Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Scams ‘R’ Us

Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez bring heart and heartache to the quirky charms of ‘Kajillionaire.’

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins
Directed by Miranda July
In limited theatrical release Friday, Sept. 25

So what’s a kajillionaire?

Someone with a lot of money—a lot more money than the Dolios, a family of small-time grifters, scammers and subsistence-level thieves, have ever seen.

“Most people want to kazillionaires,” says Robert, the Dolio dad. “I prefer to just skim.”

In this quirky, colorful, character-driven tale that’s already won film-festival raves, Robert (Richard Jenkins), wife Theresa (Debra Winger) and their 20-something daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), eek out a meager living in Los Angeles, where they mostly get by on selling things they’ve pilfered from a local post office.

The Dolios are barely a notch above living on the street; their “home” is a shabby, abandoned space of rundown office cubicles adjacent to a factory, where each day they are faced with a comically endless task: cleaning up an overflow of pink bubbles that comes cascading through the wall from next door.

If only those billowing bubbles were money. The Dolios are three months behind on their rent, but Old Dolio—you’ll find out eventually how she got such an unusual name—comes upon an idea, an insurance scam, that might net them some sizably bigger bucks. That’s how they happen to cross paths with Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a young Latinx woman who’s roped in by the oddball allure of these eccentric “outlaw” characters—and titillated by the prospect of bringing some sizzle into her own humdrum life.

“I’m super-psyched!” Melanie gushes, admitting how much she loves the Oceans 11 heist movies.

You many not be familiar with writer/director Miranda July unless you follow the independent film circuit, but she’s made a couple of well-received art-house features (The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know) and numerous short films, and has acted in others, including Madeline’s Madeline (2018). Back behind the camera again for her first feature film in nine years, she returns with this audaciously engaging, eccentrically original, nearly unclassifiable yarn that walks a delicate line between humor and heartache as we discover the wrenching disfunctions of the Dolio clan. Their quirks, tics and oddities seem almost whimsical at first, but it soon becomes clear that Old Dolio is almost a feral child who’s grown into full adulthood without ever experiencing the love, affection and attention of a “real” mother and father.

The off-kilter family dynamic is thrown into an even wonkier tailspin when mom and dad Dolio take more of a shine to the newcomer, Melanie, than they do to their own daughter. But since Melanie is the first person who’s ever treated Old Dolio with anything resembling compassion or kindness, the two young women form an unlikely bond.

Wood, who rose to TV stardom as a robot who outsmarts her human programmers in HBO’s Emmy-winning sci-fi series Westworld, provides the emotional core of the movie, dressing in baggy, shaggy, shapeless boys’ clothes and talking in a low, husky voice to play the emotionally stunted daughter. Her whole performance suggests someone who didn’t have a conventional childhood, to say the least, raised to be a petty criminal, taught to be invisible and undetectable not only to security cameras, but to everyone. She’s an outcast and a misfit, distressed in almost every way, and you cheer on her halting, difficult quest to break out of her shell of invisibility into the bigger, brighter world.

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood

Rodriguez, the critically lauded star of TV’s Jane the Virgin, brings kilowatts of enthusiastic pop as Melanie, who’s sexier, showier, more successful—with a real job—and far more “sophisticated.” But she too has her own needs for connecting with something, and someone, beyond herself and outside her tiny, closed-in apartment.

As different as they seem to be, and as they certainly are, Old Dolio and Melanie find out how much they actually have in common.

And that’s really what this surprisingly charming movie is really all about. It’s a paean to the oddball and misfit in anyone and everyone, to all who’ve ever felt like they didn’t belong or fit in—with their mother and father, or with the world. It’s about family and parenting and raising kids, all the way back to the moment babies pop out of their mamas. It’s about breaking with addictive, toxic relationships. It’s about people who hear “Mr. Lonely,” the old Bobby Vinton song, and can hopefully remember it’s how their lives used to be, not how they are now. 

And it’s about how the real kajillionaires are people lucky enough to find someone to love, and someone to love them back.

This sneaky little L.A. story—about a family that steals, scams and skims—will sneak up on you, for sure, and steal a little piece of your heart.

Muddy Buddies

Doc takes deep dive into Deep South subculture

Red, White and Wasted
Directed by Andrei Bowden-Schwartz and Sam B. Jones

This is a really dirty movie.

But not in the way you’re probably thinking. So, get your mind out of the gutter—and prepare to get muddy.

This documentary about “mudders,” enthusiasts of off-road events featuring trucks, cars and “extreme mud” mayhem, centers on a small group in central Florida. When their last mudhole in Orlando is closed down, it causes a near-existential crisis to the mud-man known as “Video Pat,” who has spent most of his life attending mud events and chronicling them on his videocams.

Pat—whose real name is Matthew Burns—has raised his two teenage daughters to love the mud as well.  

“Mud is like a drug to me,” he says.

So that’s what the documentary is “about.” But what’s it’s really about is a sobering, sloppy, gloppy plunge into a muddy pocket of deep-South redneck subculture that most Americans will never see, a place in the swampy shadows of Disney’s gleaming fantasy-land tourism mecca where the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag still fly and the politics are far, far-right and deep, deep red.

It’s a place where mudders wear cut-out masks of Trump and Melania and T-shirts with the slogan “Isis Lives Splatter,” and sport tattoos of Smith and Wesson 9mm pistols and the 2nd Amendment. One young man talks about how he’s moved out of the city to get away from all the “liberals and pansies” and how he worries about what will happen to his gun rights if “the liberals get their way.”

“I like Russia,” says the boyfriend of Pat’s youngest daughter, Jessie, showing off bumper stickers on his pickup. “I have a lot of respect for Vladimir Putin.” He has stickers that say Nuke ‘Em All and Yankee Go Home.

“I’m not fully racist,” says daughter Krista. “I have some Black friends on Facebook.”

Mud events are good-ol’-boy bacchanalias of beer, boobs and bawdy behavior, punctuated by the constant roar of trucks making as much mess and muck as possible.

