Friday, July 20, 2018

Second 'Equalizer' uses same violent blueprint to emerge a bit better for it

Though it produces a somewhat more exciting result, "The Equalizer 2" certainly doesn't work very hard to get there.

Denzel sits in waiting to equalize the odds -- and then some.
I mean, the 2014 original featured ever-ultra cool Denzel Washington as the '80s TV-show-inspired Robert McCall. He was newly retired and working in a big-box store. Oh, by the way, his hobbies included trying to save a teen-age hooker from the streets, helping a chubby co-worker pass his exam to become a cop and, ultimately and most importantly, giving no quarter while taking no spit from way too many ruthless Russian mobsters.

In this latest and, perhaps, even more gratuitously violent incarnation, McCall has similar intentions. He is now a Lyft driver, attempting to rescue a talented teen artist ("Moonlight" youngster Ashton Sanders) from becoming a gangsta on even meaner streets, helping a Jewish codger (former talk- and quiz-show legend Orson Bean) recover a few very meaningful moments stolen during his Holocaust-heavy past and, finally, battling tooth and nail with bad guys who, well, you can try to spot them for yourselves. (It says here that you will.)

The former CIA operative (or something like that), opens the proceedings disguised as a devout Muslim in another sidebar thread that serves no purpose except to re-introduce his ongoing bad-assing on some leftover Russians. (Or, are they Turks?)

The main plot finally reveals itself with the appearance of always-steady Melissa Leo, again playing McCall's mentor in the government-backed business of black ops. A brutal and alleged murder/suicide occurs in Brussels, from which Leo's world-class investigator, who had been sent the to scour for clues, never returns.

The whole shebang is once again directed by the action-competent Antoine Fuqua, who helmed three other movies starring Washington, including "Training Day," for which his star earned his only Best Actor Oscar.

We've already mentioned that "Equalizer 2" offers more of the same, with its main attraction still giving his all while looking as if every vigilante move comes so very, very easily. That likely will be good enough for loyal Denzel fans of all ages. So, doesn't that mean everybody?

Rated "R": strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references; 2:09; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, July 13, 2018

'Trace' has humanity; 'Bother' some real soul; and Rock's in a high place

An abundance of calm images and tones speak volumes in "Leave No Trace," the occasionally stunning mix of silence and possible rage in the ever-searching mind of a troubled war vet trying to protect his teen daughter from all things real and imagined.

McKenzie and Foster attempt to "Leave No Trace."
Something dark obviously has occurred in the life of a guy named Will (the ever-intensely qualified Ben Foster), but don't even try to piece it together, even with a little mention of his daughter's mom, his visit to a VA hospital, and that constant desire to hide from the rest of the world.

His is the latest down-on-their-luck story from writer/director Debra Granik, whose Appalachia-based "Winter's Bone" earned four Oscar nominations, including one for then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence. Now a young New Zealander, Thomasin McKenzie, starts to blaze her own career/coming-of-age trail in the Oregon wilderness that has become the purposeful home for her and Dad.

Will shows the 13-year-old all things necessary to fend for herself and mostly hide from authorities apparently attempting to keep the national park lands free of homeless types. The girl, simply called "Tom," listens and watches intently, and the best part is that so do we.

The reason? Because Granik, whose film is based on a book called "My Abandonment," fills the screen with humanity in an assortment of characters (especially ones so nicely played by Dana Millican, Jeff Kober and Dale Dickey) doing their jobs and at least offering the rare opportunity to connect with others

Rated "PG": thematic material throughout; 1:49; $ $ $ $ out of $5 

In "Sorry to Bother You," the first directorial effort from rapper/activist Boots Riley, the catchphrase in a featured warehouse full of Oakland telemarketers becomes "Stick to the Script." But, who knows if Riley actually really followed that same directive in making his own weird tale of corporate shenanigans, which genuinely do focus enough on outrageous workplace humor in the first hour or so to carry much of his movie's comic payoff.

