Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Screen salute to Earth Day and 'Penguins' succeeds despite a silly voice

True confessions: I've never been a big fan of actor/comedian Ed Helms. The guy almost always plays a doofus (or some such even more descriptive noun), and his grating voice ceaselessly sounds sillier than sincere. So, why do I remain a big supporter of Earth Day's latest cinematic celebration, "Disneynature: Penguins," a documentary that features some rather offbeat narration from Helms?

"Steve" tends to one of his chicks in the often picture-perfect "Penguins."
Why, because, these darn title creatures so continuously amaze me, especially in the up-close-and-personal way those famous Disney nature lenses capture them. Certainly Helms can't be blamed, anyway, for filmmakers hoping to get young audiences into movie theaters by focusing on one particularly charming Adelie penguin, tagging him with the name Steve, and letting said narrator give cutesy voice to what might be on Steve's mind.

Of course, those aforementioned cameras are what really speak volumes in showing how these Antarctic inhabitants annually repeat their rough-and-tumble, 100-mile journey on sea and ice to build rock and pebble nests. Somehow, this vast multitude of males then manages to pick out their same mates in a veritable cast of identical thousands of later arriving females, and even instinctively helps train their chicks to repeat the seasonal routine all by themselves one day.

In Steve's case, his coming-of-age adventure becomes unusually appealing, since it's the 5-year-old's first solo go-round through this enduring migration, which mandates that he finds his own mate for life and eventually literally helps feed the ever-hungry mouths of their own babies.

Incredibly powerful wind storms and some life-threatening predators also might get in the way of the natural fun, though never the gorgeous cinematography, which includes guest cameos from killer whales and at least two intriguing species of seals.

By the way, Disney will donate a portion of first-week ticket sales to the Wildlife Conservation Network. Obviously, it's a worthy effort in many ways. Happy Earth Day!

Rated "G": some moments of animals in peril; 1:16; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, April 5, 2019

Family friendlier 'Shazam!' takes on unsettled family from 'Pet Sematary'

So, if you have a movie choice to make this weekend between another superhero extravaganza called "Shazam!" and the purposely misspelled Stephen King-based remake "Pet Sematary," take a look at the former and then thank me later for avoiding any unnecessary nightmares.

Our hero Levi and best pal Grazer inspire lots of laughs in "Shazam!"
The truth is, the DC Justice League version of Captain Marvel (amusingly explained here) is a lot of fun, mostly family friendly (except for a monster biting off a guy's head), and just a tad too long to earn an extra 50 cents in yours truly's money-tinged ratings system.

That fun part includes a grandly diverse and profoundly human foster family, shepherded by a mom and dad warmly played by Marta Millens and Cooper Andrews. Meanwhile, the head-hungry monster is actually one in a septet of beasts representing each of the Seven Deadly Sins and conjured up by an alleged "good wizard" (Djimon Honsou) during a couple of lengthy sequence of supernatural hokum.

In fact, along with the movie's energetic action finale, which features a nice twist, the Honsou scenes could have used some ediiting, too, even if they ultimately do produce both the title hero (an agreeable Zachary Levi) and the villain of the piece (Mark Strong). 

Regardless, the lightheartedness of of it all dominates much of its 132-minute running time, especially in the connection between Shazam, his comically inclined young friend (Jack Dylan Grazer), and an equally vital eighth-grader (Asher Angel), whose importance will not be given away here.

Rated "PG-13": intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material; 2:12; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

On the other hand, there's "Pet Sematary," which plays as somber as a funeral procession in this second screen depiction of the Stephen King novel that even the "King of Horror" himself once admitted might have been too dark to publish.

Obviously, then, you'll find little humor here, unless you count a discussion about a pivotal and creepy cat named after Winston Churchill. Of course, the irony arrives only if you recall that John Lithgow, starring as one of the characters taking part in said discussion, won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Churchill in "The Crown," the multi-honored Netflix series.

Here, Lithgow plays the all-knowing and somewhat mysterious neighbor of a Maine couple recently transplanted from Boston so they can spend more time with their two young children. Father (Jason Clarke) is a doctor, and mother (Amy Seimetz) simply can't get over her guilt involving the death of a sickly sister.

The titular animal burial ground in their backyard, some unfathomable moments of sorrow, and huge, ever-speeding tanker trucks, whose constant presence is not explained here as adequately as in the novel, also play key roles in a film that's more disturbing than genuinely engrossing.

Rated "R": horror violence, bloody images and some language; 1:41; $ $ $ out of $5

Monday, April 1, 2019

'For Now,' this small, Kickstarter-funded film works for what it is

If you're trolling around the web late one night looking for a quick watch, "For Now" might fit the bill. It's a short road-trip flick that hits some swell notes, including a nifty soundtrack of unfamiliar, though catchy tunes.

