Austin Butler in The Bikeriders


If you're still coming down from the sexy, full-throttle charisma assault of Luca Guadagnino's Challengers, you'll likely be lifted right back up with writer/director Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders, which equals that tennis-throuple melodrama in allure and watchability – and co-stars Mike Faist, to boot. I'm not sure what Nichols is trying to tell us in his “adaptation” of Danny Lyon's 1967 photography book, or if he's trying to tell us anything at all. Yet a film doesn't need obvious themes, or even much of a plot, when the images are this beautiful, and in Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, and Tom Hardy, Nichols has a central trio every bit as gorgeous and magnetic as Zendaya, Faist, and Josh O'Connor. It also features dozens of motorcycles gleaming under the rays of summertime sun. Hard to gauge which is hotter: the actors or the bikes.

While I won't go so far as to call Nichols' charmingly aimless saga, as Variety raved, “the Godfather of biker movies,” I would be willing to call it the genre's GoodFellas, partly because it resembles that masterpiece in free-floating narrative, and partly because it suggests Scorsese's gangster epic if Lorraine Bracco were the sole narrator. Adding a framing device to Lyon's collection of photos interspersed with interviews, Nichols casts Faist as Lyon himself, frequently seen in the company of (fictional) Chicagoland motorcycle club the Vandals. (Real-life Lyon rode with a group called the Outlaws, and a number of his black-and-white photographs are impressively replicated, in color, by Bikeriders cinematographer Adam Stone.) The tribe includes Hardy as ringleader Johnny, whose inspiration for the club is shown to be a fuzzy TV airing of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, with a number of arresting, personality-filled character actors showing up as fellow Vandals, among them Boyd Holbrook, Damon Herriman, Beau Knapp, Emory Cohen, Karl Glusman, and a haunted-looking Michael Shannon. (The latter has appeared in all six Nichols features to date.) Butler, meanwhile, plays Benny, the Vandals' newest recruit, and someone so startlingly handsome he seems back-lit from birth.

Of all these figures, the only one who makes zero impact is Danny Lyon, whose sole functions are to observe and shoot (pictures), leaving Faist little to do but smile and nod. Considering we don't even get a scene detailing how Lyon joined up with the Vandals, let alone how he earned their trust with such evident speed, you wonder why Nichols bothered adding him to the film. But without Lyon around to interview her, we wouldn't have about four-fifths of Jodie Comer's finest moments as Benny's wife Kathy, and that would almost constitute a crime against cinema.

As she's wont to be, Comer is stunning here. Chattering a mile a minute in a broad Midwestern dialect reminiscent of a Fargo heroine's – take your pick on which one – Comer boasts screen presence for days, and as Kathy reminisces with Lyon during the beginning, middle, and end of her acquaintance with the Vandals, you realize that Nichols' entire narrative arc is designed around the woman's relation to the club. The beginning is all scary, funny, thrilling highs, with Kathy as bowled over by the bikers' freewheeling lifestyle, and Benny's quiet smolder, as Bracco's Karen was during GoodFellas' Copacabana sequence. The middle is filled with disillusionment and hints of tribulations to come, culminating in a club member's sudden, unexpected death. And at the end comes tragedy and regret, if sprinkled with contemplative acceptance. Comer enacts all of these stages with pitch-perfect, highly entertaining accuracy and control, and while Karen may never ride her own bike, she's unquestionably The Bikeriders' moral compass and, it turns out, raison d'être. Nichols' movie is all about an outsider's view of inside events, a perspective that lends the happenings an almost mythic quality.

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders

So what exactly does happen in the film? A whole lot of not much, though that's hardly the complaint it may seem. The Vandals fight with other bikers and among themselves. They enjoy long days on the road and long nights around campfires. They drink a lot. Somehow, they smoke even more. Benny suffers a horrific injury. Eventually, Johnny wants Benny to take over the club. At around the same time, Kathy wants Benny to ditch it. A number of outsiders, most of them hostile youths and Vietnam vets, threaten to take over, and plan to introduce criminal activity to the club's mission. As far as story goes, that's about it, and it's pretty apparent from the start that we're getting an intentionally sanitized take on the movie's subject. (Unlike with the Outlaws, you won't find a swastika or Confederate flag anywhere near the Vandals' vehicles or apparel.) Yet the relative whitewashing works for Nichols' vision of how the pre-hippie innocence of the mid-'60s led to the corruption and distrust of the early-'70s, much the way Scorsese painted Henry Hill's arc from high-spirited youth to drug-addicted wreck to suburban schnook. And the largely plotless nature of The Bikeriders allows us to enjoy the work as a collection of glorious found moments – of characters not doing so much as simply being.

