Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Will Power: ‘Emancipation’ movie review

Can Will Smith’s epic slavery tale drown out his infamous Oscars slap?

Will Smith and Ben Foster star in ‘Emancipation.’

Emancipation
Starring Will Smith & Ben Foster
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R

See it: In select theaters now; available on Apple TV+ Friday, Dec. 9

This grueling drama doesn’t flinch from depicting the scourges of slavery. Will Smith (who’s also one of the film’s producers) wants us to remember and reflect on a not-so-long-ago time in America when Black men, women and children were bought and sold, tortured, treated as less than animals and worked to death.

But Smith would also like us to not remember—or hopefully forget—something more recent: the slap.

Ah, yes, the slap—at the 94th annual Academy Awards in March, when he stomped on stage and smacked host Chris Rock for making a wisecrack about his wife. For his assaultive outburst, Smith lost his membership in the Academy and was banned from attending the Oscars for the next 10 years. His spasm of lash-out, bad-boy behavior made him an overnight Hollywood pariah, an emblem of toxic masculinity. 

So…does the public now have any appetite for a Will Smith movie? Even an “important” one, like Emancipation? Have moviegoers forgotten what happened nine months ago, or will they continue Smith’s double-secret-probation banishment by turning away from his most recent work, a showy, $120 million wannabe blockbuster? Or could this movie, in a most dramatic sideways twist, reward him with another Oscar nomination, perhaps even another Oscar win?

Emancipation is a mostly solid piece of moviemaking (director Antione Fuqua has already won an Oscar, for Training Day), but it doesn’t feel like Oscar material to me. It’s a somewhat hammy, heavily dramatized, uneven mix of pulpy, pumped-up survivor action and hellish slavery horrors as Smith’s character—known as Peter—flees from his captivity into the swamps of Louisiana, following the kabooms of “Lincoln’s canons,” hoping his desperate bid for freedom will intersect with the approaching Union army.

Ben Foster, who’s so good at playing bad, is the film’s other central character, a cold-hearted runaway-slave tracker obsessed with finding Peter…and with making sure all Black people remain under white America’s heel.

Peter is driven by his determination to see his wife and children again, bolstered by an unwavering faith in God, and girded by memories of the agonizing abuses he’s endured. It also helps that he, somehow, knows how to navigate the murky dangers of the swampy bayou, like an antebellum-era version of TV survivalist Bear Grylls, evading bloodhounds, dodging bullets, climbing trees with lemur-like skills, self-treating life-threatening wounds and even besting an alligator in an underwater wrestling match. 

He’s super-handy turning field implements into lethal weapons, and just wait until gets ahold of a gun.

It’s a muddy, bloody tale, especially in a prolonged opening sequence filled with deeply unsettling reckonings of the manifold cruelties of slavery, stirring a dismal abyss of history with searing detail. The movie takes place during the waning year of the Confederacy, in 1884, but it looks like the Dark Ages when you see slaves’ decapitated heads on pikes or watch a captured runaway tortured with a branding iron.  

There are echoes of other films, like D’Jango Unchained, Glory and—in one epic battle scene—even Saving Private Ryan. Emancipation joins a long line of movies that have found high cotton in the turbulence of the Confederate South, including 12 Years a Slave, Antebellum and Harriett. But if you’re looking for Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, well, they’re long gone, pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam of a more enlightened entertainment era.  

The film does have some impressive stylistic flourishes, like a scene at a plantation house being destroyed by fire, a symbol for a nation “going down in flames,” demolished in the partisan furnaces of the Civil War. Everything is filmed in a monochrome patina, making things look like authentic daguerreotype photos of the era.

And speaking of photos… It’s all based on a true, widely circulated story about a slave—nicknamed “Whipped Peter”—who escaped and joined the Union forces. A photo of Peter’s back, a shocking lattice of welts and scars from countless lashes of the whip, was published in Harper’s magazine and seen by people nearly everywhere, making the brutality of human bondage impossible for anyone in the Northern states to continue to ignore, deny or accept—particularly anyone under the delusion that the “forced labor” of slavery was a just a necessary and normalized component of the South’s money-making machinery.

Emancipation has a message about deeply engrained racism and the scars—like the vicious mutilations across Peter’s back—from a shameful, painful chapter of America’s past. And Smith’s intense, committed performance brings to the screen an impassioned tale of survival and endurance.

But is it enough to drown out a slap heard (and seen) round the world?

