Still at the ‘Top’

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

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

Tom Cruise makes it all look so easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruise and Jennifer Connelly

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

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

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

Ed Harris

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

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

Will the flyboy get the bargirl?

C’mon, really? What do you think?

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

Oh, Man…

Jessie Buckley navigates a nightmare of toxic masculinity

Harper (Jessie Buckley) finds herself in a creepy tunnel in ‘Men.’

Men
Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear
Directed by Alex Garland
Rated R
How to Watch: In theaters May 20, 2022

The so-called “battle of the sexes” takes a weird, wild turn in this smart, savage broadside about the abhorrent behaviors of men.

In this horrifically hallucinatory tale, a grieving young woman retreats to the English countryside after witnessing a terrible incident—she watches her husband plummet to his death from the top of their urban London high rise.

Harper (Jessie Buckley) is haunted by the memory of her husband hurtling to the ground, but also by her vivid recall of him screaming that life wasn’t worth living without her. He threatened to kill himself if she went through on her plans to divorce him.

Then she did, and he did. Was his death a suicide, an accident or a departing flourish of frustration about not getting what he wanted? And was Harper somehow responsible?

The troubled widow heads out of town to a quaint countryside village to clear her head. Maybe a week alone in a sprawling rental manor, far away from the city and its reminders of the trauma she’s just experienced, will help settle her jangled nerves.

But, oh, is she ever wrong.

Even though she’s alone in the manse, Harper is never truly alone, and her trauma continues to deepen, intruding into her consciousness with jarring flashbacks. Every man she encounters in the village unsettles her in some way, reconnecting her with the emotional shock of her husband’s violent death.

There’s the overly chatty, socially clumsy owner of the manor; then a scarred, naked man, who follows Harper home from a walk in the woods, appearing to stalk her. There’s a bratty, foul-mouthed teen; a lecherous vicar; a thug from the pub; and a boorish, smugly dismissive constable.

And the men all look the same; for one thing, they’re all played, in a brilliant—and, in one case, CGI-enhanced—multi-character performance by Rory Kinnear (who’ll be recognizable to James Bond fans for his recurring franchise role as the head of MI6). Is the movie suggesting that all men are really, down deep, just the same? That no matter how any man looks, behaves or appears, it’s only a superficial coating, a thin disguise over who he really is? Is Men saying that lust, the drive to procreate and an egotistic need to dominate are the hard-wired motivators of any man…or every man?

The woods around Harper’s manor are creepy. The village is creepy. The absence of other women is creepy; except for a lone policewoman, there aren’t any other females around, anywhere. And the men are all creepy, existing on a spectrum of micro-aggressions that will soon become major aggressions, and creating a rising tide of oppressive, noxious masculinity that seems to permeate the very air that Harper inhales.

They invade the sanctity of her solitude, figuratively and then literally. They oppress her with their demanding haughtiness, insult her with their crude comments and threaten her with their primal yearnings. They intensify her crippling sense of guilt and deepen her psychic wounds. The teen, hiding behind a plastic trick-or-treat mask of Marilyn Monroe, insists to a disturbed Harper that she join him in playing a schoolyard game. The house owner chides her for eating an apple (“forbidden fruit”) off a tree in the yard. The vicar, who piously notes Harper’s culpability in her husband’s death, attempts to rape her.

Rory Kinnear as the vicar

It’s no wonder that her friend back in London (Gayle Rankin, who played the wrestler Sheila the She-Wolf on TV’s Glow) advises Harper on a FaceTime call that the only way to deal with these guys is take an axe from the woodpile and, well, hit ‘em where it hurts. Cut off the problem at its root, so to speak.

Buckley, the Irish actress most recently in The Lost Daughter, seems to relish playing characters who live beyond the surface of the mainstream, or inhabit its enigmatic, unfathomable underside—like the murderous nurse Odetta Mayflower in TV’s most recent season of Fargo, or the unnamed woman navigating the freakish, reality-shifting scenario of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As Harper, she pilots a course teetering on madness, awash in wonder, awe and bewilderment…and ultimately, spiraling into a living nightmare.

Men is the third feature film from British director Alex Garland, whose two previous movies—Ex Machina and Annihilation—were trippy sci-fi hybrids exploring the terrors in the breached boundaries of the known and the unknowable.

