Sunday, October 13, 2019

You won't have to read anyone 'The Riot Act' to enjoy pieces of this film

Brett Cullen, currently portrays Thomas Wayne, father of Batman-to-be, in big, bad "Joker," but he's enjoying a similar role in a much smaller indie film these days as well. That would be "The Riot Act," an occasionally hoot-worthy, but atmospherically swell drama from first-time feature director Devon Parks.

The same guy wrote the screenplay and also likely gets credit for hiring the talented Cullen to play Dr. Willard Pearrow, a character with a disposition that certainly resembles Wayne's. This time, Cullen definitely stars as a wealthy, arrogant theater owner in a western town, circa 1900, and the kind of Big Shot whose standing there allows him to get away with murder.

In fact, the movie actually initiates a kind of "Phantom of the Opera" feel right from the start since Cullen's Pearrow kills a lead tenor for having an affair with his daughter (Laura Sweetser) and boldly attempting to take her away on the midnight train to who knows where.

Unfortunately, Pearrow accidentally wounds his offspring during the dastardly deed, but she still escapes via the choo-choo, leaving Daddy a broken man addicted to morphine.

We find out the latter news a few years later, just when Pearrow is ready to shutter the theater. Then -- voila -- a troupe that claims to offer "high-end vaudeville" arrives, not only to seriously heat up plot possibilities, but prove that Parks might have a real future at the movies.

Rated "PG-13": violence and brief drug material; 1:41; $ $ $ out of $5

(This is one in an intermittent series of reviews featuring buzz-worthy films either currently playing the festival circuit or soon to be released. "The Riot Act," which took home a couple of L.A. Film Awards last February and a Best Picture nomination from the recent Dallas Film Festival, is now showing on a few VOD outlets.)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Animated 'Addams' clan more kooky, than spooky; 'Lucy' rarely takes flight

An all-star cadre of voices dresses up an animated version of "The Addams Family," but the closest thing to killer about any of it all is the soundtrack, not counting "Haunted Heart," a new, but nothing-special opener co-written and performed by Christina Aguilera.

Otherwise, big butler Lurch (Conrad Fisher) becomes the music master of the piece, supposedly on the keyboards for "Green Onions," the classic organ original from Booker T & The MGs; a few chords of the "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" song; and even R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," among others. Of course, the "all-together ooky," finger-snapping theme from the live-action '60s TV comedy eventually shows up, too, in a plot that plays not unlike any cable cartoon your kids watch every day.

Main members of the nicely animated "Addams Family" are back again.
Yes, there are a few good sight gags, messages about inclusion, and one very wrong-minded idea to make young Pugsley Addams (Finn Wolfhard from "Stranger Things") an explosives expert. What? In this day and age of school violence?

Regardless, the whole gang is here -- and then some. Parental influences Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) show up early with a back story of how they got to their asylum/mansion in New Jersey (with the aforementioned Lurch in tow, by the way). Thirteen years later, it's forever-odd daughter Wednesday Addams (Chloe Grace Moretz), getting a big piece of screen time simply by attending public school for the first time.

Naturally, she takes on a school bully while befriending the somewhat-lost daughter (Elsie Fisher) of the film's villain (Allison Janney), a reality-show realtor trying to get the strange family on the hill to take a hike -- or worse.

Other familiar names lending vocals include Titus Burgess, Aimee Garcia, Jennifer Lewis, Bette Midler, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short and Snoop Dogg (as Cousin It).

The one -- and just about only -- real scene-stealer, however, becomes Nick Kroll, who lends perfect voice to the precisely imagined Uncle Fester with a dead-on nod to the late, great Jackie Coogan from the original series.

Rated "PG": macabre and suggestive humor, and some action; 1:29; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

The chemistry between Portman and Hamm doesn't exactly bubble over, either,
Also opening Friday, "Lucy in the Sky" flew into the 44th annual Toronto Film Festival fueled by a payload of buzz, then fell back to Earth after a less-than-sparkling world premiere without making much of a splash.