Hammer Time: “Violent Night” movie review

Santa Claus comes to the rescue in ferociously entertaining home-invasion Christmas action-comedy

Violent Night
Starring David Harbour, Beverly D’Angelo, John Leguizamo & Leah Brady
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Rated R

See It: In theaters Friday, Dec. 2

Here comes Santa Claus, pissed off and swinging a sledgehammer. In the inventively wicked, ferociously entertaining Violent Night, a world-weary St. Nick (David Harbour) comes to the aid of a New England family when a gang of ruthless mercenaries overtakes their home on Christmas Eve. They’re looking for millions in stashed loot, but the bad guys soon find something else—all their names on Santa’s naughty list.

This home-invasion action-comedy romp is a head-bashing, face-smashing holiday highball as Santa turns a Christmas tree topper, ice skates and candy canes into lethal weapons, then uses a tool shed sledgehammer to channel some of his murky past as a Viking plunderer, raider and warrior.

Harbour, best known for playing the sheriff in Stranger Things, has a ho-ho-ho hoot as the grizzled, tattooed Kris Kringle, who loves beer, misses his wife when he’s away and laments the greed, ingratitude and crass commercialization of the holiday. It’s enough to drive a saint to drink, which he does. (This Santa also has a muddy, bloody back story that may even connect him to a certain legendary Norse god.) And the Christmas magic that lets him zip up a chimney or endlessly pull presents from his bottomless bag? He admits that even he doesn’t quite understand it. The mojo just comes with the gig.

John Leguizamo (right) plays a bad guy on Santa’s naughty list.

Veteran actor John Leguizamo has some juicy, grinch-y glee as the hiss-ably villainous leader of the thieves. Beverly D’Angelo (from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and other flicks in the Vacation franchise) plays a flinty, foul-mouthed, filthy-rich matriarch. Young Leah Brady is as sweet as a homemade Christmas cookie as the little girl who really, truly believes in Santa Claus and Christmas—and becomes Santa’s little helper with a thing or two she’s learned from watching another Christmas movie, Home Alone.

Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola previously turned Nazis into zombies (Dead Snow) and made the fairytale couple Hansel and Gretel into swaggering witch hunters. So maybe it’s no surprise that he’d put a similarly gonzo, gutsy spin on Santa. It’s hyper-violent, caustically funny and a million mayhem-ic movie miles away from the genteel balms of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf or A Christmas Story. But Violent Night certainly has its own kind of unfathomable Christmas magic; you just have to believe, and steer clear of that sledgehammer. If you miss it in theaters, you better not pout, and you better not cry—because it’s likely going to become a cable/streaming perennial, a ballsy antidote to the sugary overdose of other Christmas programming. So, ho, ho, holy sh*t—I’m a believer.

Fine Young Cannibals: “Bones and All” review

They’re just a couple of kids in love…who love eating other people

Bones and All
Starring Taylor Russell & Timothèe Chalamet
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Rated R

See it: In theaters Wednesday, Nov. 11

Lee and Maren seem like a lot of young couples. They drive around, listen to music, have some tiffs with their parents. And when they grab a bite, well, it’s likely not from Chic-fil-A.  

You see, they’re cannibals. Yes, they eat people.

On one level, this insanely, savagely original young-love story is about a couple of outsiders in a harsh world that doesn’t understand or accept them. We can all relate to that, right?

What sets Maren and Lee apart, though, is the compulsion—the craving—they have for human flesh. It’s an acquired taste, we learn, one that’s rooted in both heredity and environment. They find out they’re not alone; they’re part of a gritty, grimy subset of other cannibals. They’re all outcasts, society rejects who refer to each other as “eaters.” The most, ahem, committed of eaters talk of going all in, dining on “bones and all.”

And Lee and Maren feel desperately fated, destined for a life that makes their road a rough, hardscrabble—and often horrific—one.

It’s a weird movie, crazily and often conversely beautiful and romantic, about two 1980s kids living outside the norms of convention—way outside. There’s blood and guts, as you might imagine, but that’s only one element of the bigger story, about a pair of ruggedly attractive castaways wrestling with who they are, and why. And Lee and Maren aren’t particularly happy about what they’re driven to do. But the rush it gives them—like a drug—is a hard habit to kick.

Taylor Russell (who played Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of the space sci-fi series Lost in Space) is Maren, abandoned by her father (Andre Holland) after she turns 18. On a quest to learn more about her family, particularly the mother she never knew, she hooks up with a lanky drifter (Timothèe Chalamet), and off they go in search of answers…and their next meal.  

The movie reunites Chalamet—who’s received acclaim (and awards nominations) for his work in Lady Bird, Little Women and Dune—with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who directed him inCall Me by Your Name. Guadagnino is a “painterly” director, known for his lush visuals, and the movie even begins with a series of oil renderings depicting serene pastoral scenes that we’ll later see in the film. They “paint” the way for Lee and Maren’s journey, seeking some peace in their unsettled—and unsettling—lives, like the tranquility in those picture-perfect paintings. But they’ll always be outsiders looking in, hunted and haunted.

