Ethan Hawke has made some of the seminal movies about growing up and coming of age, and his casting against type as a terrifying child abductor and serial murderer in Scott Derrickson’s ‘70s-set scary movie The Black Phone (B+) is one of the project’s genius original flourishes. But the child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw playing the lead siblings in this extremely entertaining film are the revelations that hold the puzzle pieces together. These charming teens are a delight, and their characters make way fewer novice mistakes in facing down their adversaries than those in typical slasher flicks. The grounded direction is taut and the story satisfying as the voices of past kidnapping victims lend the protagonist the courage to face his captor via the titular device. Some of the supernatural elements could have used a bit more explaining, but superb character work and period detail help propel the movie into the top-tier of recent elevated horror films. For its genuine performances and highly competent story beats alone, this film is a thrilling callback.
The outer space curse plaguing Disney from infinity to The Black Hole, Treasure Planet, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms and beyond has not yet been lifted. Director /co-writer Angus MacLane’s Toy Story prequel/ spinoff Lightyear (C+) stays largely grounded on an uninspiring planet and surrounds its bland titular space ranger protagonist with dubious sidekicks. It’s a missed opportunity given the daffy high jinks and emotional arcs present among Buzz’s creative fellow playthings, and the ingenuity just doesn’t carry through in this cosmos-set adventure. The story surrounds the famed space hero making amends for an unforced error, and alas the series of action set pieces and encounters with vapid villains following his fall from grace simply don’t rise to the occasion. There are several clever bursts, a cute cat from outer space and a few requisite Pixar moments of melodrama. But the film largely feels like a moribund money grab and missed opportunity never approaching the operatic canvas or ambition possible with the great wide yonder at its fingertips. Nobody’s getting a Woody over this one.
The central character is a whirling dervish of a “party starter” who, behind the scenes of his admittedly small-time New Jersey public persona, is experiencing his own struggles to launch his personal life at the beginning of his twenties in a sweet, thoughtful and unpredictable movie. The second feature film written by, starring and directed by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth (B+) is a cerebral and celebratory triumph of emotion and characters; and even when some of the plot strands coalesce as awkwardly as the protagonist’s philosophical search for career, romance and meaning, the journey is a winning and watchable high-wire act. Raiff is captivating and charismatic as the extremely talky lead whose so-called motivational dancing is the least of his charms, but it’s two women who steal the show: Dakota Johnson as a mysterious mother who attends a series of bar and bat mitzvahs where Raiff is holding court and Vanessa Burghardt as her autistic daughter whose droll deadpans are a welcome yin to Raiff’s yangs. Johnson in particular has rarely been better as she plays shy vulnerability and gets to open up in some very engaging scenes including one signature discussion over vintage blue raspberry and lemon-lime popsicles. Among the many pleasures of the film is the intermingling of generations: Raiff riffs with the likes of his curious teen younger brother (Evan Assante), his supportive mom (an excellent Leslie Mann) and a variety of characters his junior and senior with plain spoken and plaintive exchanges about the nature of happiness and romance. The music is also a propulsive, delight ranging from the title party tune and familiar works by the likes of Lupe Fiasco to gems by bands such as Homeschool and Harmony House. This isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy nor is it a conventional romcom, but it will reward those who enjoy a tug at the heartstrings and a good “I’m still coming of age” film. Sometimes no matter the station or season in life, a little bit of party pep can put a spring in one’s step.
Movies tug at heartstrings, provoke belly laughs, stimulate the mind and evoke physical reactions, so it’s a bit nerve-racking how “body horror” maestro David Cronenberg has fabricated such an inventive but ultimately soulless and anticlimactic work in Crimes of the Future (C). The veteran director undoubtedly engages in fascinating sci-fi world building with his near dystopian society in which humans feel no pain, but the film is largely bogged down in tedious exposition, rendering inert its mystery and momentum. The movie does no favors to its cast including Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux, who play performance artists conducting surgery for audiences and extracting newly harvested organs against a backdrop of bureaucracy (embodied in an idiosyncratic Kristen Stewart) and would-be revolutionaries (Scott Speedman’s underdeveloped character). Cronenberg skims the surface of human transformation, examines peoples’ fetishizing of pain and pleasure and crams in tortured metaphors about inner beauty. What could have been a quintessential grotesquerie turns out to be merely an obtuse lecture. This trauma drama lethargically asks more questions about morality and mortality than it has the ability to answer. It has the bones of a really peculiar and provocative saga and rarely manifests into its most evolved form.
Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island (B) is a new take on Pride and Prejudice centered on a group of D-list friends and their encounters with an elite household in the titular famed gay vacation destination. Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the screenplay, and SNL comedian Bowen Yang are authentic and witty in the lead roles (based on Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Jane Bennet characters, respectively) supported by a warm, winning and understated Margaret Cho in the Mrs. Bennet role. Conrad Ricamora and James Scully are the Darcy and Charles updates of the literary reimagining and are also committed to their performances. It’s actually uncanny how well the Austen archetypes translate to the LGBTQIA+ milieu, and the update is also a coup for Asian representation. The film has fun with remixing both literary and romcom conventions while sending up the devil-may-care attitudes of the inlet getaway, including some cautionary subplots in the statuesque form of Zane Phillips as a charming rogue in the ensemble. The melodrama is a bit uneven at times but the repartee between the co-leads is consistently strong and appropriately sentimental. There are also some pop confections on the soundtrack including covers of Wonka tune “Pure Imagination” and “Sometimes” by Britney Spears. It’s an elevated escape.
Suspend your disbelief and strap yourself in for an unexpected stunt spectacular with equally epic heart. S.S. Rajamouli’s go-for-broke bromantic adventure RRR: Rise Roar Revolt (A-) is the breakneck tale of two intertwined freedom fighters on a mission to save a little girl and discover the bounds of brotherhood and loyalty before ultimately liberating the nation of India from British Raj rule in the 1920s. Viewers must excuse some goofy special effects and cartoonish performances from some of the imperial villains and perhaps learn to relish a touch of tonal shifting and delirious dance breaks while exploring this wonderland of spicy cinematic bonbons. It’s an imaginary account of two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, played with absolute relish by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. respectively, and a deliriously inventive gonzo action showcase with parkour and pull-ups, a truckful of wild animals attacking a crowd, a defiant mid-flogging song that incites a riot and so much spectacular more. The fictional friendship between two superheroes has hints of Hindu mythology and fervent nationalism, underscored with rousing M.M. Keeravani music. The kinetic emotional arch as the protagonists emerge from strangers to brothers-in-arms ushers in an elaborate series of escapades with shades of Braveheart, Ben-Hur, Face/Off and Indiana Jones (there’s even a role for that series’ Allison Doody as a bloodthirsty baddie). Chances are you won’t see a more joyful set of performances, more delirious derring-do and a more exciting parade of panache on the screen anytime soon.
This is a movie in which a very small cast rises to the occasion. Sophie Hyde’s dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (B) tells the story of a retired school teacher and widow (Emma Thompson) who hires a twentysomething sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her catch up on what she’s been missing during years of the marriage and motherhood routine. Most of the story take place in one single hotel room, which sometimes feels like a two-hander stage play, but the themes and acting elevate the material considerably. Thompson is superb, all nerves while striving to be proper amidst a situation she didn’t imagine herself engaging. In the thankless role opposite such an acting titan, McCormack holds his own and gets a chance to open up as well. There are some dubious choices adding tension to the final act, but ultimately this talky film is a delight. The movie does a good job exploring what it’s like to achieve intimacy, even when everything one has learned up to this point builds up walls around close relationships. It’s a poignant and often funny tale and tackles issues which aren’t often addressed onscreen.
Brace your favorite wing-mates for some breathtaking ground-hugging film flights in Joseph Kosinski’s precision-guided Top Gun: Maverick (A-). The long-awaited sequel works as both a nifty nostalgia trip and also as a fully developed story in its own right, with vivid visual and emotional appeal. Set nearly four decades after the original film, this follow-up traces the arc of Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” as he returns to the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, where the brash captain must confront his past as he trains a group of younger fighter pilots, among them the son of his deceased best friend Goose. The movie is emotionally grounded with fine performances by the fully-committed Cruise, a tormented Miles Teller, an appealing Jennifer Connelly and a charismatic Glen Powell. The film soars most in its action sequences with spectacularly rendered flight maneuvers, aerial dogfights and surprise stunts deepening the adventure elements. More than the original movie, this follow-up is buoyed by clear-eyed storytelling with less reliance on catchphrases, montages and stylistic cover-ups to a sometimes simplistic core. It builds on the franchise’s might and mythology and further cements Cruise’s power as the stuff of legend. A little overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, the film still hits its dramatic beats with dexterity. As far as Hollywood blockbusters go, viewers will be hard-pressed to find a more cohesive combination of high-flying and heart.