The movie likely will interact with audiences the same way, beginning with some compelling opening images of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) all starry-eyed with wonder during a space walk, before some silly melodrama kicks in to mess up a story "inspired by true events."

Space junkies might even recall how a real astronaut went a little haywire over a jilted romance in 2007, but they won't recognize it in the way it's told by co-writer and first-time feature director Noah Hawley. That, in fact, might be the film's biggest disappoinment, since so many of us expected something extra special from the guy who created TV's always intriguing and multi-Emmy-winning "Fargo."

Instead, we get the competent Portman going ga-ga over a fellow flyer played by Jon Hamm, and when was the last time that small-screen heavyweight (especially in AMC's "Mad Men") made a really exceptional film? Ever?

Rated "R": language and some sexual content; 2:04; $ $ out of $5

Friday, October 4, 2019

Grandly portayed 'Joker' might stir you up; 'Honeyland' impresses, too

Move over "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," there's a new picture of the year. Its name is "Joker," the movie in which Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the finest performances of all-time as a character who giggles a lot, hurts even more, and might be too afraid to cry.

Phoenix rises out of a screenplay sprinkled with mixed messages.
Actually, Arthur Fleck has a medical condition that keeps him laughing curiously at times, and Phoenix's facial expressions during those bouts of faux joy that are obviously touched by pain become nerve-wracking to watch. In fact, the actor's entire range-- whether dancing or damning, listening or lashing out, scowling or smiling for just about the entire film is a legitimate tour de force for our times.

In this origin story from director Todd Phillips (the "Hangover: movies) and his co-writer, Scott Silver ("The Fighter"), Fleck is a rather poor, if self-admiring soul who spends his days on clown-related jobs and his nights caring for a sickly mom (Frances Conroy). There's also a comely neighbor (Zazie Beetz), who actually gives him the time of day, a social worker (Sharon Washington) working for a system that mostly doesn't, and a co-worker (Glen Fleshler) pretending to be his pal.

Good ol' Robert De Niro (yeah, right!) shows up as well as a smarmy talk-show host feeding Fleck's dreams of becoming a stand-up star. Surely that won't work out so fabulously, but such darkly disturbing stuff does get reminiscent of  "The King of Comedy" and "Taxi Driver" in a garbage-ridden Gotham City likely struggling with its own dirty self around the same time period that those two Scorsese fixtures arrived.

Of course, we all know that Fleck eventually will turn into "The Joker" of Batman lore, so both young Bruce Wayne, who meets his nemesis-to-be in just one of many magnificently creepy scenes here, and wealthy dad Thomas Wayne (Brent Cullen) also appear in smaller roles.

Collectively, all the supporting characters help weave the web that eventually will strangle the Arthur out of Fleck and, it says here, have audience members making constant choices about right and wrong, good and evil, happy and sad. Phoenix plays 'em all out to the edge of brilliance, madness and beyond. Bravo, and guess who'll have the last laugh when the Best Actor votes are counted.

Rated "R": strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images; 2:01; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Muratova's world-weary countenance speaks volumes.
In the documentary "Honeyland," a middle-aged daughter also waits on her ailing mother in a manner that anyone who ever has cared for an elderly parent will relate. The dialogue and circumstances are spot-on, but it's still only one more very real part of a small movie detailing the meager exploits of  a remarkable woman named Hatidze Muratova.

Slavic directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent more than three years following around their subject, billed as Europe's last female beekeeper, in a Macedonia wilderness without water and electricity.

The result produces a combination of wonder and despair, but rarely any indignation from Muratova, a tough woman with enough capacity to accept what she's given, including the loud and pillaging neighbors adding one more significant hardship to her solitary existence. The little woman is a marvel and, at times, so is the movie showing us her remote spirit.

Unrated, but with profanity, grief and hardships; 1:27; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, September 27, 2019

Renee elevates 'Judy'; Miles Davis soars and water roars in separate documentaries

Show business and the environment make some noise in a trio of movie openings today, including a pair of documentaries.

