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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.

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!