Category Archives: Movies

Loud & Clear

All-star cast presents a searing drama about a homespun #MeToo movement

Women Talking
Starring Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy & Ben Whitshaw
Directed by Sarah Polley
Rated PG-13

In theaters Friday, Jan. 6, 2023

An all-star ensemble cast tackles a thorny subject in director Sarah Polley’s powerful presentation of a 2018 novel about the traumatic aftermath of horrific sexual abuse. 

The book was based on actual events that happened in Bolivia, when men in an ultraconservative religious community were arrested and eventually imprisoned for raping women and young girls after drugging them with animal tranquilizers. The film imports the story to America, as a small group of the victimized women—Mennonites in the book, but not noted in the film—meet in a barn during a tense two-day period to decide their fateful course of action for when the men return, out on bail.

There are indelibly potent performances by Roonie Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and others as the besieged women huddling on haybales to debate faith, forgiveness, justice, morality and mortality, and craft their dreams for a better future. Suffering for years under the heels of a repressive patriarchy that has kept them apart from the “civilized” world and denied them access to education and technology, the women are barely literate. But, with the clock ticking and their attackers returning, they realize the importance of choosing one of the three options before them—staying and resisting, leaving forever, or simply doing nothing.

Ben Whitshaw plays a mild-mannered, college-educated Mennonite who has returned to the colony as a schoolteacher; he’s the only male the women trust, and he’s been asked to take the minutes of the meetings, to create a record. Significantly, he’s the only adult male in the movie that we ever fully see, or whose voice we hear—the lone sympathetic soul in a seemingly soulless place where the other males are either faceless sexual predators, abusive beasts, or enablers of a male-dominated culture that has fostered such toxic, repressive masculinity.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in ‘Women Talking.’

The discussions are fraught with weighty consequences. In this authoritarian religious microcosm, male leaders have told the women that the horrors they’ve experienced are only the fertile stuff of dreams and nightmares, the results of the hyper-active female imagination—and those pregnancies, well, they’re the work of ghosts, or even Satan. And if they ever, for whatever reason, deign to leave the colony, women will forever forfeit their ticket to all heavenly afterlife rewards.

It’s stylish and solidly theatrical, intimately small and intently focused in both scope and setting; it’s filmed in muted, monochromatic colors to underline the somber overtones and the seriousness of the situation. These are women at a breaking point, pushed to life-altering choices about what to do with their lives, how to move forward to ensure the safety of their daughters. As they grapple with the details of their homespun #MeToo movement to move out from underneath a gaslight toward true light, viewers are compelled to consider the wider, larger real-world connections—to women everywhere, anywhere, anytime, who bravely confront injustice and abuse.

Although there’s little action, in a conventional movie sense, there’s plenty of drama as the women do what the title suggests: They talk. They also sing hymns, quote Scripture, shout, and sometimes laugh—and let fly an f-word or two. A familiar Monkees hit, blaring from a car, is a bittersweet intrusion of the “forbidden” outside real world popping—for just a moment—their insular little bubble. There’s even a shoutout to gender fluidity, represented by a young female character who decides—after her rape and miscarriage—that she simply doesn’t want to be a girl anymore.  

It’s not Top Gun or Avatar, by any stretch. Nothing blows up, no one gets shot, and the only high-velocity moment is when a horse-drawn buggy veers off into a field. But Women Talking is explosive in other ways, including how it presents a group of women facing choices that could very well blow up the only world they’ve ever known. As the rest of America is being “counted,” against the film’s backdrop of the 2010 national census, these women are also making their presence known.

A late entry as a contender for one of the year’s best movies, it’s a monumentally consequential, timelessly important film. How important? Frances McDormand (who has a small role as one of the women) and Brad Pitt (who doesn’t) are among the producers, believing in the film enough to put their movie muscles into it.

It quietly, vividly, simply and surely sears its way into your soul, a bold, thought-provoking testament to the revolutionary power that can start with women talking, then mapping the way for themselves and future generations to navigate the world.  

Big Blue Blockbuster

How much movie can $350 million buy you? See the new ‘Avatar’ and you’ll see

Avatar: The Way of Water
Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana & Stephen Lang
Directed by James Cameron
PG-13

See it: In theaters Friday, Dec. 16

Thirteen years after the sensation that was the original Avatar (2009), director James Cameron returns to the fantastical world of Pandora, the far-out celestial home of the peaceful blue-hued humanoid creatures known as the Na’vi. They’re about 10 feet tall, towering over mere humans, but still small fries compared to the all-out epic-ness of this mega-movie spectacle that cries out for the biggest screen possible. It’s a towering cinematic achievement of visceral emotion, slam-bang action and jaw-dropping special effects that show just how far a budget of some $350 million can stretch.

