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A Hot Mess

Hot rising star Alana Springsteen talks beaches, bumps in the romantic road, punctuation and the highly personal songs on her debut LP

If you were in New York City in January, perhaps you saw Alana Springsteen—on the big billboard looming over Times Square, which played the breakout video of her new single, “you don’t deserve a country song.”

A big moment in the Big Apple, for a young singer-songwriter from a teeny town.

Springsteen couldn’t be there herself, but she felt the electricity of the moment. “Part of my label, Columbia, is out of New York, so I was like, guys, if you can take a break during lunch and please go get this on video…because I was freaking out about it,” says the singer-songwriter.

“country song” is one of the cuts on Springsteen’s new full-length debut album, Twenty Something: Messing It Up (Columbia/Sony, available March 23), the first of her planned three-part musical project after a trio of well-received independent EPs.

But there seems very little about Springsteen’s career trajectory, at this point in her young life, that indicates she’s messing it up in any way. She’s only 22, but she’s been writing music since she was a preteen, dreaming of one day being on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. (The video for “country song,” in fact, opens with a 10-year-old Alana on a backstage visit to the Opry, vowing to someday return as a performer.)

Last fall, on the night she turned 22, she made good on that vow, making her Opry debut with an introduction by fellow hitmaker Luke Bryan, for whom she’ll soon be opening shows on a summer tour.

Now this twenty-something—who is no relation to any other entertainers, e.g., Bruce, who happen to share her last name—is holding steady on the course that she set over a decade ago.

“At eight or nine years old,” Sprngsteen says, “I was saying to my parents, ‘I want to be a country music artist.’ That’s all I wanted to do, music. Once I started playing guitar at seven and writing my own songs, there was never a plan B for me. There was never anything else I could see myself doing. I feel like I was put in this world to make music and connect with people through the songs that I write.”

She wrote her first song, “Fairy Tale,” when she was nine, sitting on her bedroom floor. “I was talking to my mom about how her and my dad met in college, and she was talking about their love story and first dates and stuff he did to make her fall in love. I was like, man, that sounds like a fairy tale, and I decided to write a song about it.”

She’s written a lot of songs since then, and she co-wrote all except one on Twenty Something, which continues the intensely melodic, self-confessional, growing-up and getting-personal tones of her three previous EP releases.

She says the album’s “Missing It Up” subtitle reflects some of her rough rides on the road of romance.  

“I think it’s pretty clear the areas that I’ve messed up,” she says, “when it comes to matters of the heart, picking the wrong guys, falling in love for the wrong reasons, not trusting my gut. When you’re in your twenties, you’re changing so much and taking it a day at a time and figuring out things about yourself as you are having these experiences—like feeling like you can’t really love someone you don’t know.”

Sounds very personal, and it is. She adds that, when they hear the new album—and they will—those “wrong guys” will know she’s talking to them, or at least about them, in songs including “goodbye looks good on You,” “shoulder to cry on” and “caught Up to me.” The leadoff single, “you don’t deserve a country song,” gives a loutish ex’ a thumping musical kiss-off, telling him he’s not going to get a sweet exit elegy. “I ain’t wasting any paper or any ink in this pen,” she sings. “I ain’t dusting off an old record, crying watching it spin.” Clearly, this is a gal who isn’t mushing and gushing on old memories. She’s moving on.

“I never name names,” she says. “I never call anybody out, specifically. But I think these people are probably going to know that certain songs are about them. It’s pretty inevitable. I don’t talk to my exes anymore. It didn’t end that way. It was more like we both realized it was best for us to not be in each other’s lives.”

She never names names…and on the songs of Twenty Something, heck, she doesn’t even use “proper” punctuation. All the titles are in lowercase. That’s not a typing error, she insists—it’s intentional.

“My eighth-grade teacher would probably not be very proud,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not the best with grammar, admittedly, but that was actually a very purposeful choice. It’s one of the funny quirks I have. Even when I’m writing notes or letters or texting, I never capitalize letters. It’s an aesthetic thing for me.”

