Hometown Hero

Pop superstar Justin Timberlake gets tough in heart-tugging Southern drama

Justin Timberlake and newcomer Ryder Allen in ‘Palmer’

Palmer
Starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Ryder Allen
Directed by Fisher Stephens
R
Jan. 29 on Apple+

A former small-town football hero returns home to rural Louisiana after serving a 12-year prison sentence, where he becomes involved in the messy home life of a young boy living next door to his grandmother.

Starring as the hulking, sulking, melancholy ex-con, Justin Timberlake looks and acts like someone a few hundred, hard miles away from the polished pop superstar who started out as a perky preteen Mouseketeer on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club before launching the squeaky-clean boy band NSYNC.

As NSYNC sang, “Bye Bye Bye.”

The multi-millon-selling singer, songwriter and producer has also forged a formidable acting career with roles in some 20 movies, including The Social Network, Bad Teacher, Inside Llewyn Davis and Wonder Wheel. (I’ll be kind and won’t count the computer-animated/live-action 2010 unnatural-disaster comedy pile-up that was Yogi Bear, for which Timblerlake voiced Yogi’s short-stuff companion, Boo Boo.)

His last movie was Trolls World Tour, released earlier this year, a sequel to the 2016 animated musical romp based on the frizzy-haired toy dolls of the 1960s.

Palmer is Timberlake’s return to more meaty, serious dramatic fare, as his character rebuilds his life, becoming a reluctant caretaker and champion for a child who doesn’t fit in anywhere else in the community.

We meet Palmer when he gets off the bus in his little backwater hometown, then hikes it to the house of his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him. We find out she’s the only family he’s got left, and that she has a few rules, like getting up and taking her to church every Sunday.

Praise the Lord: Timberlake, Allen and June Squibb

Looking out the window of her house, Palmer sees the rundown mobile home next door. Vivian tells him she regrets renting it to the young mother, Shelly, and her son, Sam (Ryder Allen), living there now—because Shelly’s boyfriend is always around, causing trouble.

Sam is “different” from the other boys, at Vivian’s church and at his school. He wears a barrette to keep his hair out of his eyes, he plays with dolls, he sashays and prisses when he walks. He wants nothing more than to become a member of the princess club, from his favorite cartoon TV show.

In a more, ahem, enlightened community, Sam would be considered “gender fluid,” or perhaps “non-binary.” Most people in Palmer’s hometown are, well, a little more blunt.

“There’s something wrong with that boy,” says one of Vivian’s church-going friends.

When Shelly runs off with her boyfriend, kindly Vivian takes in Sam to live—with her and Palmer. For how long, they don’t know.

Like just about everyone else, Palmer initially doesn’t know quite what to make of Sam. “You know you’re a boy, right?” he asks him. “Boys don’t play with dolls.”

“Well, I’m a boy,” Sam answers him. “And I do.”

Director Fisher Stevens—an actor turned award-winning documentary filmmaker—takes the movie into some predictable places, first as a “buddy picture” showing the gradual bonding process of Palmer and Sam, then layering on emotionally wrenching overtones that might remind movie lovers of break-up dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story.

Palmer becomes Sam’s guardian angel, stepping in to stop schoolyard bullies—or busting a redneck’s head to impart some tough lessons about tolerance. The pop idol who once sang about “bringing sexy back”—and lays down some slick R&B gospel grooves in his new single, “Better Days,” with New Jersey rapper Ant Clemons—now brings out his fist to strike a blow against hateful ignorance of people who react with meanness when they “see something that they ain’t used to seein’,” especially when it’s hurtful to a child.

It’s a strong, beefy performance from Timberlake, but he gives much of the film over to his nine-year-old co-star, who makes a memorable movie debut (Allen’s only previous acting experience was an appearance on a 2017 episode of TV’s Law & Order). Though she disappears for much of the movie, British actress Juno Temple (mostly recently on Hulu’s Ted Lasso) does a convincing turn as Sam’s drug-addicted, Southern-fried, trailer-trash mom. That’s Dean Winters—yep, the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate commercials—as her loutish, abusive boyfriend. Alisa Wainright is Sam’s teacher, the lovely Ms. Hayes, who uses a school Halloween party—when Sam comes in a princess costume—to gently teach a lesson to her kids that people can “be whoever you wanna be.”

Juno Temple

As Palmer puts his own life back together, he finds many of the missing pieces in building a better world for Sam. This deep-South drama’s sensitive, humanistic approach to atonement, acceptance, inclusion and compassion will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like a loner, an outcast, an oddity—and who might wish they had someone like Palmer in their corner, advocating for them, standing up for them, loving them, fighting for them.    

“There’s things in this world you can be, and things in this world that you can’t,” Palmer tells Sam at one point, worried about how hard it’s going to be for Sam to acclimate to a world seemingly set against him. But by the end of the film, Palmer has changed his mind; Sam can be a princess, Palmer can be whole, and the circle of family can be as wide, and as full, as you make it.  

And Timberlake can be a serious movie star, again, in a movie like Palmer.

Cops & Criminals

Denzel Washington returns to a familiar form in neo-noirish crime psycho-drama filled with Oscar winners

The Little Things
Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto
Directed by John Lee Hancock
R
In theaters and on HBO Max Jan. 29, 2021

If you watch TV, odds are pretty good you come across an occasional cop show or two.

Nearly 20 percent of all television programming is about police officers, detectives and other law-enforcement types solving crimes, on hit “procedurals” like Law & Order SVU and NCIS, two of the longest-running dramas of any kind currently on the air.

And if you dig shows like that, you’ll likely dig watching Denzel Washington dig deep into this crime-drama thriller, playing a veteran patrolman on the long trail of a serial killer with a kink for young California women.

Rami Malek

Washington is Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Bakersfield deputy sheriff who teams with a younger, slicker LAPD detective, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), when circumstances bring Deke outside his usual jurisdiction—and back to the the very precinct where he once worked.

Though Deke and Baxter are from two different worlds, practically different eras of policing, they become partners when the evidence continues to mount, the body count continues to rise—and the search narrows to what appears to be a prime suspect.

