Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Some effective moments of 'Panic' may lure you into its uneven stream

No, "Silent Panic" is not a new nickname for the worldwide reaction to the coronavirus. It's simply the title of a so-so thriller that's now one of myriad streaming options available to so many of us with too much time on our hands.

This one's psychological trappings develop early when three pals -- a falsely accused ex-con named Eagle (Sean Bateghi), recovering cokehead Bobby (Joseph Martinez), and writer Dom (Jay Habre) -- discover a corpse in their trunk upon walking back to their car from a camping trip. Naturally, Eagle wants no part of calling the cops, since they already have a history of not believing him

Meanwhile, the nervous Bobby goes bonkers after seeing the body, while Dom, a journalist with the personality of a goldfish, goes into deep introspective mode. Such diversity of moods makes for an assortment of possibilities, not to mention a viewing urge to find out how it all eventually ends.

One of the most intriguing scenes, though, comes complete with actor Jeff Dowd, as Bobby's former drug dealer. If you don't recognize the name, he's an acquaintance the Coen Brothers patterned their legendary "Dude" after in "The Big Lebowski." Keen eyes also may recognize Helen Udy, who played the recurring role of a hooker in CBS-TV's long-running "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Here, she portrays the divorced Bobby's ever-understanding mother, not to mention the go-to grandma for babysitting his young son on a few frantic visitation weekends.

The rest are mostly newcomers, which occasionally becomes obvious in how some deliver dialogue from first-time writer/director Kyle Schadt. By the way, Schadt gives himself a quick cameo during an outrageous poker game where the film's pivotal Eagle doesn't exactly fly very straightforwardly.

No rating (some language, drugs and glimpses of the body); 1:36; $ $ $ out of $5

("Silent Panic," an official selection of the Studio City International Film Festival, is now streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and a few other platforms.)

Friday, March 6, 2020

'Onward' barely moves upward; 'Greed' never really pays dividends

Marvel/Disney action stalwarts Tom "Spider-Man" Holland and Chris "Guardians of the Galaxy" Pratt voice brothers in "Onward," the latest animated feature from the geniuses at Pixar and certainly not one of their creative best.

Pratt's Barley (left) and Holland's Ian take departed dad for a long ride.
Still, it slowly becomes a serviceable adventure, leaning very heavily on magic, which the film reminds us about 10 times during some early narration. From there, you might recognize it as a mix of "Harry Potter" types looking to repeat some "Frozen"-like, box-office wizardry of their own, if mostly for boys and without all the girly-girl music.

Truth be told, any distaff fireworks come from widowed mom Laurel Lighfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a newfound pal, the mythical manticore now running a local, Fantasyland dive and properly vocalized by Octavia Spencer.

Of course, it's the teen-age Lightfoot siblings, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt), dominating the show. They're actually a couple of elves taking off on a rather bizarre road trip that keeps them looking for the top half of their dead father's body.

Huh? Yes, ya really gotta see it to understand, but just-turned 16-year-old Ian never knew dear ol' Dad, older bro Barley barely remembers him and, perhaps not so ironically, their mom is now dating a cop (Mel Rodriguez), who doubles as a centaur with an exceptionally big bottom to boot.

Too many other odd creatures to count also show up throughout the mish-mash directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University"), but another warm Pixar ending finds a way to pardon its assorted sins.

Rated "PG": action/peril and some mild thematic elements; 1:42; $ $ $ out of $5

Also opening today is the satirical "Greed," a dark take on a rich man (ever-reliable Steve Coogan) who loses his way early on, thanks to a surly disposition and doting mother (Shirley Henderson).

Coogan is the wealthy fool, but certainly no hero in the farcical "Greed."
The British production comes from Michael Winterbottom, whose various hits (including "The Trip," "Tristram Shanty," and "Welcome to Sarajevo") have been sprinkled throughout a long career. Here, though, the writer/director risks losing us all very quickly with an almost inconceivable number of leaps in time during the film's first 15 minutes alone.

The story of  the immensely unlikable Sir Richard "Greedy" McCreadie (Coogan) starts with his handing out sizable bonuses to a few connected employees of his monolithic fashion company, then literally jumps to "5 days earlier" in Greece, where his lavish 60th birthday party is in the works.

That brief interlude runs into a "3 months earlier" cue and the beginning of what will become the mogul's recurring -- and always dull-- appearance at a parliamentary subcommittee investigating his shady business practices. Add the other unkindly events screen-splashed before us in "1973" (extremely creepy school days), "1977" (London's rag district), and "1990" (a Sri Lanka sweatshop), and it too quickly becomes a hammering onslaught of how slime turns into wealth.

