Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Not So Funny

Adam Sandler proves he’s no goofball doofus in gritty character drama

U Gems 2 (72)

Uncut Gems
Starring Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel & Julia Fox
Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie
In select theaters Friday, Dec. 13; wide release Wed., Dec. 25, 2019

Think “Adam Sandler movie” and your mind probably goes to one of his memorable comedies, like Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Waterboy or Grown Ups. Those were some funny films, for sure.

But there’s nothing funny—certainly not that kind of funny—in his latest, a dark, gritty, almost grimy slice-of-life character-drama crime caper about a small-time New York City hustler looking to score his next big moneymaker.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the owner of an appointment-only jewelry showroom in the Big Apple’s teeming diamond district. And Howard’s life isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as it may sound. His shop is one of many, many places where people come to barter, banter, bark, pawn and fawn over precious gemstones, pricey wristwatches and glittery, bling-y bric-a-brac. It’s a buzzing beehive of buying, braying and selling.

But it’s not enough for Howard, a compulsive, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing gambler who’s dangerously deep in debt, when we meet him, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. How so? We don’t know exactly. The movie, delirious with its own crazy momentum and nervous energy, barely pauses for breath, and we never really find out.

Thugs confront him at his store, rough him up, warning him to pay up, or else. They grab him by his legs, dangle him out an open window, hundreds of feet above the street, threatening him with his life. Howard yaks his way out of the jam, tells them he’s got a plan. He doesn’t tell them, but it’s a massive black opal from the mines of Ethiopia, a “million-dollar” rock pulled from the bowels of the earth, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. When this potato-sized, uncut gem arrives, his ship will finally come in, it will be the bonanza of a lifetime, and it will make the world right.

He hopes.

Uncut Gems is the latest from the filmmaking Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, best known for their edgy, artsy, propulsive 2017 film-fest favorite Good Time, with Robert Pattinson, about a botched bank robbery and a twisted neon-lit overnight odyssey through the criminal underbelly of New York. This movie is also edgy, twisty and propulsive, with a din of people constantly yelling and selling, an ever-churning undertow of scheming that you can’t imagine possibly ending well and a throbbing, synth-heavy, ’80s-tinged soundtrack that keeps pushing tensions higher and higher. It’s like a crazy, illegal party that could get busted at any moment—if someone with a gun and a grudge doesn’t make something much worse happen even sooner.

There’s not much to like about Howard. He’s a disreputable businessman, and also a heedless adulterer who’s having a torrid affair with one of his employees (newcomer Julia Fox, making a fiery debut) under the resentful glare of his long-suffering wife (Broadway star Idina Menzel, many movie miles away from her soaring vocal work as the Frozen franchise’s Queen Elsa) and the disappointment of their two children.

Uncut Gems_Idina

Idina Menzel

But it’s impossible not to totally admire the gut-punch, in-your-face performance from Sandler, who finally smashes through the comedy ceiling of the stunted man-child schlub roles that have mostly defined his acting career. Festooned with gleaming white false choppers, a dyed El Diablo goatee, tinted wire-rim glassed and tiny diamond pierced earrings, he plays Howard as a puffed-out blowfish splashing around in an ocean ruled by ruthless, cutthroat sharks. Sandler dives deep, and he bites down hard—but Howard is also a schlub, and he’s a dangerous, desperately deluded one, an addict controlled by dark passions and desires, driven by money and greed, an omnivore whose driving hunger can only be sated by the next big score.

Will that score work out the way Howard wants it—the way he needs it?

The plot gets thick with characters and cameos. Fans of the 1970s TV series Taxi will enjoy seeing Judd Hirsch as Gooey, a member of Howard’s big, extended Jewish family. John Amos, who has more than 100 TV and movie credits, has a 10-second appearance as Howard’s next-door neighbor, where he’s noted for his starring role on the sitcom Good Times. Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) plays a customer “wrangler” for Howard’s shop, who becomes the middleman when a superstar basketball player (former NBA power forward Kevin Garnett, playing himself) covets Howard’s prized rock, believing it to be a talisman of good fortune on the court. Pop singer The Weeknd also appears as himself, causing a flareup of friction when he gets a bit too close to Howard’s workplace squeeze.

Uncut Gems isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s punchy, provocative and intentionally unsettling. Any movie that takes you along, as the camera goes deep inside a claustrophobic mining shaft, later just as deep into a character’s colon, then into the oozy opening of a bullet hole—well, you can certainly say it’s a wild, woozy ride.

But it’s one worth taking to watch Adam Sandler polish up a part to reveal there’s much more to him than being a genial, feel-good goofball—even in a movie that’s more slime than sunshine.


The ‘game is afoot’ in the year’s sharpest, funniest, most entertaining movie puzzle

Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson & Toni Collette
Directed by Rian Johnson

Somebody’s dead, it looks like a murder, and everyone’s a suspect.


That’s been the setup and the starting line for many a movie, and sure enough, that’s how this one begins. But this insanely clever, thoroughly original all-star caper is full of razor-sharp surprises, and not the least are its wily, witty twists on the murder-mystery format.

For starters, we find out the “who” in the whodunit pretty early on—but, as you might expect, almost nothing in Knives Out is what, or how, you think it is. And the “who” is only the beginning of an even bigger mystery.


Ana de Armas & Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig trades his dapper James Bond British cool for a big ol’ slice of Southern-fried country ham to play Benoit (Ben-wah) Blanc, a private detective hired (but by whom?) to investigate the mysterious death of a wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, who reappears repeatedly in flashbacks). Thrombey was found one morning a week ago by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson), bled out in his bed, his throat slit with a blade in his hand.

Was it suicide…or was it murder?

“Everyone can lie,” says Blanc, often wrapping his loquacious drawl around puffs of a cigar. “Well, almost everyone.” He’s referring to Thrombey’s longtime caretaker and confidante, Marta (Ana de Armas), whom Blanc discovers has a “regurgitative reaction to mis-truthin’.” In other words, when Marta lies, she throws up.