Even though the only genuine romance in the film is between Kathy and Benny – not counting one scene of intimate nighttime whispers that had me convinced (wrongly) that Johnny would shock Benny with a kiss – you wouldn't hesitate to call Nichols' latest “romantic.” That's because it's primarily about longing: for a return to the past; for an easy (rider) life void of responsibility and consequence; for loyal friends who would gladly die for you; for bikes polished to a shimmering glow. The Bikeriders' air of nostalgic melancholy extends to its performances, most of which succeed simultaneously as in-the-moment experience and reverie. Hardy's employment of a high-pitched, reedy voice makes Johnny sound both like a little boy and an adult who misses the little boy he once was; it's an incredibly touching, nuanced portrayal of slowly decaying confidence. Unexpectedly, Butler doesn't have a lot to do beyond posing. Yet with his stare a blend of anguish and ardor, he poses magnificently, and Butler really comes through during those rare instances in which Benny's facade of Zen calm begins to unravel.

Aside from the bland Faist (and the blandness, here, is hardly his fault), all of Nichols' actors pop, and even if you can barely look at their meticulously hideous teeth without flinching, you never want to look away, either. Doing so would mean potentially missing the sight of Boyd Holbrook's soulful sweetness, or Toby Wallace's rage as an abused up-and-comer, or Emory Cohen's gleeful expression as his biker Cockroach explains that he got his nickname because, yes, he likes to eat bugs. (Cohen has gained maybe 100 pounds since appearing as Saoirse Ronan's Tony in Brooklyn yet has lost none of his appeal.) Shot with more energy than Nichols' 2016 two-fer of Midnight Special and Loving, and featuring occasionally unnerving acts of violence, The Bikeriders only truly falters during its final 15 minutes, when the deliberate pacing and Johnny's pensiveness leave no question as to where this tale is heading. Its final three minutes, however, are tremendous, and followed, over the closing credits, by examples of Lyon's book photos that demonstrate Nichols' and cinematographer Stone's uncanny accuracy in reproducing Lyon's style. A picture, as we know, is worth a thousand words. Lyon's pictures prove more than worthy of a full-length motion picture.

Russell Crowe in The Exorcism


The first half of writer/director Joshua John Miller's The Exorcism is about five times more interesting than the supernatural-horror norm, which means I was about five times more disappointed than usual when this thing actively, irrevocably fell apart. I honestly can't recall the last time a movie began so promisingly, and sustained that promise, before climaxing so wretchedly.

Miller's genre effort certainly starts well, with a priest – or rather, as we quickly glean, an actor playing a priest (Adrian Pasdar) – entering a large suburban dwelling before waging war with a demon who has possessed a young girl. It's initially amusing when this guy, following his stage directions while working through his blocking, realizes he's wandering the wrong hallway. It's hugely amusing when the house proves not to be a house at all, but rather a three-story replica of one stationed on a massive warehouse soundstage. Before long, the actor is dead from apparently otherworldly causes, and we're introduced to Russell Crowe's Anthony Miller, who's angling to replace the former “priest.” With Miller a previously revered actor and lapsed Catholic with a history of drug and alcohol problems, The Georgetown Project could mark his return to respectability, even if the idea of yet another remake/reboot of The Exorcist causes the man's estranged 16-year-old daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins) to roll her eyes. (Georgetown, of course, was where William Friedkin's 1973 classic was set.) Yet Miller scores the role, the newly expelled Lee is hired as his P.A., and filming commences. Do I need to reveal that, on this evidently haunted set, Miller is soon enough not playing Jason Miller's Exorcist role, but rather a blend of Linda Blair's and Mercedes McCambridge's?

Russell Crowe in The Exorcism

You may have noticed three separate “Miller”s in that preceding paragraph. That's because director Joshua John is the son of the late Jason, and Crowe is essentially enacting a version of Joshua John's dad, as in: “What if, while playing Father Karras in The Exorcist, Jason Miller himself got possessed?” That's already a whole lotta meta for one fright flick, and the hits keep coming: Lee and The Georgetown Project's teen star (Chloe Bailey) discuss the unexplained real-world tragedies that befell production on The Omen, Poltergeist, and, yes, The Exorcist; David Hyde Pierce appears (and is excellent) as a kindly, weathered priest of the Max von Sydow variety; Crowe himself, only 14 months ago, starred in the title role of The Pope's Exorcist. For 45 minutes, or maybe longer, I was hooked by director Miller's and co-screenwriter M.A. Forlin's sorta-ingenious premise, the strength of the acting (Simpkins is particularly good, and there's a nice, douchey role for Adam Goldberg as The Georgetown Project's helmer), and the surprising number of decent jump scares. Sure, the eternally bland Sam Worthington was on hand as one of Anthony's co-stars. But he didn't have much to do, and the nature of his role made me think he wouldn't stick around for long. I wasn't disappointed in that prediction.

