Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December


As a filmmaker, Todd Haynes appears delightfully obsessed with images. Not necessarily visual ones, although his films traditionally look stunning. I'm referring more to the images that Haynes' characters project to the world, and that routinely fail to match their truths. The picture-perfect suburban spouses in Far from Heaven; the hetero-seeming heroines of Carol; Bob Dylan, or rather “Bob Dylan,” in I'm Not There … . Haynes presents these figures as onions ripe for a gradual, painstaking unpeeling, and the director's May December (newly streaming on Netflix) provides Haynes with one of his ripest cinematic playgrounds yet. The central figures in this thrillingly unsettling dramatic comedy are constantly projecting images of themselves as they desperately hope to be perceived, yet all three of them are deeply deluded – and only one of them will emerge unscathed with delusions blissfully intact.

Written by Samy Burch (with Alex Mechanik receiving a “story by” credit), May December takes its inspiration from the real-life notoriety of Mary Kay Letourneau, the elementary-school teacher who, in 1997, was imprisoned for seducing one of her 12-year-old students, a boy whose baby she had while in lockup. After a time, Letourneau was released, resumed her “affair” with the student, went back to prison, and had another child by him. She was eventually released, the couple married, stayed married for 14 years … and especially during the early years of their relationship, the media went nuts. Haynes' film alters a number of details from the scandal: only one prison sentence for the offender; two additional kids after her release; the boy being 13, not 12, at the time of his statutory rape. But otherwise the movie hews closely to the facts before taking a wild leap of imagination: What might have happened had a Hollywood actress, 20-plus years after the initial crime, visited the “happy couple” in preparation for a forthcoming TV movie based on their lives?

Charles Melton in May December

As narrative setups go, May December's is so juicy that it practically leaks from the screen, as Haynes' leading ladies Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are certainly aware. Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a second-tier yet widely recognized actor primarily known for a TV series, a moisturizer commercial, and at least one film in which she appears nude. Moore plays the Letourneau stand-in Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a former pet-shop employee who seems a reasonably beloved citizen of Savannah, Georgia, and brings in an apparently healthy home income as a baker. Her Korean-American husband Joe, portrayed by Charles Melton, is an X-ray technician who must also be doing unreasonably well financially, given that their sprawling house is like Tara. When Elizabeth first meets Gracie and Joe, their home is – intentionally? – overloaded with friends and neighbors there for a barbecue, with the Atherton-Yoos' twin high-school seniors Mary and Charlie (Elizbateh Yu and Gabriel Chung) also on the premises, their older sister Honor (Piper Curda) still away at college. And for the remainder of the film, Elizabeth essentially plays detective, hoping to authenticize her eventual incarnation through interviews, unearthed bits of information, a mirroring of Gracie's voice and habits, and, just maybe, closer access to Joe.

All of this likely suggests the makings for an intensely camp soap opera, and happily, Haynes knows it. Any worries you may have about the director and his screenwriter taking things too seriously will be effectively destroyed at the five-minute mark, when Gracie stares into her fridge with a pensive daytime-drama expression, the melodramatic score swells to a fever pitch, and Moore calmly states, “I don't think we have enough hot dogs.” Yet Haynes keeps the goings-on icky/funny for at least half of May December's length, scoring laughs primarily through the characters' cluelessness and denial. With her forced cheer and prominent lisp, Gracie has no evident idea how vacuous she appears, or how casually cruel. (Shopping for graduation dresses for Mary, the sleeveless one the girl picks out and obviously loves is quickly discarded when Gracie tells her daughter how brave she is for baring her arms and not caring about body-image standards.) Joe, who's rarely seen without a beer nearby, doesn't realize that his deference to Gracie might read as stunted adolescence – that he has no agency in the family except that which Gracie allows him. And Elizabeth, whom we initially, mistakenly take as our conduit into this strange world, might prove the least self-aware of them all, not realizing, for instance, how creepy it is for a 36-year-old to breathlessly speak to a roomful of high-schoolers about the mechanics involved in feigning cinematic sex, or to slyly share an inviting smile with a teenager passing her in the hallway. No one thinks statutory rape is funny, and Haynes and Burch don't, either. But they absolutely see the cringe comedy of their protagonists' delusions, and ensure that we do, too.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December

