Category Archives: Movie Reviews

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 newcaster 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.

Hometown Hero

Pop superstar Justin Timberlake gets tough in heart-tugging Southern drama

Justin Timberlake and newcomer Ryder Allen in ‘Palmer’

Palmer
Starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Ryder Allen
Directed by Fisher Stephens
R
Jan. 29 on Apple+

A former small-town football hero returns home to rural Louisiana after serving a 12-year prison sentence, where he becomes involved in the messy home life of a young boy living next door to his grandmother.

Starring as the hulking, sulking, melancholy ex-con, Justin Timberlake looks and acts like someone a few hundred, hard miles away from the polished pop superstar who started out as a perky preteen Mouseketeer on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club before launching the squeaky-clean boy band NSYNC.

As NSYNC sang, “Bye Bye Bye.”

The multi-millon-selling singer, songwriter and producer has also forged a formidable acting career with roles in some 20 movies, including The Social Network, Bad Teacher, Inside Llewyn Davis and Wonder Wheel. (I’ll be kind and won’t count the computer-animated/live-action 2010 unnatural-disaster comedy pile-up that was Yogi Bear, for which Timblerlake voiced Yogi’s short-stuff companion, Boo Boo.)

His last movie was Trolls World Tour, released earlier this year, a sequel to the 2016 animated musical romp based on the frizzy-haired toy dolls of the 1960s.

Palmer is Timberlake’s return to more meaty, serious dramatic fare, as his character rebuilds his life, becoming a reluctant caretaker and champion for a child who doesn’t fit in anywhere else in the community.

We meet Palmer when he gets off the bus in his little backwater hometown, then hikes it to the house of his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him. We find out she’s the only family he’s got left, and that she has a few rules, like getting up and taking her to church every Sunday.

Praise the Lord: Timberlake, Allen and June Squibb

Looking out the window of her house, Palmer sees the rundown mobile home next door. Vivian tells him she regrets renting it to the young mother, Shelly, and her son, Sam (Ryder Allen), living there now—because Shelly’s boyfriend is always around, causing trouble.

Sam is “different” from the other boys, at Vivian’s church and at his school. He wears a barrette to keep his hair out of his eyes, he plays with dolls, he sashays and prisses when he walks. He wants nothing more than to become a member of the princess club, from his favorite cartoon TV show.

In a more, ahem, enlightened community, Sam would be considered “gender fluid,” or perhaps “non-binary.” Most people in Palmer’s hometown are, well, a little more blunt.

“There’s something wrong with that boy,” says one of Vivian’s church-going friends.

When Shelly runs off with her boyfriend, kindly Vivian takes in Sam to live—with her and Palmer. For how long, they don’t know.

Like just about everyone else, Palmer initially doesn’t know quite what to make of Sam. “You know you’re a boy, right?” he asks him. “Boys don’t play with dolls.”

“Well, I’m a boy,” Sam answers him. “And I do.”

Director Fisher Stevens—an actor turned award-winning documentary filmmaker—takes the movie into some predictable places, first as a “buddy picture” showing the gradual bonding process of Palmer and Sam, then layering on emotionally wrenching overtones that might remind movie lovers of break-up dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story.

Palmer becomes Sam’s guardian angel, stepping in to stop schoolyard bullies—or busting a redneck’s head to impart some tough lessons about tolerance. The pop idol who once sang about “bringing sexy back”—and lays down some slick R&B gospel grooves in his new single, “Better Days,” with New Jersey rapper Ant Clemons—now brings out his fist to strike a blow against hateful ignorance of people who react with meanness when they “see something that they ain’t used to seein’,” especially when it’s hurtful to a child.

It’s a strong, beefy performance from Timberlake, but he gives much of the film over to his nine-year-old co-star, who makes a memorable movie debut (Allen’s only previous acting experience was an appearance on a 2017 episode of TV’s Law & Order). Though she disappears for much of the movie, British actress Juno Temple (mostly recently on Hulu’s Ted Lasso) does a convincing turn as Sam’s drug-addicted, Southern-fried, trailer-trash mom. That’s Dean Winters—yep, the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate commercials—as her loutish, abusive boyfriend. Alisa Wainright is Sam’s teacher, the lovely Ms. Hayes, who uses a school Halloween party—when Sam comes in a princess costume—to gently teach a lesson to her kids that people can “be whoever you wanna be.”

Juno Temple

As Palmer puts his own life back together, he finds many of the missing pieces in building a better world for Sam. This deep-South drama’s sensitive, humanistic approach to atonement, acceptance, inclusion and compassion will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like a loner, an outcast, an oddity—and who might wish they had someone like Palmer in their corner, advocating for them, standing up for them, loving them, fighting for them.    