Zellweger dazzles as entertainer Judy Garland in the very late stages of a career.
If you're interested in awards season, though, the one to see right now is "Judy," with a little lady turning in one gigantic performance as a superstar from another time and place. The latter would be the one-and-only Judy Garland, the diminutive dual-threat actress/singer for four decades, now brought back to troubled life by a knockout performance from Renee Zellweger (already a supporting actress Oscar-winner for 2003's "Cold Mountain").

Zellweger, herself making a kind of screen comeback, absolutely embodies a forty something Garland, even singing up a storm with a fabulous turn that often dwarfs the movie, especially when it features glimpses of her character's very early career. The way a script based on a stage play ("End of the Rainbow") tells it and director Rupert Goold shows it, MGM studio kingpin Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and constant co-star Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) were making the teen-age Judy (Darci Shaw) miserable in very different ways during those late-'30s days.

The teen-age Garland apparently had a serious crush on Rooney that was never reciprocated, while a tyrannical Mayer forced his "Wizard of Oz" star to take pep pills, diet constantly and celebrate her 16th birthday two months early for publicity scheduling purposes.

Such early turmoil certainly contributed to Garland's grown-up woes of possible addiction, heavy drinking, cancelled appearances, bad press and five marriages (and oh, by the way, Rooney had eight). Regardless, Zellweger plays them all to the hilt, albeit having to deal with only one new husband (Finn Witttrock) here, as well as a more famous ex, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and all the while showing Garland as a loving mom to boot.

Much of it is sad, poignant stuff to be sure but, as centered around a six-week London nightclub engagement, "Judy" and Renee show off an array of emotional flourishes that climax with a legitimate show-stopper. Everyone will recognize the Garland standard that always manages to touch the heart, and here might reach right into the soul, too.

Rated "PG-13": substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking; 1:57; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Davis fashioned cool jazz out of torment.
As for those aforementioned docs, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" is the one that follows a similar path of entertainment excesses while showing off the legitimate genius and elegant music of the title musician.

Director Stanley Nelson tells Davis' warts and all story with plenty of room for remarkable bits of information, scholarly comments from an assortment of names and faces, and historical rhythms of Bebop that simply might drive jazz devotees to the brink in a good way.

Sound-alike narration from actor Carl Lumbly, using often angry and ever-passionate words from Davis' autobiography, adds a kind of you-are-there feel to the life of a complex man whose horn became his internationally famous canvas.

Not rated; 1:55; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Meanwhile, the art featured in director Viktor Kossakovsky's occasionally scary "Aquarela" comes with the force of a hurricane in Miami, an ice-covered river that swallows up automobiles in Siberia, and monstrous glaciers tossing out giant frozen remnants as if they were tiny pieces of spittle.

Such is the massive power of water in all its mighty forms and personas across several continents, thus making for some brilliant cinematography. Surely there's an environmental warning or two that need no narration, either, to send its eagerly severe message.

Nature's sound and fury, though, become the lone reasons to see and maybe embrace it and, even at less than 90 minutes, such relentless imagery feels like a lot of watching. Listening to a metal-heavy score from a cellist, believe it or not, named Eicca Toppinen helps move the big pictures along.

Rated "PG": disturbing thematic elements; 1:29; $ $ $ out of $5

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Thanks to its fine New York ensemble, 'Human' condition connects two families and more

One of the best things about watching New York-based films is the inevitability of spotting character actors you know from other movies or classic TV shows such as "The Sopranos." That happens to be the case with "Human Capital," which recently enjoyed its world premiere at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival.

Hidden among the movie's powerful ensemble cast is John Ventimiglia (perhaps better known as classic restaurateur Artie Bucco on the cable series that just about started it all for HBO). Here, he's barely credited as the uncle of a key young character (played by Alex Wolff from "Hereditary"). Naturally, Ventimiglia gives it his all in both of his big scenes, causing a gal close to Wolff  to comment later on, "I don't like your uncle."
Sarsgaard and Schreiber head separate families involved in a collective mess.