Yet as May December progresses, and Elizabeth gets ever-closer to “understanding” Gracie and Joe, the material starts to become almost ineffably sad, but not in a way that feels discordant with the early humor – we just naturally stop seeing the characters' denial as something to laugh at. This is particularly apparent in the movie's subtle shift toward its focus on Joe. Though he seems initially unfazed, even mildly bored, by Elizabeth's presence, it's obvious that her arrival has triggered something in this fellow 36-year-old who, despite his adult frame, is still every bit the 13-year-old whom Gracie seduced. The heartbreaking Melton is allowed several sequences in which Joe makes attempts at grown-up understanding, yet he's continually thwarted and undermined – and even his one somewhat successful conversation, getting stoned (for the first time) with his son, finds the guy collapsing in sobs, deathly afraid that his behavior might be damaging Charlie for life. Because, however, they're so singlemindedly focused on themselves – their personal images-to-the-world they've come to believe in – neither Gracie nor Elizabeth can offer Joe any healing. May December is a comedy, but it's a hurtful one with pulsating blood in its veins, and it offers bracing, necessary self-recrimination if you ever gawked or giggled at the Mary Kay Letourneau story in People magazine or the National Enquirer.

A hypnotic blend of genres boasting Portman and Moore in peak tragicomic form (and that's quite the peak), Haynes' latest already feels like one of its creator's signature achievements, the movie's plethora of sublime set pieces including: Elizabeth's “professional” questioning of Gracie's ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and adult son from her first marriage (an electrifying Cory Michael Smith); the actress' hilariously lurid re-creation of Gracie's and Joe's doomed pet-shop dalliance; the mercilessly uncomfortable pre-graduation dinner where Honor is finally around to supply her two cents; Gracie's horrific assertion that a 13-year-old kid was the guiding force in their relationship (“You seduced me!”); Elizabeth's tearful-monologue recitation of a years-old love letter clearly earmarked as her Emmy clip; and the very last scene, in which we're reminded, as we are in Justine Triet's remarkable Anatomy of a Fall, that no one ever truly knows anyone else, and it's folly to ever think we might. Its title is May December, yet for the conceivable future, thanks to its Netflix residency, I may very well be returning to the film all year 'round.

Godzilla Minus One


Even though Takashi Yamakazi's Japanese-language Godzilla Minus One opens in December of 1945, one would hardy be impelled to call it a Christmas movie. But I'm not sure I agree, given that this might be the first monster flick I've seen whose final minutes made me think of nothing so much as It's a Wonderful Life. I was hoping that the effects would be terrific, and they genuinely are; while there are only four or five full-scale scenes of kaiju destruction, each one of them finds a way, and usually more than one, to effectively drop your jaw. Yet when I was wiping away tears, several times, during Yamakazi's movie, it wasn't because I felt so deeply for that poor, rampaging creature who couldn't help what atomic energy had done to him. It was because the writer/director spends so much necessary, valuable time with his humans that, as exciting as they are, you don't necessary want more Godzilla attacks. You just want that adorable little girl and her makeshift parents to get a Happily Ever After … and that damned lizard keeps making it really improbable.