And there’s certainly a lot of unknowable spread throughout this film, interwoven with elements of ancient folklore, religious allegory and dreamlike symbolism—and that’s before things erupt in a wild, galloping grand finale of all-out horror and the undercurrent of masculine menace becomes a flood of jaw-dropping WTFs. Men may be several things, but as Harper runs an obstacle course of toxic masculinity, it becomes a bizarro indictment of abhorrent behaviors, tapping into an ancient vein that’s been coursing through civilization since time began.

The naked bloke turns into an embodiment of the Green Man, a mythological figure whose representations appear around the world, representing nature’s eternal cycles of life, death and rebirth. (And ain’t it just like a man, to try to take credit for the work of “Mother” Nature?) When Harper inflicts a grievous wound on one of the men, the same wound appears on all of them. (You’ll never look at a front-door mail slot, or a butcher knife, the same way.) And finally, in a slimy, gross-out sequence during which the men suddenly have the, ahem, genitalia of women, they “birth,” well…different iterations of themselves. And the film’s central premise becomes clear: The unchanging, ever-repeating nature of men is to perpetuate their masculinity, to continually assert themselves in violent, assaultive ways, and to forever feel a pathetic need to control women, minimalize their roles and usurp them.

Maybe some viewers will be turned off by the movie’s sudden shift into goop and gore. Maybe you’ll interpret it all as a truly feminist horror fable. Maybe you’ll remember the 1990s best-seller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, about the fundamental psychological differences between the genders. Maybe you’ll recognize the Elton John ballad, “Love Song,” which plays over both the beginning and the end of the movie. “Love  is the opening door,” he sings. “Love is what we came here for.”

Yeah, love may open the door. But if you’re on the other side, and especially if you’re a woman in the English countryside, in a creepy village where all the guys embody manhood’s worst, most loathsome attributes, it’s also probably a good idea to have a knife handy—or an axe.

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.

Hop on Pop

Tough guy Robert De Niro shows his silly side in cross-generational comedy ‘The War with Grandpa’

The War with Grandpa
Starring Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle and Oakes Fegley
Directed by Tim Hill
PG
In theaters Oct. 9, 2020

Growing old is no joke, but it’s good for some laughs in this comedy about a 10-year-old boy forced to give up his bedroom when his grandfather moves in.

Based on an award-winning 1984 children’s book by Robert Kimmel Smith, The War with Grandpa begins when elderly widower Ed (Robert De Niro) causes a stir at a supermarket self-checkout, leading to an incident that results in his injury. That causes his adult daughter, Sally (Uma Thurman), to finally insist that he’s no longer capable of living alone.

Finding at spot for dear old dad at her home means her son, Peter (Oakes Fegley, who starred as Pete in Disney’s 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon), gets booted from his bedroom and into the sparsely furnished attic.

Peter’s none too happy about the forced relocation, complaining both at home and at school, where his clique of buddies spurs on his beef. “The attic,” Pete huffs. “Where you put stuff and forget it.”

“I’d demand my room back,” counsels one of his friends. “Or it’s war.”

And war it is, as Peter launches a volley of outrageous pranks devised to get his grandpa to move out of his space—and his grandfather counterattacks with his own bag of devious dirty tricks.

Peter blasts Grandpa awake with a booming speaker on a remote-controlled car, changes out his shaving cream with cement-like self-adhering foam and glues down his keepsakes; Grandpa removes all the screws from Peter’s furniture, secretly rewrites his homework assignments and sabotages his favorite computer game.

Cheech Marin, De Niro, Jane Seymore & Christopher Walken

The comedic conflict escalates to a decisive dodgeball game between Peter’s perky schoolmates and gramp’s spry geriatric gang, Jerry (Christopher Walken), Danny (Cheech Marin) and Diane (Jane Seymour).   

Director Tim Hill wrote for TV’s Spongebob Squarepants and directed the 2020 movie The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run, plus the family films Max Keeble’s Big Move, Muppets from Space, Alvin and The Chipmunks and Hop. So knows what’s funny and where to find it, in measures both big and small, whether it’s Thurman doing a spit take with a cup of coffee all over her car windshield, or De Niro fumbling and mumbling as Ed tries to figure out a new high-tech task, like how to open a digital version of his morning newspaper or use a new iPhone to get a ride on Lyft.  