So, no capital letters—but digits, on the other hand, figure prominently in her life. Her lucky number is 18; it’s her birthday in October, it’s the date she appeared on the Opry, and it will be the total number of songs, combined, on Twenty Something and its two planned follow-up albums—six songs on each of the three LPs. (She’s already written all of them.)

And there’s another number very important to her; it’s on the inside of her right forearm—a tattoo of three numbers, 757.

“Seven five seven is my hometown area code,” she says. “I’m from a little town in Virginia Beach called Pungo. I grew up five minutes from the ocean, a straight shot down Sandbridge Road. In the small town where I grew up, it’s a lot of farmers who’ve been there for generations, a real cross-section of coastal and country. I grew up riding horses, strawberry festivals, cornfields. I think a lot of that bleeds into my music. I always say that I want a lot of my songs to feel like a top-down Jeep ride along the water, because that’s where I’m my happiest.”

And she’s certainly happy that she’ll be going back to the beach this summer. She’ll be one of the formers at the Beach It! Music Festival, slated for June 23-25 on the familiar sands of Virginia Beach.

“A country festival that’s coming to my hometown for the first time!” she says. “I’m just a hometown girl, and Virginia Beach will always have a massive piece of her heart.”

She’s been in Nashville since she was 14, when she signed her first publishing deal, and her mom, dad and three brothers relocated with her—for her to get closer to the music business on which she had laser-focused her sights.

“My parents have always been so supportive,” she says. “From day one, they were the ones who told me to chase my dreams, and they would take me to Nashville on trips. When I was 10 years old, we would drive 12 hours back and forth, so I could spend a couple of weeks each time writing and learning about the industry.”

She’s certainly learned a bit about the industry, by being immersed in it and now finding such auspicious signs of success—including being named earlier this year as part of the 2023 class of CMT’s Women of Country, recognizing the genre’s most promising female newcomers and rising stars. But she knows she’s still got some learning to do.

“The most rewarding thing for me has been really getting to know myself,” she says, “and learning even more what makes me different from everybody else. So that’s advice I keep telling myself—just learning more about myself, getting really good at trusting my gut, and confidently living into that.”

Messes and all.

—Neil Pond

The Entertainment Forecast

Feb. 24 – March 2

Eugene Levy on the road, cowboys in the saddle & Satan spooks a school

‘Schitt’s Creek’ star Eugene Levy travels the globe in his new series.

FRIDAY, Feb. 24
The Reluctant Traveler
Emmy winner Eugene Levy (Schitt’s Creek) hosts this globetrotting travel series, visiting exotic and beautiful destinations in Costa Rica, Finland, Italy, Japan, South Africa…and even the good ol’ US of A (Apple TV+)

Liason
Espionage, political intrigue, passionate love—Vincent Cassel and Eva Green (left) star in this high-stakes, high-energy thriller about how our pasts have ways of destroying our futures (Apple TV+)

The Consultant
Biting workplace satire series follows a dapper consultant (Christoph Waltz) who comes to the rescue of an emerging tech company after its CEO dies and a hoped-for merger falls through (Prime Video).

Western Night
Saddle up for a trail-mix trio of cowboy flicks, all starring Robert Ryan, the prolific, genre-spanning actor who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows during the 1940s through the ‘70s, including war dramas, high-seas epics and crime capers. And oh yeah, also Westerns! (TCM).

SATURDAY, Feb. 25
Chaos Reigns: The Films of Lars von Trier
Danish filmmaker von Trier has always been a controversial director, for his exploration of dicey subjects and gritty, fem-centric parables—like Nymphomaniac I and II, a pair of bridged erotic accounts about a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, well, just can’t get enough sex. It’s notable for its all-star cast and a stylish flair that elevates it to the realm of “art” instead of pornography, with appearances by Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman and Connie Nielsen (Mubi).

12 Desperate Hours
Held hostage by a home intruder, a quick-thinking mother (Samantha Mathis, right) offers to drive him anywhere he wants to go, becoming his unwilling accomplice on a rampage of destruction (8 p.m. Lifetime). 

