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BARBIE--If Day-Glo colors, "authentic artificiality" and winking meta humor are your bag, director/cowriter Greta ("Lady Bird," 2019's "Little Women") Gerwig has delivered a veritable Barbie Dreamhouse of a movie. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (both blissed-out perfection) play Barbie and Ken who, after suffering an identity crisis, leave their cosseted Barbie Land to experience the Real World for the first time. (Since this "Real World" is actually present-day Los Angeles, maybe "Real" should be spelled "Reel.") You'll need a scorecard to keep track of Gerwig's beacoup visual references--everything from "The Wizard of Oz" to "The Truman Show," with a deep dive into Jacques Demy's 1960's French New Wave musicals--which is all part of the fun. I can't decide whether the target demo is social-media obsessed Tweener girls or ironic gay men, but it's a hoot and a half. There hasn't been a big-screen toy commercial this eye-popping, witty or flat-out entertaining since the first LEGO movie. (A.)
BLUE BEETLE--D.C.'s first Hispanic super hero deserved a better movie than this merely serviceable origin story, but that's what "Charm City Kings" director Angel Manuel Soto has delivered. When recent college graduate Jaime (charming "Cobra Kai" alum Xolo Mariduena) returns home, he morphs into the titular Beetle thanks to an ancient relic, the Scarab. (A suit of armor seals the deal.) George Lopez has a few funny moments as Jaime's tech wiz uncle and Susan Sarandon nails her industrialist villainess, but the whole thing just drags on for over two hours without delivering any surprises or even memorable action setpieces. ("The Flash" and "Shazam: Fury of the Gods," all is forgiven.) If this was D.C./Warner Brothers' attempt at forging their very own multicultural "Black Panther" or "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" franchise, they're sorely mistaken. At best it might generate a cheapjack MAX spin-off series. (C MNUS.)
ELEMENTAL--Burnie, Cinder and their teenage daughter Ember immigrate from Fireland to Element City only to face discrimination from the intolerant Water people. Things come to a literal boil after Ember embarks upon a forbidden Romeo and Juliet romance with native Water boy Wade. Will the racist citizens of Element City learn the virtues of tolerance and acceptance, or will things end tragically like in Shakespeare's doomed romance? Since this is a CGI Pixar 'toon, a happy--and eminently woke--ending is pretty much preordained. Directed by Peter Sohn whose previous animated feature, 2015's "The Good Dinosaur," has the dubious distinction of being the single worst Pixar movie to date, this new film is undone by a surprisingly witless script, unappealing characters, dull vocal casting and ickily sentimental messaging. Even the short preceding the main feature ("Carl's Date," a misguided "Up" sequel) is disappointing. (C MINUS.)
THE EQUALIZER 3--Like Michael Corleone in "The Godfather, Part III," Denzel Washington's Robert McCall keeps getting pulled back in just when he thought he was out of the whole special service commando business. The third and allegedly final chapter in Washington and director Antoine Fuqua's action franchise based on the 1985-'89 tube series (the previous installments were released in 2014 and 2018 respectively) sensibly follows the same basic template as the earlier incarnations. McCall, now living the good life in a small Italian village, is forced to shake off his savior cobwebs once again to help new friends battle the local Mafioso. While hardly necessary--I thought the final word on McCall had been written two movies ago--it's always a pleasure spending time with Denzel in avenging angel mode. And his onscreen reunion with Dakota Fanning (who was just a spry when he played her bodyguard in Tony Scott's 2004 cult classic "Man on Fire") is alone worth the price of admission. (B.)
GRAN TURISMO--Everyone thinks Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is crazy when he hatches a plan to start a training academy in which fans of PlayStation's titular racing simulator game learn to transfer their online skills to an actual race track. But for biracial British teen Jann (Archie Madekwe), it's a way to finally prove to his sourpuss dad (Djimon Hounsou) that all those hours he logged in his bedroom playing videogames wasn't a waste of time. Based on an aspirational true-life story that climaxes with Jann's victory in France's 24-hour, endurance-focused Le Mans sports car race, this improbably entertaining big-screen PlayStation ad is, at heart, an old-fashioned underdog story. Although probably the most conventional film to date by director Neil ("District 9," "Elysium"), it might also be be his most emotionally satisfying. Thanks to appealing performances and Blomkamp's canny appropriation of videogame aesthetics to help make the racing sequences feel utterly, terrifyingly real, this is an edge-of-your-seat actioner that also succeeds as a male weepie. (B PLUS.)
HAUNTED MANSION--A belated corporate makeover of Disney's same-named 2003 Eddie Murphy comedy inspired by the titular theme park ride, director Justin ("Dear White People," "Bad Hair") Simien's twenty-years-later iteration is a marked improvement over the original: frisky, funny and even genuinely witty at times. Rosario Dawson (warm and appealing) plays single mom Gabbie who's forced to hire ghostbusters to rid Gracey Manor of pesky supernatural squatters. As the cadre of spook-hunters, Lakeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish and Danny Devito are all splendidly droll company. Even Chase W. Dillon in the stock role of Dawson's preternaturally wise pre-pubescent son manages to make a strong impression. I wish all Disney flicks based on theme park attractions ("The Country Bears," anyone?) were this entertaining. (B MINUS.)
INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY--Since Harrison Ford is now 80 years old, this fifth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise is probably the last time we'll see the former Han Solo don his trademark fedora. I only wish the first Jones movie not helmed by Steven Spielberg ("Ford v Ferrari" and Logan" director James Mangold assumes the reins) was better. At 154 minutes, it's definitely the longest film in the series, but also the most lumbering and wearisome. Set in 1969, Professor Jones is a frequently soused Hunter College professor whose retirement from swashbuckling adventures ends when he's visited by goddaughter Helene (Phoebe Waller-Bridge of "Fleabag" fame). The spunky lass is determined to get her hands on the missing half of the titular "Dial of Destiny;" Indy, conveniently, has the other half in his possession. Because the Antikythera dial has alleged supernatural powers that tamper with wormholes and reset history, it's also highly coveted by Nazi physicist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) who hopes to change the outcome of World War II. Ford and Waller-Bridge make a winning duo, but their globe-trotting (Tangiers, Greece, etc.) adventures feel less exhilarating than merely quaint, even rote. None of the previous sequels--with the possible exception of 1984's "Temple of Doom"--came close to capturing the enchantment and gee-whiz excitement of 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and this is no exception. Strictly for sentimentalists, nostalgists and/or Indy die-hards. (C.)
INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR--The fourth chapter of a horror franchise that's been chugging along since 2010 delivers pretty much what diehard fans are expecting. (Cue the "PG-13"-rated jump scares.) Josh (Patrick Wilson who also directs) and estranged son Dalton (Ty Simpkins from "The Whale") must venture beyond the titular door to hopefully end their family's decades-long trauma. In the process, they unwittingly unmask some long-repressed memories they'd prefer to keep hidden. Mom Renai (Rose Byrne) is largely sidelined this time, probably because Byrne was too busy shooting her new Apple TV+ series with Seth Rogen. Fortunately, Lin Shaye is back as psychic extraordinaire Elise, and she's always been the spooky heart of the "Insidious" universe. FYI: A spinoff, "Thread: An Insidious Tale," is already in the works. (C.)
LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER--Based on a single chapter from Bram Stoker's "Dracula," cult director Andre ("Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark") Ouredal's richly atmospheric vampire yarn is an out-of-left-field late summer surprise. A chartered merchant ship (the titular Demeter) makes its way from Carpathia to London carrying 50 unmarked wooden crates. But a fanged, Nosferatu-like creature stalks the boat at night, gradually decimating the entire crew. With the exception of "Game of Thrones" alumnus Liam Cunningham and Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre in "Straight Outta Compton") as the Demeter's captain and doctor respectively, the cast is largely comprised of unfamiliar faces. Ouredal could have tightened the film a bit--two hours is a long time to spend watching anonymous sailors' necks get skewered in the dark--but it'll make a fun double bill one day with Universal's other 2023 Dracula flick, April's larkish "Renfield" with Nicolas Cage as the Count. (B MINUS.)
MEG 2: THE TRENCH--Even though I hated 2018's "The Meg" (it actually made my 10-worst list that year), I held out a smidgeon of hope that this sequel might be better. Or at least different. After all, it's directed by cultish British fanboy fave Ben ("High-Rise," "Kill List") Wheatley who's never made a dull or uninteresting movie yet. (His semi-rote 2020 Netflix remake of Hitchcock's "Rebecca" being the possible exception.) Reprising his role from the first film, Jason Statham is back for another go-round with the megalodon shark that caused him so much grief five years prior. Besides having to contend with the oceanic beastie, Statham's Jonas must also battle the mining outfit whose illegal operation reignited Meg's wrath. I can't entirely blame Wheatley for this being such a colossal dud. Considering the Grade-D material he had to work with, camping it up probably seemed like his only option. But when you can't take any of this nonsense seriously, there's nothing at stake. And because nothing's at stake, it's a crashing bore. (D.)
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE--DEAD RECKONING: PART I--The seventh film in a billion dollar franchise that began all the way back in 1996, and the first since series standout, 2018's "Fallout," has chosen an uber-topical villain for Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. Rather than an exotically accented bad guy, the scoundrel this time isn't human at all but a super-power A.I. called "Entity." There's a McGuffin-ish hunt for a two-part key that everyone wants--including preening sociopath Gabriel (Esai Morales) and his lethal henchwoman (Pom Klementieff)--but it's Entity's seemingly personal vendetta against Ethan that triggers the usual embarrassment of "Can You Top This?" "M:I" action setpieces, most done with little or no CGI. Cruise, of course, remains as indefatigable as ever, and it's great seeing the old gang (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson) back together again. Besides the customary bloat that's become the Achilles Heel of most 21st century tentpole movies (it could definitely stand to lose a half hour from the 164-minute run time), the central weakness is built into the title. Since this is only "Part I" (the concluding chapter is slated for release in June '24), the ending inevitably feels a bit like coitus interruptus. But for crackerjack hot weather entertainment, Cruise & Co. can't be beat. Along with spring's "John Wick, Chapter 4," it's the year's most purely entertaining actioner. (A MINUS.)
