Thursday, July 18, 2019

'The Band' will play again in doc to open 44th annual Toronto Film Festival

The Band gets together again, at least on film, when TIFF begins anew Sept. 5.
TORONTO ─  TIFF Co-Heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente announced today that the world premiere of "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band," will be the Opening Night Gala Presentation for the 44th Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 5, at Roy Thomson Hall. The premiere marks the first time a Canadian-made documentary opens the annual celebration of movies.

The tale of Robertson’s young life and the creation of one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music is directed by 
Daniel Roher ("Ghosts of Our Forest"), as inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir, "Testimony." According to a TIFF release, the doc blends rare archival footage, photography, iconic songs, and interviews with many of Robertson’s friends and collaborators, including Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, and Ronnie Hawkins.  
“This is one of Toronto’s great stories of a hometown hero," said Bailey, the TIFF artistic director. “From his early years in this city, to the inspiration he took from life on the Six Nations reserve, to the impact he’s had on generations of music lovers, Robertson emerges in Roher’s film as a truly Canadian-made superstar. In our first year as TIFF’s co-heads, Joana and I are thrilled to open the Festival with a Canadian story that speaks to the world.” 
“This stirring documentary takes audiences on a musical journey and shows us just what it takes to build one of the most significant groups in rock history,” added Vicente, the festival's executive director. “Robertson is a Canadian music icon, and his moving story of persistence and passion is the perfect way to begin Festival 2019 for both Cameron and me. We're eager to share the excitement of Opening Night with Toronto’s film lovers, and audiences can expect some very special guests joining us to help celebrate.”

In a career spanning six decades, Robertson has continued to create as a songwriter, producer, performer, actor, author, and film composer. His raw talent thrust him into the spotlight and put him at the center of a cultural revolution, backing Bob Dylan on his notorious 1966 electric world tour and later collaborating with Dylan on the groundbreaking Basement Tapes, then as a member of The Band, inventing the musical hybrid known as Americana with songs like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Of late, Robertson has been working on a new solo album, due this fall. 

“I’m so tremendously honored that the premiere of (our film) will be the opening movie at TIFF this year, in my hometown of Toronto, Ontario, Canada,” Robertson said in the TIFF release.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5–15. Return here Tuesday when TIFF announces more Gala and Special Presentations. Until then click on these movie titles to check out my quick reviews of "The Lion King" and "The Spy Behind Home Plate" at Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Less-than-perfect 'Stuber' shoots and scores a bit with typical summer pals

Bad guys generally don't have a prayer with Nanjiani and Bautista.
There's some OK news about "Stuber," the new buddy pic with rassler-turned actor Dave Bautista co-starring as one of the principals. Truth be told, it's infinitely more entertaining than the big guy's WWE comeback match last spring, when he somehow lost at Wrestlemania to the egomaniac and dreadful bore known as "Triple H."

Now, Bautista, a real find as the alien Drax in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, has a more engaging co-conspirator. That would be the titular guy named Stu, a part-time Uber driver so niftily portrayed by Kumail Nanjiani, the comic who himself knocked one out of the park in 2017's "The Big Sick." Together they check off all the boxes of an old-school summer hit: excessive violence, raunchy humor, sexual possibilities and a combination of total silliness and smart one-liners likely to make you laugh out loud.

Naturally, Bautista's Vic Manning provides the muscle as a kind of rogue cop whose mayhem on the run during the opening carnage at the largest entertainment complex in downtown L.A. helps get his partner killed and the really bad guy (legitimate martial artist Iko Uwais) to escape. Oh, yeah, the vicious-when-he-wants-to-be Vic is severely nearsighted, too.

The latter consequence not only instigates some Mr. Magoo-like guffaws, but driving too quickly after lasik surgery gets Vic into a ridiculous predicament that calls for Uber. Enter Nanjiani's wise-acre Stu, a witty Pakistani whose own "man-up" problems include falling too hard for a business partner (Betty Gilpin), and working days for a sporting goods boss (Jimmy Tatro) that treats him like dirt.

Anyway, the chase is definitely on and, in between action moments, both Gilpin, now making the movie scene after her significant role on the Netflix comedy "GLOW," and Tatro, a YouTube superstar, take advantage of the outrageousness of it all.