Meet Stanfield and Thompson, the odd couple in "Sorry to Bother You."
Thankfully, Riley depends on a broke but mostly balanced job-seeker named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield from "Get Out" and TV's "Atlanta") to hep carry the load. I mean, you know you're not simply watching the same ol' same old when this new telemarketer's phone fortunes seriously skyrocket after a wise co-worker (Danny Glover) shows him how to improve his pitch by using a "white voice."


The sales technique, on display in a variety of very funny imagined bits with the people on the other end of the line, quickly wins Cassius a promotion, some newfound devotion from his performance-artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and, eventually, a few very bizarre introductions to the wild, wacky and white clients he's actually phoning for.

That last important item includes a fateful one-on-one with a corporate bigwig (Armie Hammer) who takes Riley's already offbeat tale into an entirely different realm, perhaps as inspired by the huge success of last year's genre-bending "Get Out." Or not.

Certainly "Bother" presents enough pointed satire to get around famously on its own. Maybe Riley can turn all his visionary potential into something just a bit more accessible next time.

Rated "R": pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use; 1:45; $ $ $ out of $5

That brings us to today's most mainstream movie opener, "Skyscraper," a perfect vehicle for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to strut his muscular, heroic stuff (with obvious bows to "Die Hard," "The Towering Inferno" and even Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai").

Rock and Campbell roll through "Skyscraper."
The latter title deserves big time credit for influencing an impressive ending that continues to show off this film's major asset, the special effects that dazzle in, outside and around the Hong Kong "Pearl." The spectacular building is billed as the newest, tallest and safest in the world, and why shouldn't it be with our man Rock as its security adviser? Huh?

How he earned that job is told quickly and easily and not without some exciting flashbacks, but the here and now involves why the skyscraper is burning, running filthy with bad guys, and has our hero desperately needing to save the day -- and more!

Although none of it seems remotely plausible, Neve Campbell's own surprising talents as Rock's smart, strong-willed wife and loving mother of their two kids almost rescues the film from ho-hum expectations. You continue to go, girl!

Rated "PG-13": sequences of gun violence and action, and brief strong language; 1:43; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, July 6, 2018

Three for 7/6/18: Marvel schlock; sad doc; and what a road-trip crock!

Remember when the '50s and '60s were filled with sci-fi goofs featuring big bugs, miniature people and silly stories? Well, Marvel brings it all back in the nonsensical sequel, "Ant-Man and the Wasp," which makes the 2015 original (simply "Ant-Man") sound like Shakespeare. Well, not really, but even all the elaborate special effects and 2018 studio wizardry still can't make those giant insects following around the tiny title characters seem anything but gross impostors. 

And, that's certainly just a minor quibble with a flimsy film listing five screenwriters, never a good sign, and about three too many villains, especially if you're counting a tormented creature nicknamed "Ghost" (Hannah-John Kamen) and a somewhat shady scientist (Laurence Fishburne).
Oh, yeah, Lilly's "Wasp" and Rudd's "Ant-Man" are in love.
The latter oh-so-stoically plays a former colleague of Dr. Hank Pim (Michael Douglas), himself the guy acting like he's in a much more serious place than this dumb summer movie. I guess it's because he devised all this quantum-realm mumbo-jumbo in the first film and now, heaven forbid, the wife he lost in what amounts to a peephole in a galaxy still might be rescued.

Naturally, she's portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, who apparently only looks as if she's about 30 years younger than Douglas who, by the way, might be cast next to play father Kirk's long-lost twin.

Sorry, I digress, since at least one of us is way up to here with these comic book-based tales. Also, please know there are about 50 or so cast members we haven't talked about yet. Those include the little superheroes once again played by dependable Paul Rudd and terrific Evangeline Lilly, even when they grow to normal size as lovebirds named Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne. 