Pat pulls out an old VHS tape of an event from several years ago, one where things got particularly rowdy and out-of-hand. “This one here,” he says, “I think it caused some of my divorce.”

These mudders are, for the most part, small-timers. Pat looks at awe at the bigger, “professional” mud events, like ones staged by the Redneck Yacht Club, with gigantic, customized, decorated monster trucks and thousands of attendees. The Orlando mudders are more localized—and radicalized. Their MO is to slip deep onto private property, typically trespassing, until someone—or something—makes them leave.

Pat and his buddies remember mud parties closed down by massive fires, where a mother and her child died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and another when a motorcyclist “decapitated himself.” All those mud holes are gone, closed down, or taken over for construction projects. “Power and money,” Pat says, gesturing at a “No Trespassing” sign blocking the entrance to a once-favorite mud hole, the site of many memories soon to become a hotel, condo, business park or yet another tourist attraction. For the mudders, Orlando’s march of commercialization and progress is a march in the wrong direction; Disney and other developers are the big, bad wolves who have gobbled up all the places in the wild where they once roamed free.

A friend of Pat’s notes wistfully, “My grandson will never experience that part of the woods.”

The “red” in the title is for the political color, as well as for “redneck,” which so many of the mudders use as a badge of honor. And you’ll get eye strain looking for any skin colors other than white at most mudding events. (For punctuation, the movie throws in a guy hollering, “White lives matter!”) As for “wasted,” well, that’s a reference to all the beer and the bongs at mudding events as well as Pat’s own house, which his daughters keep blanketed in a haze of pot smoke. But it could also be a bit of a judgement call on people so obsessed with anything—like mudding—that they neglect other, well, more basic needs.

Daughter Krista

Early in the film, we see Pat, Jessie and Krista dumpster-diving, and Pat later tells us that his oldest daughter never made it past middle school; but he proudly notes that she’s “good [at] being on the phone.” Pat scrapes by on reselling junk and scrap metal. Jessie skips the medicine that controls her epileptic seizures and ends up in the hospital. Krista gets pregnant and has a baby; Pat kicks her out of the house.

It’s depressing and distressing and downright pitiful in a social-services kind of way, but it’s also grotesquely fascinating, like one of those cable-TV shows—Hoarders, or Addiction—about people whose train-wreck lives are so messy and messed up, you’re just thankful you’re watching from a safe, sanitary distance. For most viewers, this may be the only way to ever experience this particular slice of deep-red, pro-gun, casually racist, proudly anti-progressive America—a kind of drive-through movie safari to a place you’d never actually dream of going otherwise.

When Pat becomes a grandpa to Krista’s new baby son, Matthew, he reveals a sentimental, almost poignant side. He takes the toddler to his first mudding event, gently dipping his tiny feet in the gooey black muck just churned by a monster truck—a new generation baptized not in the blood, but in the mud, symbolically bestowing him an indominable yahoo survivalist streak, a fierce, don’t-tread-on-me independence, a disregard for anything that might be considered “political correctness,” and a rebellious spirit that knows no limits.

“The South’s been rebelling since the Civil War,” says Jessie’s boyfriend. “And we ain’t never stopped.”

If the Red, White and Wasted revolution ever comes, people, get ready—it’s gonna be a messy, muddy one.

On Demand Sept. 22, 2020

Past Present

Janelle Monáe reminds us in this double-edged slave drama that the painful scars of America’s “original sin” are still very much with us


Starring Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston and Jena Malone
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
On Demand Sept. 18, 2020

On the poster, the title treatment for Antebellum has the second “e” turned around, facing backward.

That’s because the movie has a twist, a major turn, that makes it something more than just another “slave drama.”

The film opens with a quote from Mississippi’s late, great, Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” That concept is not only central to the story, it rings with timely relevance in this summer’s highly charged climate of racial reckoning and reawakening.

Janelle Monáe, when we first meet her, is Eden, a slave on a Louisiana plantation overseen by the vile Capt. Jasper (Jack Huston) and the sadistic Confederate general (Eric Lange) who literally brands Eden as his private property.

Things are brutally bad, as you can imagine, on the plantation. The young Rebel troops stationed there are like drunken frat boys, there’s a strict no-talking rule for the slaves, and you don’t even want to know about the horrors of “the shed.” Eden and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), a male slave, whisper desperate plans of a breakout and a getaway…

But about midway through the movie, we meet another character, and she’s also played by Monáe—waking up with her husband, greeting a bright, sunny day in their modern suburban Virginia townhouse. She’s Veronica Henley, a best-selling author and sociologist and somewhat of a media celebrity for speaking about the disenfranchisement of Blacks in America and the inequities of “historically marginalized people.”


Monáe as Victoria Henley, with her daughter (London Boyce).

When her daughter asks her about all those big words, Veronica uses an anecdote about playmates, anger and fear, and tells her little one that “things are not always what they appear to be.”

And neither is Antebellum what it appears to be, certainly at first. How does it put together Monáe’s two characters, and these two jarringly different situations? Is it a terrible dream, a living nightmare, a rip in the fabric of space and time? I won’t tell. But I will tell you that you’re in for a wild, galloping ride, kind of like The Twilight Zone crossed with D’jango Unchained, with some bona fide surprises and a few painfully difficult moments to watch.

Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who also wrote the original screenplay, have made a “message” movie that means to remind viewers of the cruelty of slavery, America’s “original sin,” while driving home the point that the wretched system of warped beliefs and twisted ideology in which slavery was rooted, like Faulkner’s “past,” isn’t really dead—or even really past, after all.

Monáe, who came to most moviegoers’ attention in Hidden Figures and Moonlight (both 2016), creates a character for whom we can cheer. Huston, the grandson of iconic Hollywood filmmaker/actor John Huston, has a somewhat trickier task, as a strutting, sneering villain with no redeemable qualities. But he plunges into it with gusto. Jenna Malone (Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games franchise) slathers on the Southern-drawl sauce just a little thick, however, chewing her scenes—as the detestable plantation madam—into pulpy B-movie puree.

