Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Guys named Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino help bring 'The Irishman' to life

 LOS ANGELES -- "The Irishman," Martin Scorsese's saga about a hard-working union man who befriended Jimmy Hoffa, arrives Friday in northeast Ohio (at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights) before landing Nov. 27 for its long-awaited streaming home on Netflix.

A  few weeks ago, though, an assortment of movie journos (including yours truly) were invited to attend the film's Hollywood premiere and a next-day press conference with Scorsese and two of his favorite actors. Excerpts from some of what the trio discussed follow.

Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa): On if  he learned anything from working with a director such as Scorsese:

"Well, that’s a really interesting question, and yes I did. I’ve directed films in the sense that I was the director and the filmmaker before. But, I’m not a director and I’m not a filmmaker. He is. I make films, and it’s (still) a learning experience for me. And it’s a sense of doing a home movie. I learned about film by directing film. I learned about editing and what it was by doing my own.

"I  was fortunate to have done 'Looking For Richard.' I did that because I had some idea, but really, why did I? What motivated me was that I did 'Richard III' several times. And  when  I  did  it  in  New  York  on  Broadway,  the  reviewer  said, 'Pacino  has  set back Shakespeare 50 years in America.' Anyway, there’s a scene, since you saw it, in 'The Irishman' where someone is going to his end. He doesn’t know it because it’s this place, this house. And I walked in on the first day on the set of this particular scene. And I see this  house.  There's nothing  you  could  really  overtly recognize.  But  I  knew  that  this  house  was  deadly. Just  the  way  they  had  put  it together. But you couldn’t find it. They didn’t have things all over it. It was just simple furniture, but  in  such  a  way.  I  mean,  you  talk  about artful! And that’s what I saw. This is what is done by great directors. And you saw it and knew that it was a deadly place."

Martin Scorsese (Director and Producer): On why he thought it was time for him to do another "crime" or "corruption" film:

“Having gone through ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino,’ I had covered the territory in specific ways at those times. The overall issue of corruption is something that I tend to be attracted to as material. And what happened with this and (the character of) Frank Sheeran, when you describe him to me and I read the book, it had this whole backdrop of history. Their history, the history of the United States, the world, all this going on. And I said, I think I know what to do. I think it’s a matter of just like having to cut the whole thing down to its essentials and deal with the emotional impact, ultimately. of the life you lead. Everything else, whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis or Joey Gallo being shot, it’s all peripheral, all forgotten about. In a way, it freed me.

“In terms of corruption, that’s part of a human being. In ‘The  Asphalt Jungle,’ Louis Calhern, playing a lawyer, has a line that’s great where it goes. His wife says, ‘Why do you always defend the bad guys and gangsters and that sort of thing?’ He goes, ‘Well, I look at crime as sort of a left-handed endeavor of the human condition.’ And yeah, it’s the whole sense of that’s part of who we are. And it’s always there. The dark forces are always there. Do we succumb to them? All the time. Do we get sucked in and pulled back out? I mean, this is the whole thing. It has to do with our pride, too. In the case of Jimmy Hoffa, when he keeps saying it’s my union, it damn well is his union, but he lost it. He lost it! In any event, it’s more than corruption. It’s about what’s in ourselves as human beings.
“For me, it’s always been for different reasons, personal reasons or whatever, I’m aware of the people that I knew around me sometimes who I knew -- genuinely good people -- but wound up doing bad  things. And then, ultimately, are they cast out? Are they cast out of a religious institution? Are they cast out of the society around them?  In some cases, they are. But in terms of certain religious aspects, if I have made ‘Silence’ and movies like that, you know, the bottom line is the wretched, the ones who couldn’t help it. And the ones who can’t do anything else. They’re the ones that demand the compassion. And it’s very hard. You may hate it, you may get it, I don’t know. But that’s a very important thing to nurture in a human being and not cut people off dead."

Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran): On working again with Pacino:

"Well, Al and I have known each other over the years, you know. We’ve known each other for decades, since we were in our 20s. And we worked a couple of times together and we’ve had an unusual relationship in some ways and maybe not so unusual  where  we  always  felt close because of our situations, and we would commiserate or confide or talk or get advice about things over the years, over the decades. And, of course, we’ve worked together, too. And on this one other project, Al and I were at an opening in Europe. I think it might have been London. It was (either) London, Paris, or Spain. And, the people were so great and the crowds! So (back then) we  said,  one day we hope that we can be as deserving of this kind of adoration with something that we’re more proud of. And so, ("The Irishman") to us is what that is.
"Now I remember the last day of Al’s shooting on this and I asked him: 'Remember when we said that to each other that other time? Well, if nothing else, we did this with this movie and we will be proud of it and we are proud of it.' 
"Really, I’m very happy that we worked so hard to get it to where it is today, because we did work to become part of something really special, Also, I'm so grateful that it seems to be getting such a great reception. That's a good feeling for me and everybody in my life, and I really feel terrific about that."

Sunday, November 10, 2019

'Apollo 11' dominates fourth annual CCA documentary awards with 5 wins

The Critics Choice Association (CCA) announced the winners of the fourth annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards tonight at a gala event, hosted by HGTV’s Jonathan Scott of Property Brothers at BRIC in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Apollo 11 took home the evening’s most prestigious award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as Best Editing for Todd Douglas Miller, Best Score for Matt Morton, Best Archival Documentary, and Best Science/Nature Documentary.
However, two other films shared Best Director honors in a tie between Peter Jackson for They Shall Not Grow Old, and Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar for American Factory. The former also brought home the award for Most Innovative Documentary, while the latter also won the award for Best Political Documentary.
Never-before-seen footage of the first moon mission is abundant in "Apolo 11."
“Once again, we are thrilled to celebrate and support the vibrant and groundbreaking work of these talented documentarians,” said CCA CEO Joey Berlin. “We are proud that our yearly gala event has become an informed and valuable way for people to find the best films out there and for the work of these filmmakers to find their audiences,”
During the ceremony, a special new honor, The D A Pennebaker Award, was presented to legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Formerly known as the Critics’ Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, the award is named for prior winner D A Pennebaker, who passed away last summer. It was presented by filmmaker Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s longtime collaborator and widow.
Additionally, acclaimed filmmaker Michael Apted was presented with The Landmark Award, an honor bestowed upon him for his extraordinary and unparalleled achievement with the Up series, which has just added 63 Up, distributed by BritBox, to this historic work. The award was presented by Michael Moore, who was honored with the Critics’ Choice Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
Other presenters at the star-studded event included Jim Gaffigan, Zooey Deschanel, Rose McGowan, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Wyatt Cenac, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gloria Reuben, and many others.
Remaining award winners were:
Best Cinematography: John Chester, The Biggest Little Farm.
Best Narration: Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars.
Best First Documentary Feature: Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, Honeyland.
Best Biographical Documentary: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
Best Music Documentary: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
Best Sports Documentary: Maiden.
Best Short Documentary: Period. End of Sentence.
Finally, this year’s honorees for Most Compelling Living Subject in a Documentary were Dr. Amani Ballor (The Cave); David Crosby (David Crosby: Remember My Name); Tracy Edwards (Maiden): Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker): Hatidze Muratova (Honeyland): Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin (Knock Down the House): Linda Ronstadt (Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice), and Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Ask Dr. Ruth).
The documentary awards are an off-shoot of The Critics’ Choice Awards, which are bestowed annually by CCA to honor the finest in cinematic and television achievement. Historically, the Critics’ Choice Awards are the most accurate predictor of the Academy Award nominations.
The CW Television Network will again partner with CCA as the exclusive broadcast home for the 25th annual Critics’ Choice Awards,  honoring the finest achievements in both movies and television as part of a three-hour special on The CW on Jan. 12.
(story courtesy of CCA)

Friday, November 8, 2019

Good ones to contemplate: Almodovar's deep 'Pain' and King's dark 'Sleep'

Just about the only thing the two most compelling movies opening in northeast Ohio today have in common is the passionate writing from two of the biggest names in their respective businesses.