“There’s things in this world you can be, and things in this world that you can’t,” Palmer tells Sam at one point, worried about how hard it’s going to be for Sam to acclimate to a world seemingly set against him. But by the end of the film, Palmer has changed his mind; Sam can be a princess, Palmer can be whole, and the circle of family can be as wide, and as full, as you make it.  

And Timberlake can be a serious movie star, again, in a movie like Palmer.

Cops & Criminals

Denzel Washington returns to a familiar form in neo-noirish crime psycho-drama filled with Oscar winners

The Little Things
Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto
Directed by John Lee Hancock
R
In theaters and on HBO Max Jan. 29, 2021

If you watch TV, odds are pretty good you come across an occasional cop show or two.

Nearly 20 percent of all television programming is about police officers, detectives and other law-enforcement types solving crimes, on hit “procedurals” like Law & Order SVU and NCIS, two of the longest-running dramas of any kind currently on the air.

And if you dig shows like that, you’ll likely dig watching Denzel Washington dig deep into this crime-drama thriller, playing a veteran patrolman on the long trail of a serial killer with a kink for young California women.

Rami Malek

Washington is Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Bakersfield deputy sheriff who teams with a younger, slicker LAPD detective, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), when circumstances bring Deke outside his usual jurisdiction—and back to the the very precinct where he once worked.

Though Deke and Baxter are from two different worlds, practically different eras of policing, they become partners when the evidence continues to mount, the body count continues to rise—and the search narrows to what appears to be a prime suspect.

Solving a case like this one, Deke tells Baxter, requires endless commitment and paying attention to detail—anything that a suspect might do, or leave behind as a clue. “Little things are important, Jimmy,” he says. “It’s little things that get you caught.”

Director/writer John Lee Hancock—whoseother films include Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side, The Rookie and The Alamo—certainly knows how to put little things, all the details, into crafting a well-built movie story. This, his first film since The Highwaymen (2019)—the true-ish tale of the Texas Rangers who brought down outlaws Bonnie and Clyde—chugs along with fine-tuned, neo-noir procedural precision, ratcheting up the tension and layering on the complexity as Deke bores down into the nitty-gritty of his investigation…and into something about this case, bringing him back to Los Angeles, that’s particularly troubling.

Something from the past is haunting him, and the new murders bring all the old memories up, out of the shadows, like ghosts.

Washington, one of Hollywood’s most dependable stars, is a two-time Oscar winner (Glory and Training Day), with a resume that stretches into nearly 60 films. We’ve watched him grow as a actor, from TV’s St. Elsewhere in the 1980s through Oscar-nominated roles in Cry Freedom (1988), Malcolm X (1993), The Hurricane (1999), Flight (2013) and Fences (2017). But he’s always had a thing for cops and robbers and guys on one extreme of the law or the other, in movies like The Equalizer franchise, 2 Guns, Safe House, American Gangster, Inside Man, The Bone Collector and Fallen. Now, at age 66, it’s perfectly appropriate for him to play Deke, the veteran officer, with a bit of a paunch, his hair mostly grey, and a weary, dogged determination that calls for more brains than brawn.  

His performance seems, in other words, completely authentic, wholly believable—and so very Denzellian.

Whetting our appetite for his even juicier appearance later this year as a villain in the new James Bond flick, No Time to Die, Malek—who also has an Oscar (for playing Queen frontman Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody—is virtually unreadable and inscrutable, especially at first, as the icy, media-saavy, big-city detective. But he thaws a bit when he learns that he’s not so different from his older, more experienced, Bakersfield counterpart, especially when it comes to becoming obsessesed over a vexing case.

And speaking of villains, Jared Leto—also an Oscar winner (Dallas Buyers Club)—plays prime suspect Albert Sparma, a textbook-case weirdo even creepier than his creepy-sounding name. Not to mention his admission that’s he’s a crime wonk, he looks like Charles Manson and he even has a copy of Helter Skelter on his bookcase. He taunts the police, knowing they don’t have enough hard evidence to hold him, much less arrest him. Is he really the the killer?

Jared Leto

Little Things keeps you guessing—and keeps Denzel and Rami digging, while dropping clues like bread crumbs all over Los Angeles. A local radio station provides a backdrop of classic pop and soul—and perhaps a wink-wink soundtrack of the investigation’s progress, as Mary Wills’ “My Guy” accompanies Deke’s eureka moment when he thinks he “makes” his suspect, or Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” plays as he tails him down the interstate.

But the movie most reminded me of another classic song, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which Mick Jagger sings, “Every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints.” As Deke and Baxter move closer to solving the crime, burrowing deeper into their investigation, the movie likewise blurs the lines, between law breakers and law keepers, guardian angels and personal demons, plunging its story past a police procedural into darker, murkier waters with more disturbing undertones.

