The fall movie season is just getting underway and already COVID-19 is laughing at Hollywood's plans. Tom Cruise's "Top Gun: Maverick" just moved itself out of November 2021 and ahead to May 2022.
See what I'm up against? I'll probably be making changes to my fall movie preview as COVID and its variants wreak havoc over what movies will open and when. Sure the major studios are in a panic. Their livelihood depends on poking, prodding and pressuring us to defy the pandemic and get us back to the movies in person.
It's up to you to decide if it's safe for you and your family to return to theaters or whether you'd prefer to wait till these movies stream and you can couch potato the whole season at home.
It's up to Hollywood to provide you with movies you can't resist.
The good news is things are looking pretty, pretty good. The fall season is packed with eye-popping, star-driven blockbusters eager to make you laugh, cry, scream and even sing, Whether your taste runs to epics like "Dune" and Marvel's "Eternals" or buzzy indies like "Passing" and "The Power of the Dog," the movies have you covered.
Fall is also Oscar season, when the competition is so fierce that Lady Gaga is playing a murderess and Frances McDormand is taking on Lady Macbeth. Can Will Smith make his first trip to the podium by playing the hard-driving father of Venus and Serena Williams? Or will the heads of Academy voters be turned by the left-field casting of the very British Benedict Cumberbatch as a macho Montana cowboy or hottie Bradley Cooper as a phony mind reader reduced to biting the heads off live chickens in a carnival sideshow?
As Ansel Elgort sings in Steven Spielberg's hotly anticipated remake of "West Side Story"— "The air is hummin' and somethin' great is comin'." Here are the fall movies that just might deliver on that exhilarating promise.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"
The fall season kicks off in high style with Marvel giving audiences its first Asian hero. It's about time. Former stuntman Simu Liu represents in fierce fighting form as Shang-Chi, who wants to break from his immortal crime lord father (the great Tony Leung) and do his own thing.
That means parking cars for a fancy San Francisco hotel and hooking up with a millennial firecracker played by Awkwafina. It's a tangled plot, but the martial arts is visual poetry.
"The Card Counter"
Paul Schrader writes movies in a fever, like he did for Martin Scorsese with "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." When he directs as well as writes, the intensity factor rises exponentially — look at 2017's brilliant "First Reformed."
Schrader wears both hats on his latest cinematic odyssey about a former military interrogator turned gambler, played by Oscar Isaac. Having learned card counting in prison, he applies his skill to a poker syndicate run by Tiffany Haddish, who tones down her comic rhythms to get on Schrader's wavelength of guilt and redemption.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye"
Jessica Chastain goes all in — spackling on eyelashes and makeup — to play Tammy Faye Bakker, the late televangelist who turned her Christian news program into a profitable industry until a sex scandal involving her first husband, Jim Bakker, played by Andrew Garfield, brought everything down.
Chastain has said that she wants the film, which she produced, to be a corrective to Tammy's image as a joke, noting that it's not fair to punish her "for the mistakes of her husband, which all throughout history women have been the victim of, atoning for the sins of men."
Amazingly, Clint Eastwood is 91 and still showing what he thinks macho is really about by directing, producing and starring in an action movie he first thought of doing 1975. The former Dirty Harry stars as a washed-up rodeo star who is hired by a Texan (Dwight Yoakam) to get his son out of trouble in Mexico. Pity anyone who gets in his way.
In the spirit of "Gran Torino" and "The Mule," Eastwood does his craft and the AARP proud.
"The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Starring Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his scheming tormented lady, this black-and-white version of Shakespeare's Scottish play is the first film Joel Coen has directed without his brother Ethan Coen.
In the theater, some will not say the title aloud (shades of Candyman), believing the play is cursed. With this talent, not a chance. We'll find out for sure when the "Macbeth" opens the New York Film Festival on Sept. 24 and then heads to Apple TV+.
"Dear Evan Hansen"
Ben Platt repeats the brilliant Broadway musical role that won him a Tony for playing a teen who lies about his friendship with a classmate who killed himself.