Thank goodness for McCreadie's often bewildered biographer (David Mitchell), his dimwitted daughter (Sophie Cookson) with her scripted reality show, and some particularly funny bits involving a few celeb lookalikes hired to appear at the aforementioned birthday bash. Otherwise, we might truly get suffocated by "Greed."

Rated "R": perversive language and brief drug use; 1:44; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, February 28, 2020

A mixed bag of month-end gooodies: 'Man,' 'Lady,' 'Brothers' and 'Seberg'

Of four movies new to northeast Ohio screens today, only one might be considered a truly mainstream offering. That is "The Invisible Man," a surprisingly gripping thriller with another boffo performance from always watchable Elisabeth Moss, this time as a trapped and terrified architect trying to leave some considerable relationship distress behind.

In fact, the latest from writer/director Leigh Whannell ("Upgrade") opens with the cleverly nerve-wracking sequence of Moss' Cecelia Kass barely negotiating a middle-of-the-night escape from her drugged boyfriend. Things only heat up from there, especially when our shook-up heroine learns that her brilliant ex-beau has committed suicide and left her a nifty $5 million.

Apparently bullied, manipulated and controlled for years by the allegedly dead optics inventor, Cecelia certainly isn't sure if she can believe anything anymore. By then, though, she's staying with a friendly cop (Aldis Hodge from "Brian Banks") and his smart daughter (Storm Reid from "A Wrinkle in Time"), neither of whom will find it easy to fathom some of the things about to happen at their abode.

That means it all has little in common with any "Invisible Man" H.G. Wells introduced two centuries ago or any film incarnations his novel may have instigated, either. (The 1933 original, with Claude Rains playing a scientist who can make himself  disappear, also spawned a popular sequel that many might know best.)

Whannell chooses to make his contribution to the mix a consistently tense companion of the ongoing "Me Too" movement and, for a long while, keeps it humming with an assortment of scary psychological moments and a big, unforgettably shocking one, as well.

If only the screenwriter, who initiated the "Saw" and "Insidious" movies, left us with an equally stunning ending rather than what seems like just another franchise starter. As it is, viewers may may leave the theater more disappointed than energized.
Rated "R": some strong bloody violence, and language; 2:02; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5 

Ironically, the remaining trio of films debuting here today all played last September's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where each contributed a bit of buzz. Among their highlights:

Merlant and Haenel in "Lady."
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (Rated "R": nudity and sexuality; 1:59; $ $ $ $ out of $5) and its uniquely gorgeous tale of 18th century romance, features a pair of picture-perfect mademoiselles (Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel), as a young artist and her initially unwilling subject. A nice supporting turn from Valeria Golino, though playing a stern and concerned mother, might take some of us back to the late '80s and early '90s, when the still stunning Italian actress was co-starring in such American films as "Big Top Pee-Wee," "Rain Man," and "Leaving Las Vegas," among others. 

Then there's the opening-nighter that kicked off TIFF44 in a special way, "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band" (Rated "R": some language and drug references; 1:44; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5). It's a rocking and, occasionally, rollicking documentary, focusing mostly on the Toronto homeboy who became the definitive leader of the major musical group with a simple name. Besides the music -- with, naturally, key inclusions of "Up on Cripple Creek" and a rousing finale of "The Weight" -- celebrity talking heads abound. Greater Clevelanders especially should enjoy comments from our own Sheele Brothers, Bill and John

Finally, "Seberg" (Rated "R": language, sexual content/nudity, and some drug use; 1:44; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5) finds Kristen Stewart in a camera-loving, '60s-era
Stewart becomes "Seberg."
performance as the former All-American girl-turned movie star, Jean Seberg. The married actress' relationship with a black activist (Anthony Mackie) gave notorious J. Edgar Hoover's FBI room to ruin more than a career, perhaps even with a few twists we never heard about. One might be the sympathetic agent (played by Jack O'Connell from "Godless") who likely didn't really exist at all.  

Friday, February 21, 2020

Ben and Billy help lift 'Standing Up' enough to make sure it rarely falls down

 Schwartz and Crystal play a pair of newfound pals in some regular old digs.
Many laughs, maybe a few tears, and an assortment of real people fill a quick 90 minutes of screen time in "Standing Up, Falling Down," a warm little film trying to find an audience in theaters around the country (including Tower City Cinemas in northeast Ohio).

It teams relative youngster Ben Schwartz (now also providing the movie voice of "Sonic the Hedgehog") with ever-irresistible senior citizen Billy Crystal as a pair of funny guys, the former a struggling comedian, and the latter a dermatologist simply trying to mask the loneliness of life.

His name is Marty, which somehow fits the Crystal-perfect persona like a glove. So does the way Schwartz, whose own good-guy Scott, plays rather smoothly off his new wisdom-wielding friend almost immediately upon their funny initial meeting in a beer-joint bathroom.