OPPENHEIMER--The birth of the Atomic Bomb--and its terrifying reverberations which can still be felt today--is the unlikely subject of "The Dark Knight" director's most conventional, but in some respects most satisfying film to date. Except for the peekaboo nudity and four letter words, this three-hour historical epic would have been right at home in the 1960's roadshow era. All that's missing is an intermission and a souvenir program booklet sold in the lobby. Cillian ("Peaky Blinders") Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant theoretical physicist charged with spearheading the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1942, and Nolan's cast encompasses seemingly half the membership of SAG. Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh and sundry others all make indelible impressions in strongly etched supporting roles. But the true star of the movie is fanboy favorite Nolan whose supremely kinetic approach to egghead-y material (see "Interstellar") insures that it's as visually dynamic as it is intellectually stimulating. (A.)
RETRIBUTION--Ethically challenged banking exec Matt Turner (Liam Neeson) discovers a bomb in his luxury car while taking his bratty kids (Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell) to school one day. If he--or his passengers--attempt to exit the vehicle, the explosive device planted under the seats will go off. Most of director Nimrod Antal's pedestrian thriller takes place inside Matt's car as he tries to suss out who marked him for death and why. (Several of his work associates have already been killed in similar bomb-related casualties.) But Neeson's somnambulant performance makes it difficult to give a fig whether he, or his annoying kids, make it out alive. As the non-nonsense female cop trying to fit the pieces together, Noma Dumezweni turns in the film's best performance, and it's mild fun seeing a "Schindler's List" reunion between Neeson and Embeth Davidtz (playing Mrs. Turner in a few brief expository scenes). But Antal should have really studied Tom Hardy's 2013 tour-de-force "Locke" to see how to make a good movie principally set behind the wheel of a car. For the record, this is the fourth iteration of a franchise which has already spawned successful Spanish, German and South Korean versions. I've got a hunch this pulseless dud will single-handedly kill the chance of any additional spin-offs. (C MINUS.)
STRAYS--Universal had a late summer hit with "Good Boys" four years ago, and this equally raunchy "R"-rated comedy may very well duplicate its sleeper success. If adolescent boys talking dirty seemed funny five years ago, potty-mouth pooches might rake in the dough too, right? At least that seems to have been the thinking of director Josh ("Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar?) Greenbaum who gives Disney's true-life adventure "The Incredible Journey" an adult---or at least randy tweener--spin. Tossed to the curb by his toxic owner Doug (Will Forte, fully embracing his character's awfulness), Border Terrier Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) begins a long trek home. Assisting him are a gang of stray dogs he meets on the mean streets: Boston Terrier Bug (Jamie Foxx), Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher) and stressed-out support dog Great Dane Hunter (Randall Park.) Once his new pals wise him up to what a d-bag Doug really is, Reggie's new mission is to enact his revenge by biting off Doug's real best friend. (Yes, I'm talking about the one between his legs.) There are a few stray (pun intended) laughs and the vocal casting is spot-on, but the whole thing feels woefully overextended even at 90 minutes. You'll be checking your watch long before Doug's appendage is imperiled. (C.)
TALK TO ME--The accomplished filmmaking debut of Australian twin brother YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou is another hip, Gen Z-courting A24 horror flick (think "The Witch," "Midsommer" and "Bodies, Bodies, Bodies"), but one that can be enjoyed even by non-cinephiles. Still reeling from the suicide of her mother a year earlier, 17-year-old high school misfit Mia (winsome newcomer Sophie Wilde) is highly susceptible to a new party trick in which drunk or high teenagers somehow manage to summon supernatural entities by gripping the embalmed hand of a former medium--conveniently encased in ceramic--and chanting, "Talk to me" and "I let you in." But if you let "them" in for more than 90 seconds, the conjured spirit just might decide to stick around for good. Which is when the real horror commences. Good support from Alexandra Jones, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanjid and especially Aussie screen veteran Miranda Otto as Mia's commonsensical surrogate mom provides emotional ballast for a gimmicky genre flick that's as visceral (i.e., gruesome) as you secretly hoped it would be. Nobody's reinventing the wheel here, but along with April's "Evil Dead Rise" it's one of the more satisfying scary flicks of recent vintage. (B.)
