30-year-old owner of a small bodega, or grocery store, considers selling his shop and returning to his native island land, from which he emigrated as a child with his late “papa.”

But Usnavi also feels the tug of another island—Manhattan. His store has become an integral part of his small community, and he can’t deny his feelings for Vanessa (Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, who starred in the Starz TV series Vida), his childhood friend, now a beautiful nail technician with aspirations to become a fashion designer. And there’s also Usnavi’s teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his only store employee… and “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, who also played the role on Broadway), the loving matriarch of the barrio. She raised Usnavi and became a grandmother figure to most all the other children, too.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera

What will happen to them if Usnavi goes back to the Dominican Republic?

Then there’s Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace, a Dominican/American actress making her movie debut), who’s just returned to the barrio after “getting out” and completing her freshman year at Stanford University in California. The first in her family to attend college, she’s discovered life outside Washington Heights isn’t the wonderland she’d hoped it would be. Her father (veteran TV and film actor Jimmy Smits), the owner of the local taxi company, wants her to buckle down and complete her education—and he’s willing to make some serious sacrifices for it to happen. But Nina seems to have other things on her mind, including personal reasons for getting involved in local the DREAMers immigration-rights movement—and reconnecting with her beau, Benny (Corey Hawkins, who played Eric Carter on TV’s 24), who works as a dispatcher for her father.

And yes, that’s Lin-Manuel Miranda himself (who starred as Usnavi on Broadway), playing a bit part as a street vendor, peddling shaved ice.

Director Jon M. Chu, who also crafted a crowd-pleasing hit with Crazy Rich Asians, takes Miranda’s songs, this sprawl of characters and the theatrical “book” by Quiara Alegría Hudes and corrals everything into a shot-on-location showpiece with several outstanding production numbers.

Even the display wigs in the local beauty shop spring to waggish life in the playful, gossipy “No Me Diga (You Don’t Say).” The pool at Highbridge Park is the setting for a spectacular, exuberant aqua-ballet number for “96,000,” the dollar amount of a winning lottery ticket that gets everyone excited when it sells at Usnavi’s store—but the winner can’t be located. A sweaty, sexy dance-off heats up “The Club,” just before a blackout plunges everything into darkness, and the loss of electricity for air conditioning turns up the heat even higher. The entire neighborhood pulsates with energy and pride in “Carnival del Barrio,” and the movie’s opening theme song is so catchy, even a manhole cover and a garden hose get into the rhythmic act. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny do a gravity-defying dance off their balcony, thanks to a nifty bit of camera trickery.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Dascha Polanco and Jiimmy Smits

In the Heights is a musical love story, on more than one level, with an even deeper message about where we come from, the lives we make for ourselves and each other, things we give and give back, and a reminder of the riches to be found in America’s vibrant communities of color, anywhere.

“Let me just listen to my block,” says Nina, pressing her face close to a chain-link fence beside a basketball court.

Listen to Nina’s block and you’ll also hear Lin-Manuel Miranda’s neighborhood in his latest triumph, a joyous story about a group of people, a community, its music and traditions. After more than a year of fighting a crushing pandemic, this rousing, hopeful, break-out celebration of dance, culture, storytelling and song is just the shot of feel-good we need. In the Heights soars with the sweet sound of life.

Devilishly Disney

Emma Stone gets punk-y, spunky and diabolically funky in Cruella

Cruella
Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson & Mark Strong
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Rated PG-13
In theaters and on Disney+ March 28, 2021

Disney hikes up its hip factor considerably with this bow-wow-wow backstory to one of its grandest, most grandiose franchise villains.

The House of Mouse, known for fairytale princesses and happily-ever-after endings, gets punk-y and spunky and devilishly funky with Cruella. Playfully dark, popping with brisk, saber-sharp wit and soaring with superfly style, it’s one of the most vivaciously deviant Disney properties to ever come flying out of the movie mousehole.

There’s no Little Mermaid, no Cinderella or no Sleeping Beauty anywhere in sight as a young London street urchin, Estella (Emma Stone), graduates from pickpocketing and petty thievery to seize her moment—and apply her innate design skills—with an opportunity at a posh fashion house. But the head of the fashion empire, the haughty, manipulative Baroness (Emma Thompson), is a battle axe who chops up her competition, steals Estella’s designs and crushes her dreams. The Baroness also harbors a deep secret that triggers Estella’s transformation into her vengeful alter ego, Cruella de Ville.

As the tension heats up between them, a raucous, all-out fashion war erupts, involving a purloined heirloom, an Oceans 11-style heist, doggie poo and a special glittery gala gown that will eventually have all of London a-flutter—and make Cruella the toast of the town.  

Emma Thompson

And those handsome Dalmatian dogs that belong to the Baroness? Well, they become an integral part of the tale, as well.

Director Craig Gillespie (whose other films include Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night and I, Tonya) fleshes out the character of Estella from the very beginning. In voiceover narration (from a grownup Estella/Cruella), we learn that Estella came into the world making a bold statement—namely, with her shock of hair, jet black on one side and pure white on the other, that made strangers gasp. “From an early age, I saw the world differently,” she says.

When she’s old enough to go to school, other kids bully little Estella (played as a youngster by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland). She fights back, getting into so many scraps and scuffles that the headmaster quickly fills up the white spaces of her behavior record with black inkblots.

That black-and-white, Dalmatian-dot, good-or bad “duality” will come to define Estella-Cruella, in an almost literal sense.  

Stone won an Oscar for La La Land, and she was nominated for her role in The Favourite. But she’s every kind of perfect for her part here, and you can tell how much diabolic fun she’s having digging into the campy, vampy, deep-dish-diva conflicted anti-hero vibes. By the time Estella completes her “arc” and becomes Cruella, we get it; Stone makes us understand all that curdled her character. There’s a series of progressive provocations, bad breaks, bad news, sad news, a major tragedy, and one absolutely golly-whopper shocker of a surprise.

Cruella relishes being an outlier—but she wants to do it her way, with a flourish of rebel style and outrè fashion. She’s Disney’s first true rock-star villainess. “I want to make art,” she says. “And I want to make trouble.”