Blanc and Marta—a puke-prone lie detector—become the movie’s central axis around which it spins the rest of its delightfully prickly tale, but to reveal much more would give far too much away. (It is nice to see Craig and de Armas working together in a preview of their next team-up, in April’s No Time to Die, the 25th official James Bond film.)

This is the kind of movie where you need to pay close attention to everything—everything everyone says, everything that happens, and everything you see. Chances are, it will all come back around. Like the big coffee mug in the foreground of the opening shot—“My House, My Rules,” it reads. It may seem like just a cutesy coffee mug, but you’ll see it again, and it will mean something even…more.

You could call this a “family” film, in a way—because writer/director Rian Johnson (whose impressive resume includes the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the sci-fi mind-bender Looper and several TV episodes of Breaking Bad) has made everyone in Harlan Thrombey’s family a possible accomplice to his murder, naturally. Or at least they get drawn, in some way or another, into its tangled web, as Blanc and a pair of police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) spend days conducting probing interviews and combing through Thrombey’s maze-like country manor, full of hidden stairways, secret doors and promotional-oddity props—like a massive throne of blades—commemorating his murder-mystery novels. “Look around: This guy practically lived in a Clue board,” says one of the cops.


Everyone in the big, bright ensemble cast seems to be having a ball playing squabbling siblings, imploding in-laws and grousing grandkids. Jamie Lee Curtis is Thrombey’s real-estate mogul daughter, Linda, who remembers how fond her father used to be of writing cryptic notes and engaging her in games. Don Johnson is her husband, Richard, and the father of Ransom (Chris Evans), a slick, jaded playboy—and the only family member who skipped the funeral. Michael Shannon is Thrombey’s youngest son, Walt, steamed that his dad never gave him control of his $60 million publishing empire. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a hippy-dippy lifestyle guru; her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), was getting her substantial college’s expenses funded by Thrombey’s monthly checks. Everyone thinks grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a weirdo, if not a neo-Nazi internet troll.

Almost everyone, Blanc finds, seems to have some kind of axe to grind, a secret to hide, some sort of reason they might conceivably have for wanting a piece of Harlan Thrombey’s sizeable fortune.

And when they all come together with the family attorney (Frank Oz) for the reading of Harlan’s will, that’s when the knives really come out.

Blanc seems so close to solving the mystery, but something about it continually baffles him. All the pieces are there, but something is missing; something just doesn’t fit. “A strange case,” he tells Marta. “A case with a hole in the middle—a doughnut.” At one point, even the doughnut hole seems to have another doughnut, with another doughnut hole, inside it.

MORNING BELLKnives Out is great, galloping, fast-paced fun, and it harkens back to classic murder-mystery tropes that stretch across the decades. But it also launches a timely, pointed contemporary message in Marta’s character and her immigrant family, which becomes an important subplot—and a running gag of scathing social commentary as the Thrombeys, who claim to love Marta as one of their own, can’t ever recall which South American country she’s from. Is it Uruguay? Or Paraguay, or Brazil?

One scene offers a telling glimpse of a rerun of Angela Lansbury in the 1980s TV series Murder: She Wrote, overdubbed in Spanish. This is a movie that has quite a bit more than just murder and mystery on its mind.

“The game is afoot,” says Blanc, clearly relishing the challenge of digging into the Thrombey puzzle. You’ll relish it, too. The most entertaining movie puzzle of the year, it’s also a film with some of the sharpest edges where you least expect them.

And like the coffee mug suggests, it plays by its own rules. Whodunit? Oh, you’ll find out. But you’ll have even more fun filling in the doughnut holes.

In theaters Wed., Nov. 27, 2019

All Hail the Ice Queen

Disney’s coolest royalty returns for strong showing of sisterhood & girl power  

nullFrozen II
Starring voices by Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad
Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

When it comes to Disney royalty, you can’t get much cooler than Elsa and Anna.

The plucky ice queen and her spunky little sis were, of course, the stars of 2013’s Frozen, the animated musical blockbuster that took home two Oscars and broke worldwide box-office records. It set off an earworm bomb with “Let It Go,” its soaring signature song. And its success has now led to Disney’s first-ever theatrical sequel to an animated “princess” film.

Even though it’s been six years, Frozen fans won’t have any trouble picking up the storyline. For one thing, the gang’s all here, just where we left them in their mythical, fjord-shore Scandinavian-like hamlet of Arendelle. Idina Menzel returns to voice the now young-adult Elsa, still dealing with her mystifying powers to create and control ice and snow. Her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) didn’t get any magical gifts, but she proves herself indispensable in other ways, as she did in the first movie.


Olaf buddies up with Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven.

And of course, there’s Olaf (Josh Gad), the goofball snowman, and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Anna’s loveably bumbling suitor.

When Elsa hears a haunting, song-like voice calling from the distant northlands—the forbidding, mist-shrouded Enchanted Forest—the group sets off to find out where it’s coming from, and why. Maybe it’s a clue to Elsa’s mysterious magical abilities. Maybe it will lead them to answers about what really happened to Elsa and Anna’s parents, said to have perished in a shipwreck. Maybe it will be an opportunity to right some long-time political, cultural and historical wrongs.

Maybe the journey will set up several big musical numbers!

The plot gets a little thick and tricky, especially for younger viewers, who may get somewhat antsy and bogged down in the slower parts and just want to see Elsa and Anna do their sisters-united thing, or belt another big song, or see something slap-sticky funny. Some of the moments can be dark and gloomy and confusing. “Why is she crying?” asked one tyke in a seat behind me to her mommy, during one particularly somber scene. “Where’s Olaf?”