But oh, does this movie have to repeatedly go so low—literally—for yuks? It repeatedly body-slams two Oscar winners (De Niro and Walken) and one nominee (Thurman) hard on the ground as visual punchlines—ouch! And maybe it’s OK to engineer a guffaw out of someone seeing Grandpa, ahem, sans trousers. But twice? C’mon—that’s not a running joke, it’s comedic elder abuse.

De Niro, who won his Oscar for The Godfather: Part II, is best known for playing gangsters and goombahs in movies like Casino, Cape Fear and last year’s The Irishman. He also has a sly, dry knack for the refreshing fizz of comedy, as demonstrated in Midnight Run, Meet the Parents and Analyze This. But even then, his movie-mobster reputation precedes him. When a black limo pulls up in front of Peter’s middle school, the rear window rolls down and Grandpa tells grandson to “get in the car,” it’s a bit worrisome, at least for a moment. Are they headed to pick up Joe Pesci?

Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Laura Marano, Poppy Gagnon and Rob Riggle

Rob Riggle gets in some good chuckle-worthy moments as Ed’s son-in-law, and former Disney star Laura Marano (she was Ally on Austin & Ally, and also one of the original panelists on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?) plays Peter’s teenage sister, Mia. Young Poppy Gagnon is a petite scene-stealer as Jennifer, Peter’s Christmas-obsessed little sis.

Younger viewers won’t get the jokes, but eagle-eyed parents may smile with the movie’s knowing nods to its cast’s previous projects and its impressive movie DNA—a line of dialogue from Meet the Parents, a takeoff of an iconic scene from The Godfather, an interaction between De Niro and Walken that recalls their collaboration in The Deer Hunter, the 1978 movie for which Walken received his Oscar. And when Thurman’s character tells daughter Mia that “I was your age once,” we remember that yes, she was—and that she once played a character also named Mia, in Pulp Fiction. Wink, wink.

For all that subtlety, some of the gags are a bit over the top, the humor gets a tad slap-sticky, and the “battle” in a war like this one would not only leave bumps and bruises in real life, it would surely put most grandpas in in a body cast, if not a casket.

But hey, this fighting is all for fun. And if this mega-broad, generation-spanning movie comedy sometimes feels like watching a feature-length, superstar edition of America’s Funniest Home Videos, at least its cast of all-stars seems game to throw themselves—sometimes literally—into a setups that have something for just about for everyone.

Nobody’s going to add any Oscar gold to their mantle with The War with Grandpa. But there’s a genuine sweetness inside all the rampant silliness, a message about family and togetherness and the importance of building something that lasts, like a home, with a group of people who love you—instead of tearing things down, blowing them up or smashing them to pieces in a crazy war over a bedroom, or anything else.  

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.

Witchy Woman

Unsettling tale of Old World witchery is sympathetic fable of assimilation

Noomi Rapace stars as in ‘You Won’t Be Alone.’

You Won’t Be Alone
Starring Noomi Rapice, Alice Englert and Sara Klimoska
Directed by Goran Stolevski
Rated R
How to Watch: In theaters April 1, 2022

Since prehistory, witches have been regarded, rebuffed and reviled as fearsomely mysterious, magical women whose powers made them a real threat to the order of the world.

And long before they were turned into Halloween costumes, sitcoms and cartoons,

witches and witchcraft were staples of lore and legend dating back into the B.C. era, even appearing in the Old Testament of the Bible. A trio of witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, written in the 1600s, famously warned that “something wicked that way comes.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy encounters two wicked witches and one fairy-like “good” one. Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon were The Witches of Eastwick; Better Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy stirred up laughs in Hocus Pocus. Elizabeth Montgomery turned wizardry into twinkly weekly primetime pixie dust in TV’s Bewitched, and Melissa Joan Hart was Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

The deep-rooted “sisterhood” of sorcery is at the tortured heart of this wild, devilishly mesmerizing tale of witchcraft set in the Balkans some five centuries ago. It follows one witch “spirit” as she passes through several human (and non-human) bodies.

And it for sure isn’t a sitcom. The story begins when a baby named Nivena is whisked away by her freaked-out mother to live out an extremely sheltered childhood: She’s imprisoned in a deep, dark rock abyss to hide her from Old Maria, the terrifying necromancer of local legend who visited the newborn soon after birth and chewed off the baby’s tongue for some black-magic mojo. Mom is obsessed about keeping her little girl secluded from the evil always lurking somewhere out there.