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, especially the other Emma—the venerable British veteran Emma Thompson is hilariously haughty as the deliciously corrupt Baroness, the movie’s equivalent of an “evil queen.” Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry are terrific as Estella/Cruella’s partners in crime, and Mark Strong plays his cards close to his chest as the longtime, loyal valet for the Baroness who has an important childhood connection to Estella, too. British theatrical actor John McCrea is sure to become an audience fave as Artie, the owner of a London boutique who becomes a Cruella ally.

Mark Strong

And doggone it if a little eyepatch-wearing pooch named Winks, another Cruella accomplice, doesn’t come close to stealing the show, along with a bunch of other things.

Set in the swinging mid-1970s, the movie dazzles and zazzles with an explosion of eye-popping fashions—just wait until you get a load of Cruella’s spectacular “garbage-truck gown.” And it has a killer soundtrack, one of the most rockin’ playlists of any Disney flick ever, mining the musical wealth of its mid-’70s setting. How can you not love a film that kicks off with Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right,” closes with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” and packs in a Beatles cover from Tina Turner, the movie theme from Car Wash, plus hit tunes and deep tracks from Queen, David Bowie, Deep Purple, Joe Tex, Black Sabbath, Argent, Doris Day, the J. Geils Band and Suzie Quatro? In a pivotal “coming out” scene, Cruella herself takes the stage to belt out “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” her cover of the debut 1969 single from the punk-metal band The Stooges.

Little girls may still be swooning to Frozen’s power anthem “Let It Go.” But Cruella brings the big-girl fire, not the ice. This is one totally groovy movie that really rocks. It’s fun and it’s funny, witty and wily, outrageously full of sass and style, and it barrels along with both high-spirited hijinks and heart.  

Now: How to get around the fact that, in the 1961 Disney animated original and two live-action sequels, the character of Cruella made coats from the pelts of Dalmatian puppies? That’s why she’s always been one of Disney’s baddest of bad girls, so hissable there was very little to redeem her. How can anything make us like, or understand, someone like that?

Stone with Paul Walker Hauser (left) and Joel Fry

I won’t spoil how Cruella deals with such an elephant-sized Dalmatian of a character flaw in the room, other to say that it will likely surprise you, how tactfully, creatively and quite satisfyingly the film sidesteps such a sizeable potential landmine—and even pulls off the amazing feat of making us sympathize with Cruella as it leaves the door open for what assuredly feels like a sequel. At the very end you’ll witness something else quite creative, as the movie circles back (and looks ahead, at the same time) to its 1961 predecessor with a snippet of an old familiar song, and a couple of Cruella characters—who happen to have some very familiar names, for anyone familiar with the original film—get some very special deliveries.

After one particularly big night, Cruella pops into Artie’s shop. “Well, you certainly made a splash,” he approvingly coos.

Indeed, she did—and she does, in this splashy, badass, blissfully ballsy spinout from the venerable Disney stables, one that takes a classic 2D cartoon character and brings her roaring to live-action life with gutsy verve, passion and grit.

What will Cruella do next, another character asks her later. “I’ve got a few ideas,” she says with a coy smile. Ooooooh, and we can’t wait to find out what they are.

Social Disorder

Quirky satire gently skewers celebrity, obsessive fandom, social media, cyberstalking…and breakfast cereal

Eat Wheaties!
Starring Tony Hale, Alan Tudyk, Danielle Brooks, Paul Walker Hauser & Elisha Cuthbert
Directed by Scott Abramovitch
Unrated
In select theaters and VOD, Friday, April 30, 2021

Sid Straw is a nice guy. But he tries too hard—too hard to make jokes, too hard to make conversation, too hard to impress, too hard to make a toast at a party, too hard to be nice, too hard to make his date into his “girlfriend.”  

And he certainly tries to hard trying to make people believe he was once friends with actress Elizabeth Banks

That’s the premise of this quirky satire about social media, celebrity, obsessive fandom and relationships starring Veep’s Tony Hale as Sid, an Arizona software sales manager who’s over-the-moon to find out he’s been assigned to co-chair the planning committee for his upcoming college reunion. But as a latecomer to social media, the platform for all the planning, he plunges in and begins by creating an account on Facebook. Looking up old classmates on the University of Pennsylvania reunion site, he comes across Banks.

Clicking on a link to her official Facebook page, Sid’s memory is whooshed back to his campus days, when he once dated Banks’ sister—well, her sorority sister. And he remembers how—long before she’d go on to stardom in movies like The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect—the actress-to-be would cheerily, jokingly remind her friends to “eat Wheaties!”

But no one believes Sid really knew Banks. Not his coworkers, not his younger brother, especially not his highly skeptical sister-in-law, who still blames Sid for ruining her wedding with an elaborate practical joke that bombed.  

Tony Hale is Sid Straw

It’s just Sid, they all think, trying way too hard, again. Even when he wrangles an autographed photo—two, actually—from Bank’s L.A. management office, they still scoff.

Sid, however, is undeterred. He begins sending Banks personal messages on Facebook—lots of messages. And being new to the whole social media thing, he doesn’t realize that what he’s writing to her isn’t private; it’s being posted on Banks’ public “wall,” for all of her fans, and the whole world, to see.

So, Sid is blindsided when his “relationship” with Banks goes viral—and he becomes a widely mocked media sensation, an icon for a hyper-obsessive cyber-stalking kook. He’s slapped with a restraining order from Banks’ management, which means he has to stop contacting her—and worst of all, he won’t be able to even attend the reunion if she does.

With Danielle Brooks

And just when you wonder how things can get lower for Sid, they do.