Although Little Things deals with some ghastly, gristly crimes at its core, it’s not a particularly gory movie; all of its awfulness happens off-camera, or is seen in photographs. You’ll see some blood and some bodies, but it’s not meant to gross you out. It’s a multiple-murder mystery for you to solve, a puzzle for you to put together, and a solidly effective psycho-thriller with some twists you probably won’t see coming.

It’s like binge-watching a whole TV crime-solving series in one big, Oscar-star movie gulp.

“The past becomes the future becomes the past…,” Deke says. What does he mean? Baxter and Sparma find out, and you will, too.

Just pay attention to the little things—because yes, they are important.  

Tight Trio

Powerful acting performances anchor brutally honest, real-life cancer drama

Our Friend
Starring Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck & Jason Segel
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
R
In select theaters and available video on demand Jan. 22, 2021

Shailene Woodley had it. Shirley MacLaine had it. So did Ali McGraw, Olivia Cooke and Bella Thorne.

It’s dying-girl disease. And it affects a lot of beautiful Hollywood actresses, in a span of films, from the classics—Love Story and Terms of Endearment—to more contemporary millennial tear-jerkers like The Spectacular Now, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Midnight Sun.

Now Dakota Johnson has it, in this eloquent, sensitive, strong-hearted adaptation of an award-winning 2015 Esquire magazine first-person feature.

In that article, writer Matt Teague detailed the excruciating ordeal of his wife, Nicole, with cancer, and how their longtime best friend, Dane, upended his own life to relocate from another state and move into the laundry room of their home to help them.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose previous feature was the true-life military drama Meagan Levy (2017), crafts the story of the Teagues in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. We get to see how the friendship begins between Nicole (Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck), a young married couple living in Shreveport, Miss., and Dane (Jason Segel), and how it continues when the Teagues move away to neighboring Fairhope, Ala.   

As anyone who’s had any experience with cancer knows, it’s not pretty. And the movie softens much—a great deal—of Matthew Teague’s article about just how nasty and messy and ugly things got as he watched, and cared for, his wife as she wasted away. But who would want to watch that, right?

But you might want to watch Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck and Jason Segal, all giving some of the best performances they’ve given in a “mainstream” drama in a long time. You may best remember Johnson in the fantasy-horror weird-out that was Suspiria or her 50 Shades S&M softcore sex romps, portraying characters who took viewers on flights of wild escapism. In Our Friend, however, she plays Nicole with the delicate, nuanced sense of a woman grounded not in fantasy, but in the realities of an actual person whose life took some very wrenching turns.

Jason Segal, Isabella Kai & Violet McGraw

Segel, best known for comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, I Love You, Man and his appearances on How I Met Your Mother, is outstanding as Matt and Nicole’s somewhat listless best friend. Dane leaves his job at a sporting-goods store and finds his true calling by helping the Teagues do whatever they need, especially when it comes to the surrogate parenting of their two young daughters (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai).    

Affleck won a slew of awards, including an Oscar, for the searing, emotionally draining drama Manchester by the Sea (2016), and he’s appeared in almost every other kind of film, from Westerns and comedies and sci-fi thrillers. He plays Matt as a tough nut to crack—a newspaper reporter who works his way up becoming a magazine war correspondent with a hard shell, one that’s not softened by his job or assignments that take him away from home for weeks at a time.

“I’m your best friend, asshole. I’m allowed to point out your sh*itty qualities,” Dane tells him. “You’re moody, you’re selfish, you’re distant.”

One of the surprises of Our Friend is how it weaves happy moments, funny and even uplifting bright spots into the fabric of sadness and what we know will become Nicole’s fate. There are jokes and giggles, goofy car singalongs to Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a kayaking montage to Led Zeppelin (Nicole’s favorite band). But the movie also doesn’t shy away from some real-life fissues that added even more stress to the Teagues’ already stressful situation, like an extramarital affair and a family pet that has to be put down at a most importune moment.

Gwendoline Christie, from Game of Thrones and the Star Wars franchise, shows up in a most unexpected manner, and country music fans will likewise get a jolt to see hitmaker Jake Owen in a couple of scenes—making his movie acting debut—as an insensitive spouse of one of Nicole’s best friends.

It’s all a lovely, finely tuned, brutally honest portrait of a marriage, a family and a friend, who went through something terrible—and something profoundly bonding—together. It’ll make you weep, but you’ll feel good about the tears.