Sara Klimoska as Nevena and Anamaria Marinca as Old Maria

And it works for a while—until, 16 years later, Old Maria returns to claim Nivena, now grown into a young woman, and usher her into full-blown witch-hood.

You think you know a lot about witches? How they ride on brooms, keep black cats for companions and cackle as they stir boiling cauldrons? Well, not in this movie, where witches—all victims of some ancient, passed-on curse—must kill and drink blood to survive, a dietary requirement that doesn’t make them necessarily welcome, at least for long, around other people. They regenerate by taking the bodily forms of their victims, and a special two-step process (a searing rip into the chest by the black talons of a witch’s hand, followed by witch’s spit) mean you’re officially into the club. To hasten the transition from one body into a new victim’s body, witches remove their own innards, like unpacking an old suitcase once you’ve arrived at your destination. Being a witch involves a good bit of blood and guts, gristle and self-inflicted de-boweling.

You probably never imagined Sabrina, Samantha on Bewitched or Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger doing anything like that.  

Almost feral after spending her childhood in a hole, and not being able to talk, Nivena (Sara Klimoska, a young Macedonian actress) doesn’t realize, especially at first, that she’s a witch. She has no understanding of the rough life she’ll face on a hard road she didn’t choose; forever a social outcast and outsider, feared, persecuted and often burned alive unless she conceals her identity. But she’ll learn.

“Just you wait,” her witch-mother, Old Maria (British actress Anamaria Marinca), tells her. “Just you wait.”

One of the things she’ll learn is how she’s been bestowed with a cursed immortality; death may be perhaps unpleasant, but it’s not much of a deterrent. Incinerated in the flames of a pyre as a young woman, Old Maria became the stuff of hysteria and cautionary folktales—the child-plucking Wolf-Eatress—who continues to roam the Balkan countryside in her carcass of charred, scarred, ooey-gooey flesh. 

First-time feature writer/director Goran Stolevski was born in the Balkans himself (before relocating to Australia), and the film is steeped in the folktales, and the scenery, of the region during a rather dark and dismal time. It depicts a pastoral place that was especially rough for women, who mostly lived to serve their husbands, in every way—that is, if they weren’t getting raped, beaten or otherwise reminded of their lowly station in the social order. Maybe that’s why witches were such agitators: They were women with shadowy, secretive connections to the natural and supernatural world, and powerful enough to turn the tables and bring down almost anyone, even the strongest of men.

The dialogue is spoken entirely in the authentic “old” Macedonian language of its setting (subtitled into English for American audiences). We hear the inner thoughts of Nivena—who is unable to speak—as stream-of-consciousness bits of inner monologues, which are sometimes quite profound. As she explores everything around her, it’s all new—grass, trees, fields, sunlight, streams of water, tears and laughter. She marvels at every moment of discovery, struggling to figure out what’s what. “Are sparrows snakes? Women wasps? Kisses chains?” she wonders. “Me, devils?”

A lot of viewers will find all of it too challenging, too gory, too dreary, too artsy. Unsettling without being particularly scary, it’s not a spookfest meant to shock, but more an exploration, an existential expedition into what witch like might have been like. As the witch progresses through various incarnations, Nivena takes the form of a woman who’s just given birth (Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a handsome farm boy, a cat, a dog, a donkey and finally a little girl, who grows up to become a young peasant woman (British actress Alice Englert), marrying and bringing her story full circle. Her witch mother, Maria, keeps popping in, mainly to tell her what a bad job she’s doing. Sometimes you wonder which witch is which.

Alice Englert as Biliana

And you gradually come to realize that You Won’t Be Alone isn’t just about witches. It’s a somewhat sympathetic tale of curiosity, enlightenment and exploration, a gritty parable about a woman who wants to be something else, something more, while being burdened less; a woman who became who (and what) she is because of something beyond her control, who wants most of all to be accepted. In an odd way, it’s about life and living and what it means to be fully alive, and the arc of reinvention. It’s a tale of assimilation and integration built around a most unlikely subject, but one with which many people can relate—certainly women everywhere, who’ve been treated as outliers throughout much of history.  

It’s a fright-fest fable with a uniquely feminist streak of scariness, an international cast, and a good bit of witchy weirdness. The world can be a harsh and unforgiving place, especially when you’re always outside looking in—or when your destiny takes a dark, unholy detour.