SUNDAY, Feb. 26
Shock Docs: The Devil’s Academy
Was there really a mass demonic possession at the Miami Space Academy in 1979? This harrowing documentary takes a look at the scarifying chain of events that began hells-a-poppin’ after a student claimed she was possessed by the devil (9 p.m., Travel Channel).

The Circus
Just as the new political season heats up, the Emmy-nominated docuseries returns to pull back the curtain on this extraordinarily fractured and fraught moment for American democracy (8 p.m., Showtime).

TUESDAY, Feb. 28
Black Broadway
This concert special featuring a current generation of Black Broadway stars celebrates iconic stage performances made famous by Black singers, with songs from The Wiz, The Color Purple, Porgy & Bess and more (8 p.m., PBS).

Homestead Rescue
Have a homestead that needs rescuing? Then call Marty Rainey and his kids (above), who thrive on helping people rehab and revive to create more self-sufficient lives, as they do in tonight’s new-season premiere episode, assisting a Wyoming family resurrect a legacy home place (8 p.m., Discovery Channel).

Bring It Home

Extras on the home video release of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) include a sing-along “jukebox” feature, deleted scenes and featurettes that bring you deeper into the complicated story of the late, great singer and how she became a superstar.

Hollywood’s top palooka goes for extra rounds in The Rocky I-IV Collection (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment), a set of all five feature films in Sylvester Stallone’s epic boxing saga (Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III and Rocky IV, plus Rocky Vs. Drago). And the knockout punch: They’re all in 4k Ultra HD for the first time (plus standard Blu-rays with commentary).

In Salvatore: Shoemaker of the Stars (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), director Luca Guadaginino (Bones and All, Call Me By Your Name) turns his lens on the Italian shoemaker who made sure all the stars of Hollywood’s silent era were well-heeled, founding the luxury footware and accessories company that still bears his name. Actor Michael Stuhbarg (currently on Showtime’s His Honor) narrates.

WEDNESDAY, March 1
Star Wars: The Mandalorian
Season three of creator Jon Favreau’s hit sci-fi adventure series, starring Pedro Pascal as a bounty hunter who becomes a protector of Baby Yoda, begins its third season today (Disney+).

Beauty and the Bleach
Documentary looks at the global beauty trend of skin lightening—and how “lighter” skin taps into a wider issue of racist bullying and prejudice against people who aren’t white (9 p.m., Fuse and Fuse+).

THURSDAY, March 2
Omega: Gift and Curse
The Dominican singer-songwriter known as Omega (real name: Antonio Peter De la Rosa) lifts the veil in this new five-part docuseries to give fans an exclusive look at his life and career (WE tv and ALLBLK).

Topic
New series stars Mark Strong as a talented surgeon who opens an “underground” clinic beneath a London tube station to treat those who cannot, or will not, seek more legitimate medical care. But as anyone who’s had to deal with insurance knows, it doesn’t always go smoothly (Topic).

NOW HEAR THIS

Revisit one of Britain’s most legendary rock bands with Genesis BBC Broadcasts (Rhino), a 5-CD (or 3-LP) collection spanning the group’s music between 1970 and the late 1990s, featuring vocalists Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and Nick Davis. It features live tracks recorded by the BBC, including an historic set from Wembley Arena in 1987. 

The legendary late Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard once defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” Now the legendary Willie Nelson sings it and brings it in his new album, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (Sony Music Entertainment), an all-new celebration of Howard’s classic songs, including “Tiger By the Tail,” “Life Turned Her That Way,” “Busted” and “Streets of Baltimore.”

The Entertainment Forecast

Dec. 9 – 15

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

A Christmas tree lights up, the Mormon Tabernacle choir sings & Amy and Maya reunite

Former SNL castmates Maya Rudolph & Amy Pohler host “Baking It” Monday on NBC.

FRIDAY, Dec. 9
Something From Tiffany’s
Reese Witherspoon is a producer of this holiday romcom starring Zoey Deutch (above) as a woman whose life is upended when an engagement ring meant for someone else leads her to the person she’s meant to be with (Prime Video).