More grounded co-stars sit on Vic's side of the wild ride. The seemingly ubiquitous Natalie Morales does what she can as his talented sculptor daughter, while Mira Sirvino makes her ranking police officer memorable if only for seeing the Oscar winner in a mainstream movie once again.

Speaking of which, with so little competition opening this weekend, don't be surprised when everyone involved makes a killing at the box office. Besides, since another Vic/Stu connection featured at the end of this one would provide a perfect starting point for a sequel, let's just call it "S2ber" and start shooting -- literally and figuratively -- again right now.

Rated "R": violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity; 1:33; $ $ $ out of $5

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Spider-Man scores for holiday, but aptly-named 'Midsommar' goes off rails

Holland's 'Spider-Man" has big eyes for Zendaya's classmate in new sequel.
How can we create some July Fourth film fireworks? Why, with one more Marvel-backed summer adventure and a rather bizarre, if nightmare-invoking horror film, of course!

The former, "Spider-Man: Far from Home," surely will capture the most eyes during the upcoming four-day weekend with its combination of high school hijinks and heroics from the web-shooting wonder happening all over Europe.

This second "Spider" go-round with good-natured Brit Tom Holland in the dual role of the superhero and alter ego Peter Parker, has him looking forward to a summer vacation. That means a lengthy science trip with all the other class nerds, including best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) and the brilliant beauty of his dreams, MJ (Zendaya, a legitimate screen superstar in the making).

Surely there has to be more, and there is, with grumpy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) trying to get our boy involved in high level, save-the-world stuff, and Marvel newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal turning some nifty stunts as the tricky and quirky Quentin Bass/Mysterio.

Also along for the rip-roaring ride are henchman Happy (John Favreau), who has promised boss Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in cameo mode) that he would forever keep his eye on the kid, even if he's seriously more happy with Parker's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

Obviously, love is in the air, and Peter's ongoing plans for making MJ his main squeeze really do add a sweet and realistic teen touch to the Marvel mayhem that only fans of this gigantic genre can possibly embrace. By the way, since the movie offers a summer school canvas, we'll give extra credit for an extra-special scene in the credits, perhaps the best closer in the universe's cinematic history.

Rated "PG-13": sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments; 2:09; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Hallucinations, profound grief, and oozing brains are all you'll get from me about "Midsommar," a cluster-yuck of sun-drenched images from writer and director Ari Aster as his grotesque follow-up to last summer's superior "Hereditary."  

The put-upon Pugh is rarely happy.
Florence Pugh, who was so good in the WWE's "Fighting With My Family" earlier this year, turns in another riveting performance while tagging along with a group of dull anthropologists -- and filmmakers -- who take themselves way too seriously.

Though the movie is unwatchable at times and lost me rather early when a Swedish cult "celebration" that only occurs every 90 years apparently goes off without a single hitch, it likely will keep sleepless types thinking about how disturbing it is hours later.

Regardless, it says here that you won't relate to anyone in the barmy bunch, and even Aster's ironic use of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," a '6os classic by the Walker Brothers, falls flat as delivered over the closing credits by Frankie Valli, of all people.

Rated "R": graphic violence, nudity, hallucinogens, profanity; 2:20; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, June 27, 2019

'Yesterday' arrives with charm; 'Annabelle' delivers a few decent scares

"Yesterday" starts here tomorrow, not today, and it's a real treat in the hands of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, romance-inclined screenwriter Richard Curtis and their mostly sparkling cast.

Patel and James get along swimmingly as "Yesterday" besties. 
The latter group is headed by Himesh Patel (from BBC's "East Enders"), as a nowhere-man performer, whose struggles are engagingly documented early on until fate lends a major, albeit almost catastrophic hand. Simply put, Patel's likable Jack Malik is knocked unconscious, then wakes up in a world where nobody has heard of a little band called The Beatles.

That's right, we're talking John, Paul, George and Ringo! So, please please me by taking a brief moment to imagine that, and it won't be long before you'll likely guess how it all might come together.

