The Boogieman’ll Get You

Ethan Hawk goes for real-life horrors as a neighborhood monster

The Black Phone
Starring Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and Jeremy Davies
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Rated R

In theaters Friday, June 24

That old boogeyman, stranger danger, strikes again in this creepy, skin-crawlingly scary tale of abducted kids and a neighborhood monster who trolls for his victims in a van filled with black balloons.

Newspapers and news reporters, addressing the rising tide of missing children, refer to him as “The Grabber” for the way he seemingly snatches kids right off the streets, after which they are never seen or heard from again.

It’s a living nightmare for the residents of this community in North Denver, Colo., where the movie—set in 1978—begins with a closeup of a can of the local commodity, Coors beer, being popped open at a high school baseball game. Everyone’s watching the young pitcher, Finney (Mason Thames), hurling hit-resistant fastballs and curveballs out on the mound.

“Your arm is mint,” says an opposing player admiringly.

Finney’s a smart kid, into model rocketry, and he has a sweet, awkward crush on a pretty young classmate (Rebecca Clark). But he’s bullied at school, until his karate-kid friend (Miguel Cazarea Mora) comes to his aid, with a little bit of advice—namely, that he won’t always be around to protect him. “You’re going to  have to stand up for yourself one of these days,” he tells Finney.

Those days come soon enough, when Finney fatefully encounters the Grabber as he’s walking home from school one afternoon. Wearing ghostly white face paint and a top hat, the stranger stumbles and fumbles out of his van (painted with the word “Abracadabra”), claiming to be an illusionist. “Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asks, before engulfing Finney in a cloud of black balloons, drugging him and tossing him into the vehicle. Finney awakens to find himself locked in a stark, soundproofed basement. Will his affection for science and model rockets, or his “mint” pitching arm and his athleticism, do him any good now? Stay tuned!

“Nothing bad is going to happen here,” the Grabber says while wearing a rubber mask of a grinning, leering devil, which doesn’t exactly reassure Finney—or us. The Grabber is a grotesque, unsettling sight, and he tells Finney to not get any hopeful ideas about the black rotary telephone mounted on the wall of the basement; that old thing hasn’t worked for years.

Finney’s situation seems dire indeed…until the phone starts ringing.

Mason Thames as Finney, who gets mysterious calls on an out-of-service phone

Telephones have an often-overlooked role in the pantheon of horror cinema, from the murder of a babysitter by a phone cord in Halloween (1978) to the sinister inside-the-house stalker of Scream (1979) and the dreaded you’re-about-to-die call in The Ring (2005). Some flicks have been even more on-the-nose, like When a Stranger Calls, Phone Booth and Murder by Phone.

This tale of telephone-connected unpleasantness is based on a story by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of horror-fiction maestro Stephen King. It’s the second film built around one of Hill’s pieces (the first was Horns in 2013), and like his famous dad, he knows how to wrap a deeply disturbing yarn in the snug tentacles of the supernatural. The basement phone is a lifeline to an afterworld realm, where Finney is mysteriously—somehow—connected with the Grabber’s former young victims, who offer him advice on how he might avoid their terrible fates. And Finney’s spunky, potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (a terrific Madeleine McGraw), has troubling “weird” dreams that may be clue-filled portents pointing to the whereabouts of the Grabber and her missing brother. Are her nocturnal reveries rare psychic gifts brought by prayer-time invocations to Jesus, or merely the fruits of a wild imagination? Her volatile, alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) thinks her dreams are signs of genetic psychosis and thrashes her with his belt to drive the thoughts from her head. Under those circumstances, how can Gwen make her father, and the local police, understand?

Madeleine McGraw plays Finney’s sister, Gwen

Once again showing his versatility as an actor, Ethan Hawke dives deep into his deliciously deranged, big-bad-wolf role as the Grabber, drawing us in close to feel—and fear—his unhinged, unpredictable malevolence. Hawke has immersed himself in supernatural weirdness and wonders before, in films like First Reformed and Sinister; he brought home the reign of murder and mayhem in The Purge (the O.G of that franchise, back in 2013) and most recently had a brief but brutally pivotal role in the bloody Viking revenge epic The Northman. As the Grabber, he’s a real-world monster hiding in plain sight, which makes him even more bone-chilling. It’s impossible to miss the connections between the gruesome Grabber and actual mass murderers and serial killers, such as “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and William Bonin, known as “the Freeway Killer,” who murdered 14 teenage boys between 1979 and 1980.

Director Scott Derrickson for sure knows how to get under your skin, as he did in his previous horror films The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister (also with Hawke) and Deliver Us from Evil. (He also directed Doctor Strange.) He creates a stylishly creepy, eerily effective, tightly wound atmosphere of dread, tension and edgy, ever-present danger. The movie’s DNA shows strands of the killer clown in It, the flashback goosebumps of Stranger Things and hints of the “dissociative personality disorder” driving the central character in M. Night Shyamalans Split. Thinking all the way back to Carrie, the 1976 classic that became Stephen King’s first movie adaptation, there’s a similar thread of profane skepticism about the effectiveness of religion in the face of full-on, impenetrable evil. The strong bond between Finney and Gwen might make you recall the young vampire and her devoted childhood bestie in Let the Right One In.

There’s violence and a bit of blood, serious childhood shockwaves and a couple of “jump scares” that will give you genuine jolts. One breathless, bravura sequence in particular—involving booby traps, an axe, a telephone receiver and a snarling, vicious dog—will have you holding your breath.

Jeremy Davies plays the dad of Finney and Gwen.