The supporting cast in director Matt Ratner's appealing first-time effort fits the bill, too, especially members of Scott's quietly charismatic family: supportive Mom (Debra Monk), less understanding Dad (Kevin Dunn), lovingly smart-ass sister (Grace Gummer), and her "awesome" security cop boyfriend (David Casraneda). Hey, "Standing Up" is nothing particularly profound, just a nice little keeper. Go out to find it and enjoy.

Not rated (with a little pot use and a bit more profanity); 1:31; $ $ $ $ out of $5


Friday, February 14, 2020

Except for Louis-Dreyfus, it's mostly all 'Downhill' for alleged comedy remake

Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play happy on a mostly failed family vacation.
Near the beginning of "Downhill," a shaky redo of the Critics' Choice and Cannes-winning "Force Majeure," a young lad ever-so-slowly zig-zags on skis toward his parents and an older brother, all urging him toward the bottom of an Austrian resort mountain. And, that's about as fast -- or funny -- as it gets from there, despite a mom and dad being played by the grand Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a clownish Will Ferrell, likely still an acquired taste for some after all these years.

In fact, Ferrell never really captures the attempted spirt of any of it. Honestly, he plays his same ol' dork/doofus from beginning to end and, if that's the way co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash persuaded him to go, well shame on them.

As it does in the easily superior 2014 original, the story revolves around the less-than-caring way a father, in this case Ferrell's self-centered Pete, appears to react to the "controlled" avalanche that seriously interrupts his scenic lunch with wife Billie and their boys. As media types love to say, the optics are not good, leading to some rather icy situations on and away from the snow.

A kind of obnoxious supporting cast does not help much, including the oversized performance from Miranda Otto, as a sexually aggressive resort regular. What amounts to a cameo by "Game of Thrones" mainstay Kristofer Hivju, who portrayed an entirely different character in "Force Majeure," only produces some nervous laughs, too.

That leaves Louis-Dreyfus to carry the gist of the dramedy balancing act playing out here. Certainly on the comic end, her uncomfortable scene with a seductive ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) pays off with the movie's biggest guffaw. The talented lady needs to do more films.

Rated "R": some language and sexual material; 1:25: $ $ out of $5

(Also opening for this lengthy Presidents' Day/Valentine's Day weekend: "Sonic the Hedgehog," "The Photograph," and "Fantasy Island." For the record, we were unable to attend screenings for the former two, while the latter was not screened for critics.)

Friday, February 7, 2020

Sad 'Song' won't cause much of a blip on Oscars weekend; maybe picks will

With Warner Bros. somehow deciding not to host a northeast Ohio critics' screening for DC's reportedly action-packed "Birds of Prey," only one new movie debut gets a little space here this weekend. Of course, if it's time for the Academy Awards -- and it is Sunday night on ABC-TV -- there's always room as well for our ever-intrepid prognostications below. 

Luke Doyle plays the young prodigy in "The Song of Names."
First, though, a few words about "The Song of Names," a somber drama that waits so long to deliver its heartfelt gut-punch perhaps a viewer's patience might be worn totally away by then. Based on a novel of the same name, it follows the almost 50-year relationship between musically inclined boys who literally become brothers for life during the horrors of WWII, get separated at age 21 and, naturally, are destined to meet again.

We know that because one, the son of a London concert enthusiast, grows up to be played by Tim Roth, as a guy simply obsessed with finding his infinitely more interesting pal. The latter is the Polish/Jewish violin virtuoso (eventually portrayed by equally top-billed Clive Owen). Always a bit of an arrogant and eccentric youth, the character actually had disappeared the same night he was scheduled to debut in a royal performance financed by his British host family.

Before its moving and title-related climax, the half-century tale is forever filled with back and forth jumps in time. More satisfying are an illuminating score from award-winning composer Howard Shore, and a fine turn from Catherine McCormack, as the woman between the men.  

Rated "PG-13": some strong language, brief sexual material, thematic elements and smoking; 1:53; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

And now, as promised, the envelopes please for our quick and easy Academy Awards predictions (with full list of nominees linked here):

Best Actress: From the moment after leaving "Judy," the first movie viewed at last year's 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, I started telling everyone that Renee Zellweger would win the Oscar for her dead-on portrayal of the legendary Judy Garland. Well, so far so good, since the petite Ms. Z, just like the favorites in the rest of the acting categories, has gone on to capture every major award this season. Sunday night she'll win again. 

Phoenix will become the second "Joker" to win an acting Academy Award.
Best Actor: The performance of Joaquin Phoenix as "Joker" Arthur Fleck is simply one of the most brilliant of all time. None of the other nominees can touch him.