It’s possible for an elevated horror film to be so contemplative that it floats right above rational headspace. Alex Garland’s ambitious but only partially successful Men (C+) centers on Jessie Buckley as a widowed London woman who goes on a solo holiday in the English countryside but becomes disturbed by the men in the community. There’s sledgehammer allegory aplenty (sometimes as obvious as a big bite from the fruit of the courtyard apple tree) but ultimately lots of Garland’s creative visual flourishes including some “body horror” conceits haven’t been seen before. Viewers will soon know and appreciate why ensemble player Rory Kinnear is creepy menace personified. The film’s standout star though is Buckley, fresh off an Oscar nomination, who communicates bravery and dread in both plausible and outlandish parts of the story. Garland’s vision mostly exceeds his grasp in this outing, but he brings genuine characterization and suspense to the first two acts before the plot gets more toxic and off the rails than anyone expected.
It’s “who framed ribald rodents” as a slew of Hollywood’s top comics provide an often uproarious tribute to the cartoons of their youth in a new Disney+ live-action/animated action comedy film. Akiva Schaffer’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (B) is a throwback thrill with funny friends John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as the odd couple Disney duo most prominently featured in a ‘90s TV adventure. The movie is chock-full of unexpected cameos as the estranged pint-sized pair reunites three decades after their heyday to solve a co-star’s disappearance in a human and toon filled modern L.A. From the central conceit that one of the hand-drawn chipmunks has received a CGI glow-up to a hilarious sin city of animated bootleggers, the film throws inspired madcap mayhem at every corner. It’s a dad joke paradise with animated Will Arnett getting in the action as a child actor turned villainous adult and Keegan-Michael Key as part of a Muppet-inspired crime syndicate. Alas the film short shrifts both KiKi Layne as the perfunctory human character, a fangirl policewoman, and the west coast metropolis itself, which could have provided some cleverer sites for high-profile gags. The film’s novelty runs out a bit in the final act, but it’s hard to fault a film so crammed with such singular hilarity and homage. This film is fun for all ages with nuttiness and cheekiness galore.
The logline for Marvel’s latest film probably wasn’t “Watch vast numbers of various versions of an underwritten sorcerer character move through time and space to stop a fellow spell caster from doing infinitely uninteresting things,” but if that were the pitch, the filmmakers nailed it. Alas Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (D+) feels like a contractual dirge in every way, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s lifeless lead performance to uninspired sidekicks to a convoluted plot and antagonist. The moribund blend of studio superhero franchise and bursts of horror elements is uneasy and does neither genre much service. The visual effects are pedestrian; in fact it may be one of the least aesthetically pleasing films in the film series. Little is done with some minor cameos which could have spiced up the mix. The lead character simply goes through the motions, ties up some loose ends from the WandaVision TV series and embarks on a few chases with jump scares. Even with all the possibilities of sly magic and universe hopping, it’s a creative low point for a series generally more inspired than this.
For its singularly violent vision and attention to authentic detail, this historical epic gets a mighty round of polar ice claps. A revenge tale told with impeccable craft, The Northman (B), directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, has dreamy scope and scale but a plot that’s a touch basic. Alexander Skarsgård is in beast mode with an intense physical performance as a man of few words, a descendent of royalty hiding out in a Viking gang ready to pounce into a binge of avenging against his wronged parents (a superb Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman). Between grisly saxon smackdowns, there’s a rather prolonged period of waiting in which Eggers must tread some murky maelstrom water. It takes a pillage of pulpy possibilities as the auteur throws in signature supernatural elements and supporting bits from some of his quirky past cast members such as Willem Dafoe and Anya Taylor-Joy. Claes Bang is also a menacing antagonist. Essentially every primary character gets a really good scream into the camera, and it appears the director just told them to give it their most primal. The divergent panoply of accents, however, owe more to the House of Gucci than the Norse code. Ultimately, fans of ribald historical action will dig this adventure through lands of fjords and volcanoes. The cinematography and art direction, especially in nighttime attacks and a few climactic fights, is stunning to behold. Eggers and acclaimed writer Sjón plum some intriguing legend and lore, as there’s a lot to unpack on this journey.