All the money is “showing” in this 3-D saga that moves the story from the lush primordial floating forests of the first film to a more “tropical” island setting, where a group of green-skinned Na’vi have evolved to live for extended periods underwater. (Their tails are thicker, for steering as they swim, and their skins adorned with what look like Mãori tattoos, a distinctively Polynesian touch.) It all looks amazing, richly detailed, hyper tactile and mesmerizingly real, even though you know what you’re seeing is enhanced hi-tech fakery—CGI, created from extensive motion-capture performances by the actors. See it in 3D and you’ll swear things are floating right in front of your face.

Cameron loves the water; his seafaring disaster drama Titanic (1997) was an unqualified smash, the most commercially successful movie ever made, and The Abyss (1989) took a really, really deep dive into oceanographic, extraterrestrial sci-fi. There are swooshy echoes of those previous movies in this galloping golly-whopper, which continues the original Avatar’s themes of cultural coexistence, ecological awareness, the evils of colonization and the atrocity of genocide. Savvy moviegoers will detect other strands of its wide-ranging movie DNA, including cowboys-and-Indians Westerns, Pacific war flicks, chomp-chomp dinosaur romps, robotic dystopias and even Moby Dick.

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana return to their original roles—as Jake Sulley, the former human earthling who became a Na’vi hybrid through a process of avatar-ization, and his mate, the Pandora homegirl Neytiri. They’re both scrappy fighters when they must be, but mostly they enjoy the laid-back life on Pandora as a happy blue family. Their three kids may have grown up on a distant moon on the other edge of a distant galaxy, but nonetheless are well versed in teen ‘tude, smack-talk and using expressions that sound like they spilled forth from almost high-school hallway in America, like “bro,” “bitch,” “cuz” and “perv.” I guess teen lingo is a truly universal language.

When earthlings—the “sky people”—return to Na’vi to again plunder its bountiful resources and thin out “the hostiles,” they’re led by the menacing Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the macho paramilitary commander from the first film. He’s become an avatar now, too, for Na’vi infiltration purposes, and he has a longstanding grudge to settle with Jake. Quaritch’s vendetta forces the Sullys to flee to a far-flung islandic refuge of the “sea clans,” where they are taken in by the protective leader of the reef people (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant, holistic wife (Kate Winslet).

But wouldn’t you know it, trouble comes a-callin’.

Jack Champion as Spider

A couple of characters bridge the old with the present and point the way toward the future. (Cameron plans three more Avatar movies in the coming years.) Sigourney Weaver, who also starred in the original, returns as a new character—the daughter of her old character, in a way that makes sense only in the Avatar-verse. And young Jack Champion (he was the “kid on bike” in Avengers: Endgame) plays Spider, an “outsider” human teen who’s bonded with the Na’vi; he’s clearly queued up for a pivotal role in wherever Avatar goes next. Spider is somewhere on the wild-child spectrum between the “Feral Kid” in Road Warrior and the mouthy runt Tanner in The Bad News Bears—a scruffy, scrappy side dish that becomes essential to the bigger menu. 

Sigourney Weaver

Cameron, one of the most bankable directors of all time, certainly knows how to build a blockbuster. And this blockbuster-to-be busts out all over the place, in the air, across expanses of blue Pandoran sea and far underneath the ocean waves. It’s a thing of movie wonder, filled with amazing sights, magnificent creatures, fearsome mega machines, a big beating heart and some bone-rattling, Dolby kaboom. A full-on immersion for the senses unlike almost anything else you’ve ever seen, it’s the studio’s big-ticket bet for luring audiences back into theaters. Safe to say it will do just that, and it’s a shoo-in for Oscar nominations in several categories, especially for visual effects and maybe even Best Picture.

Cameron even came up with a new motion-capture innovation, allowing him to shoot extended sequences underwater. Winslet, who also starred in his landmark movie Titanic, set a record for holding her breath while submerged for a scene in The Way of Water (more than five minutes!), besting the previous title holder, one Tom Cruise, renowned for doing his own stunts. Mission Not-So-Impossible, right, Tom?

If you’ve been holding your breath, treading water for more than a decade for another big-screen Avatar adventure, well, your wait is over. You can breathe again, and dive into this splashy Christmas present for anyone who likes their movies super-sized in every way.

As one character says, “The way of water has no beginning and no end.” It sure seems that way for this big blue franchise, which will undoubtedly keep rolling along—and rolling in the green.   

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Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: “Nanny” Movie Review

When motherhood is a dream that becomes a nightmare

Anna Diop has dreams of drowning in the psychological horrors of ‘Nanny.’