And that's the rub -- at least for yours truly -- since Ventimiglia's "Uncle David" is one of the few characters not showing personality warts in an ensemble led by Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke ("Stranger Things") and Betty Gabriel ("Get Out"). I mean, I like the guy, which is more than I can say for many of the other characters.

Right now, in fact, I can't deny that I really like some of this movie, too, as directed by Marc Myers (most recently off "My Friend Dahmer," much of which was shot, of course, in and around serial killer-to-be Dahmer's hometown of Bath, Ohio).

"Human Capital" has a pedigree initiated by Stephen Amidon's 2004 novel, continued with Paolo Virzi's 2013 Italian film adaptation, and now evolves anew from screenwriter Oren Moverman  ("Love & Mercy," "The Messenger"), perhaps with a wayward twist or two.

The basic story stays the same: Waiter riding home via bicycle following an awards dinner attended by some familiar faces becomes a hit-and-run victim. Certainly the whodunit element remains vital, but so does the way Meyers/Moverman put the various driving suspects in the spotlight on a couple of different occasions.

Schreiber, in this case nothing like the tough guy he so marvelously creates on "Ray Donovan," and Sarsgaard, as good a cad as there is on screen today, kick things off with a chance meeting on the latter's huge upstate estate. Tomei enters early as the ex-actress wife of one of them, as does Hawke, portraying a daughter with some mommy issues. Gabriel appears a little later as a shrink and, obviously then, a more adjusted spouse.

Secrets slowly emerge -- along with some real or imagined class distinctions -- from all concerned.

By the way, getting back to Ventimiglia and Artie Bucco, his TV "wife" Kathrine Narducci (the lovely Charmaine Bucco) actually showed up in "Bad Education," an even more essential New York-produced world premiere at this year's Toronto film festival. Since then, that Hugh Jackman-starrer has been picked up by HBO for showing in 2020. Wolff is in it as well.

 "Human Capital" has no MPAA rating yet; 1:37; $ $ $ out of $5

This is one in an intermittent series of reviews featuring buzz-worthy films either currently playing the festival circuit ot waiting for a distributor and subsequent release.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

'Ready or Not,' here comes an actress with which to reckon and probably very soon

Here comes Samara Weaving, ready or not.
Even if you've never heard of Samara Weaving, it might be best to remember her name. The niece of the notorious Hugo Weaving (from "Matrix" and many others) might be familiar from her ongoing turn as the girlfriend of the pivotal baby daddy in Showtime's infamously cancelled "SMILF."

Samara played a kind of voice of reason on the crazy comedy, that is, until the last few episodes gave her some room to explode. Now she's doing just that on the big screen, too, with a movie-carrying performance as the put-upon bride taking care of family business -- and herself -- in "Ready or Not."

By the time the sun shines through the day after Weaving's Grace (owning one helluva misnomer in this case) marries a rich guy (Mark O'Brien), she has chewed up and spit out just about every mean-spirited member of new hubby's excessively elite clan.

Certainly they deserve what they may or may not get, since some historical hocus-pocus dictates a kind of game night escapade whenever a potential new beneficiary enters their midst.

So, on her wedding night, Grace gets her official "welcome" after she somewhat merrily pulls the venerable Hide and Seek card from a likely fixed deck. After all, the family fortune came from the gaming business, and everything that might entail, including deal-making. Get it? Wink, wink.

On this lengthy but quick-moving evening, our heroine gets to know a mansion filled with closets, kids, various weapons of choice, servants, and one very smart dumb waiter. There's also the in-laws, headed by strange birds (Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell), the groom's drunken brother (Adam Brody), and their ferociously bloodthirsty aunt (longtime TV actress Nicky Guadagni).

None, though, are as watchable as the pretty, prancing, plotting, primal Weaving, who also helps deliver some of the dark humor she teams with to save this predictable, but engaging enough summer horror silliness.

