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People Are Strange

The stoic sorcerer finds out he’s not alone in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Xochitl Gomez and Elizabeth Olsen
Directed by Sam Raimi
Rated PG-13
How to watch: In theaters Friday, May 6, 2022

In his sixth movie appearance, the stoic sorcerer known as Doctor Strange gets busy cleaning up a mighty mess he made in an earlier film, Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Seems the magisterial magic man created chaos across all realms of reality, throughout the multiverse, unleashing fantastical beasts, reawakening old foes and upending the laws of physics, space and time. 

Oopsy!

Esteemed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a double Oscar winner, reprises his role as Doctor Strange, making his sixth appearance in a Marvel movie. Cumberbatch is certainly versatile, trading his homoerotic bullying-cowboy saddle from last year’s The Power of the Dog for Strange’s “sentient cloak,” a garment with a mind of its own. At one point the cloak slaps an unconscious Strange to snap him awake.

Anyone who hasn’t kept up with most Marvel movies of the past will likely feel a bit lost, but most fans will revel in references to things that happened in other films and the reappearance of some fan-favorite characters. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) returns to cast her spells; also back are Strange’s martial-arts sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) and his lost love, the fellow surgeon (Rachel McAdams) who became the girl who got away. There’s a pivotal scene—no spoilers here—with a group of super-friends from other Marvel movies, past and future.

Newcomer Xochitl Gomez has a central role as a young girl, America Chaviz, who’s been bouncing across all the multiverse since she accidentally broke open a portal as a child.

Xochitl Gomez and Benedict Wong join Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Director Sam Raimi returns to the superhero genre that he helped reinvent and revive for the modern era with his trilogy of Spider-Man flicks beginning in 2002. Rami is also known for the stylistic horrors of The Evil Dead franchise, and Drag Me to Hell, about a young woman menaced by a malevolent spirt. He brings out his horror-show bag of tricks to steer Doctor Strange into some truly frightening territory with things that might be a bit too intense and harrowing for younger viewers—especially when the Scarlet Witch “possesses” another version of herself, turning her into a stalking, hellish “dream walker.”  

There’s even a cameo with an Evil Dead surprise, and at one point, Doctor Strange is reanimated as a zombie, a lurching, animated corpse with a big hole in face. There are other versions of the dapper doc, too, all floating around out there the multiverse. They have different temperaments and personalities—kind of like Barbie dolls in a grim, black-hole playhouse. Maybe it’s Marvel’s merchandising idea for fans to collect ‘em all. (I’m holding out for Malibu Strange.)

It’s not near as breezy and zestful as some other Marvel movie excursions. Doctor Strange has some mighty mystical mojo, for sure; he can hover in the air and fly, thanks to his cloak, and he’s got the powers of the universe harnessed in his fingertips. (He also sports a snazzy, silver-streaked hairpiece.) But he just isn’t made for the crackling, smart-aleck quips of his fellow franchise superheroes, like Spidey or Thor, or anyone in The Guardians of the Galaxy. Being the most powerful doctor in the universe, it seems, is some serious, ponderous business, and not a lot of fun.

There’s a flock of flying, fluttering, screeching “souls of the damned,” a one-eyed monster with octopus tentacles, and a desperate search for a legendary tome, a magical instruction manual called the Book of Ashanti. During a wild, kaleidoscopic trek across the multiverse, Strange and America become animated cartoon characters, then colored blobs. (A nod, perhaps, to the character’s roots in the bright, inky hues of comic books?)

“Were we just paint?” he asks America afterward. Yes, you were, in more ways than one!

It’s far-out and freaky, busy, dizzy, scary, bombastic and full of chaos, CGI excess, noise and cheesy dialogue. You can almost see the “word balloons” from the tale’s pulpy comic-book beginnings hovering above the characters’ heads.

But Marvel fans will be agog with its explosive, eye-popping, mind-bending sights, its shroud of mysteries waiting to be revealed and its deeper dive into the doctor’s world, one in which ancient myths, Old World darkness and unimaginable cosmic forces combine onto a cinematic canvas that feels like a Salvidore Dali surrealist painting come to life. In one sequence, a parlor duel between two iterations of Doctor Strange, both transform literal notes of music into a duet of tactical weapons. That’s one powerful tune there, doc!

Elizabeth Olsen

There’s a recurring theme of motherhood (“I’m not a monster, I’m a mother,” insists the Scarlet Witch, a soap-opera line so loaded, she gets to say it twice) and also the idea that we’re all responsible for fixing things we break. That’s a lesson most of us learn early, now taken by Doctor Strange to next-level extremes.

And like with all Marvel properties—which have become the equivalent of their own multiverse, with characters popping up everywhere, in each other’s storylines, all the time—there’s the promise of more to come, of something else out there. Just stay for the mid-credits scene for a hint.

“This ain’t my first weird trip, kid,” Strange tells America after one particularly bumpy jaunt through a multiverse portal.

And there’s no reason to think it will be his last.

The Bat & The Cat

Robert Pattinson Takes Wing in Epic New Batman Flick

The Batman
Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano & Jeffrey Wright
Directed by Matt Reeves
PG-13
In theaters March 4, 2022

He’s in his 80s, but man, he’s still got it.

Batman has been around since 1939, a year after Superman made his own comic-book debut. As one of the “oldest” superheroes, he’s been continually reborn through many pop-cultural incarnations over the decades, with high-profile depictions by such stars as George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck and Christian Bale.

And let’s not forget Adam West, who camped it up in the 1960s TV series, which gave a lighter, brighter touch to the Dark Knight.

Now Robert Pattison puts on the iconic masked hood for this much denser, darker, much more dramatic dive into the formative days of the caped crime fighter, the alter ego of young billionaire recluse Bruce Wayne.

In The Batman, when a sadistic criminal known as the Riddler (Paul Dano) creates a reign of terror in Gotham City, Batman works to decipher the cryptic clues and puzzles left—personalized for him—at the crime scenes. The trail leads him into a deep den of corruption as he discovers the Riddler’s gruesome quest is intended to reveal a nest of dark secrets about Gotham City itself, making Bruce Wayne confront his own troubled, traumatic past as the scion of one of Gotham’s most renowned families.