Nanny
Starring Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan & Morgan Spector
Directed by Nikyatu Jusu
Rated R

In theaters Dec. 16, 2022

Motherhood can be a tough gig. It certainly is for Aisha, a young immigrant mom in New York City trying to scrape together money to bring her son to America from their homeland of Senegal. So, she lands a job as a nanny for an upper-class family, serving as a surrogate mom to someone else’s daughter. Decent pay, long hours, but great gig, right? Well, yes and no.

That’s the setup for this masterfully mesmerizing psychological horror drama rooted in African mythology and the wrenching emotions of having, and raising, a child. Getting a wider release after wowing film festival audiences, it’s a knockout breakthrough role for Anna Dopp as the nanny, whose reality becomes blurred with troubling visions and panic-inducing nightmares. Maybe that black mold growing on the ceiling of the bedroom, which has been provided by her employers, is an omen. Every little boy she sees reminds her, for a halting, haunting moment, of her son. And those creepy-crawly spiders, that slithering snake in her bed, and the fish-tailed mere-creature that glides through her dreams of drowning… well, they can’t be leading to anything good.

Director Nikyatu Jusu, making a mightily impressive debut, masterfully shifts the lines when what’s bothering Aisha begins to bleed into her reality. Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector play the white Manhattan couple for whom she toils, working overtime as caregiver to their preschool daughter (Rose Decker) while they’re occupied with their jobs. But they’re stingy with pay, and their fractured marriage isn’t nearly as picture-perfect as it might seem.

Sinqua Walls & Anna Diop

It’s a tough job and a tough situation, and it’s not made any easier with the mind-mucking Dark Continent hoodoo that seems to be bewitching Aisha. A budding romance with the apartment-building doorman (Sinqua Walls) seems like a sweet distraction…until it turns into something of a lifeline. Things don’t get any easier for Aisha when her employer finds out her nanny has been making unauthorized dietary choices for her picky-eater munchkin, or hears through the nanny grapevine that one day on the playground, Aisha became momentarily separated from her daughter. (Geesh, the nanny network has eyes everywhere.) Losing track of a child, even for a few seconds, can be traumatic, and here it portends something even more distressing.

The great singer-actress Leslie Uggams has a small but significant role as a mystical grandma, who suggests to Aisha that her dark episodes are due to unseen forces that have bigger plans for her.

The film touches on issues of white privilege and the struggle of many immigrants trying to build new lives, especially if separated from family, friends and culture. But it’s really about what happens when one mother’s American dream becomes a living, waking, walking nightmare. The effectively unsettling Nanny may very well haunt your dreams, too.

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The Entertainment Forecast

Nov. 25 – Dec. 1

Top picks for TV, streaming, home entertainment & more!

Omari Hardwick & Marsai Martin star in ‘Fantasy Football.’

FRIDAY, Nov. 25
Fantasy Football
Family sports comedy film, set in a fictional world around the Atlanta Falcons, stars Marsai Martin as a young woman who can magically control the moves of her father (Omari Hardwick) on the gridiron. With Kelly Rowland (Paramount+)

Stepping into the Holidays
Mario Lopez stars as a former Broadway idol who returns to his hometown for Christmas after being fired as the host of a TV dance competition. Can he help the owner of the local dance studio (Jana Kramer) revive the burg’s annual holiday show? What do you think? (8 p.m., Lifetime).

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Chris Pratt, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper and Dave Bautista reprise their movie roles in this merry Christmas adventure about the Guardians’ mission to make this Christmas an unforgettable holiday (Pratt) (Disney+).

SATURDAY, Nov. 26
Robbie the Reindeer
Animated special about a reindeer in training for the “reindeer games” to determine the coveted spots on Santa’s sleigh team (8 p.m., CBS).

Soul Train Awards
All aboard! This present-day awards event preserves the cultural legacy of the landmark 1970s series with appearances from some of the brightest stars in Black entertainment (8 p.m., BET, MTV2, VH1). 

SUNDAY, Nov. 27
Christmas Cooking Challenge
In tonight’s episode, hosts Ree Drummond and Eddie Jackson oversee talented cookie makers all trying their best to end up on Santa’s good list and go home with a $10,000 prize (8 p.m., Food Network).

A Christmas…Present
After multiple projects for the Hallmark network, Full (and Fuller) House star Candace Cameron Bure branches out as producer and star of this new holiday movie, on a new network, about a harried real estate agent who learns to value the reason for the season (Great American Family).

MONDAY, Nov. 28
The Great Christmas Light Fight
The search is on for season 10 and more homes with extravagant holiday lighting and over-the-top decorations (10 p.m., ABC).

Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin
New installment of the PP franchise stars Adam Levin reprising his movie role as Bumper Allen, now venturing to Germany when one of his songs becomes a big hit there. With Sarah Hyland (Peacock).