For anyone who’s grown up looking to witches for silly chills…well, just you wait: This hypnotic, horrific dive into the Old World disturbia is the stuff of nightmares. And if you it leaves you unsettled and a bit adrift in the terrors of something beyond the veil of modern comprehension, well, like the title says, you won’t be alone.

Far Out!

Michelle Yeoh skips across the ominverse in gonzo sci-fi action comedy

Everything Everywhere All at Once
Starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong and Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Rated R

In theaters Friday, April 8, 2022

“Will it go round in circles?” asked singer Billy Preston in his hit song from the 1970s. Well, it will, indeed, and it does—in this gob-smacking gauntlet of action-packed, gonzo sci-fi fantasy about the loopy connectedness of all things.

The circle of Everything Everywhere All the Time surrounds Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese immigrant in Southern California who’s become the exhausted, micro-managing proprietress of a laundromat business she inherited from her father (James Hong). Awash in business problems, she meets with a cantankerous IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), who gives Evelyn a hard time…and a hard deadline for getting her affairs in order.

But an audit isn’t Evelyn’s biggest problem, by far, as she’s thrown into a sprawling, mind-blowing comedically cosmic adventure that plugs her into all the other parallel lives she’s ever lived, across the universe—and in other universes, too. And she learns she’s been chosen to lead the resistance against an omnipresent dark force threatening to destroy the entire omniverse, which links everything, everywhere, all the time.

You’ve probably seen Yeoh, who parlayed her success as a Hong Kong action star to noteworthy supporting roles in the Hollywood mainstream, in movies including Last Christmas and Crazy Rich Asians, and in TV’s Star Trek: Discovery franchise. But this marks her first leading role in an American film, and she totally rocks it, grounding the serio-comic shenanigans in a character who creates the zippy, zappy center of every scene. Evelyn is woman who’s told she’s been a failure, at least on the surface, at most everything she’s ever attempted or tried to do. Now she has an opportunity for success in a most spectacular fashion.

Staphanie Hsu

Stephanie Hsu, who played Mai on The Marvelous Ms. Maisel, is Evelyn’s daughter, Joy, whose sunny name belies an inner misery and some serious multi-dimensional clouds. You might recognize Ke Huy Quan, who does a bravura job as Waymand, Evelyn’s husband. (As a child actor, Quan played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Data in Goonies.) He may seem like a milquetoast, happy-go-lucky husband, but wait until you see Waymand’s parallel selves—as a multiverse warrior and strategist, or a debonair, handsome hunk—and how he can turn even an innocuous fanny pack into a fierce fighting tool.

Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis—the veteran star of the original Halloween, plus more than 80 other movie and TV projects—camps it up as a frumpy government employee in one universe while pursuing a much more sinister agenda in another.

Jamie Lee Curtis

Worlds collide in a wild, frenetic, crossover mishmash as Evelyn finds herself morphing in and out of multiple versions of herself—as a chef, a prison con, a movie star and a singer, a kung-fu expert, a dominatrix and even a pinata and a sentient rock. The filmmaking team of directors Kwan and Scheinert, who collaborate as The Daniels, create a breathless explosion of riotous metaphysical mayhem as she zips and zaps her way across dozens of other parallel “existences” to fulfill her destiny.

The theme isn’t exactly a new one; other films have aggressively tweaked our perceptions of reality, like The Matrix, Inception, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai and Time Bandits. But none of those films has as much unhinged, unruly playfulness as this one, with a racoon food maestro, a weaponized lap dog (within a frisky cameo by comedian Jenny Slate), people with hot dogs for fingers and a couple of outrageously salacious gags involving sex toys. Nor have other movies ever noted the multidimensional benefits of paper cuts, eating lip balm, sitting on the crack between couch cushions and reusing chewing gum.

This far-out film has all that, and much more.

All the chaos revolves around a soft, sentimental center grounded in marriage, mothers and daughters, kindness and the power of love, and pushing aggressively against the cultural bias of favoring boys over girls, men over women. (In a flashback scene to Eveyln’s birth in China, a nurse announces her arrival, knowing how deeply disappointed her father will be that his new child isn’t a male. “I’m so sorry,” he’s told.) But Evelyn busts that bias, smashes it to smithereens and drags it all over the omniverse, doing something that no one else—including men—could do, and doing it on a celestial scale.