Emancipation
Will Smith stars in this new slave drama as a plantation escapee who evades murderous hunters and the swamps of Louisiana on his run for freedom. With Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa, and inspired by the image of a whipped man photographed during a Union Army medical examination (Apple TV+).

READ ALL ABOUT
Space has fascinated us, from long before we were able to get there. Space Craze (Smithsonian) examines America’s deep attraction to outer space, as fed and nurtured through pop culture (Buck Rogers, toy ray guys, Star Trek, Star Wars), spurred by the Cold War, and eventually stoked by the real-world pioneering of NASA astronauts and modern-day kajillionaires.

SATURDAY, Dec. 10
Happy Gilmore
This 1996 sports comedy stars Adam Sandler as an unsuccessful ice hockey player who finds he has a new talent—for golf. The scuffle between Sandler’s character and TV gameshow host Bob Barker won an MTV Movie Award for “Best Fight” (11 p.m., TNT).

A Christmas Fumble
What happens when a crisis-management queen (LeToya Luckett) gets a gig handling a breaking scandal for a pro football player (Finness Mitchell)…who happens to be her old flame? (9 p.m., Own).

SUNDAY, Dec. 11
National Christmas Tree Lighting
Yeah, your Christmas tree in the family room is cool. But this one is the national Christmas tree, it’s enormous, and tonight marks its 100th birthday. Light up the holidays with this tradition from Washington, D.C., featuring an all-star lineup of musical performances by Gloria Estefan, Joss Stone, Shania Twain and host LL Cool J (8 p.m., CBS).

Master of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly
Documentary profiles the enigmatic artist behind glass sculptures that float through the rivers of Finland, bob in the narrow canals of Venice and blossom across the ceilings of the Bellagio in Las Vegas (9 p.m., Smithsonian).

MONDAY, Dec. 12
Baking It
SNL alums Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph host this special holiday edition of the baking competition series featuring some of their famous friends (10 p.m., NBC).

TUESDAY, Dec. 13
Kindred
New drama series, based on the novel of the same name, about a young Black aspiring author (Mallori Johnson) who finds herself pulled back and forth in time, emerging at a 19th century plantation with ties to her “modern” life (Hulu).


Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Tony nominee Megan Hilty and actor Neal MacDonough join the iconic singing ensemble for this Irish-inspired edition of the annual celebration of music and holiday traditions (8 p.m., PBS).

BRING IT HOME
Dog lovers will find their tails wagging with delight at Old Friends: A Dogumentary (MVD Entertainment), an inspiring, paw-some documentary about a Tennessee animal sanctuary specifically for older canines.

George Clooney and Julia Roberts are having a ball in the rollicking romcom Ticket to Paradise (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) as a pair of exes on a mission to stop their lovestruck daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) from making the same matrimonial mistake they did.

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 14
A Very Backstreet Christmas
The Backstreet Boys perform songs from their new Christmas album, plus classic hits, in this holiday special (8 p.m., ABC).

THURSDAY, Dec. 15
Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Drama based on the true story of a legendary Japanese soldier who spent 30 years in the Philippine jungle, refusing to surrender because he wasn’t convinced World War II was over. For extra credit, watch the 1965 Gilligan’s Island episode, “So Sorry, My Island Now,” which riffed on the real-world saga (VOD).

The Parent Test
Host Ali Wentworth explores a variety of diverse parenting styles in this thought-provoking new series, based on an Australian TV hit (10 p.m., ABC).

H.E.R. & Josh Grobin headline an all-star anniversary presentation of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration have art Two-hour special honors the 30th anniversary of the beloved Disney animated classic with classic scenes and highlights from the film, new musical numbers and performances by hosts Josh Groban and H.E.R., plus Rita Moreno, Martin Short, David Alan Grier and Shania Twain—as Mrs. Potts! (8 p.m., ABC).

Whodunnit?

Sam Rockwell & Saorise Ronan play mismatched cops in a multi-level murder mystery

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan star in ‘See How They Run.’

See How They Run
Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan & Adrien Brody
Directed by Tom George
PG-13

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Who’s up for a whodunnit?

