Friday, February 15, 2019

She's a Rebel in an unfunny flick; go instead with serious, sad 'Capernaum'

Starry-eyed Wilson finds her dreams come true -- sort of -- with Hemsworth.
Put Rebel Wilson in a movie and just about everyone in the audience likely will laugh out loud somewhere along the viewing line. So, how come "Isn't It Romantic" isn't so funny even with Wilson on board as the full-blown star?

The alleged comedy begins in Australia with a young girl glued to her television set all dreamy-eyed and enjoying Julia Roberts' classic bathtub scene in "Pretty Woman." Then her Mum (Jennifer Saunders) bursts the youngster's bubbles with, "Somebody might marry you someday for a visa, but that's about it."

The cynicism continues in New York 25 years later when the once-budding film fan turns into Wilson as Natalie, a successful, if put-upon architect, either pushed around or ignored by superiors and co-workers alike. It all serves the premise of why she hates everything about romantic comedies that most people might love.

That group includes her lazy personal assistant (Betty Gilpin from "GLOW"), who just happens to be watching "The Wedding Singer" on a computer during work hours, and a "best buddy" (Adam Devine, reunited with Wilson from their "Pitch Perfect" movies). Unless everyone is already too bored to notice, an ongoing work habit from Devine's nice-guy Josh also serves as the key ingredient for an early and blatantly obvious giveaway on where their relationship is headed in this one.

I mean, is anyone really paying much attention in this under-90-minute film that has to credit three screenwriters for making fun of rom-coms, yet never convincingly executes? In fact, after Natalie gets knocked out in an extremely mean-spirited subway mugging, the whole mess becomes an East Coast version of "La La Land." As if!

Regardless, while a rich, self-centered client (Liam Hemsworth) suddenly goes ga-ga over Natalie, a billboard model (Priyanka Chopra) turns the same trick with Josh, and the cliches the movie supposedly is mocking start falling from the sky.

A few actually do land, such as one throw-away Fitbit joke and a few well-placed ballads, most notably "No More I Love You's" from Annie Lennox. Otherwise, only the stumbling, tumbling, mumbling Wilson seems interested in working hard enough to make people enjoy their night out at the movies. Here's hoping that someday, somehow, somewhere, somebody will write a screenplay worthy of this woman's significant comedic talents in another lead role. Valentine's Day or not, "Romantic" isn't it.

FYI: The silence became especially deafening at the end of this week's promotional screening when just one person slowly clapped three times. I kid you not, it sounded exactly like the running gag of one-man applause that signed off TV's '60s-era "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" each week -- only without the laughs preceding it.

Rated "PG-13": language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference; 1:28; $ and 1/2 out of $5
Young and brave Zain is a legitimate find.

Already Oscar-nominated in the category of Best Foreign Language Film and winner of the Cannes Grand Jury Prize, "Capernaum" obviously becomes a much better choice among this week's debut offerings. The gut-wrenching drama about a streetwise 12-year-old dealing with limitless poverty in Beirut, features a massive performance from tiny Zain Al Rafeea. He's a Syrian refugee himself, discovered (like many in the cast) by director and co-writer Nadine Labaki (2011's well-received "Where Do We Go Now").

The kid's instincts truly are stunning, whether he's stealing from vendors or susbsequently stealing our hearts by courageously protecting younger siblings, as well as the equally adorable infant unexpectedly left in his care.

Sad and humbling as most of Labaki's respectful story becomes, one final, full-screen image of Zain offers us hope that her hero -- and certainly ours -- might discover a life as just a little boy.

Rated "R": language and some drug material; 1:59; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

'The Movie' proves hummus makes world go round, or something like that

There's a lot to like about the middle eastern staple called hummus, and now everyone who swears by it might enjoy "Hummus! The Movie," as well.

Uh, and that includes its ongoing argument on where the concoction of chickpeas, lemon juice, salt, tahini, garlic and olive oil actually comes from.

"The Movie" adds a pinch of Greece to the food talk, but mostly there's heavy portions of Israel, Palestine and Lebanon poured into a discussion that becomes eons more light-hearted than any serious conflict one might expect from that corner of the world.

The fun film also includes ongoing "Guinness Book of World Records" challenges concerning the world's largest platter of hummus. And -- oh my gosh! -- Abu Gosh, an Arab-Israeli village with an astounding 20 restaurants in it -- might even take the cake!