Rebels on a road trip—if James Dean had a copious amount of blood soaked into his white T-shirt, plus a quirk of dining on carnival workers in an Iowa cornfield, well, he might have fit right into this cannibal club.

It’s a wild ride, for sure. Mark Rylance (below right) is an older, creepy cannibal who teaches Maren how to use her nose to sniff out fresh food. Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green play a pair of odd-couple “eater” buddies. Chloë Sevigny has a shocker of a scene, as a patient in a mental institution.

Maren, especially, contemplates the larger complexities and the implications of feeding her eating habit. Even cows in a slaughterhouse, she notes, have family, and maybe even friends. She advocates no-kill meals, dining on people who have already died. It may sound like a small distinction, but hey, some cannibals have principles.

The movie doesn’t really have a message, as such. But its depiction of cannibalism as addiction, as fate, as a consumptive lifestyle “appetite” alongside other hungers, like sex, lust and love…well, let’s just say I’ll never hear “Lick It Up” the same way again after watching the way that rockin’ KISS hit animates Lee.

Riding a wave of film-festival praise, Bones and All gnaws its way into theaters the day before Thanksgiving. It’s probably not exactly what most people have in mind for a celebratory family feast. But if you’ve got an appetite for the unusual, the unsettling, and for a gutsy spin on being young, angst-ridden, adrift in America and in love, well, lick it up.

Tagged , , , ,

Whodunnit? “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” movie review

Daniel Craig’s Southern-fried detective returns for another delightfully fun romp

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Starring Daniel Craig, Janelle Monet & Edward Norton
PG-13
Directed by Rian Johnson

See it: In theaters Nov. 23, on Netflix Dec. 23

Daniel Craig’s master detective, Benoit Blanc, returns to the screen in this frisky, twisty, turn-y followup to the 2019 whodunnit hit. It’s murder mystery time again, as a new group of characters assembles on a zillionaire’s posh private Greek island for a weekend retreat of shocks and surprises—and Benoit is there to sort out the dishy, devilishly clever details when things take a deadly detour.

A multi-layered, whiz-bang gizmo of a movie, this one stars Ed Norton, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Janelle Monae, Outer BanksMadelyn Cline, and Game of ThronesJessica Henwick. And of course, everyone becomes a suspect—well, almost everyone, except the victim.

Or the victims.

Director Rian Johnson returns behind the camera, engineering another delightfully fun, deliciously detailed romp as Blanc pieces together a mosaic of puzzling clues to a real murder mystery inside a fake one. Or is it a fake one, inside a real one? Maybe it’s both. Don’t worry: You’ll eventually be led to the truth, motives will be revealed, character flaws become exposed, and Benoit (pronounced Ben-wah) puts it all together. There’s even a McGuffin, a red herring, to distract and misdirect, and a hefty dose of social satire, skewering mega-rich one percenters, clueless celebrities, loony megalomaniacs, macho gun clods and self-serving politicians.

It all owes a big nod, sure, to Agatha Christie, the queen of the murder mystery who developed the time-honored template for the format in her many novels. But this is world-building a modern world away from the Brit-centric manners of Christie’s classics. Glass Onion glitters with snappy celebrity cameos by Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant and Serena Williams. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the star of one of director Johnson’s other films, Looper) isn’t seen, but he’s heard—his voice is the booming, recurring “dong” of a chiming clock. Jeremy Renner might not have his own brand of hot sauce, and Jared Leto’s “hard kombucha” might not be a real thing, but here, they’re part of the movie’s rich tapestry of pop-culture in-jokes. CNN’s Anderson Cooper also gets named-checked; supposedly, he throws some wild, way-out parties.  

Craig, recently retired from playing James Bond in the latest chapters of the super-spy franchise, settles into his new role—as the “world’s greatest detective”—with smooth, comedic ease, flexing hammy chops of loquacious, Southern-fried, cigar-smoking hokum that were never part of his arsenal as OO7. It’s easy to imagine a wider Knives Out world, more movies revolving around the dapper Blanc, who lives for the game, the hunt, the thrill of a mystery just begging to be solved. Soaking in a bathtub, holed up in his COVID bubble, playing online games with Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne and Stephen Sondheim, just doesn’t cut it for Benoit. He longs to be out there, doing his thing, connecting the dots, cracking crimes. Hopefully he’ll get to do even more of it.