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM--It only took 33 years, but somebody finally made a big-screen TMNT movie with appeal beyond 10-year-old boys. Entrusting the franchise to Oscar-nominated director Jeff ("The Mitchells vs. The Machines") Rowe and hiring eternal adolescent Seth Rogen to co-author the surprisingly witty screenplay proved to be an inspired move. Rowe gives his CGI 'toon the same gnarly, "ripped from the pages of a comic book" veneer that worked so well for Sony's two "Spider-Verse" movies, effectively making the same old TMNT origin story seem (almost) fresh again. Framed as one long 90-minute flashback narrated by the Turtles' Obi Wan Kenobi, Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan), things kick into gear when Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo meet April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri from Hulu's "The Bear"), still a teen reporter at her high school newspaper. Helping April get the goods on criminal mastermind Superfly (Ice Cube) gives the boys their first superhero mission, basically establishing the template that would serve them well for forty years. (The first TMNT comic book was published in 1983.) Pop cult savvy with a cool soundtrack (props to whoever added Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely" to the soundtrack), it's one of the few summer franchise/ tentpole movies that doesn't feel like something found in the remaindered bin of your neighborhood Dollar General. (B.)
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ASTEROID CITY--An Arizona desert town is the enchanted setting for a 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention in which teen astronomers and their families gather to wonk out on all things extra-terrestrial. Unbeknownst to them, actual aliens are planning to crash the party. That's the far-out set-up for fabulist extraordinaire Wes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Isle of Dogs") Anderson's sublime new film. And I haven't even mentioned the New York stage play inspired by the convention that takes place simultaneously as a play-within-the-movie. If that sounds confusing, it's not. The bifurcated structure just adds a typically Andersonian meta layer that's as laugh-out-loud funny as it is inexorably, profoundly moving. As a recently widowed father of four who's yet to break the news to his brood about mom's passing, Jason Schwartzman gives a performance of such aching, plangent vulnerability that he'll break your heart in fifty pieces. Because this is a Wes joint, the cast is the usual embarrassment of riches with both Anderson rep players like Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright and Bryan Cranston mixing it up with newbies to the party like Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon and Jeff Goldblum. The trademark lateral tracking shots and meticulously curated mise-en-scene remain as breathtaking as usual, and the whole thing casts such a magical spell that you'll think you're dreaming. I can't think of another place I'd rather spend my summer vacation. (A.)
BO WIDERBERG'S NEW SWEDISH CINEMA--Despite having directed one of the biggest arthouse hits of the 1960's--"Elvira Madigan" which played in theaters nearly as long as other subtitled sensations from the decade like "A Man and a Woman" and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"--Sweden's Bo Widerberg has pretty much been forgotten today. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for helping restore Widerberg's rightful place in film history with the release of this impressive new box set containing four of the director's key '60s works.
In "The Baby Carriage," Widerberg's 1963 feature debut, a free-spirited 18-year-old (Inger Taube's infectious Britt) gets pregnant by her on again/off again wannabe rocker boyfriend (Lars Passgard), but decides to raise the baby on her own. Not even a new man in her life (spoiled rich kid Bjorn played by Widerberg muse Thommy Berggren) can derail the trailblazing Britt's autonomy or independence. Gorgeously lensed in b&w by future director Jan ("The Emigrants") Troell, this early work feels very much indebted to France's Nouvelle Vague and even looks forward to Czech New Wave auteurs like Milos ("Loves of a Blonde") Forman. Blithely charming, sexy and jazzily experimental at times, it's a wonder that it never received a proper U.S. theatrical release until now.
At the time of its 1964 release, "Raven's End" placed third in a poll of Swedish critics as the best homegrown film of all time. (Not having seen the list, I'm assuming that #1 and #2 were both directed by Ingmar Bergman.) The story of an aspiring novelist's hardscrabble life in the titular working-class district of Malmo during the 1930's, Widerberg brings a nobility, melancholy charm and fully-developed characterizations to an engaging Horatio Alger story. The conflict for protagonist Anders (Berggren) between wanting to escape his humble origins, yet still clinging to the old-fashioned verities of his home town is both universal and inexorably moving.
One of the most beloved "date" movies of its era, the lyrical "Elvira Madigan" is about a young army officer (Berggren again) who goes AWOL and flees to Denmark with a circus performer (Pia Degermark). The couple plans to live off the grid in an idyllic rural paradise, but reality eventually (and tragically) catches up with them. Widerberg's most visually stunning film, it's scored with a Mozart piano concerto that's the perfect aural accompaniment to this liltingly beautiful tale of doomed love.
The first of two Widerberg movies produced and released by Paramount Pictures (1971's "Joe Hill" followed, but isn't included in the Criterion set), "Adalen '31" combines the lushness of "Elvira Madigan" with the social commentary of "Raven's End." Set against Sweden's 1931 battle for socialism, it's dedicated to the five martyrs of the fabled "Adalen Riots." Focusing on one striking middle-class family, it effortlessly segues from passive resistance to open conflict. Widerberg's romantic view of revolution was divisive at the time of its release, but it's precisely the tension between grim subject matter and sensual, almost Renoir-like physical beauty that gives the film such an emotional wallop.