A lot of people, apparently, given the wide popularity of TV police procedurals, hit shows like Only Murders in the Building, movies (Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile) and the evergreen murder-mystery conundrums of author Agatha Christie.

In this cleverly comedic clue caper set in the early 1950s, a London theatrical production—of a real Agatha Christie murder mystery—goes off the rails when an actual murder (Eeeeek!) occurs backstage. Soon, a jaded Scotland Yard police inspector (Sam Rockwell) and an overzealous young constable trainee (Saoirse Ronan) arrive on the scene to investigate.

And then, as they say, the plot thickens, into a zesty swirl of possible suspects, likely motives and dizzying distractions, as the two coppers dig into the dish-y high-drama dilemma. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” Rockwell’s experienced sleuth cautions his greenhorn partner, who’s eager to peg almost everything as a case-closing revelation—and nearly everyone as a culprit.

British director Tom George, who honed his craft with short films and BBC comedy, makes his solid feature film debut with the support of a fine ensemble cast and an affection for the gloriously retro grit and glitz of London’s yesteryear theatrical world. He also shows a witty grasp of turning the time-honored traditions of murder mysteries inside out, then back onto themselves, into something fresh and lively and frequently surprising. 

Ruth WIlson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson—there’s no shortage of suspects!

Rockwell, a versatile American actor with more than 110 movie and TV roles, adds a new character to his eclectic resume, which includes playing a stir-crazy astronaut (Moon), a superstar choreographer (Fosse/Verdon), President George W. Bush (Vice), a Nazi officer (JoJo Rabbit) and a groovy summertime guru (The Way Way Back). Here, he humanizes his role as the wry Scotland Yard veteran—limping along with a battlefield injury from World War II—with a rumpled, crumpled veneer of world-weary experience anchored to sobering physical and psychological wounds.

Ronan probably won’t net another Oscar nomination, to go along with her previous four, for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women. But she serves up a quaint, likeable, restrained turn that recalls her quirky work with director Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Like Rockwell, she subtly adds dimensionality to a role that could have been significantly thinner and more comedically drawn; Stocker, a war widow whose star-struck obsession with show biz is often good for a pun, is also an avatar of 1950s proto-feminism, a working-class mom determined to do her job and advance in it. 

Adrien Brody (who won an Oscar for The Pianist and appeared alongside Ronan in The French Dispatch) plays an American director in London to change whatever he must to refashion the West End stage sensation as a Hollywood movie hit—much to the chagrin of the outraged screenwriter (David Oyelowo), who’d rather adhere to traditional theatrical elements. There’s the film-to-be’s producer (Reece Shearsmith), sneaking around to hide his affair with his assistant (Pippa Bennett-Warner) from his wife (Sian Clifford, who played Claire on the TV series Fleabag).

Why was the theater manager (Ruth Wilson) so anxious to sell the movie rights to the play? What makes the star of the show (Harris Dickinson) and his actress spouse (Shirley Henderson) so smug? And what’s up with the usher (Charlie Cooper)? Does it have something to do with the sandbag counterweight that bonked him on his head?

The movie revels in classic murder-mystery conventions, giving them a deliciously self-aware twist. And it’s all a charming cinematic toast to the works of Agatha Christie, whose stories and novels have been turned into nearly 40 films and numerous plays—including six staged in London during the 1950s. One of them was, in fact, The Mousetrap, which is the very play at the center of See How They Run

On the stakeout.

Many of the character’s names are wink-wink references to other murder mysteries and actors. Director Alfred Hitchcock gets a shout-out, and so does ‘50s superstar Grace Kelly, who starred in four of Hitchcock’s films (including Rear Window, North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder) before she became Princess of Monaco. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard echoes the name of lauded playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, whose many works included a play about—much like See How They Run—a stage production rocked by a real murder. The inspector’s protégé, Constable Stocker, shares her name with the fictional detective Lise Stocker, who appeared in the French TV series Killer by the Lake. The play’s lead actor, “Dickie” Attenborough (playing a detective investigating the crime) might just be intended as a younger version—or a reminder—of the late, great British actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough, whose long career was capped off by his recurring role as John Hammond in the Jurassic Park franchise. The producer, John Wolff, is based on a real-life Oscar-winning Hollywood filmmaker of that same name, who brought several major projects (including The African Queen and Oliver!) to the screen.