And what do a cocktail napkin, the world’s most iconic painting, rhinoceros-horn boner pills, Google alerts, sweatshop sweatpants, a Bach fugue, old-school fax machines and a glittering crystal of pure, clean energy have to do with it all? Look into the layers of this Glass Onion, as the Beatles song instructs, and oh, yeah—what was complex becomes clear, and you might find what was always there, hiding in plain sight.

The Truth is Out There: ‘She Said’ Movie Review

How two crusading reporters brought down a grotesque Hollywood Goliath

Reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) collaborate on a New York Times blockbuster story in ‘She Said.’

She Said
Starring Carey Mulligan & Zoe Kazan
Directed by Maria Schrader
Rated R

See it: In theaters Nov. 18

A pair of New York Times reporters digs into a bombshell story of sexual assault in this intimate and powerful drama about the downfall of Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan play Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, the two real-life journalists who doggedly pursue the rumors of Weinstein’s “problematic behavior” that lead them into a toxic swamp of wide-ranging, systemic misconduct.

“The wrongdoing in Hollywood,” says Kantor, “is overwhelming.”

Basing her film on the book Twohey and Kantor later wrote, German director Maria Schneider (who won an Emmy for the Netflix series Unorthodox) bores down into the intense investigative legwork—the nuts and bolts of how the newspaper approached such an explosive story. Weinstein, the head of the film company Miramax, became Hollywood kryptonite after Twohey and Kantor’s expose ushered in a chorus of more than 80 women to raise their voices in allegations against him, leading to his eventual conviction as a sex offender. Although the list of his victims included dozens of well-known actresses, plus assistants and former employees, the movie focuses on a just a handful (including Ashley Judd, who plays herself) telling the reporters their wrenching experiences.

It’s a serious story about a sordid affair, and it’s galvanized by the gravity of its two leads. Mulligan, the British Oscar nominee who dealt a previous blow to caustic masculinity in Promising Young Woman, brings emotional heft to her role as Twohey, balancing the rigors and stress of her job with her responsibilities as a new mom. Kazan, granddaughter of acclaimed director Elia Kazan, is an Emmy winner also playing another working mother. Both Twohey and Kantor have young daughters, and the film suggests the two hard-working reporters aren’t just chasing down leads, tracking decades of non-disclosure agreements and million-dollar settlements, glued to their iPhones talking to sources, and burning the midnight oil for a story. They’re making the world safer for a younger generation of women.

Kantor, Twohey and editors (Roy Tolan and Patricia Clarkson) prepare their bombshell story for print.

Patricia Clarkson plays their steely, seasoned, sure-handed editor, Rebecca Corbett. Andre Braugher is Dean Baquet, the Times’ managing editor, who’s dealt with Weinstein before—and doesn’t take any of his grandstanding b.s.

This saga of fiercely dedicated female empowerment is a solid journalistic “procedural” about the vital role of the press to find and present the truth. But it doesn’t sensationalize; we only get a brief glimpse of Weinstein (played by Boardwalk Empire’s Mike Houston) late in the film. But She Said draws a through-line, connecting the monstrous acts of the movie honcho to a much more pervasive network of abuse, allegations, deniers and enablers. Remember Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, and the 26 women who accused Donald Trump of kissing, groping or raping them?

The week of the movie’s release, Weinstein is facing even more charges, released from prison to stand trial in Los Angeles.

An important film with an impactful message, She Said spotlights how the journalistic sling of two women helped bring down a Hollywood Goliath. But it shows that Weinstein is only the ugly, exposed tip of a much bigger iceberg, one that had been submerged far too long. “If this can happen to Hollywood actresses, who else can it happen to?” asks Kantor rhetorically.

Who else, indeed? She Said says it could be anyone, anywhere, anytime, and reminds us that fighting sexual abuse is an ongoing battle—for everyone.  

Back in Black

‘The Black Panther’ find its superhero footing after Chadwick Boseman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Starring Letita Wright, Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o & Angela Bassett
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Rated PG-13

Angela Bassett reprises her role as Queen Mother Ramonda.

See it: In theaters Friday, Nov. 11

The specter of Chadwick Boseman looms large over this highly anticipated superhero sequel to the 2018 blockbuster.

Boseman, who starred in Black Panther as the first Black comic-book character to get a Marvel movie, died in 2020 of colon cancer. But his legacy endures, in more ways than one.

Wakanda Forever opens with the funeral of his character, the beloved King T’Challa, who became the crusading, wrong-righting Black Panther, the champion of his people, donning a sleek black bodysuit super-powered by a rare metal called vibranium.