But mostly, Frozen II certainly fills the bill, especially for fans who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a frosty follow-up. It’s big, even epic-feeling, especially once our travelers enter the Enchanted Forest, where they encounter powerful nature spirits, a race of indigenous people, a time warp and exotic creatures—including a tiny, cute, combustible salamander and towering “earth giants” the size of mountains.

Listen for a few new voices, including Evan Rachel Wood (taking over for Jennifer Lee as Elsa and Anna’s mother, Queen Iduna, from the first movie); Sterling K. Brown as a loyal Arendelle soldier; Martha Plimpton as the leader of the tribe the travelers encounter; and Jason Ritter as Ryder, a young tribesman who befriends Kristoff.


Returning Frozen directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee create some spectacular scenery and segments. Nudging the seasons just a bit, from winter to fall, gives the film’s pallet a striking new color shift—beyond ice and snow—to explore. You can tell there’s a lot of money on the screen, in expensive, extensive computer animation, like an impressive nighttime sequence when Elsa lights up a raging ocean with streaks and bursts of florescent colors to tame an elegant, translucent “water horse.” Or when Anna awakens the lumbering earth giants, taunts them into chasing her, hurling massive boulders—and doing exactly what she hoped they would do.

And not surprisingly, everyone gets a song. Just like in the original film, composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who also won an Oscar for the score for Disney’s acclaimed Coco) wrote seven new tunes for Frozen II. And while, alas, there’s probably not a new “Let It Go” singalong among them, all of the songs are expertly crafted, sturdy Disney-musical showpieces. Menzel, the Tony-nominated Broadway star from Rent, Wicked and If/Then, knocks anything she sings out of the park, so it’s no surprise Elsa is given some big, soaring ballads, like “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself.”

Anna/Bell belts out “The Next Right Thing,” another ballad, and everybody joins in on “Some Things Never Change,” a peppy Broadway-style opener which sets the stage for things to come, as does the soothing lullaby, “All is Found,” sung by Queen Iduna to her two young daughters.

But a true standout goes to Groff, as Kristoff, who sings “Lost in the Woods” as a campy, ’80s-video-style power anthem, compete with a background chorus of oohing and ahhing reindeer. Groff, also Tony-nominated for his Broadway work (he was King George III in Hamilton) and known for his starring role on TV’s Glee, delivers the goods while the intentionally cheesy visuals play like a clip of vintage Bryan Adams on MTV. Kids might giggle, but mom and dad will totally dig it. It’s a trippy Frozen II treat.


Anna and Olaf take a trip on an ice boat.

And Gad, who provides running comic relief as the hyperactive, babbling magical snowman Olaf, is a font of commentary on practically everything, including how he’s become more self-aware. Or, as he puts it, “the ever-increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” (In one cluelessly cheeky moment, he offers a critique of Elsa’s singing. “She’s a bit pitchy,” he observes.) Olaf’s whimsical “When I Am Older” is also a highlight, in which he walks through a “haunted” section of the forest, and all sorts of boo-riffic oddities keep popping and poofing up around him.

While not quite as fresh as the original, Frozen II still stands tall with its own proto-feminist message of strong girl power and sisters doin’ it for themselves—and each other—in a fantasy fairy-tale world where magic is real, the past shapes the present, memories have power and “lands and people” can be “connected by love.”

It’s a message that little girls, in little Elsa crowns and little Anna dresses, will soak up like little sponges—and one that we all need to hear, no matter who’s doing the singing.

In theaters Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

D.C. Drama

Adam Driver drives home timely message in true tale of Washington corruption

TTR_0542.dngThe Report
Starring Adam Driver & Annette Bening
Directed by Scott Z. Burns

The Report is a crackling political-intrigue thriller about how the U.S. Senate spent years dogging the CIA about the agency’s covert use of torture to extract information from detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a true story, and it centers around a young Senate staffer, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), and his painstaking, five-year crusade to comb through more than six million online documents for a study that the CIA—not surprisingly—did everything it could to quash.


Annette Bening is Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Working under the direction of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) in a windowless, bunker-like basement office, Jones and his small team discover a web of deceit, deception and cover-up. It’s all linked to the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT), an outsourced paramilitary program of extreme human-rights abuse, including waterboarding, sexual humiliation, mock burial, sensory deprivation, beatings and enemas. The agency used the techniques in attempts to force “confessions” from more than 100 Middle Eastern men whom it suspected might have ties to the 9/11 terrorism, or information about upcoming attacks.

When Jones completes his nearly 7,000-page report, it concludes that not a single one of the detainees coughed up any credible information—and one died, in effect tortured to death. Not only did the CIA violate time-honored, international Geneva Conventions principles about human rights and treatment of prisoners, but its multimillion-dollar EIT program failed to produce any useful information, contrary to everything the agency had told—and sold—the public about its so-called “War on Terror.”


Jon Hamm plays the White House Chief of Staff.

The head of the CIA (Ted Levine) does everything he can to discredit Feinstein, Jones and the report. The White House chief of staff (Jon Hamm) isn’t really interested; he has bigger election-year fish to fry. And Jones finds himself the target of criminal charges when the CIA turns the tables in a nasty twist that illustrates just how down-and-dirty Washington politics can be.

Matthew Rhys, channeling some of the stealth he cultivated playing a KGB spy on six seasons of TV’s The Americans, has a couple of scenes as a New York Times political reporter who cautions Jones about going public with his findings. “Some people will think you’re a hero,” he tells him, “and some will probably think you’re a traitor.”

Fans of TV’s Dexter will enjoy seeing Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, as a toe-the-line CIA staffer, along with The Affair’s Maura Tierney. Tim Blake Nelson plays a military physician with objections about the abuse he’s witnessing. A high-end lawyer friend (Corey Stoll) gives Jones some free advice, telling the young Senate staffer that he can’t even begin to afford the super-expensive legal help he’s going to need.