Jack's ever-supportive manager and best friend Ellie (Lily James, playing as delightful here as she was in "Baby Driver") certainly gets a surprise when her boy starts warbling the title tune and oh, so many more other familiar refrains. Fellow Brit and superstar recording artist Ed Sheeran (easily poking fun at himself throughout) even hears enough to take Jack under his wing. And, only "SNL" comic Kate McKinnon, as a Hollywood agent more interested in money than Jack's talent, occasionally takes the movie out of its sweet spot with her always less-than-subtle ways.

Of course, Hamel/Jack's toe-tapping music absolutely will slay you, too -- and why wouldn't it? Still, the cherry on the top of summer's most charming movie becomes a graceful appearance toward the end, which will arrive with a nostalgic sigh or two. Expect it to remind every Fab Four fan of one certain event in their lives, first with a smile then, maybe, a tear or two as well.

Rated "R": some intense disaster-related peril and disturbing images, and brief strong language; 1:54; $ $ $ $ out of $5

This week's other studio opener comes with the few fine jolts provided by "Annabelle Comes Home," a somewhat tame little horror film from "The Conjuring" stable that generally knows how to scare the hell out of me.

This one, perhaps a final go-round in what's already an "Annabelle" trilogy after the devilish doll enjoyed only a memorable cameo in the 2013 stunner that started it all, comes courtesy of first-time director Gary Dauberman, also a screenwriter of note in this genre.

Without giving away too much, the scariest episode comes before the opening credits, when spirit investigators supreme Ed and Larraine Warren (the fab Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) bring home said doll (who looks like a much younger version of  "Laughing Sal" from Euclid Beach Park fame) and lock it in their chamber-like basement with other relics of their work.

Next thing you know, the Warrens are leaving their pre-teen daughter Judy (McKenna Grace from 2017's "Gifted") with a competent babysitter (Madison Iseman) and her very nosey for a reason friend (Katie Sarife).

All three young ladies get involved in what goes bump in the night from there, but Dauberman obviously believes in both the dark and the deliberate, since many of his most frightening moments take a while to deliver and never really get lit well enough to embrace. There is some humor (mostly from Michael Cimino as a well-meaning boyfriend), and talents galore from both Grace and the character she plays to keep conjuring up franchise remnants for years to come.

Rated "R": horror violence and terror; 1:46; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, June 21, 2019

Here's to telling one more good 'Story' with a cowboy, a lady and a spork

Hey, gang, "Toy Story 4," gets very trashy along its otherwise merry way. I mean, the main new character keeps trying to jump into waste baskets and amusement park rubbish containers in an attempt to escape back from whence it came. And, that likely becomes even more difficult than the Disney decision to resurrect the popular and ultra-successful franchise after nine years, another Best Animated Feature Oscar for "TS3," and an understanding that "3" would be the last "Story" ever told.

Woody, Buzz, Jessie and newfound Forky fly high and wild in another good 'Story."
Today, along comes the newbie called "Forky," certainly destined for commercial greatness of his own, not to mention instigating a wide assortment of laughs. (Take it from someone who has visited the famous Pixar Studios twice over many years, the jokes about that name, as concocted by the very wise guys and gals working there, must have been legendary.)

Here, the simple character is put together by kindergartner-to-be Bonnie, the young neighbor to Andy, the "kid" who belonged to Cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. Potato Head (the late, forever great Don Rickles) and all the rest of those picture-perfect pals from the first three films. If you're keeping up, you already recall that Andy left the toys with Bonnie upon leaving for college -- with a little help and wisdom from Woody, of course.

Now, the courageous cowboy gives the apprehensive little girl a big hand, too, by sneaking his way into a school orientation session and nudging Bonnie into making something out of the nothings he finds in a container of throwaway items. Mainly, those would include spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, etc. Voila! Forky (voiced by Tony Hale from "Veep") is born!

The trick then becomes keeping tabs on the crazy character -- and what easily might be called his suicidal tendencies -- as well as the fickle "kid" that Woody and the rest of the playmates join on a frenetic family vacation. Most of it produces big fun and a nice share of separation anxiety, especially in early moments when parents and inanimate objects worry over a child heading off to school for the first time.

