Milan at the Movies 11-23-22 – Black Information Network

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THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN–When lifelong friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) announces seemingly out of the blue, “I just don’t like you no more,” Padraic (Colin Farrell) is so devastated he makes it his mission to change Colm’s mind. Enlisting the support of his sister (Kerry Condon) and a local lad (Barry Keoghan), Padraic soon discovers that their entire island community on the west coast of Ireland has a stake in the outcome. Set in 1923, writer/director Martin (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) McDonagh’s fantastic new movie has the whimsy and inadvertent gravity of a fable passed down through generations. McDonagh’s dual career as one of the leading playwrights of his generation is evidenced in his wonderfully idiosyncratic dialogue–profane and poetic at the same time–which his stellar cast delivers in typically bravura fashion. Farrell and Gleeson, who memorably played a pair of hapless hitmen in McDonagh’s 2008 filmmaking debut (2008’s “In Bruges”), give career performances that are sure to be remembered at awards time. You’ll never see the ending coming, but it’s guaranteed to knock the wind out of your sails. I was shaken and stirred. (A.) 
BLACK ADAM–Dwayne Johnson plays D.C. Comics B-list (anti)-hero Teth “Black” Adam who’s awakened after 5,000 years of hibernation to battle the Intergang rotters who violently overthrew the government of peaceful Middle Eastern kingdom Kahndaq. Hoping to keep a check on Adam’s anger management issues–the big guy’s first instinct is to kill anyone who annoys him–are Doctor Fate (former 007 Pierce Brosnan having a larf) and the Justice Society (whose best known member is Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo). Director Jaume Collet-Sera’s brightly colored, fast-moving $200-million comic book throwaway will probably suffice for diehard comics fans. Everyone else should probably just stay home and save their money since it’ll be on HBO MAX before Christmas Day. (C PLUS.)
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER–How do you make a 161-minute Black Panther movie without the Black Panther/King T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman)? Very, very carefully. Ryan Coogler’s sequel to his 2018 Marvel blockbuster treads a fine line between Afrocentric boosterism and comic book mayhem, and it’s not really a comfortable fit. Accordingly, the Wakanda scenes are infinitely more interesting–and certainly more colorful thanks to some truly spectacular costume and production design–than the fairly rote action setpieces. This sophomore entry in Marvel’s billion dollar franchise feels like a placeholder until they finally get around to recasting the lead role. (C.)
BLOOD FEAST TERROR–Tigon Productions burst onto the international film scene in the late 1960’s as a sort of Hammer 2.0. Their best–and best known–releases were Michael Reeves’ “The Sorcerers” and “The Witchfinder General,” but this Vernon (“The Crimson Cult”) Sewell-directed 1969 creature-feature starring Peter Cushing in one of his rare non-villainous roles is unexpectedly diverting. When dead bodies mysteriously drained of blood begin surfacing in the English countryside, Cushing’s Detective Inspector Quennell is called in to investigate. The most likely suspect is a creepy entomologist (Robert Flemyng) whose comely daughter (Wanda Ventham) seems to be harboring a few secrets of her own. (Spoiler alert: gargantuan Deathshead moths are the actual culprits.) The creature design for the “were-moths” is laughably retro, but they’re all part of the movie’s old-fashioned appeal. For the record, the film had several alternate titles, including “The Vampire Beast Craves Blood” (which would have been my choice) and “Blood Beast from Hell.” Genre aficionados will definitely want to check it out. Kino Lorber’s Classics Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary track by critic/novelist Kim Newman and writer/editor Stephen Jones, as well as the original theatrical trailer. (B MINUS.)
BONES AND ALL–Luca Guadagnino reunites with his “Call Me by Your Name” star Timothee Chalamet for something completely different: a young cannibal-lovers on the run artflick. Chalamet’s James Dean-ish Lee hooks up with comely teen runaway Maren (Taylor Russell), a fellow eater, and the two travel the backroads of an eerily depopulated American Midwest satisfying their mutual appetites. Guadagnino plays the material–based on Camille DeAngelis’ Alex Award-winning 2016 YA novel–as a sort of uber-stylized cross between Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Kathryn Bigelow’s Southwestern vampire noir “Near Dark.” But since it’s Guadagnino, one of the most unapologetically sensual filmmakers working today, it’s also stunningly, even rapturously beautiful at times. The uber-photogenic leads are both terrific, and Oscar winner Mark Rylance steals his share of scenes as Maren’s loquacious, flesh-eating mentor. (Rylance’s Sully is like a Mark Twain character if Twain had written about teen cannibals instead of tween hooligans like Tom and Huck.) Besides hunger, the principle engine fueling the plot is Maren’s search for her missing mom (a haunting Chloe Sevigny) whose flesh-eating gene she inherited. And while this clearly isn’t a film for everyone, it definitely has “Future Cult Movie” written all over it. I loved it. (A.)
DETECTIVE STORY–Although it was nominated for multiple Academy Awards–including Best Director (William Wyler), Actress (Eleanor Parker), Supporting Actress (Lee Grant) and adapted screenplay–this studiedly gritty 1951 police procedural hasn’t aged appreciably well. Based on Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway hit, the movie at times feels like a Philco Playhouse production with its single, New York police station setting. (Fortunately Lee Garmes’ kinetic b&w cinematography helps reduce the “canned theater” effect.) Kirk Douglas is predictably intense as an NYPD detective whose rigidity in pursuing criminals–especially a slimeball abortionist (George Macready)–makes him a loose cannon in the eyes of fellow cops William Bendix and Horace McMahon. Good support from Grant (a flibbertigibbet shoplifter), Parker (Douglas’ wife-with-a-secret), and Joseph Wiseman (a glib cat burglar). The downbeat ending is unexpectedly bracing, and the film is never less than compelling. But Wyler, who helmed some of the all-time greats (including “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Dodsworth,” “The Heiress,” and “Jezebel”), might have been too good for the material, hence his tendency to “over-direct” Philip Jordan and brother Robert Wyler’s schematic script. The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary by author/film historian Alan K. Rode and the original theatrical trailer. (B PLUS.)   
DEVOTION–Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black aviator in naval history, is the subject of director J.D. (“Sleight”) Dillard’s disappointingly conventional social justice drama. And the decision to tell Brown’s story through the eyes of a white fellow member of his Flight Squadron 32 (“Top Gun: Maverick” costar Glen Powell’s Tom Hudner) feels stunningly retrograde. Brown, who’s been described as the aerial Jackie Robinson, deserved a better and less cliched biopic than this. While it’s not inept like 2012’s Tuskegee Airmen movie “Red Tails”–the flight sequences are truly state of the art–it’s nearly as cookie-cutter dull. Nice performances by Majors, Powell and Christina Jackson as Brown’s devoted wife, but they’re playing 1950’s movie stereotypes, not their real-life, flesh-and-blood counterparts (C.)