But the real star of the show, clearly, is Driver. After a string of solid roles—in films including BlacKkKlansman, Logan Lucky, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lincoln, Frances Ha, Paterson, as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise, and a heart-rending co-lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s acclaimed Marriage Story—he’s now a sturdy leading mainstream man. With no car chases, foot races, spaceships, explosions or gunfire, the “action” in The Report often plays out in the features on Driver’s expressive face, a long, oval pallet—the glowering intensity of his dark eyes, the scowling frown of his lips—for the dueling cross-currents of passion, fatigue and frustration that defined a trying half-decade of Daniel Jones’ life.

TTR_1308.dngAfter crafting top-notch screenplays for other fact-based films, including The Informant! and Contagion, plus The Bourne Ultimatum, Scott Z. Burns—who also wrote this screenplay—makes his major-feature directing debut, and it’s a zinger. He builds a dense, immersive drama out of real-life characters and events from the not-so-distant past, cracking into the maddening machinations of Washington to unravel a chronic chain of corrosion and corruption under the George W. Bush administration—and he doesn’t let W’s successor, Barack Obama, completely off the hook, either.

The Report is a movie about big issues that matter, things that resonate beyond the scope of its story—about “who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be,” to quote from a clip the movie uses from the late Sen. John McCain. And it’s impossible to miss its connections to contemporary events, especially given all the drama, controversy and constant news churn created by the current White House administration. When the movie gets around to whistleblowers, blocks of blacked-out, “redacted” text, elected officials who act not because of right or wrong, but because it’s what they think will help them win votes and elections… As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

“You ever wonder why history repeats itself?” asks Bening’s character, Sen. Feinstein. “It’s because we don’t listen the first time.”

History may repeat itself, but The Report suggests that, hopefully, there will always be someone, like Daniel Jones, to remind everyone the importance of listening, remembering—and never giving up in the fight for what’s right, especially against a system that seems impossibly stacked, packed and racked against them.

“You can’t torture people, lie about it and hide it from history,” Jones says. Thanks to his report, this story didn’t end that way. And thanks to The Report, we have Adam Driver in a great movie that shows just what a finessed, finely tuned, focused—and perhaps award-winning—actor he’s become.

In select theaters Nov. 15, 2019

Freedom Fighter

From postage stamp to the big screen…and it’s about damn time.


Starring Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn & Janelle Monáe
Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Maybe you’ve seen her on a postage stamp. Now you can watch her on a movie screen.

Harriet is the first major theatrical biopic about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed herself as well as hundreds of her fellow slaves, led an armed regimen in the Civil War and became an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.

British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance as Tubman, who was born into slavery—as Araminta “Minty” Ross—on a Maryland plantation. When her sadistic young master (Joe Alwyn, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Favourite) separates Minty and her husband (Zackary Momoh), she knows she’s about to be sold “down the river,” to the deeper South and a much harsher life, one from which she’ll certainly never return. So she makes a daring dash for freedom, 100 miles across the border to the north and Philadelphia.

Joe Alwyn

It’s a perilous, arduous journey, but Minty makes it, indeed, following the beacon-like light of the North Star, staying ahead of baying, scent-sniffing bloodhounds and trusting in her steadfast faith. At one point, she jumps off a bridge into the rushing waters of the Delaware River, rather than surrender to slave hunters who’ve hemmed her in on both sides. “I’m gon’ be free or die,” she defiantly proclaims, plunging over the side.

That’s how the movie begins, in 1849, but—of course—there’s much more to come.

In Pennsylvania, black abolitionist organizer William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) takes Minty under his wing, and she’s given room, board and a paying job by a glamourous free-born black boardinghouse proprietor (Janelle Monáe). Told that many former slaves shed their old names and take new ones to reflect their newfound freedom, Minty gladly does so, joining together her mother’s first and her husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman.

After a few months, she begins to feel alone, especially when she thinks about all the people still living in misery, hardship and fear in the South. But it surprises everyone when Tubman says she’s going to do the unthinkable: leave the safety of her own freedom and begin making secretive return trips to bring back other slaves, starting with members of her family.

“We’re gonna need a bigger cart,” says Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a scrappy young free black Maryland wheeler-dealer dandy who comes aboard to help Tubman’s cause. Eventually, Tubman’s plucky raids siphon so many slaves off her former plantation that it drives the manor’s toxically racist Southern-belle matriarch (country singer Jennifer Nettles) toward a nervous breakdown.

The rest is history, as they say, and the movie does a stirring job of depicting the unbridled heroism of one of America’s real heroes. There’s simply no one who did anything like Tubman did, risking her life repeatedly, putting herself in harm’s way time after time for others, committing herself to a fiercely audacious lifetime loop of extraordinary courage, bravery and flinty resolve.

Director and cowriter Kasi Lemmons (whose previous work includes Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity and Talk to Me) tends to lapse at times into some clumsy, distracting craftsmanship—like jarring, confusing, black-and-white flashbacks, and swells of soundtrack music that rush in to flood scenes with emotional cues instead of letting what’s happening onscreen hammer the drama home. But those are minor criticisms for such a major moviemaking milestone.


Cynthia Erivo isn’t exactly a marquee name, but she’s already won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy—all for her starring role in The Color Purple on Broadway—and appeared in the movies Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Harriet makes great use of her tremendous singing talent by integrating it into scenes that show how songs were part of the fabric of slave communities, and how Tubman sang as “code” to communicate.

The movie also shows how Harriet “communicates” with God—or at least thinks she does. Were her fainting spells really some mystical kind of divine premonitions, blackout moments during which she received heavenly direction and instruction? Or were they the results of long-term, seizure-like brain damage from getting her skull cracked open by a cruel plantation master as a child? The movie never takes a definitive side, but it does depict Tubman as righteously, rigidly religious, unwavering in her belief that something from above was literally guiding her life below.