By the one-hour mark, though, just about everything else was proving disappointing. Tying Anthony's childhood trauma at the hands of a priest to his eventual possession seemed to have some resonance, but the theme is barely explored, and the flashbacks – or rather, flashes of flashbacks – did more to confuse the issue than clarify it. Once possessed, Anthony appears capable of traversing the space/time continuum at will, showing up at the soundstage immediately after we've seen him writhe in bed many blocks or miles away. One scene of filming finds Anthony contorting his body in ways only possible by members of Cirque du Soleil, but instead of castmates and crew members taking him to a hospital (or, y'know, an exorcist), he's apparently sent home for an aspirin and a nap. By the time events reached their inevitably silly conclusions with some characters bursting into flame and others shouting variants on “The power of Christ compels you!”, I had completely given up on the movie, and lamented that so many intriguing narrative threads, much like the film's audience, were left dangling. A legendary Simpsons line has Homer exclaiming, “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!” Replace “alcohol” with “Catholicism,” and you'll have the basic idea behind The Exorcism. As opposed to your average Simpsons episode, however, fun won't be forthcoming.

June Squibb and Eric Hechinger in Thelma


Without question, the most overused visual cliché in modern action movies is the sight of our hero or heroes walking calmly and confidently, and in slow-motion, yards ahead of a fiery explosion. Because writer/director Josh Margolin's Thelma is primarily an action-pic satire, that familiar scene is replicated here. The difference is that, at the time of filming, star June Squibb was 93, and her co-star, the late-and-great legend Richard Roundtree, was 81. They're not walking away in slow motion. They're simply walking slow. And although they're certainly calm and confident, their collective cool isn't primarily due to attitude. They just can't hear the explosion all that well.

It's so easy to see how badly Thelma could've gone wrong that it's something of a miracle to see how Margolin's movie goes so right. In lesser hands, and with lesser actors, this might have been an hour-and-a-half of cruel jokes based on an admittedly juicy premise: Squibb's titular nonagenarian gets scammed for $10,000 through one of those repugnant “Grandma, bail me out of prison!” schemes, and consequently borrows a friend's mobility scooter to get her cash back. The doddering-old-fool jokes could write themselves, and Margolin's film teeters on the edge of offensiveness when, for instance, the independently living Thelma and Roundtree's Ben engage in a leisurely chase scene in the latter's retirement facility. Yet astoundingly, nothing about Thelma feels mean-spirited or designed for cheap laughs – the laughs here, and they are legion, are honest. Even the movie's action-spoof coup de grâce, in which Thelma's beloved grandson Danny (the powerfully sweet Fred Hechinger, from season one of The White Lotus) gives the woman phone instructions while racing to her aid, is a wonder of cleverness and understatement. Turns out that what's preventing Thelma from getting her computer work done is her confusion about how to close a pop-up ad. That's not merely a comic conceit. That's life. Don't get me started on the great running gag on valuable time being wasted by Thelma's insistence that strangers on the street are people she knows.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb  in Thelma

Margolin, whose own grandmother Thelma serves as his film's inspiration (we see her, and she's endearing, during the closing credits), could easily have rested on the cuteness of the scenario and the awesomeness of its lead. But beyond providing ideally paced progression, Margolin delivers dynamite moments of action-comedy elan, his best bits including, but not limited to, the ill-timed firing of a handgun and the ultimate fate of Ben's scooter. Both bits made me gasp, and then roar with laughter for gasping. (My only directorial complaint lies with the film's impossible-to-gauge time frame, as it appears to be dark for roughly 10 hours before Ben makes his debut in a senior-center production of Annie, which couldn't possibly start at 2 a.m.) And even though their roles are more functional than I would've preferred, I have no beef with any movie that allows Parker Posey and Clark Gregg scenes of obviously improvised comedy, nor any film that gives Hechinger such an endearing calling card or Roundtree such a richly deserved career send-off.

Thelma, though, is almost unimaginable without the mesmerizing, hysterical, deeply affecting force of nature June Squibb. I say “almost” because you could imagine, say, 90-year-old Shirley MacLaine in her role, and with similar benefit. Yet despite being a sterling supporting actor for decades – she was remarkable during her stint on HBO's Getting On years after her Oscar nomination for 2013's Nebraska – Squibb has the element of surprise on her side, as Thelma is the performer's first film lead in a career that, honest to God, includes appearing in the original Broadway production of Gypsy in 1959. Squibb's performance here isn't merely a showcase for what an amazing talent can pull off given the properly expansive material, but a hint at we might've missed out on during all those decades leading up to it. Still, I refuse to be maudlin. We have June. We have Thelma. And for now, at least, we have the most utterly delightful movie in current release ... though I am I tad disappointed by the naming of Roundtree's character. "Shaft" would've been ridiculous, of course, but as an action-pic parody, how did we not get Thelma & Louis?

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