Solving a case like this one, Deke tells Baxter, requires endless commitment and paying attention to detail—anything that a suspect might do, or leave behind as a clue. “Little things are important, Jimmy,” he says. “It’s little things that get you caught.”

Director/writer John Lee Hancock—whoseother films include Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side, The Rookie and The Alamo—certainly knows how to put little things, all the details, into crafting a well-built movie story. This, his first film since The Highwaymen (2019)—the true-ish tale of the Texas Rangers who brought down outlaws Bonnie and Clyde—chugs along with fine-tuned, neo-noir procedural precision, ratcheting up the tension and layering on the complexity as Deke bores down into the nitty-gritty of his investigation…and into something about this case, bringing him back to Los Angeles, that’s particularly troubling.

Something from the past is haunting him, and the new murders bring all the old memories up, out of the shadows, like ghosts.

Washington, one of Hollywood’s most dependable stars, is a two-time Oscar winner (Glory and Training Day), with a resume that stretches into nearly 60 films. We’ve watched him grow as a actor, from TV’s St. Elsewhere in the 1980s through Oscar-nominated roles in Cry Freedom (1988), Malcolm X (1993), The Hurricane (1999), Flight (2013) and Fences (2017). But he’s always had a thing for cops and robbers and guys on one extreme of the law or the other, in movies like The Equalizer franchise, 2 Guns, Safe House, American Gangster, Inside Man, The Bone Collector and Fallen. Now, at age 66, it’s perfectly appropriate for him to play Deke, the veteran officer, with a bit of a paunch, his hair mostly grey, and a weary, dogged determination that calls for more brains than brawn.  

His performance seems, in other words, completely authentic, wholly believable—and so very Denzellian.

Whetting our appetite for his even juicier appearance later this year as a villain in the new James Bond flick, No Time to Die, Malek—who also has an Oscar (for playing Queen frontman Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody—is virtually unreadable and inscrutable, especially at first, as the icy, media-saavy, big-city detective. But he thaws a bit when he learns that he’s not so different from his older, more experienced, Bakersfield counterpart, especially when it comes to becoming obsessesed over a vexing case.

And speaking of villains, Jared Leto—also an Oscar winner (Dallas Buyers Club)—plays prime suspect Albert Sparma, a textbook-case weirdo even creepier than his creepy-sounding name. Not to mention his admission that’s he’s a crime wonk, he looks like Charles Manson and he even has a copy of Helter Skelter on his bookcase. He taunts the police, knowing they don’t have enough hard evidence to hold him, much less arrest him. Is he really the the killer?

Jared Leto

Little Things keeps you guessing—and keeps Denzel and Rami digging, while dropping clues like bread crumbs all over Los Angeles. A local radio station provides a backdrop of classic pop and soul—and perhaps a wink-wink soundtrack of the investigation’s progress, as Mary Wills’ “My Guy” accompanies Deke’s eureka moment when he thinks he “makes” his suspect, or Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” plays as he tails him down the interstate.

But the movie most reminded me of another classic song, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which Mick Jagger sings, “Every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints.” As Deke and Baxter move closer to solving the crime, burrowing deeper into their investigation, the movie likewise blurs the lines, between law breakers and law keepers, guardian angels and personal demons, plunging its story past a police procedural into darker, murkier waters with more disturbing undertones.

Although Little Things deals with some ghastly, gristly crimes at its core, it’s not a particularly gory movie; all of its awfulness happens off-camera, or is seen in photographs. You’ll see some blood and some bodies, but it’s not meant to gross you out. It’s a multiple-murder mystery for you to solve, a puzzle for you to put together, and a solidly effective psycho-thriller with some twists you probably won’t see coming.

It’s like binge-watching a whole TV crime-solving series in one big, Oscar-star movie gulp.

“The past becomes the future becomes the past…,” Deke says. What does he mean? Baxter and Sparma find out, and you will, too.

Just pay attention to the little things—because yes, they are important.  

Tight Trio

Powerful acting performances anchor brutally honest, real-life cancer drama

Our Friend
Starring Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck & Jason Segel
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
R
In select theaters and available video on demand Jan. 22, 2021

Shailene Woodley had it. Shirley MacLaine had it. So did Ali McGraw, Olivia Cooke and Bella Thorne.

It’s dying-girl disease. And it affects a lot of beautiful Hollywood actresses, in a span of films, from the classics—Love Story and Terms of Endearment—to more contemporary millennial tear-jerkers like The Spectacular Now, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Midnight Sun.

Now Dakota Johnson has it, in this eloquent, sensitive, strong-hearted adaptation of an award-winning 2015 Esquire magazine first-person feature.

In that article, writer Matt Teague detailed the excruciating ordeal of his wife, Nicole, with cancer, and how their longtime best friend, Dane, upended his own life to relocate from another state and move into the laundry room of their home to help them.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose previous feature was the true-life military drama Meagan Levy (2017), crafts the story of the Teagues in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. We get to see how the friendship begins between Nicole (Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck), a young married couple living in Shreveport, Miss., and Dane (Jason Segel), and how it continues when the Teagues move away to neighboring Fairhope, Ala.   

As anyone who’s had any experience with cancer knows, it’s not pretty. And the movie softens much—a great deal—of Matthew Teague’s article about just how nasty and messy and ugly things got as he watched, and cared for, his wife as she wasted away. But who would want to watch that, right?

But you might want to watch Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck and Jason Segal, all giving some of the best performances they’ve given in a “mainstream” drama in a long time. You may best remember Johnson in the fantasy-horror weird-out that was Suspiria or her 50 Shades S&M softcore sex romps, portraying characters who took viewers on flights of wild escapism. In Our Friend, however, she plays Nicole with the delicate, nuanced sense of a woman grounded not in fantasy, but in the realities of an actual person whose life took some very wrenching turns.

Jason Segal, Isabella Kai & Violet McGraw

Segel, best known for comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, I Love You, Man and his appearances on How I Met Your Mother, is outstanding as Matt and Nicole’s somewhat listless best friend. Dane leaves his job at a sporting-goods store and finds his true calling by helping the Teagues do whatever they need, especially when it comes to the surrogate parenting of their two young daughters (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai).    