Making his feature directorial debut, Scott Abramovitch adapted the screenplay from a 2003 novel by Michael Kun called The Locklear Letters, about a man’s obsession with Melrose Place actress Heather Locklear. Themovie takes the “analog” premise of the book, in which old-school postal mail was the method of communication, into the age of the internet and social media (with the film’s literary roots getting a sly shout-out in an early scene.) Abramovitch makes this little indie gem—which launched to much acclaim at film festivals late last year—a real lo-fi treat, populating it with a talented ensemble cast that understands how to slow-cook the tasty juices of a subtle, nuanced comedy, finding all the flavors of funny in its tale about a star-crossed schmo who becomes the stand-in for just about all of us.

Who doesn’t want to be liked? To have people to share our lives, our experiences, our joys? To be part of a team, a group, a tribe? And who among us hasn’t used Facebook, or some other internet search, to pry into the past of someone we maybe-sorta-kinda “knew” from our high school or college days?

Sid may be haplessly awkward and comically clueless about his lack of boundaries, but the movie never makes fun of him. If anything, it makes us sympathize, cringe for him when he takes things too far, hoping that he can somehow prevail over his ever-deepening predicament. And we laugh, partly because we’ve all been there; we get it. Indifferent coworkers, the double-edged sword of social media, the lure of spending a little too long online, taking dreamy detours down memory lane—oh, yeah, been there, done that.

Hale, who’s received two Emmys for his role as minion-like political aide Gary Walsh on HBO’s Veep, also brought out his comedy chops as the neurotic Buster Bluth on the hit Fox sitcom Arrested Development. (And he provided the voice of Forky the spork, who played a significant role in Toy Story 4.) Eat Wheaties! is his breakout as a lead in a live-action movie, and he’s marvelous, finding the tricky soft center of humanity and empathetic longing in Sid’s loneliness and his need for relationships and connection.

Even though he’s drawn in a comedic extreme, Sid and his situation take on even more potency in this long, lingering era of COVID-19, when nearly everyone’s been cooped up, shut in or locked down, and so many of us have, indeed, been spending more time than ever on our computers and social media. Sid’s not the only person who’s ever tumbled down a rabbit hole on the internet, at work or elsewhere, especially during a time when we’ve all had to put many of real-life relationships on some kind of temporary hold.

The first-rate supporting cast features a bonus crop of familiar faces, including David Walton (New Girl and Council of Dads), Elisha Cutbert (The Ranch and Happy Endings), Lamore Morris (Call Me Kat) and Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black). Allen Tudyk, who plays one of Sid’s blowhard classmates, is a veteran of more than 120 TV, film and voiceover roles, and Paul Walter Hauser—who appeared in the movies Da Five Bloods and I, Tonya, and starred in Richard Jewell—seems instinctively in step with the movie’s affectionately droll wit as a bargain-bin lawyer-in-training, who gets his first big case when Sid hires him to help fight his restraining order.

But his movie belongs to Hale, all the way, who makes us like Sid even when Sid makes us wince. He’s an underdog, an oddball, but he’s an exaggerated, underdog oddball version of us. And he’s an underdog oddball we definitely want to see win, to get his life back on track, maybe even come out on top.

So, you go, Sid. Get it, buddy. And as your old college friend Liz would say, “Eat Wheaties!”

Space Race

Anna Kendrick faces a wrenching moral dilemma in sci-fi space thriller

Stowaway
Starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim & Shamier Anderson
Directed by Joe Penna
Not rated
On Netflix Thursday, April 22, 2021

Anna Kendrick has been a singing troll, a fairytale princess and a pitch-perfect a cappella coed. And she held her own alongside George Clooney—and received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination—for her role as an ambitious junior executive in Up in the Air.

Now she’s really up in the air—and beyond it—as part of a small crew of astronauts who run into some serious trouble.

What will Anna do? What would you do?

This taut, compact, existential sci-fi space thriller is set in the unspecified near future and gets right down to business in the impressive opening sequence as we watch the three space travelers shaken and wobbled by the enormous forces of the rocket they’re riding at liftoff. We learn they’re embarking on what will be a two-year mission to Mars, to further explore and expand humankind’s early forays into colonization there.

We meet the commander, Barnett (Toni Collette), on what will be her third and final mission to the red planet, and her two-person team of newbies. The jazz-loving botanical scientist, David (Daniel Dae Kim), has spent two years researching algae and plants that will grow on the alien surface. The eager young medical assistant Zoe (Kendrick) can’t hide her wide-eyed enthusiasm about actually being in space. “That was incredible!” she exclaims, giddily embracing Barnett after their roaring, bone-rattling zoom out of the atmosphere, into the weightless, noiseless void of space.

Toni Collette

After docking with an orbiting unmanned space station, they settle in, unpack and prepare for the long, long ride.

But they’re in for a huge surprise when commander Barnett opens an overhead hatch in the command module and discovers an unconscious man—who literally falls onto her, injuring her arm.

The “stowaway,” apparently knocked unconscious and himself seriously wounded by the violent forces of the blast-off, turns out to be an engineer for Hyperion, the space agency. He didn’t get the message to evacuate in time when doing his last-minute systems check, and before he realized what was happening, he was locked and loaded. When he wakes up, Michael (Shamier Anderson) is freaked out—after all, the luckless worker was planning on going home after his shift. And he certainly didn’t plan on spending two years away from Earth.

But there’s a much bigger problem: The bare-bones mission has only enough provisions—food, water and oxygen—for three people. There isn’t enough fuel to turn around and go back. And Michael damaged—destroyed, actually—an essential piece of air-filtration, life-support equipment when he fell out of the hatch.

Director Joe Penna, who also cowrote the screenplay, creates a novel pressure-cooker human drama within a somewhat familiar-feeling setting of a “space” movie, of which there have been, well, hundreds. As the days click by, the situation becomes even more grim, and the plot doesn’t introduce goopy extraterrestrials, flashy special effects or worm-hole conundrums, but rather some deep-dish thoughts about moral quandaries, sacrifice and the wrenching process of characters wrestling with what to do in a super-serious space pickle.