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER–Considering the fact that Clint Eastwood’s “Stranger” kills three men and rapes a woman in the opening 20 minutes, Eastwood’s sophomore outing as director (“Play Misty for Me” preceded it by two years) feels more like an especially nasty Sam Peckinpah western than anything from Sergio Leone or Don Siegel. In a playful riff on Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”–itself referenced in Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”–The Stranger is hired by the town of Lago to protect them from a trio of gunmen ready to be sprung from jail. The fact that these good citizens are carrying a guilty secret (they arranged the murder of their former sheriff) makes a complicated situation even more, uh, problematic. And did I mention that the movie has elements of an Old West ghost story as well? Sort of an American spaghetti western, it’s considerably more sadistic than Eastwood’s future oaters-as-director (including the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales”). One of the most interesting things about the film is the casting of both female leads from Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” Verna Bloom and Marianna Hill, in the major distaff roles. (It’s funny to imagine Clint sitting through the hardcore leftist “Medium Cool,” let alone taking casting tips from it.) Although Eastwood would go on to make better movies (and better westerns), the degree of confidence and skill he displays is formidable indeed. It’s also the only western written by Cleveland native Ernest Tidyman whose metier was tough urban crime flicks like “The French Connection”–which he won an Oscar for–and “Shaft.” The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray has a bounty of extras including two audio commentary tracks, one by film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, and the second with cult director/spaghetti western aficionado Alex (“Repo Man”) Cox; interviews with Hill and fellow actors Mitchell Ryan and William O’Connell; a vintage promo featurette, “A Man Called Eastwood;” original TV, radio and theatrical trailers; and “Trailers from Hell,” a tasty assemblage of vintage grindhouse movie trailers introduced by director Edgar Wright and Josh Olson. (A MINUS.)
LOVE, CHARLIE: THE RISE AND FALL OF CHEF CHARLIE TROTTER–From 1987 until 2012, Charlie Trotter’s was among the most revered and fetishized American restaurants. Trotter, who almost single-handedly put Chicago on the culinary map with his namesake eatery, is the subject of Rebecca Halpern’s admiring, but not hagiographic documentary portrait. Although Trotter died after suffering a stroke in 2013 (he was only 54), his influence on how and what Americans eat is still felt to this day. Billed as serving “New American Cuisine (With a Classical French Bias),” Trotter’s cut a wide swath not just through Chicago foodie circles, but also internationally. Halpern had invaluable access to archival footage–including Trotter’s home movies–that help paint a compelling biographical portrait of a sometimes contentious visionary. A perfectionist with tyrannical tendencies in the kitchen, Trotter made as many friends as he did enemies in his brief, albeit eventful life. Among the talking heads who attest to Trotter’s place in the gustatory pantheon are chef pals Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, as well as Grant Achatz who Trotter mentored before striking out on his own. Achatz’s Alinea would eventually rival Charlie Trotter’s as Chicago’s premier dining destination. Devotees of The Food Network won’t dare miss this movie, although it’s probably best not to watch it on an empty stomach. No extras on the new Greenwich/Kino Lorber DVD, alas. (B PLUS.)
LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE–Co-directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon–better known for adult-leaning comedies like “Office Christmas Party” and “Blades of Glory”–go the family movie route with a big-screen adaptation of Bernard Waber’s beloved 1960’s kid-lit series. Teen idol Shawn Mendes voices the bath-loving croc crooner who moves into the Manhattan attic of the Primm family (Scoot McNairy, Constance Wu and Winslow Fegley) with his eccentric handler, Hector Valenti (Oscar-winner Javier Bardem in a scene-stealing performance). Naturally there’s a spoilsport neighbor (Brett Gelman’s aptly monikered Mr. Grumps) who wants to have Lyle evicted, but Lyle’s charm and innate decency eventually win the day. While it’s clearly geared for a (very young) demographic, adults who dug the “Stuart Little” movies and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” won’t hate themselves for accompanying their wee bairns for a matinee. (C PLUS.)
MALCOLM X–A great American movie by one of America’s finest living filmmakers, Spike Lee’s 1992 cradle-to-the-grave biopic of the titular civil rights leader finally receives the Criterion Collection treatment–and was well worth the wait. Anchored by Denzel Washington’s towering performance as the divisive Muslim figurehead who was assassinated in 1965, it’s one of the few movies in modern screen history to feel truly “epic.” At three hours and 21 minutes, it has the breadth, depth and scope/vision of the type of 1960’s roadshow movies that, ironically, would have never deemed Malcolm an “appropriate,” or even deserving subject for biographical treatment. Born to a minister father, Malcolm Little eventually rebelled from his strict religious upbringing and served jail time for burglary. It was in prison that the future Malcolm X was introduced to the Nation of Islam, becoming one of its most devout and dedicated followers. A later pilgrimage to Mecca helped Malcolm change his “whites are the devils” mantra, ultimately preaching that all races needed to coexist and work together. Superb supporting turns from Angela Bassett (Malcolm’s wife, Betty), Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammad) and Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie). The late film critic Roger Ebert once called Lee’s films exercises in empathy. Besides “Do the Right Thing,” I can’t think of another Lee joint more worthy of that description than this masterpiece. The Criterion Blu-Ray has a cornucopia of extras, including a 2005 audio commentary with Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown and costume designer Ruth E. Carter; contemporaneous chats with Lee, Brown, Lindo and composer Terrence Blanchard; a making of featurette with, among others, Lee, Washington, Dickerson, Brown, Blanchard, Carter, Ossie Davis, Martin Scorsese and Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s daughter); co-screenwriter Arnold Perl’s feature-length 1972 documentary, “Malcolm X;” deleted scenes introduced by Lee; an essay by journalist/ screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper; Lee and Washington excerpts from the 1992 book, “By Any Means Necessary: The Trials of Tribulations of the Making of ‘Malcolm X;'” and Davis’ stirring 1965 funeral eulogy for Malcolm X. (A PLUS.)
THE MENU–The sociopathic chef-owner (Ralph Fiennes) of a chi-chi restaurant located on a private island that charges $1,250 per person unleashes his inner Jigsaw on well-heeled patrons in director Mark Mylod’s biliously amusing foodie/horror flick. Mylod, who cut his teeth on HBO’s “Succession,” definitely knows how to flambé the 1%, and watching the rich, entitled and pompous squirm is both exhilarating and weirdly cathartic. As the only diner brave enough to stand up to Chef’s murderous impulses, Anya Taylor-Joy of “Queen’s Gambit” fame is fantastic as the movie’s de facto audience surrogate. Good support from, among others, Nicholas Hoult (Taylor-Joy’s preening yuppie date), Janet McTeer (an imperious restaurant critic), and John Leguizamo (a deluded fading movie star anxious to impress his soon-to-be-ex agent). You’ll probably want to eat before seeing the movie, however. (B PLUS.)