Affleck won a slew of awards, including an Oscar, for the searing, emotionally draining drama Manchester by the Sea (2016), and he’s appeared in almost every other kind of film, from Westerns and comedies and sci-fi thrillers. He plays Matt as a tough nut to crack—a newspaper reporter who works his way up becoming a magazine war correspondent with a hard shell, one that’s not softened by his job or assignments that take him away from home for weeks at a time.

“I’m your best friend, asshole. I’m allowed to point out your sh*itty qualities,” Dane tells him. “You’re moody, you’re selfish, you’re distant.”

One of the surprises of Our Friend is how it weaves happy moments, funny and even uplifting bright spots into the fabric of sadness and what we know will become Nicole’s fate. There are jokes and giggles, goofy car singalongs to Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a kayaking montage to Led Zeppelin (Nicole’s favorite band). But the movie also doesn’t shy away from some real-life fissues that added even more stress to the Teagues’ already stressful situation, like an extramarital affair and a family pet that has to be put down at a most importune moment.

Gwendoline Christie, from Game of Thrones and the Star Wars franchise, shows up in a most unexpected manner, and country music fans will likewise get a jolt to see hitmaker Jake Owen in a couple of scenes—making his movie acting debut—as an insensitive spouse of one of Nicole’s best friends.

It’s all a lovely, finely tuned, brutally honest portrait of a marriage, a family and a friend, who went through something terrible—and something profoundly bonding—together. It’ll make you weep, but you’ll feel good about the tears.

And the bottom line, in this “dying girl” movie: It’s not so much about a beautiful dying girl. It’s about a beautiful friendship that grew and blossomed around Nicole Teague, and became even stronger when she found out she was dying—and especially when her other “friends” started to peel off and pull away. It’s a movie about loyalty, devotion, bromance and selflessness, sacrifice and a steadfast kind of friendship that endures everything, even the looming spectre of separation and death.

It’s about coming together, staying together and holding on, when something heinous and relentless and horrible is trying so hard to pull us apart.

“What kind of person gives up his entire life?” asks a frustrated girlfriend (Marielle Scott) Dane has been dating, at the end of her relationship rope after he’s moved away for an extended stay with the Teagues.

“I’d say a good friend,” Dane answers.

And I’d say, in a world like we’re living in at this moment, feeling more pulled apart and hotly divided than ever, we could all use a bit more coming together, staying together and holding on. We could all sure use a good friend like Dane. And we can certainly use a feel-good movie like Our Friend.

Woman on a Warpath

Carrie Mulligan strikes a righteous #MeToo blow in incendiary rape-revenge fable

Promising Young Woman
Starring Carey Mulligan
Directed by Emerald Fennell
R
In theaters Dec. 25, 2020

A candy-colored rape-revenge fable with a fierce performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman brings the righteous fury of the #MeToo movement into savagely wicked focus.

Mulligan stars as Cassie, a college dropout on the cusp of 30 who was once on track to become a doctor before a tragic event derailed her plans. Now working as a coffee-shop barista by day, she has a very different agenda at night.

In the evenings, she daubs on lipstick, dolls up and pretends to be sloshed in bars or nightclubs, just waiting for a so-called “nice guy” to offer to give her a lift home. When the ride invariably takes a detour and they end up at his apartment, and he ends up pouring her even more drinks, pawing her body, putting his hands down her blouse or up her skirt, Cassie abruptly turns out to not be nearly as sloshed as he thinks. Not sloshed at all, in fact.

The guy gets a shocking comeuppance, and Cassie gets to make another neat little color-coded hash mark in her book. Check!

Making her feature directorial debut, Emerald Fennel is already a hot property in Hollywood, as an actor (she played Camilla Bowles in The Crown), writer, and for her pair of Emmy nominations as executive producer and showrunner for the second season of BBC America’s Killing Eve.

You can see how Killing Eve—about a British intelligence officer who relentlessly pursues a psycho assassin to the point that the two become obsessed with each other—funnels into Promising Young Woman. Cassie is driven by her own obsession, too.

The event that derailed Cassie’s life involved a horrific act of sexual violence inflicted on one of her med-school classmates, her childhood best friend, Nina. There were other people involved, too—boys who afterward went on as if nothing had happened, keeping their nice-guy appearances and their reputations intact for the rest of the world. And there were those who knew what happened but didn’t do anything about it, or defended the guys, or even worse, blamed or discredited Nina…

The devastating incident destroyed her best friend, and it also crushed Cassie. It also galvanized her into a mission, setting her on a singular, obsessive path as a bait-and-switch avenging angel for every “promising young woman,” like Nina, who’d been victimized by acts of non-consensual aggression, who never got the justice they deserved.

Mulligan, so good in everything she’s ever done—from Pride and Prejudice (2005) to An Education (2009), Drive (2011), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Mudbound (2017) and Wildlife (2018)—is terrific here in a bold, boundary-pushing performance as an exhilarating anti-heroine: edgy, dark, dangerous, sexy, sad, wounded, wild, wily, self-aware but also scarily  unhinged. She makes us feel the trauma that’s never left her, the fire that will never go out, a hurt that won’t heal, a hunger to stand up for something that so many women have had taken from them and can never get back. It’s powerhouse acting that fires on all lipstick-smeared, bruised and broken cylinders.

And it’s not just men that come into Cassie’s crosshairs. Even females can need some education in the matter.

“Don’t get blackout drunk…and expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to,” says one of her former university friends (Alison Brie).