The first is "Pain and Glory" from colorful Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, who once again fashions one of the finest foreign language films of this or any other year. This time the ever-evolving writer/director, even at age 70, uses himself as the focus, barely hiding one more complex story with too many coincidences to let anyone actually think that it isn't a kind of serious autobiographical reflection.

Naturally, two of the most well-known names in his stable of players lend major contributions. In the midst of it all is Antonio Banderas, whose roles in three late-'80s Almodovar films ("Law of Desire," "Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!") helped make him an international star. Here, he plays Salvador Mallo, his director's likely alter ego, an aching, troubled filmmaker, dealing with age and everything that entails

Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz, who similarly grabbed everyone's '90s-era attention in "Live Flesh" and "All About My Mother," shows up in memorable flashback, occasionally in the haze of Salvador's pain-fueled heroin use, as the kind and beautiful mother of his youth.

Now both actor and (supporting) actress might earn awards mention for a strikingly personal film that will hold special significance for viewers trying to remain creative themselves while the passage of time keeps throwing obstacles in their way.

Though few could possibly relate to it all, Almodovar's smart, meaningful and moving sprinkling of observations and memories actually should leave at least a little something for anyone to embrace.

Rated "R": drug use, some graphic nudity and language; 1:53; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5
McGregor revisits "The Shining" in many more ways than one.

A recovery story of another haunting kind -- only in the horror realm -- also quickly becomes a  film that might have you thinking long and hard well after you walk out of the movie theater.

It's "Doctor Sleep," based on Stephen King's sequel novel to "The Shining," with a rather faithful -- and nicely creepy -- adaptation from writer/director Mike Flanagan (creator of the popular Netflix series, "The Haunting of Hill House").

Always reliable Ewan McGregor portrays the character that connects King's scary supernatural tales. That would be Danny Torrance, the kinda strange, Big Wheel-riding kid from "The Shining," now all grown up into a McGregor's alcoholic title character, dealing with demons both imagined and real.

The most unforgettable of the latter crowd is a seductress named "Rose the Hat," with the downright magnetic Rebecca Ferguson marvelously leading a gang of ghoulish misfits. Young newcomer Kyliegh Curran also offers a pretty terrific turn as Torrance's partner in the paranormal, while various new/old reminders of "The Shining" find their way into some other mostly welcome spots.

Not so entertaining is a very disturbing sequence involving a tortured youngster they call "Baseball Boy" (Jacob Tremblay from "Room"), but that's all you're getting from me. Oh yeah, just know that your heart might be recruited to pound right along with an effectively simple score from the Newton Brothers.

Rated "R": disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use; 2:31; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Monday, November 4, 2019

'Sunday Girl' mixes some bright colors, lonely moments for a look at now

She is definitely cute, but the "Sunday Girl" smokes, thinks eating ice cream is equally dangerous, has two of the kookiest gal pals you'll ever meet, and might be described as what we used to call a genuine floozy.

There's all that and more in the first-time feature from writer/director Peter Ambrosio, who offers his diverting take on relationships in 2019, with young adults -- male and female -- perhaps worrying more about what looks right on social media, etc. than real life itself.

This rom-com title "girl" (played convincingly enough by apparent podcast "star" Dasha Nekrasova) certainly does have some issues, though, especially since she's decided to break off four of her current five dalliances in the same day. Of course, the guys named Victor, Jack, Tom and Winston may not be the most stable dogs in the pound, either, but their reactions to a potential break-up with the lovely Natashsa offer up an assortment of comical situations.

If anyone cares, my favorite response belongs to Tom (Evan Holtzman), but you can make your own judgment about the boys or her. (I'd be anxious to know what anyone thinks of laidback dude George (Brandon Stacy), as well, since he's the only one left standing when the sun goes down on "Sunday." 