PREY FOR THE DEVIL–A young nun with mommy issues is recruited for exorcism duties in this pro-forma horror flick by German director Daniel Stamm whose “The Last Exorcism” from 2010 was a considerably more original take on a genre that’s been on life support since the mid-’70s. Sister Ann (a wan Jacqueline Byers) assists a priest (Christian Navarro) in the exorcising of the same demonic spirit who possessed her mother years earlier. Is it a coincidence, or something more sinister? Good veteran actors like Virginia Madsen and Ben Cross are wasted on nothing roles, and the whole thing has a rote, been-there-exorcised-that vibe. Your time would be much better spent rewatching 1973’s “The Exorcist” on HBO MAX. (C MINUS.)  
SHE SAID–In 2016, intrepid New York Times reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) turned their sights to somewhat easier prey (uber producer Harvey Weinstein) after realizing they wouldn’t be able to continue pursuing the myriad sexual assault allegations against newly elected president Donald Trump. Because seemingly everyone had an axe to grind about Weinstein, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. German director Maria (“I’m Your Man”) Schrader’s flat-footed docudrama about the NYT’s campaign to take down one of the most powerful men in Hollywood is so relentless in its #MeToo virtue-signaling that it has the curious effect of (almost) making you feel sympathy for Weinstein. (I do miss his movies.) Schrader seems to think she’s making another “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight,” but her film is simply craven, woke Oscar bait destined to be forgotten well before nominating ballots go out in February. (D PLUS.)
SMILE–After a patient (Caitlin Stasey) kills herself during their therapy session, trauma psychologist Rose (Sosie Bacon) begins seeing the same kind of terrifying apparitions that drove her former patient to suicide. First-time feature director Parker Finn’s horror flick overdoes the jump scares–and borrows a bit too promiscuously from both the “Grudge” and “Ring” playbooks–but Bacon’s supremely grounded, deeply empathetic performance helps maintain viewer interest despite an overly generous 115-minute run time. (C PLUS.)
STRANGE WORLD–One of the ugliest looking ‘toons in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, this lackluster collaboration between the director (Don Hall) and writer (Qui Nguyen) of last year’s infinitely better “Raya and the Last Dragon” should have probably gone straight to Disney+. There’s certainly nothing about this Jules Verne-y knockoff–not the drab visuals, hackneyed storyline or charmless characters–that merits a multiplex outing. Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid play play Searcher and Jaeger Clade, father and son explorers whose latest adventure involves the hunt for “Pando,” a precious green energy source that’s in dangerously short supply. Along for the journey to the center of the earth are Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their annoying teenage scion Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). There’s also a three-legged pet dog and blue blob “Splat” vying for screen time and–it’s cash-conscious Disney, after all–lucrative merchandising possibilities. The film’s labored progressive agenda (the Clades are a loving biracial family, Ethan is gay and there’s even a heavy-handed environmental message) is sure to antagonize MAGA households. Quaid and Gyllenhaal previously played dad and son in Roland Emmerich’s 2004 disaster flick, “The Day After Tomorrow.” This time it’s the movie that’s the real disaster. (D.)
TICKET TO PARADISE–Julia Roberts and George Clooney play an acrimoniously divorced couple who reluctantly join forces to help squelch daughter Kaitlyn Dever’s Bali wedding to a man she barely knows in Ole (“The Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies) Parker’s modern spin on the “comedies of remarriage” (“The Awful Truth,” “The Philadelphia Story,” et al).that were a staple of Golden Age Hollywood. Clooney and Roberts have always had great screen chemistry; they could have been the Millennial Tracy and Hepburn if anyone was still making Tracy and Hepburn movies. And watching them trade affection-laced barbs for two hours feels a bit like nirvana in an increasingly grown-up movie-starved theatrical climate. While nobody will ever confuse this with a classic rom-com, it’s still one of the season’s most purely pleasurable indulgences. (B PLUS.) 
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AMSTERDAM–“Silver Linings Playbook”/”American Hustle” auteur David O. Russell’s first film since 2015’s “Joy” is an all-star, wildly ambitious, multi-tiered murder mystery with real-life historical bona fides. (An opening title card informs us that “A lot of this really happened.”) It’s also a helluva lot of fun. Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington play two American soldiers and a volunteer nurse who meet during WW I–yes, Amsterdam the city plays a major role in the plot–and become lifelong pals. The main bulk of the action takes place in 1933 New York City, however, where the reunited trio become amateur sleuths who, with the help of Robert DeNiro’s retired general, help solve a murder AND uncover a fascist conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. Any movie that finds room for juicy supporting turns by (among others) Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Taylor Swift and Mike Myers is clearly playing in the big leagues, and Russell’s movie is an embarrassment of riches. Yes, the frenetic, frequently confounding narrative with its groaning board of characters you sometimes need a scorecard to keep track of would have probably been more ideally suited to the leisurely rhythms of a limited HBO or Netflix series. But I haven’t seen a more raucously entertaining, beautifully acted, stunningly lensed (courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, Terrence Malick’s DP of choice) or downright exhilarating studio film this year. That said, I’m not sure what multiplex audiences accustomed to the cheap sugar highs of franchise gruel will make of it. With luck, it should develop a cult following that will only grow exponentially over the years/decades. I can definitely picture it becoming a TCM programming staple in 2066. (A.)  
ARMAGEDDON TIME–It feels like the end of the world to sixth grader Paul Graff (impressive newcomer Banks Repta) when he’s taken out of his Queens public school and enrolled in the elite Forest Hills Academy. Not only is he leaving behind his only friend, African-American Johnny (Jaylin Webb), but he feels like a social pariah at Donald Trump’s alma mater whose students are all considerably more well-off and, pointedly, a lot less Jewish. Distracted by financial hardships, Paul’s well-meaning parents–schoolteacher Esther (Anne Hathaway) and plumber Irving (Jeremy Strong from HBO’s “Succession”)–are seemingly oblivious to their son’s roiling angst. As a result, he turns to his maternal grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), for emotional succor. As a Holocaust survivor, Aaron knows a thing or two about anti-Semitism. Director James (“Ad Astra,” “The Lost City of Z”) Gray’s semi-autobiographical chronicle of his own Queens boyhood in the early 1980’s is one of the year’s loveliest, most heartfelt and deeply touching films. The conspicuous lack of sentimentality that has been a hallmark of Gray’s work serves him well here. This isn’t one of those maudlin, rose-colored memory pieces: it’s as iron-willed and devoid of self-pity as Paul and his granddad, and all the stronger for that. Which means that when you eventually shed a tear (and you will), they’re both well-earned and profoundly cathartic. (A.)