I felt mildly embarrassed to be crying at a Godzilla, but even more ashamed that it wasn't until hours after leaving my screening that I figured out what the Minus One in the title referred to, as Yamakazi's film is effectively a prequel. (This should definitely become a Hollywood trend starting with mid-December's retitled Wonka Minus One.) With its narrative beginning mere days before Japan's World War II surrender, our hero Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) considers himself a coward, having ignored his orders to die as a kamikaze pilot. Proclaiming technical issues with his plane, Kōichi lands on Odo Island, and as if manifested by the young man's dereliction of duty, Godzilla immediately arrives, laying waste to the facility and killing all but Kōichi – who froze up when ordered to shoot the creature – and Navy Air Service worker Sōsaku (Munetaka Aoki). Upon returning to a demolished Tokyo, Kōichi forms a family of convenience with the homeless Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and the infant Akiko, whose parents, like Kōichi's, were killed in the bombing. Yet Kōichi is still racked with survivor's guilt, which becomes more pronounced when Godzilla returns, and this time has his sights set on Japanese soil.

Minami Hamabe in Godzilla Minus One

A word of warning: If you prefer your Godzilla movies consistently loud, debris-filled, and preferably boasting another kaiju or a King Kong for the reptile to rassle with, Godzilla Minus One may not be to your liking. Though the film isn't without humor or levity, its tone is assuredly more somber than in most of the long-running series' entries, and leads Kamiki and Hamabe play levels of guilt and internal pain that aren't operatic in their intensity so much as kabuki; you might have to stifle an urge to giggle during a few of the cast's more florid expressions of grief. Yet with government and military officials largely and intentionally kept out of view – Yamakazi's blunt script trashes them for their wartime disinterest in human life – everyone on-screen is empathetic excepting Godzilla himself, who has sometimes come off as borderline-heroic but who, here, is a true asshole. We're consequently left in an unusual and thrilling position: wanting, as genre fans, as much demolition as possible, just so long as no people get hurt. And we very much don't want to see Kōichi, Noriko, or, God forbid, Akiko hurt, as their tender faux-familial bond gives Minus One the emotional stakes lacking in so many of its predecessors.

As much as I adored the film's earned sentiment, however, I won't pretend that Yamakazi's outing doesn't kick serious butt as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Yamakazi's Godzilla is extraordinary. Looking harder and more vicious than you may remember him, his jagged scales and mean, dead eyes are routinely unnerving, and his preparation for heat-ray assaults is a terrifying spectacle. From tail to snout, bright blue light successively emanates from the monster's frame until it's time for him to belch radiation, and when he does, it's a beautiful, horrific sight: This creature born of an atomic bomb unleashes atomic bombs of his own. Yet everything from the annihilation of city skyscrapers to the lizard's habit of tossing warships as casually as you'd throw a tissue into the garbage is sublimely rendered, the movie's visual effects perhaps only rivaled this year by those in The Creator – and these come with staggering aural explosions to match. I absolutely loved Godzilla Minus One. We can argue about who makes the best cars and which country has been responsible for the most significant technological innovations. But if you want a first-rate Godzilla movie, leave it to the Japanese.

Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario


There's a special kind of disappointment reserved for films with a fabulous central premise and sensational first hour that immediately falter at their (figurative) first-act breaks and never quite recover. Emerald Fennell's Saltburn is one of those movies, although in that case, the performances, lush visuals, and sense of forthcoming, batshit-crazy complications keep you invested. Writer/director Kristoffer Borgli's Dream Scenario delivers a similarly strong opening hour, but the performances don't develop, the visuals remain humdrum, and you're left with the nagging sense that its narrative isn't going to get more interesting – merely more hectoring. It's a Being John Malkovich fever dream that actually wants to Say Something, yet all it's really saying is that wit and invention of Charlie Kaufman's caliber isn't easy to replicate.

A balding, schlumpy biology professor who, when we first see him at work, is delivering a lecture on zebras' ability to visually blend into their herds, Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is the sort of forgettable figure that similarly vanishes into his surroundings. It's consequently a surprise when a number of his acquaintances begin seeing Paul in their dreams – not really doing anything, just being there – and a shock when his subconscious appearances turn out to be happening on a national, and then global, scale. As a result, Paul becomes a beloved media sensation despite being a completely inactive participant in this phenomenon. But the glow of his celebrity dims, and ultimately disappears, the moment Paul begins to feel entitled to more – and so, too, does the glow of Dream Scenario, which starts out as a witty, weird commentary on social-media-fueled pop culture and ultimately turns into an unexceptional, untalented man's screed about not getting the recognition he feels he deserves. Borgli continues to wage satiric assaults through his film's second half: on trendy consumerism, on the Instagram and TikTok generations, on the fickle nature of 21st-century fame. They play, however, merely as whiny fuddy-duddy-ism – a lament for The Way Things Used to Be – that sours the movie's comic invention and eradicates any possible rooting interest.

Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario

As skilled and funny as Cage is here, it's hard not to notice that nearly everyone we meet in the movie is more likable than Paul: his understandably flummoxed wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson); his students, his fellow faculty members (among them a delightfully deadpan Tim Meadows), the well-meaning ad-agency doofuses who want to monetize Paul's ubiquity. (Michael Cera has one of his most entertaining recent roles as a viral-marketing head who thinks Paul hawking Sprite would be a potent combination.) Paul himself, though, is a pill … at least from the halfway point on, when he embarks on tirades about losing his unearned goodwill and everyone's collective disinterest in publishing his book – a book he has yet to start writing.

This maybe isn't the best time, culturally, for films about late-middle-aged white men not receiving the perks they consider their birthright – not, that is, unless they're the films' targets of disdain. Yet we're clearly meant to empathize with Paul even when he appears beyond salvation, and there's something really gross about the finale that suggests that the real villain is society, and not the self-involved loser who, we're told, just wants to be loved by his wife. (By the end credits, almost nothing about the previous 100 minutes indicated that Paul and Janet felt much of anything for each other.) While Dream Scenario is hardly a nightmare, though it does resemble one in Paul's humiliating fling with Dylan Gelula's horny ad rep, you emerge from the movie the way you do from many bad dreams – a little foggy and unsettled about what you just experienced, and more than ready to wipe it from memory.

Kristoffer Polaha in The Shift


I suppose it was inevitable that comic-book culture would one day permeate the seemingly iron-clad genre of nonsecular dramas, and that day arrived with the release of writer/director Brock Heasley's The Shift, which isn't content to be another modernized take on the biblical struggles of Job – it has to be a multiverse saga, too, and a desperately confusing one, at that. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for more weirdness and less bare-bones sanctimony in my religiously themed entertainments. But while Heasley's performers, to their credit, seem on-board with what's happening at any given time, I'm not sure the same can be said about their audience, consistently toggled as we are between different realms of questionable reality and never entirely sure where we are or what, precisely, is going on. With most determinedly pro-faith endeavors, bluntness is a detriment. I was aching for more bluntness here.

We do actually get some about halfway through The Shift, when Kristoffer Polaha's noble sufferer Kevin Carner recounts the tale of Job to a pair of pre-teen girls – a scene indicating that Heasley's film is consciously aware of its goals. I appreciated that. I wish I knew what the hell to make of the rest of the film, which introduces Kevin with a fall (the 2008 stock-market collapse), gives him an immediate pick-me-up (a flirtatious hotel-bar encounter with Elizabeth Tabish's Molly), and consequently destroys his life with the presumed death of the now-married couple's son and a visitation by Satan – or rather, “The Benefactor,” rather inevitably played by that glassy-eyed hambone Neal McDonough.

Neal McDonough in The Shift

From there, what happens is largely anyone's guess. The Benefactor wants Kevin to act as an agent that will send disruptors to another universe, or something, and Kevin winds up spanning the multiverses in an attempt to reunite with Molly, and there are echoes of 1984 and Children of Men and The Matrix and Doctor Strange all tied to our hero's refusal to relinquish his faith in God, and all leading to McDonough's repeated, hissy-fit shriekings of “He doesn't care about you!!!” Again: I dig the weirdness. I just didn't get the weirdness.