Alfred Molina plays an attorney haunted by what he did. Connie Britton is the dean who dismissed things as just another “he said/she said” matter. The OC’s Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) and Max Greenfield (The Neighborhood) are all aboard, as (nice) guys who attempt to coerce Cassie into sexual encounters but don’t seem to think what they’re doing is inappropriate…and they certainly wouldn’t call it rape. Familiar, friendly faces, characters we recognize and maybe even feel like we “know,” in situations that turn into something abhorrent—just like we’ve all heard about happening in college dorms, apartments, or hotel suites…

Rape… predators… revenge… Those are all serious words and serious things, but Fennel deftly steers Promising Young Woman along its prickly path with deliciously dark humor, giving its gritty truths a hyper-stylized swirl of girly, candy-cane colors and a swish of vampy camp. Cassie’s on-the-town trolling outfits are so over-the-top, it becomes a dishy delight to see what she’s going to wear next—and what she’s going to do. Scenes with her barista boss (Orange is the New Black’s LaVerne Cox) have a snarky, sitcom-y snap. The movie veers into a kind of romcom sweetness when Cassie meets up with an old med-school classmate (Bo Burnham), now a respectable pediatric surgeon, whose puppy-dog crush on Cassie may reveal him to be the genuinely nice guy he actually seems to be.

But make no mistake about it: This is about men who do things they shouldn’t be doing, and get away with it, and a system that mostly enables and protects them. It’s impossible to ignore the film’s real-life backdrop—the rising chorus of #MeToo voices across the land in response to high-profile allegations and lawsuits against entertainment moguls, corporate giants, TV network execs…even President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 26 women, all of whom he has denounced as “liars.”  

When Cassie gets out of her car and takes a tire iron to a guy’s pickup truck to teach him to mind his disrespectful mouth, she’s striking a blow for every woman who’s ever been called…well, you can guess the words. She’s striking a blow for every female who’s every been brave enough, bold enough, to step forward and tell how she’d been victimized by a guy who did something terrible, something awful, only to be dismissed and debunked, smeared and scorched…and then had to watch him go on to become a doctor, a lawyer, maybe even a U.S. Supreme Court Justice or a president.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” one of Cassie’s transgressors tearfully tells her. “We were kids! We were all drunk!

It all full-circles to a blowout bachelor-party finale that will leave you quite breathless as Cassie brings some closure to her mission—if not in the way you might be expecting.

Arriving in theaters on Christmas Day, Promising Young Woman isn’t quite It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street. But if you’re up for a smart, sassy, stinging #MeToo kick to the chestnuts, I promise you’ll be thinking about it long after the eggnog is drained dry and the holidays are over.

Think about it: That’s what Cassie would want, after all.  

Is There Life Out There?

George Clooney looks at the end of the world in Netflix’s cautionary Armageddon tale

The Midnight Sky
Starring George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler
Directed by George Clooney
PG-13
Available on Netflix Dec. 23, 2020

George Clooney shoots for the stars in this ambitious, sprawling post-apocalyptic saga about a dying planet, a search for habitable life elsewhere, and a lonely scientist desperately trying to send a warning to a group of NASA explorers.

The dying planet is Earth, the scientist is 70-something Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), and the warning to the astronauts is to keep them from coming home—since things have changed a lot in the two years since they left, in 2047. We’re never told what happened, exactly, but ever-expanding, big red circles on the digital displays of Augustine’s computers let us know it’s not good: Something has toxified the whole world.

Climate change? Global warming? Depleted ozone? Nuclear armageddon? All of the above? Whatever. Everything, everywhere is toast, and the dwindling pockets of still-breathable air anywhere are where nobody can live, not for long—in the inhospitably frigid Arctic Circle. That’s where Augustine has opted to remain, holed up alone at a remote observatory, while the planet’s decimated surviving population has been evacuated deep underground to live out the rest of their pitiful days.

Augustine is trying—in vain—to ping the spaceshift Aether, already zipping along at 30,000 miles an hour on its way back home from its mission to set up an experimental colony on one of the moons of Jupiter. But his messages aren’t getting through; the observatory’s signal is too weak. And he knows his days are numbered, too, one way or another. Augustine is dying of something, likely cancer, that requires regular blood transfusions. But can he live long enough to at least keep those astronauts alive, and diverted away from their suicidal course?

Augustine thinks he’s alone at the observatory, and maybe even in the world—until he’s shocked to come across a tiny stowaway child (newcomer Caoilinn Springall), three weeks after the evacuations.

The tiny-tot newcomer doesn’t talk—is she mute, shell-shocked, or just shy? But Augustine is able to determine from a picture she draws that her name is Iris, like the flower. He warns her away from the all the high-tech equipment, gets her to giggle (once) in a mini food fight, and points out the most important star, up in the midnight sky—Polaris, the North Star, the one that remains fixed in place while the others circle around it. “If you ever get lost,” he tells Iris, “it will help you find your way.”

In order to reach the astronauts, Augustine and the young foundling must venture outside into the brutal, sub-freezing cold and undertake a treacherous journey, trekking to another abandoned but hopefully-still-operational observatory, many miles distant. It might have enough power to communicate with the spaceship and shoo it away, back to Jupiter, back to where its astronauts can possibly start life anew.

Clooney, who hasn’t made a movie appearance in three years (since Money Monster and Hail Caesar!, both in 2016), comes roaring back in The Midnight Sky, not only anchoring in a starring role but also directing and producing. With one foot in space and the other on bleak, toxified terra firma, he unifies the two stories in a way he’s described as Gravity meets The Revenant. He’s already won two Oscars (Best Actor, for Syrianna, and Best Picture, as one of the producers of Argo), and he could well be in the running again with this entry’s high-pedigree, Academy Award-caliber music, effects and storytelling, and its super-solid supporting cast.

Augustine and Iris must content with ravenous Arctic wolves, blinding snowstorms and melting glaciers. High above them, the Aether is dangerously off-course, damaged from a run-in with meteoric space ice. It’s also flying blind, unable to receive any signals from Earth, where all the communications centers are kaput; no one up there knows that everything down there is gone.

Clooney grizzlies out, “ages up” and goes full geezer for the role, with a supersized grey beard that makes him look like an Arctic explorer of yore, a severe self-inflicted buzz haircut and a slow amble that fits the advanced years and high mileage of a weary, terminally ill loner hermit. This cheerless, ice-caked performance isn’t his most robust—not anywhere near it—but it may be one of his most poignantly personal, as one of Hollywood’s most renowned environmental advocates. The movie walks a razor’s edge of topicality about what’s happening already on our planet; one shot of Earth, as seen by the astronauts from space as a darkened, smoldering, burned-out orb, doesn’t look much different from real-life satellite photos of this year’s California wildfires, writ large. This tale may be futuristic science fiction, but it feels not so fictional, and not so futuristic…

Felicity Jones spacewalks.