Besides restorations of all four titles with uncompressed monaural soundtracks, the four-disc Criterion package includes an introduction to Widerberg by contemporary Swedish director Ruben ("Triangle of Sadness") Ostlund; new interviews with Berggren and cinematographer Jorgen Persson; Widerberg's 1962 short film, "The Boy and the Kite," with an introduction by co-director Troell; 1960's Swedish television interviews with Widerberg; an "Elvira Madigan" making-of featurette; "Another Sweden," historian Peter Cowie's scholarly essay; and excerpts from Widerbergh's 1962 book, "Vision in Swedish Film." (A.)
BREATHLESS--I first saw the late Jean-Luc Godard's feature debut in an NYU Cinema Studies class in 1977. It was my first exposure to Godard, and I experienced the same visceral kick I did when encountering New Hollywood auteurs like Martin Scorsese ("Mean Streets"), Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H") and Terrence Malick ("Badlands") for the first time. Since then, I've seen pretty much every film Godard directed in his sixty-year-plus career. But I resisted the urge to revisit "Breathless" for fear that it couldn't possibly deliver the same level of excitement that I experienced in a collegiate setting decades ago. Fortunately, I'm pleased (and relieved) to report that Godard's 63-year-old masterpiece--newly released by the Criterion Collection on a glistening 4K UHD Blu-Ray--remains as, well, breathtaking as ever. Thanks to the raw immediacy of Raoul Coutard's in-your-face cinematography, kinetic jump cuts and the blithe sang-froid of its uber-photogenic leads, the movie remains forever young. Like other truly revolutionary works of art that single-handedly rewrote the rules of filmmaking (Welles' "Citizen Kane" being the most famous example), it feels both of its time and utterly timeless. Jean-Paul Belmondo's Bogart-obsessed petty thief Michel is still very much the arbiter of New Wave cool whether stealing a car, wooing a pixieish American college student (Jean Seberg's iconic Patricia) or killing the motorcycle cop who makes the mistake of crossing his path. When writing about "Breathless" at the time of its 2010 re-release, former New York Times critic A.O. Scott described it as having the impact of "a bullet from the future of movies." Since Godard would continue reinventing cinema for the rest of his workaholic life, you might say that the future has finally arrived. The two-disc Criterion set includes both 4K UHD and Blu Ray copies of the film as well as a bevy of bonus features. There are archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, director Jean-Pierre Melville (who knew a thing or two about cool crooks), Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient and documentary pioneer D.A. ("Don't Look Back," "Monterey Pop") Pennebaker; video essays by filmmaker Mark ("From the Journals of Jean Seberg") Rappaport and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; the 1993 French documentary, "Chambre 12, Hotel de Suede," about the making of "Breathless" which features cast/crew members; "Charlotte et Son Jules," Godard's 1959 short film which marked his first collaboration with Belmondo; a scholarly essay by Yale film professor Dudley Andrew; writings by Godard from Cahiers du cinema and Films and Filming magazines; Francois Truffaut's original treatment of the story; and Godard's screenplay in prose form. (A PLUS.)
THE FISHER KING--Although it was Robin Williams' Pagliacci-like turn as Parry, a medieval history professor turned homeless man, that earned the former Mork his first Oscar nomination, Terry Gilliam's fantastical 1991 urban fairy tale is actually stolen by Jeff Bridges' more subtle costarring performance. Bridges, who was doing some of the best work of his career at the time ("The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Texasville" preceded it), is fantastic playing Jack Lucas, an alcoholic Manhatan shock jock indirectly responsible for inspiring a mass shooting. (Pretty topical, huh?) Gilliam's first real studio film--and the first he made in his native America--blends pointed social satire and mythical allusions to ultimately heart-warming effect. It's like a Frank Capra movie written by Bret Ellis Easton in his "American Psycho" fabulist mode. Good support from Mercedes Ruehl (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her bravura portrayal of Jack's video store owner girlfriend), Amanda Plummer (the waif-like object of Parry's affection who he likens to "God's symbol of divine grace") and a scene-stealing Michael Jeter as a down on his luck gay cabaret singer who does a wicked Ethel Merman imitation. The new Criterion Collection box set includes a 4K UHD disc presented in Dolby Vision HDR and a Blu-Ray which contains the film as well as supplementary bonus features. Because this is Criterion, the extras are suitably impressive. There's Gilliam's audio commentary track; interviews with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, Bridges, Plummer and Ruehl; a 2006 Williams interview; 1991 footage of Bridges training as a disc jockey with acting coach Stephen W. Bridgewater; costume tests; deleted scenes with audio commentary from Gilliam; interviews with Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds who designed the movie's hallucinatory "Red Knight;" and an essay by esteemed New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri. (A.)