Shamier Anderson

The set design is first-rate, showing what space travel might indeed look like a couple of decades from now. The space station is a mixture of the future and the familiar and shows how corporations often cut corners and stretch budgets. The MTS-42 vessel is high-tech but cramped and claustrophobic, and it’s furnished with only the long-haul essentials, like a teeny tabletop for meals and spartan bunk beds. And it’s obviously well-used and worn, with interior walls signed and decorated by previous occupants. We even learn that it was made initially for a crew of two, but later retrofitted for three—with modifications for the “extra weight” of carrying an additional body made by removing a layer of exterior shielding against solar-storm radiation.

The space station creates its own artificial gravity as it plows through space by spinning like a massive counterweight on the opposite end of a set of rigid, 1,600-foot cables, which tether it to the base of the rocket ship by which Barnett and the crew arrived. This sleek and imposing setting, which juts into the abyss of space like a gigantic communications tower or piece of construction equipment, becomes the stage for the film’s tense, nail-biting climax.

The cast carries the movie, all the way; there’s no one else anywhere on-screen, at any time, which deepens the atmosphere of intense isolation—and eventual helplessness. (We never even hear the crew’s “contact,” Jim, back at mission control, at least clearly, on any of the two-way “transmission” calls to Earth.) For Collette, who’s made all kinds of films (from the comedy of Little Miss Sunshine to the horror of Hereditary), it marks her first trip into sci-fi and space. Kim, best known for his starring roles on TV’s Lost and Hawaii Five-O, gives a potently nuanced performance as a scientist who sees his life’s work—and perhaps his life—slipping away.

As the stowaway, Anderson is an up-and-comer who appeared on TV’s Goliath and Wynonna Earp, and he finds the soft center of his character’s heart-tugging backstory. Kendrick, as the optimistic, empathetic Zoe, is determined to look for a solution to the dire dilemma.  

She joined the Hyperion program thinking she’d certainly be rejected but later realized it would be “one of those rare opportunities that will truly give my life meaning beyond anything I could imagine.”

Now she, and her crewmates, find themselves in a situation that, indeed, no one could have dared imagine—a situation with no contingency plan, no emergency protocol, no page in the manual offering an onsite workaround.  

Gravity, morals, ethics, life, death, starvation, survival, heroics. Solar radiation out there, toxic air in here. This well-crafted, pressurized think-tank of a sci-fi space stewer wants you to be thinking about—and maybe debating—its meaning as it ends, directing your gaze at the tiny, shiny red speck of its ultimate destination, way out there in the distance.

What will Zoe do? What would you do? Stowaway is a space movie that really works its way into the space inside your head.  

Fight of the Century

Who’ll win in this epic movie-monster mash?

Godzilla vs. Kong
Starring Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Hill
Directed by Adam Wingard
PG-13
How to watch: In theaters and on HBO Max March 31, 2021

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make any noise?

If King Kong uproots a massive tree on Skull Island, shears off its branches with one brisk whisk of his humongous paw, then turns it into a giant javelin and hurls it skyward, does the little deaf girl watching him know Bobby Vinton is singing “Over the Mountain Across the Sea” on the soundtrack?

And does she know that’s where Kong is about go—where this movie’s going to take him, and her, and us?

Probably not! Those existential questions don’t get answered in this colossal monster mash, which marks only the second time the awesome alpha ape, once billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, has brawled with Japan’s prehistoric aqua-lizard with atomic heat-beam breath. They first met in 1962, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and they’ve been nursing a major grudge ever since.

Both are pop-culture all-stars. Godzilla’s been featured in more than 30 films since his debut in 1952, and has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Kong was a box-office smash when he hit the screen for the first time back in 1933, in the heart of the Great Depression, saving his movie studio from bankruptcy and spawning decades of sequels, spinoffs, imitations, parodies, cartoons, comics, songs and a theme park ride.

Except for that one movie appearance together nearly a half century ago, the two jumbo superstars have always “worked” separately—until now. Which makes this movie such a big deal: It’s like a supersized Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa going at it again, an all-star wrestling smackdown in an arena as big as the whole eastern hemisphere, Raging Bull scaled up to the size of skyscrapers. For any fans wondering how the two peak predators of the movie-monster world would fare in a face-off after all these years, well, now you can find out.

Just don’t get in the way, because chances are you’ll get smushed.

To really get juiced about what’s going on here, you can check out the previous films in Warner Brothers’ “MonsterVerse” franchise, which set about rebooting the classic franchises and building a new, interconnected cinematic world for the two beastie boys with Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). In the MonsterVerse, Kong and Godzilla represent two of the remaining celebrities atop the food chain of a prehistoric group of creatures and beasts known as the Titans, which sometimes still make their presence known in the “human” world.

That’s why, in Godzilla vs. Kong, people take pics with their smartphones as Godzilla plows through Tokyo Bay, and we see a sign for a Titan Shelter underneath the city, for when things get a little rumbly and crumbly overhead. Titan sightings—duck and cover, but snap a selfie first. It might be while before another monster makes another appearance.

MonsterVerse movie vets Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobbie Brown are back, as scientist Mark Russell and his daughter Madison. They join franchise newbies Alexander Skarsgård—as a a pseudo-science geologist who believes Kong can lead to a primal source of great power, hidden inside the “hollow Earth,” that will help stave off the rampaging Godzilla—and Rebecca Hall, a linguist who oversees Kong on his Skull Island containment facility, who doesn’t think removing him is such a good idea.

Kaylee Hottle as Jia, who forms a special bond with Kong.

Brian Tyree Henry is aboard as a conspiracy-theory podcaster trying to crack the case of why Godzilla has suddenly returned after a three-year absence—to attack Pensacola, Florida, of all places. And young Kaylee Hottle makes her debut as the only indigenous survivor of a tragedy on Skull Island, the hearing and speech-impaired orphan girl Jia, who forms a bond with Kong.

But the people in the movie are on the sidelines for a trio of totally rock-‘em-sock-‘em battle royales, which set new benchmarks for epic, monster-movie mash-ups. Battleships get sliced in half and tossed about in the sea like toys in a kiddie pool; entire cityscapes crumble as if they were sandcastles; Kong and Godzilla wallop and wail on each other like they’re in the world’s most brutal bar fight. It’s too bad this film comes at a stage when so many people still aren’t quite ready to go back to theaters, because it begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, preferably even IMAX.