The story and characters in the movie exist “outside” other Batman films. It takes place in its own world, during a week-long period beginning on a Halloween night on an unspecified contemporary timeline—sometime after Batman has already become a known entity, a mysterious secret-weapon of crime busting, but in the early days of Gotham City’s criminal elements congealing into a cast of infamous super-villains.

Here he’s a hulking clue digger dressed in intimidating, bat-like body armor—a get-up that some Gotham residents find ridiculous, especially when they call him a “freak.” It’s a bit of a throwback, in that sense, to Batman’s earliest appearance, in the line of Detective Comics that later shortened its name to simply its initials, D.C.

Dano’s murderously unhinged Riddler is the chief focus here, but there’s also a slimeball mobster, Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin (Colin Ferrell, unrecognizable underneath layers of prosthetics). And could that snickering madman in a jail cell turn out to be…the Joker? (Stay tuned: Ferrell will continue his Penguin role in a spinoff series, planned next year for HBO Max.)

And the nascent Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) is a master thief who has her own reasons for slinking around at night. She reluctantly becomes an ally with Batman when they find themselves on common criminal ground.

Andy Serkis is Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal Butler, and Jeffrey Wright reprises his role as Jim Gordon, Batman’s inside guy and advocate in the Gotham police department. John Turturro adds to his long list of supporting roles with a juicy part as a crime boss with ties to Wayne’s late father.  

John Turturro

Director Matt Reeves—whose previous films include two Planet of the Apes, a pair of Cloverfield horror flicks and the young-vampire drama Let Me In—certainly knows his stuff, masterfully creating a riveting, character-driven tale that sheds new light into some of Batman’s darkest corners. It’s punctuated with explosive action; the walloping fight scenes are combustive ballets of brutal hand-to-hand combat, often accented with flashes of gunfire. A nighttime high-speed car-chase scene, on a rain-soaked freeway, is a revved-up knockout.

And this take on the Dark Knight is, indeed, dark. The movie takes place mostly at night and in the shadows, with a subtext of inner turmoil and horrific, Saw-like malevolence. Much of the time, rain is pouring. The potent, super-charged atmosphere of darkness, dread and doom—and the film’s murky plunge into Bruce Wayne’s psyche—feels like modernist, Baroque Bat-noir.

The plot centers on “Renewal,” a plan for the restoration of Gotham City. The movie is both a renewal and a restoration itself, a bracing new super-serious spin on a character who has become a staple—and sometimes a punchline—in popular culture across nearly every kind of media. And it’s not by accident that the film opens to an operatic performance of Schubert’s “Ava Maria,” a tune that also recurs throughout the film. The lyrics of the beloved classic aria are a prayer, in Latin, asking for deliverance for sinners in “the hour of our death.” The soaring, heavenly sound, overlaid on the movie’s hell-on-Earth storyline about the pursuit of wrong-righting change in a city facing an apocalypse of crime, sets the tone for The Batman—a mighty, moody, majestic exploration of the coexistence of evil and good in the world, and the thin, porous membrane of a line that often separates them.

On a level of sheer enjoyment, Bat-fans will enjoy the depictions of Batman’s “bat cave” lab and lair, a prototype of the jet-powered Batmobile, gizmos like contact-lens cameras and a Bat-suit that lets Batman literally soar, well, like a bat.

Pattison’s Bruce Way is tortured (and scarred) by his past.

Pattinson, first known for his earlier role in the Twilight franchise, has worked steadily in the past decade in mostly indie films (The Lighthouse, Good Time, Maps of the Stars), showing the quiet brooding intensity he can bring to an array of diverse characters. The Batman gives him powerful new movie wings as a hyper-focused, obsessively driven avenging angel on a mission to bring down the hammer of justice on everyone from sociopathic career criminals to dirty cops; he’s not afraid to break a few bones, but he’s staunchly against killing, and against guns.

“Who are you?” asks a ghoulish-looking member of a group of thugs, when Batman interrupts their assault of a hapless subway passenger. “I’m vengeance,” Pattinson hisses, before zapping him senseless with a jolt of electricity. A starring role in the sci-fi mind-bender Tenet notwithstanding, this epic (nearly three-hour) new chapter in the evolution of the superhero is a new milestone for Pattinson. It ranks among the best of all Batman movies, and truly marks his entry into the big-ticket, movie mainstream.

And one of the film’s true surprises is the powerful backstory of Selena Kyle, who becomes Catwoman. Kravitz first got attention in the Divergent movie series before progressing into roles in HBO’s Little Big Lies and Hulu’s High Fidelity, among dozens of other parts. (She even voiced Catwoman in the computer-animated Lego Batman Movie.) Here she’s much more than a side character; she’s an integral part of the story, and the movie even hints at a deeper connection between Catwoman and Batman, especially in a rooftop, sunset scene when she longs to find out what, and who, is underneath the hooded black mask.

She asks him if he’s hiding something, like horrible scars.  

The Batman has scars, all right—and so does she—from the emotional and psychological wounds that have left marks on their worldviews, and their souls. Turns out nearly everyone has scars, even the villains they pursue.

As Batman and Catwoman find their destinies entwined as their paths converge on their scars, and the movie finds its heart, its emotional center, and its own soul.

“The Bat and the Cat,” she tells him. “It’s got a nice ring.”

Indeed, it does. For longtime fans of the franchise, this is the Bat-movie you’ve been waiting for, a stimulating smash of crowd-pleasing blockbuster to begin the new year.

Yes, the Bat and the Cat—for cinema fans of the Caped Crusader, that’s where it’s at.

Run Through The Jungle

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum find their rom-com mojo in this fun, feisty romp

The Lost City
Starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum
Directed by Aaron & Adam Nee
PG-13
In theaters March 25, 2022

A languishing romance novelist and her hunky male model find themselves in a real-life rumble in the jungle in this breezy, big-budget rom-com with a pair of Hollywood’s most likeable stars.

Sandra Bullock—once crowned by the media as “America’s Sweetheart”—plays Loretta Sage, the author of a string of frothy imaginative adventures set in steamy, dreamy exotic locales. At the onset of a book tour to promote what she intends to be the final installment of her Lost City franchise, she’s kidnapped by an obscenely rich superfan (Daniel Radcliffe) who thinks Loretta’s literary world-building has roots in a real place, and a real treasure.

He whisks Loretta off on his private jet and demands that she lead him to the legendary Lost City of D.