Rated "R": violence, bloody images, language throughout and some drug use; 1:35; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, August 16, 2019

'Where'd You Go Bernadette?' Who cares? Besides, 'Mike Wallace Is Here'

Richard Linklater has been one of my surefire, go-to filmmakers for years now. In fact, I still think his "Boyhood" should have been the Best Picture Oscar-winner (over "Birdman" in 2014). Similarly, Cate Blanchett just may be might favorite working actress. That standing began after I watched her in, then interviewed her for "Elizabeth" more than two decades ago and predicted big things for the talented Aussie, who certainly didn't need someone such as I to tell her how successful she would become.

Blanchett and Nelson strut their somewhat strange mother/daughter stuff.
Anyway, the first collaboration between writer/director Linklater and Blanchett, as his leading lady, opens today. Unfortunately, their "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" lost me at hello.

As based on Maria Semple's best seller, which certainly must be less nonsensical than this adaptation, the film opens with Bernadette/Cate paddling a raft alone in icy waters somewhere very close to the South Pole.

Narration by the title character's daughter Bee (nicely played by newcomer Emma Nelson) accompanies that first of a few oddly shot, framed and edited scenes, but it's clear she's in her mother's corner no matter how Bernadette gets to the destination of her choosing.

Flash back to five weeks earlier and we learn that smart cookie Bee herself is yearning for a family vacation to Antarctica, of all places, before she will head off to boarding school. Her low-key dad (Billy Crudup in a rather off-putting turn), still a techie god who now works for Microsoft after it buys his own ultra-successful company, seems on board with the proposed trip. However, Bernadette, a somewhat wacky if brilliant wife who constantly dictates duties to a virtual helper in India, never seriously commits until . . .

Uh, why don't you just decide for yourself if it's worth buying into the series of outrageous events that leads to the title question and, most disappointingly, features Blanchett giving an effort that screams diva more than presenting a perfect piece of performance art.

Hey, maybe you'll love it. Then again, maybe you'll hit an iceberg walking out of the theater.

Rated "PG-13": strong language and drug material; 1:40; $ $ out of $5

Not surprisingly, considering what's written above," Mike Wallace Is Here" remains a much better choice at the movies this weekend. Now making its way around the country after collecting a best documentary nomination at last spring's 43rd annual Cleveland International Film Festival, this fast-moving bio piece is a jam-packed gem in the hands of director Avi Belkin.

Wallace's nightly CBS reports from Vietnam became must-see TV.
Surely everyone recognizes the Wallace name from his 40 years of uncovering scoops and delivering compelling interviews on TV's fabled "60 Minutes," but did you know he was an actor, pitchman, and self-confessed "bad father" as well?

Of course, some of his interview subjects included in this who's who of enormously famous names and faces might use a few different words to describe the late, great broadcast Hall of Famer. In fact, in a movie that pulls no punches about the man or his opinions, defrocked Fox News host Bill O'Reilly refers to Wallace as a dinosaur, Barbra Streisand calls him an SOB, and CBS News pal Morley Safer describes him with a term that suggests much worse than a jerk.

Certainly, a number of interview clips follow to prove Wallace's legendary prickliness, not only in sitdowns with other colleagues, but in some legendary exchanges with the likes of actress Bette Davis and fellow TV icon Larry King, among others.

A couple of moving moments included about Wallace's personal life offer a more human look at a man who lived to a ripe old 93, but rarely acted like more than a hell-raising machine asking only the tough questions.

Some jazzy rat-a-tat-tat music, credited to to John Piscitello, accompanies it all in a way that might even make Wallace smile, a rare occurrence indeed.

Rated "PG-13": thematic material, some violent images, language and smoking; 1:34; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening today are a trio of promising comedies whose press screenings I missed during a recent two-week getaway. "Good Boys" is an "R"-rated excursion by adolescents apparently discovery the joys and jitters of forbidden fruits. Then there's "Blinded by the Light," a "PG-13" lark featuring a Pakistani immigrant obsessed with the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Finally comes an animated sequel, "Angry Birds 2," which arrives with a "PG" rating that might keep some (very) small fry away. Regardless, happy -- not angry --viewing to all!