But first-time feature-filmmakers Bush and Renz, unfortunately, don’t quite seem to yet have the finesse to pull things off without a few hitches. Characters are mostly one-dimensional, the moon is always full (and totally fake-looking), and a glimpse of a reveal during the end credits makes you question the very premise of, well, the whole movie.

Antebellum was originally slated to be released in theaters, in April, but the COVID-19 crisis pushed off its date and its circumstances until now. The timing may make it even more meaningful. Since April, of course, the nation has reeled and roiled from protests sparked by police killings of Black people, a powerful renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls to end systemic racism and intensified scrutiny on the symbols of the Confederacy—particularly its flag and its monuments—as emblems of hate. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently predicted that the greatest terrorism threat to America in 2021 will come from white supremacy.


A fiery conclusion.

Even the word antebellum, which literally means “before a war,” became so culturally toxic—because of its particular connection to the South, slavery and the Civil War—that the hitmaking country group Lady Antebellum dropped it from their name, becoming simply Lady A. You may recall that the Dixie Chicks, with similar sentiments, are now just the Chicks.

So, slavery, racism and America’s deep-rooted heritage of hate are hot topics all over again, particularly right now, and this movie turns up the heat even hotter.

A Confederate flag and a big ol’ statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee become significant, supremely ironic props. A cell phone rings at a most bewildering moment. And a little girl in a hotel elevator will creep you out, almost like one of the twins from The Shining.

You’ll get the double meaning when Eden tells a dying Confederate officer to “Open your eyes!” She’s not just talking to him in his final gasping moments, but to anyone who might need a jolting reminder, about a society erected on white supremacy and the evil of outright ownership of another group of humans.

Antebellum is about a horrific world “before the war” that never quite ended when the smoke of the battlefield cleared, and about how the past has a way of marching right into the present. This double-edge slave story  will twist you around, turn you backward and open your eyes to the scars of racism that are still painfully, awfully real, wrenchingly raw—and very much with us still, today.

Little Sister

‘Stranger Things’ have happened—than Millie Bobby Brown playing the spunky little sibling of the world’s most famous British gumshoe


Enola Holmes
Starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Lewis Partridge and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by Harry Bradbeer
On Netflix September 23, 2020

You probably know that Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictional British detective, has been played by some 75 different actors—including Robert Downey Jr., Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Ian McKellen, Roger Moore and Will Ferrell. According to Guinness World Records, he’s the most portrayed human character ever in film and TV history.

You might know that his famous office was on London’s Baker Street, and this his creator was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote about Sherlock in four novels and 56 short stories.

But did you know Sherlock had a little sister?

You did, and you do, if you read the mystery novels of Nancy Springer about Sherlock’s spunky 14-year-old sibling, around which this fun, feisty new movie adaption is spun.

ENOLA HOLMES aka Ferndell

Millie Bobby Brown with Henry Cavill (left) and Sam Claflin

In Enola Holmes, which draws primarily from Springer’s “The Case of the Missing Marquess,” we meet Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) riding her bicycle across the English countryside. It’s 1884, and she’s on a mission to meet her older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroff (Sam Clafin), at the train station.

The Holmes bros have come back to their childhood manor to look into the circumstances of the disappearance of their mother, the eccentric and mysterious Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). Sherlock, we learn, is already famous as a crime-solving super-sleuth. Mycroft is…well, appalled that their mother has let home-schooled little sister become such an “uneducated, underdressed and poorly mannered wildling.”

Even with a batch of Holmes stirring about, the movie clearly belongs to Enola. She’s a budding detective who not only dives into the case of her missing mom, but also finds herself at odds with her snooty brother Mycroff, who declares himself her guardian and tries to ship her off to a finishing school to “make her acceptable to society”—and find a husband.

Of course, Enola will have none of that. Running away from home, she dons a disguise (the first of several) and hops a train, where she meets up with another teen fugitive, a renegade, run-away royal named Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), the “missing marquess.”

Sherlock, meanwhile, more sympathetic to his younger sister, suspects that something else, perhaps something bigger, is going on…

The game, as they say, is afoot.


Actually, Mycroft does say exactly that, as he begins to try to decipher where his sassy sister has gone, and why. Enola Holmes is a grand game, a passel of puzzles to solve, a hive of hints that you’ll have great Knives Out-kinda fun sorting out—playing along with Enola, who frequently turns and talks into the camera and tells you how things are going, who’s who and what’s what.

And it’s about time a movie took some of the spotlight off Sherlock and put it on someone else—specifically, someone female. It’s no coincidence the story weaves its plot into England’s upheaval at the time about voting rights and the women’s Suffragette movement, or that Enola’s mother—seen repeatedly in flashbacks—tells her she can “do anything and be anything,” making sure Enola is well-versed not only in history, science and art, but also the art of self defense (specifically jujitsu).

Enola’s mother tells her that a better future is worth fighting for.

“Paint your own picture, Enola,” she says. “Don’t be thrown off-course by other people—especially men.”

Best known for navigating the monstrous sci-fi scares of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Brown is  a delight and a dynamo as the fledgling British sleuth, forging her own path, following her mother’s advice—as well has her trail—as Enola zips in and out of London, dodges a mysterious assassin (Jamestown’s Burn Gorman), uncovers a bloody royal scandal and helps change the course of English history. Director Harry Bradbeer, a two-time Emmy winner for directing episodes of Amazon’s acclaimed series Fleabag, knows how to coax out just the right levels of humor, action and emotion.


Cavill, taking a break from playing Superman in the D.C. movie franchise, certainly doesn’t try to swoop in and steal the show. He knows this flick belongs to little sis, and he lets her have it. And he plays Sherlock as London’s genius detective who’s smart enough to know that even he has a few things to learn.