Daniel Radcliff plays an archeology-obsessed villain

But, thanks to the pings from Loretta’s Apple watch, help is on the way. Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), who poses as the himbo cover character for Loretta’s top-selling books, heads off to rescue her, alongside a former Navy SEAL (Brad Pitt) now in the extraction business.

The setup puts Loretta and Alan together on a volcanic tropical island—and into an over-the-top, thrill-filled romp that feels like one of Loretta’s rollicking romances springing to life.

Directors Aaron and Adam Nee—brothers whose previous collaborations were smaller, more modest films, including Band of Robbers and The Last Romantic—up their game considerably here. The Lost City has all the hallmarks of a star-studded, blowout, blockbuster-style caper with chases, explosions, escapes, scuffles and merry, B-movie self-awareness. Its movie DNA is girded with sturdy strands of Romancing the Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark and even a bit of Bond, especially in the hyper-inflated villainy of Radcliffe’s character and his obsession with something so delectably beyond the reach of his riches.

But the movie belongs to its two lead stars as it crackles throughout on their crisp chemistry. Bullock leans into her natural prowess for action-comedy combo platters that she previously displayed in The Heat, The Proposal, Miss Congeniality and Oceans 8. Channing plays off his sculpted, eye-candy physicality—as demonstrated in Logan Lucky, Magic Mike, 12 Jump Street and Hail, Caesar!—to find the soft soulfulness of his character as genuine romantic sparks begin to fly between Loretta and Alan.

Many times, the movie is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to a jauntily clever script by Seth Gordon, who certainly knows how to cut to the funny bone; he directed Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief and episodes of TV’s Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and The Office. Packed with wily running gags and brisk-quippery one-liners that sometimes feel spontaneous and ad-libbed, it’s a fun-filled frolic with a hilariously saucy, playfully risqué spin—like when Loretta has a sudden, unexpectedly close encounter with Alan’s nether regions, characters riff on what the “D” in the Lost City might really stand for, or an island legend is given a carnal cap-off.

Brad Pitt to the rescue!

The supporting cast also gets space to show their stuff. Pitt, especially, is a total scene-stealer, channeling the cool, confident alpha-male badassery he displayed in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “How are you so handsome?” Loretta asks him, smitten by his bravado and dashing good looks. “My father was a weatherman,” he replies. The Office star Oscar Nuñez, who appeared alongside Bullock in The Proposal, makes the most of his moments as a helpful, island-loving air-cargo pilot. Da’Vine Joy, who held her own alongside comedy super-titan Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is My Name, brings sass and style to the role of Loretta’s hard-working assistant, Beth.

Stay until the credits are completely over to see a coda that offers Pitt a surprise reappearance.

And speaking of reappearances, will this zesty zip of ripping rom-commery have a sequel? We can only hope for an encore, especially since Bullock recently announced she’s ready to take a break from the movies. Maybe Loretta is thinking of retiring her franchise and her characters, but it sure feels like there’s certainly enough gas in the Lost City tank for a crowd-pleasing followup.

“Let’s see what’s on the other side of that door,” Alan’s Fabio-like cover character, Dash McMahon, says in an opening fantasy sequence. Here’s hoping it opens to something that reunites these two immensely likeable lovebirds.

Lost in Memories

Olivia Colman dazzles in director Maggie Gyleenhaal’s superb directorial debut

The Lost Daughter
Starring Olivia Colman, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson & Jesse Buckley
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
Rated R

In theaters Dec. 17, 2021, and available Dec. 31 on Netflix

In his 1903 poem The Mask, the famed Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote about a woman who has something to hide. He implores her to take off her “mask” and reveal herself.

“I would find what’s there to find,” goes the poem and the poet. “Love or deceit.”

There’s love, and deceit, and even a reference or two to Yeats, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s supremely impressive directorial debut, in a which a summer getaway to a Greek seaside resort triggers troubling motherhood memories for a middle-aged woman. 

Olivia Coleman stars in this slow-burn psychological drama, a tale of a woman wearing a “mask” of her own. She’s Leda, a Cambridge college professor who arrives at the resort on the island of Spetses anticipating a relaxing, low-key vacation. But Leda’s interactions there on the beach with an attractive young wife and mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter set a fateful chain of events into motion, one that stirs up painful flashbacks for Leda about raising her own two daughters.

Dakota Johnson

We learn about Leda gradually. She’s reserved and refined, outwardly a model of decency and decorum. She can be pleasant and charming. But she can also be stubborn, snappy, curt and even cold. Something’s going on with Leda, but what is it? And which Leda is the real Leda? Which one is wearing the mask?

It’s not an easy question to answer, as the plot weaves through incidents and events that include a missing little girl, her lost dolly, and Leda’s flirtations with both the college-student cabana boy (Paul Mescale) and the resort’s leathery American expat caretaker (Ed Harris).

In throwbacks to Leda’s past (where she’s superbly played by Jesse Buckley), we watch her struggling to balance her budding scholastic career—working from home translating comparative literature—with being a wife and a mom. Sex with her amorous husband (Jack Farthing) isn’t very fulfilling for her, and though she obviously loves her two little ones, she clearly prefers the academic world more than domestic life. Tenderness with her daughters at one moment can become a brittle battle of wills, a knotted tangle of frayed nerves. At a workshop event in London, she has a fling with a professor (Stellan Sarsgaard) and then comes home with a shocking announcement.

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessie Buckley

Present-day Leda and Nina strike up a tentative friendship, but it’s fraught with tensions. The sea itself, where the resort’s guests congregate every day, can be both idyllic and vaguely menacing. Nina’s thug-like in-laws create an atmosphere of dread and possibly danger, and Leda harbors a secret—and a certain stolen object—that threatens to bring everything crashing down around her.

Gyllenhaal has acted in nearly 50 films and TV shows including HBO’s The Deuce, the 2008 Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight, and Crazy Heart, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She doesn’t make an appearance here, but her experience and confidence are evident behind the camera as she spins the story (based on the novel of the same name) with intimacy, intensity and a sense of tightly wound nuance, and lets her outstanding cast burrow into its characters.

The actor-turned-director gives us hints of the unpleasantries we’ll eventually discover when Leda settles into her room at the resort, inspecting the bowl of fresh-looking fruit that’s been set out for her and seeing that it’s rotten underneath. Leda is awakened one night by the buzzing of a big cicada, which has flown into her open window and landed on her pillow. Repulsed, she tosses out the bug and burrows deeper into her blankets.