And the bottom line, in this “dying girl” movie: It’s not so much about a beautiful dying girl. It’s about a beautiful friendship that grew and blossomed around Nicole Teague, and became even stronger when she found out she was dying—and especially when her other “friends” started to peel off and pull away. It’s a movie about loyalty, devotion, bromance and selflessness, sacrifice and a steadfast kind of friendship that endures everything, even the looming spectre of separation and death.

It’s about coming together, staying together and holding on, when something heinous and relentless and horrible is trying so hard to pull us apart.

“What kind of person gives up his entire life?” asks a frustrated girlfriend (Marielle Scott) Dane has been dating, at the end of her relationship rope after he’s moved away for an extended stay with the Teagues.

“I’d say a good friend,” Dane answers.

And I’d say, in a world like we’re living in at this moment, feeling more pulled apart and hotly divided than ever, we could all use a bit more coming together, staying together and holding on. We could all sure use a good friend like Dane. And we can certainly use a feel-good movie like Our Friend.

Is There Life Out There?

George Clooney looks at the end of the world in Netflix’s cautionary Armageddon tale

The Midnight Sky
Starring George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler
Directed by George Clooney
PG-13
Available on Netflix Dec. 23, 2020

George Clooney shoots for the stars in this ambitious, sprawling post-apocalyptic saga about a dying planet, a search for habitable life elsewhere, and a lonely scientist desperately trying to send a warning to a group of NASA explorers.

The dying planet is Earth, the scientist is 70-something Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), and the warning to the astronauts is to keep them from coming home—since things have changed a lot in the two years since they left, in 2047. We’re never told what happened, exactly, but ever-expanding, big red circles on the digital displays of Augustine’s computers let us know it’s not good: Something has toxified the whole world.

Climate change? Global warming? Depleted ozone? Nuclear armageddon? All of the above? Whatever. Everything, everywhere is toast, and the dwindling pockets of still-breathable air anywhere are where nobody can live, not for long—in the inhospitably frigid Arctic Circle. That’s where Augustine has opted to remain, holed up alone at a remote observatory, while the planet’s decimated surviving population has been evacuated deep underground to live out the rest of their pitiful days.

Augustine is trying—in vain—to ping the spaceshift Aether, already zipping along at 30,000 miles an hour on its way back home from its mission to set up an experimental colony on one of the moons of Jupiter. But his messages aren’t getting through; the observatory’s signal is too weak. And he knows his days are numbered, too, one way or another. Augustine is dying of something, likely cancer, that requires regular blood transfusions. But can he live long enough to at least keep those astronauts alive, and diverted away from their suicidal course?

Augustine thinks he’s alone at the observatory, and maybe even in the world—until he’s shocked to come across a tiny stowaway child (newcomer Caoilinn Springall), three weeks after the evacuations.

The tiny-tot newcomer doesn’t talk—is she mute, shell-shocked, or just shy? But Augustine is able to determine from a picture she draws that her name is Iris, like the flower. He warns her away from the all the high-tech equipment, gets her to giggle (once) in a mini food fight, and points out the most important star, up in the midnight sky—Polaris, the North Star, the one that remains fixed in place while the others circle around it. “If you ever get lost,” he tells Iris, “it will help you find your way.”

In order to reach the astronauts, Augustine and the young foundling must venture outside into the brutal, sub-freezing cold and undertake a treacherous journey, trekking to another abandoned but hopefully-still-operational observatory, many miles distant. It might have enough power to communicate with the spaceship and shoo it away, back to Jupiter, back to where its astronauts can possibly start life anew.

Clooney, who hasn’t made a movie appearance in three years (since Money Monster and Hail Caesar!, both in 2016), comes roaring back in The Midnight Sky, not only anchoring in a starring role but also directing and producing. With one foot in space and the other on bleak, toxified terra firma, he unifies the two stories in a way he’s described as Gravity meets The Revenant. He’s already won two Oscars (Best Actor, for Syrianna, and Best Picture, as one of the producers of Argo), and he could well be in the running again with this entry’s high-pedigree, Academy Award-caliber music, effects and storytelling, and its super-solid supporting cast.

Augustine and Iris must content with ravenous Arctic wolves, blinding snowstorms and melting glaciers. High above them, the Aether is dangerously off-course, damaged from a run-in with meteoric space ice. It’s also flying blind, unable to receive any signals from Earth, where all the communications centers are kaput; no one up there knows that everything down there is gone.