And she learns that that every decision we make, anything we do or don’t do, creates new destiny pathways branching off from one life course and forging another. “Every rejection, every disappointment,” Evelyn is told, “has led you here.” Where you’ve been, in other words, determines where you are, repeatedly and symmetrically, like expanding rings of ripples in the expansive waters of an endless sea. Look closely and you’ll spot all the circles and round forms conspicuously sprinkled throughout the movie—mirrors, pots and pan lids, cookies, Chinese lanterns, stick-on goo-goo eyes, washing-machine windows, something on a piece of paper boldly, emphatically circled with dark ink.

And at the center of it all: a monstrously big bagel.

And like a bagel, yes, this gloriously bonkers blitzkrieg goes round and round, with a hole in the middle—a hole that Evelyn’s destined to fill. At the journey’s end, there she is, where she was at the beginning; she’s ’verse-hopped all around the cosmos, but her path brought her back around to her laundromat and left her with this blissful, all-encompassing thought.

“There is always something to love,” she says. “Even in a universe where we have hot dogs for fingers.”

Ice, Ice Baby

Savage, cold-hearted Viking epic packs a bloody punch

The Northman
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Robert Eggers
Rated R

How to Watch: In theaters Friday, April 22, 2022

The Vikings are coming! The Vikings are coming!

That phrase doesn’t mean much today, except perhaps for Minnesota NFL fans getting revved up for away games.

But some 1,200 years ago, these fearsome Scandinavian seafarers ruled the North Atlantic, raiding, pirating and plundering their way across Europe and beyond. Now they’re laying siege to multiplexes in this galloping, grotesquely immersive epic about one Viking’s merciless, bloodthirsty quest for retribution and revenge.

Swedish-born Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, who sets out as a boy on his brutal life’s journey after witnessing the murder of his father, the warrior King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), by the king’s bastard brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Narrowly escaping with his own head still attached, the little prince watches, terrified, as Fjölnir carts off his mother, queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), hefting her over his shoulder like a sack of stolen booty.  

Ethan Hawke

“I will avenge you, Father,” young Amleth repeatedly vows, desperately rowing away in the icy waters from his pillaged coastal kingdom. “I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

Several years later, Amleth is all grown up, a hulking Viking warrior seething with remorseless hunger for retribution—and an appetite for wanton destruction. Woe to anyone who gets in his way or even crosses his path, like the villagers he and his fellow “berserkers” attack in the intensely brutal first act of the film, slashing and bashing their way through the mud and the blood, rounding up the hardiest and healthiest to be sold into slavery and corralling everyone else—including old women and children—into a thatch hut that’s then set fire.

All in a day’s work for a Viking plunderer.

But as much as he feeds off the raw, surging testosterone of remorseless, alpha-male brutality, Amleth doesn’t forget that he’s a man on a singular mission. Given renewed resolve by an encounter with a blind seeress (the Icelandic singer Björk), he disguises himself as a slave and goes “undercover”—aided by a fellow slave, a sexy sorceress Olga (Anya-Taylor Joy)—to find his traitorous uncle.

Anya-Taylor Joy (right) plays the sorceress Ogla, who helps Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård).

If those themes—family honor and dishonor, revenge and a young heir seeking to restore a fallen hierarchical house—sound familiar, they should. Shakespeare based his own Hamlet on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which itself closely follows the “hero’s journey” arc, the template of many of the world’s greatest myths, folktales and religions.

The bones of this tale may be ancient and primal, but director Robert Eggers creates a whole new world for this majestically bonkers, blood-smeared battering ram of Old World barbarism. Super-saturated with authenticity and historical nitty-gritty, The Northman is a visceral, elemental experience that makes you feel the cold, the muck and the mire, taste the brine of the salty sea—and shiver at the sights you see, watching agog as Amleth’s boundless, boiling rage plays out and spills over, like fox-head soup from a simmering caldron.

An indie auteur who certainly knows how to worm under your skin, Eggers also made the deeply unsettling The Witch (2015), which plumbed the psychological horrors of Puritanical hysteria, and The Lighthouse (2019), about two men going mad and flirting with depravity on a remote, storm-swept island. (Is that a mermaid vagina, or are you just happy to see me?) The Northman, Egger’s biggest-budget movie by far, is less complex and not near as subtle, staying more on the surface of its tempestuous tale and boldly assaulting viewers straight-on with its unflinching depictions of unbridled savagery by a man determined to follow his thread of fate and “die by the blade.” And while it’s not necessarily a pretty film, there is certainly a monumental beauty in its bold, relentless intensity, its rampaging, golly-whopping excess, and its spectacularly staged scenes.