There’s something unsettling on the underside of The Lost Daughter, and something is certainly bugging Leda.

The movie belongs to Colman, who’s already become an Oscar front-runner for her master-class performance here as a woman, and a mother, whose conflicts run deep; she might easily add another trophy to her Emmy (for The Crown) and her Academy Award (Best Actress for The Favourite). And Buckley—who starred in the most recent season of TV’s Fargo, in the miniseries Chernobyl, and in the mind-bending movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things—provides emotional heft to the aching backstory.

The Lost Daughter is challenging, as it brings up some uncomfortable truths not typically addressed by mainstream Hollywood. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda says at one point, capping the movie’s prickly stance that not all women embrace motherhood equally—and there’s more than one way a daughter, or anyone else, can become “lost.”

As any mom knows, parenting can be hard, trying work. Raising kids isn’t always a picnic, and it’s not a job everyone is prepared to do, wants or chooses. And almost anyone can have storms raging underneath a seemingly calm surface—like the sea to which Leda is inexplicably, repeatedly drawn—that they keep hidden, masked and unknowable to the world.

Colman’s riveting performance in The Lost Daughter is a powerful, tour-de-force potrayal of the conflicts of parenting—and what happens when the mask finally falls away, revealing what’s there to find.

Head Trip

Owen Wilson & Salma Hayek chase happiness in mind-bending mobius strip of a movie

Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson star in ‘Bliss.’

Bliss
Starring Owen Wilson & Salma Hayek
Directed by Mike Cahill
Rated R
On Amazon Prime Feb. 5, 2021

It’s a state of perfect happiness, oblivious to everything else.

That’s the definition of “bliss,” but that’s hardly how you’d describe Greg (Owen Wilson) when we first meet him—divorced, recovering from some kind of injury, totally distracted from his job, doodling and daydreaming and so sideways with his boss that he’s just a couple of minutes away from being fired.

And he’s just found out his pharmacy won’t refill a prescription for the pain meds he really seems to need right now.  

Then things take a real turn for the worse.

But hold on: Did any of this really happen, at least the way Greg thinks it did?

Greg starts to wonder when he ducks into a bar across the street to drown his troubles with a drink, where he meets a mysterious woman. Isabel (Salma Hayek) seems to have so truly strange powers, including the ability to “affect” physical objects and things happening around her. Don’t get so hung up and worried, she tells him; almost everything he sees is an illusion. “The world is simply light bouncing around your neurons,” she says. “It’s manufactured and malleable.”

Director Mike Cahill, who also wrote the original screenplay, has some serious sci-fi cred with a couple of previous films, Another Earth (2011) and I Origins (2014), both of which were acclaimed for how they explored weighty, existential questions grounded in human drama. As a filmmaker/auteur, he shows some of the same cerebral DNA as fellow writer/directors Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), whose plotlines tend to be tethered to meaty, multi-layered meta-concepts. In Bliss, Greg falls in love with Isabel, but it’s not a simple love story, by any means.

Isabel—who appears to be homeless, living in an encampment under an overpass—gets her powers through yellow crystals she pops like candy. She tells Greg that the sketches he’s been drawing—of his dream home, on his dream peninsula, with a beautiful dream woman—aren’t just pencil drawings of imaginary, wishful things, they’re depictions from deep within his subconsious memories. That woman in the pencil drawing, he tells him, is her.

“You’re my guy,” she says.

And the teenage daughter (Nesta Cooper) who’s been looking for Greg, asking him to come to her high school graduation… Isabel tells him that she’s not real. She’s a FGP, a “fake generated person” in a science experiment—in another dimension.

Hey, in this era of so-called fake news, why not?

And in that other dimension—which Isabel accesses though more powerful, blue crystals, inhaled through what looks like a double-barrelled nasal vaporizer—everything is wonderful. It’s blissful, the total opposite of the grungy, dirty, garbage-strewn world of the underpass. And in its sun-kissed, coastal Mediterranean paradise, where all is clean and sparkling, Greg’s drawings—his “memories” and his feelings—have come to life.

If that sounds loopy, it is. Especially when Greg and Isabel snort themselves over the barrier between the two dimensions, the two “worlds” collide, and things get all mixed-up and Matrix-y. Greg sees a bunch of brains floating in some kind of serum, in a “brain box.” A robot is fixing a meal in the kitchen. Bill Nye, the Science Guy, shmoozes him at a party; another guy, who’s actually a holograph, small-talks as he takes a break from the afterlife, reporting that hell isn’t so bad, after all.

In Bliss, in fact, nothing is so bad—because all the bad stuff is fake.

Or is it? The movie is packed with ideas about identity, memory, science, technology, reality, poverty, pollution, invention and innovation, income inequality, love and choosing what “world” we want—one that’s messy and imperfect and “ugly,” or one that’s so lovely and pristine, there’s no place for blemishes or aberrations of any kind.

Greg loves the pristine, perfect world. Who wouldn’t? He begs to stay there longer, not just for a day or two. “You can’t just give me a bite of an apple, then just take it away,” he tells Isabel. Hmmm, what well-known parable should that remind you of—a woman giving a man a bite of an apple? And what kind of trouble did that get them into?

Hayek, the Mexican-born actress who won an Oscar for Frida (2002), is an exotic enigma as Isabel. Is she a gypsy vagabond, or a celebrated, inter-dimensional-surfing, brain-wave-riding scientist? We’re never quite sure, and we’re never quite sure if Greg is, either. “I’m starting to think that you’re making this up as you go along,” he tells her at one point.

Wilson, best known for his goofy comedies (Wedding Crashers, Starsky & Hutch, Zoolander, Meet the Fockers) is impressive as a guy with some serious things going on in his noggin that may—or may not—be leading him into deeper spirials of delusion and confusion. “I have so many thoughts,” he tells his daughter, Emily, on a the phone at the beginning of the movie. “I wish you could see.”

“Are you sure you’re OK, Daddy?” she asks him.

But Emily’s not so sure, and neither are we. Is Greg schizophrenic? Alcoholic? A drug addict? Delusional? High on love? Or has he discovered a magic portal to Shangra-la? A scene in which Greg and Isabel gleefully trash a roller rink, using their crystal-fueled telekinetic powers, is like two giddy teenyboppers on a wilding spree—and then Greg “watches” himself, watching himself being hauled away by the cops.