Of course, Michael Pena, one of Hollywood's great character actors working today, is on board again, too. In fact, as Lang's sidekick, he actually steals the show whenever  he opens his mouth, including his very funny sequences about truth serum.

Or maybe that same drug somehow leaked into the brains of the viewing audience and now the reality of it all becomes anybody's guess. Superhero addicts know not to fret, though, because the inevitable answers likely will be unveiled in a third Ant-Man film a few years from now. Really sounds Marvel-ous.
  
Rated "PG-13": some sci-fi action violence; 2:05; $ $ 1/2 out of $5

Also opening today are a very sad documentary on the much-discussed life and tragic death of Whitney Houston, and a humdrum road picture which even the legendary Christopher Plummer can't salvage. 

The former, obviously and aptly called "Whitney," includes everything you'd never want to know about the drug-tainted megastar, but you'll watch anyway, especially since all the family members who made a dime from her career get to make a few points about her tabloid-embracing demise in a Beverly Hilton Hotel bathtub.

By then, the 48-year-old Houston apparently was just a shadow of her former lovely self, which director Kevin MacDonald superbly highlights throughout. Her memorable "Star Spangled Banner" performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, songs and scenes from her blockbuster film, "The Bodyguard," and a few moments of her stunning TV debut on "The Merv Griffin Show" are all on joyous display.

On the dark side, where reflections from Whitney's mom, Cissy Houston, and controversial ex-husband Bobby Brown are quite minimal, there comes a bombshell from a caretaker about sexual child abuse. It surely will make some news since Whitney's alleged molester had a bit of a career herself before her own drug-related death in 2008.

Certainly Houston fans can and will decide for themselves what to believe from whom in sorting out Macdonald's wide assortment of intimate superstar detail. Still, all that remains is remarkable sorrow.

Rated "R": language and drug content; 2:02; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally, Boundaries features the scene-stealing Plummer, even at age 88, playing a pot dealer who gets thrown out of his nursing home, then coerces his often clueless daughter (Vera Farmiga) to drive him from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Plummer and MacDougall share some secrets.

Along for the truly unconventional ride is his 14-year-old grandson (Lewis McDougall from "A Monster Calls"), himself recently expelled from school for drawing nude sketches of everyone he meets (including a teacher or two).

Obviously there's much more to come here from writer/director Shana Feste ("Country Strong"), who invents the most unbelievably eccentric assortment of characters you can shake a script at. She obviously loves 'em all, too. I mean, why else would she bring everyone back for an encore at the end of the road? 

Enough already, lady! 

Rated "R": drug material, language, sexual references and nude sketches; 1:44: $ $ out of $5

Friday, June 29, 2018

Solid second 'Sicario' mixes relevancy, terror with room for another sequel

"Sicario: Day of the Soldado" doesn't have world-class director Denis Villenueve back at its still-sturdy helm. Regardless, another Taylor Sheridan screenplay again features the tough-as-nails duo played by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, this time with a young newcomer (Isabela Moner) offering the sturdy distaff presence left behind by the departed Emily Blunt.

Del Toro's "sicario" tries to lead Moner to safety along a dangerous border.
Moner, 17, who was born right here in Cleveland and next will star on the big screen as "Dora the Explorer," admirably goes toe to toe with Del Toro's mercenary "sicario" (which means assassin) and Brolin's black-ops specialist. Together, they literally use her in a complicated plan to uncover terrorists being smuggled into the U.S. by Mexican cartels.

"Using" actually is too soft a term to describe their Department of Defense-instigated plot, since Moner, as the daughter of a cartel kingpin, gets kidnapped, bullied and badgered throughout Sheridan's gripping new tale of corruption on both sides of the border.

Certainly the people-smuggling scenes wreak of despair and timeliness, especially considering all the immigration talk in today's headlines, but the new "Sicario" also explores the seduction of a seemingly good kid (Elijah Rodriguez) into a gang of ruthless drug lords.