T’Challa’s death is an emotional, gut-punch wallop to his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his scientist sister, Princess Shuri (Letita Wright). It also creates a power vacuum in the isolated kingdom, which has become a global superpower. The rest of the world wants what it’s got—the unique metal that’s made Wakanda the most technologically advanced place on the planet. Just think what other countries—and their military programs—could do with the wide-ranging wonders of vibranium.

And without the Black Panther to protect it, how can Wakanda defend itself?

That’s a question the movie takes nearly three hours to answer, as it constantly reminds us that Boseman’s T’Challa isn’t around anymore. The arrival of a strange visitor (Tenoch Huerta), a “merman” mutant who can zip through the air like a bug and live underwater like a fish, poses a new, existential threat: What it vibranium exists elsewhere, other powers use it for less-than-noble purposes, and Wakanda gets blamed for it?

Can the women of Wakanda rise to the challenge? Oh, yeah.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the story, returns to his role after the 2018 film, which was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture (losing, if you’re keeping score, to Green Book). Coogler seems to understand that the absence of Boseman, the franchise star, requires something else to fill the void, something big and substantial. And he pours it on.

Wakanda Forever is a spectacle, for sure, a sprawling, visually sumptuous, epic-sized moviescape itself superpowered with high-tech FX and eye-popping gee-whizzery. It’s big and bulky and sometimes beautiful, almost enough for two full movies packed into one. It has a major theme of Black female empowerment, of course, but also builds on the importance of global allies, the evils of colonization and the interface between ancient tradition, primal ritual and modern invention. Wakanda’s fierce female warriors still throw spears, but they also fly around in an arsenal of battlecraft, and inside armored suits.

The movie melds African culture, Pacific lore and Black experience into a tapestry of wide-ranging action and adventure.

It’s a good time to be “young, gifted and Black,” says Riri, a young college-student genius (Dominique Thorne) who becomes a new central character.     

You’ll plunge underneath the ocean to see the amazing sights of a vast aqua kingdom (it reminded me a bit of the fabulous wonder world touted in comic books advertising Sea Monkeys). There’s a warrior king with wings on his feet, and an aqua army riding around on whales—and wait until you see them swarm up the sides of a battleship and over it like ants on an anthill. The costumes are over-the-top fantabulous. A beloved character dies. And I won’t spoil it, but there’s at least one other golly-whopper of a surprise, too.

Key players from the original cast return: Martin Freeman as Wakanda’s CIA ally; Winston Duke as the mountainous warrior leader M’Baku; Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover, now running a Wakanda “outreach” program in Haiti.

But the central character of this tale remains the one played by Boseman, who may not be around anymore, but his influence casts a long, deep shadow. The movie has the muscle and heft of a comic-book blockbuster, but it also reflects profoundly on the human resonance of ancestry, remembering and moving on.

Can the Black Panther move on without Boseman, and without T’Challa? You’ll have to watch—all two hours and 45 minutes—to find out. But “forever” is in the title for a reason (and it’s not just how long the movie feels). And Wakanda Forever suggests that the kingdom, and the franchise, are in good hands.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Semi-autobiographical spin on childhood at the dawn of the 1980s has sobering messages about life

Banks Repeta with Anthony Hopkins in ‘Armageddon Time.’

Armageddon Time
Starring Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta & Jeremy Strong
Directed by James Gray
Rated R

See it in theaters Nov. 4

From the New Testament of the Bible, the term “Armageddon” entered the wider lexicon to mean an epic battle to end all battles, a final clash between forces of good and evil.

It’s a metaphor for the turmoil of life in James Gray’s largely autobiographical coming-of-age portrait, which centers on an 11-year-old Jewish boy named Paul (Banks Repeta) in the New York City borough of Queens, and the ups and downs of his friendship with a Black classmate (Jaylin Webb) in 1980.

The two lads get in some trouble (toking on a joint in the bathroom) and are separated when Paul’s parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) send him off to a posh private school. But Paul has little interest in becoming someone else’s definition of successful. His kindly grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) encourages his dreams of drawing and becoming a famous artist.

Johnny has dreams, too. He wants to be an astronaut, like his Apollo space heroes. And despite his friendship with Paul, he knows they are from two different worlds, that some dreams will only take you so far, and some flight paths are unchangeable. Like the model rocket Paul launches in the park with his grandfather, life goes where it goes. It goes up, it comes down. It can be beautiful, exciting, thrilling—or it can misfire, or blow up, or crash, becoming a disaster. It’s not equal, it’s certainly not fair, but that’s the way it is.

Armageddon Time is set against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s election as U.S. president, and the hawkish prospect he represented for increased militarism in a fight against “communism.” Paul’s mother fears he’ll push America into global conflict, a nuclear Armageddon.