On her first exuberant footsteps into freedom, across the open border to Pennsylvania, her chaperone—a gentle Dutch farmer—asks if she’d like him to accompany her. No need, she says, “I walk with the Lord.”

While not as intense in its depiction of the atrocities of slavery as 12 Years a Slave (2013), Harriet pointedly reminds us again of the wretchedness of an institution that—once upon a time in America, and not so long ago—legalized the treatment of a group of people as property that could be bought, sold, starved, beaten, abused, even killed.

And it reminds us of the amazing, intensely inspiring accomplishments of a woman who’s already made her mark in the history books—and, since 1978, on postage stamps. (But in 2017, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot down plans to put her on the $20 bill.) Some things take time, as Harriet Tubman knew—maybe a lifetime, maybe even more. But Tubman’s remarkable achievements will live forever, and Harriet finally, fittingly frames her story in the big, oversized Hollywood dimensions it has long deserved.

“God has shown me the future,” Tubman decrees. “And my people are free!

Amen to that!

In theaters Nov. 1, 2019

Hot Wings

Angelina Jolie rises from the fairy-tale train wreck of new ‘Maleficent’ 

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Starring Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer & Elle Fanning
Directed by Joachim Rønning

It’s good to be bad—at least that’s what Disney is hoping as it sends Angelina Jolie into the air once again for the sequel to her 2014 twist on the legend of Sleeping Beauty.

But Jolie’s Maleficent—a sexpot flying sorceress with wings like a condor, towering antlers, gleaming fanged teeth, piercing, oversized green eyes and jutting, chiseled cheekbones—isn’t really evil, just tragically misunderstood. All that stuff about the deep-sleep death hex she put on Sleeping Beauty—well, see the first movie. That all got worked out and patched up.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT:  MISTRESS OF EVIL.Now, several years later, things are hunky-dory in the magical fairy kingdom of the moors. Maleficent is the godmother of the former Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning), who’s now the fairy Queen Aurora, wide awake and getting ready for a big wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The prince is from the adjoining, over-the-river kingdom of Ulstead, where his father, peace-loving King John (Robert Lindsay), is excited about a union that will finally officially unite the kingdoms of fairies and humans.

But Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other ideas. A lifelong fairy hater, she has sinister plans to crush Maleficent and the fairies forever.

That’s what sets the story in motion, and there’s a lot of story—and other things—moving around. The screen is often teeming with flittering, skittering fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle), lumbering tree-like gnomes and magnificent “dark fae,” an ancient, proud race of bird-like fairies forced to live in exile due to human persecution. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein look pretty good with big ol’ sets of wings.

There’s a wedding going on, a war heating up, a genocide in the works and some other meaty issues swirling about—love, loyalty, prejudice, racism, exploitation, death and why it’s always better to sow seeds of kindness rather than fan the flames of hatred. As tribal drums set the beat and nighttime campfires illuminate a peaceful, idyllic scene, the movie asks us to ponder the (timely) idea of an advanced, heavily armed civilization invading a “primitive” country, pillaging its treasures, murdering its people. It challenges us to be defined “not by where we’re from, but by who we love.”

Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) deep dives into the special-effects toybox, putting CGI creatures and creations just about anywhere and everywhere. A huge slice of the movie’s budget had to be spent on the nearly wall-to-wall FX, which at times completely overwhelms the more human elements—especially in an extended, exhausting, bombastic battle sequence.


That white gold: MIchelle Pfeiffer

I wish the movie set aside some of the computer-generated hoo-hah for a few more scenes like the delicious dinner-table snark-fest between Ingrith and Maleficent. In a story about a “war of the worlds” between characters played by two world-class, veteran actresses like Jolie and Pfeiffer, what a waste—and a shame—to only give them one real opportunity to face off and play off against each other.

The sets, gizmos and getups feel like a pixie-dust smash-up of Shakespeare, steampunk and The CW—when the movie’s not recalling moments from other films, like Avatar or The Wizard of Oz. It’s all over the place, and it’s all just a bit too much. Maleficent the winged witch may not be bad, but her movie just isn’t very good. It’s a big, overwrought, hot-mess fairy-tale train wreck—but guess who rises, Phoenix-like, from the rubble?

Of course: Angelina Jolie. This is her flick, and she owns it. She’s the big bird, the hot wings, the OG witchy woman. In this revisionist, fem-forward fairy tale—part two—Jolie soars, rising regally above the overly fussy fairy-fray to remind fans of her secure place in the Disney pantheon of live-action superstars.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil won’t win any awards, and it won’t change the world. But it might inspire a lot of little girls for a super-cool Halloween costume this year.

In theaters Oct. 18, 2019

Double Bill Will

Will Smith faces off against himself in double-trouble mess of sci-fi thrillerGEMINI MAN

Gemini Man
Starring Will Smith, Clive Owen & Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by Ang Lee

You get two Wills for the price of one in Gemini Man, a sci-fi action-thriller about a hitman who becomes stalked by a younger version of himself.

Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin for a shady, CIA-like government-ops organization that deals in all sorts of underhanded global dirty tricks—kidnappings, torture, death-squad training. Whenever the “Defense Intelligence Agency” needs an undesirable taken “off-book,” removed from the record with one clean, untraceable shot, they call Henry.

But after 72 kills, Henry’s ready to call it quits and retire, trade his guns for a fishing pole and putter around in his motorboat. But not so fast—Henry knows too much.

So, of course, now it’s Henry’s turn to be taken “off-book.” And his diabolical DIA boss, Varris (a scenery-chewing Clive Owen), has just the man for the job—a younger, leaner, meaner version of Henry. The assassin Varris sends to kill Henry is, in fact, an exact duplicate of Henry himself, replicated years ago from his DNA by a secret cloning project.

The young assassin, code-named “Junior,” has been trained for one thing: to become a new breed of killer, a warrior without a conscience, remorse, emotion or a past.