THE FLASH--A combo origin story and multiverse adventure story, the latest D.C. mega-production aspires to be a super-hero variant of "Back to the Future." But thanks to a bloated 144-minute run time and an unfocused screenplay that spirals off in so many directions that it makes "Everything Everything All at Once" seem minimalist, it's more wearying than entertaining. Ezra Miller, who previously essayed the titular role in "Justice League," "Suicide Squad," "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" and TV's "The Flash," once again plays Barry Allen/The Flash, this time in two separate dimensions: as a Central City forensics chemist and a gawky 18-year-old college student. There are even two different actors playing Batman (O.G. Bat dude Michael Keaton, this film's undisputed MVP, and Ben Affleck, the most recent thespian to don the trademark cape and cowl), as well as an appearance by Superman's arch-nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon). Director Andy Muschietti, who helmed the equally oversized "It" movies, lacks the lightness in touch to finesse the more ostensibly comic parts of the movie, and the whole thing has an unpleasant heaviness that's the antithesis of "fun." (C.)
THE LITTLE MERMAID--Putting aside the question of whether the world really needed a (mostly) live action remake of the classic 1989 Disney 'toon, director Rob ("Chicago," "Into the Woods") Marshall's robustly entertaining movie justifies its existence solely by the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. Bailey's "star is born" performance is so enchanting that you literally can't take your eyes off her. She's also a wonderful singer. (Bailey's "Part of Your World" will make you forget you ever heard that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman standard before.) The quest of teenage mermaid Ariel to experience life on terra firma--and find true love with Prince Eric (Jonah Haver-King)--remains as captivating as ever, and spot-on casting down the line gives it a freshness and welcome new piquancy. Javier Bardem (King Triton), Daveed Diggs (Sebastian the crab), Awkwafina (seabird Scuttle), Jacob Tremblay (Flounder) and scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy's sea witch Ursula all provide invaluable comic and/or emotional ballast. (B PLUS.)
NO HARD FEELINGS--Newly unemployed Uber driver Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) answers a Craig's List ad posted by helicopter parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) hoping to bring their socially awkward teenage son (Andrew Barth Feldman) out of his shell before heading for Princeton. Of course, what they're really looking for is someone to deflower the 19-year-old virgin--something made eminently clear in a cringey job interview. After reluctantly accepting the job (hey, they promised her a new car!), Maddie winds up having a positive influence on the geek and, yes, even (sort of) popping his cherry. Director Gene Stupinsky had a sleeper hit four summers ago with the potty-mouthed "Good Boys," and don't be surprised if lightning strikes twice. With its pitch-perfect performances by Lawrence (who's playing a rougher-edged version of her Oscar-winning "Silver Linings Playbook" character) and newcomer Feldman, this is precisely the type of unapologetically raunchy "R" rated comedy that seemingly nobody is making in Hollywood anymore. (B.)
PASOLINI 101--The Criterion Collection's monumental new box set commemorating the 101st anniversary of the late Pier Paolo Pasolini's birth is the first must-own Blu-Ray release of 2023. Comprised of nine films spread over nine discs with the usual Criterion cornucopia of extras, "Pasolini" contains every significant Pasolini feature made between 1961-1970. Pasolini's latter films, "Salo" and the three titles comprising his fabled "Trilogy of Life" ("The Decameron," "The Arabian Nights" and "The Canterbury Tales") were all released previously by Criterion.
Pasolini led such a fascinating life, it's not surprising that Abel Ferrara made him the subject of a 2014 biopic in which Willem Dafoe played Pasolini. The son of an army officer, he was already an established novelist, poet and essayist by the time he entered the film industry in 1954 as a screenwriter. (His most noteworthy early screen credit was co-writing Fellini's "The Nights of Cabiria.") Almost all of Pasolini's early movies depict the lives of Italy's working class or peasants, and many use non-actors. He frequently came to loggerheads with Italian authorities and the Catholic Church over his films which frequently included sex, violence and various other anti-establishment "blasphemies." But they have such a raw, even profound beauty that it renders their less savory aspects strangely palatable.
His 1961 debut, "Accattone," a reworking of his novel, "A Violent Life," is a grimly realistic evocation of the sordid existence of a pimp living in a particularly squalid section of Rome. "Mamma Roma" (1962) stars Anna Magnani as a Roman prostitute who poignantly aspires to a middle class life. Both films evince a compassion for the lower class inspired by Pasolini's paradoxical mix of influences: his left wing commitment to Marxism, as well as a deeply felt, almost mystical religiosity.
The relatively obscure "Love Meetings" (1964) remains a fascinating time capsule: a documentary consisting of interviews with ordinary Italian citizens (rural and city dwellers; young and old; liberals and conservatives) discussing everything from marriage, divorce, gender roles, homosexuality and sex workers.
"The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1966) was the finest screen treatment of the life of Christ until Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" 22 years later. By presenting New Testament gospels in a radically new style, the uncompromising "St. Matthew" is rough-edged, grindingly realistic, spellbinding to watch and has a powerful emotional impact. Along with his scandalous 1975 masterpiece, "Salo," it remains Pasolini's greatest film.
Heavily allegorical, "The Hawks and the Sparrows" (also 1966) is a stylized and amusing fable about a father and son who encounter a talking bird on their wayward journey through the Italian countryside. The bird actually turns out to be a bit of a windbag, philosophizing on such favorite Pasolini topics as Christianity and socialism. There's even an extended cameo by St Francis of Assisi thanks to the loquacious bird's time traveling abilities.