BARBARIAN–When she checks into the Detroit Airbnb she rented online, Tess (Georgina Campbell) is annoyed to discover that the owner double-booked and there’s already a man (“It” killer clown Bill Skarsgard) staying there. Her decision to stay the night–it’s late, and she’s in Detroit after all–turns out to be, er, unwise. Zach Cregger’s full-throttle, balls-to-the-wall horror flick is one of the most audacious, fully-realized and, yes, flat-out terrifying chiller in many a moon. And considering the fact that Cregger’s sole previous directorial credit was co-helming the dreadful 2009 frat-boy comedy “Miss March,” it also seems a bit like a miracle. Fans will be rehashing (and re-watching) this film for decades to come. It might even turn out to be a game-changer for the entire horror genre. (A MINUS.) 
BLOW OUT–When Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out” opened in 1981, critics–even critics who normally turned up their nose at DePalma’s Hitchcockian riffing–took notice. Unfortunately, audiences mostly stayed away. Released at the end of a summer in which Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ruled the box office, this downbeat, cynical paranoid thriller seemed curiously out of step with audience taste. Reuniting with his “Carrie” director, John Travolta gave one of his finest screen performances as Philadelphia-based sound-effects ace Jack who accidentally records a political assassination while scouting ambient nighttime sounds for a new movie. Assisting him in his sleuthing is not-so-happy hooker Sally (Nancy Allen in her second call girl in a row role for then-husband DePalma after the previous year’s “Dressed to Kill:” discuss), and their increasingly daring exploits put both in mortal danger. In one of his early screen roles, John Lithgow plays the wonderfully creepy villain. (Lithgow also played the heavy in DePalma’s “Obsession” five years earlier.) DePalma wasn’t shy at acknowledging both Antonioni’s “Blow Up” and Coppola’s “The Conversation” as major influences, and together they form a sort of unofficial trilogy. While Antonioni copped a detached–dare I say “alienated”?–attitude towards his “Big Reveal” and Coppola’s film ended with Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul descending into madness, “Blow Out” concludes in an almost nihilistic fashion as Jack ostensibly surrenders to The Man. The system is fixed; he’s in over his head; why bother? See what I meant about “cynical” and “downbeat”? No wonder audiences stayed away in droves. But like many DePalma films that either flopped or did only so-so business in their initial release (e.g., 1974’s “Phantom of the Paradise” and 1989’s “Casualties of War”), “Blow Out” has had an enviable second life, now widely regarded as a masterpiece and one of the key American films of its decade. The Criterion Collection’s new 2-disc set has a treasure trove of extras, including both a 4K UHD disc presented in Dolby Vision HDR and a gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer; interviews with DePalma (conducted by “Marriage Story” director/ DePalma fanboy Noah Baumbach), Allen and cameraman Garrett Brown who discusses his use of a Steadicam in the movie; on-set photographs by Louis Goldman; DePalma’s groovy, notoriously difficult to see 1967 feature debut, “Murder a la Mod;” Michael Sragow’s essay “American Scream;” and Pauline Kael’s wildly effusive original New Yorker review. (A PLUS.)
BODIES BODIES BODIES–A Gen Z hurricane party is the setting for Halina Reijn’s meta horror flick that instantly renders the entire “Scream” franchise hopelessly passe. The “party,” hosted by David (Pete Davidson) at his family’s remote country estate, is actually more of a bacchanal thanks to the copious quantities of drugs, alcohol and polymorphous sexual activity involved. The title refers to a game in which the participants wind up being murdered (in the gnarliest fashion possible, natch). Costarring “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” breakout Maria Bakalova and Amanda Stenberg of “The Hate U Give,” it’s snarky, smirky and immensely pleased with itself. No doubt some people–probably moviegoers under the age of 30 who haven’t seen a lot of, y’know, movies–will think it’s a total hoot. But I found the whole thing off-puttingly smug and borderline-obnoxious. (C MINUS.)   
BROS–The first big studio gay rom-com since 2018’s “Love, Simon,” Nicholas (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the “Neighbors” movies) Stoller’s fitfully amusing new film stars Billy (“Difficult People”) Eichner as Bobby, a deeply cynical, romantically challenged podcaster who’s also the director of an LGBTQ+ cultural museum. Billy’s luck seems to change when he meets guppie Ken Doll Aaron (Luke Macfarland). But being the incurable pessimist he is, Billy does pretty much everything he can to sabotage their burgeoning relationship. Alternately frothy and raunchy, this is pretty much what you’d expect from producer Judd Apatow who has a knack for casting established comic performers like Amy Schumer (“Tranwreck”) and Peter Davidson (“The King of Staten Island”) in quasi autobiographical roles. While Eichner isn’t in Schumer or even Davidson’s league thesping-wise–he pretty much hits the same note whatever emotion Billy is expressing–he’s a great quipster, and the movie is good, shallow fun. (B MINUS.)  
BULLET TRAIN–Brad Pitt plays conflicted assassin “Ladybug” whose most recent assignment finds him on a Tokyo to Kyoto super bullet train where he’s forced to square off against rival assassins (including Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry’s “twin” hitmen brothers). That’s pretty much it for the plot of David (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) Leitch’s breathlessly paced, brazenly ridiculous action flick. To complain that it’s all “too much” is missing the point–if there even is one. This kind of borderline-nihilistic, “we’re all just having a larf” action movie has become as commonplace in 21st century Hollywood as, well, Marvel super hero flicks. You’re either with them or against them, and in this case (mostly due to Pitt and a superb supporting cast which includes Zazie Beetz, Michael Shannon and Sandra Bullock as Pitt’s handler) I’m all aboard. You probably won’t remember it by the time you hit the parking lot, but it’s goofy fun while it lasts. (B.) 
DADDY LONGLEGS–Like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, brother directing team Josh and Benny Safdie clearly learned a thing or two from the loosely structured, semi-improvised films of American indie godfather John Cassavetes. In their 2009 sophomore outing, the Safdies hadn’t yet begun experimenting with genre forms–that would have to wait until 2017’s “Good Time” and 2019’s “Uncut Gems”–which might explain why “Daddy Longlegs” feels a bit like a spin-off of Cassavetes’ 1974 masterpiece, “A Woman Under the Influence.” Instead of a mentally unstable housewife wreaking havoc on her suburban household, the Safdie’s protagonist is a barely employed, divorced father of two young boys. Lenny (“Frownland” director Ronald Bronstein) is such a terminal screw-up that he even manages to botch the two weeks a year he’s allotted to spend with his kids (real-life siblings Sage and Frey Ranaldo). So manic and undisciplined that you can have an anxiety attack just watching him navigate the mean streets of Manhattan, Lenny is nobody’s idea of a “dad.” Throughout the course of the film, you’ll repeatedly want to reach inside the screen and forcibly remove the boys from Lenny’s custody for fear they’ll wind up either psychically scarred or even physically harmed. It’s a real stress test of a movie. But thanks to the Safdie’s incipient raw talent, and the so-real-it-hurts performances, it’s also unforgettable. Bonus features on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray include new interviews with the Ranaldo boys and their parents, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer (who plays Lenny’s ex-wife in the film); a 2017 documentary about the Safdie brothers; priceless footage of the Ranaldo boys’ initial meeting with Bronstein; a making-of featurette; 2008’s “There’s Nothing You Can Do” a Safdie short with members of the “Longlegs” cast and crew; deleted scenes; a 2008 episode of interview series “Talk Show” with cast and crew members; a 2009 interview with the Safdies; and an essay by former Cahiers du Cinema editor Stephane Delorme who programmed the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight the year “Daddy Longlegs” had its world premiere. (A.)  