Split-screen moments convey the idea that there’s more than one way to see things—quite apt for unraveling a murder mystery, where suspects and clues can be everywhere, anything might be significant, and no detail can be overlooked. A couple of scenes make use of mirrors, “looking glasses” that reflect reversed versions of the same image. At one point, the detective actor goes “Method” and incorporates a physical characteristic of the “real” detective, Inspector Stoppard; Stoppard later mimics—mirrors—the role of the stage actor. This inventive British potboiler, a mirror of classic murder mysteries, playfully blurs the lines between art and artifice, then sends them straight into a merry-mayhem loop-de-loop.

And in the final act of this film about a play being made into a movie, Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson) makes a significant appearance—and the grand dame becomes part of her own drama.

“It’s a whodunnit,” Brody’s director says early on. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Ah, not quite—and don’t be so quick to pre-judge the clue-sniffing charms of this meta ode to murder mysteries, the stage and the screen, which shows there’s still plenty of movie mileage in smoking guns, tainted tea, cocktails, mismatched cops and guys in felt fedoras.

In other words, as Inspector Stoppard advises, don’t jump to conclusions.   

Yep!

Director Jordan Peele’s masterful space-invader opus is pure summer magic

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea star in ‘Nope.’

Nope
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer & Brandon Perea
Directed by Jordan Peele
Rated R
In theaters Friday, July 22

Something’s up in director Jordan Peele’s epic new sci-fi space-invader opus. Something’s up there. Does it appear to be friendly?

Nope.

But is it exciting, terrifying, horrific and out-of-this-world amazing?

Yep!

Peele, who established his creep-show bona fides with his two previous horror flicks, Us and Get Out, continues his penchant for cryptic, less-is-more titles with Nope, which sets a tone of ominous, unsettled tension at its very beginning. An obscure quote from the Old Testament prophesizes devastation and destruction; we glimpse a horrific incident on the set of a 1990s TV sitcom featuring a chimpanzee; a lethal spew of deadly metallic debris rains from the sky.

Something’s up, indeed. And something’s going down in this masterful flying-saucer extravagana that takes social-commentary swipes at capitalism, kitsch entertainment, animal exploitation, the human need for spectacle, a reckoning for Black history and the American dream itself.  

Daniel Kaluuya, the British actor who also starred in Get Out, is O.J. (it stands for Otis Junior), a level-headed second-generation horse wrangler who notices strange things in the canyons around his isolated ranch outside of Los Angeles, where his family has for decades raised and trained animals for Hollywood movie productions. The horses are acting weird, like they’re spooked. There are unexplained power outages, otherworldly screeching noises, and… something—something enormous—in the sky, hiding behind the clouds.

O.J. and his hungry-for-fame sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), decide to document whatever it is, whatever it’s called—UFO, or UAP, for “unidentified aerial phenomena”—and get the video out into the world, maybe even on Oprah. They enlist an eager local AV tech (Brandon Perea) and a craggy Hollywood cameraman (veteran British actor Michael Wincott) to assist them getting “the money shot” that will bring them acclaim and fortune.

Steven Yeun as Ricky “Jupe” Park

Stephan Yeun (he wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed Minari) has a pivotal role as Ricky “Jupe” Park, the propitiator of a “California Gold Rush”-themed theme park, Jupiter’s Claim (it’s a fictional place created just for the film, but it now has its own website, and it’s been transported and meticulously reconstructed, in whole, at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park). There’s something weird going on at Jupiter’s Claim too, and you’ll start piecing things together as you learn about Park’s traumatic past as a child actor, and notice, hey—isn’t that a spaceship woven into the back of his rhinestone suit?

Space references are everywhere, from a poster of Cape Canaveral—NASA’s famed rocketry site in Florida—to a simian named Gordy (a subtle nod, perhaps, to Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, the youngest of NASA’s groundbreaking Mercury astronaut program in the 1960s),  and our solar system’s largest planet acknowledged in the name of a theme park. Like the American West once was, Nope recognizes that outer space—and its unfathomable, unknowable secrets—has become the new frontier.