In this mind-bending mobius strip of a movie, twisting and twitching back and forth between two worlds, one ugly and messy and one blissful and perfect, which one will Greg choose? Which one would you choose?

Bliss takes you to a happy place, all right. But happiness, like all emotions, can be fleeting. And like a lot of things, it might just be all in your head.

Take the Highway

Frances McDormand hits the road in poignant portrait of outlier America

Nomadland
Starring Frances McDormand
Directed by Chloé Zhao
R
In virtual theaters Dec. 4, 2020
(wide release Feb. 2021)

Don’t look for Nomadland on a map, because you won’t find it.

It’s not a place, it’s more a state of mind, a way of thinking about life. You find it on the road, out on the highway—and by trading your house and your home for an RV, a camper or a van.

The “nomads” in this gorgeously contemplative portrait of outlier America, based on a 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, move from place to place, from town to town or state to state, and job to job, casting away many of the markers of traditional society, by choice or necessity.

In some cases, it’s society that’s cast them away—or at least forced them to move along.  

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, whom we meet at the opening of the film, set in 2011, as a displaced widowed worker in the factory town of Empire, Nev. When the gypsum mine and sheetrock operation there shuts down after an 88-year run, she loses her job, her subsidized house, her income and her reason for staying. So on a cold December afternoon, she grabs a few things out of a storage facility and hits the road.

In her unheated van, retro-rigged for basic living with a pallet for sleeping and a hot plate for cooking, she begins an odyssey that takes her across the Southwest to a variety of parking lots, part-time employment and very interesting people.

In fact, McDormand is one of the few actual “actors” in the movie—most of the rest of the people are real, authentic “nomads.” They’re the wheeled wanderers author Bruder wrote about in her book, or director/screenwriter Chloé Zhao encountered while making the movie. They work alongside Fran packing boxes at a massive Amazon warehouse, slinging fast-food burgers, harvesting beets or cleaning toilets. Fern joins a large annual “community” of nomads at a two-week event in the desert, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (known colloquically as “Burning Van”) in Quartzite, Ariz., where thousands of fellow travelers share fellowship, swap commodities and learn essential motoring skills, like fixing a flat tire, finding free overnight parking and handling bathroom issues in vehicles that frequently don’t have bathrooms.

“You’ve got to deal with your sh*t,” says a helpful instructor. Indeed you do.

It’s an original, innovative, immersive filmmaking technique that sometimes feels more like a cinematic documentary that a fictional feature, as Fran comes into contact with colorful, real-life characters. Linda May, initially an Amazon coworker, continues to intersect with Fern, through several states and several jobs. “We be the bitches of the badlands!” Fran jokes to her as they rip through a campground on a golf cart. Bob Wells, who runs the desert Rendezvous, is a bonafide YouTube personality and “professional” nomad who’s been preaching the RV life for two decades. Swankie, a rock-collecting Rendezvous regular who’s dying of cancer, tells Fern that all she wants in the end is for her friends to gather around a fire and toss a rock into the flames as a toast to her memory.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn

Actor David Straithairn, who has the movie’s only other familiar face, plays Dave, a gentlemanly fellow drifter who may finally be ready to settle down, with his son and his extended family. Will Fern accept his offer to join him?

It’s difficult to imagine almost anyone else, other than McDormand, as Fern. She’s never been a glamourpuss actress, and her complete lack of pretension certainly hasn’t held her back; she’s won two Best Actress Oscars (for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). And this raw, gutsy, elemental, stripped-down performance—as a melancholy loner seeking something, perhaps herself, out on the road—could certainly make her a contender for a third. If they give out Oscars for peeing on the side of a desert highway in the rain, or answering the sudden call of nature to poop in a plastic bucket…well, top that, Meryl Streep.

A collapsed economy—which empties an entire “company town,” erasing its ZIP code with it—sets Fran into motion. And even though there’s talk about how capitalism makes “work horses” out of almost everyone, Nomadland doesn’t preach, but instead portrays the resilience, endurance and feisty survival spirit of its proud subjects, and shows that there’s no single reason why someone becomes a nomad.

Some are running from something—the loss of a loved one, memories of something they want to forget, something they’re trying to leave behind. Maybe they want to get away from the tethers of responsibility. Perhaps they’re tired of being boxed in—to four walls, a job, one place. Maybe their old world just went up in flames, along with their safety net. Maybe they’ve lost almost everything, and they’ve got nowhere else to go.

“I’m not homeless; I’m just houseless,” says Fern when she runs into a young teen, who happens to be a former student she once tutored. “They’re not the same thing.”

Life “on the road” is one of the most romanticized ideas in pop culture, especially in our music. The highway is a powerful, potent metaphor—for exploration, escape, adventure, freedom, new starts. Get your kicks on Route 66. Take me home, country roads. On the road, again—I can’t wait to be on the road again. But the road to Nomadland isn’t an easy one. Nights can be cold and wet, paydays can be scarce and far apart, and a vehicle breakdown can cost you $2,300 that you flatout don’t have.

Director Zhao—whose two previous films, The Rider and Songs My Brother Taught Me, also used indiginous non-actors and explored the physical and emotional terrain of the American Southwest—sets the blunt truth of her film against spectacular vistas of deserts, canyons and mesas, often photographed at sunrise or sunset. It shows us how life can be harsh and unforgiving, but the scenery is breathtaking and beautiful. It’s America that looks much like it did a few hundred years ago, when pioneers—early nomads—struck out across the same wide-open spaces in Conestoga wagons. And millions of years before that, dinosaurs romped and stomped and roamed and roared, leaving souvenir footprints and fossilized bones behind as souvenirs in its rocks and canyons and gorges.  

Remember me, asks Swankie, and throw a rock on the fire. Or a dinosaur bone. Because we’re all just passing through.

One evening, Fern and Dave “play tourist” in South Dakota, where they get a telescopic view of the planet Jupiter on a crystal-clear night, and a tour guide tells them that they hold in their hands bits of stardust from exploding suns hundreds of thousands of light years away. We are made up fragments of the universe, he says. Everyone and everything is connected—intersecting highways, dinosaur bones, space dust, rocks in the fire.  

Nomads never tell each other goodbye; instead, they say, “I’ll see you down the road.” Chao’s moving, majestically cinematic and poignantly thought-provoking film asks us to consider roads and highways, homes and houses, and where any of us may be headed. Everyone’s a nomad, one way or another, just passing through, going somewhere, somehow.