And there’s plenty of drama up above, too. Aether’s mission specialist (Felicty Jones) is a few months pregnant with a baby on board; the father is flight commander Tom (David Oyelowo), who ponders finding a name for the child, and finding a quick shortcut home; the veteran pilot (Kyle Chandler) frets about the wife and kids he’s left behind; aerodynamicist Sanchez (Demián Bichir) hides a personal heartbreak that he salves through the holigraphic memories of the young flight engineer (Tiffany Boone), who’s queasy about making her first spacewalk to make some emergency repairs.

The film is technically, visually wondrous, especially the space segments, inside and outside the Aether; depictions of space, spaceships and space travel have become fairly common territory for movies for decades. But The Midnight Sky stakes its own claim, especially on one particular effect, and sequence, that I suspect might help get it a technical-category Oscar: a pristine white airlock filling with red bursts of zero-G blood droplets, signaling life floating away, one crimson globule at a time.

The movie has life on its mind, in every way—old life ending, new life beginning. Why, one character asks, do some people die so young, and others live so long? What happens if, and when, an entire planet perishes? Is there more life out there, among the stars? Or is it too late for any of that?

It’s a lot, sometimes, to cram into a crowded spacepod—flashbacks (in which a younger actor, Ethan Peck, plays a younger Augustine) and fever dreams; a dying old man and a wide-eyed little girl; seeds and flowers; a Neil Diamond classic and a George Jones drinking song; a clip from a 1959 movie (about the end of the world) starring Ethan Peck’s grandfather, Gregory Peck, and Ava Garner. But director Clooney ropes it all together, somehow, up there and down here, into a big, bold fable about an expired globe of poisoned air, unliveable earth and undrinkable water, and the possibilities of the vast, unfathomable, unknowable future of space.

“I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place,” Augustine laments.

As the movie builds toward something you might not see coming, it ends with something you won’t be surprised to see—a look upward, into a majestic nighttime canopy of the cosmos.

It’s Clooney’s way of suggesting that perhaps The Midnight Sky, like the North Star, can point everyone toward doing a little better job—before it really is too late.

Black and Blues

Chadwick Boseman goes out in blaze of glory in this masterful musical biopic

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman
Directed by George C. Wolfe
R
Available Dec. 18, 2020 on Netflix

Viola Davis gives a boisterous, bigger-than-life performance at the musical epicenter of this stage-to-screen biopic about the “Mother of the Blues” and a contentious recording session one sweltering summer day in 1927.

But the movie belongs to the late Chadwick Boseman, who goes out in an absolute blaze of glory in his final acting role as one of Ma’s band members.

Based on a Broadway play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes its title from one of Rainey’s tunes, about a raucous Roaring Twenties flapper dance that was very popular at the time. Rainey, a Georgia-born singer who began her career in rural tent shows, became one of the era’s most popular and successful blues singers, especially after recording companies saw that there was green to be made from Blacks singing the blues.

But in 1927, Ma was on the downside of her career. The gigs weren’t as big, there were other popular blues singers on the rise, like Bessie Smith, and musical tastes were changing. The movie depicts a (fictional) day when Rainey has ventured north to a Chicago studio to put several tunes onto vinyl, including “Black Bottom.”

She meets up with her musicians—the diplomatic trombonist and band leader, Cutler (Colman Domingo); Toledo (Glynn Turman, whom fans of this season’s Fargo will recognize as Doctor Senator, the right-hand man of Chris Rock’s starring crime-boss character), her sagacious piano player; upright bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts); and young coronet hotshot Levee (Boseman), who’s itching to break out, write his own songs and start his own band.

And that’s not all: Ma arrives in tow with her pretty-young-thing girlfriend trinket, Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige, from TV’s Hit the Floor) and Ma’s teenage nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), whose speech impediment will stall the recording session—but not Ma’s insistence that he record a spoken intro to one of her songs.

Ma isn’t exactly excited about having to come to Chicago, spending a day in a broiling studio. She’s peeved that her—white—manager (Jeremy Shamos) has forgotten that she always requires a Coca Cola (or two, or three) before recording. She’s not happy that Levee’s been embellishing her songs—her songs—with his snazzy-jazzy trumpet trills and fills. And she’s certainly not happy when she catches Levee casting lusty glances at Dussie Mae.

Ma is a magnificent, brassy, sassy, sweaty mountain of attitude, makeup, teeth filings and gold-mine talent that makes everyone else bend before her, like green Georgia pines in a cat-five cyclone. Davis, an award-winning veteran actress with more than 80 movie and TV roles to her credit, virtually disappears into the blustry, busty, bisexually voracious blues matron, becoming a veritable force of nature, as elemental as earth, air, fire or water—a swaggering proto-diva who looks like she could eat Rihanna for lunch, burp up Whitney Houston and use Cher as a toothpick.

Davis’ previous Oscar—a Best Supporting Actress trophy—was for Fences, another play by Wilson adapted for the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her get a Best Actress nod, if not a trophy, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

But this movie is Boseman’s, in more ways than one. In this his final acting role, before his death, at age 42 from colon cancer in August 2020, he sears the screen with a hauntingly powerful performance that takes on even more gravity because we know it was to be his last.

The temperature is high in the recording studio where Ma and her band come to record, and Levee makes it even hotter. Boseman plays him as a live wire, electrified with life, lust, jive and cocky confidence, a character of such depth, dreams, passion and rage that we’re still learning about him as the movie closes. And unlike his bandmates and his bossy boss, who just want to do the job and get back home, Levee (correctly) sees the future: It’s not in the earthy moan of Ma’s backwater blues, but instead in the snappy, swingy pep of more “commercial” arrangements—that would later pave the way to rock and roll. It’s in the songs he’s written that he wants to give to the studio producer, another white fat-cat (Jonny Coyne) with a wad of cash, who says he likes Levee and he likes his music, and he’ll give him a shot. But will he really?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, like Fences, is one of the works in Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle about the Black experience in America during different decades of the 20th century. Like all the Cycle plays, this one has a lot of things to say—and it says them, in its crackling dialogue and its testy power-play dynamics between Ma and her band, her manager and her producer, and in the tension of Black musicians working for white men, who not only control the recording equipment, but also the purse strings.