The quartet taking the coastal trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco to drop one of them off for a tryout with the latter city's famous ballet is a mostly watchable bunch, too. Leading the way is Aussie sweetheart Hannah Barlow, who co-directs (with Kane Senes). Barlow also conceived the story she co-writes (with Senes and Katherine Du Bois), while adding an attractive on-screen presence that resembles a mix of the young Shelley Long and Zooey Deschanel.

If you don't agree, then you might prefer Du Bois, as her more kinetic than cute best friend, or even the lanky Senes, as her filmmaker boyfriend. Both, by the way, play the same roles in Barlow's real life.

So, that leaves her brother, Connor, as the only dancer in the group dramedy, described by Hannah during one scene as "my family holiday." And, apparently, it might be since the improv-leaning troupe shot it all in seven days after the inspiration of a film festival talk by indie golden boy Mark Duplass and $22,000 from a Kickstarter fund.

Their somewhat auto-biographical result scores as a vehicle for an untidy smattering of twentysomething struggles in life, love, career and connection.

Not rated, but there's sex, drugs and more new pop than rock 'n' roll; 1:20; $ $ $ 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. "For Now" already is streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, DirecTV and a few cable-run VOD outlets.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

'Dumbo' remake is, well . . . kinda dumb; ride on 'The Mustang' instead

I kid you not, the words "Let's get ready for Dumbo!" ring out not once, but twice in a live-action remake of the animated story about a beloved little elephant that flies.

Get ready for the only real star of "Dumbo," a cute pachyderm in a homely film.
And, so what if the announcer, Michael Buffer, is the internationally renown, in-ring voice of the championship fight game. I mean, who will get the joke, anyway? All the boxing fans in the audience?

Honestly, Buffer's cameo as a guest circus ringmaster becomes just one of many miscues in a shabbily written, oddly directed and poorly edited kids' movie, whose one and only distinction remains the star. This time our still lovable Dumbo is nicely CGI animated, of course, with huge floppy ears that allow him to get up, up and away from the crowd of mostly unlikable folks on the circus grounds below him.

They include Danny DeVito, revisiting cranky Louie De Palma territory from the "Taxi" TV series that made him a star, and Michael Keaton, shifting among various phony accents as a 1919 impresario who becomes the definitive villain of the piece. Both play key roles in separating Dumbo from his mama, the constantly put-upon Mrs. Jumbo, in this script from Ehren Kruger, screenwriter of three -- count 'em 3 -- "Transformers" sequels.

If that doesn't tell you something about the sensibilities on display here, please also know that darkmeister Tim Burton directs. Regardless, only a psychedelic bubble sequence of pink elephants on parade, which would play way out of the league of early 20th century circus-goers, and a sudden, likely severely edited visit to an apparently scary place called "Nightmare Island," show signs of Burton's usual shadowy touches.

Otherwise, the whole misguided business talks down to the audience and turns what has become a classic 1941 cartoon feature into a live-action soiree mostly ruined by dreadfully dull adults in and out of the room. By the way, Walt Disney himself might be spinning in his (supposed) cryonic chamber after this latest film from the studio that bears his name so easily also douses the dreams of money-making theme parks. Talk about biting the hands that fed you!

Rated "PG-13": peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language; 1:43; $ $ out of $5 

Schoenaerts attempts to come to terms with "The Mustang."
Also opening in local theaters today is another animal-related film that would be worth seeing even if the one above didn't fly off the rails. It's called "The Mustang" and follows "The Rider" and "Lean on Pete" as movies which succumb to the marvel of horses and their remarkable healing powers.

Here, prison rehabilitation, as initiated by the state of Nevada's so-called Wild Horse Inmate Program, becomes the cinematic vehicle that turns steeds into saviors of men's souls. At least that's the way the first feature from actress-turned director Laure Clermont-Tonnerre capably tells it, with a spotlight on silent and steely convict Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts).

After a one-sided interview with an understanding counselor (Connie Britton), rough-around-the-edges Roman gets into the program, which gives inmates experience in taming horses to be auctioned off at the end of the training trail. Naturally, our boy hooks up with the titled terror, and it takes much head-bumping for their twin temperaments to get in sync.

Before they reach full gallop, cinematographer Ruben Impens fills in the blanks with some gorgeous wild West landscapes, while the story introduces a treacherous cellmate (Josh Stewart), a grizzled old cowboy/trainer (who else but Bruce Dern), and an estranged daughter (Gideon Adlon) for Roman to deal with in ever-evolving ways.

Rated "R": language, some violence and drug content; 1:36; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

FYI: "The Mustang" might have been inspired by a 2008 documentary ("Wild Horse Redemption") about the Bureau of Land Management's real prisoner/horse program. It played at the 32nd Cleveland International Film Festival so, yes, please let this serve as a not-so-sly reminder that CIFF 43 is currently unveiling its wares right now through April 7 at various venues, including Tower City Cinemas.