D.C. LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS–When Superman (John Krasinski) and his fellow Justice Leaguers are kidnapped by Lex Luthor’s evil guinea pig cohort (Kate McKinnon), Supe’s super-pooch Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) rounds up animal shelter rejects Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), Chip (Diego Luna) and Morton (Natasha Lyonne) to brainstorm a rescue mission. (The critters have all been endowed with super-powers thanks to a dose of orange Kryptonite, making them as invincible as Krypto himself.) Director Jared Stern’s surprisingly amiable CGI ‘toon coasts on the distinctive charms of its amusingly eclectic vocal cast, and it’s fun to see the normally too-cool-for-school D.C. multiverse relax a tad, evincing a most welcome sense of humor. Plus, any movie that has the wit to cast Keanu Reeves as Batman–even if it’s only his voice–has its tongue firmly in cheek. (B.)  
DON’T WORRY, DARLING–The eagerly awaited reunion between the director (Olivia Wilde) and screenwriter (Katie Silberman) of 2019’s “Booksmart” turns out to be something of a flatliner. As anyone who’s seen the trailer–which was positively ubiquitous in theaters this summer–could tell you, it’s basically “Stepford Wives 2.0.” Or “Stepford Wives 2.0” if a Jordan Peele wannabe was calling the creative shots. The great Florence (“Midsommer,” “Little Women”) Pugh plays Alice, wife of yuppie hotshot Jack (former teen idol Harry Styles who’s unaccountably bland and evinces zero chemistry with Pugh). The couple has recently moved into a retro SoCal subdivision that looks like something out of a 1950’s fever dream where “Leave it to Beaver” wives stay home to cook and clean while their hubbies work 9 to 5 on a hush-hush project overseen by the vaguely sinister Frank (Chris Pine oozing Rat Pack sleaze). It’s Alice who belatedly susses out that something’s not quite right in “Victory Town.” Of course, it takes the suicide of fellow housewife/BFF Margaret (KiKi Layne), one half of the only African-American couple in their cosseted enclave, to finally wake her up. Wilde’s movie is all build-up, and once the pieces finally fall into place it’s hard not to stifle a “saw-it-coming” yawn. Pugh and Pine are both very good, and the art direction wittily replicates the synthetic, seductive feel of ’50s Americana. I just wish the film itself was worthy of their labors. (C.)
DRIVE MY CAR–Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s humanist masterpiece was nominated for four Academy Awards this year (including both Best International Feature and Best Picture; it deservedly won in the former category), but precious few have been able to see the film in its limited theatrical release. Kudos then to the Criterion Collection for acquiring home video rights so that cineastes who don’t live near a big city arthouse can find out what the fuss is all about. A masterful Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yusuke, a recently widowed middle-aged theater actor/director who takes a job helming a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a Hiroshima theater festival. During his residency, Yusuke forms an unlikely bond with the taciturn young woman (Toko Hiura) hired to be his personal driver. Although it runs a leisurely three hours, there’s not a single desultory moment here. Grief, guilt, love, loss and (ultimately) acceptance are just some of the big themes Hamaguchi tackles in probing, sensitive fashion. It feels an awful lot like real life, and that’s a quality conspicuously absent from most of the movies being made in Hollywood these days. No wonder Academy members flipped over it. The Criterion Blu-Ray includes a new interview with Hamaguchi; a featurette about the making of the film which includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with many of the actors; the movie’s 2021 Cannes Film Festival press conference; and an essay by National Book Critics Circle finalist and New York Times Magazine columnist Bryan Washington. (A.)
FALL–Considering the popularity of recent mountain-climbing documentaries like the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” and 2021’s “The Alpinist,” it’s not surprising that someone would choose to wrap a thriller template around the extreme sport pastime. To say that director Scott Mann’s film literally made me sick to my stomach–confession: I suffer from extreme vertigo–is a roundabout way of saying that he succeeded. In an attempt to break childhood friend Becky (the appealing Grace Caroline Currey) from a self-destructive spiral, Hunter (Virginia Gardner) invites the still-grieving widow on a hiking expedition. Their target–an abandoned 2,000 foot radio tower in the middle of nowhere–turns out to be a huge mistake when the dilapidated wooden ladder they use to climb it begins to crumble. Stranded at the top with no way down (and no cellphone reception, natch), the two women are forced to devise ingenious, Macgyver-like methods to secure their escape. At the halfway mark of this 107-minute film, I wondered how Mann could possibly maintain suspense or even interest in the second half. But he manages to pull it off, and the nerve-rattling ending left me shaken and stirred. (B PLUS.)  
THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT–Frank Tashlin’s rollicking 1957 showcase for the pulchritudinous charms of iconic pin-up model/actress Jayne Mansfield gets the Criterion Collection treatment, and it’s a blast from start to finish. Tashlin, who began his career as an in-house animator at Warner Brothers directing Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, brought his cartoony visual sensibility–lots of elaborate sight gags, natch–to his live action films, and “The Girl” was one of the crown jewels of his oeuvre In her first starring role, Mansfield plays Jerri Jordan, va-va-voom girlfriend of infamous Long Island gangster “Fats” Murdock (Edmond O’Brien). Because Jerri’s sugar daddy thinks she’s got star potential, he hires Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), a down-on-his-luck talent agent to transform his future bride into an overnight singing sensation. (The fact that Jerri has no discernible talent is immaterial to Murdock’s grand design.) Studded with 17 (count ’em) rock-and-roll numbers by such luminaries as Eddie Cochran, the Platters, Little Richard and Fats Domino, it’s a lollapalooza of riches, both aural (that music!) and visual (Tashlin’s DeLuxe Color Cinemascope lensing brought real snap, crackle and pop to the film’s multi-hued, candy-colored production design). Tashlin and Mansfield would reteam a year later for the even better Madison Avenue spoof, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” Fingers crossed that Criterion  get around to releasing that cult classic some day. The extras are as delightful as the film itself. Scholar Toby Miller does the audio commentary track, and critic David Cairns provides an effusive video essay. There are 
new interviews with director/Mansfield fanboy John (“Hairspray”) Waters and Eve Golden, author of “Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It;” a conversation between WFMU DJs Dave Abramson and Gaylord about the movie’s sublime r&r performances; on-set footage; archival interviews with Mansfield and Little Richard; a Mansfield-focused episode of Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast; “The Fame Game,” an essay about the film by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme; and excerpts from Tashlin’s 1952 book, “How to Create Cartooons,” with a new introduction by Ethan de Seife, author of “Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin.” (A.)