Kids Baking Championship: All Star Holiday Homecoming
Hosts Duff Goldman and Valerie Bertinelli welcome back four previous winners to show off their holiday-cheer kitchen skills (9 p.m., Food Network and Discovery+).

TUESDAY, Nov. 29
Reindeer in Here
New animated holiday original—following tonight’s 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—is about a young reindeer and his friends who band together to save Christmas. Of course! (9 p.m., CBS).

Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies
True-crime lovers will love this: For the first time, Casey Anthony sits down to answer questions in this three-part limited-series event, sharing her side of the story about her culture-defining trial for killing her own child—and her subsequent acquittal—11 years ago (Peacock).

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 30
Willow
Live-action fantasy adventure series—based on the 1988 movie—features an international cast on an epic adventure set in a magical world with brownies, sorcerers, trolls and other mythical creatures—and a young girl destined to unite the realms, defeat an evil queen and bring light to the doom-y darkness (Disney+)

Irreverent
A criminal mediator from Chicago is forced to flee for his life and hide out in a small Australian coastal community while posing as the community’s new reverend. Starring Colin Donnell, PJ Byrne and Ed Oxenbould (Peacock).

THURSDAY, Dec. 1
Hush
New series about a sex and relationship “fixer” (Joyful Drake) who becomes the gatekeeper and problem solver for rich and famous clients who don’t want their between-the-sheets secrets airing out in public (ALLBLK).

Inside the Black Box
New season of the interview series spotlighting artists of color, from producers, directors and writers to musicians, as they reflect on how their complexions have impacted their journeys to success (Crackle).

Zion Morino and Savannah Lee Smith bring the glitter to ‘Gossip Girl.’

Gossip Girl
It’s back to school time tonight for season two of the rebooted series based on the novels of bestselling author Cicily von Giegzesar, about the juicy goings-on at an exclusive Manhattan academy (HBO Max).

Dolly Parton’s Magic Mountain Christmas
The country queen stars in this new holiday special—as herself, putting together a Christmas TV special about the Tennessee “mountain magic” at her theme park, Dollywood. With guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus and more (8 p.m., NBC).

READ ALL ABOUT IT
Read all about it in Totally Wired (Thames and Hudson)—author Paul Gorman’s epic account of how once-thriving “music journalism” became a force through magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Melody Maker and a plethora of smaller, niche ‘zines), giving rise to a pop-cultural explosion of writers, photographers and print outlets. 

How powerful is the influence of entertainment? Pretty potent, according to Entertainment Nation (Smithsonian), an engrossing dive into the wide-ranging effects of movies, TV, music and spectator sports. The handsome volume includes 225 photos of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s pop culture collection, including Frank Sinatra‘s bowtie, Cyndi Lauper‘s dress and a costume from The Handmaid’s Tale.

BRING IT HOME
Prepare to enter a suburban dystopia in Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment), a psychological thriller about a young housewife (Florence Pugh) who comes to realize something is seriously wrong with the idealized life she’s made with her husband (Harry Styles). Maybe the creepy CEO of her hubs’ company (Chris Pine) has something to do with it….

NOW HEAR THIS

Hey, hey, it’s the Monkees! The new Headquarters: Super Deluxe Edition (Rhino) features four CDs and a 7” vinyl. It’s a treasure trove of previously unreleased tracks, early demos, alternative takes and remixes, which provide a soundtrack for the made-for-TV ensemble’s struggle for creative control of their music with their music supervisor, Don Kirschner—and a snapshot of the group’s enthusiastic emergence as a “real band.”

Fine Young Cannibals: “Bones and All” review

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

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

See it: In theaters Wednesday, Nov. 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Entertainment Forecast

Nov. 4 – Nov. 10

Top picks for TV, new books & just-released music & more!

Harry Styles is cop, George Lopez returns & Say Hey, It’s Willie Mays!

Harry Styles and Emma Corman star in a tale of forbidden love.

FRIDAY, Nov. 4
My Policeman
Singer-actor Harry Styles stars as a cop who undertakes an emotional journey in this story of forbidden love and changing social norms set in 1950s Britain. With Emma Corrin and David Dawson (Prime Video).

Lopez Vs. Lopez
George Lopez returns to TV in this new working-class inter-generational comedy costarring his daughter, Mayan Lopez (NBC).

SATURDAY, Nov. 5
Merry Swissmas
Jodi Sweetin (from TV’s Fuller House and its sequel) stars in this romance about romance at an inn in Switzerland, which kicks off the Lifetime’s network of Christmas-themed flicks (8 p.m., Lifetime).

SUNDAY, Nov. 6
Dangerous Liasons
New “prelude” to the 18th century literary classic focuses on the origins of the iconic characters, the Marquise de Merteuil (Nicholas Denton) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Alice Englert) meeting as passionate lovers in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution (Starz streaming service).