Find the full schedule here.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Trio of 'Us,' 'Hotel Mumbai,' and 'Gloria Bell' rings in spring at the movies

Even if the weather isn't exactly cooperating, spring arrives in northeast Ohio along with the freshness of three new movies.

First and foremost is the scary "Us," Jordan Peele's legitimate horror show through and through, only without the same satire and genre-blending hipness that helped the creative director win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2016's "Get Out."

Still, the creepy-crawly doppelganger family, which -- surprise!-- actually does not arrive in the driveway of the vacationing Wilson clan until 40 minutes into it all, is the same one promised in those endless trailers that whetted our appetites for the past couple of months. And, while the whole adventure might flaunt an occasional reach or two, Peele's initial set up, as well as some revelations that follow the sheer terror of that first introduction, show up quite unexpectedly.

Of course, the cast, led by the lovely Lupita Nyong'o as a couple of strong maternal types, plays top notch across the board, with "Dad" Winston Duke and kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) easily exploring dual roles, too.

Another kick is the nice turn -- literally and figuratively -- from Elisabeth Moss ("The Handmaid's Tale") in her unanticipated part as an upwardly mobile neighbor. 

Rated "R": violence/terror and language; 1:56; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

More terror, sadly the real kind, occurs in "Hotel Mumbai," based on the horrific 2008 extremist attacks on India's largest city, but centering on events taking place at the ultra-exclusive Taj Hotel.

Various staffers, led by its world-class chef (as always, convincingly portrayed by movie mainstay Anupan Kher), saved lives during the full-scale assault that some of us, perhaps numbed by so many such international occurrences, might not even remember. That being written, first-time feature director and co-writer Anthony Maras gives this Australian production a hard-core rush of urgency that assures we won't forget again after witnessing his head-turning scenes of cold-blooded murder and mayhem.

Sidebar stories involving characters carried by the notable likes of Dev Patel, Jason Isaac and Armie Hammer aside, this honest attempt to make cinematic art out of historical massacre will not exactly become an entertaining two hours at the movies, just a powerful one.

Rated "R": disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and language; 2:03; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Moore and Turturro experience the rhythm that's "Gloria Bell."
Finally this week there's "Gloria Bell," the smartly similar remake of 2013's Chilean "Gloria," from the same director, Sebastian Lelio ("A Fantastic Woman").

This time, Julianne Moore jumps across the screen as the glorious lead, an L.A.-based divorcee who loves to dance, even alone if it serves her; leaves long messages on the answering machines of her "grown-up" kids (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorious); tolerates her own mom (Holland Taylor), and may or may not enjoy the thousand and one other things that fill the so-called lonely life of a fifty something.

Definitely that might include looking for love, but maybe not in all the right places, especially if it comes from the wimp played by John Turturro. But, for now, let's forget about him. Moore is THE reason to ring up this belle, a knockout from start to finish, even when it hurts.

Rated "R": sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use; 1:42; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

'Captain Marvel' mixes fun origin story with big blasts of empowerment

Girl power rules in "Captain Marvel," which introduces a new/old character to the comic book-turned blockbuster screen universe and Oscar-winner Brie Larson ("Room") nicely grasping the title role.

Larson opens the proceedings opposite a somewhat mysterious Annette Bening in an equally curious and foggy setting, and closes things out two hours later with a few top-of-the-world poses that certainly might make DC superheroes Wonder Woman and even Superman proud.

Before becoming "Captain Marvel". . . .
In between, there's an embarrassment of sci-fi action, especially during an initial half-hour filled with three F's that have become the trademark of movies such as this. Those would be FX, flashbacks and a fiery feast of fighting.

Much of the latter is inspired by Jude Law, as "Yon-Rogg," an intellectually superior Kree warrior/mentor/boss to Larson, who is still searching for her real identity at this point, Their foes easily become the apparently villainous and continually shape shifting Skrulls. Fortunately, Larson's character, going by the Kree-given name of Vers, escapes all the early mayhem in a space pod that crash-lands into the roof of an L.A.-based Blockbuster Video store, circa 1995.

After a few decent sight gags and a long-distance call to Yon-Rogg from a phone booth, CGI-doctored faces belonging to familiar, if young-looking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are among the first to greet Vers on Planet Earth (or "C-53," as precise space aliens call it). Fury and Vers quickly hit it off by exchanging barbs and a little personal history, although the lass who would-be Captain Marvel has a hard time recalling much, if any of it.

Enter a few key players: most significantly Ben Mendelsohn, as an intel-rich Skrull, and big-screen newcomer Lashana Lynch, as a former BFF, and Vers finally discovers her life-changing moment exactly 70 minutes into it all. That experience again boasts Bening's all-knowing presence and leads to a somewhat fluffy final act that still offers enough distaff derring-do in plenty of time for Friday's celebration of International Women's Day.