Although special effects make them “look” better than ever (in full daylight much of the time), the terrific FX also subtly depict that Kong and Godzilla aren’t the spry, young monster pups they were when they started out, all those years ago. Kong seems weary, worn down and battle-scarred by several centuries of fending off all kinds of foes. Godzilla, covered in spikes and scales, looks and acts older and crankier and more temper-tantrum-y than ever. Spending eons under water doesn’t doesn’t seem to improve your social skills.   

Director Adam Wingard, whose previous films include the horror-thrillers V/H/S and You’re Next, knows how to keep a few tricks and surprises up his sleeve—like an otherworldly detour into a fantastical underworld realm with some “new” monsters, and a reappearance of one of Godzilla’s former, most formidable adversaries. The film also suggests that, for all their quantum beefs with each other, Godzilla and Kong’s anger-management issues are made even worse when corporate greed gets involved.

So who’ll win this clash of the Titans? Who’ll roar in victory? Who’ll tuck tail or tap out in defeat? Each side has its supporters. Millie Bobbie Brown is rooting for Godzilla; she thinks he’s being set up. Hall’s character knows her mighty monkey is too proud to ever concede defeat.

“Kong bows to no one,” she predicts.

Both gargantuan combatants came to represent many things over the decades, from rampaging, unknowable monsters to sympathetic, tragic anti-heroes, even protectors of humanity. “Creatures, like people, can change,” says Chandler’s character. Indeed they can. But can we? In this breezy, brawl-y, rugged mega-monster mash, both Godzilla and Kong are showing their age as well as their rage—and proving that, for pure escapism, we’re all still suckers for seeing two giant palookas beat the beastly snot out of each other.   

Into The Sunset

Anthony Hopkins gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an everyday man losing his memory

The Father
Starring Anthony Hopkins & Olivia Colman
Directed by Florian Zeller
PG-13
In theaters March 12, 2021

An elderly man gets a visit from his adult daughter in his London flat and is unsettled when she tells him she’s moving to Paris to be her new boyfriend.

Or maybe the man is actually in his daughter’s home, living with her and her husband—and she never said anything about going anywhere.

And who are all those strangers that keep coming and going?

Are you confused?

Well, so is Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who’s suffering from dementia in this awards-caliber adaptation of an acclaimed French play, La Pére, that made the leap to Broadway in 2012.

Florian Zeller, who wrote the original stage production, now makes his feature-film debut directing this movie, a wrenchingly honest, artfully disorientating drama ingeniously depicting a lifetime of memories slipping away.

The Father starts out straightforward enough, but quickly lets us know something isn’t quite right. “There’s something funny going on,” says Anthony (whose character has the same name as the actor).

He means “funny,” as in odd, not humorous. Because there’s nothing humorous to Anthony about his puzzlement. And the movie shrewdly mirrors his increasingly confused state by muddling ours—changing little details of the flat, or apartment, where almost everything takes place, repeating and looping bits of scenes, even having different actors play key characters. The Father is like watching Anthony’s mounting uncertainties from the inside out, making us unsure of what’s real, what and who we’re seeing and where we are, feeling his intensifying frustration as he grasps to gather up the shards of his fractured memories.  

Does Anthony’s daughter, Anne (The Crown’s Olivia Colman), really cook chicken for dinner every night, or is it just one meal that Anthony is remembering, over and over? Is someone—everyone—really trying to steal his wristwatch? Maybe it’s Anne’s confrontational husband (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle and Masterpiece’s Victoria), or perhaps it’s that other guy (Mark Gattis), and the woman (Olivia Williams), who sometimes show up. And why does Anthony keep insisting that his new caregiver (Imogene Poots) bears such a strong resemblance to his other daughter, Anne’s sister?

Hopkins’ Academy Awardy for his iconic role as the charming cannibal Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is only a bit of gold dressing atop his monumental acting career, which spans decades of stage, screen and television. He’s played President Richard Nixon, painter Pablo Picasso, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, the Norse god Odin and Pope Benedict XVI in the movies, and starred in theatrical productions as Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth and Mark Antony. He was nominated for an Emmy for his TV role on Westworld as the mastermind of a futuristic sci-fi dystopian adult-amusement park.

If early buzz is any indication, he should certainly be getting ready for another Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a second trophy, for The Father. His performance is the powerful, poignant, unforgettably heart-wrenching stuff of which year-end awards are forged—and it will be especially spot-on and stirring for anyone who had, or has, a loved one with dementia. Colman, who also already has an Oscar (for The Favourite), likewise turns in an impressively nuanced performance as she navigates Anne’s emotional spectrum—of weariness, exasperation and loss—while dealing with her father and trying to calm, cajole and care for him.

The Father isn’t a relaxing watch, but Hopkins makes an indelible impression as this everyday man grappling in the fading twilight with an invisible foe that’s taking pieces of him away—his lifetime of recollection, his selfhood and his identity—bit by agonizing bit. It’s the ravages of senility by way of Shakespeare.

“Who am I, exactly?” Anthony asks at one point as he cowers in a corner of his room. “I fear as if I am losing all my leaves—the branches…the wind and rain… I don’t know what’s happening anymore.” He looks at his arm, suddenly somewhat reassured. “But I do know my watch is on my wrist, for the journey.”

Hopkins’ journey through this magisterial performance is intensely, profoundly personal, yet vast and relatable to almost everyone—like watching the waning light of day splay out into a glorious sunset before slipping completely into darkness, or seeing nature change its seasons as the blooming greenery of summer inevitably gives way to empty trees, falling leaves and the cold, pale gloom of winter.

The leaves may be falling away onto the cold, dark ground for Anthony. But Hopkins’ unforgettable portrait of a man losing his memory will remain long lodged in your’s, and it points the way to another, brighter season—when Hollywood hands out its shiny honors this coming spring—for one of our most formidable actors.