“You see the world so closely,” a female character chides him, noting that he’s always poking around with his nose in coal dust and footprints. “But do you see how it’s changing?” The suffrage movement, the struggle for the right for women to vote, was finally ratified 100 years ago in the United States—a centennial marked just a few weeks before you’ll be seeing young Enola make the liberated leap from page to screen.

Set in a Victorian era that was indeed changing and evolving, headed to a better, brighter future, the juiced-up, teen-titan girl power of Enola Holmes makes for a right-on, righteously fun romp with a revved-up, fem-forward message that still rings, ever louder and truer today.

Not a Princess

Disney’s new Mulan provides a rousing heroine for young girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties and little mermaids

Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee
Directed by Niki Caro
Available Sept. 4 on Disney+

Disney’s new princess is no princess.

Mulan, a young female warrior who leaves her family to defend her country, is based on stories dating back to 4th century China.

You might remember Disney’s earlier version, a 1998 animated musical romp for which for Eddie Murphy provided the voice of a little talking dragon and Christina Aguilera sang what would become her first hit song, “Reflections.”

There’s no talking dragon in the new, live-action Mulan, or any other cutesy animals. This Mulan is, instead, full of color, sights, action, drama, emotion and spectacle, all revolving around a young heroine with the bona fides to become a rousing role model for little girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties, little mermaids, talking teapots and pumpkins that turn into coaches.

(You do get to hear Aguilera sing “Reflections” again, though.)

The setting is ancient China, where the Emperor issues a decree that every family must send “one man” to serve in the Imperial Army to fight against a ruthless horde of advancing invaders. Mulan (Chinese-born actress Yifei Liu), the eldest of two daughters of an honored veteran warrior who has no sons, takes her ailing father’s place so he doesn’t have to hobble onto the battlefield.

Disguising herself as a young man, Mulan goes off to training in preparation to meet the vicious warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Li Gong), his partner in crime.   

Along with all sorts of rigorous exorcises and combat skills, Mulan and her fellow soldiers are taught to be loyal, brave and true, the three “Pillars of Virtue.” Those pillars are so important, they’re etched into the shiny steel blade of Mulan’s sword. But Mulan struggles with the pillar of truth—she knows she’s living a “lie” hiding her true identity from her fellow soldiers, her commanding officers and herself.

But like the flaming red phoenix—the mythological bird—Mulan keeps seeing, we know Mulan, too, will soon rise up and reveal herself, in all her splendor.

Steeped in Chinese culture and capably steered by director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Whale Rider, North Country and McFarland U.S.A) in China as well as her native New Zealand, Mulan is truly something to see—too bad COVID-19 kept it out of theaters, and off the big screen. There are teeming plazas, ornate palaces, fortress cities, snow-capped mountains, and training montages on wide, windswept plains. Characters pop, parade and promenade in all sorts of fabulous costumes, from suits of shiny amour to a spectrum of raiment in all colors of the rainbow; I’m sure Disney hopes to sell a ton of ruby-red Mulan cloaks. An early scene where Mulan and her sister get “made up” for a meeting with their village’s matchmaker is a spectacle in itself, a quick-course lesson in Chinese tradition.

There are clash-y showdowns, chop-socky throwdowns and one especially acrobatic battle atop what looks like a bamboo construction site, with a face-off on a piece of lumber hanging precariously by a strand of rope; I halfway expected Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig to step in and take over for a Mission: Impossible stunt or a James Bond cliffhanger.

Liu, who stars as Mulan, may be a newcomer to most Americans. But at 33, she’s already an established, award-winning actress, singer and model who’s starred in some two dozen films and television shows in China. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, is played by Tzi Ma, a Hong Kong-born actor with a long list of American acting credits, including TV’s Bosch, Veep, Madam Secretary and The Man in the High Castle.

The rest of the cast is similarly pedigreed, with many actors who are already stars in Chinese cinema, though they may be somewhat unfamiliar to mainstream U.S. audiences.

Some action scenes seem a bit clunky and choreographed, like they were staged for a Broadway production instead of film. I was disappointed that the movie didn’t do more with the idea that “chi” warriors could run on, up and down walls, like spiders; it’s more of a gee-gosh gimmick than a concept that could have been really cool to explore more visually. And for all the progressive, culturally forward progress of having Mulan’s central character be a fearless warrior heroine, instead of a lovestruck princess, there are still some durable, dependable Disney-touchstone throwbacks. I’m almost certain one of Mulan’s fellow recruits—the doughy, comical Cricket—shares some strands of DNA with Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“We’re going to make men out of all you,” barks Mulan’s drill sergeant to his greenhorn troops at the start of their training.

He doesn’t know, of course, that the greatest soldier in his entire legion, in the history of his empire, will turn out to be a woman, rising like a phoenix through the centuries as an emblem of achievement, loyalty, bravery and honor.

And she’s not a princess, she’s Mulan.

The Blue Wave

All-star cast delivers scathing socially distanced satire in timely, topical quarantine comedy



Bette Midler

Coastal Elites
Starring Bette Midler, Daniel Levy, Issa Raye, Sarah Paulson & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Jay Roach
Sept. 12 on HBO

In this “quarantine comedy,” five socially distanced characters grapple with politics and the COVID-19 pandemic in a back-to-back series of monologues, rants and confessions delivered directly into the camera.

It’s a timely, extremely topical movie for these extreme, extraordinary, even apocalyptic times—in more ways than one.

Each individual “segment” was filmed separately, during the pandemic, in a socially distanced, quarantined environment, with each actor performing remotely. A punchy, prickly political satire from Bombshell director Jay Roach, it was originally intended for live presentation at the Public Theater in New York—and written by acclaimed playwright Paul Rudnick—before the pandemic quashed those plans.

The cast is top-notch, putting an A-list spin on the comedically caustic concept of how liberal “elitists” are suffering under the right-wing rigors and ripple effects of the Trump administration. The term “coastal elites” is a more recent spin on just simply “elites,” a longtime pejorative political label used to stir up mainstream, grassroots voters and rile them against big business, big banks and—most recently—the perceived affronteries of science, research and education.