. . . . Larson gets help from (a younger) Jackson to find her true identity.
Meanwhile, plot inclusions of a kitschy lunchbox, featuring a portrait of the popular "Fonz" (from TV's old "Happy Days"), and a house cat, which could be a leftover from the original "Men in Black," might produce some smiles. So will quick nods to how the Marvel Universe and the Avengers got their names, as well as a couple of bits on why Fury always wears an eye patch in most of the franchise's other films.

Finally, during the middle of the end credits, there's a no-surprise sneak peek at where the heroine of this piece will appear next, then one more segment at the very end that's cute, though not extremely revealing. Certainly more enduring will be the movie's opening logo tribute to comic-book creator and mainstay Stan Lee, who passed away in November at age 95. His "Captain Marvel" cameo is a hoot, too.

Rated "PG-13": sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language; 2:10; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, February 22, 2019

Wrestling's 'Family' wins, but will our quick 'Green' Oscar picks score, too?

Just a few days before Sunday night's 91st Academy Awards ceremony (see my ever-intrepid choices below), a movie about professional wrestling surprisingly might touch hearts, if not exactly the minds of Oscar voters this time next year.

Pugh quickly learns the ropes with a bodyslam effort to become WWE star "Paige." 
"Fighting with My Family," based on the life of former WWE Divas Champion "Paige" Bevis (changed to Knight for the film), nicely chronicles her rise to the top of the wrestling ranks with her own style but maybe not a lot of polish.

Florence Pugh (already a stalwart as 2016's "Lady Macbeth") portrays the what-you-see-is-what-you-get youngest child of punk-like parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey). They run a rough and tumble grappling troupe in Norwich, England, and young Paige (still going by her given name of Saraya in those bad ol' days) learns to rock and wrestle with the best of them.

Suddenly, next thing we know -- after writer and director Stephen Merchant credibly establishes the Knight brood as a mostly loving bunch -- a WWE talent scout calls in Saraya and close-knit brother Zak (a rather likable Jack Lowden) for a local tryout.

The rest becomes some arresting history, not to mention a "Rocky" tale that happens to be produced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, whose own couple of brief scenes add some sizable heft to the proceedings. So does Vince Vaughn, as scout-turned "coach" for the tough, if sensitive Paige and her fellow rassling rookies.

Obviously, Merchant, a consistent writing and creative partner to Ricky Gervais, deserves ample credit, too, for juggling family emotion, the outlaw spirit of a "fake" sport, and the continuing message that appearances don't always tell the entire story in any walk of life.

Rated "PG-13": crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content; 1:48; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

And now, as promised, the envelopes please for our 30th consecutive (or something close to that) annual Oscar choices:

Look for Close to win it all for giving her all as "The Wife."
Best Actress: Though "The Wife" debuted in the fall of 2017 at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival, it wasn't until it opened here last September that I wrote: "The Oscar already could be Glenn Close's to lose." And, after her sparkling acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, etc., she seals the deal for good Sunday.

Best Actor: Rami Malek ("Bohemian Rhapsody"). Queen front man Freddie Mercury lives again in the form of dancing, prancing and (even a bit of) singing Malek, whose showcase performance easily will prove enough to turn back Christian Bale's Dick Cheney caricature in "Vice."

Best Supporting Actress: Regina King ("If Beale Street Could Talk"). The stirring role of strong, supportive mom -- in a movie based on James Baldwin's 1974 novel -- finally brings Academy Award gold to a performer somehow never nominated before.

Ali's 'Green Book' work might be the easiest choice of Oscar night.
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali ("Green Book"). Way back when, we also wrote, "Look for Mahershala Ali, who already owns a supporting Oscar for "Moonlight," to win another one for his sensitive portrayal of (musician) Don Shirley." Now, it would produce the evening's biggest shock waves if he did not.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron ("Roma"). His only other real competition might be Spike Lee ("The BlacKkKlansman"), who remains a (very) long shot at best.

Best Picture: "Green Book," in a bit of a surprise. Like only a few others, I am not a major fan of  Roma," which remains Oscar night's darling going in. However, because I have been a huge "Green" booster since a September viewing in Toronto, there's no giving up the ghost just yet. Besides, a foreign film never has grabbed Best Picture honors, and instincts say it won't happen this year, either.

And, a few more surefire winners: Animated Feature, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"; Foreign Film, "Roma"; Documentary, "Free Solo"; Cinematography, "Roma"; Best Song, "Shallow" from "A Star is Born"; and Best Score, "Black Panther."

Finally, a couple of reaches at attempting to get it "write": Best Adapted Screenplay ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") and Best Original Screenplay ("Green Book"). You're on your own with the rest.