Best Supporting Actor: Golden boy Brad Pitt ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"), whose acting chops always have been vastly underrated, wins his first performance Oscar here. In fact, all four of the other prominently named nominees already own at least one gold statue in front of the camera. 

Best Supporting Actress: Hollywood's popular Laura Dern ("Marriage Story") does not give my favorite performance in this category. It belongs to Kathy Bates, whose nomination as the incredibly supportive mom of "Richard Jewell" likely knocked both Jennifer Lopez ("Hustlers") and Nicole Kidman ("Bombshell") out of this competition. If there's an upset in the quartet of acting awards, it will come here.

Best Director/Best Picture: Though I thoroughly enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," this boils down to Brit Sam Mendes and his war epic, "1917," versus South Korean Bong Joon Ho and his genre-breaking "Parasite." Both movies are grand, each director is deserving, and their Best Picture wins would bust the longstanding tradition of not giving top honors to films without an acting nomination. That has happened only 11 times in Academy Awards history and not since "Slumdog Millionaire" (2009). Regardless, it says here that Mendes and "1917" will become a 12th exception.  

A few more surefire winners: Best Animated Feature, "Toy Story 4," emerging from a surprisingly strong field for a change; Best International Feature, "Parasite"; Cinematography, "1917"; Costume Design, "Little Women"; Documentary Feature, "Honeyland" upsetting "American Factory"; Makeup and Hairstyling, "Bombshell" will win, but "Joker" deserves to win; Production Design, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"; Best Song, "I'm Gonna Love Me Again" from "Rocketman"; Best Score, "Joker"; Film Editing, "Parasite"; Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, (both) "Ford v Ferrari"; and Visual Effects. "1917."

Finally, a couple of reaches at attempting to get it "write": Best Adapted Screenplay ("Little Women") and Best Original Screenplay ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"). You're on your own with anything not posted here. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Bland, unsteady 'Rhythm' makes Oscar-nommed 'Le Mis' a wiser choice

If you're searching for a viable thriller at the movies this weekend, a French-made gem borrowing the title of a Victor Hugo classic might be a better selection than a way-out-there spy film searching for a franchise.

Almost unrecognizable Lively begins a less-than-rhythmic quest.
The latter is "The Rhythm Section," with talented Blake Lively playing a devastated young Brit literally left an orphan by a terrorist-instigated airplane bombing that killed the rest of her happy family.

The story, based on the first of four intrigue-heavy novels by the screenwriter, Mark Burnell, starts with Lively's substance-addled Stephanie Patrick holding a silencer to the head of someone in Tangier. Then the shaky flashbacks begin with the murder of a journalist and -- based on some coordinates Stephanie finds on the dead guy's computer -- the introduction of a rough and tumble operative (Jude Law) she tracks down in a foggy corner of Scotland. Easy peasy, right?

Equally absurd is our soon-to-be-heroine's quick transformation from Law's character calling her a "cliche" (for apparent years of drowning herself in prostitution and drugs) to a stone-cold killer. It's likely some kind of shortcut symbolism but -- voila! -- the change occurs almost immediately after he forces Stephanie to cross a long and ice cold river alone, all despite the impairment of her not knowing how to swim. Huh?

The rest does us no favors, either, with Sterling K. Brown appearing as an ex-CIA guy consistently talking in whispers to this ever-grieving, avenging angel who constantly keeps seeing and thinking about members of her long-gone family.

Obviously, with prominent "James Bond" producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson at the helm, their hope is to put one or two more Stephanie Patrick movies on the big screen, too. Very good luck with that, folks.

Rated "R": sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use; 1:49; $ $ out of $5

"Les Miserables," so named because Victor Hugo wrote his 1860s literary classic in the same poor Paris neighborhoods where this one takes place, at times pulsates with the kind of suspense "The Rhythm Section" (above) might only wish it had.

There are four sides to its urgent surge of power: street kids, cops as cowboys, a criminal authority, and a group of Muslims actually acting as peacemakers during the film's more tense moments.

Early on, though, all sides are unified as soccer fans during a spectacular opening sequence of flag-waving, marching and muscular support for the country's World Cup champion football team.

The contrast between beginning and climax becomes slowly startling, and the shades of gray that director and co-screenwriter Ladj Ly paints on most of his characters delivers a portrait of crime and alleged justice that Hugo might have enjoyed.

By the way, this "Les Miserables" has been nominated for Oscar's first ever "Best International Feature" (formerly called "Best Foreign Language Film"). Though it has no chance against the universally praised, South Korean "Parasite," Ly's often sizzling tale surely will live on as one of the best movies of 2019. Meanwhile, since we're talking Academy Awards, please return here next Friday for our annual predictions in an Oscar year where winners certainly appear rather cut and dried.

Rated "R": language throughout, some disturbing/violent content, and sexual references; 1:44; $ $ $ $ out of $5