How the two stories eventually cross paths is neatly maneuvered by first-time feature director Stefano Sollima, as are a number of powerful action moments, including two memorable sequences in the film's first 15 minutes. Heck, Sollima even leaves plenty of room for another sequel, which logically might include the return of Blunt's FBI specialist from the thrice-Oscar-nominated original.

That near-masterpiece from Villenueve ("Arrival," "Blade Rinner 2049") easily became one of 2015's top five films. Right now, anyway, "Day of the Soldado" remains simply the summer's most riveting sequel.

Rated "R": Strong violence, bloody images and language; 2:02: $ $ $ $ (out of $5)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Hey, 'Neighbor,' it truly always was a beautiful day for Fred Rogers

The year's loveliest film, if not the best so far in 2018, arrives today in the form of  the documentary brilliance of writer/director Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

The one and only Fred Rogers still mesmerizes as a great "Neighbor."
Probably the title alone, the familiar singing catchphrase of the Public Broadcasting System's most famous star, lets you know that it showcases Fred Rogers, whose 50-year-old "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" still plays on a number of PBS outlets a full 15 years after his death.

Neville's own name may not be as recognizable, but his resume includes a Best Documentary Oscar for "20 Feet from Stardom,"  a moving and often fascinating telling that offers an assortment of little-known tidbits about the entertainment industry while shining its primary spotlight on back-up singers.

Happy to report that Neville manages the same trick here, despite a subject that you'd think everyone already knows, even if they've never watched a single one of the 895 episodes Rogers so gently hosted over the course of 31 TV seasons.

The Pittsburgh-based Presbyterian minister, then 35, debuted on PBS in 1968, and continued making new episodes of his "Neighborhood" on and off until the last one aired in 2001. Many of the show's highlights, which include absolutely amazing moments with Rogers tackling racial intolerance and easy acceptance of children with disabilities, are incorporated by Neville and, it says here, will bring tears to the eyes of anyone with a heart.

Nice memories from Rogers' wife, two sons and various cast/crew members paint a vivid picture of the man as well. Then again, there's an array of clips from show-biz types either making fun of the host with impersonations or offering up interview questions that likely would not be asked today.

Regardless, there's no doubt that the film's unqualified star remains Rogers himself, whether sitting strong to convince Nixon-era tough guy John Pastore to increase funding for public television, or simply talking smart sense to the millions of kids watching him and his puppets on the other side of the camera. There's little doubt those young viewers adored him, just as their own children and even grand kids still do today.

Rated "PG-13": some thematic elements and language; 1:34; $ $ $ $ $ out of $5

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Superfly' returns to the movie screen with just enough to get over

A couple of '70s icons, Fred Rogers of PBS-TV fame and the cool dude who helped cement blaxploitation into the American lexicon, respectively can boast a great documentary and a not-so-bad remake coming to your local cineplex this week.

The latter, opening today, is "Superfly," which stylishly and violently looks, feels and plays enough like the Gordon Parks Jr. original to make it a slight guilty pleasure. (Still, there can be only one Ron O'Neal, the classically trained Clevelander who portrayed the Harlem-based lead 46 years ago, not to mention just one music maker named Curtis Mayfield, whose memorably great score never will be repeated.)

Jackson shows Mitchell why he's the new "Superfly."
Mayfield's "Pusherman" does all but steal the now rap-heavy version as the ever-enthralling sound that accompanies a montage coldly exhibiting how an Atlanta drug empire has tentacles pulling in Miami, Nashville, Birmingham, Houston and all parts South. And, naturally, the helmer behind this new take would be someone called "Director X,"  whose claim to fame is an assortment of visually intriguing music videos featuring the single-name likes of Kanye, Usher, Rihanna, Drake, et al.

Certainly that "X"citing background serves a few well-orchestrated scenes of gang warfare and even an art deco opening in a nightclub that shows the pop and happenstance of one Youngblood Priest. As dramatized by the believably engaging Trevor Jackson, he's the smart street kid-turned kingpin now ready to make one last major score.