Of course, real people carry the recipe for success in any documentary, and this one from director and co-writer Oren Rosenfeld features exceptionally likable restaurateurs from all sides of religious palates. Certainly, Jews, Muslims and Arab Christians dominate, but a Benedictine monk isn't afraid to put on a somwhat humorous critic's hat, either.

Hey, "The Movie" has a soundtrack, too, but only true connoisseurs might try to hum(mus) along.

Not rated (with nothing that might offend, anyway); 1:12; $ $ $ 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. "Hummus! The Movie" has been shown at an eye-popping 114 film festivals around the world and just began streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and others.)

Friday, February 8, 2019

'What Men Want' (and women as well) is a comedy much smarter than this

Shallow men in the room are the only ones laughing when "Empire" mainstay Henson stumbles in her new film. 
"What Men Want," a kind of long-distance, distaff remake of the similarly titled "What Women Want" (from year 2000), could use a script doctor.

I mean, the four screenwriters credited with borrowing from the original trio responsible for "Women" obviously need some help on how and where this vehicle for Taraji P. Henson might take a few turns toward a wiser destination. After all, the disastrous first half-hour alone absolutely does no favors for Henson's Ali Davis in portraying her, not only as a nasty, foul-mouthed sports agent, but as an uncompromising boss, disloyal friend, and selfish lover to boot.

So, when the tough Ali gets passed over for an expected promotion by her agency's slimy owner (ex-gridder Brian Bosworth) heading a company of major sexist blowhards, it still doesn't seem like such a huge injustice. Fortunately, things pick up -- for a while, anyway -- after a quirky psychic (songstress Eryka Badu in a surprisingly nutty turn) serves Ali some strangely brewed tea at a bachelorette party, and the major plot point kicks in.

That translates into Ali suddenly hearing what men are saying to themselves (if not really thinking much). Naturally, such power gives our startled lead a business edge in pursuing a potential client, the likely Number One NBA draft choice and his wacky LaVar Ball-like dad (Tracy Morgan, with his usual hit-or-miss routine). For a while, it also helps her take some personal inventory before a nothing-special third act returns us -- almost all the way, but not quite -- to the silly script woes mentioned earlier.

Now, anyone might expect Ali/Henson to score by the end, but not even cameos from Commissioner Adam Silver, Mavs owner Mark Cuban and a few former and current NBA stars really can save a movie which nobody could possibly want. Director Adam Shankman ("Hairspray") deserves some blame, too, for rarely dishing out any assists. Instead, he simply forces his overcrowded ensemble of players to dash out of dumb more often than dribble into something more daring.

Rated "R": language and sexual content throughout and some drug material; 1:57; $ $ out of $5

Monday, February 4, 2019

Somehow, 'Boy' sails into oddly moving places with a song we never hear

A cute kid composes and plays a song that moves people profoundly in "A Boy Called Sailboat," a very small movie that might turn the same trick for viewers who never get to listen to the tune at all.

And that's the bizarre rub. The screen goes silent whenever "Sailboat" does perform the ditty his gravely ill grandmother, whom he calls his abuela, asked him to write for her on "that little guitar." What we can see if not hear, however, is the wave of real emotion on the faces of family, friends and strangers who do pick up its apparently life-changing melody.

Sanchez plays "Sailboat" and his small guitar in a unique family film.
The instrument is one of the many junky artifacts the boy often finds in the drought-ridden New Mexico desert that surrounds his ever-tilted family shanty (a standing joke -- excuse the pun -- in the mostly engaging film written and directed by Australian Cameron Nugent). Right from the start, though, "that little guitar" is what becomes something so special -- maybe magical even -- for the youngster whose own narration gives us an early clue.

"My abuela says you find the most important things when you're not looking for them," explains Sailboat, so sweetly portrayed by newcomer Julian Atocani Sanchez. And then, along the way, his guitar song actually helps many in the story grab hold of dreams over a wide realm that includes horses, used cars, soccer, and spicy meatballs, of all things.

The rest of a competent cast is headed by veteran character actors Noel Gugliemi, as Sailboat's supportive dad, and Elizabeth De Razzo, perhaps known most notably from HBO's "Eastbound & Down," as his quiet mom. Otherwise, two familiar names appear in what simply amount to funny, extended cameos. Jake Busey plays a snake-smitten teacher, and Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, who opens the film by hauling a real sailboat into the picture, has one big scene that becomes the closest thing to off-color in this primarily gentle production.