Some claim that Platt, at 27, is now too old to play Evan. C'mon. John Travolta was in his mid-20s when he filmed "Grease." Ditto James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause." What matters is preserving the humanity and heart of a great performance on screen.
"The Many Saints of Newark"
In this movie prequel to "The Sopranos," Tony returns as a teenager in the person of Michael Gandolfini, the lookalike 22-year-old son of the late James Gandolfini, who won three Emmys for playing the New Jersey mobster.
Michael was born 1999, the year the series started. He'd never seen his father as Tony. Michael admits that catching up was traumatic.
"It was really hard to watch my dad," said the young actor, who wants to do him proud.
"No Time to Die"
The pandemic has kept us waiting 18 months to see Daniel Craig take his fifth and final run at playing James Bond. Except for Sean Connery, no one has ever done it better.
The director is "True Detective" ace Cary Joji Fukunaga. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, "Fleabag" herself, polished the script. Oscar winner Rami Malek plays the villain.
And listen to Grammy darling Billie Eilish, who wrote and sings the title song. She calls the Bond series "the coolest film franchise ever to exist." Any arguments? Didn't think so. Bring it on.
Horror history was made in 2018 when Jamie Lee Curtis joined forces with director David Gordon Green to do the one true sequel to John Carpenter's game-changing 1978 "Halloween" (forget the other nine attempts that came between). "Halloween" has more lives than masked killer Michael Myers.
Now, Curtis is back as Laurie Strode, the babysitter turned Bloody Grandma, to really end Michael. Not so fast. Another sequel, "Halloween Ends," opens next fall. Who cares? We'll never get tired of seeing Curtis wage war on toxic masculinity.
"The Last Duel"
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck team up as actors and screenwriters for the first time since their 1997 Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting." Directed by Ridley Scott, "The Last Duel" is a 14th-century historical drama about the last legally sanctioned duel in France.
Damon plays the knight whose wife (Jodie Comer) accuses their friend (Adam Driver) of raping her. Affleck plays a count who intervenes in the duel between the two knights. Intervening in the script is filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, who wrote the scenes for the woman. Damon and Affleck handle the male side, which suggests a hot-button debate for the Me Too era.
No fantasy epic has won the best picture Oscar since 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Many are betting on "Dune" to end the near two-decade drought.
Can cinema poet Denis Villeneuve ("Blade Runner 2049") cut his way through the futuristic thicket of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel and succeed where David Lynch ran aground in 1984? With a starry cast led by Timothée Chalamet as the young hero in a desert war over a life-enhancing spice, the buzz is that Villeneuve has carved the book's first half into a visionary classic.
"The French Dispatch"
Movies were invented for creative filmmakers like Wes Anderson to paint with. Remember "The Grand Budapest Hotel"? Now, the Texas virtuoso delivers "The French Dispatch."
It's about an American weekly magazine (think Anderson's beloved New Yorker) published in a fictional French city. Anderson's peerless cast of regulars, including Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, are joined by newcomers Timothée Chalamet and Elisabeth Moss to bring wry humor and generous heart to what Anderson calls his "love letter to journalists."
"Last Night in Soho"
It's always an event when "Baby Driver" director Edgar Wright makes a new film. And this psychological thriller has all the Wright elements with Thomasin McKenzie as a wannabe fashion designer who transports herself back to the 1960s and into the body of her pop idol, played by "Queen's Gambit" sensation Anya Taylor-Joy. You're hooked, right? Me too.
It's inspiring seeing women filmmakers making waves this fall. In her directing debut, mixed-race actress Rebecca Hall adapts a 1929 novel about two light-skinned African-American women in a racially-segregated Manhattan.
One (Tessa Thompson) identifies as Black, the other (Ruth Negga) passes as white. Thompson and Negga are superb in roles that speak forcefully to past and present about identity and the danger of defining ourselves through the eyes of others. After its theatrical release, it heads to Netflix Nov. 10.
"Nomadland" director Chloe Zhao, who became only the second woman to win a directing Oscar in the Academy's shamelessly sexist 93 year history, follows that small-scaled, indie triumph with a big-budget, jumbo-scaled Marvel epic called "Eternals."