And Nomadland may not be a real place, but take this with you as you go: We’re all stardust, we’ll be rocks and dinosaur bones someday, and along the way we’ve all got to deal with our sh*t.

Big Deal

Director Greta Gerwig put a feisty new twist on an all-American classic 

Little Women 1 (72)

Little Women 
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep & Laura Dern
Directed by Greta Gerwig
PG
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Little Women has always been a pretty big deal.

The beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott was a coming-of-age smash from the get-go in 1868, a commercial success that spawned a couple of sequels and got the attention of Hollywood almost as soon as “motion pictures” became a thing. The first (silent) film version of the book came out in 1917, followed by a steady stream of nearly a dozen other big-screen and TV-movie adaptations over the years.

Director Greta Gerwig’s new version puts a fresh, lively, sumptuous, all-star spin on the story about the four March sisters in 1860s New England during and immediately after the Civil War. Bursting with life, pulsing with emotion and swirling with themes that resonate far beyond its period-piece setting, this Little Women is a thoroughly engaging blend of rich nostalgic detail, lively contemporary wit and sometimes heart-wrenching, timeless sadness. If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, or even if you haven’t, this “Little” one stands tall and on its own.

Saoirse Ronan stars in the lead role of Jo March, a passionate fledgling writer who values her personal and creative freedom and whose own novel-in-progress parallels Alcott and Little Women—especially when Jo spars with a publisher (Tracy Letts) over the rights to her work.

Little Women 5

Laura Dern (top right) plays Marmee.

Gerwig—who also wrote the screenplay—and Ronan worked together previously in Lady Bird (2017), which was nominated for five Oscars, including Directing, Actress and Screenplay (for Gerwig). Clearly, they’re a winning team, and if there were ever any doubts about Gerwig having arrived as a major-league filmmaker—especially one able to helm a “major” motion picture—this will put them to rest once and for all. Little Women is going to be huge this Christmas, and the awards buzz is already humming.

Jo’s sisters are Meg (Emma Watson), a budding stage actress who really just wants to marry, settle down and start a family; Amy (Florence Pugh), a frustrated artist; and the quiet, piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Everybody gets plenty to do, especially when the rich, waggish boy-next-door, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), enters the picture, along with his handsome tutor (James Norton), a really bad case of scarlet fever comes around, and jealousy and vindictiveness break through the sisters’ stong bonds of affection.

Laura Dern is mom Marmee, a big-hearted social worker giving her all to the Union’s war effort, and waiting for the return of her husband (Bob Odenkirk) from the battlefield. Meryl Streep is Aunt March, who tries to point her young nieces’ down the time-honored path of tradition; she cautions them against pursuing any course other than finding husbands. But these girls, these “little women”—with dreams of music, the stage, literature and drama—aren’t all convinced, especially the rebellious Jo. “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts,” she says.

Gerwig scrambles the timeline by going back and forth across the years; it can be a bit confusing at first, but it does allow us to observe how events and characters overlap and interweave, and how certain “small,” seemingly insignificant interactions later become significant, indeed. And she gives the story a twist and a bold, delightful, dramatic meta flourish at the end, one different from the novel and all the other versions, that underscores the movie’s ultimate message of Jo’s rousing independence.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig' LITTLE WOMEN.

Ronan with Chalamet

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but the crux of this sisterhood saga belongs to Jo and Amy, and Ronan and Pugh are galvanizing in their roles as their characters grow, evolve and mature. Throw in Chalamet—maybe you caught his buzz in Call Me By Your Name and, also with Ronan, in Lady Bird—for a real New England heart-bruiser of a slow-burn romantic triangle.

The movie’s also a visual delight, with more costumes than a three-week Las Vegas Cher extravaganza, and a parade of splendid settings, from parlors to festive balls, bustling city streets, New York City carriage rides, a play-filled day at the beach, winter ice-skating and leafy fall strolls. At just outside a stuffy soiree, Chalamet gets to bust a move or two that might not be 100 percent authentic to the Civil War era, but hey, he and his wrap-around porch groovin’ are awesome cool.

Or, as Jo exclaims, he’s “capital!

So is Gerwig’s Little Women. This handsome, heartwarming holiday treat is a reminder that some classics are, indeed, classic for a reason—and now it’s been relaunched by one of Hollywood’s top female filmmakers and a sterling female cast, reworking a familiar, old story with vibrant new zing and zest, and a celebratory message that will resonate anew with women of all ages in today’s modern world.

And oh, it’s capital!

Ka-Boom!

Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

LD_D21_04710.dngBombshell
Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman & Margot Robbie
Directed by Jay Roach
R
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019

It’s an explosive title for an explosive movie about an explosive story.

The first major mainstream Hollywood film dealing with high-profile sexual harassment in the media, Bombshell dramatizes how a group of female employees brought down the head of Fox News in 2016.

Ka-boom!

With a supernova female trio as the axis of its ensemble cast, it’s anchored by Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman as real-life Fox News on-air personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as Kayla, a fictional character who’s recently come aboard the news crew with bright-eyed ambitions to become the network’s next on-air star.

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Theron as Megyn Kelly with Lithgow as Roger Ailes

As Kayla soon learns, everything at Fox revolves around the company’s blustery, bloated CEO, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who rules the archly conservative network with an iron fist—and treats his female employees like eye candy. Among the rank and file, he’s known as the Leg Man, and camera angles, glass desks and wardrobe choices—no pantsuits allowed—all support his fetish.

News needs to lean hard right, and women have to be “bombshells.”

“This is a visual medium,” he reminds attractive new female hires when he calls them into his office for private interviews. “Stand up and give me a spin.”

Of course, there’s more than standing and spinning going on, and Kelly, Carlson and Kayla gradually put their individual stories, and histories, together into a tapestry that reveals a much broader, deeper pattern of exploitation, harassment and perversity by Ailes and other higher-up rotten apples.

The movie weaves real news and TV clips with the actors’ performances, integrating with the story and the timeline—then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ongoing spat with Kelly, sparked by his comments about her menstruation; Carlson appearing with her cohorts on the morning show Fox & Friends. Many of the scenes take viewers behind the scenes at the network, as characters break the “fourth wall” and talk to the camera, or have conversations to each other to explain what’s going on, who’s who and what’s what.