More comes later, when Woody, et al reunite with the worldly Little Bo Peep (not seen since "TS2," but still with Annie Potts providing vocals). She helps them discover a unique load of carnival friends, including daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and stuffed animals Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).

Antigue store newcomers named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Vincent, a voiceless puppet with some creepy-crawly tendencies, add a little spookiness to the mix, too. Otherwise, in following three early "TS" films, there's not much in "4" we haven't seen before.

However, with its constantly smart humor (from eight credited screenwriters), a few more unexpected vocal cameos, and the franchise's ever-evident emotion, recycling never has felt so fresh.

Rated "G": 1:40; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Big cast of 'Ghost Light' shines; Sneaky 'Holy Lands' might grow on you

Sossamon's disloyal Lady curses "that damned spot" on her hands.
Something wicked this way comes and a lot of humor tags along in "Ghost Light," the tale of a Shakespearean curse as performed by a fine and funny ensemble.

They're together as a mix of seen-it-all vets and theatrical newcomers, putting on a stage tragedy and, good news for us, turning it into a watchable -- and quite witchy -- film farce.

When director Henry Asquith (Tony Award-winner Roget Bart) leads the traveling troupe off their tour bus outside what looks like a Massachusetts barn, attitudes vary. "It's so rural," someone says. "Oh, it's so cute," adds another. "It's better than I thought," chirps a third.

Personal distinctions continue for good when the group actually enters and one of them whistles out loud. The seemingly simple act -- which brings bad luck inside a theater -- sends a few of the actors (played by the distinguished Steve Tom and ever-eager Carol Kane, themselves the most experienced real actors in the cast) into hysterical mode. Its an early delightful scene that, not only brings the promise of big laughs, but also provides solid explanation of all the superstitions and supernatural expectations in performing "the cursed play." That would be "Macbeth," hereafter referred to as "The Scottish Play," since mention of the real name brings . . . well, you'll find out.

Others regaling in all the mischief and motives include Cary Elwes, as a famous soap-opera actor both financing the production and -- ahem! -- "starring" as the title character; Shannyn Sossamon, as the wandering wife portraying a voluptuously treacherous Lady Macbeth; Danielle Campbell (from TV's "The Originals"), as the comely backpacker presumably stumbling into a role; and Tom Riley, as an unhappy understudy and me-Lady's handsome admirer.

The John Stimpson-directed comedy, which won Jury Awards at film festivals in Austin and Woodstock, is now showing on iTtunes, Amazon, DirecTV and various other VOD outlets. Be sure to keep a light on for it.

Not rated, but a bit bawdy and bloody; 1:42; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Meanwhile, another apparent festival favorite, Holy Lands, debuts Friday in 10 cities (and VOD), with James Caan starring as a pig farmer in Nazareth (that's in Israel, not Pennsylvania). If it already sounds a bit off, please know that it is, including an introductory letter to Caan's Harry from his estranged playwright son Ben (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Among other things, the missive asks, "Couldn't you just play golf like other people?"

Despite that early suggestion, this is no vehicle for humor, but its melodrama does have a good heart, even if former New York cardiologist Harry ironically might not have one of his own at this point in his solitary life.

In fact, only Harry's pigs, including the cute one he lets nibble on his toes and ride along in his pickup, bring some odd satisfaction. Besides, he seems to revel in the feud he has going with the local rabbi (Tom Hollander), a man eager for him to stop with the pigs already for obvious Jewish religious reasons.

After one face-to-face confrontation, however, which features Harry/Caan going off almost in full Sonny Corleone mode, the movie's chief protagonist begins to change, and a firm message of reconciliation shows its newborn head.

At least one more shocking moment aside, the film continues mostly with various scenes from the heart (surprise!), as Harry considers his shaky familial relationships.

Those include the one with his pivotal ex-wife (a fine Rosanna Arquette) who, perhaps, also allows French novelist-turned screenwriter and director Amanda Sthers to take aim at critics by going bonkers on a Broadway reviewer while he dines at a fancy restaurant. Oy!