Nope is Peele’s most ambitious project yet as a filmmaker, a Wild West space-alien epic with overtures of Spielberg (E.T. and even Jaws) that challenges Hollywood’s time-honored concept of bug-eyed “little green men,” what intergalactic travelers might look like, or do, or why they might be interested in us. Like his other films, its horrors are deep and wide; Peele turns the world itself into a haunted house, full of intense, subversive terrors and impenetrable enigmas. And he knows that things can be even more terrifying when we don’t understand them, can’t compartmentalize them, or find them difficult to rationalize.

There have been many, many other movies about space aliens, spinning the idea that we are not alone in the universe. But has there ever been a movie like this one? A movie that plumbs the existential human condition with an electrifying tale of horse-riding Black buckaroos, a crazed chimpanzee and mega-hungry cosmic party crashers, creating the summer’s hottest, must-see fright flick?

Well, Nope!

All Shook Up

Austin Butler rocks the king-size role of Elvis Presley in ornate new biopic

Elvis
Starring Austin Butler & Tom Hanks
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Rated PG-13

In theaters Friday, June 24

The familiar Elvis Presley rags-to-riches story gets “all shook up” with this baroque, extravagantly epic dive into the life, music and career of one of pop culture’s most iconic superstars—and his manipulative, mysterious manager.

Baz Lurhmann, Australia’s most commercially successful mainstream filmmaker, has never been known for modesty in his movies, which include The Great Gatsby (2013), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Australia (2018). He always leans toward bigger not smaller, more rather than less, and over-sizing everything.

So, he’s perhaps the perfect match for telling the story of Elvis, who became the biggest, brightest, hottest comet to ever blaze across the musical sky. With record sales of some 1.5 billion, he’s often cited as the top-selling recording act of all time. He changed everything that came after him and re-jiggered most everything that came before him. Like Beatle John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Austin Butler is spectacular in the title role; he doesn’t particularly resemble Elvis physically, but he nonetheless becomes him in Butler’s often-uncanny channeling of Presley’s speech, gestures, movements and mannerisms. Add big, black sideburns and some movie sleight of hand, and he’s mesmerizing and believable at every “stage” of the familiar Elvis arc, from a lanky Southern mama’s boy to the lonely, exhausted Las Vegas headliner kept prisoner in a luxury penthouse.

Butler, who appeared in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as an ill-fated disciple of Charles Manson, also starred in TV’s Switched at Birth and The Carrie Diaries. This is his biggest, splashiest, most demanding role by far, and it’s a king-size performance in this king-size movie. He isn’t Elvis, of course. He’s the latest in a long line of actors (including Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Jack White and Michael Shannon) who’ve tried on the bejeweled jumpsuit, with varying degrees of success. But there are moments in the movie, in Butler’s eyes or the sensual snarl of his lips, and with a sprinkle of Hollywood sleight of hand, you’d swear you’re actually watching Elvis onscreen.

But Elvis isn’t just about Elvis—the movie is framed around the entertainer’s fraught relationship with his longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by the venerable Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Hanks, who narrates as Parker throughout the film, gets both the first and the last words of this florid tale. Wearing a fat suit, a fake bulbous nose and loads of facial prosthetics, the Oscar-winning actor lays on thick slabs of juicy Hollywood ham. But the character he’s playing is also a ham, a former carnival huckster who milked Presley as his personal cash cow, while keeping deep secrets about himself and his ulterior motives.

And this ultimate “snowman” turned Elvis into his personal carnival attraction, his closely guarded money machine.

Like Parker, Luhrmann is also a showman. He uses loads of razzle-dazzle to tell—and sell—this tale, a frenetic, whiplash, time-jumping, hyper-stylish fantasia that depicts Elvis’ career as it builds to a crescendo—then progressively consumes him. A childhood sequence unfolds in the pastel panels of a comic book; a photo of Presley on the front pages of the newspaper becomes animated and speaks; a ride on a Ferris wheel transforms into a spinning vinyl record, a visual bridge connecting Parker’s dubious carnival-con background to Presley’s skyrocketing career.