The plot pivots around an immortal alien race who emerge from hiding after 7,000 years to protect Earth from its enemies. While Angelina Jolie and Kit (John Snow) Harington are the starriest names, Zhao gathered a diverse cast, headed by Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayak, with Brian Tyree Henry and Lauren Ridloff playing, respectively, the first gay and deaf superheroes in the MCU. Marvel business as usual, "Eternals" is not.
With Emma Corrin an Emmy lock this month for playing Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, on "The Crown," you may wonder if there's room for a feature film on the people's princess. There is when Kristen Stewart takes on the role and gives it her all.
"Spencer" concentrates on Diana's last holiday with the royal family, when she decides to leave Prince Charles, played by Jack Farthing. Guided by director Pablo Larrain, who cast Natalie Portman to much acclaim as JFK's widow in "Jackie," Stewart finds Diana at a moment of crisis and personal liberation.
Shades of "Cast Away" with a volleyball named Wilson stealing scenes from Tom Hanks who's stranded on a deserted Pacific island. In this sci-fi drama set in a ravaged world, Hanks stars as Finch, a dying inventor who may be the last man on Earth.
That's why he builds a robot named Jeff (a motion-capture performance from the reliably superb Caleb Landry Jones) to care for his much-loved dog when Finch bites the bullet. I'm sniffling already.
"Tick, Tick... Boom!"
How do you measure a life? In his film directing debut, "Hamilton" creator Lin Manuel Miranda does just that by adapting this stage musical from Jonathan Larson about the life of Jonathan Larson, whose landmark rock opera, "Rent," opened two weeks before he died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm.
The film catches Larson, played by the vibrantly versatile Andrew Garfield, racing the clock to hit it big before he's 30. It's a self portrait etched in joy and sorrow. Miranda knows the global adulation that Larson never lived to enjoy. His tribute is one from the heart. After its theatrical release, it will stream on Netflix beginning Nov. 19.
Reaction was ecstatic in August when CinemaCon previewed this sequel to the "Ghostbusters" hits of 1984 and 1989. No mention of the femcentric 2016 reboot.
Jason Reitman, son of original director Ivan Reitman, directs this story of a single mother (Carrie Coon) of two (McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard) who moves to a rickety Oklahoma farmhouse and discovers a family connection to ectoplasm. And Paul Rudd joins the old gang.
I'll slime anyone who isn't stoked to see Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson back in the ghostbusting business.
Will Smith takes on what could be the role of his career as Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams. Known as a loving dad and shrewd dealmaker, King Richard has also been criticized for being controlling and manipulative.
It's up to the former Fresh Prince, barely recognizable physically and vocally in the part, to blend these tender and tyrannical contradictions into a relatable and unforgettable character.
"House of Gucci"
Remember that Oscar Lady Gaga should have won for "A Star Is Born"? The smart money is already betting she has it in the bag for playing Patrizia Reggiani, who was convicted of arranging the assassination of her ex-husband, fashion icon Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).
Director Ridley artfully handled the scandals of the J. Paul Getty family in "All the Money in the World," which suggests we're all in for something equally decadent and delicious.
Also known as the "Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Project" (the writer-director likes to keep us guessing), "Soggy Bottom" stars Cooper Hoffman, 18, as a high schooler trying to make it as an actor in 1970s Los Angles, where Anderson's family porn epic "Boogie Nights" is also set.
Little is known of the plot, except that Bradley Cooper plays a producer modeled on Jon Peters. What is known is that the young star is the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who made five iconic films with Anderson. I count Anderson as the funniest, fiercest, finest director of his generation. Whatever it ends up being called, this movie needs seeing.
"The Power of the Dog"
September is the month for film festivals from Venice and Telluride to Toronto and New York. And the one film to rule them all is "The Power of the Dog," a neo-western set in 1925 Montana from New Zealand director Jane Campion.
Could she join Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao in the shockingly small circle of Oscar-winning woman directors? That's the idea.