More prominent is the acoustic-heavy soundtrack (what else?) from the Grigoryan Brothers, guitarists performing a handful of recognizable offerings, such as "Scarborough Fair," repeatedly played in some unexpected places.

Not rated but mostly family friendly; 1:32; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5 

(This is one in an intermittent series of reviews about buzz-worthy films either currently playing the festival circuit or soon to be released. "A Boy Called Sailboat," an award-winner at festivals in Boston, Newport Beach, Cal, and Prescott, Az., becomes available on VOD tomorrow.)

Friday, February 1, 2019

Feb. 1 film wars: An Oscar nominee, a startling doc, and squabbles over art

Polish lovers Kulig and Kot help capture an era of "Cold War."
Three films featuring some serious conflict debut on northeast Ohio screens today, with two of them among the best leftovers from 2018.

Leading the way, at least in the area of Oscar nominations, is "Cold War," an epic period love story from Polish writer/director Pawel Pawlikowsi ("Ida," "My Summer of Love"). Already named Best Director at this spring's Cannes Film Festival, Pawlikowski now finds himself, perhaps surprisingly, among the year's five Academy Award candidates. Also in the mix, of course, are his impressive movie (for Best Foreign Language Film) and nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal (for the stunning black and white images that mesh perfectly with a fatalistic tale that takes place mostly behind the bleak glare of the former Iron Curtain).

Pawlikowski's combustible lovers (the electric Joanna Kulig and lanky Tomasz Kot), who are reportedly patterned after the director's own parents, initiate their 15-year affair in 1949. She is a hopeful singer/dancer trying out for a government-controlled, traveling folklore group. He is the group's conductor/musician and one of only two judges appointed to pick the performers for a European tour to entertain the masses as much as to preach the Soviet party doctrine.

Their first-sight attraction during what might seem like just a so-so audition for Kulig's zestful Zula quickly takes them to forbidden places with no return. Kot's Wiktor gets hooked, and so do we with various excursions to France, Yugoslavia, and Germany along the way.

Amazingly, Pawlikowski  gets there and back in less than 90 minutes by letting us fill in huge time gaps that might take us to even more intriguing places if we legitimately think about it. This seriously is some good, spare stuff.

Rated "R": some sexual content, nudity and language; 1:29; $ $ $ $ out of $5 

Old film gets masterfully restored and colorized in Jackson's WWI doc.
Even more relentess -- and as real as it gets when it comes to war -- is director Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old," a bombardment of words and pictures so powerful that you might feel under attack yourself.

The words are spoken by British World War I veterans sorted through and assembled by supreme storyteller Jackson, whose first directing foray into documentary becomes as memorable as anything he's ever done, including his heavily honored "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Here, he superbly unfolds his stirringly moving tale with century-old BBC and Imperial War Museum footage meticulously selected, digitally restored, colorized and presented in topnotch 3D.

It's a Herculean effort directly from front-line trenches filled with suffering, piles of rats, blood, death, and continuous smiles on the faces of sacrificing young soldiers who quickly learned that war is hell and dealt with it for their homeland and the rest of the free world.

Rated "R": some serious war images; 1:39; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally this week there's "Velvet Buzzsaw," a contemporary satire about the Los Angeles art world now streaming on Netflix. It comes from writer and director Dan Gilroy, most famous for his superior "Nightcrawler," whose stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene "Mrs. Gilroy" Russo, lead another competent cast here.

Ashton, Gyllenhaal and the art of "Velvet Buzzsaw."
The former plays a prententious art critic, while the latter is an ultra-successful gallery owner with an assortment of friends and enemies. Numbered among them are the likes of an artist (John Malkovich), an ambitious museum employee (Toni Collette), and an assistant (Zawe Ashton), who probably knows where all the bodies lie.

In fact, near the end of a what seems like a predictable first act, Ashton almost stumbles over one that belonged to a prolific painter unknown to just about everyone. The event shifts Gilroy's film into another genre that might make you laugh as much as squirm, but we won't give away any secrets or surprises right now.

As was the case in his previous two films, LA itself becomes a major player, too, with its assortment of attractive skylines appearing as regularly artistic as just about anything else on screen.