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Margot Robbie with Kate McKinnon

The film is rich with an outstanding supporting cast, including Saturday Night Live all-star Kate McKinnon as a Fox staffer who doesn’t fit the expected stereotype; Connie Britton as Ailes’ wife, Beth; and Mark Duplass as Kelly’s supportive husband. Mom’s Allison Janney plays a lawyer assigned the challenging job of defending Ailes, alongside Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind). Watch for Jennifer Morrison (from TV’s Once Upon a Time and This Is Us) as a Fox staffer trying to drum up support for their boss.

Theron almost completely disappears into her role as she makes the remarkable transformation into Kelly, the story’s central character, Fox’s then-rising superstar who’s conflicted about her feelings about Ailes—he’s a monster, but also her mentor. Kidman is outstanding as well as Carlson, the network’s long-time anchor and host whose controversial views have led to faltering ratings; how long can she hang on to her job? But Robbie, the real heart and soul of the whole film, gets the movie’s most pivotal scene; when she’s alone with Ailes in his office, he goes into full creep mode, and you watch the golden glow of her enthusiasm drain away from her body as he asks her to pull the hem of her skirt higher, higher and higher.

It’s that time of year, and there could be an Oscar in the wings for Theron or Robbie.

Director Jay Roach is best known for his comedies, including Meet the Parents and Dinner for Schmucks. But working from a script by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for his sharp, savvy screenplay for The Big Short, he’s crafted a powerful, punchy, driving, dynamite drama that chronicles a pivotal moment in modern history, when a group of women rallied and rose up—at major risk to their jobs and careers—lighting the way for the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements.

Ailes had warned his female anchors that their “likability” was the main thing that mattered to viewers. “I don’t care that you like me,” Carlson tells a pair of attorneys. “Only believe me.”

They did. We did. We do. Bombs away. Ka-boom.

 

Word Up

Say it loud: Shazam! is zippy teen-centric superhero saga about family

SHAZAM_MAR8_0086.dngShazam!
Starring Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel & Mark Strong
Directed by David F. Sandberg
PG-13

If you were a superhero, what would you want for your superpower?

Flight? Invisibility? Super speed?

In Shazam!, Philadelphia teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel, star of the Disney Channel series Andi Mack) gets selected by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a superpowered grown-up by speaking the magic word Shazam—an acronym that stands for the combined wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

Billy gets uploaded with the ancient, legendary gifts of all six gods.

Shazam!

Every time Billy says it, lightning flies out of his fingertips, his body becomes solid as steel—and he magically, instantly zaps into the form an adult (Zachary Levi) in a colorful superhero costume. He’s got other powers, too, which he’ll soon discover.

“You’re super-stoked!” says Billy’s bud and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). “You’re as cool as Superman, almost!”

SHAZAM!Shazam!, part of the DC Comics movie universe that also includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker and Aquaman, is a dandy addition to the cinematic canon. In the modern era, superhero movies too often tend to get bogged down in too much plot, too many characters, too much depth and heaviness—both DC and its rival, Marvel, refer—after all—to their cinematic playgrounds as “universes,” places which are vast, dark, ever-expanding and full of too many stars and other heavenly bodies to even begin to try to keep count.

Thank goodness Shazam! doesn’t try to explain that it’s a property with a pedigree that goes all the way back the late 1930s. The character even rivaled Superman for comic-book popularity in the 1940s, and was even called Captain Marvel for a while—before reverting back to Shazam for a TV series in the 1970s. But all that excess baggage is in deep superhero storage somewhere.

This Shazam!, a playful, witty, clever, teen-centric jaunt, soars with a simpler story, free of the past and full of both humor and heart—plus, not surprisingly, a nasty supervillain and a horde of supernatural CGI monsters, the Seven Deadly Sins, summoned up from the underworld. (Director David F. Sandberg knows a thing or two about scares, which you’ll recall if you’ve seen his horror handiwork in Lights Out or Annabelle: Creation.)

Everything in the film is there to service the plot about Billy, who’s grown up in a succession of foster homes after being separated from his mother as a toddler at a carnival. He’s spent most of his young life running away, trying to find her—and to find a family.

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Mark Strong, left, with Jack Dylan Grazer

Family is the buzzword of Shazam! You hear it mentioned several times. Billy has some major mommy issues. The villain, Thaddeus Sivana (veteran British actor Mark Strong), grew up with seriously toxic daddy issues. We see the two separate incidents that set the very different life courses for both Billy and Thad at the beginning of the film, and they’re both equally traumatic.

Years later, Billy meets up with Freddy, a superhero nerd, at his latest foster home, which buzzes with warm ramshackle life. There’s a group of other kids (Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) who immediately welcome him. When Freddy finds out about Billy’s secret—and secret identity—he desperately wants to become his sidekick. A montage (scored to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) of adult Billy testing out his superpowers, while Freddy shoots videos (then uploads them to the internet) will certainly make you smile.

Grown-up Billy and Freddy get even with a couple of school tormentors, visit a realtor in search of a suitable superhero “lair” and thwart a convenience store robbery. Things get “serious” soon enough, though, when real trouble comes calling.

The movie takes place in a world where superheroes like Superman and Batman are already there; they’re the stuff of newspaper headlines, eyes-to-the-skies awe and dinner-table conversations, and a smushed-up bullet that’s bounced off the Caped Crusader’s chest is a real collector’s item. So there’s the matter of what a newcomer, like superhero-Billy, will be called. Thundercrack? Mr. Philadelphia? Captain Sparkle Fingers? Sir Zaps-A-Lot? Just like he has to grow into his responsibilities and his calling, he also has to grow into the name of Shazam.

Shazam poster crop (72)Zachary Levi, 38, best known for his starring role in TV’s Chuck and for his season 2 appearances in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is perfectly cast as the big-boy superhero, a teenager in a man’s body, suddenly endowed with abilities he never dreamed about. If he makes you think of Tom Hanks in Big, the movie gives you a knowing wink-wink you’re not wrong. During a chase scene in a department store, big Billy pauses on a giant electronic keyboard and accidentally stumbles over a few discordant notes. It’s not “Chopsticks,” but it’s enough to make the connection.

Levi is perfectly paired with young Glazer (he was Eddie in It); not only do they have a great “buddy” chemistry, but their characters demonstrate the broad intergenerational bond, and the reach, of the comics and comic-book movies.