Expect awards buzz to swirl around Benedict Cumberbatch as a brutal, acid-tongued rancher who sets tensions ablaze when his decent brother (Jesse Plemons) brings home a bride (Kirsten Dunst) and her teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Recalling "Brokeback Mountain," the film sets nature's harsh beauty against toxic masculinity and sexual repression. See for yourself Dec. 1 on Netflix.
Expect Bradley Cooper to nab an Oscar for playing a phony mentalist who teams up with a phony blackmailing shrink (Cate Blanchett) for a big score that costs him his humanity.
Instead of remaking the 1947 movie with Tyrone Power, visionary director Guillermo del Toro ("The Shape of Water") goes back to the source, the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, to mine the seamy elements of carny life to show how and why the desperate huckster played by Cooper sinks to the depths of degradation. Prepare to be knocked for a loop by Del Toro's immersive dive into darkness.
"Don't Look Up"
Talk about star power. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence team up to play unknown astronomers who go on a media tour to convince the world that a killer asteroid to about to obliterate the Earth.
The cast is a Hollywood Who's Who, including Meryl Streep as the American president (not a bad idea). But the real MVP is writer-director Adam McKay, whose comic instincts from silly ("Anchorman") to strafing ("The Big Short," "Vice") indicate we're in for a demonically dark satire to rival "Dr. Strangelove." Bring it on.
"West Side Story"
For those who love the 1961 movie classic that set "Romeo and Juliet" to music while gangs fought it out on the streets of New York, even the idea of a remake is heresy. Steven Spielberg thinks differently. He thinks diverse casting will energize the war between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the whiteboy Jets.
Natalie Wood, of Russian heritage, had to spackle on dark makeup and a fake accent to play Maria, while Rachel Zegler, whose mother is Colombian, can power duet with Ansel Elgort's Tony with no fear.
The songs are intact (whew!), though I'm still shook they replaced the irreplaceable choreography of Jerome Robbins. The biggest change, says screenwriter Tony Kushner, is a script that reflects the original stage production's grittier take on urban life.
Look, the 1961 "West Side Story" will always be there. Spielberg's version just gives a new generation a crack at it. Interpretation is the life's blood of timeless art.
"A Journal for Jordan"
Being directed by Denzel Washington was a "master class" according to actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays First Sgt. Charles M. King in this stirring true story. King was killed in action near Baghdad on Oct. 14, 2006, but kept a journal of advice for his infant son Jordan.
It was Jordan's mother, Dana Canedy (Chante Adams in the film) who provided the memoir on which Washington and the "Creed" star could build a deeply moving story of a family fractured by war.
"Spider-Man: No Way Home"
The trailer for Tom Holland's third solo effort as Peter Parker/Spider-Man produced more views than record holder "Avengers: Endgame." The wannasee for this epic is off the charts.
Since Spidey's secret identity was revealed last time, the catch now is getting Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to create a case of global amnesia. Good luck with that.
The trailer also raises the possibility that Spidey's enemies — all of the Sinister Six — might show up, along with previous webslingers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. It doesn't hurt to dream.
"The Matrix: Resurrections"
Also hotly anticipated is the fourth chapter in "The Matrix" series. The previous two sequels materialized nearly two decades ago and couldn't compare to the 1999 original. But who isn't curious to see Keanu Reeves return as Neo? John Wick can't fill the gap forever.
Carrie-Anne Moss is suiting up as Trinity. But hold on. Laurence Fishburne is MIA as Morpheus. And does that have anything to do with newcomer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II showing up in a undisclosed role? And why is Lana Wachowski directing without her sister Lilly?
Figuring out what's on screen is half the fun of moviegoing. As any "Matrix" junkie knows, either you swallow the red pill of challenge or settle for the blue pill that goes down easy. Always take the dare.
Spain's wildest caballero Pedro Almodóvar never fails to fascinate when he tackles the maternal instinct. His 1999 hit, "All About My Mother," won the Oscar for best international film. Look for Almodóvar to be back in the race with his latest tale of women on the verge.
The director's good luck charm, Penelope Cruz, stars as one of two expectant mothers — newcomer Milena Smit plays the younger one. Both single and both pregnant by accident, they bond for keeps in the maternity ward. As ever, audiences can expect the unexpected from Almodóvar.
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