The attention to the detail of the late 1970s is impressive, from pinball and attire to chatter about TV’s Happy Days and The Partridge Family and kids riding their banana-seat Schwinns up and down the streets. Gwen’s dreams are depicted in sequences that look like grungy, grainy reel-to-reel home movies of the era (or the actual home movies that director Derrickson used to unravel Ethan Hawke in Sinister). Well-placed soundtrack tunes from the Edgar Winter Group, Pink Floyd and Sweet rock the retro vibe, which settles in like Licorice Pizza with a harrowing side serving of doom, fear and madness. It depicts a “simpler” time, before iPhones and internet, when entertainment was drive-in movies and late-night TV…and long-distance communication was done by rotary-dial telephones.

Like the black phone in the basement.

This nerve-jangling tale reminds us of both the tenderness and the toughness of childhood, how danger is always out there lurking and that some men can be monsters—and some monsters are men. It’s a ripping, vice-gripping procedural, a chilling dip into a horrific suburbia disturbia, and a heart-pounding slice of childhood trauma drama built on a troubling foundation of hometown terrors.

So, if you’re dialed into all that, well, The Black Telephone has your number.

All Shook Up

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

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

In theaters Friday, June 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

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

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

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

Alton Mason pays Little Richard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Teeth, No Bite

Dinos roar to close out the franchise, but the iconic ‘Jurassic’ movie series has almost overstayed its welcome

Chris Pratt races to outrun a velociraptor

Jurassic World: Dominion
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern & Sam Neill
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Rated PG-13

In theaters June 10, 2022

You want dinosaurs? Well, here you go!

The sixth and final installment of the dino-rama started by director Steven Spielberg in 1993 is chock full of roaring, rampaging reptiles. They rise like leviathans from the roiling sea; they gallop over the plains and swoop out of the sky; they cause highway accidents and accost campers in parks. And you thought mosquitos, sharks and bear attacks were anything to worry about?

In Jurassic World: Dominion, dinosaurs are no longer contained in exotic tropical-island zoos or research facilities. They’ve busted out of their once-experimental, bio-engineered bubbles and now live as “wild animals,” causing a ruckus across the globe. As the movie opens, a newscast notes “37 dinosaur-related deaths reported last year.”

Forget fossils. These living, breathing alpha predators have become a disruption, a new notch in the food chain, a black-market commodity and a global challenge to humankind’s abilities to coexist and adapt.  

But dinosaurs aren’t the biggest problem. Instead, it’s the shady company BioSyn, which has been genetically making and replicating them, and possibly planning something even darker and more diabolical.

Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) reunite.

Who better to get in the dino drama than all the characters from all the Jurassic movies? It’s a reptile-romp reunion as Laura Dern and Sam Neill (who starred in the original Jurassic Park and its two follow-ups) re-enter the franchise, alongside Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard (from the two newer Jurassic World flicks). Jeff Goldblum, who straddles both the Park and the World, returns for more dry comic relief as chaos theorist/mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm. Another familiar face: B.D. Wong’s pioneering dino scientist, who’s having second thoughts about the havoc he’s helped to unleash on the world.

Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is neck-deep in dino trouble.

Isabelle Sermon reprises her role from two previous films as Maise Lockwood, the now-teenage granddaughter of one of the engineers whose bold DNA breakthroughs helped create the the original dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The fact that she is also a bio-engineered clone, like the dinosaurs, makes Maise immensely valuable for genetic research—and exploitation.

Colin Trevorrow (who directed 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) returns to the director’s chair and throws even more characters into the mix. DeWanda Wise is a tough-cookie pilot who gets involved in the adventure when Maise is kidnapped. Campbell Scott is a hissable villain at the helm of BioSyn, and Mamoudou Athie has a key role as a young rising star there.

It’s a packed movie, with a lot going on and a lot on its mind—the dangers of cloning, the responsibilities of science, our fragile ecosystem, corporate avarice, animal abuse and human hubris. Do dinosaur moms love their dinosaur babies? Where can you buy dino kabobs? Some of those things are addressed, true, in previous Jurassic movies, but they’re really hammered home here. And it’s certainly not a coincidence when a conversation brings up the Greek god Prometheus, whose legend is a mythological caution about the perils of “playing god.”

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a kick to see all the cast members from previous films together. “Wow, this is so trippy,” says Goldblum’s character, and he’s right; it’s a trip, among other things, down memory lane. The movie is full of nods and throwbacks and strains of its own cinematic DNA, like a fateful salute to the greedy, bumbling programmer played by Wayne Knight in the original, and when a fearsome Giganotosaurus attack puts everyone through a scene almost identical to the classic, frightful T-Rex encounter from 1993.

But much of the time, it feels like it’s stuck in its own nostalgia loop, with scenes and setups that don’t break new ground as much as retread it. And it just doesn’t feel very awesome anymore. When Spielberg’s Jurassic Park hit the big screen nearly three decades ago, it was a groundbreaking movie milestone, a benchmark of technological advancement and a gob-smacking wellspring of awestruck wonder. No one had ever seen dinosaurs depicted so realistically. But that was 29 years ago, and we’ve been treated to five subsequent films, each reflecting the newest advances in combining actors with digital dino danger. There certainly are a lot of dinosaurs, more than ever (plus a bonus menace of giant flying locusts) in Dominion. But now, seeing them doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We’re kinda used to it.

It’s a fitting, flashy, action-packed finale for a franchise that introduced the world to a new era of dinosaur movies—and became a hot property entertainment franchise with sequels, spinoffs and even theme-park rides. Our fascination with dinosaurs may never become extinct, but most good things eventually come to an end, and even Jurassic Park couldn’t stay open forever.

“Let’s finish this,” says Laura Dern’s character at one point.

By the time Dominion stomped and romped across the finish line at a somewhat belabored two and a half hours, I pretty much felt the same way.

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.