No MPAA rating; 1:20; $ $ $ out of $5

(This is one in an intermittent series of reviews featuring buzz-worthy films currently playing the festival circuit or soon to be released. The decidedly indie "Sunday Girl" will open for one-week runs Friday in New York and Los Angeles.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Korean 'Parasite' easily eats up three other TIFF films on November screens

If it's November, you must be on your way to the movies, where awards possibilities actually may be heating up.

Certainly, the class-distinction epic "Parasite," from South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho, has a terrific shot at earning a number of Foreign Language Film plaudits, if not an outright Best Picture nomination for its clever mix of satire and thrills.

The upwardly mobile Kim Family looks for a way out of folding pizza boxes.
The Kim Family barely hangs on in the underbelly of Seoul, "borrowing" wi-fi, battling stinkbugs, making a few bucks by folding pizza boxes and scamming as many wealthy folks and situations as they can find. Enter the unsuspecting Park clan, looking for a tutor for their young daughter.

That's when streetwise Ki-woo Kim gets a tip from a pal and brilliantly pretends to be a collegiate scholar to get the job. Next thing we know, his equally smart sister, conniving dad, and go-along mom are also sharing the gorgeously expansive Park home as art expert, driver and housekeeper, respectively.

Joon-ho makes it all increasingly funny at first, until an out-of-nowhere twist sends both families into a sparkling but serious assortment of genre-mixed rides and wrinkles. One little beef: His 120-minute-plus story eventually looks hard and a little too long for a place and reason to end, but I still was on board and thinking about it days later.

"Parasite," which captured the coveted Palme d'Or at last spring's Cannes Film Festival, also finished as second runner-up in "People's Choice Award" voting at September's 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Of course, that's where three other movies opening today had their own notable premieres.

Rated "R": language, some violence and sexual content; 2:12; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

In fact, "JoJo Rabbit," from writer/director Taika Waititi ("Thor: Ragnarok"), actually won Toronto's top "People's" honor, almost a surefire signal that this pretentiously promoted "anti-hate satire" will be an awards contender. However, in one of the rare times yours truly has pooh-poohed TIFF voters, I will borrow the phrase, "not so fast my friends," and respectfully disagree.

Rockwell, Johansson and Davis chase after satirical laughs in Nazi Germany.
I mean, promotional gimmickry aside, I did hate the first 20 minutes or so, set at a Nazi youth camp, where Hitler (played by Waititi himself) shows up as the imaginary "friend" of a young Fascist-to-be, the mockingly named title character (Roman Griffin Davis), being constantly bullied and badgered for his shortcomings.

Honestly, the movie did grow on me from there, but not enough to recommend it beyond another rollicking performance from Sam Rockwell, as a cartoonish Nazi officer (think of TV's old "Hogan's Heroes"), and a movie-shaking moment involving "JoJo" and his mother (Scarlett Johansson in a somewhat odd portrayal).

Otherwise, an Anne Frank homage has a young Jewish girl (Waititi's fellow New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie) hiding out in a crawl space from which she emerges long enough to cajole and confuse JoJo, who has no clue how she got there. Much purposely leans toward the absurd for sure, but it's definitely no laugh-a-minute romp, especially if you simply refuse to giggle at Hitler, et al.

Rated "PG-13": mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language; 1:48; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

 A much easier Toronto fest choice becomes writer/director Edward Norton's "Motherless Brooklyn," another title derived from a key character's nickname. This one belongs to private eye Lionel Essrogg, a noirish '50s-era survivor/orphan with Tourette's Syndrome that Norton himself plays with dignity and distinction.
Mbatha-Raw and Norton ride along with some New York noir.

Yes, there are times when his affliction delivers some laughs, but this caring character is no fool. His boss (Bruce Willis) points out Lionel's efficiencies and job strengths early in a sequence that sets the stage for learning why our underdog hero is so determined to risk life and limb to find what he's looking for in a politically corrupt New York City.

The ever-terrific Gugu Mbatha-Raw shows up as a key lawyer/love interest, and a strong cadre of Big Apple actors, led by Willem Dafoe and Alex Baldwin, connect plot threads floating on a nice mix of jazz and justice until the movie's length eventually gets in the way down the stretch.