These elitist bogeymen were originally based in big Eastern waterway access cities of culture and commerce, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, or San Francisco and Los Angeles to the West. The political divide eventually widened to include ideology—particularly Hollywood—so that “elites” came to represent a certain upper-class of people, beyond geography, whose liberal lives and lifestyles, morals, intellectual pursuits, values and vested interests were markedly different from those of more conservative so-called “real Americans” in the heartland.

Coastal Elites introduces you to five of them, all with a different take and a different situation to share.

Singing, songwriting and acting icon Bette Middler kicks things off as Miriam Nessler, a New York City schoolteacher and gabby Jewish widow. Why is she in a police station? It’s something about a guy in a MAGA hat, and her finally getting pushed past her breaking point. But she’s been close to the breaking point for a few years now, especially when she picks up her beloved New York Times or turns on the TV, encountering a barrage of news about something the president said or did that makes her blue blood boil. “Since the election, I haven’t been able to stop cursing,” she admits.


Daniel Levy

Schitt’s Creek star Daniel Levy is Mark Hesterman, a struggling Hollywood actor teleconferencing with a therapist from his apartment during a moment of career crisis. After finally feeling fully emerged as a gay actor, he’s nailed a big callback audition for his dream role—a gay superhero called Fusion in a new Avengers-like franchise. But his high spirits are crushed after hearing about Vice President Mike Pence’s strident anti-gay agenda.


Issa Rae

Issa Rae, the co-writer, creator and star of TV’s Insecure, is New Yorker Callie Josephson, who’s having a Zoom call with one of her besties. Callie is well-educated, well-heeled and very well-off, like her dad, a super-rich, super-successful Black businessman whose connections lead them both to an unlikely dinner at the White House. There Callie reconnects with someone she once knew as a little girl when they attended the same Manhattan prep school, where Callie mainly remembers Ivana Trump’s big, fake-y smile—and it haunts her.


Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson, whose many movie and TV credits most recently include Mrs. America and American Crime Story, plays Clarissa Montgomery, a soothing, self-styled motivational YouTuber who breaks down in the middle of a taping to tell viewers about an unsettling visit to quarantine with her extended family during the pandemic. Heading out of the city to rural Wisconsin, she recounts how she felt like a tiny fleck of blue flotsam in a sea of bright red, baited into traps by her overbearing Republican brothers. Then her father confesses something to her that floors her.


Kaitlyn Dever

And finally, Kaitlyn Dever from Booksmart is a Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse who’s flown in from Wyoming to work triage at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, ground zero in the pandemic’s hot zone. As she looks into the camera—we never know who, exactly, she’s talking to—she poignantly tells about meeting, treating and getting to know a certain patient who changes the way she looks at life—and the way she’s going to vote.

And then, that’s it—it’s over. Five characters, five mini-stories.

It’s a “satire,” yes, but this comedy has razor-sharp teeth. And the blood it draws, when it bites down to the bone, flows bright, bright red. So beware: If zingy political humor wrapped in barbed wire’s not your bag, maybe you should stay inland, away from these churning, deep-blue “coastal” waters.

The writing is brilliant, and the performances are perfection—no supporting players, no pros, just pure delivery and straight-up acting chops. Often the characters seem all too “real,” and the emotions too raw; if someone wanders in while you’re watching it, they might even think it’s a documentary, fact instead of fiction.

But it’s fiction wrapped in fact; audio of actual Trump quotes weaves in and out between each segment: “I’m a very stable genius,” “No one respects women more than Donald Trump,” “I know more about ISIS than the generals.” In such a surreal setting, we know the people we’re watching are actors, sure. But their characters are so representative, so tapped into this unhinged moment in time, this ghastly gestalt of global pandemic and polarizing politics—they seem like genuine people, people you might really know, really revealing themselves, unloading their concerns, responding to a world gone mad.

Because yes, the world really has going mad.

Coastal Elites won’t make the madness go away. No movie has that kind of mojo, alas. But it might make you smile and even laugh, here and there, make you feel a little less alone, help you look at some things with some renewed optimism and hope—and maybe make you stop cursing, for at least 90 minutes.


Road Trip Riddle

Jessie Plemons & Jessie Buckley take a mind-bending ride to crazy town

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Starring Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis
Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Jesse Plemons & Jessie Buckley star in ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’

A young woman and her new boyfriend set out in an Oklahoma snowstorm to visit his parents, but she’s already having misgivings about their relationship.

“I’m thinking of ending things,” Lucy says—or thinks, just after getting in Jake’s car. We hear her stream-of-consciousness thoughts, as the movie’s running commentary.

And Jake hears her thoughts too, apparently. “Did you say something?” he asks her.

“No… I don’t think so,” Lucy says.

So, Jake can hear what Lucy’s thinking? Weird. Indeed! And things quickly get even weirder, and then much weirder, in this mind-poking psychodrama from director Charlie Kaufman, who adapted the 2016 book of the same name by writer Iain Reid. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Reid’s debut novel, a wild-ride, road-trip riddle, had fans in knots trying to unkink its puzzling plot and digest its haunting, gut-punch, brain-buster shocker of an ending.  

This movie is a brain-buster of its own, from a writer and director known for some cult-famously quirky films, including Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, the stop-motion Anaomalisa and the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a couple undergoes a procedure to have each other erased from their memories.

But good luck erasing I’m Thinking of Ending Things from your memory, once you see it. And have fun figuring it out, too, an especially challenging task if you’re unfamiliar with the book. Kaufman’s creative overhaul of Reid’s novel is meticulously crafted to tease out its deep, dark disturbia of secrets.

It’s scary and unnerving and tense and edgy, but it’s not a horror movie—at least not exactly. Ominously bleak and yet sometimes lyrically, mystically beautiful, it shifts its tones like a dream you can’t control. And like a dream you can’t quite interpret, it’s certainly not an easy nut to crack. But it leaves clues, like breadcrumbs in a Grimm’s fairytale, sprinkled everywhere. If you like tackling movie mind games, try diving into this phantasmagoric golly-whopper.     