It’s all set against the backdrop of the “Great Migration,” when millions of Black families relocated from the rural South to the North, to places like Chicago, Detriot and New York City, seeking better postwar job opportunities and lives—or fleeing segregation, Jim Crow laws and the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. But urban life wasn’t necessarily easier; racism and prejudice knew no geographic boundaries. The migration eventually resulted in a “renaissance” of Black culture, a spread of diversity and influence into wider America. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows how a Georgia blues singer stood for her own Black Lives Matter movement long before there was a movement.

Vibrantly full of music—from Ma and her band, as well as an original soundtrack by Branford Marsalis—and bathed in a golden retro glow (by acclaimed cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who dazzled moviegoers with Dreamgirls and Disney’s live-action 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast), it’s a masterful, full-on sensory experience that feels like a pulsing, living, breathing, heaving time capsule.  

Boseman (foreground) with Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Colman Domingo as Cutler.

In the dingy basement band rehearsal room, Levee and his fellow musicians banter, josh and rib each other. They talk about Levee impulsively blowing an entire gig’s pay—plus some—on a fancy new pair of shoes. They talk about God and the devil, about being Black in a white man’s world; Toledo riffs out a song at his piano that equates humanity to a stew, a gumbo mix of all sorts of food, with Black people as its dicards, the “leftovers.” In the film’s most extended, emotionally intense, centerpiece scene, Levee tells a story about his childhood and his mama, a bunch of white men who entered his house—and how he got the scar he still bears on his chest.

He may be forever remembered as The Black Panther, but this movie, and even that scene alone, could be—and should be—what gets Boseman an Oscar.

“White people don’t understand the blues,” says Ma. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”

Bozeman’s red-hot performance, his swan song, burns a sizzling hole in the middle of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, leaving us with an emptiness that will take a long time to fill, the hollow space of an immensely gifted actor who gave everything he had for his last hurrah, all the fire and intensity of which he was capable. Way too hot, way too young, way too soon.

That kind of blues—we may not understand ’em, Ma, but we sure can feel ’em.

Pistol Packin’ Mama

Rachel Brosnahan breaks out on big screen as mob wife on the run

I’m Your Woman
Starring Rachel Brosnahan
Directed by Julia Hart
R
Dec. 11, 2020 on Prime Video

Since 2017, Rachel Brosanhan has been churning out laughs as a stand-up comedian on the Emmy-winning Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

But she swaps comedy for crime in this dapper, danger-spiked 1970’s-set character drama about a career thief’s wife who has to go on the run with a baby after her life takes a screeching turn for the worse.

Brosnahan is Jean, the bored suburban spouse of a slick hustler named Eddie (Bill Heck), who keeps her supplied with groovy stolen clothes and doesn’t care that she can’t cook. When Eddie walks through the front door one day with an infant, she of course wonders what’s up, asking if it’s a joke. “It’s all worked out,” Eddie assures her. “He’s our baby. It’s your baby.”

Then he lets a group of his gangster friends into the house, grins and winks at Jean, and closes the door behind him as he leaves her, baby on her hip, in the kitchen.

Most wives would have questions—a lot of questions. But when you’re the kind of wife married to a guy like Eddie, you don’t ask a lot of questions, because there aren’t a lot of answers. And there’s not a lot of time for questions. That night, while she’s sleeping, there’s an urgent knock on her door—it’s one of Eddie’s “associates,” who tells Jean that Eddie has disappeared, she’s in serious danger, and she’s got to get out of town—really, really fast.

Eddie’s friend gives her a satchel full of money, says there’s no time to pack and puts her and the baby, whom Jean has named Harry, into a car with a hulking driver named Cal (Nigerian-British actor Arinzé Kene). And they hit the road.

We can certainly relate to Jean’s nervousness, fear and sense of confusion; she tells Cal that she’s never been on her own. She knew her husband was shady, but doesn’t understand anything about what’s going on, or why she can’t get any information from the tight-lipped Cal, who turns out to be as good with calming a crying baby as he is with a gun. But where’s Eddy? Is he OK? Is anyone looking for him? “Everyone’s looking,” Cal tells her. “And they’re looking for you, too.”

Some answers—about what happened to Eddie, where’d the baby come from, and Cal—do come, in dribs and drabs. But the important thing is following Jean’s odyssey, and her evolution as she learns to live on the lam with baby Henry in tow.

Director Julia Hart, working once again with her husband-collaborator Justin Horowitz (the producer of La La Land) on the script, spins a tight, terrific, fem-centric tale of lower-tier mob life from the mob-wife perspective, balancing soft, tender, wistfully contemplative moments with ripples of explosive violence. An extremely tense scene involving a too-friendly, nosy new-neighbor lady (Marceline Hugot) reminds us—and Jean—that she’s dealing with some very tough, rough characters, baby or not.

As Jean and Cal try to stay one step ahead of goons and goombahs trying to close the messy loop Jean’s husband opened and set into lethal motion, it’s clear that I’m Your Woman isn’t just a crime story with a unique perspective. It’s a self-actualization, women’s-lib tale with a twist—about Jean’s “liberation” from her pampered, blinkered cocoon as a moll-doll accessory.

In a parallel of how many women of the ‘70s asserted their independence, Jean also proves that she can “do it all,” stepping into a new world, a man’s world—her man’s world—to care for a child, live on her own and build a life with a newly acquired skillset.

“Fuh, fuh, fire,” she enunciates to Henry, who’s watching her do something she’s never done—start a fire—in the fireplace of the cabin in which they’re hiding out. “Fire—I did that.”

Jean’s skills also expand as movie dips its toe into race relations of the era, when she and Cal get pulled over by a state trooper and she has to think fast to explain why she’s traveling with a Black man. (“I didn’t know I could lie like that,” she marvels afterward.) Later, she learns about a Black-owned hotel catering to Black families—especially ones that need a safe place to lay low for awhile. Her little white, suburban cocoon starts feeling farther and farther away.