The cloning project was called Gemini, as in the mythological twins.

Imagine Henry’s shock and surprise when he comes face-to-face with a younger version of himself. “I find myself avoiding mirrors lately,” Henry tells a fellow DIA defector (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). No kidding! Especially when the man in that mirror might be trying to murder you.


Smith with Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Benedict Wong plays Baron, a wisecracking pilot with connections to get just about any kind of airplane, anytime, anywhere. Baron comes in handy for jet-setting to Belgium, Colombia and Hungary. Why? Something about someone named Yuri.

Will Junior complete his seek-and-destroy mission? Can Henry not only survive, but convince his younger self that Junior’s been programmed for a hollowed-out, toxic nowhere life? Do Henry’s allergy to bees, and his lifelong fear of drowning, come back later in the movie as plot points? If you don’t know the answers to all those questions without even seeing the movie, well, I humbly suggest you need to see a few more movies.

That’s the story of Gemini Man, but the real story here is the back story. This film has been knocking around in development for more than 20 years, and it’s cycled through various directors and numerous other leading men—Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—who considered the starring role.

The challenge was the story’s central special effect: how to convincingly make one character interact with his much younger self. Finally technology caught up to the premise, and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee took up the gauntlet. (Lee, you may recall, made a very realistic, make-believe CGI tiger in The Life of Pi.)

Here, the two Wills talk, hug, fight, blast away at each other and have a gritty, dual-motorcycle duel. Junior is basically Smith’s computer-generated younger face—recreated from archives of his previous movies and TV show—digitally placed onto heads and torsos of body doubles. (So, yes, sometimes Henry is fighting the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Sometimes it looks pretty amazing, which is to say natural, but sometimes it looks pretty freaky and artificial, like something from a bargain-bin computer game.

Which is all the more surprising because the movie was made using super-sophisticated, high-tech camera gimmickry—a high-speed, high-definition innovation that renders images surgically crisp and super-sharp (but likely beyond the capacity of many theatre projectors to display). Ironically, it also shows the special-effect “seams” when trying to join things together, like the real Will and the fake Will.

GEMINI MANSmith, once a king of the box office with slam-bang, fan-boy blockbusters like Independence Day, the Men in Black franchise and I Am Legend, has in recent years marinated in more meditative fare (Seven Pounds, After Earth, Concussion, Collateral Beauty). Gemini Man might be seen as a combo platter, a bit of both—it’s got guns and explosions, but it also wants to explore ideas about the dogs of war, growing old, fatherhood, nature versus nurture and the ill-advised, age-old quest to play God.

But alas, the movie is a double-trouble mess with more than one problem. It’s a sub-par thriller with clunky dialog, an unwieldy, unoriginal plot, cheesy acting and special effects that don’t look so special. We’ve seen other—much better—movies about clones and cloning, and assassins who want to give up their guns, and there’ve been a bunch of Bonds, Bournes, John Wicks and even an Atomic Blonde to bring some real action-movie spark, spunk and sizzle to the screen while the idea for Gemini Man has been gathering dust on the shelf for more than two decades.

Two Wills for the price of one? “It’s not every day you get to see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents—by himself,” says Wong’s character, Barton, after Henry and Junior have beaten each other to a pulp in some catacombs underneath the streets of Budapest following a roustabout earlier in South America.

Gemini Man is something to see, all right—if you want to see Will Smith beating himself up in a movie, in perhaps more ways than one.

In theaters Oct. 11, 2019

Send in the Clowns

Joaquin Phoenix makes his mark as maestro of madness in ferocious new backstory saga. 

Joker 6 (72)Joker
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro & Zazie Beets
Directed by Todd Phillips

One of the top villains in the kingdom of the comics finally gets his solo spot in this dark spin on the backstory of the character who will eventually become—as we all know—Batman’s mortal enemy.

Various other actors have memorably played the Joker, including Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and (on TV) Cesar Romero. But those were all supporting roles, and Joaquin Phoenix breaks new ground as the star of director Todd Phillips’ twistedly artful urban nightmare about the genesis story of Arthur Fleck, whose mangled past and tortured present combine, collide and combust into something ferocious, ghoulish and terrifying.

When we meet Fleck, he’s working as a rent-a-clown in the DC Comics hub of Gotham City in the early 1980s. The place is a cesspool, in more ways than one; a strike by garbage workers has left the streets strewn with trash and overrun by rats, and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots has created an even greater strain on the roiling, restless underclass.

JKR_DAY005_091818_0168787.dngWe can tell the deck is stacked against Fleck from the get-go; he’s a mentally unstable, basket-case loser and outsider who lives with his frail mother (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under and American Horror Story) in a dingy apartment. He’s prone to outbursts of inappropriate laughter, uncontrollable spasms of jarring, hyena-like cackles. He carries a laminated card that explains, “I Have a Condition.” It doesn’t always help.

Arthur gets bullied, beat down and beat up. Then he finds out a budget slash is axing his social-services safety net, and he won’t receive any more medicine to keep the demons in his head at bay. He gets fired from his clowning job. Can things get any worse?

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his social caseworker (Sharon Washington).

It definitely gets crazier in Joker, as Arthur gets a handgun, bullets fly, bodies in a subway car fall, and Gotham’s anonymous “Killer Clown” becomes a vigilante hero, an icon of a surging, stick-it-to-the-rich rebellion. Rioters in the streets begin wearing clown masks.


Zazie Beetz

One of the richest is wealthy industrialist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who played Gerald Kindt on TV’s True Detective).He’s also the father of young Bruce, who’ll grow up to become you know Bat-who. Zazie Beetz (Emmy-nominated for her role as Van Keefer on the FX drama Atlanta) plays Fleck’s neighbor, Sophie, a single mom who seems to understand him—at least for a while.