As Paul navigates this brief but formative period, he learns some valuable lessons about racism, antisemitism and how life isn’t always a delicious dinnertime dumpling. His grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew who fled the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Europe, tells him to stand up to bullies, to keep pushing back against evil and darkness, and to be a mensch, a person of integrity and honor.

His mother loves him, but thinks he’s “slow,” in need of remedial education. His blue-collar father thrashes him with his belt for misbehaving and worries he’ll never amount to anything. Both parents openly disapprove of his Black friend.

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play the parents.

Director Gray (whose previous films include the Brad Pitt space saga Ad Astra and the crime thrillers We Own the Night and The Yards) creates an effective, evocative sense of a specific time and place, the rush of childhood, the complicated dynamics of family and a depiction of adolescence on the uncertain threshold of adulthood. He especially draws out memorable performances from his two young central characters, the conduits for his story’s moods of youthful adventure, yearning, frustration and ache. Johnny turns Paul on to the happenin’ hip-hop of Harlem’s Sugar Hill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight.” Paul goes to the movies with his family to watch Goldie Hawn (a Jewish girl) in Private Benjamin. The dawn of the computer age sparks Paul’s imagination, in more ways than one. They make each other laugh, they run through the park, they skip a school field day to hang out and ride the subway.

It reminded me a bit of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gloriously golden retro ode to growing up and the rush of young love in California in the 1970s. But Armageddon Time is a bit darker than that, several shades more sobering, even a dollop depressing in its depiction of the creeping threats to Paul and Johnny’s friendship, in a world tainted by hatred and fear, and the reality that some dreams can never blast off into the bright, blue sky.

And as a nod to what’s coming, for Paul and America, the movie introduces the specter of Donald Trump, in characters representing his father, Fred Trump (John Diehl) and sister, Maryanne (Jessica Chastain).

Armageddon time may, it suggests, be any time. As Paul’s grandfather tells him, never give up, stand tall and keep fighting the “bastards.” There’ll always be bastards, the battle didn’t end in 1980, or after the Holocaust, and it sure doesn’t look like it’s over now.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sherlock’s Little Sis

Millie Bobby Brown reprises her role in new Victorian Era mystery romp

Milly Bobby Brown & Helena Bonham Carter

Enola Holmes 2
Starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Lewis Partridge & David Thewlis
Directed by Harry Bradbeer
Rated PG-13

See it: Nov. 4, 2022, only on Netflix

“Some of what follows is true,” reads the placard at the opening of this sassy sequel about Sherlock Holmes’ little sister. “The important parts, anyway.”

The true, important parts are something that took place in England at the close of the 19th century…but more about that later.

Millie Bobby Brown continues to move beyond Stranger Things to reprise her role as the younger sibling of the iconic fictional British sleuth. After the events of the first Enola Holmes flick (2020), the young-adult clue-sniffer has now branched out to open her own detective agency.

But she’s detecting that it’s not easy being a PI when your big brother is the world’s most famous gumshoe. Enola gets her big break, however, when she’s asked to investigate a missing-person case, which turns into a wild, puzzle-solving romp throughout the social strata of 1880s Victorian England.

And it turns Enola into a murder suspect on the lam from the law.

Director Harry Bradbeer also returns behind the camera from the first Enola Holmes, picking things up where they left off. He’s a native Brit himself, with a witty, gritty style that suits this lively, frisky, fem-centric frolic. (He’s also directed episodes of TV’s Fleabag and Killing Eve).

On the surface, the movie is about Enola’s hunt to find out what happened to a young factory worker who has seemingly vanished. But it’s also got some serious stuff on its mind—women’s rights, the unity of sisterhood, really toxic workplaces, progressive politics and setting young Enola up as a proto-feminist firebrand. Gender fluidity even gets a nod.

Bucking the trends of her times, Enola has brains as well as some impressive bust-a-move ju-jitsu…much of which she learned from her mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a scrappy activist-crusader.

Henry Cavill plays Sherlock Holmes.

Henry Cavill (who’s played Superman as well as starring in The Tudors, The Witcher and Midsomer Murders) returns to the role of Sherlock, who ultimately joins Enola as the unraveling thread she’s following leads her into a web of business corruption, conspiracy and even homicide.

There’ve been dozens of actors who’ve played Sherlock, a diverse group of nearly 60 that includes Christopher Lee, Will Ferrell, Michael Caine and Benedict Cumberbatch. Take Robert Downey Jr. out of the running, maybe, and none of them comes close to looking as hunky in a cloak and hat as Cavill. His dapper, brooding, brainiac detective would be the perennial winner of Old London’s Sexiest Bachelor award.