MONDAY, Nov. 7
One Delicious Christmas
Real-life celebrity chef Bobby Flay stars in this streaming holiday movie about a stressed Vermont restaurant and inn owner (Vanessa Marano) preparing for a big Christmas Eve dinner (Discover+).

TUESDAY, Nov. 8
Hey, Willie Mays!
Sports doc examines the career and the legacy of the Baseball Hall of Famer, whose achievements on the diamond during the era of Civil Rights helped break through the game’s longstanding color barriers (9 p.m., HBO).

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 9
CMA Awards
Country hitmaker Luke Bryan—a two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year—and football superstar Peyton Manning host this 59th annual awarding of the year’s top tunes, performers and collaborations (8 p.m., ABC).

THURSDAY, Nov. 10
The English
Emily Blunt stars in this new drama series as an aristocratic British woman on the American frontier, whose life intertwines with a Pawnee ex-U.S. Calvary scout (Chaske Spencer) on a violent landscape built of dreams, destiny and blood (Prime Video).

NOW HEAR THIS

Actor Luke Evans has appeared in a slate of films, including Clash of the Titans, Dracula Unchained, The Hobbit and Beauty and the Beast. But did you know he was a singer? Check out his impressive debut album, A Song for You, with a slate of classics, easy listening tunes and Christmas chestnuts that features a duet with Nicole Kidman, his costar when they costarred in the hit Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers.

READ ALL ABOUT IT

Attention, Royals fans. Put together a meal fit for a king with Christmas at the Palace (Wheldon Owen), a crown-worthy cookbook for 50 festive recipes, gorgeously posed in charming Christmas settings. Author Carolyn Robb certainly knows her stuff: She spent over a decade in Kensington Palace as a royal chef, where the dining room was peopled by Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry.

Sherlock’s Little Sis

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

Milly Bobby Brown & Helena Bonham Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Cavill plays Sherlock Holmes.

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

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

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

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

Run Enola, run!

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

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

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

Murder, She Tweeted

Bloody Gen Z murder mystery slashes conventions of teen slasher horror with sharp satire

Maria Bakalova, Amandla Stenberg, Myha’la Herrod & Rachel Sennott

Bodies Bodies Bodies
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakakova, Rachel Sennott & Lee Pace
Directed by Halina Reijn
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Aug. 12, 2022

In the genre of horror movies, there are some time-honored “rules” that almost always get broken, tropes that set the horror into motion: Don’t go in the basement! Don’t look in the attic! Don’t walk through the woods! Stay out of that creepy old building! Leave that weird doll alone!  

Now we can add: Don’t attend an overnight house party with a gaggle of spoiled, narcissistic Gen Z’s. Especially in a storm.

In this wickedly sharp slasher-flick semi satire, a group of young 20-somethings gather at the well-appointed home of one of their friends to ride out a hurricane they know is about to hit.

Pete Davidson

The young cast is excellent. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, from The Hate U Give and the Hunger Games franchise), a recovering addict, arrives with her new lover, the shy “outsider” Bee (Maria Bakalova, previously Borat’s daughter), a working-class college student from Eastern Europe. They meet the others at the home of Sophie’s childhood friend, the dissolute David (SNL’s Pete Davidson), who’s there with his girlfriend, Emma (Chase Wonders), an aspiring actress. Alice (Rachel Sennott, a standout in Shiva Baby) is a spacey podcaster accompanied by her older Tinder date, the enigmatic Greg (Lee Pace, whoplayed an elven king in the Hobbit trilogy). And the skeptical, smoldering Jordan (Myha’la Herrod, who starred in the British series Industry, as well as on Broadway in The Book of Morman) doesn’t seem to trust anyone.

There are no parents around, plenty of booze, pot and cocaine, and even some playful fun and games. One involves shot glasses and everyone taking turns slapping each other silly; the other is a parlor lights-out whodunnit from which the movie takes its name, wherein the group tries to ferret out the “murderer” among them, using glowsticks and smartphones to illuminate the darkness. What a blast of unfettered, let’s-be-bad bacchanalia! What could go wrong?

Everything, when the electricity punks out, the wi-fi crashes, and someone ends up dead with a slashed throat. And the tempest brewing inside the house becomes a far greater threat than the wind and rain howling outside.

It’s a classic, stormy-night setup with a savage, subversively on-point new-age spin about kids with mega-money, arsenals of sassy ‘tude and easy access to just about anything—who are now faced with the grim reality of maybe losing everything, including their lives. It’s not a “horror movie,” at least in the traditional sense; there are no monsters, ghosts or devil dolls. But it brings the horror, all the same.