Not rated; 1:40; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, June 14, 2019

Zombies, two Emma Thompson films and Dad's Day greetings from 'Shaft'

Four paragraphs on an equal number of less-than-stellar movies:

Murray, Sevigny and Driver deal with the "Dead."
In 2013, Akron-area homeboy Jim Jarmusch co-wrote and directed one of the all-time best (and severely underrated) vampire flicks, "Only Lovers Left Alive." Alas, his latest, "The Dead Don't Die," likely won't reach the same stature for fans of zombies, but it's still the most tantalizing of this weekend's debuting quartet. With plenty of droll humor from a sparkling cast -- including Bill Murray, as a small town sheriff, and his drowsy deputies (Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny) -- there's a lot to laugh at and respect, especially its outright homages to George A. Romeo and his original "Night of the Living Dead." If only Jarmusch's lazy ending wasn't a legitimate wall-breaker, people might talk about his movie as much as they will listen to its same-name title theme. The potential "Best Original Song" nominee comes from the country cat called Sturgill Simpson.

Rated "R": zombie violence/gore, and language; 1:43; $ $ $ out of $5

Two Shafts, Usher and Jackson, try to solve some crimes.
Speaking of original films and awards-caliber music, occasional snippets of Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning funk classic might be the best thing about the latest rendition of "Shaft," a lowdown, very dirty fifth incarnation, featuring "the bad mutha . . . shut your mouth!" Hey, just talkin' 'bout Samuel L. Jackson, back playing tough and politically incorrect P.I John Shaft for the second time in 19 years. This go-round has his grown-up son (Jessie T. Usher) in tow as an MIT-educated FBI analyst who gives and gets from the ol' man throughout an extremely convoluted drugs, sex and violence caper. The plot becomes woefully less entertaining than the rat-a-tat-tat 'tude offered up by both the consistently cool Jackson and the gifted Regina Hall, as the baby mama Shaft reluctantly left behind. Believe me, you won't remember anything else.

Rated "R": pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity; 1:51; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

E. Thompson talks, but is anyone listening (or watching)?
The week's most balanced attempt at reason comes in "Late Night," the first of two Emma Thompson comedies (kinda) gracing local screens this weekend. Here, the grande dame plays a TV talk-show host whose nightly venture gets canceled after 28 years. (Yeah, right, it took 'em three decades to discover she's boring?) Enter a chemical-plant manager, believe it or not, who gets hired as a new writer and then shows the existing male staff how it should be done, or something like that. Obviously, the smart Mindy Kaling, charming as the newbie and with her first screenwriting credit in hand after an assortment of  television-script successes, mostly knows of what she speaks. However, much of it plays like a joke book opened for both coasts and nowhere else. For example, an impromptu Thompson stand-up routine had her L.A. movie audience rolling on the floor. Meanwhile, only a giggle or two found air when a packed house watched the scene during a West Side Cleveland theater screening. Folks, it's just not that funny, and a good supporting cast suffers as a result, too. That includes John Lithgow, a superb Amy Ryan, Hugh Dancy and Ike Barinholz.

Rated "R": language throughout and some sexual references; 1:42; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Hemsworth and T. Thompson look cool.
Emma Thompson's other appearance today amounts to an early cameo in the never-ending "Men in Black: International," in which she returns to her role of the fashion-savvy Agent O from 2012's "Men in Black III." The franchise's latest title comes from alien-chasing visits to Paris, London, Marrakesh and Naples, but it remains a mess wherever it lands. Naturally it begins in New York, where a brilliant young sci-fi addict (the usually more reliable Tessa Thompson) tricks her way into MIB's secluded headquarters -- and voila! -- is partnering up with another world-wide agency hotshot (the ever-strutting Chris Hemsworth) a few scenes later. Now, fans of these kinds of films know that Tessa and Chris formed a dynamic, charismatic bond in the infinitely funnier Marvel adventure, "Thor Ragnarok." Here, with so few clever words to hang onto, they get lost in a sea of disappointingly dull creatures, that is, unless we count the magnificent toupee that Liam Neeson wears as Agent High T. He's the British Bureau Chief. Get it? Ha-ha!

Rated "PG-13": sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material; 1:55; $ and 1/2 out $5