But this movie, after all, is about Enola, and girls will love the way she rocks, rolls, connects the clues and crushes the case about something causing young British women to die. (And that’s the “important” part of the movie, the thing that really matters…even if it’s just an historical footnote.)    

And along the way, she crashes a high-falootin’, high-society costume ball, scampers across rooftops, recouples with her crush, the dashing young viscount Tewkesbury (Lewis Partridge), and outwits the conniving London constable (David Thewlis) trying to reign her in. She also runs circles around Scotland Yard’s inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar, also reprising his role), who’s always one hapless step behind Enola and Sherlock.

Run Enola, run!

Lestrade was a recurring character in the Holmes stories of creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s. At the end of this spry Sherlock spinoff, you’ll be introduced to yet another character that’s become a nameworthy part of Holmes lore.

As for Enola, her character was created by New Jersey author Nancy Springer, who launched a series of novels about the teenage detective in 2006. Enola may not be as old, figuratively and literally, as her more famous brother, but she has certainly made her mark.

Will we see her again? Likely, and hopefully. The world needs more Enolas, smart young female crusaders everywhere who can also snap open some cans of serious wrong-righting whoop-ass.

Make Love, Not War

All-star cast spins around murder mystery with a message

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie & John David Washington anchor the all-star cast of ‘Amsterdam.’

Amsterdam
Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie & John David Washington
Directed by David O. Russell
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Oct. 7

A trio of friends from the waning days of World War I forms the hub of this freewheeling screwball yarn of camaraderie, conspiracy, art, beauty and making love, not war.

Director David O. Russell, who also wrote and produced the film, corrals an all-star cast for his quirky caper comedy, which unspools in 1933 as a pair of World War I veterans and a wealthy socialite artist find themselves drawn into a murder mystery, one possibly connected to a deeper, nefarious political plot.

Christian Bale is Burt Berendsen, a physician who served on the battlefields of World War I, now treating the pain and reconstructive needs of other veterans while planning a big WWI reunion of all the servicemen who returned to New York City. Things begin to get messy and mayhem-ic when he and his lawyer pal, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), are asked to investigate the suspicious death of their highly decorated former commanding officer (Ed Bagley Jr.).

Then they get blamed for the murder—well, actually, for another murder. How can they clear their names?  

Soon enough, they are reconnected with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whom they met some 15 years earlier when Burt and Harold were both recovering in a Belgium war hospital where Valerie was working as a Red Cross nurse. The two GIs were awestruck to find out their gorgeous Florence Nightingale had an unusual hobby, using all the bloody shrapnel and bone fragments taken from their battered flesh to make pieces of art, transforming their brokenness into strangely beautiful curios.

Then the three of them ventured together to Amsterdam, on a mission to get Burt a glass eye to replace the one he’d lost in combat. The capital city of the Netherlands was a blissful, dream-like high, a respite of peace after war, one they didn’t want to end.  

You probably won’t see another movie this year with so many stars twinkling, twirling, popping and pinging around each other. There’s musical superstar Taylor Swift, as the hyper-paranoid daughter of the deceased officer. Zoe Saldana plays a coroner who opens Burt’s eyes (actually, his eye) to true love. Rami Malek is a suave, wealthy businessman whose huffy-stuffy upper-crust wife (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes positively mushy at the thought of meeting a famous military hero (Robert De Niro). And hey—there’s Chris Rock, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon!

Rami Malek

With a leading character who has only one real eye and a fake eyeball, we’re reminded that looks—what we see and choose to see—can be deceiving. We’re prompted to look carefully at people and things, to discern who’s who, who’s what and what’s really going on.

Viewers will see, when the film opens and then after it ends, that what’s going on in this lively, light-footed lark is based (somewhat) on something very serious—namely, a dangerous rise of fascism after World War I, which eventually seeded the horrors of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and another world war. On that level, Amsterdam is a cautionary tale about extremists and anarchists looking to overthrow the government and subvert America’s democratic process—“patriots” who would sabotage the election process to install their own dictator-like leader. You only need one eye to see the contemporary parallels with today’s political turmoil.

Director Russell love star-packing his movies, including American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. This one reunites him with a couple of his favorite actors, Bale (who also appeared in American Hustle and The Fighter) and De Niro (also in Hustle, plus Playbook and Joy). Both screen veterans provide eccentric anchors for the colorful tale as it spins and weaves its rich tapestry of parasitic cuckoo birds, Aryan supremacy, Black history, American fascists, eugenics, high-ranking corruption and fat-cat industrialists, drawing them all into its dark-comedy swirl. It’s Robbie, however, who becomes the story’s heart-and-soul centerpiece, with her character reminding us that we’re all damaged in some way, everyone is hurting inside or out, and kindness, not hate, is the balm for our wounds, our scars and our brokenness.