But the whole of the movie revolves around a live TV show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a Johnny Carson-like late-night character who broadcasts every evening from downtown Gotham City. Fleck, who desperately wants to become a stand-up comedian, feeds his delusion by fantasizing of an appearance on the program.


Robert De Niro plays the host of a popular late-night television show.

In a bizarre twist that sets up the movie’s explosively violent climax, his fantasy becomes a reality.

Director Phillips’ previous films include the comedies Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover trilogy, all of which plumbed the “hilarity” of grown men behaving badly as they try to recapture the frivolities and frolics of youth. Joker is a much darker, much more unsettling descent into the maelstrom of bad behavior. There aren’t any real laughs in this movie about a clown who would become one of pop culture’s all-time favorite bad guys. And mental illness, as we know, is no laughing matter.

But Joaquin Phoenix is no joke as the Joker. The actor has always immersed himself in his roles, whether he’s playing a toady Roman emperor (Gladiator), country superstar Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or a lonely guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (Her). He reportedly lost some 50 pounds to play Arthur Fleck, and the extreme transformation adds to the scariness of his intense, grueling performance. His character is an emaciated time bomb that often looks like an angel of death seemingly living on cigarettes, fantasy and deprivation instead of food.

Cinema lovers will notice the movie’s nods to its inspirations, particularly Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and there’s a pivotal scene in a theater showing a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times—in which Chaplin’s character, a factory worker struggling in the “modern” industrial society, is believed to go mad and gets committed to a mental hospital.

JJKR_DAY005_091818_0168483.dngoker brings up plenty of things to think about—not the least of which are the warnings that were issued before it was even released about the possible violence it might unleash. Its narrative is, after all, hauntingly similar to other, real-world episodes in which disenfranchised white men have gone on to tragic shooting sprees. And it reminds us how easily someone—anyone—can slip through the cracks of an overburdened system and become lost…or worse.

But mostly it reminds us how, sometimes, a great actor finds a great role and just, well, kills it. In Joker, Phoenix makes his mark as a severely damaged man who becomes an insane monster, a maestro of madness who sinks to the bottom of society but moves to the top tier of the DC Villains Hall of Fame. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons them and treats them like trash?” he asks. “You get what you f—in’ deserve.”

And you get a movie like Joker. Send in the clowns—no, don’t bother, they’re here.

In theaters Friday, Oct. 4

Over the Rainbow

Zellwegger channels Garland on her last stretch of Yellow Brick Road


Starring Renée Zellweger & Finn Wittrock
Directed by Rupert Goold

Before Cher, before Madonna, before Gaga, Rihanna or Beyoncé—before any of those other female superstars so famous they only needed one name, there was Judy.

That’s Judy Garland, the actress and singer who starred in more than two dozen movies—including an Oscar-nominated performance in a 1954 version of A Star Is Born—and became the first female to receive a Grammy (in 1961) for Album of the Year.

And of course, she appeared at age 17 in the role that would make her famous forever, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, performing the song that would become her signature, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

An entertainment icon of Hollywood’s golden age, Garland (who died 50 years ago this year at the age of 47) was famous—and sometimes infamous—for weathering a stormy personal life and turbulent, chaotic career, marked by soaring highs and rock-bottom lows. She bore the scars of emotional and psychological abuse dating back to her childhood.

Judy starts, briefly, at the beginning—on the set of The Wizard of Oz—but zooms ahead quickly three decades later as Garland pulls into what will be the final stretch of her Yellow Brick Road.

JUDY-first-image-HR-3If you only know her from The Wizard of Oz, prepare to see Judy in a totally different light and from a completely different perspective. And if you only know Renée Zellweger from Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Chicago or Cold Mountain (for which she won an Oscar)—well, prepare to be wowed.

In a bravura performance that includes doing her own singing, Zellweger morphs into late-stage Garland in the twilight of her career, at a time when the glow of the Hollywood spotlight had long ago faded on the one-time MGM Studios starlet.

Broke, without a place to call home, her personal life in shambles after four failed marriages, Judy’s body is a rail-thin bundle of frayed nerves from a lifetime of showbiz stress, drugs and alcohol. She takes an extended gig at a posh nightclub in London, hoping it will give her enough quick cash that she can return stateside and wrest back her two young kids from the temporary custody of ex-husband No. 3, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle).

The British fans are passionate and welcoming, but the critics are ready to pounce, and there’s another husband-to-be waiting in the wings—Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, from American Horror Story), a handsome schemer-dreamer who sweeps Judy off her feet, at least for a while.

Bella-Ramsey-and-Lewin-LloydHer grown daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux, who played Lady Fitzgerald in TV’s The Tudors), is wary of her Judy’s latest suitor, and her youngest, Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), has grown weary of her long absences—and erratic parenting.

You don’t have to know how it all ends to know it’s not all going to end well.

Judy is based on a Broadway and West End (London) stage play called End of the Rainbow, and British director Rupert Goold, whose background is mostly in theater, presses down hard on the play’s cautionary theme about the high price and the dark underside of fame, and specifically how it both created and destroyed one of the biggest, brightest stars of the 1940s and ’50s. Flashbacks show how young Judy (played by British newcomer Darci Shaw) was driven to exhaustion by her studio handlers, given diet pills, sleeping pills, uppers and downers, forbidden to eat when she was hungry, and constantly reminded of her shortcomings. We wince as we watch studio honcho Louis B. Mayer tell her she’s ugly and plain, that there are thousands of other young girls who could take her place, and that her mother doesn’t care anything about her—then he gropes her.

It’s no wonder Judy grew up to love the stage and the spotlight—applause from an audience was a sign that someone out there, at least, loved her. It’s no wonder she grew up with a gigantic, hollow emptiness inside that no amount of pills or booze—or husbands—could fill. And it’s no wonder, by the time we catch up with her in the winter of 1968, she’s a colossal train wreck headed off the tracks—again.