Rated "R": language throughout, including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence; 2:24; $ $ $ and 1/2 out $5

Erivo stars as "Harriet" Tubman.
Finally, Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo (Broadway's "The Color Purple") shoots for some movie gold with her earnest performance in "Harriet," a by-the-book telling which, at times, plays like a high school reading assignment.

Besides Erivo's persevering performance -- which mostly captures the dynamic temperament that heroic Harriet Tubman must have personified -- only the radiant period cinematography of ex-Clevelander John Toll ("Braveheart") brings the urgency of the slave-turned abolitionist/freedom fighter's historical importance to the screen.

Still, there are moments that absolutely rivet. Many others, not so much.

Rated "PG-13": thematic content throughout, violent material and language, including racial epithets; 2:05; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, October 18, 2019

Murphy back in form so 'Dolemite' delivers; 'PG' violence harms 'Maleficent'

A flamboyant Murphy easily fills the screen in the title role.
What can you say about Eddie Murphy when he's on his game? The best in the biz? The funniest man alive? You'll laugh till it hurts?

All kinds of positive cliches come to mind while watching "Dolemite is My Name," a Netflix original that knocked 'em dead at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival last month and starts streaming Oct. 25 after opening at a few theaters. (In NE Ohio, the Cleveland Heights-based Cedar Lee starts showing it today.)

Certainly Murphy soars as nightclub-MC Rudy Ray Moore, the ever-confident, equally raunchy movie-star-to-be in a truth-based story that stays on point from start to finish. That almost makes the screenwriters as important as its star and, since their names, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, happen to be the same ones that penned 1994's magnificent "Ed Wood," you can be reasonably sure their grasp of the subject matter remains firm and funny.

Meanwhile, Craig Brewer, the helmer and writer behind 2005's equally memorable "Hustle & Flow," the tale of a pimp in trouble, seems a perfect choice to direct here. After all, the fictitious "Dolemite" is the action-anxious procurer that Moore turned into the hero of a surprisingly successful '70s-era film franchise.

Of course, a likable lineup of Dolemite pals and co-stars dot this amusing and -- at times-- affecting adventure, too, including Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, the sparkling Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and a few other surprises.

One very small and parochial quibble: Though it certainly doesn't have any bearing on the movie's success or failure, the fact that the real Moore began planting his comic and blaxploitation roots in Cleveland at the young age of 15 is never addressed.

After Moore's very early years in Arkansas (which is noted often enough in the film), it was in our fair town that he started singing, dancing and telling enough funny stories to get him thinking about relocating to L.A. and his ultimate stardom. Moore died 11 years ago in nearby Rittman, Ohio, where he had moved to be close to his daughter, who still survives him.

Rated "R": pervasive language, crude sexual content and graphic nudity; 1:58; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Jolie is surrounded by Fanning and Riley on the way to meeting the in-laws.
Much bigger than a nitpick is the trouble that might give anyone with youngsters pause about the otherwise watchable "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil." That would be the odd violence that comes with the special effects territory in the Disney-produced sequel.

Though very little blood is spilled, the ease in which the evil side of the story tries to wipe out an entire civilization -- with both weapons and what amounts to chemicals -- plays a bit much in a supposed "PG" movie, as in "parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suited for children."

Well, thank you, Captain Obvious! I mean, the 5-year-old in our bunch covered her eyes repeatedly, particularly when all those cute little pixies and fairies struggle with life in this revisionist telling of the "Sleeping Beauty" tale. (By the way, everyone got upset during a later, more maternally involving sequence.)

Otherwise, those aforementioned effects do rule here, and so does Angelina Jolie, back again as the tough title character with all those special powers. Elle Fanning, as the fabled Aurora, returns, too, and so does a fine Sam Riley, as Maleficent's good-humored henchman. As is usually the case here, we won't spoil the rest, even if almost every other reviewer -- and Disney trailer -- already have.

Rated "PG": intense sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images; 2:00; $ $ $ out of $5

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.)