Rachel Sennott

Dutch director-auteur Helina Reijn works the time-honored “teen terror” setup but gives it a riotously bloody twist, skewering these young, self-absorbed children of wealth and privilege as the characters begin to suspect—and then turn on—each other with piercing putdowns, vicious verbal backstabbing and sneering jabs of jealousy. Maybe the murderer is him…or her…or Max, who gave David a black eye, then left before everyone else got there.

“You’re so toxic!” Emma tells Alice. “Why are you being so mean?” another wails. And then, “Your parents are f—ckin’ middle class! They teach at a college.”

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These youngsters, who live in the savvy social-media world of TikTok, Google calendars and group text chats, revert to something much more basic, lo-fi and primal when they have to figure out their for-reals whodunnit…and how to survive the murder-mystery night. Their rich-girl issues about class, gender fluidity, identity, trauma, self-image, mistrust, microaggression, love and sex come spilling out.

And so do the knives, so to speak—as well as a machete, a gun, and a hammer.

As the body count continues to rise, you’ll likely find yourself rooting for another horror-movie trope, the “final girl,” a female character who proves herself virtuous enough—and resourceful enough—to outlast everyone else.

Who will it be? I certainly won’t tell—and I also won’t divulge the gut-punch surprise at the end, courtesy of an iPhone unlocked with some inventive facial recognition.

So, sit back, throw on a neon-hue glowstick necklace and watch this murderously clever Gen Z meltdown—and the pile-up of Bodies Bodies Bodies.   

The Boogieman’ll Get You

Ethan Hawk goes for real-life horrors as a neighborhood monster

The Black Phone
Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and Jeremy Davies
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Rated R

In theaters Friday, June 24

That old boogeyman, stranger danger, strikes again in this creepy, skin-crawlingly scary tale of abducted kids and a neighborhood monster who trolls for his victims in a van filled with black balloons.

Newspapers and news reporters, addressing the rising tide of missing children, refer to him as “The Grabber” for the way he seemingly snatches kids right off the streets, after which they are never seen or heard from again.

It’s a living nightmare for the residents of this community in North Denver, Colo., where the movie—set in 1978—begins with a closeup of a can of the local commodity, Coors beer, being popped open at a high school baseball game. Everyone’s watching the young pitcher, Finney (Mason Thames), hurling hit-resistant fastballs and curveballs out on the mound.

“Your arm is mint,” says an opposing player admiringly.

Finney’s a smart kid, into model rocketry, and he has a sweet, awkward crush on a pretty young classmate (Rebecca Clark). But he’s bullied at school, until his karate-kid friend (Miguel Cazarea Mora) comes to his aid, with a little bit of advice—namely, that he won’t always be around to protect him. “You’re going to  have to stand up for yourself one of these days,” he tells Finney.

Those days come soon enough, when Finney fatefully encounters the Grabber as he’s walking home from school one afternoon. Wearing ghostly white face paint and a top hat, the stranger stumbles and fumbles out of his van (painted with the word “Abracadabra”), claiming to be an illusionist. “Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asks, before engulfing Finney in a cloud of black balloons, drugging him and tossing him into the vehicle. Finney awakens to find himself locked in a stark, soundproofed basement. Will his affection for science and model rockets, or his “mint” pitching arm and his athleticism, do him any good now? Stay tuned!

“Nothing bad is going to happen here,” the Grabber says while wearing a rubber mask of a grinning, leering devil, which doesn’t exactly reassure Finney—or us. The Grabber is a grotesque, unsettling sight, and he tells Finney to not get any hopeful ideas about the black rotary telephone mounted on the wall of the basement; that old thing hasn’t worked for years.

Finney’s situation seems dire indeed…until the phone starts ringing.

Mason Thames as Finney, who gets mysterious calls on an out-of-service phone

Telephones have an often-overlooked role in the pantheon of horror cinema, from the murder of a babysitter by a phone cord in Halloween (1978) to the sinister inside-the-house stalker of Scream (1979) and the dreaded you’re-about-to-die call in The Ring (2005). Some flicks have been even more on-the-nose, like When a Stranger Calls, Phone Booth and Murder by Phone.

This tale of telephone-connected unpleasantness is based on a story by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of horror-fiction maestro Stephen King. It’s the second film built around one of Hill’s pieces (the first was Horns in 2013), and like his famous dad, he knows how to wrap a deeply disturbing yarn in the snug tentacles of the supernatural. The basement phone is a lifeline to an afterworld realm, where Finney is mysteriously—somehow—connected with the Grabber’s former young victims, who offer him advice on how he might avoid their terrible fates. And Finney’s spunky, potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (a terrific Madeleine McGraw), has troubling “weird” dreams that may be clue-filled portents pointing to the whereabouts of the Grabber and her missing brother. Are her nocturnal reveries rare psychic gifts brought by prayer-time invocations to Jesus, or merely the fruits of a wild imagination? Her volatile, alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) thinks her dreams are signs of genetic psychosis and thrashes her with his belt to drive the thoughts from her head. Under those circumstances, how can Gwen make her father, and the local police, understand?