In addition to her starring role The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for which she’s received an Emmy and two Golden Globes, Brosnahan has appeared in numerous other TV series (including nearly 20 episodes of House of Cards), and she’s had small roles in more than a dozen movies. But this is her breakout film in every way, proving she’s so much more than a “TV actress,” and showing she can do so much more than Midge Maisel. I’m Your Woman puts her through a gauntlet, emotionally as well physically, from a hood’s pampered princess to a scrappy, survival-focused, pistol-packin’ mama.

And most mob movies don’t offer this kind of empathetic examination of motherhood. In a poignant scene in a diner, Jean explains to Cal her difficulty in conceiving a child—and her deep, long-unfulfilled yearning to have one. “And then in walked Eddie with a baby,” she says. Jean’s ongoing difficulty in cooking an egg—an ancient symbol of life and regeneration—also hints at her long struggle with fertility.  

Jean tells Cal how she soothes Little Henry by cooing Aretha’s Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” She may not realize it, in that movie moment, but we do—that the 1967 Top 10 hit addresses how baby Henry has touched her life in a profound way, re-awakened her maternal instincts and kicked something into gear that had been dormant for years.   

Marsh Stephanie Blake plays Terry

We meet several other characters, including Cal’s wife, Terry (Marsh Stephanie Blake, who played Berdie on Orange is the New Black and Vivian Maddow on How to Get Away with Murder), who has a surprising connection to Jean. Cal’s kindly father, Art (Frankie Faision, whom The Wire fans will remember as Commissioner Burrell), gives Jean an important introduction to using a firearm.

“Get used to the weight,” he says, pulling a sizeable revolver out of his pouch, and we understand the implication—it’s not just the heft, it’s dealing with the responsibility, the potentially heavy life-ending aftershocks of what you might do when you pick it up, point it and pull the trigger.  

I’m Your Woman is smart, stylish and saturated with the look and feel of the ’70s, popping with period detail—a freezer packed with TV dinners, a pink bedroom telephone, a pedestal ashtray in a hospital waiting room. It’s a parade of fab fashions in a palette of pastels and creamsicle hues; Jean may be on the run, but her wardrobe for herself and little Henry is never less than smashing. (Were there off-the-grid Baby Gaps back in the early 1970s? Just asking.) Big steel sedans prowl the streets like predatory sharks cruising for a meal. It’s a treacherous world, but it’s dreamy to sit back and watch it turn.

How fitting that another song from Aretha, her soulful cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” closes out the movie. Putting a finer point on Art’s earlier advice, it suggests that Jean can indeed handle the weight, the responsibilities of her new life, her new role, and whatever becomes the aftermath of whatever she’s got to do.

And so, too, can Brosnahan, in a rousing performance that proves that she can handle it, too, on TV or now in the movies. Got a gig? A comedy, a drama? She’s good with a pistol or a punchline. Give it to her. She’s your woman.

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.

Call of the Wild

Aubrey Plaza plays ferociously disorienting mind games in this wildly original genre-defying indie

Black Bear
Starring Audrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon & Christopher Abbott
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
R
Available on demand and in select theaters Dec. 4, 2020

Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza breaks out of almost everything she’s been in before for this ferociously disorienting meta-drama designed to muck with your head.

And muck it does.

It ends the same way it begins, makes you question pretty much everything about what you see, and really does feature a bear.

The movie opens with Plaza’s character at the edge of the dock at a lakeside house, gazing into the mist with an inscrutable look on her face. Then she gets up, goes inside and starts to write in a journal. This she does three times, the exact same thing, throughout the film; each journal entry is about “the bear.” The music over these scenes begins with Eastern, Zen-like, meditative tones, but then takes on a darker, more ominous feel.

Then the film backs up, or flashes forward, or otherwise plops us inside a car to watch the arrival of Plaza’s character, Abbie, at the house, a gorgeous, retreat-like abode of Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a musician, and his pregnant girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon). Abbie says she’s an actor-turned-director looking for some kind of recharge, inspiration—perhaps—for her next project. Over copious amounts of wine, she shares various tidbits of personal information; how she hates getting compliments, she never learned how to cook, her mother’s dead, she doesn’t have a husband.

Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

As it’s quite obvious Blair and Gabe’s relationship is a bit rocky, it doesn’t take much for Abbie and Gabe to end up together for a late-night splash in the lake. And just moments later, Abbie confesses that she made up all those things she said earlier. “I’ve been lying from the minute I got here,” she tells him.

Then things heat up to a boil with all three characters, a bear appears, and boom—everything fades to black. And just like that, the first part of the movie is over.

When it comes back and we get our bear-ings (pun kinda intended), the actors, character names and setting haven’t changed. But the situation is jarringly different, a kind of movie Mobius strip of everything we’ve just seen—everything looks the same, but twisted, turned over and inside-out.

This jarring, surreal shift introduces additional characters to the lakeside house, where they’re wrapping up a movie—also called Black Bear. And it’s not going well.

This audaciously original, wildly creative indie makes a provocative commentary on the creative process, about how every idea begins in a void, on a virtual blank page, and bringing a concept to completion can be a wrenching, pained process. It’s a tale of tortured artistry taken to new, inter-dimensional intensity, the primordial process of destruction as a part of regeneration, a snake turning on itself to eat its own tail.  

Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, whose previous films include Wild Canaries (2014) and Always Shine (2016), also probes and pokes gender roles, ideas about feminism, relationships and abusive power dynamics. (It’s interesting that Plaza and writer/director Levine are both married to their moviemaking partners, with whom they have frequently collaborated.) And he’s challenging his audience to ponder what’s real and what might instead only be imagined, and how permeable the membrane may be separating the two. When the psyche does rip into reality, morphing into the physical world, could it be like a bear that’s been rummaging through the mind’s trash bin, now going on a rampage?

And if that bear gets riled up…watch out.