The centerpiece of the film is the visit of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley) to isolated farmhouse of Jake’s childhood, for what becomes a completely bizarro evening with Jake’s oddball mom and dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis).

Plemons, so good in so many things—from TV’s Fargo and Breaking Bad to movies like The Irishman and Game Night—has a boyish face that looks like it was made for hiding something else, probably something devious and unsavory, which serves him well here. Buckley, so hugely impressive as a country singer in the movie Wild Rose (2018) and on HBO’s Chernobyl, is about to wow you again in the new season of Fargo. Already acclaimed as one the most promising young actors in her native Ireland, she plays Jake’s girlfriend (unnamed in the novel) as if Lucy is as confused and clueless as we are.

And Collette and Thewlis—you can’t take your eyes off them as they create a three-ring circus of master-class crazy, pulling things into a Twilight Zone-ish madhouse swirl of delirium.

Lucy gets ominous messages on her phone—even when she calls her own number. “There’s just one question…” a male voice tells her. But there are a lot of questions. What happens in Jake’s house? Why can’t Lucy remember much of anything? Who is the old man, a high school janitor, who seems to be spying on Lucy?

The movie is dripping with metaphysical concepts—physics, psychology, aging, suicide, death, desire, obsession, longing, regret, the meaning of life. As Lucy and Jake plow through the snowy night, they banter about authors, poets and philosophers, movies and music, reality and perception, and the car windshield wipers click out a rhythm, like the tick-tock of a clock. Lucy says she feels like time itself is moving through her, blowing like a cold wind…

And the wind is blowing especially hard when they make a stop at a creepy ice-cream stand, where the vibe is even more chilling than the freezing air. One of the servers gives Lucy an eerie warning with her milkshake: “I’m scared for you,” she tells her. “You don’t have to go.”

Go where? You’ll find out, as your neurons work overtime trying to process a finale that includes a pair of blue slippers, a dance in high-school hallway and a song from Oklahoma, Jake’s favorite Broadway musical.  

So, as the snow falls and the wind blows, bundle up, baby—it’s a cold, lonely world out there. You won’t snatch much feel-good comfort from the melancholy maw of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. But it’s a hyper-stimulating journey of the senses, a deep dive into the recesses of a wrinkled road map of the mind, to find out where the journey ends. And this devilishly dark gem of a demented dreamcatcher will remain lodged in your head a long time after the snow stops, the sun comes up and the puzzle pieces fall into place.

It’s no jolly joyride. But if you’re a fan of the way director Kaufman typically puts a wickedly unique spin on the world, sending things careening into complex, unexpected, crazy-town places, you may come to treasure this diabolically twisted, freaky, bleak-y, existential-enigma relationship movie—about a relationship that turns out to be, well, not the kind they make a lot of Broadway musicals about.

Sept. 4 on Netflix

‘Hearts’ Breaker

Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart is brainy enigma in YA teen-savvy fantasy

Chemical Hearts

Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart play high school seniors in ‘Chemical Hearts.’

Chemical Hearts
Starring Lili Reinhart & Austin Abrams
Directed by Richard Tanne
Not rated

Back in 2016, YA fans feasted on the debut novel by Aussie writer Krystal Sutherland, a kinda-love-story snapshot of two high schoolers whose quirky friendship turns to romance as their young brains surge with the complicated “chemistry” of attraction.

All those fervid readers are a prime audience for this new movie adaptation, which features leading performances from a couple of stars whose TV series are already hugely popular with young viewers.

Fans of HBO’s teen drama Euphoria will likely recognize Austin Abrams as the recurring character of Ethan Edwards—but here he’s Henry Page, looking forward at the very beginning of his senior year to one main thing: finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. That’s where he meets Grace, a new transfer student, who comes aboard as his associate editor.

Grace is played by Lili Reinhart, who rocks the part of “Southside Serpent” Betty Cooper on Riverdale, the hit CW series based on characters from the Archie comics. Reinhart, no stranger to movies, either, has already appeared in Hustlers, Charlie’s Angels, Miss Stevens and Galveston.

Henry’s intrigued by Grace, who limps and walks with an aluminum cane, wears baggy boys’ clothes and has a car, but doesn’t use it. “I don’t like to drive,” she says.

That ambulatory riddle is just one of the enigmas of Grace, and Henry’s intrigue quickly turns to infatuation, then to something more.

Director Richard Tanne, whose only previous feature was Southside With You (2016), about the first date of Barack Obama and his future First Lady, Michelle, also wrote the script, and his sensitive, tactile, teen-savvy approach to Sutherland’s novel—titled Our Chemical Hearts—brings the characters to screen life in a way that makes them seem real, honest and true to how teenagers really talk, act, think and behave. And Reinhart and Abrams, both under 23 at the time of filming, still looked young enough to easily pass for high-schoolers just shy of their diplomas.

Chemical Hearts

The young cast includes Coral Peña, Kara Young and C. J. Hoff (with Abrams, second from right).

Using Sutherland’s template of literate, dreamy, brainy, poetic romance, burnished with the modern technology of texting, social media and music, Tanne creates a movie mood that will feel like both an escapist, teen-crush fantasy, as well as a vibrantly recognizable reality, to many young adults—and even to many not-so-young adults.

“Meet me here at six?” Grace asks Henry one afternoon, standing in the middle of the suburban street in front of his house. “And bring a loaf of bread.”

Henry does, of course, and that turns into what could be considered their first kinda-date, a trek to an abandoned factory where Grace leads him deep inside, finally wading waist-deep into a long-abandoned water garden. There she feeds a school of multi-hued koi, then gazes up through a skylight into the stars above—and lays a bit of cosmic heaviness onto Henry.

“People are just the ashes of dead stars,” she muses. “We’re just a collection of atoms that come together for a brief period of time, then fall apart.”