Black Gold

Eddie Murphy strikes in rich in the uproariously entertaining sequel to his 1988 hit comedy

Coming 2 America
Starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall & Shari Headley
Directed by Craig Brewer
PG-13
On Amazon Prime Friday, March 5, 2021

He’s back!

In this long-awaited “sequel” to his 1988 box-office smash, Eddie Murphy makes a slick, comfortable return to a fan-favorite role—and slides back into a familiar-feeling comedy that revs up loads of new laughs with an all-star supporting cast of old friends and fresh faces.   

In the original Coming to America, Murphy starred as a young pampered African prince who comes to America to find a wife.

Now, 30 years later, his Prince Akeem is a benevolent ruler, a loving husband and a father of three lovely young daughters. But his kingdom of Zamnda is under threat from the adjoining kingdom of Nextdooria and its menacing mercenary leader, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who chides Akeem for not being manly enough to have a son to inherit, or defend, his throne.

But wait a minute: Akeem is surprised when his dying father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), tells him he does indeed have a son, living back in Queens, New York—where, come to think of it, Akeem does vaguely remembers a wild night, some 30 years ago, when he was on his transcontinental wife-finding trek. So he heads back to America to seek out his royal heir.

Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy

That’s the set-up for the plot, and the comedy of Coming 2 America, which sweeps wide to include a bunch of actors that fans will be delighted to see from the original film. Arsenio Hall returns as Semmi, Akeem’s aide and confident. Sheri Headley (from TV’s Guiding Light, The Bold and the Beautiful and All My Children) reprises her role as Akeem’s wife, Lisa, now Zamunda’s royal highness. There’s John Amos as Cleo McDowell, now running the Zamunda McDowell’s, the knockoff McDonald’s, where Maurice (comedian Louie Anderson) continues to work.

But the newcomers are particularly impressive, like Snipes. Much better known as an action star, he earns some serious comedy bona fides—and a lot of laughs—as the strutting General Izzi. (Tutoring a group of children guerrilla-warriors-in-training, he reads them a story, then dismisses them to “Play with your grenades—but don’t mess with the sarin…it’s dangerous!”) Murphy, you’ll recall, got his start on Saturday Night Live, and the comedy chops he honed there helped him carve out his own path to movie stardom in the 1980s. So it’s not surprising that he’d invite a couple of more contemporary SNL improv heavyweights for significant new-character roles here—Leslie Jones as Mary, the sassy mother of Akeem’s long-lost son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and Tracy Morgan as Reem, Mary’s mouthy, street-wise brother. There’s also another SNL player in a one-scene cameo, but it’s uncredited, so I’ll let you discover that one for yourself.

Leslie Jones and Jermaine Fowler

There are some other surprises too: The movie is packed with people doing and saying funny things—thanks to the zingy, zesty, sometimes zany screenplay by Kenya Barris (who also writes for TV’s Black-ish and Grown-ish, and wrote the movie Girls Trip), and director Craig Brewer, whose chemistry with Murphy on the critically acclaimed Dolemite is My Name (2019) was surely a factor in his selection for this job. Look, there’s Morgan Freeman, narrating a funeral! And late-night’s Trevor Noah, as a newscaster on Zamunda’s all-news network, ZNN. And is that really Gladys Night, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa, singing slightly revised, Zamundian versions of their biggest hits (like “Midnight Train to Zamunda”)? Yes it is!

Initially planned for theatrical release by Paramount, Coming 2 America is yet another movie casualty of COVID-19. Rather than see it unspool to likely meager pandemic audiences, the studio sold it to Amazon’s streaming service, where it will doubtlessly find a much bigger viewership. But if ever there ever was a movie that would have played “big” in movie houses, man, this one coulda-woulda raised the roof. Watching it, I lost count of the moments, the one-liners and the sight gags that surely would have sent audiences into comedy convulsions, at a time with everyone is so ready for something so outright, so broadly funny. Sigh.  

And Murphy, once again, gets to do something he hasn’t done in a while, and clearly loves—slip into prosthetics and play multiple characters. In addition to making a most-welcome reappearance as the cheesy, jheri-curled R&B singer Randy Watson, he as well as Hall reprise their “dual” roles as Clarence and Morris, the elderly, bantering, comedically bickering Queens barbers in the My-T-Sharp snip shop (along with Sweets, again played by Clint Morris). Murphy also plays Saul, the shop’s ever-present Jewish customer. The movie’s two scenes there are overflowing, joke-filled goldmines, and Murphy looks like he’s having a ball.

Meeka (KiKi Layne) spars with her father (Eddie Murphy)

The My-T-Sharp isn’t just a stopover for a few ba-da-bing gags; it’s the hub of everything happening in Queens, a portal of Black culture. It’s where Akeem and Semmi go to find out all they need to know in Coming 2 America, as in the original film. There’s a thru-line in the movie between hair-care there and hair-care in Zamunda, when the new young prince, Lavelle, starts to fall in love with the palace groomer Mirambe (Nomzamo Mbatha) assigned to tend his “royal locks.” (In one of their conversations, Lavelle and Mirambe discuss the merits of American movies, specifically the Barbershop franchise, a sequence of films beginning in the early 2000 and set in Chicago with an all-Black cast including Ice Cube, Keith David, Kenan Thompson, Keke Palmer, Nicki Minaj, Regina Hall and Anthony Anderson.) Mirambe tells Lavelle her dream is to one day have her own barbershop—except “women are not allowed to own their own businesses in Zamunda.”  

Can Lavelle change Zamunda’s status quo, and help its young women break its glass ceiling? Does he look better with a rat-tail braid, or without? Can he pass the princely test for bravery, using a pair of royal tweezers to snip off the whiskers of a wild African lion? Will he fall for Mirambe, or for an arranged marriage with General Izzy’s daughter, the sexy siren Bopito (Teyana Taylor, a dancer/choreographer and former Def Jam recording artist)?  