At one point, she, Burt and Harold perform a French song, a little ditty that a puzzled listener has troubling following. “It’s not supposed to make sense,” Valerie says. “We just made it up.”

This mostly made-up period frolic has a kernel of harsh historical truth at the center of its merrily crowded, retro-rollicking tale of friendship, bonds that last a lifetime and places in the heart—not to mention extinct birds, body parts as reappropriated art, and an ensemble of endearing oddballs. It’s a lot, but it’s also a lot of frisky fun.

Just try to hold on to your glass eye.

Women’s Work

Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver ignite a timely pro-choice tale

Elizabeth Banks fights for women’s rights in Call Jane.

Call Jane
Starring Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Phyllis Nagy
Rated R

See it in theaters Oct. 28, 2022

With abortion rights rolled back earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark legislation Roe v. Wade, the timing is perfect for this movie about a group of female activists who made it possible in the 1960s for women to safely terminate their pregnancies during a pre-Roe time when abortion was outlawed as a criminal act.

The film, the directorial debut of Phyllis Nagy (who received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for the critically praised Carol in 2015), benefits greatly from the presence of two top-tier actors, Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver. They’re a dynamic duo whose interplay generates the sparks and the sizzle for the depiction of the proto-pro-choice organization known as the Janes, an underground Chicago collective run by women, for women.

Banks, whose impressive resume also includes directing and producing, again shows her versatility and comfort in any kind of genre or format, be it lite and fluffy or heavy and hefty—from the ribald comedy of Movie 43, Wet Hot American Summer and The Happytime Murders to the YA dystopias of The Hunger Games, playing Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s romantic interest in Love & Mercy or slipping into her recurring roles on TV’s Modern Family and Mrs. America. Here she stars as Joy, a suburban homemaker who becomes involved with the Janes after finding out her pregnancy has life-threatening complications. It could literally kill her to deliver another baby.

Costars Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver

Weaver, known to legions of moviegoers for her roles in the Alien, Avatar and Ghostbusters franchises, plays Virginia, the firebrand figurehead of the collective, who welcomes Joy as a client, then ushers her into deeper involvement with the group. Eventually, Joy is assisting the clinic’s cocky, somewhat creepy “doctor” (Cory Michael Smith, who played the Riddler on the Fox TV series Gotham) in the procedure room. Soon she’s performing the abortions herself.

Women all over Chicago come to know that when they are unable to get what they need anywhere else, they can “call Jane.”

Because abortion can put you in jail, the Janes operate as back-alley subversives, paying local mobsters for a place to work and for protection from police raids. Joy keeps her activities with the Janes a secret from her lawyer husband (Chris Messina), their teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and her widowed next-door neighbor (Kate Mara). All that time she’s gone from the house? Joy says she’s taking an art class.

But what she’s doing—and hiding—becomes pitch-perfect clear when an undercover cop (John Magaro, from the movies First Cow, The Many Saints of Newark, The Big Short and Not Fade Away, and also in Carol) shows up at her home to ask a few questions.

Wunmi Mosaku might look familiar; the Nigerian actor has been featured in roles on TV’s Lovecraft Country, Loki, Temple and Luther. She plays the Janes’ only member “of color,” who pushes the group toward taking in more women who cannot afford to pay the steep procedure fees—and who often happen to be Black.

And mostly hidden under that nun smock, as Sister Mike, is Aida Turtoro, who played Tony’s sister, Janice, on all seven seasons of The Sopranos.

The movie is a tidy, trim, modest little tale about a very messy, moving-and-shaking time, back in 1968. Streets were roiling with Vietnam war protestors, women’s lib was gaining traction, the Black Panthers were on the move, and a room full of cigarette-smoking doctors could smugly dismiss a pregnant woman by telling her that her unborn baby’s life is more precious than her own, forcing her to find someone else—or some other way—to end her pregnancy. In Call Jane, we meet some of those women and hear about many more: rape victims, pregnant young teens, sexually harassed office workers coerced into sex with their bosses.

Thank goodness we’ve moved on from those dark, repressive days…right?

This cautionary ‘60s snapshot ends on a hopeful woman-power coda, where Virginia, Joy and the other Janes celebrate the 1972 Supreme Court decision that finally made abortion legal. But they note that there is still more work to do, other issues to tackle, other mountains to climb.

And sometimes, as we know, some mountains must be climbed again.

Call Jane is a pointed reminder that, like the old saying goes, women’s work is never done—alas.