Falling apart, and breaking, is a recurring theme in Chemical Hearts, from Henry’s hobby—breaking pottery, then putting it back together with gold lacquer—to Grace’s limp.

And of course, there’s breaking hearts.

Grace points out to Henry that many literary classics in their high school library—Romeo and Juliet, The Catcher in the Rye, Ordinary People—are about broken, misfit, awkward, “scarred kids.” Being a teenager is “so painful,” she says.

During one particularly painful moment for Henry, his big sister (Sarah Jones), a nurse who’s studying to be a neurosurgeon, tells him that love “is a chemical reaction,” and that the surge of chemicals that make us feel good, like dopamine, as well as the ones that make our hearts ache, “come and go.”

A lot of things come and go in the capably crafted Chemical Hearts, and they probably won’t be terribly surprising to viewers familiar with the YA movie genre, a diverse field that includes The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Spectacular Now. There’s a sensual, discretely handled sex scene; a Halloween party where a dejected Henry gets totally wasted, then lifted deliriously high out of his doldrums; a somewhat startling discovery; a dramatic, romantic, oh-so-meaningful kiss against the scenic backdrop of New Jersey’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge, followed by a montage of smooches in the school cafeteria, the library and the hall; and a cascading soundtrack of totally rad, contemporary Pandora-ready tunes by artists like The XX, MEDUZA, Tinashe, Perfume Genius, SYML, Black Marble and Sharon Van Etten.

Chemical Hearts

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you’ll find out why Grace wears those baggy clothes, why she uses that cane, why she never invites Henry to come over to her place, why she doesn’t like to drive, and why the song “Take Care” by Beach House makes her sob.

You’ll find out there are scars of all kinds, and that love, like chemistry, can be complicated indeed. And you’ll discover why Chemical Hearts’ Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams are clear front runner for the year’s hottest YA couple—no, they probably won’t win any Oscars, but come the next MTV Awards, trust me, they’ll be shoo-ins for Kiss of the Year.

Available Aug. 21 on Amazon Prime

The Future is Now

Ethan Hawke brings tale of overlooked visionary inventor whirring to hip, flip movie life


Starring Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan & Jim Gaffigan
Directed by Michael Almereyda

Chances are you don’t think much about what happens when you flip on a light, turn on an appliance, talk on your smartphone or casually change your TV with the remote.

But Nikola Tesla did—a long, long time before those things ever became things.

Director Michael Almereyda brings the story of the visionary—and largely overlooked—inventor whirring to life in this fluid and freewheeling biopic, which shows how Tesla, an immigrant from the Austrian Empire, arrives in America in the late 1800s determined to put his dreams and his ideas to work.

Specifically, and most significantly, Tesla believes that electricity can be conducted more efficiently—and more safely—through “alternating current,” or AC, than through surging direct current, or DC. He just has to design a machine that can do it. This puts him at odds with America’s greatest inventor and capitalist, Thomas Edison, who’s rushing to get his DC electrical inventions into homes and cities.

It’s no coincidence that the movie begins with Tesla (Ethan Hawke) on roller skates, setting off for a leisurely spin across the floor of a stately sitting room, glancing both behind him and ahead. This lyrical, artful movie itself glides across time and plays fast and loose with its moorings; it’s never content to stay in one place—namely, the past. Tesla was all about the future—a future where feats of science and engineering would “do the work of the world [and] set men free.”

Tesla 2

Kyle McLachlan as Thomas Edison

And likewise, this jazzily innovative cool-cat movie looks ahead, in ways that remind you that Tesla’s “future” is indeed now, and we’re using many inventions that were born from his ideas. A haughty Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan, channeling some unmistakable Twin Peaks vibes) casually pulls out an iPhone at a bar. The daughter of super-wealthy Wall Street tycoon J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), the headstrong Anne Morgan—played by Eve Hewson, from TV’s The Knick and The Luminaries—often pauses to flip open her MacBook and take us through Google search results about Tesla and other characters as she narrates.

And Anne carries a torch for Tesla, one that never heats up beyond a smolder. She’s the movie’s “love interest” that never really finds love, only admiration, forever trying to break through to the heart of a man totally consumed by what’s going on in his head. In an early scene, where she first meets Tesla, she’s fascinated by his invention, a tiny object that generates electricity by magnetic fields instead of moving, whirring parts that create friction, things that actually touch and connect. Tesla’s electricity is clean and safe, no friction, no sparks; nothing to rub against anything else, nothing to generate heat.

And no sparks, no friction, no heat, Anne comes to realize, is a bit too chilly for her.

Tesla 6

Railroad tycoon George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) takes young Tesla under his entrepreneurial wing.

Jim Gaffigan waltzes in, his face almost overtaken by a bushy walrus moustache and enormous muttonchops, as railroad industrialist George Westinghouse. Former model Rebecca Dayan provides some electrical sizzle of her own as the French stage-actress Sarah Bernhardt, an international touring sensation with whom Tesla is positively starstruck.

Tableaus played out “seriously” against obviously fake backdrops of outdoor scenery—Niagara Falls, the Colorado sky, a train depot, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—remind us that we’re watching reenactments being tweaked, manipulated and flexed, like in a pageant or a play. Anne helpfully reminds us when something we’re seeing that “almost certainly didn’t happen that way,” reinforcing a film-festival statement from the director that one of his influences in making Tesla was TV’s Drunk History. It’s a safe bet, for instance, that Tesla never smooshed an ice cream cone into Thomas Edison’s face, or grabbed a microphone and laid down an off-key karaoke groove to a popular ‘80s—and I’m talking 1980s, not 1880s—tune with lyrics uncannily right-on about the power struggles of the industrial conglomerates of his day wanting to “rule the world.”

Hmmm…maybe Tesla really could see the future.

Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) sometimes uses a laptop (!) to aid her narration.