For all its considerable wit and its wiles, the movie also has a sharp, smart satirical edge—about how the times have changed, the anchor of tradition always has to contend with the tide of progress, and how even the most different of “blended” families can bring out the best in each other. Akeem’s daughters (Kiki Layne, Bella Murphy and Akiley Love) are charming, their training as young warriors proves quite resourceful—and the eldest daughter, Meeka, represents a whole generation of young women everywhere whose ambition, intelligence, drive and skill set are the match for any man…especially one who dares call her “nasty.”

And Murphy, well, he’s the magisterial mac daddy of this big house party of comedy—the prince who becomes the king. He’s comfortable enough on his throne to sit back on the sidelines, many times, and let the lion roar, giving his all-star guests plenty of room to roam and strut their stuff. And he knows he doesn’t have to create the comedy, it’s always there; he just has to get it, and maintain it. It just needs a little shaping and some styling—like the hair in the My-T-Sharp barbershop, or like the jokes that fly nonstop through the air there. Comedy is like a good hairstyle, and Murphy has always known where to go to find it, and how to wear it.

And he knows he’s struck gold, again—Black gold, with an almost exclusively all-Black cast, in an uproariously entertaining sequel that resonates with rich Black humor, celebrating its proud Black heritage with a legacy of retro-keen laughter that reminds us of its leading man’s cool confidence and his nearly infallable, career-wide instincts for comedy.

“I’ll always do right for Zamunda,” Akeem tells his wife. “I shall always do what is right for my family.” And Eddie Murphy will always do right, all right, when it comes to finding the funny.   

Billie the Brave

Andra Day is spectacular in breakout role as late, great, tortured jazz singer

The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Starring Andra Day
Directed by Lee Daniels
Rated R
How to Watch: On Hulu Friday, Feb. 26, 2021

Since 1976, every state has observed February as Black History Month. And this month’s rich slate of history lessons draw to a close with a cinematic gut-punch of a biopic about the turbulent life of one of America’s musical treasures—and how her music made her a target of the FBI.

Holiday, the Philadelphia-born jazz/swing singer nicknamed “Lady Day,” became famous first in the nightclubs of Harlem during the late 1930s, later recording solo and with big bands of the era. Her incendiary 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” about the epidemic lynching of Black men and women in the South, became a hit, and also her lifelong musical signature.

It also put her in the crosshairs of the federal government, who saw Holiday and “Strange Fruit” as threats to the social order, a “musical starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement,” as one federal agent puts it in the movie. The government didn’t like celebrities—especially Black ones—rocking the boat, churning the water, stirring up trouble. “Don’t you want to set an example for your race?” a reporter asks her. “Like Ella Fitzgerald?”

The FBI knows they can’t easily shut Holiday up, or shut her down, for singing. But they also know she uses heroin, like some other jazz musicians. So they go after her for drugs. And the Feds play rough—and dirty.

You may not be familiar with Andra Day, the actress who portrays Holiday—at least not onscreen. But get ready for one heck of an introduction. Day, 36, is a Grammy-nominated singer who most recently performed her song “Rise Up” for the 2021 presidential inauguration ceremonies. Now making her starring-role film debut, she’s a fireball. Day’s transformation into Holiday involved a drastic diet—dropping nearly 30 pounds—and “learning” to smoke cigarettes, and she makes an indelible, phenomenal first impression (that’s already getting Oscar buzz), creating a gutsy, earthy and remarkably intense portrait of a divinely gifted performer and the demons that plagued her.

Day may have morphed her body for the part, but her voice was more than ready for the role. She’s sassy, sultry, sensual and sensational on several of Holiday’s musical touchstones, including “Lover Man,” Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Them There Eyes,” “All of Me,” “God Bless the Child” and, of course, the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which contrasts the garish “burning flesh” of lynched Black bodies with the “sweet and fresh” fragrance of the magnolia trees in which they are hanging.

When she finally sings that song, to a hushed audience, stunned to silence by her every word in a darkened theater, watching her illuminated by a single spotlight, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Garrett Hedlund plays FBI agent Harry Anslinger

Heroin was one of Holiday’s demons. Another was newly minted FBI commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who becomes obsessed with muzzling her out of fear that “Strange Fruit” will agitate Black audiences—and perhaps even galvanize them into social action. “Drugs and n-ggers are a contamination to our great American civilization,” Anslinger tells his committee. “This jazz music is the devil’s work.”

Tyler James Williams (who at 14 played “Chris Rock” in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris) is Holiday’s cool-cat saxophonist and musical partner, Lester Young. Trevante Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, a Black FBI agent who has a “complictated” relationship with the singer he’s assigned to bust and bring in. Rob Morgan (Officer Powell from TV’s Stranger Things) is Louis McKay, Holiday’s abusive husband. Snowfall’s Melvin Gregg comes and goes as her lover and drug supplier, Joe Guy. Natasha Lyonne, who played junkie sexhound Nicky Nichols on Orange is the New Black, nails the fiery Southern sass of actress Tallulah Bankhead, with whom Holiday was also intimately—and romantically—involved. Emmy-winning character actor Leslie Jordan (who now plays Phil on the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat) cross-dresses to play a gossipy female radio host interviewing Holiday in her later days, reflecting on her controversial career.

Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes, who plays FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher

And Evan Ross, who has a bit part as another young Black FBI agent, is the son of singer Diana Ross, who was Oscar-nominated for her starring role in the 1972 Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues.

In his first feature film since The Butler (2013), Lee Daniels turns his focus on this seminal figure in Black history and pop culture, who received four posthumous Grammys and is lauded for “telling it like it is” in a song that became a bona fide top-seller before the music business began officially charting successful radio singles. Basing his film in part on the 2015 book Chasing the Scream, about the (unsuccessful) war on drugs, Daniels uses flashbacks and different kinds of film textures and techniques—to mimic faux-documentary and newsreel footage—to show the dizzying swirl of Holiday’s life as it spins increaslingly out of control. It’s a period-piece biopic, a slice of history, a love story and a tragedy, all wrapped around a spectacular breakout performance by a singer who now makes her own explosive entrance as an actress.