Plaza and Abbott

Plaza, best known for playing the deliciously deadpan April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, has also been impressive in a variety of films, mostly kooky comedies (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Dirty Grandpa) and offbeat indies (Ingrid Goes West, Safety Not Guaranteed). But she breaks new ground in Black Bear by cannily chiseling a sizzling fissure that eventually erupts in a spectacular spew of razor-sharp, red-hot lava. You dare not take your eyes off her, and you’re constantly trying to figure her out. What’s her deal?  

Abbott, who starred as John Yossarian in Hulu’s recrafting of Catch-22, is also strong in the dual roles of Gabe, as both a flirty spouse and a devious director. And Gadon—who appeared in season three of HBO’s True Detective—gives a fiery, multi-faceted performance that stokes the mysteries hidden inside this meticulously layered puzzle box.

Is Black Bear a dark comedy? A fever-dream relationship drama? An artsy cinéma vérité movie metaphor? A psychological horror show? All of the above? Yes…maybe!

“That was some game we played,” says Blair at one point.

Some game, I’ll say! I’m not exactly sure who won, who lost, or even what the game was. But the next time Aubrey Plaza want to play—anything—count me in.

Nowhere to Run

Sarah Paulson is a monster mom in this wickedly inventive, twisty-turny horror thriller

Run
Starring Sarah Paulson & Kiera Allen
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
PG-13
Nov. 20 on Hulu

Sarah Paulson has carved quite a niche for herself as a scream queen on the dark underside of nine seasons of the FX anthology franchise American Horror Story, and then, more recently, in Netflix’s Ratched, the backstory of the sadistic nurse who’d years later torment the psychiatric patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Now she’s pitch-perfectly cast as a most malicious mother in this taut, terrifying little gem of a horror-thriller about a homeschooled teen and her helicopter mom from hell.

Run pairs Paulson with newcomer Kiera Allen as her daughter, Chloe, who figures out just how dire and dangerous things are, but then finds it hard to get away—because she’s in a wheelchair.

Kiera Allen makes her feature debut as Chloe.

The movie opens with Paulson’s character, Diane, at a hospital, eyeing her newborn baby. Then it zooms ahead 17 years, introducing us to now-teenage Chloe, and her routine of daily injections, meds and inhalers to treat her asthma, diabetes, arrhythmic heart, paralyzed legs and other conditions.

Chloe’s been raised in almost total isolation by Diane, who smothers her with attention, watches her like a hawk, prepares all her meals, administers her therapy and maintains her strict homeschooling schedule.

But Diane’s been doing other things, too, secretive things, unnatural things—sinister things. 

Chloe is spunky, bright and smart—and she’s waiting anxiously to hear back from Seattle’s University of Washington, where she’s applied for admission after she completes her senior coursework. Hopeful for a new chapter in her life, she perks up every day when she hears the mailman pull up in their driveway.

Diane, however, never lets Chloe check the mail—or have a computer in her room or get an iPhone. And when Chloe begins to suspect her mom has been giving her medicine that isn’t what her doctor prescribed, it worries—then later terrifies—her.

“I’ve got you,” Diane tells Chloe, burying her in a hug that gives us the creeps—and makes Chloe want to flee.

But, of course, that’s something not so easy for someone in a wheelchair.

Director Aneesh Chaganty’s only previous feature, Searching, was another modest but extremely effective thriller, about a father who breaks into his daughter’s laptop when she goes missing, desperately looking for clues in her online footprints. He’s an impressively economical filmmaker who’s all about streamlining; he knows how to make every shot, every scene, every edit and every second of screen time count. In Run, everything clicks and ticks like devilish clockwork to draw the knot of suspense and dread tighter and tighter as it goes.

Paulson is frightfully fit for the part as Diane, a mother whose “love” has clearly crossed the line from protective to possessive and poisonous. Her dark eyes are perfect for hiding an abyss of ill intentions, and there’s a disturbing, dark void behind Diane’s wan smile. There’s never any specific mention of Munchausen by proxy, a psychological disorder that involves the abuse of someone by their caregiver. But the condition has repeatedly made for a juicy pop-cultural cocktail of crime, medical mystery and genuine horror, as depicted recently on TV in HBO’s Sharp Objects and Hulu’s The Act.   

As Chloe, Allen makes a powerful debut in her first feature film. She more than holds her own with Paulson, a veteran of nearly 70 TV and movie roles. The young actress—who was studying creative writing at Columbia University when she got the part—uses a wheelchair in real life, giving Chloe a calm, resourceful authenticity that makes it easy to root for her in her ever-deepening dilemma, sometimes inch by excruciating inch.

Wheelchairs are confining, by their very nature. Setting Run inside a house, for most of the film, adds to the aura of confinement, claustrophobia and challenging spatial parameters; to Chloe, looking down a narrow staircase from the second floor can like peering into a chasm of the Grand Canyon. Chaganty, who also co-wrote the original screenplay, creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere, a sense that something has to eventually bust loose, blow up—or break out.

The movie is full of edge-of-your-seat, wickedly inventive, twisty-turn, shock-ya surprises, compounded by the irony of a protagonist not being able to do what the title suggests—and the situation clearly warrants. One scene features Chloe McGyver-ing her way across a frozen rooftop with extension cords, a blanket and a screwdriver. Another involves her sneaking out of a movie theater outing with her mom to attempt a frantic, furtive trip to the local pharmacy, across the street.

Run may make you recall a couple of famous films and actors, notably Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and James Caan in Misery. Stewart’s character witnesses and then solves a murder, all while recovering from a broken leg in his wheelchair. And Caan, as a famous novelist, escapes from the clutches of a psycho fan, turning the tables on her—also from his wheelchair. (A minor character is Run is even named “Kathy Bates,” a wink-wink nod to the actress who won an Oscar for playing Caan’s tormentor.)

Those guys didn’t let wheelchairs keep them from doing what they had to do, and neither does Chloe.

The wheelchair element makes Run even more breathless fun as a fright-night delight, but its real fear factor comes from the powerhouse female duo that duels it out in its house of horrors. Paulson is a formidable, five-star scream queen, now as a monster masquerading as a mom. But young Allen proves herself a most capable co-star—and a sensational opponent.  

Jimmy Stewart and James Caan would be proud.