Clooney grizzlies out, “ages up” and goes full geezer for the role, with a supersized grey beard that makes him look like an Arctic explorer of yore, a severe self-inflicted buzz haircut and a slow amble that fits the advanced years and high mileage of a weary, terminally ill loner hermit. This cheerless, ice-caked performance isn’t his most robust—not anywhere near it—but it may be one of his most poignantly personal, as one of Hollywood’s most renowned environmental advocates. The movie walks a razor’s edge of topicality about what’s happening already on our planet; one shot of Earth, as seen by the astronauts from space as a darkened, smoldering, burned-out orb, doesn’t look much different from real-life satellite photos of this year’s California wildfires, writ large. This tale may be futuristic science fiction, but it feels not so fictional, and not so futuristic…

Felicity Jones spacewalks.

And there’s plenty of drama up above, too. Aether’s mission specialist (Felicty Jones) is a few months pregnant with a baby on board; the father is flight commander Tom (David Oyelowo), who ponders finding a name for the child, and finding a quick shortcut home; the veteran pilot (Kyle Chandler) frets about the wife and kids he’s left behind; aerodynamicist Sanchez (Demián Bichir) hides a personal heartbreak that he salves through the holigraphic memories of the young flight engineer (Tiffany Boone), who’s queasy about making her first spacewalk to make some emergency repairs.

The film is technically, visually wondrous, especially the space segments, inside and outside the Aether; depictions of space, spaceships and space travel have become fairly common territory for movies for decades. But The Midnight Sky stakes its own claim, especially on one particular effect, and sequence, that I suspect might help get it a technical-category Oscar: a pristine white airlock filling with red bursts of zero-G blood droplets, signaling life floating away, one crimson globule at a time.

The movie has life on its mind, in every way—old life ending, new life beginning. Why, one character asks, do some people die so young, and others live so long? What happens if, and when, an entire planet perishes? Is there more life out there, among the stars? Or is it too late for any of that?

It’s a lot, sometimes, to cram into a crowded spacepod—flashbacks (in which a younger actor, Ethan Peck, plays a younger Augustine) and fever dreams; a dying old man and a wide-eyed little girl; seeds and flowers; a Neil Diamond classic and a George Jones drinking song; a clip from a 1959 movie (about the end of the world) starring Ethan Peck’s grandfather, Gregory Peck, and Ava Garner. But director Clooney ropes it all together, somehow, up there and down here, into a big, bold fable about an expired globe of poisoned air, unliveable earth and undrinkable water, and the possibilities of the vast, unfathomable, unknowable future of space.

“I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place,” Augustine laments.

As the movie builds toward something you might not see coming, it ends with something you won’t be surprised to see—a look upward, into a majestic nighttime canopy of the cosmos.

It’s Clooney’s way of suggesting that perhaps The Midnight Sky, like the North Star, can point everyone toward doing a little better job—before it really is too late.

Pistol Packin’ Mama

Rachel Brosnahan breaks out on big screen as mob wife on the run

I’m Your Woman
Starring Rachel Brosnahan
Directed by Julia Hart
R
Dec. 11, 2020 on Prime Video

Since 2017, Rachel Brosanhan has been churning out laughs as a stand-up comedian on the Emmy-winning Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

But she swaps comedy for crime in this dapper, danger-spiked 1970’s-set character drama about a career thief’s wife who has to go on the run with a baby after her life takes a screeching turn for the worse.

Brosnahan is Jean, the bored suburban spouse of a slick hustler named Eddie (Bill Heck), who keeps her supplied with groovy stolen clothes and doesn’t care that she can’t cook. When Eddie walks through the front door one day with an infant, she of course wonders what’s up, asking if it’s a joke. “It’s all worked out,” Eddie assures her. “He’s our baby. It’s your baby.”

Then he lets a group of his gangster friends into the house, grins and winks at Jean, and closes the door behind him as he leaves her, baby on her hip, in the kitchen.

Most wives would have questions—a lot of questions. But when you’re the kind of wife married to a guy like Eddie, you don’t ask a lot of questions, because there aren’t a lot of answers. And there’s not a lot of time for questions. That night, while she’s sleeping, there’s an urgent knock on her door—it’s one of Eddie’s “associates,” who tells Jean that Eddie has disappeared, she’s in serious danger, and she’s got to get out of town—really, really fast.

Eddie’s friend gives her a satchel full of money, says there’s no time to pack and puts her and the baby, whom Jean has named Harry, into a car with a hulking driver named Cal (Nigerian-British actor Arinzé Kene). And they hit the road.

We can certainly relate to Jean’s nervousness, fear and sense of confusion; she tells Cal that she’s never been on her own. She knew her husband was shady, but doesn’t understand anything about what’s going on, or why she can’t get any information from the tight-lipped Cal, who turns out to be as good with calming a crying baby as he is with a gun. But where’s Eddy? Is he OK? Is anyone looking for him? “Everyone’s looking,” Cal tells her. “And they’re looking for you, too.”