Madeleine McGraw plays Finney’s sister, Gwen

Once again showing his versatility as an actor, Ethan Hawke dives deep into his deliciously deranged, big-bad-wolf role as the Grabber, drawing us in close to feel—and fear—his unhinged, unpredictable malevolence. Hawke has immersed himself in supernatural weirdness and wonders before, in films like First Reformed and Sinister; he brought home the reign of murder and mayhem in The Purge (the O.G of that franchise, back in 2013) and most recently had a brief but brutally pivotal role in the bloody Viking revenge epic The Northman. As the Grabber, he’s a real-world monster hiding in plain sight, which makes him even more bone-chilling. It’s impossible to miss the connections between the gruesome Grabber and actual mass murderers and serial killers, such as “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and William Bonin, known as “the Freeway Killer,” who murdered 14 teenage boys between 1979 and 1980.

Director Scott Derrickson for sure knows how to get under your skin, as he did in his previous horror films The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister (also with Hawke) and Deliver Us from Evil. (He also directed Doctor Strange.) He creates a stylishly creepy, eerily effective, tightly wound atmosphere of dread, tension and edgy, ever-present danger. The movie’s DNA shows strands of the killer clown in It, the flashback goosebumps of Stranger Things and hints of the “dissociative personality disorder” driving the central character in M. Night Shyamalans Split. Thinking all the way back to Carrie, the 1976 classic that became Stephen King’s first movie adaptation, there’s a similar thread of profane skepticism about the effectiveness of religion in the face of full-on, impenetrable evil. The strong bond between Finney and Gwen might make you recall the young vampire and her devoted childhood bestie in Let the Right One In.

There’s violence and a bit of blood, serious childhood shockwaves and a couple of “jump scares” that will give you genuine jolts. One breathless, bravura sequence in particular—involving booby traps, an axe, a telephone receiver and a snarling, vicious dog—will have you holding your breath.

Jeremy Davies plays the dad of Finney and Gwen.

The attention to the detail of the late 1970s is impressive, from pinball and attire to chatter about TV’s Happy Days and The Partridge Family and kids riding their banana-seat Schwinns up and down the streets. Gwen’s dreams are depicted in sequences that look like grungy, grainy reel-to-reel home movies of the era (or the actual home movies that director Derrickson used to unravel Ethan Hawke in Sinister). Well-placed soundtrack tunes from the Edgar Winter Group, Pink Floyd and Sweet rock the retro vibe, which settles in like Licorice Pizza with a harrowing side serving of doom, fear and madness. It depicts a “simpler” time, before iPhones and internet, when entertainment was drive-in movies and late-night TV…and long-distance communication was done by rotary-dial telephones.

Like the black phone in the basement.

This nerve-jangling tale reminds us of both the tenderness and the toughness of childhood, how danger is always out there lurking and that some men can be monsters—and some monsters are men. It’s a ripping, vice-gripping procedural, a chilling dip into a horrific suburbia disturbia, and a heart-pounding slice of childhood trauma drama built on a troubling foundation of hometown terrors.

So, if you’re dialed into all that, well, The Black Telephone has your number.

Still at the ‘Top’

Tom Cruise soars—older but wiser—in sequel to the iconic 1980s blockbuster

Top Gun: Maverick
Starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly & Miles Teller
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Rated PG-13
In theaters Friday, May 27, 2022

Tom Cruise makes it all look so easy.

Scaling the glass of the world’s tallest skyscraper? Sure. Dangling from the outside of an airplane? Piece of cake. Leaping from the top of one building to another? All in a day’s work.

Yes, he did all those things, for real, for various Mission: Impossible movie adventures, often ignoring the advice of safety professionals and defying the film’s insurance protocols. (He famously broke his ankle on the skyscraper stunt—ouch—but hey, no big deal.)

Cruise is up—and that’s truly the right word—to the job once again in this sky-high, much-anticipated sequel to the 1986 summer-movie smash. He returns to the role of U.S. Navy fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, whose cocky, risk-taking flyboy personality made him the standout superstar, almost four decades ago, at the elite Navy training program known as Top Gun.

Now, Maverick is called back to Top Gun to train a new batch of elite younger pilots for a seemingly impossible mission. And in true Tom Cruise fashion, that’s really him in the cockpit, flying, soaring, zooming, sideways, straight up and upside-down at eyeball-popping supersonic speeds, pulling some serious G forces. No stunt pilot or special effects for him.

And those F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats and “fifth-gen” fighters (the most advanced 21st century combat planes in the air), they’re all real, too. It’s like a military aviation museum roaring and soaring back life.