"Oedipus Rex" (1967) and "Porcile" (1970) are both remarkable in their individual way. The former for its unique desert setting which suggests primeval times; the latter as a pitch-black comedy tour-de-force.
In the darkly compelling "Teorema" (1968), Terrence Stamp plays an enigmatic, Christ-like stranger who insinuates himself into the lives and beds of a patrician Milanese family. A parable of near mathematical precision, it's one of Pasolini's most divisive and brilliant films.
In her only screen role, legendary opera diva Maria Callas played the title role in the director's stunning 1970 Euripides adaptation, "Medea." After helping a beefy Jason steal the Golden Fleece to regain the throne, Callas' Medea becomes a woman possessed when he spurns her romantic advances. "My revenge shall be splendid!," Medea-Callas promises, and Pasolini makes sure that she makes good on her threat. The stark imagery at times recalls the settings of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Groovy.
Supplemental features include two shorts Pasolini contributed for anthology films "La Ricotta" (1963) and "The Sequence of the Paper Flowers" (1969); two docs Pasolini made during his travels; a new featurette on Pasolini's signature visual style told through his
writings and narrated by Tilda Swinton and Rachel Kushner; audio commentaries for "Accatone" and "Teorema;" documentaries on Pasolini's life/career including archival interviews with Pasolini and many of his collaborators; a 1966 episode of the French television show, "Cineastes de notre temps;" interviews with filmmakers and scholars discussing Pasolini's oeuvre and cinematic legacy; and a 100-page essay book on the disc's films by critic James Quandt with writings and drawings by Pasolini himself. (A PLUS.)
THE RANOWN WESTERNS: FIVE FILMS DIRECTED BY BUDD BOETTICHER--The 1950's were a golden period for Hollywood westerns. Consider: Anthony Mann's "psychological" westerns, most of which ("The Naked Spur," "Winchester '73") starred Jimmy Stewart; John Ford's greatest film, "The Searchers;" and Howard Hawks' "Red River" and "Rio Bravo" which bookended the decade. While Budd Boetticher's virile '50s oaters never achieved the same visibility or attention (at the time anyway), they've since become among the most fetishized films in arguably the oldest of movie genres. The Criterion Collection's imposingly hefty new box set features five ("The Tall T," Decision at Sundown," "Buchanan Rides Alone," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station") of the seven "Ranown" westerns Boetticher directed between 1957-'60. 1956's "Seven Men from Now" and 1959's "Westbound" are mysteriously absent; maybe Criterion wasn't able to acquire the home video rights. (In case you've been wondering about the "Ranown" monicker, it was a melding of their producers--Randolph Scott and Joe Brown--names.)
What continues to make the films so fascinating is that they're all essentially variations on the same theme: a loner (Scott) doing "what a man's gotta do;" villains who seem like less virtuous Doppelgangers of the hero; similar plots; and even recycled dialogue. You almost get the sense that Boetticher was working things out as he moseyed along from movie to movie, and their stripped down, nearly austere quality prefigure the elemental 1960's westerns of Monte ("Two Lane Blacktop") Hellman. Strangely, the director whose work I was most reminded of while reviewing the Ranown set was French New Wave master Jacques Rivette, another cultish filmmaker whose most celebrated '70s and '80s works were all of a piece, using many of the same actors and revisiting/tweaking the same tropes time and again.
Interesting side note: four of the Ranowns were written by Burt Kennedy, most of whose later films as writer/director (with the possible exception of 1965's "The Rounders") were boilerplate westerns made with John Wayne during the Duke's largely undemanding twilight years. It's safe to say that Kennedy's screen career peaked with his Boetticher collaborations.
(1) 1957's "The Tall T," based on an Elmore Leonard short story, stars Scott as a struggling rancher who gets mixed up in a stagecoach robbery-turned-kidnapping when society matron Maureen O'Sullivan is ransomed by charming bad guy Richard Boone.The Scott/Boone yin-yang is as pronounced here as it would be in all of the Ranown films. Near dual-images of each other, their symmetry is almost pathological, culminating in a shocking burst of violence against the Lone Pine landscape. It's a minor masterpiece.
(2) "Decision at Sundown" (also 1957) features Scott as widower Bart Allison, hell-bent on revenge against the foppish big-man-in-a-small-town Tate Kimbourough (John Carroll) whose affair with his late wife led to her suicide. Bart's single-minded obsession ultimately leads to the cowering townspeople finally rebelling against Kimbourough's strong arm rule.
(3) "Buchanan Rides Alone" (1958) seems a bit like a dry-run for Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (and, subsequently, Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars") as a remarkably passive Tom Buchanan (Scott) saddles into a town run by the wealthy and corrupt Agrys family. Agilely playing both sides of the fence like Toshiro Mifune's master swordsman or Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Buchanan conspires with a young Mexican to make the Agrys dynasty implode from within thanks to a series of increasingly cunning double and triple crosses.