There were numerous other aspects of the movie that I was simply unable to comprehend, inspiring questions such as: Why does everyone in the Benefactor's preferred café look traumatized? What's their story? And: Why must practically every scene involving Sean Astin find the guy gorging on sandwiches or takeout food? (To explain why the actor is now twice the size of Samwise Gangee?) Yet even though I didn't remotely enjoy The Shift, I'll give the film its props for so deliriously toying with its genre template, and especially for the unexpectedly enticing rapport between the hard-working Polaha and the salty, effervescent Tabish in their badinage over unsipped cocktails. It's not often in nonsecular dramas that your biggest kick comes from watching two beautiful, charismatic actors share cinematic electricity and comfort and discussion of faith and make you hope they'll soon get around to doing it.

Joel Kinnaman in Silent Night


It's been 20 years since John Woo's last Hollywood movie (Paycheck) and 21 years since the last one I actually saw (Windtalkers), and it wasn't until sitting through the 77-year-old Chinese auteur's new revenge thriller Silent Night that I realized how much I haven't missed him.

The rudimentary yet ridiculous plotting, the 10 minutes it takes to dispense information we could successfully glean in 10 seconds, the “balletic” slow-motion action choreography … . Woo's output in his native Hong Kong may be spectacular, but I'd had more than enough of the director's widely lauded style by the end of his Broken Arrow/Face-Off/Mission: Impossible 2 triad between 1996 and 2000, and the man's North American return after two decades away suggests that the creak of his engineering skills has only grown rustier. The only novel aspect of Woo's latest is that it's almost wholly free of dialogue, and that inspires less appreciation than mere relief, because it means we at least don't have to listen to the boneheaded conversation of his other Hollywood works.

Joel Kinnaman in Silent Night

Weirdly, Silent Night shares some narrative DNA with The Shift in that it, too, is about a middle-aged white dude tortured beyond measure by the absence of his wife and death of his kid. Here, the tortured middle-aged white dude is Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman), whom we're introduced to – in slow-mo, natch – chasing down the Los Angeles gang bangers whose stray bullet ended his young son's life on Christmas Day. There's some mild amusement in watching bruised, bloody Brian slo-o-o-owly high-tail it through southern California wearing the ugliest of ugly holiday sweaters with a big felt button for Rudolph's nose. Things get considerably less amusing when, after being shot through the throat by the freakishly tattooed gang leader (Harold Torres' predictably, insultingly named Playa), Brian miraculously recovers, albeit with the loss of his voice, and becomes ludicrously obsessed with ridding SoCal of its Latino gang population. Not that it matters much, but the expressive, Oscar-nominated Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Brian's wife, who effectively, wisely exists the picture before it reaches its halfway point. After that, all we're left with are scenes of Brian (a) training, and (b) killing, and I've seen TikTok videos that feature more narrative involvement and breadth of characterization.

This isn't to put any blame at the feet of Kinnaman, who's one of those shoulda-been-a-star performers (Garrett Hedlund and Alessandro Nivola are others) who always seems thisclose to major success without ever getting there, and whom I'm always quietly rooting for. Without saying a word, he's wonderfully emotional in Silent Night and carries what little heft the picture has, and he's excellent in the movie's rare moments of respite; Kinnaman's disappointed reaction during target practice after failing to get anywhere near his paper target is a blessed bit of low-key comedy. But Woo, jettisoning subtlety as easily as he disposes dialogue, just keeps piling it on – the carnage, the cruelty, Brian's laughably hazy reminiscences of interactions with his adored child – and none of it is all that inventively choreographed or even close to memorable. We're also left with the queasy notion that Woo only cast Moreno and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi in prominent roles to avoid accusations of racial insensitivity, because seriously: I haven't witnessed so many people of color being gorily dispatched since the '70s-'80s heyday of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson's Death Wish vigilante. Watching Silent Night, you wouldn't think it had been 20 years since John Woo last worked in Hollywood. You'd think it had been 40 or 50.

Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell, and Madison Thomas in Candy Cane Lane


For far less egregious holiday-themed fare, I'd instead guide you toward Candy Cane Lane, which is apparently 2023's requisite yuletide streamer (it's on Prime Video) boasting a mammoth budget, at least one huge comedy star, and a theoretically ideal blend of slapstick, schmaltz, and blatant advertisement for the joys of consumerism – and, ya know, family, I guess. Yet unlike last year's Spirited, that odious lump of coal in which Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds looked as depressed (i.e. contractually obligated) as I've ever seen them, director Reginald Hudlin's Eddie Murphy outing is oftentimes incredibly funny. It's amazing how much that helps. The film is treacly and obnoxious and pandering and, at a full too hours, almost criminally overlong. Viewing it from the comfort of my couch, however, I still laughed out loud at least two-dozen times, sometimes at curveball punchlines that hit their marks with unexpected force, sometimes at gambits so silly that I was frankly embarrassed to be laughing at all. Embarrassed, maybe, but hardly mortified. Until Candy Cane Lane, I guess I'd never realized how much I needed to see a wicked elf played by Jillian Bell knee Santa Claus in the nuts, especially with that Santa portrayed by David Alan Grier.

In addition to being too long, Hudlin's latest is too crammed with storylines, which include, but are not limited to: a neighborhood contest involving gaudy, eye-piercingly bright Christmas decorations; Murphy's suburban dad losing his job; Tracee Ellis Ross' suburban mom getting a promotion; their teen daughter (Genneya Walton) applying for colleges; their teen son (Thaddeus J. Mixson) failing math; a mysterious, magical décor shop lorded over by Bell's Pepper; an annual live TV broadcast hosted by ill-matched anchors (Danielle Pinnock and Timothy Simons); and a quintet of miniature carolers who look and move like Rankin/Bass figures and can't stop bursting into song. But the most significant and memorable conceit concerns Murphy having to pay for his well-meaning greed by having his block overrun with living versions of all those “12 Days of Christmas” gifts – drumming drummers, piping pipers, laying geese, and the like, and a conceit that a mid-series episode of The Office initiated but couldn't visually pull off. This entertainment's 10 leaping lords, I have to admit, were pretty awesome, as was the maid whose cow's udder squirted milk with the velocity of a fire hose. Then again, whenever Candy Cane Lane isn't drowning in mawkishness, it's improbably hilarious – a seasonal family comedy that knows its built-in limitations and is refreshingly determined to ignore them.

Thaddeus J. Mixson, Gennaya Walton, Madison Thomas, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Eddie Murphy in Candy Cane Lane

Even though he's billed as a producer, the movie's first half-hour found Murphy working in such a low-key comic register that he almost didn't seem present; I worried (although, admittedly, not too much) that too many Dr. Dolittles and Haunted Mansions had dulled his interest in family-friendly fare for good. After the large-scale, effects-heavy antics get rolling, though, the Eddie Murphy of yore comes roaring back, and screenwriter Kelly Younger provides the star with plenty of scenarios requiring aghast apoplexy, as well as Murphy's knack for delivering withering put-downs so speedily that you're not sure you heard what you heard correctly. Ellis Ross makes for a fine sparring partner who's given plenty of terrific gags of her own, and Hudlin's entirely winning ensemble is nicely accentuated by Ken Marino, Robin Thede, a riotous Chris Redd, and Nick Offerman, perhaps the last actor on Earth I expected to see cast as a Cockney villager named Pip.

Its effects aren't entirely convincing and it's tonally all over the map, but Candy Cane Lane is still something I hardly expected it to be: an incredible amount of fun, particularly whenever Jillian Bell is around. Apparently not getting the memo that yuletide flicks of this type are supposed to be bland nonentities that pacify the six-year-old in all of us, Bell tears into her material like Joan Crawford hunting for wine hangers, and practically shocks you with her devilish dry wit. Agreeing with Murphy that Christmas is all about giving and spending, Murphy adds, “Unless you think it's about religion?” Pepper chuckles and shakes her head, replying, “Oh, Jesus Christ, no.”

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