Cruise’s commitment to realism is only one of the factors that make Top Gun: Maverick such an exhilarating movie experience. It’s a fine-tuned, big-budget blockbuster, full of heart and soul, white-knuckle action and vertiginous excitement, swells of heartfelt emotion and jabs of joshing, mood-lightening laugh lines. It’s big, strutting, soaring, roaring, proudly pop-corny entertainment that begs to be seen on the big screen, like the blockbuster it was destined to be—which is why its release was delayed twice, over the past two years, by the COVID pandemic, until more people felt comfortable coming back to theaters.

Director Joseph Kosinski, whose other films include Tron: Legacy (2010) and the firefighter drama Only the Brave (2017), worked with Cruise previously, on the sci-fi adventure Oblivion (2013). He knows how to meld massive spectacle with strong story lines, and—in this case—how to make Cruise and his megawatt, big-screen charisma shine like the sun. When closeups fill the screen with his face, it’s a larger-than-life reminder that Cruise, now 60 years old, is much more than an actor, or a Hollywood veteran; he’s a bona fide movie star, an action icon who became one of moviedom’s most dashing leading men.

Miles Teller plays “Rooster,” the son of the late “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) in the original.

The new Top Gun has plenty of throwbacks to its 1980s roots, from a reprise of Kenny Loggins’ original signature song, Danger Zone, to character reappearances and nods to previous events. There’s Val Kilmer, who originally played Maverick’s stone-cold Top Gun competitor “Ice Man,” now a high-ranking Navy brass with serious health issues (mirroring Kilmer’s real-life situation after losing his voice due to throat cancer). Jennifer Connelly plays the bar proprietress Penny, a sideline character briefly noted in the first movie, now fully promoted to love interest. And Miles Teller comes aboard as the rookie pilot “Rooster,” the son of the late “Goose” (Anthony Edwards), whose tragic death in Top Gun has haunted Maverick all these years.

Cruise and Jennifer Connelly

The classic-rock tunes (T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” “Slow Ride” by Foghat, Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano-pounding “Great Balls of Fire,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) playing during an early scene in Penny’s bar, The Hard Deck, are affectionate musical acknowledgements of a story that began more than 35 years earlier, then zipped into the sunset as a pop-cultural touchstone. And the movie almost fetishizes certain “icons” from the first film—like Maverick in his signature shades or leaning into the wind on his Kawasaki GPZ motorcycle, flashing his pearly whites in a blissful grin. He may be flying “into the danger zone,” a place where people have been known to die and outcomes are rarely certain, but there’s something bad-ass retro cool and reassuring about seeing those cinematically comforting sights again. They’re reminding us to buckle up for another wildly entertaining ride, that it’s going to be full-scale fun, and Tom Cruise will make it all appear so natural, so effortless, so easy.  

A slo-mo beach football game has sun-drenched shades of the sweat-soaked volleyball match that steamed up the screen back in 1986 with its visual interlude of sexy, sculpted torsos. Lady Gaga sings the closing song, “Hold My Hand,” which has all the sonic soundtrack qualities of “Take My Breath Away,” the pop smash breakout by the new-wave band Berlin, which won an Oscar for the original film. And Maverick continues to break the rules and push the envelope, which is especially aggravating to the flinty, no-nonsense admiral now in charge of Top Gun (Jon Hamm).

Back in the mid 1980s, with global tensions ratcheting up in the Middle East and elsewhere, Top Gun—made with the full cooperation and partial funding of the U.S. Navy—was awash in flag-waving patriotism. It was a big-budget, all-star salute to fighter-pilot cowboys who put their lives on the line to defend America from the skies. The new movie is a bit less gung-ho about it, but Maverick does address the vital role of men (and women!) who put themselves into a cockpit and head into the front lines, especially in an era of combat technology that increasingly relies on drones and damage inflicted from afar.

Ed Harris

“You’ve got some balls, stick jockey,” says a steely general (Ed Harris) of Maverick, before telling him his days—as well as the existence of the whole Top Gun fighter-pilot program—are numbered. “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.”

Can Maverick whip the young pilots into shape, make them a team and get them prepared for a daring, do-or-die mission (in this case, a blitz to destroy an enemy compound in an unnamed rouge nation)? Can he teach them to fly at a dangerously low altitude, through a twisty canyon, below radar level to avoid a stronghold defended by lethal batteries of surface-to-air missiles? Can he save the Top Gun operation and restore its relevance in an era of modern warfare? Can he salvage his fractured relationship with “Rooster,” who blames his father’s death on Maverick?

Will the flyboy get the bargirl?

C’mon, really? What do you think?

It’s Tom Cruise, and as always, he makes it all look so easy.