Some answers—about what happened to Eddie, where’d the baby come from, and Cal—do come, in dribs and drabs. But the important thing is following Jean’s odyssey, and her evolution as she learns to live on the lam with baby Henry in tow.

Director Julia Hart, working once again with her husband-collaborator Justin Horowitz (the producer of La La Land) on the script, spins a tight, terrific, fem-centric tale of lower-tier mob life from the mob-wife perspective, balancing soft, tender, wistfully contemplative moments with ripples of explosive violence. An extremely tense scene involving a too-friendly, nosy new-neighbor lady (Marceline Hugot) reminds us—and Jean—that she’s dealing with some very tough, rough characters, baby or not.

As Jean and Cal try to stay one step ahead of goons and goombahs trying to close the messy loop Jean’s husband opened and set into lethal motion, it’s clear that I’m Your Woman isn’t just a crime story with a unique perspective. It’s a self-actualization, women’s-lib tale with a twist—about Jean’s “liberation” from her pampered, blinkered cocoon as a moll-doll accessory.

In a parallel of how many women of the ‘70s asserted their independence, Jean also proves that she can “do it all,” stepping into a new world, a man’s world—her man’s world—to care for a child, live on her own and build a life with a newly acquired skillset.

“Fuh, fuh, fire,” she enunciates to Henry, who’s watching her do something she’s never done—start a fire—in the fireplace of the cabin in which they’re hiding out. “Fire—I did that.”

Jean’s skills also expand as movie dips its toe into race relations of the era, when she and Cal get pulled over by a state trooper and she has to think fast to explain why she’s traveling with a Black man. (“I didn’t know I could lie like that,” she marvels afterward.) Later, she learns about a Black-owned hotel catering to Black families—especially ones that need a safe place to lay low for awhile. Her little white, suburban cocoon starts feeling farther and farther away.

In addition to her starring role The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for which she’s received an Emmy and two Golden Globes, Brosnahan has appeared in numerous other TV series (including nearly 20 episodes of House of Cards), and she’s had small roles in more than a dozen movies. But this is her breakout film in every way, proving she’s so much more than a “TV actress,” and showing she can do so much more than Midge Maisel. I’m Your Woman puts her through a gauntlet, emotionally as well physically, from a hood’s pampered princess to a scrappy, survival-focused, pistol-packin’ mama.

And most mob movies don’t offer this kind of empathetic examination of motherhood. In a poignant scene in a diner, Jean explains to Cal her difficulty in conceiving a child—and her deep, long-unfulfilled yearning to have one. “And then in walked Eddie with a baby,” she says. Jean’s ongoing difficulty in cooking an egg—an ancient symbol of life and regeneration—also hints at her long struggle with fertility.  

Jean tells Cal how she soothes Little Henry by cooing Aretha’s Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” She may not realize it, in that movie moment, but we do—that the 1967 Top 10 hit addresses how baby Henry has touched her life in a profound way, re-awakened her maternal instincts and kicked something into gear that had been dormant for years.   

Marsh Stephanie Blake plays Terry

We meet several other characters, including Cal’s wife, Terry (Marsh Stephanie Blake, who played Berdie on Orange is the New Black and Vivian Maddow on How to Get Away with Murder), who has a surprising connection to Jean. Cal’s kindly father, Art (Frankie Faision, whom The Wire fans will remember as Commissioner Burrell), gives Jean an important introduction to using a firearm.

“Get used to the weight,” he says, pulling a sizeable revolver out of his pouch, and we understand the implication—it’s not just the heft, it’s dealing with the responsibility, the potentially heavy life-ending aftershocks of what you might do when you pick it up, point it and pull the trigger.  

I’m Your Woman is smart, stylish and saturated with the look and feel of the ’70s, popping with period detail—a freezer packed with TV dinners, a pink bedroom telephone, a pedestal ashtray in a hospital waiting room. It’s a parade of fab fashions in a palette of pastels and creamsicle hues; Jean may be on the run, but her wardrobe for herself and little Henry is never less than smashing. (Were there off-the-grid Baby Gaps back in the early 1970s? Just asking.) Big steel sedans prowl the streets like predatory sharks cruising for a meal. It’s a treacherous world, but it’s dreamy to sit back and watch it turn.

How fitting that another song from Aretha, her soulful cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” closes out the movie. Putting a finer point on Art’s earlier advice, it suggests that Jean can indeed handle the weight, the responsibilities of her new life, her new role, and whatever becomes the aftermath of whatever she’s got to do.

And so, too, can Brosnahan, in a rousing performance that proves that she can handle it, too, on TV or now in the movies. Got a gig? A comedy, a drama? She’s good with a pistol or a punchline. Give it to her. She’s your woman.