When two semi-naked characters, both who’ve vowed to kill the other, fight and grapple amid the glowing lava of a spewing volcano, it’s a dance of death in what looks like the red-hot bowels of hell itself. You don’t see that in just any movie.  

There’s skull-cracking, disemboweling, blood-drinking and beheadings (of men and as well as horses), farting and belching, howling and yelping, and even menstrual flow has its moment. At one point, slaves are forced play a last-man-standing game with a ball and bats, like Harry Potter’s Quidditch—with a much higher fatality rate. The movie packs a lot into its runtime.  

And like Eggers’ other films, it’s suffused with some outright weirdness—hallucinogenic initiation ceremonies in which boy “pups” become “wolf” men; recurring visions of a dream-like “Tree of Kings” that depicts past, present and future royalty hanging like fruits from dark, twisted branches; Viking warriors finding their inner beast in a frenzied pre-raid battle ritual.

Nicole Kidman

It’s a man’s world, for sure. But the movie’s female supporting characters—notably Kidman’s queen and Anya-Taylor Joy’s sorceress—point toward a rich subtext about the power of women in that world, one in which young Amleth’s father, the king, cautions him to “seek not the ways of women.” It’s a dismissal, yes, but also an acknowledgement, recognizing that females rule a realm that even the mightiest warrior, and even kings, respect as sacred, hallowed ground. “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” Olga tells him. “But I have the cunning to break their minds.” Valkryies, fierce female spirits, ferry fallen warriors into their afterlives in the halls of Vahalla. And when one female character tells another, “Your sword is long” after getting an eyeful of his impressive, rune-inscribed mystical blade—is that just Viking small talk, or an assertive, slyly suggestive stab of sexual, even Oedipal arousal?

Skarsgård, who first showed off his impressively sculpted physique in The Legend of Tarzan (2016), is even more pumped-up here, a hulking mass of muscle with shoulders so large they look like they were repurposed from the bulwark of a Viking longboat. Kidman’s role is juicier than you first expect, as a character who becomes much more than a damsel in distress. And the young British actress Anya-Taylor Joy—basking in the glow of success after her award-winning role in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and in critically hailed movies including Emma and the psych-horror-thriller One Night in Solo—worked with Eggers previously in The Witch, which made her a breakout star when she was only 18. Here, she deflates the classic stereotype of witches as withered old hags, especially when Olga slips out of her smock for a hot-springs rub-a-dub.  

And any movie in which Willem Dafoe plays a shamanistic court jester with a waggish tongue that keeps getting him into deep trouble, well, that’s just icing on the Viking cake.

Yes, the Vikings are coming. And in this wild and wooly epic in which mythology and reality comingle, collide and create more than two hours of bloody, brazen big-screen craziness and combustion, I doubt there’s a pro footballer—or even a whole team—anywhere who’d stand much of a chance in a square-off with Amleth.  

Murder, She Wrote

Kenneth Branagh returns to the canon of Agatha Christie for another twisty murder mystery

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in ‘Death on the Nile,’ his second film based on a classic Agatha Christie novel.

Death on the Nile
Starring Gal Godot, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Russell Brand, Letitia Wright, Armie Hammer & Emma McKay
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG-13

In theaters Feb. 11, 2022

What do you do when there’s a crime, and everyone’s a suspect?

You get the world’s greatest detective, of course!

As Agatha Christie fans know, that would be Belgian crime-cracker Hercule Poirot, one of the late author’s most beloved, most famous and long-running characters of crime fiction. He has appeared in more than 30 novels, 50 short stories, numerous stage productions and more than a dozen films.

Poirot has been portrayed by a cavalcade of actors over the decades, including Orson Wells, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina and John Malkovich. Britain’s acclaimed Kenneth Branagh first took on the role in 2017, in Murders on the Orient Express, which he also directed. He now returns to it, again as both actor and director, in this lavish new screen adaptation of Christie’s fan-favorite novel, first published in 1937.  