THE GOOD HOUSE–Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline reunite onscreen for the first time since Ang Lee’s 1997 masterpiece “The Ice Storm” in husband-and-wife directing team Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s decorous, but mostly effective adaptation of Ann Leary’s best-selling novel. As Massachusetts realtor extraordinaire Hildy Good, Weaver–who’s in nearly every scene–has her juiciest role in years. She even manages to pull off the somewhat precious device of having Hildy routinely break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera/audience as she narrates the story. A high-functioning alcoholic with a preference for Merlot, Hildy somehow manages to juggle her two needy adult children, the ex she’s still paying alimony to, a dwindling economy and her rejuvenated affair with high school beau Frank (Kline). It’s only a matter of time before everything comes crashing down. An intervention by family and friends spurred by her increasingly frequent black-out spells portends darker days ahead, yet Weaver keeps you rooting for (and liking) Hildy despite, or maybe because of, her palpable humanity. And how nice is it to see a sexagenarian romance take center stage in an American movie? (B.)
HALLOWEEN ENDS–Wanna bet? The conclusion of director David Gordon Green’s rebooted “Halloween” trilogy climaxes with the long-teased final-final showdown between Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode and masked madman Michael Myers. If you really believe this is the end of a billion dollar slasher movie franchise, you probably think the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny vacation together every summer in Cabo. (C PLUS.)
THE INVITATION–Newly orphaned Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) takes a DNA test and discovers that she has family she’s never met, or even heard of. When Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike cousin Walter (Thomas Doherty) flies to New York to meet her, she’s immediately swept up in the fantasy of inheriting new kinfolk. Without thinking it through, Evie impulsively agrees to accompany him back to Old Blighty for what promises to be a lavish family wedding. Uh-oh. If “Get Out” and “Ready or Not” had been written by “Dracula” creator Bram Stoker, they might have resembled director Jessica M. Thompson’s late summer Screen Gems throwaway. It’s not terrible, just silly, derivative and eminently disposable. (C MINUS.)
LOST HIGHWAY–By 1997, most people seemed to have grown impatient with David Lynch. Hence the chilly reception this movie received from both critics and audiences at the time of its release. Maybe it was the lack of closure to Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV series. Or perhaps the generally perceived “self-indulgence” of his most recent big-screen films (“Wild at Heart” and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”) cooled them on the visionary “Eraserhead”/”Blue Velvet” auteur. But as someone who loved “Lost Highway” at first sight–I saw it on opening day at an Orlando, Florida multiplex where half the audience walked out before the movie ended–living to 
see the Criterion Collection release this legendary film maudit feels an awful lot like poetic justice. In a 180-degree switch from his role the previous summer as the alien-busting president in Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day,” Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, an L.A. jazz musician who’s accused of murdering his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). The fact that Fred somehow morphs into Pete (Balthazar Getty), a considerably younger auto mechanic, while cooling his heels in a jail cell is the least of the movie’s bewildering dualisms. How about Renee somehow being transformed into “Alice,” the mistress of an abusive hoodlum (a properly terrifying Robert Loggia)? And I haven’t even mentioned the “far out, man” supporting cast which includes everyone from Richard Pryor in one of his last screen roles, Gary Busey, musician Henry Rollins, Lynch repertory player Jack Nance and Robert Blake (gulp) as “The Mystery Man” whose hauntingly cryptic words to Fred at a party (“We met at your house; as a matter of fact, I’m there right now”) may–or may not–hold the secret to the myriad, shape-shifting mysteries that are afoot. As much film noir as science fiction/horror, “Highway” marked the second and final collaboration between Lynch and author Barry Gifford (who penned the book “Wild at Heart” was based on), and it’s a doozy. Extras on the newly released Blu-Ray include Toby Keeler’s indispensable feature-length 1997 documentary, “Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch,” featuring Lynch, Gifford and frequent creative associates Angelo Badalamenti and Mary Sweeney; archival interviews with Lynch, Pullman, Arquette and Loggia; a suitably otherworldly reading by Lynch and critic Kristine McKenna of excerpts from their 2018 book, “Room to Dream;” and selections from an interview with Lynch taken from Chris Rodley’s scholarly tome, “Lynch on Lynch.” (A.)  
MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU–Ever wonder what “Despicable Me” arch-villain Gru was like as an 11-year-old when he was a super villain wannabe? Yeah, me neither. But the latest Illumination CGI ‘toon–the fifth in the “DM” series, including 2015’s standalone Minions origin story–serves up despicable Gru’s backstory in a fitfully amusing, if somewhat protracted (even at 87 minutes it feels 30 minutes too long) throwaway. Along with the aid of his new Minion pals, Gru attempts to join the Vicious 6 criminal gang after the sacking of one of their members reduces their ranks to a Vicious 5. The animation is Illumination-generic, but the vocal cast is gratifyingly and amusingly diverse. Besides Steve Carell’s dependably spot-on Gru, there’s Taraji P. Henson, Julie Andrews, Jean Claude Van Damme, Alan Arkin and Danny Trejo. Although it won’t be shortlisted for Oscar’s Best Animated Feature, this is decent enough to be one of the season’s top-grossing films. (B MINUS.)
MR. KLEIN–In Vichy France, antique/art dealer Robert Klein (Alain Delon) makes a financial killing buying and selling artwork previously owned by Jews who are fleeing the country en masse. An opportunist with zero scruples and seemingly no moral compass, Klein’s life of Aryan privilege is threatened when he’s mistaken for another “Robert Klein,” a Jew who’s also a member of the French Resistance. The cat and mouse game that ensues as Klein stalks Klein in an attempt to clear his name is curiously removed from traditional movie “suspense.” Instead, director Joseph (“The Go Between,” “Accident”) Losey chooses to play the Hitchcockian premise as an Antonioni-esque exercise in spatial dislocation and spiritual alienation. Interestingly enough, “Z”/”Missing” director Costa-Gavras was originally pegged to helm Franco (“The Battle of Algiers”) Solinas’ script. Losey, meanwhile, was otherwise engaged on a Marcel Proust adaptation that got stalled in pre-production hell. While I have no doubt that Gavras would have made a fine film directing his “State of Siege” scenarist’s screenplay, Losey’s more distanced, elliptical approach brings unexpected depth and layers of meaning to the cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Reuniting with Delon four years after 1972’s “The Assassination of Trotsky” (another great Losey film crying out for a Blu-Ray release), Losey won the Best Director Cesar award–France’s equivalent to the Oscars—and the film itself captured the Best Picture prize. Extras on the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray include 1976 interviews with Losey and Delon; “Story of a Day,” a 1986 documentary about the real-life rounding up and deportation of French Jews that figures prominently in the movie’s climax; interviews with critic Michel Ciment and Henri Lanoe, one of the film’s three editors; and an essay by British professor/critic Ginette Vincendeau that helps contextualize “Mr. Klein” within both Losey and Delon’s oeuvres. (A.)