Day captures the complexity of this musical icon, a woman who loved men, loved women and used booze and narcotics—in part—to escape the painful memories of an awful, abusive childhood. Holiday was certainly no choir girl, and the film doesn’t flinch from depicting drug use, crude language and some scenes of smoking hot sex.

In another recent movie about another real-life Black singer from decades ago, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis—in another extraordinary performance—puffs herself out with expansive artificial padding and layers of makeup. But Day goes the opposite direction, taking it all off off—and I mean, she takes it all off. When FBI agents barge into her apartment, she indignantly strips naked in front of them, daring them to search her. This Billie is a boss—raw, righteous and fierce, but also frail, fragile and permanently scarred, in more ways than one. When she exhales puffs of cigarette smoke from her nose and her lips, it’s like watching the fumes of a battle-weary, fire-breathing dragon, pausing between bouts.

The movie spans the late 1930s to Holiday’s death, at age 44 in 1959. For a story that “ended” more than 60 years ago, its issues about Black lives, racism, civil rights and police brutality couldn’t be more timely, or more of a tinderbox, today.

Gorgeous, gritty and grandiose, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a tribute to a singer whose tortured life left a trail of heartache and heartbreak—and a scathing indictment in song about one of America’s darkest, most shameful chapters.

The FBI hauled Billie Holiday into court, put her in prison, and hounded her until the day she died. But she refused to be silenced. And her legacy, and her song, lives on in Andra Day’s triumphant performance and in this monumental musical history lesson.

Ah, Paris

Michelle Pfeiffer shines as distressed diva in this quirky comedy set in the City of Light

French Exit
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer & Lucas Hedges
Directed by Azarel Jacobs
Rated R
How to watch: In select theaters Friday, Feb. 12, 2021

We’ll always have Paris.

Those famous, memorable words come from the movie Casablanca, the 1942 classic in which ex-pat American Rick (Humphrey Bogart) tells his former lover, the beautiful Norwegian Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), farewell in the final scene, on a fog-blanketed airport tarmac as she prepares to board a plane. He reminds her that even though World War II will separate them, likely forever, they’ll always have the memory of the brief time they spent together, in the most romantic city in the world.

Ah, Paris—yes, it’s the setting of hundreds of stories, movies and flights of imagination. The City of Light, the Louve, the River Seine, Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, sidewalk cafés, berets baguettes and cigarettes. It’s where Meryl Streep masters cooking in Julie and Julia, Tom Hanks first cracks into The Da Vinci Code, streets get folded up like origami in Inception, and Fantine dreams a dream in Les Misèrables.

And in the tony, high-society comedy of manners French Exit, it’s where a snooty widow, Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), moves when she burns through all her money in New York and has nowhere else to go.

Based on a 2018 prize-winning novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt (who also wrote the screenplay), the title is an expression that means an abrupt or hasty departure.

When her financial advisor informs her that she’s completely drained all the liquidity in her late husband’s lavish estate, in which she’s been living, he asks about her plan. But Frances doesn’t really have one. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” she drolly answers. “But I kept not dying, and here I am.”

And she can’t stay where she is, so she sells all her personal belongings and packs up her young-adult son and dependent, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). Where to go, what to do? Thank goodness her one good friend, Joan (Susan Coyne), offers her the use of her fully furnished apartment in Paris. Ah, the largess of the very rich!

But before they depart, Malcolm has to break the news to his already-impatient fiancé (Imogen Poots), who doesn’t exactly get more patient when he tells her that he has no idea when—or if—he’ll be coming back.

Lucas Hedges and Danielle Macdonald

On the not-so-luxurious cruise to France, Malcolm has a fling with Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), a young woman working onboard as a fortune teller, who claims to have a special knack for detecting the presence of death. That aptitude doesn’t exactly make her popular among the cruise’s geriatric set, but something about the black cat Francis has smuggled aboard intrigues her; probably because Francis believes that her late husband, Mr. Frank (Tracy Letts), has been reincarned in the sleek feline, Small Frank.

Valerie Mahaffery

In Paris, Francis and Malcom meet some other colorful oddballs, including Mme. Reynard (Big Sky’s Valerie Mahaffey), a delightfully daffy, upbeat fellow expat with a self-gratification secret hidden in her kitchen freezer; and a private investigator (Isaach De Bakolé) Frances hires when Small Frank goes missing. Eventually, all the characters—including Malcolm’s stateside fiancé and her new/old boyfriend, the fortune teller and Frances’ friend, Joan—converge in the apartment’s cozy living room for an extended encampment and existential banter about mortality and mysticism. There’s also some soul searching, a bout of arm wrestling and a séance. It turns out Mr. Frank isn’t too happy about being a cat.

Pfeiffer, a dependable movie presence since the early 1980s, shines anew in this regal return to a headlining role as a grand-dame diva now a bit faded and fallen on hard—if highly unusual—times, but vamping it up royally as she’s going down. Hedges—so strong in Manchester by the Sea, Boy Erased, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—provides a droll but muted counterpart to his leading lady’s colorful centerpiece as a woman in her mid-60s facing, and eventually embracing, this new chapter in her life.

As her stack of Euros dwindles in the closet, this isn’t so much her second act, or even her third, Frances tells someone. It’s “the coda,” she says, the conclusion.

The movie makes the most of its location. Malcolm tools around the streets of Paris on a red bicycle; Frances sips coffee and smokes at an outdoor café, her face breaking into a wistful, melancholy smile as she watches schoolgirls playing and singing on the sidewalk across the street; she and Malcolm give a snooty French waiter some comedic comeuppance. Even the homeless man with whom Frances shares an orange, on a park bench outside her apartment—the whole interaction is so…so genteely Franco. As in most movies that put down roots there, Paris becomes a character in itself, a mood, a feeling, a nearly tactile, tangible presence.

Sharply comedic, quietly quirky, magically beguiling and endearingly odd, French Exit makes the point that there are some things that money can’t buy, like friendship, family can be maddeningly messy, and relationships are the most valuable currency of all, anywhere.

And when the money’s gone, the coda’s finished playing and it’s all over—well, like Bogey says:, we’ll always have Paris.