In Death on the Nile, Poirot must untangle a web of lies, deceit, greed and grievances swirling around a gorgeous young London heiress, Linnet Doyle (Wonder Woman’s Gal Godot), on her honeymoon cruise. When Linnet is discovered dead in her room, shot cleanly in her temple with a small-caliber weapon as she sleeps, the plot really begins to thicken

Armie Hammer & Gal Godot are at the center of wave of crime aboard a riveboat.

Soon she’s not the only death in Death on the Nile, as the paddlewheel steamer Karnak makes its way through the land of the pharaohs—and everyone comes under suspicion.

Good thing Hercule Poirot also happens to be on the boat!

As his investigation unfolds, Poirot finds no shortage of possible perpetrators, plausible motives—and murder weapons. Clues begin to add up as bodies begin to pile up: a dead woman caught in the boat’s paddlewheel; a pistol wrapped in a blood-stained scarf, dredged from the bottom of the river; a tense, jealous love triangle between Linnet, her new husband (Armie Hammer) and his former fiancé (Emma Mackay, the British Margot Robbie lookalike who stars in the Netflix series Sex Education).

The riverboat wedding party also includes Linnet’s lawyer and cousin (Ali Fazal), with a sheath of documents he seems anxious for her to sign; a renowned painter (Annette Bening) and her son, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s confidante; a physician (Russell Brand) who was once engaged to Linnet; a maid (Rose Leslie, from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones); and a brassy blues nightclub singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece/manager (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright), one of Linnet’s former classmates. The British comedy team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French play Linette’s socialite godmother and her companion/nurse.

As a director, Branagh (currently a top Oscar contender for his semi-autobiographical drama Belfast) takes a few creative liberties with Christie’s story, and fans of the English author will enjoy seeing the creative spins he puts on her classic puzzle—a few character tweaks here, a minor plot point there. He also crafts a compelling backstory for Poirot, with an opening scene that puts us alongside him, as a young soldier, in the muddy trenches of World War I—and provides the genesis of his florid, double-decker trademark moustache.

Gal Gadot: The ‘Wonder Woman’ star plays a London heiress

Gorgeous to look at, Branagh’s film—shot on a massive London soundstage, complete with a gargantuan water tank—is filled with sights and splash and splendor, from the pyramids and tombs and antiquities of ancient Egypt to the funky, dirty-dancing delights of a hoppin’ London speakeasy. Omens on the screen portend something bad is surely going to happen down the river as a crocodile lunges from the murky waters to snatch a squawking egret; a hissing snake strikes out, unexpectedly, toward the viewers; a massive piece of tumbling stonemasonry barely misses Linette and her husband.

And despite its title, and its centerpiece crime, Branagh has another theme on his mind. “It’s love,” as Linnet notes at one point. “It’s not a game played fair. There are no rules.” Romantic ties—and societal rule-breaking—run throughout the entire story, and cross-connect almost every character, in some way or another. Even Poirot himself, as the film’s beginning and ending suggest, is not immune to being gob-smacked by love’s primal power.

This new Death on the Nile—which has previously been the subject of two theatrical films, a TV movie, a Broadway play and a BBC radio serial—is a twisty, turn-y tale of love and lovers, murder and mystery, and passions that can sometimes turn poisonous. It may take place some eight decade ago, but its themes are timeless.

And not all the movie drama, as it turns out, appears onscreen. Like several other films, Death on the Nile faced a struggle to even be released—its opening was delayed six times due to the COVID pandemic. Meanwhile, the movie’s leading man, Armie Hammer, became an untouchable persona non grata in Hollywood after charges levied against him for sexual misconduct and rape, and his bizarre sexting comments about cannibalism. Disney reportedly considered—but ultimately abandoned—options that included reshooting the entire film, or digitally removing his character and replacing it with another actor.

But here we finally are, and fans of whodunnit riddles—from Agatha Christie to Knives Out and even the classic board game of Clue—will greatly enjoy trying to piece together the evidence to unravel this period-piece knot alongside Christie’s favorite sleuth.

There may have been some 46 other movies—and more than 50 TV and radio versions—based on the works of Christie, who died in 1976, many of them featuring Poirot or Christie’s other famous mystery solver, Miss Marple. But Branagh’s lively, exotic, star-spangled take on Death on the Nile proves there’s plenty of life left in finely crafted stories of love, murder and the messy matters of the human heart.

All aboard!

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