NOPE–Jordan (“Get Out,” “Us”) Peele, the Gen-Z answer to M. Night Shyamalan, shoots for (Steven) Spielberg status with his latest, a far-out cross between Shyamalan’s “Signs” and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Reuniting with his “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya, Peele aims big—outer space “big”–here, and almost hits his target. Because of Universal’s “no spoilers, please” edict, it’s hard to even synopsize the film without giving anything away. Suffice it to say that the excellent supporting cast includes Keke Palmer, “Minari” Oscar nominee Steven Yuen and promising newcomer Brandon Perea, and Peele fans won’t dare miss it. I’m not sure whether it all adds up to a fully satisfying package (and it certainly didn’t have to clock in at 135 overly generous minutes), but I can’t wait to see it again. (B PLUS.) 
PAWS OF FURY: THE LEGEND OF HANK–Samuel L. Jackson trains hapless pup Michael Cera on the ways of the samurai so he can save a village of dog-hating kitties from being decimated by dastardly rotter Ricky Gervais. If that brief plot synopsis sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this is a loose remake of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” Because it’s a largely benign animated film aimed at a kiddie demographic, Brooks’ edgy, non-p.c. humor is conspicuously (and predictably) absent. The CGI animation isn’t appreciably better than anything you’d find on a Netflix ‘toon series, but the screenplay–credited to seven, count ’em, writers–has enough scraps of “Saddles”-y wit to keep any accompanying grown-ups from bailing or falling asleep. (C PLUS.) 
PEARL–The prequel teased in the closing credits of spring’s “X” has finally arrived, and it’s an even richer experience than the movie that preceded it. Set in 1918–versus the 1979 of “X”–Ti West’s companion piece wittily contextualizes the character of Maxine, the bloodthirsty old lady who wreaked havoc on the amateur porn gang from the earlier film. Played by the same preternaturally gifted Mia Goth who was the ambitious starlet and “Last Girl Standing” in “X,” Maxine is a young bride who’s going progressively batty sequestered on her parents’ Texas farm while her husband is off fighting in WW I. Maxine sets all of her showbiz dreams on a dance audition which she hopes will draw the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. But when that doesn’t happen, she begins to act out in the most appalling (and gruesome) fashion possible. Shot in voluptuous widescreen color by director of photography Eliot Rockett, the movie feels a bit like the 1950’s horror flick Douglas (“Imitation of Life,” “Written on the Wind”) Sirk never directed. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and that’s a very good thing. Like “X,” cult immortality awaits the latest one-of-a-kind A24 corker. (A MINUS.) 
PINK FLAMINGOS–In the original Variety review, a critic described John Waters’ career-launching provocation as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” Establishment critical response never really improved over time either. While writing about “Pink Flamingos” at the time of its 25th anniversary, Grand Poobah Roger Ebert considered the movie so utterly loathsome that he didn’t even bother awarding a star rating. Alrighty then. So I guess it’s only fitting that the tony Criterion Collection would ultimately choose to release it on a splendiferous 50th (!?) anniversary collector’s edition Blu-Ray. Not having seen “Flamingos” since January 1977–on a double bill with Waters’ 1975 follow-up, “Female Trouble,” at New York City’s Cinema Village–I worried that it couldn’t possibly live up to my initial “OMG, I can’t believe what I’m watching!” and “This is so cool!” enthusiasm. Surely a half century of distance would render Waters’ $12,000 mondo transgression, well, quaint. But like very few works from that era once deemed “shocking” or “taboo, “Flamingos” officially joins “The Devils,” “Salo,” “The Damned” and “Last Tango in Paris” as a rare cause celebre which remains every bit as nerve-rattling as it did back in the day. Future Waters drag queen superstar Divine (aka Glenn Milstead, Waters’ high school buddy) had her signature role as Babs Jordan, the “Filthiest Person Alive.” Living in a seedy Baltimore trailer park with her cretinous son (Danny Mills), an idolatrous floozy (Mary Vivien Pierce) and her clearly demented, gap-toothed mother (the incomparable Edith “Edie the Egg Lady” Massey), Babs is currently embroiled in a heated battle to defend her filthy crown from suburban weirdos Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary). Although they ultimately foil the dastardly Marbles (revenge is a dish best served with tar, chicken feathers and a gun), Babs & Co. are ultimately forced to relocate to Boise, Idaho, culminating in one of the most notorious final scenes in underground cinema history. (Yes, dog poo is involved.) Included among the copious extras are “Divine Trash,” Steve Yeagers’ rollicking 1998 feature documentary about the making of the film ; two audio commentaries, both featuring Waters, taken from the 1997 Criterion laserdisc and a 2001 DVD; a chatty new conversation between Waters and fellow indie auteur Jim Jarmusch; Waters’ guided tour of the movie’s now-infamous Baltimore locations; deleted scenes/alternate takes; a collectible “Pink Phelgm-Ingo” barf bag; an essay by critic Howard Hampton which makes the case that “poor taste can be timeless” while referencing everyone from R.W. Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Douglas Sirk, Dusan Makavejev and the Marx Brothers; and a fond remembrance about the making of the film by Waters comrade in arms Cookie Mueller excerpted from Mueller’s 1990 book, “Walking Through Clear Water on a Pool Painted Black.” With such an embarrassment of goodies, how could I not give it anything but an (A PLUS)
SEE HOW THEY RUN–A delectably old-fashioned murder mystery set against the glittery backdrop of London’s West End in 1953. Sam Rockwell plays Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard tasked with finding out who murdered Hollywood director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody, narrating the movie from beyond the grave) at a party commemorating the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” (Kopernick had recently been hired to helm the movie version.) Assisting Stoppard is eager beaver Police Constable Stalker (a delightful Saoirse Ronan), and the range of suspects are so vast Christie herself would have had an aneurism keeping tracking of them. Could it be the persnickety screenwriter (David Oyelow) whose script Kopernick dissed? Or maybe the “Mousetrap” star (Harris Dickinson) who thought Kopernick had romantic designs on his wife? Perhaps it’s the play’s suspicious producer (Ruth Wilson of Showtime’s “The Affair”)? Director Tom George shoots much of the film in split screen, and instead of being distracting it actually enhances both the suspense and (considerable) humor. Except for some virtue-signaling multicultural casting that dampens the otherwise spot-on period verisimilitude, fans of “Knives Out,” “A Fish Called Wanda” and 1950’s Ealing Studios comedies should find this a rollicking good time. (A MINUS.)