However, before Priest can leave the biz with cash to last a lifetime --  and maybe with a couple of sexy bed mates (Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo) in tow-- he has to deal with almost two hours of exaggerated mayhem, soft-core porn (mostly delivered in slow motion, no less) and cops so crooked you almost have to look at 'em sideways.

Fortunately, some other players, who may get in the way of Priest's dreams, actually give more cred to the whole picture. They include an old-school mentor (the always solid Michael Kenneth Williams), ruthless cartel boss (the veteran Esai Morales) and over-aggressive sidekick (Jason Mitchell from last year's "Mudbound").

Regardless, please return here in a few days to read why Mr. Rogers and "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is this week's real movie kingpin.

Rated "R": violence and language throughout; strong sexuality, nudity and drug content; 1:52; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, June 8, 2018

'First Reformed' and scary 'Hereditary' look to slay summer competition

Despite the big-budget "Ocean's 8" sequel and heavily advertised "Hotel Artemis" (SEE RATINGS FOR BOTH AT LEFT) opening in northeast Ohio, it's a couple of small films from a distributor named A24 that could grab today's brass ring for critical acclaim.

Hawke and Seyfried bond in "First Reformed."
In fact, the most compelling of the bunch arrives courtesy of Paul Schrader, the "Taxi Driver" screenwriter who puts some of those familiar man-in-crisis themes to work in "First Reformed," a sparkling little ditty with an awards-caliber performance from Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays a decent man of the cloth, the minister/caretaker of a historically significant Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, where more tourists generally visit than members of the congregation.

Two of the latter include a devoted wife (Amanda Seyfried) and her ecology-activist husband (Phillip Ettinger), so worried about man's inhumanity to the environment that the missus asks Hawke's Rev. Toller to start counseling him.

Well, one eye-opening session together leads to plans for another, not to mention plenty of thought-provoking words Toller can put in the daily diary he's been writing, apparently just to keep his own wits about him. Certainly there's a breakdown of sorts, maybe a couple, and the relevancy of Schrader's own dialogue and words obviously feel apropos for the world outside our windows. Heck, there's even one lovely spiritually minded scene that takes us well into the universe.

Expect no spoilers here, though. Just a strong recommendation and a big thumbs up for Schrader still having so much to say after a recent string of cinematic misfires.

Rated "R": some disturbing violent images; 1:53; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Some have been losing their heads over the scares in "Hereditary," ever since it debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, and now everyone can see what all the fuss is about.

Collette deals with some serious concerns in "Hereditary."
Truthfully, bits of story may have been borrowed from classics such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Shining,"  and "The Omen," but it doesn't mean that first-time writer/director Ari Aster doesn't have a parcel of creepy-crawly tricks of his own to display. He also gets a marvelously harried performance from Toni Collette, as Annie Graham, a wife and mother of two awkward teens, as well as the daughter of an apparently strange old gal whose death notice pops up on screen to start the movie.

From there comes the wake and funeral offering some clues to where we're headed; Annie's own weird penchant for noting personal events in her brilliant work of making elaborate miniature houses; and the kids attending a "school party" from which there might be no return.

Ironically, it is Annie's own worry about the ever-bizarre behavior of her 13-year-old daughter (newcomer Milly Shapiro) that inspire Mom to insist that little sis tag along with major pothead brother Peter (Alex Wolff) to the latter event. Naturally, it's really a hash bash and, when his sister has a serious allergic reaction there, Peter has to rush back home before heads may roll.

Unfortunately, one actually does. But, that still leaves time for what could be the most frightening hour at the movies this year, complete with fire, some brimstone, seances (instigated by a character played by the always swell Ann Roth), and the Graham family Dad (Gabriel Byrne) finally getting the figurative stick removed from his butt in one hellacious ending.

Rated "R": horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity; 2:07; $ $ $ $ out of $5