Zellweger owns the movie, top to bottom, start to finish, in a performance that’s already getting heavy—and deserved—Oscar buzz. Never campy or flashy or a caricature, it taps into the messy matrix of Garland’s spunk, sass, sadness, brokenness, desperation, defeat, pride, heartache, humor, hurt, hope, flair, fatigue and frailty at one of the lowest times of her life. It’s in the way she moves, the way she purses her lips into a twisted, forlorn smile, the way she squints her dark eyes—eyes that suggest they’ve already seen so much, too much.

It may be hard for younger audiences to understand, but Judy was a superstar whose fame spread around the world long before internet, before cable television. An “outcast” from Hollywood (who was eventually fired from MGM when she failed to report for work, almost ending her movie career), she found an unlikely, underground alliance with another group of outliers, the gay and queer community, to which the movie gives a nod in one of its warmest scenes. When Judy meets a pair of male superfans after one of her London shows, she ends up spending an evening with them at their home—and learns about their bittersweet story.

Later, at another show, those same two fans lead the audience in rising to their feet to join their voices in singing her most famous song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” when Judy’s own voice falters.

Life certainly wasn’t “happy little bluebirds,” as the song goes, for Garland, who died six months after her London concerts. But Judy shows us a falling star going down in one final blaze of semi-glory, far from home, surrounded by fans, warmed by the glow of the comforting words of a familiar song about a faraway fantasy place where “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

All of her dreams, alas, didn’t come true. But Judy and Renée take us over the rainbow in a compassionate, compelling 50th anniversary tribute to the final chapter of one of Hollywood’s most tragic figures of yesteryear, rekindling the nearly myth-sized memory of an entertainer whose life’s work will live forever.

In theaters Sept. 27, 2019

Dangerous Curves

J-Lo & Constance Wu Reign Supreme in Scrappy True-Crime Stripper Saga


Starring Jennifer Lopez & Constance Wu
Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Jenny from the block is J-Lo on the pole in Hustlers, the true-crime scrapper of a tale about strippers who turn the tables on their upscale clients.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Ramona, the queen showgirl in a group of dancers at a notorious New York strip club where Wall Street fat cats come to pop their corks. As the story begins in 2007, we watch as she shows the “new girl,” Destiny (Constance Wu), the ropes—and the pole.

The Carousel, Peter Pan, the Fairy, the Stag, the Tabletop, the Martini, the Fireman Down. If you didn’t know all those “moves” before, well, now you can thank J-Lo for the tutorial.

Adapting a story that originally appeared in New York magazine, director Lorene Scafaria (whose previous feature film was Susan Sarandon’s The Meddler) doesn’t shy from the realities about what it’s like for women who work in the degrading shadows of the sex industry. She likes long tracking shots that follow her actors as they move, through the club or down a street, taking us along, making us feel a part of them, aside them, along with them, giving us their perspectives. And as the words of Janet Jackson’s song remind us in the very opening scene, “This is a story about control,” and it certainly is.

Ramona, Destiny and their coworkers want to take control of their lives, their finances and their futures.

The women, feeling exploited by the men who come to their club—and who run their club—come upon a plan: They’ll drug their clients with memory-blotting cocktails, drain their credit cards and skim a little off the top to keep the club happy.


When the stock market crashes in 2009 and the bottom falls out of Wall Street, it presents a temporary setback for everyone. But survivors survive, and Ramona and Destiny are survivors, and soon they’re back, kicking things up a notch or two.

It’s fun, it’s feisty, it’s gaudy and glitzy and gritty and it feels good, even when you know it has to be wrong.

These are some dangerous curves, but Ramona is confident. “They would do this anyway,” she says about the guys who come in for private dances in the so-called “champagne” room. “We’re just helping them do it.” And the fact that they’re maxing out the bank accounts of drooling Wall Street wolves is even better, she says. “They stole from everybody. When they come into the clubs, [they’re spending] stolen money. Is that fair?”

Lopez, who got her start as a “Fly Girl” dancer on TV’s In Living Color back in the early 1990s, is galvanizing as take-charge Ramona; it’s easy to see why she’s already getting early Oscar buzz for playing this tough cookie with a big heart and all the right moves. Now her resume includes dozens of films, four No. 1 hit singles and sales of more than 80 million records, a stint as a judge on American Idol, producing and hosting her own TV competition (World of Dance) and starring in her own TV drama (Shades of Blue). She also has her own production company, clothing lines and fragrances. Hollywood’s most successful Latino actress by far, if she gets a Best Actress Academy Award for this role, she’d become the first Latina to do so.

But it’s Wu, the star of TV’s Fresh Off the Boat, and who made such a movie splash in Crazy Rich Asians, who provides the story’s true heartbeat as Destiny. A single mom trying to care for her young daughter and her immigrant grandmother, she’s eventually troubled by the ethics of the plan she and Ramona have masterminded.


Lilli Reinhart, Lopez, Keke Palmer & Wu celebrate in ‘Hustlers’

The rest of the cast is particularly solid as well, with Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, Madeline Brewer from The Handmaid’s Tale, Scream QueensKeke Palmer and rappers Cardi B and Lizzo in colorful supporting roles that shore up—and stir up—this story about sisterhood, family, ferocious femininity and how the line between right and wrong can sometimes get pretty blurry.

Julia Stiles plays a journalist through which everything unfolds in back-and-forth flashbacks.

So there’s a lot of “representation” in Hustlers, both onscreen and offscreen—women taking charge, minority actors moving to the fore, men who commodify women getting taken down, and taken to the cleaners. As a lot of people have been saying for some time, it’s about time.

“Everybody’s hustlin’,” says Ramona, who notes that we’re all either doing our dance, or throwing down our money. Let’s all do the Hustle. And all hail queen J-Lo.

In theaters Sept. 13, 2019