(4) "Ride Lonesome" (1959) is an air-tight model of narrative precision, and another Boetticher western in which Scott (this time poetically named Ben Brigade) seeks vengeance for a dead spouse. To get to the murderer (future Leone heavy Lee Van Cleef), Brigade abducts the killer's brother (James Best) as a way to get to his real prey (future Leone heavy Lee Van Cleef
(5) "Comanche Station" (1960) marked the final collaboration between Boetticher and Scott, although the latter would star in Sam Peckinpah's Boetticher-esque directorial debut, "Ride the High Country," four years later. A cowboy loner (Scott's Jefferson Cody) harboring a secret agenda rescues a white woman (Nancy Gates) kidnapped by Comanche Indians. To bring her home, Cody has to battle both Comanches and unscrupulous bounty hunters itching for the reward money proffered by the woman's wealthy husband. (Not surprisingly, we ultimately discover that Cody's wife was also captured by Indians years before.)
The Criterion package includes three 4K UHD discs presented in Dolby Vision HDR, and three Blu-Rays containing the films and a surfeit of extras. Included are introductions to the movies by directors Martin Scorsese and Taylor ("An Officer and a Gentleman") Hackford; a featurette about Scott with critic Farran Smith Nehme; audio commentaries for "The Tall T," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station" with, respectively, Jeanine Basinger, Jeremy Arnold and Hackford; archival interviews with Boetticher; an audio conversation between Boetticher and film scholar Jim Kitses; a super-8 home movie version of "Comanche Station;" and essays by University of Chicago professor Tom Gunning and freelance critic Glenn Kenny. (A.)
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE--This eagerly anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-winning 2018 CGI 'toon picks up where we left off with Miles (Shameik Moore) becoming increasingly comfortable with his new Spidey powers. There are still a few glitches to be worked out, of course, but that's where gal pal Gwen (Hailee Steinfield) comes in. It's a good thing, too, since there's a new Big Bad in town (Jason Schwartzman's The Spot) hell bent on revenge. Like the first film, the sequel is stunningly animated and chockfull of just-right urban talismans and judicious wit. But at a bladder-busting 140 minutes (making it nearly as long as your average live-action Marvel movie), it's perhaps too much of a good thing. And since this is only Part 2 of a proposed "Spider-Verse" trilogy--the concluding chapter is scheduled for release in 2024--it doesn't so much end as punt on the way to the finish line. (B.)
THELMA AND LOUISE--Thirty two years later, it's ironic that a movie called "Thelma and Louise" is best remembered for introducing a young actor named Brad. That would be Oscar winner Brad Pitt who committed grand larceny in his breakthrough supporting role as the rascally J.D. in Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri's proto #TimesUp manifesto. Not that Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis--both of whom were Oscar nominated, along with Khouri (who won), Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle--are chopped liver. As BFFs who become inadvertent fugitives from the law when their girls' trip goes awry, Davis (mousy housewife Thelma) and Sarandon (brassy waitress Louise) are both fantastically empathetic. Thanks to combustible chemistry, you actually believe their ride-or-die friendship will literally take them off a cliff. There's also good supporting work from Harvey Keitel (the surprisingly sympathetic cop on the distaff duo's trail), Michael Madsen (Louise's good-ole-boy male pal) and Christopher McDonald (Thelma's weaselly husband). While the somewhat nihilistic ending remains a source of controversy, it felt emotionally right in 1991 and even more so today. The newly released, director-approved Blu-Ray Criterion Collection special edition includes a cornucopia of extras on two discs. Among them are two separate audio commentary tracks with Scott, Khouri, Sarandon and Davis; contemporary interviews with Scott and Khouri; a documentary featuring Sarandon, Davis, Pitt, Madsen, McDonald, Scott, Khouri and other members of the cast/crew; "Boy and Bicycle," Scott's first short film from 1965; the original theatrical featurette; storyboards, deleted and extended scenes, including an elongated ending with Scott's commentary; a music video for former Eagle Glenn Frey's "Part of Me, Part of You;" and essays by critics Rachel Syme and Jessica Kiang and Rebecca Traister, author of the seminal feminist tome, "Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger and All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation." (A.)
TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS-- The battle between Autobots and Decepticons continues apace in the latest attempt to reboot Michael Bay's HASBRO franchise. But unlike 2018's surprisingly engaging "Bumblebee," this one has a hard time achieving full lift-off. While it was a nice idea to give the series more of a multicultural spin than previous "Trans" flicks which all starred white bread actors like Mark Wahlberg and Shia LaBeouf, maybe the producers should have invested in a screenplay that didn't feel like it was A.I.-generated. Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback are pleasant enough company as the principal human protagonists, but they're consistently upstaged by the 'bots which remain the series raison d'etre (recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh voices Airazor, one of a new breed of wild animal Transformers called Maximals). Young kids will probably eat it up, though. (C.)