TAR–In a career-best performance, Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tar, the morally and ethically compromised conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who’s on the verge of her very own #MeToo moment. It couldn’t happen at a more inopportune time. Lydia is preparing to record Mahler’s notoriously difficult Symphony #5, and her marriage to Sharon (Nina Hoss) is already on thin ice. (The couple are parents of an adopted Syrian daughter who’s having difficulties of her own at school.) Writer/director Todd Field’s first film since 2006’s “Little Children” is the movie event of the year (so far anyway): a galvanizing character study as well as an enthralling, deep-dish immersion into its protagonist’s rarefied world. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (A.)    
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING–One of Mad Max auteur George Miller’s rare now-genre films is a live-action “Aladdin” strictly for grown-ups. Chameleonic Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton plays divorced British academic Dr. Altihea Binnie who buys an antique lamp in an open-air market while attending a conference in Istanbul. Back in her hotel room, a Djinn (that’s “genie” to you and me) pops out of the lamp and offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. The Djinn (Idris Elba) turns out to be a bit of a romantic, still pining over a lost love from centuries ago. Because Altihea is a narratologist–i.e., a scholar of stories–she naturally prompts the Djinn to share his past life experiences. Accordingly, much of the film is devoted to his and her competing flashbacks told in a whimsically–sometimes luxuriantly–stylized manner befitting a mise-en-scene ace like Miller. Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s celebrated short story, the movie works as a poetic metaphor for the soul-crushing loneliness that binds Alithea and the Djinn. “What is your heart’s desire?” The answer may surprise you. (B PLUS.)
TILL–The shocking murder of 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) in 1955 Mississippi is the subject of director Chinonye (“Clemency”) Chukwu’s compelling slice of modern American racial history. As Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s grieving mother who inadvertently became a civil rights activist, the extraordinary Danielle Deadwyler brings such palpable, throbbing humanity to her real-life protagonist that she’ll shatter your heart into a million pieces–and possibly win an Oscar nomination for her bravura performance. Mamie’s decision to leave her son’s casket open for his funeral (“I want them to see”) went a long way towards alerting white Easterners to the mortal perils facing Black citizens in the Jim Crow South. The fact that Chukwu’s mournful, harrowing period film still feels so relevant in the #BlackLivesMatter era is inordinately depressing. (B PLUS.) 
TOP GUN: MAVERICK–Tom Cruise’s Navy test pilot extraordinaire Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is back to train a cadre of recent Top Gun graduates for another hush-hush overseas mission in this 37-years-later sequel to Cruise and director Tony Scott’s iconic Reagan-era blockbuster. The only question is: what took them so long? The directorial baton has been passed to Joseph (“Oblivion,” “Tron Legacy”) Kosinski, and I knew I was in good hands when Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is reprised for the opening credits sequence. The principal conflict this time around is between Pete and Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late flying partner, Goose (memorably played by Anthony Edwards before donning surgical gear for “E.R.”). What’s most gratifying about this belated follow-up is that it actually seems to understand what made the original work and doesn’t mess with their Old Coke formula. Accordingly, Rooster has a rivalry with fellow pilot Hangman (Glen Powell) that echoes Maverick’s earlier friction with Iceman (Val Kilmer who turns up in a touching cameo); Maverick once again takes time to romance an independent-minded lady (Jennifer Connelly as saloon proprietress Penny); and an oceanside touch football game wittily nods to the original’s volleyball sequence and is nearly as blatantly, comically homoerotic. Playing the Navy brass who predictably disapprove of Maverick’s methods but can’t quit him are the always welcome Ed Harris and Jon Hamm. The soundtrack isn’t as layered with the ear worms (“Take My Breath Away,” “Playing With the Boys,” etc.) that made the first movie’s soundtrack a chart-topper, but Lady Gaga’s new ballad is pretty swell and deserves to be remembered at Oscar time. The state of the art flying sequences actually surpass the ones from its predecessor (it’s 2022 CGI after all), and they’re unlike anything you’re likely to experience outside of an actual cockpit. If “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t a summertime box-office bonanza, there’s really no hope for multiplexes in our post-Covid era. (A MINUS.)   
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING–Delia Owens’ best-selling 2018 novel finally hits multiplex screens, bearing the imprimatur of Reese Witherspoon as producer. (A pre-“Legally Blonde” Witherspoon would have killed it as the film’s backwoods heroine.) Borrowing the bifurcated structure of the book, Olivia Newman’s movie jumps between 1952 and 1969 to tell the story of itinerant North Carolina “Marsh Girl” Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, very good) from impoverished childhood to her future infamy as a murder suspect. The two significant men in Kya’s life (nasty rich kid Chase and salt of the earth Tate played, respectively, by Harris Dickinson and Taylor John Smith) make less of an impression than they probably should have, but Newman–and I’m assuming Witherspoon–clearly intended their film to be a female empowerment sudser, and men are more of a distraction than a necessity in this world. Like its literary source, the movie feels a bit like a shotgun marriage between John Grisham (the courtroom stuff) and Nicholas Sparks (the lovey-dovey stuff). But Edgar-Jones and a solid supporting cast, including the estimable David Strathairn and Garret Dillahunt, make it more substantive and enjoyable than expected. (B MINUS.)
THE WOMAN KING–Oscar winner Viola Davis is fierceness personified as General Nanisca, the early 19th century leader of an all-female cadre of elite warriors in director Gina Prince-Blythewood’s nobly-intentioned, but somewhat prosaic and slackly paced historical drama. Set in the African kingdom of Dahomay, the film pits Nanisca and her Amazonian freedom fighters against both Portuguese colonizers (personified by Hero Fiennes Tiffin’s Snidely Whiplash-like slave trader, Santo) and the Oyo general (Jimmy Odukoya) she has a personal beef with. (It’s a long–very long–story.) Despite using spears and blades versus their enemy’s guns, there’s little doubt that Nanisca & Co. will ultimately prevail. And it’s that predictability, as well as a bloated 135-minute run time, that makes the film more of a slog than the rip-snorter it should have been. Nice turns by newcomer Thuso Mbedu as Nanisca’s newest recruit and, although it’s a glorified cameo at best, “Star Wars” alum John Boyega as Dahomay’s progressive-minded, albeit polygamous (!) King Ghezo. Prince-Blythewood proved her action mettle with Netflix’s kick-ass “The Old Guard,” and her new movie works best during the frequent (but regrettably “PG-13”) battle sequences which favorably recall Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and “Apocalypto.” A weird distraction is the decision to have the Dahomay characters speak English with thick African accents while everyone else’s dialogue–German, Portuguese, et al–is subtitled. (C PLUS.)
—Milan Paurich

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