Rated "R": violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use; 1:53; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, January 25, 2019

'Stan & Ollie' plays wise, warm and softly with its big-hearted schtick

Coogan and Reilly easily shine as classic comedians "Stan & Ollie."
With much fanfare, the 91st Academy Award nominations were announced on Tuesday, but the fine and fuzzy "Stan & Ollie" was nowhere to be found. Not that anyone expected it to be, mind you. However, versatile Brit Steve Coogan already has nabbed a BAFTA nod for his spot-on performance as Stan Laurel, and his equally all-purpose partner, John C. Reilly, was both a Critics' Choice and Golden Globe "best actor in a comedy" contender for portraying Oliver Hardy.

Yep, the duo actually DO become Laurel and Hardy -- the longtime comics so beloved for headlining more than 100 shorts and features during a three-decade career -- in this mostly charming slice of cinema magic. (By the way, the film's 23-person, world-class hair and makeup department certainly might have deserved an Oscar mention, too, for so seamlessly helping to turn their stars into such gentle screen giants.)

The visual trickery begins early with a lengthy but rather mesmerizing tracking shot of Laurel and Hardy talking and walking their way through a studio lot, circa 1937. Their conversation centers around business dealings with legendary, cheapskate producer Hal Roach (of "Little Rascals" fame, among many other things). Simply put, Laurel wants more money and gets into a verbal spat with Roach (Danny Huston), while Hardy, who's still under contract, plays the kindly peacemaker.

The smartly revealing opening bit finishes marvelously with the skillful pair simply stepping on stage and, as cowboy images roll behind them, effortlessly and gracefuly go into their memorably silly dance routine from "Way Out West."

You'll swear you're watching the real thing and, when director Jon S. Baird quickly jumps ahead about 15 years for the genuine gist of his story, neither Coogan, nor Reilly will say or do anything to make you think otherwise. By then, of course, the funny boys are at the end of their careers and hoping for one last signature film by kicking off a stage tour in Laurel's native England.

What happens to that plan comes with an assortment of amusing routines, perhaps a little heartbreak, and introductions to Mrs. Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Mrs. Laurel (Nina Arienda), a couple of dandy doozies in their own right.

FYI: this wonderfully tender little gem is written by Jeff Pope who, with the talented Coogan, co-penned 2013's "Philomena," another affecting film that actually received four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Rated "PG": some language and smoking; 1:37; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, January 18, 2019

If someone puts pieces of 'Glass' together, there might be a good film there

In its current fractured state, M. Night Shyamalan's latest supernatural gobbledygook features signature bits of "Glass" from a large cinematic goblet that remains very broken.

I mean, the guy throws up a lot of ideas and possibilities here, including shards of mythology about superheroes that are either real, imagined or simply fragments from the ever-fertile mind of the writer and director who arguably gave us the first film about comic-book obsession.

That would be 2000's "Unbreakable," which featured David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the seemingly superhuman sole survivor of a horrific train crash perpetrated by a brilliant and brittle-boned piece of work named Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson). Both men return in "Glass," the apparent ending of a two-decade trilogy middled by 2017's "Split," which, it says here, easily remains the best of the three movies mentioned in this paragraph.

It told the not-so-subtle, but truly frightening story of a creepy kidnapper (exceptionally played by James McAvoy) with 24 different personalities. Many of them also return in Shyamalan's latest, including "The Beast," with McAvoy pumping up himself and his most intimidating persona into a couple of remarkable frenzies. In fact, "Glass" begins just about where "Split" ended, when Dunn/Willis appeared in cameo and now goes on the trail of McAvoy's many -- he calls them his "Horde" -- and the quartet of skinny young cheerleaders the psychopath has primed for four more serial murders.

Naturally, Dunn, whose various powers may or may not include seeing almost-dead people, shows up just in time to battle "The Beast," and so do authorities, who put them both in an eerie, yet high-tech asylum. That's where the endless delusion-based talk from an irritating shrink (Sarah Paulson) quickly starts taking much of the starch out of a yarn that had begun rather intriguingly.

Elijah/Jackson is already there, too, but sits constantly in a vegetative state that doesn't change in time to save a movie suffering from intermittent incongruity, weird pretense, and unnecessary length. Still, it likely might have been worse, since Shyamalan has been telling media types that his original cut came in at more than 200 minutes.

Rated "PG-13": violence including some bloody images, thematic elements and language; 2:09; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5