Call of the Wild

Aubrey Plaza plays ferociously disorienting mind games in this wildly original genre-defying indie

Black Bear
Starring Audrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon & Christopher Abbott
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
R
Available on demand and in select theaters Dec. 4, 2020

Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza breaks out of almost everything she’s been in before for this ferociously disorienting meta-drama designed to muck with your head.

And muck it does.

It ends the same way it begins, makes you question pretty much everything about what you see, and really does feature a bear.

The movie opens with Plaza’s character at the edge of the dock at a lakeside house, gazing into the mist with an inscrutable look on her face. Then she gets up, goes inside and starts to write in a journal. This she does three times, the exact same thing, throughout the film; each journal entry is about “the bear.” The music over these scenes begins with Eastern, Zen-like, meditative tones, but then takes on a darker, more ominous feel.

Then the film backs up, or flashes forward, or otherwise plops us inside a car to watch the arrival of Plaza’s character, Abbie, at the house, a gorgeous, retreat-like abode of Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a musician, and his pregnant girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon). Abbie says she’s an actor-turned-director looking for some kind of recharge, inspiration—perhaps—for her next project. Over copious amounts of wine, she shares various tidbits of personal information; how she hates getting compliments, she never learned how to cook, her mother’s dead, she doesn’t have a husband.

Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

As it’s quite obvious Blair and Gabe’s relationship is a bit rocky, it doesn’t take much for Abbie and Gabe to end up together for a late-night splash in the lake. And just moments later, Abbie confesses that she made up all those things she said earlier. “I’ve been lying from the minute I got here,” she tells him.

Then things heat up to a boil with all three characters, a bear appears, and boom—everything fades to black. And just like that, the first part of the movie is over.

When it comes back and we get our bear-ings (pun kinda intended), the actors, character names and setting haven’t changed. But the situation is jarringly different, a kind of movie Mobius strip of everything we’ve just seen—everything looks the same, but twisted, turned over and inside-out.

This jarring, surreal shift introduces additional characters to the lakeside house, where they’re wrapping up a movie—also called Black Bear. And it’s not going well.

This audaciously original, wildly creative indie makes a provocative commentary on the creative process, about how every idea begins in a void, on a virtual blank page, and bringing a concept to completion can be a wrenching, pained process. It’s a tale of tortured artistry taken to new, inter-dimensional intensity, the primordial process of destruction as a part of regeneration, a snake turning on itself to eat its own tail.  

Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, whose previous films include Wild Canaries (2014) and Always Shine (2016), also probes and pokes gender roles, ideas about feminism, relationships and abusive power dynamics. (It’s interesting that Plaza and writer/director Levine are both married to their moviemaking partners, with whom they have frequently collaborated.) And he’s challenging his audience to ponder what’s real and what might instead only be imagined, and how permeable the membrane may be separating the two. When the psyche does rip into reality, morphing into the physical world, could it be like a bear that’s been rummaging through the mind’s trash bin, now going on a rampage?

And if that bear gets riled up…watch out.

Plaza and Abbott

Plaza, best known for playing the deliciously deadpan April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, has also been impressive in a variety of films, mostly kooky comedies (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Dirty Grandpa) and offbeat indies (Ingrid Goes West, Safety Not Guaranteed). But she breaks new ground in Black Bear by cannily chiseling a sizzling fissure that eventually erupts in a spectacular spew of razor-sharp, red-hot lava. You dare not take your eyes off her, and you’re constantly trying to figure her out. What’s her deal?  

Abbott, who starred as John Yossarian in Hulu’s recrafting of Catch-22, is also strong in the dual roles of Gabe, as both a flirty spouse and a devious director. And Gadon—who appeared in season three of HBO’s True Detective—gives a fiery, multi-faceted performance that stokes the mysteries hidden inside this meticulously layered puzzle box.

Is Black Bear a dark comedy? A fever-dream relationship drama? An artsy cinéma vérité movie metaphor? A psychological horror show? All of the above? Yes…maybe!

“That was some game we played,” says Blair at one point.

Some game, I’ll say! I’m not exactly sure who won, who lost, or even what the game was. But the next time Aubrey Plaza want to play—anything—count me in.

Nowhere to Run

Sarah Paulson is a monster mom in this wickedly inventive, twisty-turny horror thriller

Run
Starring Sarah Paulson & Kiera Allen
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
PG-13
Nov. 20 on Hulu

Sarah Paulson has carved quite a niche for herself as a scream queen on the dark underside of nine seasons of the FX anthology franchise American Horror Story, and then, more recently, in Netflix’s Ratched, the backstory of the sadistic nurse who’d years later torment the psychiatric patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Now she’s pitch-perfectly cast as a most malicious mother in this taut, terrifying little gem of a horror-thriller about a homeschooled teen and her helicopter mom from hell.