It’s a hip, flip, time-twisting trip, and Hawk—an extremely versatile, often-overlooked actor whose impressively varied career spans films of just about every kind of genre, from slow-burn indie dramas to gritty cop thrillers, immersive musical biopics and chilling horror flicks—intensifies this mesmerizing portrait of a largely forgotten inventor genius by underplaying him, drawing us inward to ponder the deep, churning energies underneath his quiet surface.

Tesla knew that his innovations—advancements that today live in technologies from x-rays and MRIs to florescent lights, wireless communications and laser beams—would shake up the world, perhaps even change it forever. He boldly predicts the impact. “Humanity will be like an anthill stirred with a stick,” he confidently proclaims.

This trippy livewire of a movie suggests a modern world dreamed to life by an immigrant visionary a century ago, a man some of his contemporaries tried to dismiss as a mad scientist, an enigmatic Euro-crackpot who sometimes babbled about talking to planets and photographing thoughts. But Tesla’s clean, alternating AC/DC won the “current war,” and his accomplishments factor into just about everything we do today—even if most people may know his name.

At one point, Anne asks him what he would do if his dreams ever came true.

“All of my dreams,” Tesla replies, “are true.”

Indeed, they are, or were—eventually, if not in his actual lifetime. But Tesla the movie creates a world teeming with ideas where the inventor and his inventions, the dreamer and his dreams, actually do fuse together, at least temporarily, for one time out of time and in one crazily, wildly inventive place.

In select theaters, and available on digital/VOD, Aug. 21, 2020

Bombs Away

Gripping new doc commemorates the explosive 75th anniversary of the end of WWII

Apocalypse 45_ss2
Apocalypse ’45
Directed by Erik Nelson

On Aug 14., 1945, the fighting in World War II came to an end.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 2, on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor, it was official, and Japanese officials signed their country’s unconditional surrender, bringing the global conflict to a close after four gruesome and exhausting years.

Apocalypse ’45 recounts the final year of the bloody conflict in the Pacific, where Japan—even after Germany had already surrendered, months earlier—vowed to continue to fight to their last man, woman and child, even though they knew the war was lost.

This quite remarkable film brings the final year of the Pacific conflict “alive” with newly restored materials from the National Archives, most of it never before seen, and the enhancement of new sound effects. And it becomes especially monumental and moving, on the week of 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, with its use of voices of actual U.S. military veterans who served in the Pacific.

The number of living World War II veterans is dwindling nearly every day, but director Erik Nelson found 24 men whose words provide a first-person, you-are-there narrative of war from the people who were in the middle of it—the sailors and soldiers and airmen, who recall vicious ground combat at Okinawa, terrifying suicide blitzes by Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the victorious, iconic flag raising after the hell-on-Earth campaign to take of the island of Iwo Jima.

Saving Private Ryan? Full Metal Jacket? Dunkirk? 1917? Apocalypse Now? All great war movies, sure. But not in the same league as this—because this is about as real as a war movie gets.

Taps (John Ford Image) (72)The veterans talk about being frightened, about watching their buddies get blown to bits, and about being young men, sent to the other side of the world on a do-or-die, kill-or-be-killed mission—against an enemy who was fully prepared give up his life in order to take their’s. The interviews provide the film’s dramatic foundation as we watch scenes of brutal combat and carnage, sailors on aircraft carriers and battleships, dangerous and deadly aerial dogfights and, ultimately, the devastation of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, which killed some 150,000 men, women and children. Another bomb, dropped on the city of Nagasaki, finally led to the end of the Japanese resistance less than a month later.

Ah yes, the bomb. The specter of the bomb frames the movie; the film begins with a prelude about the bomb, and it then marches steadily toward the war’s concluding chapter. It wants us to think long and hard about the atomic bomb, America’s original weapon of mass destruction. Military officials knew it would level the entire city and kill countless civilians; the movie notes that its use was not without controversy. Newsreel footage by an American medical team, taken in Hiroshima the following year, shows the ghastly after-effects.

The bomb ended the war—and started the so-called “nuclear arms race,” an era in which many wary nations worried about which other nation might drop the next atomic device. As one veteran notes, “It put us in the position of, ‘We’ve dropped an atomic bomb,’ so now anyone else in the world can drop an atomic bomb.” The end of WWII ushered in the beginning of a new era, an era of even more potential destruction and existential dread, an even wider Armageddon.

The film opens with the words of someone talking, then singing a 16th century Japanese ballad, an ode to peace. We find out his name is Itsei Nakagawa, and that in 1945 he was a Japanese teenager trapped in Hiroshima with his family the day the city was obliterated. We meet him again, at the close of the film.

Iowa Jima vets at WWII Museum.

Iwo Jima vets at WWII Museum.

The movie never otherwise identifies its two dozen narrators—at least not until the end, when they’re all introduced individually, telling us who they are, when and where they served, and finally appearing side-by-side with vintage photos from their military youth. It’s one of the film’s most poignant segments.

Director Nelson, a frequent collaborator of noted German filmmaker Werner Herzog, has an esteemed pedigree as a documentary producer and director. He produced Grizzly Man (2005), about an Alaskan grizzly bear activist, which swept film festival awards; and he combed through some 15 hours of “lost” Hollywood film footage for his 2018 HBO documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, about the B-17 bombers of World War II.

With Apocalypse ’45, he’s made a gripping, emotional snapshot of history and heroism that honors the greatest day of World War II—the day it ended—and a precious handful of the men who made it possible. A stately, somber reminder of the soul-scarring god-awfulness of war and its catastrophic consequences, it’s also a heartfelt salute to those who answered the call of something much bigger than themselves.

“We all had different religions, different faiths, different political positions,” one vet tells us at the beginning of the film. “But the most important thing of all was being American. We were unified in that. That gave us strength. We were one in those days.”

As we remember those days, 75 years ago this summer, Apocalypse ’45 is a powerful reminder of a war that changed the world—and the men who helped bring it to an eventful end, and lived to tell the tale.

In select virtual theaters Aug. 15, and Sept. 2 on the Discovery Channel