Alton Mason pays Little Richard.

The movie paints a damning picture of Parker, and rightly so. But it gives credit where credit is due when it comes to Elvis, especially in showing his deep musical grounding in Black R&B and gospel, how his cultural foundation was set by both the spiritual and the secular, in juke joints as well as tent revivals. We see Elvis’ early associations with Memphis bluesman B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), piano-pounding Little Richard (Alton Mason), soulful belter “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) and Delta singer-guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Arthur Crudup (played by real-life Texas blue-rocker Gary Clark Jr.). We watch as the young Presley launches his own career with his versions of some of those artists’ songs, notably “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right,” and takes them into the musical mainstream.

We see Elvis’ music shatter racial barriers of the era, as this “white boy” performing “Black music” unsettles stodgy segregationist conservatives, represented in the movie by country hitmaker and Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow (David Wenham)—though Snow’s young singer-wannabe son, Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is quick to grab onto Elvis’s high-voltage sizzle. We see the genesis of the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” and watch how his jaw-dropping onstage gyrations send female fans into spasms of orgasmic frenzy.

Army Elvis with wife-to-be Priscilla (Oliva DeJonge)

For Elvis fans, it’s all here: his beloved mother (Helen Thompson) and his ex-con dad (Richard Roxburgh); his romance and marriage to the lovely teenage Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge); his so-called “Memphis mafia” of close friends; his entry into military service and the spate of cheesy movie musicals he made after his discharge. There’s Graceland… here we are on Elvis’ tour bus… there’s Elvis boarding his personal airplane, named after his baby daughter, Lisa Marie. And there’s Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon), the physician who later joined his entourage to keep the drained, depleted, over-medicated Elvis “up” for his gauntlet of shows, jabbing Presley with a hypodermic needle when he collapses backstage.

As you might expect, there’s lots of music, a sprawling “greatest hits” patchwork that includes “Suspicious Minds,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Trouble,” “If I Can Dream,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Burning Love,” “An American Trilogy,” and what became Elvis’ trademark show-opener, the space-age theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some tunes are performed by Butler, others overdubbed with Presley’s actual voice, and still more pop up in the soundtrack by other artists, including Doja Cat, Jack White, Stevie Nicks, Eminem and CeeLo Green, and a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kacey Musgraves. The movie faithfully recreates landmark, detail-perfect TV appearances and performances—the 1968 Elvis “comeback” NBC special, his record-setting 1973 satellite concert from Hawaii, his four-year run as a sell-out headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Elvis shows how Presley’s music was not only a reflection of his roots, but also a response to the changing times, like the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the horrific murders of the Manson clan. And it depicts Elvis as a moody, broody, quietly ambitious megastar, one who worried about his legacy, who regretted never becoming a bona fide film actor (like his idol, James Dean), and whose oversized appetite for performing, for music and for his fans was a love that could never be requited by any real human relationship.

“You look lost,” Parker tells Elvis when he comes upon him in a carnival house of mirrors, confused by all the reflections. “Maybe I am,” Elvis says.

Yes, maybe he was. It’s easy to lose your way trying to figure out the real Elvis, to discern the real man behind his many reflections—hip-cat rockabilly, gospel devotee, blues lover, matinee idol, cultural agitator, proud American patriot, son, father and husband, Vegas workhorse. He was all these things, or he appeared that way to various people at various times. And he found himself, so to speak, by hitching his high-wire hillbilly wagon to Parker, a man who would later face accusations that his Machiavellian machinations drove Presley to his early death.

Elvis died, alone and in his bathroom, at the young age of 42 in 1977. But his music and his legend continue to live on, across the decades, and now through this gorgeously flamboyant cautionary tale about the high price he paid for his fame.

For his millions of fans, seeing this mega-movie (that stretches into more than two hours and 40 minutes) will become another reason why they “Can’t Help Falling in Love” again, and anew, with Elvis.

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.