Run pairs Paulson with newcomer Kiera Allen as her daughter, Chloe, who figures out just how dire and dangerous things are, but then finds it hard to get away—because she’s in a wheelchair.

Kiera Allen makes her feature debut as Chloe.

The movie opens with Paulson’s character, Diane, at a hospital, eyeing her newborn baby. Then it zooms ahead 17 years, introducing us to now-teenage Chloe, and her routine of daily injections, meds and inhalers to treat her asthma, diabetes, arrhythmic heart, paralyzed legs and other conditions.

Chloe’s been raised in almost total isolation by Diane, who smothers her with attention, watches her like a hawk, prepares all her meals, administers her therapy and maintains her strict homeschooling schedule.

But Diane’s been doing other things, too, secretive things, unnatural things—sinister things. 

Chloe is spunky, bright and smart—and she’s waiting anxiously to hear back from Seattle’s University of Washington, where she’s applied for admission after she completes her senior coursework. Hopeful for a new chapter in her life, she perks up every day when she hears the mailman pull up in their driveway.

Diane, however, never lets Chloe check the mail—or have a computer in her room or get an iPhone. And when Chloe begins to suspect her mom has been giving her medicine that isn’t what her doctor prescribed, it worries—then later terrifies—her.

“I’ve got you,” Diane tells Chloe, burying her in a hug that gives us the creeps—and makes Chloe want to flee.

But, of course, that’s something not so easy for someone in a wheelchair.

Director Aneesh Chaganty’s only previous feature, Searching, was another modest but extremely effective thriller, about a father who breaks into his daughter’s laptop when she goes missing, desperately looking for clues in her online footprints. He’s an impressively economical filmmaker who’s all about streamlining; he knows how to make every shot, every scene, every edit and every second of screen time count. In Run, everything clicks and ticks like devilish clockwork to draw the knot of suspense and dread tighter and tighter as it goes.

Paulson is frightfully fit for the part as Diane, a mother whose “love” has clearly crossed the line from protective to possessive and poisonous. Her dark eyes are perfect for hiding an abyss of ill intentions, and there’s a disturbing, dark void behind Diane’s wan smile. There’s never any specific mention of Munchausen by proxy, a psychological disorder that involves the abuse of someone by their caregiver. But the condition has repeatedly made for a juicy pop-cultural cocktail of crime, medical mystery and genuine horror, as depicted recently on TV in HBO’s Sharp Objects and Hulu’s The Act.   

As Chloe, Allen makes a powerful debut in her first feature film. She more than holds her own with Paulson, a veteran of nearly 70 TV and movie roles. The young actress—who was studying creative writing at Columbia University when she got the part—uses a wheelchair in real life, giving Chloe a calm, resourceful authenticity that makes it easy to root for her in her ever-deepening dilemma, sometimes inch by excruciating inch.

Wheelchairs are confining, by their very nature. Setting Run inside a house, for most of the film, adds to the aura of confinement, claustrophobia and challenging spatial parameters; to Chloe, looking down a narrow staircase from the second floor can like peering into a chasm of the Grand Canyon. Chaganty, who also co-wrote the original screenplay, creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere, a sense that something has to eventually bust loose, blow up—or break out.

The movie is full of edge-of-your-seat, wickedly inventive, twisty-turn, shock-ya surprises, compounded by the irony of a protagonist not being able to do what the title suggests—and the situation clearly warrants. One scene features Chloe McGyver-ing her way across a frozen rooftop with extension cords, a blanket and a screwdriver. Another involves her sneaking out of a movie theater outing with her mom to attempt a frantic, furtive trip to the local pharmacy, across the street.

Run may make you recall a couple of famous films and actors, notably Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and James Caan in Misery. Stewart’s character witnesses and then solves a murder, all while recovering from a broken leg in his wheelchair. And Caan, as a famous novelist, escapes from the clutches of a psycho fan, turning the tables on her—also from his wheelchair. (A minor character is Run is even named “Kathy Bates,” a wink-wink nod to the actress who won an Oscar for playing Caan’s tormentor.)

Those guys didn’t let wheelchairs keep them from doing what they had to do, and neither does Chloe.

The wheelchair element makes Run even more breathless fun as a fright-night delight, but its real fear factor comes from the powerhouse female duo that duels it out in its house of horrors. Paulson is a formidable, five-star scream queen, now as a monster masquerading as a mom. But young Allen proves herself a most capable co-star—and a sensational opponent.  

Jimmy Stewart and James Caan would be proud.