Shazam! is a movie about a superhero and how he came to be, certainly, but it’s built on a foundation of friendship and family. “I’m a Foster Mom. What’s your Superpower?” reads a bumper sticker on a vehicle at Billy and Freddy’s foster home. Family, clearly, is where you find it, and superheroes are all around us.

Early in the film, after his first “zap” into Shazam and his costume—a bright red bodysuit, a big gold belt, boots and cuffs, a curtain-like white cape and a glowing chest plate in the shape of a lightning bolt—suddenly big Billy finds himself riding in a subway car, where another passenger is giving him a candid assessment of his, ahem, unusual getup.

“It shouldn’t work,” the fellow rider says, “but damn—it does!”

Shazam! has a lot going on, and hot damn, it works, too—good guys, bad guys, fun, fights, laughs, bullies, beasts, jokes and a genuine embrace of the wonder, wow, camp, comedy and gee-whiz that grease the wheels of the best comic-book movies.

And especially at the end, it reminds us how little boys and little girls, in homes of every kind, anywhere and everywhere, can all grow up to be superheroes—or supervillains. Family matters, words matter.

Shazam!

In theaters April 5, 2019

Black Dynamite

Incendiary history lesson exposes ugly truths about racism in America

BlacKkKlansmanBlacKkKlansman
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver & Laura Harrier
Directed by Spike Lee
R
In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

That’s not a typo—there’s an extra “k” in there, between “Black” and “Klansman.”

Director Spike Lee’s new movie, his 30th feature film, is the wildly true tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK, in the 1970s.

Lee has never pulled punches with his films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing. You never leave one of his movies wondering where he’s coming from, what he means, or what you’re supposed to think.

BlacKkKlansman is a straight-up, fire-breathing story about the long, painful scar of racism in America.

John David Washington (he’s the son of actor Denzel Washington) plays Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first police detective “of color” in Colorado Springs in 1972.

Working his way out of the file room, rookie Stallworth soon lands a much more interesting assignment. Cold-calling a recruitment ad in back of the local newspaper for the Klan, he impersonates a white racist on the phone and sets up a meeting to learn more about how he can join.

Of course, this presents a problem—since Stallworth is black. So the police chief (Robert John Burke, from TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) pairs him with another, more seasoned—white—detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the two of them become “one.” Flip will be the fake Ron that actually meets the Klan in person; the real Ron will continue to cultivate sources over the phone, take photos and gather intel.

So, if you’re keeping score: Stallworth is black, Zimmerman is Jewish, and they “doubly disguise” themselves to dupe the most dangerously racist organization in America—from the inside.

BlacKkKlansman

John David Washington and Laura Harrier

It sounds crazy and absurd, but it all really happened—as told in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir (Black Klansman) on which the movie is based. Lee sets everything up with juicy, funky, ’70s retro detail, and there are touches of humor and sweetness and light to leaven the toxic bigotry at the dark heart of the story, especially in scenes between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier, who played high-schooler Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming), the passionate local soul sister and civil rights organizer who has no idea he’s really an undercover cop.

The movie really kicks into gear when Flip meets the Klan—or “The Organization,” as they prefer to call it. Walter (Ryan Eggold, Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) is the local leader, reminding attendees at a weekly meeting that, for the next cross burnings, “the highest hills get the most eyes.” As the sloth-like Ivanhoe, Paul Walter Hauser lets it slip that he actually likes Sammy Davis Jr., because he can dance. Nicholas Turturro plays an explosives expert, brought in covertly for a special occasion. Felix (Finnish actor Jasper Pååkkönen, who plays Hafdan the Black on Vikings) smells a rat—or more specifically, a Jew.

BlacKkKlansman

Topher Grace

There are some tense moments when Felix tries to hook Flip up to a “Jew” detector polygraph, and when Flip and Ron risk exposure by bumbling facts of their fabricated story. Everything builds to an explosive climax, an event with a young Klan Grand Wizard-to-be David Duke (Topher Grace) at which both the real Ron and the fake Ron/Flip are present.

Alec Baldwin opens the film as a racist “intellectual” raging about the “mongrel race” of “black beasts” and “Jewish-controlled puppets” on the Supreme Court. Toward the end of the movie, musical legend Harry Belafonte plays a speaker addressing a rapt civil rights rally crowd, telling the true story of Jesse Washington, a young black man who was horrifically lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of raping a white woman.

Corey Hawkins (Eric Carter on TV’s 24: Legacy) galvanizes an audience as black activist Stokely Carmichael, nè Kwame Ture, forcefully reminding them that Uncle Sam wants to send young black men to fight and die in Viet Nam, while cops are shooting them (“in the back!”) in the streets.

The movie is set in the early 1970s, but make no mistake—director Lee draws a scalding, shameful timeline from America’s past to its present. He uses clips from director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a seminal but controversial and wildly racist film, one that glorified the origin of the Klan and demonized blacks—and Gone With the Wind, which hyper-romanticized the downfall of South and slavery, all to the wistful tune of Dixie.

Lee incorporates footage of the deadly 2017 white nationalists rally in Charlottesburg, Va. (“Jews will not replace us!”), and a clip of modern-day David Duke aligning himself with President Trump, who proclaimed that there were “good people” on both sides of the event.

And when Duke rallies his faithful with the phrase “America first,” it rings as a harrowing reminder of where audiences have heard it most recently elsewhere—used by the current Commander in Chief as his mantra in his inaugural address, and repeated as his diplomatic policy.

One of the movie’s producers is Jordan Peele. You might recall that he was the director of last year’s Get Out, in which a young black man finds himself trapped in a racist nightmare. BlacKkKlansman is about a nightmare of another kind, an ugly national one, in which America has been mired, one way or another, since its beginning.

BlacKkKlansmanIn one scene, Flip and Ron discuss their differences about their assignment. “For you, it’s a crusade—for me, it’s a job,” Flip tells him. Ron counters by pressing Flip about his Jewish background, about why what he’s seeing and hearing, in the actual physical presence of such hateful spew from such noxious characters, doesn’t bug him.

“Why you actin’,” Ron asks him, “like you ain’t got no skin in the game?”

That’s a question Lee’s powerful, potent gut-punch of a movie asks us all, no matter what color our skin might be.