Friday, May 17, 2019

Fine hockey doc will light some lamps; 'Dog's Journey' may warm hearts

Don't talk to any Detroit Red Wings fan about Russian collusion. Chances are they won't believe it, anyway. To understand why, visit the Regal Middleburg Town Square Stadium 16, the rather unwieldy tag for the only local opportunity to watch "The Russian Five," a stirring sports documentary that delivers on and off the ice.

"The Russian Five" was assembled to bring a Stanley Cup or two to Detroit.
Hockey enthusiasts certainly will recognize the name, but the silly notion of actually inviting Soviet players to join a National Hockey League team was just about unthinkable back in the early '80s. That's when Little Caesar's pizza impresario Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings, a struggling team without a Stanley Cup crown for almost 30 years, and brought in his smart, non-conforming general manager, Jimmy Devellano, to help turn it all around.

The personable GM, freely shown spouting his entertaining memories and philosophies during director Joshua Riehl's fast-moving film, resurrected the former "Dead Wings" and led them back into the playoffs almost immediately. It took seven years, however, for his boldest move, what some called "wasting" a few lower-round draft choices on a pair of Russian stars, quick young center Sergei Fedorov and sturdy defenseman Vladimir Konstaninov.

The rest, as they say, became NHL history, and Michigan native Riehl shoots and often humorously scores with this true tale of espionage, as told by an assortment of talking heads. Actor and lifelong Red Wings fanatic Jeff Daniels is one of the most knowledgeable in offering insights on both blue-collar Detroit and the importance of sports there. Meanwhile, comments from an assortment of Red Wings players, front office personnel and a few members of the not-so-loyal opposition, including legendary Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry with his downright Russophobic remarks, might also ruffle a feather or three.

Anecdotes, personal struggles and interviews with the rowdy Russians -- who became a quintet with another Jimmy D draft pick and a couple of  his shrewd, if controversial trades -- obviously mix in well. So do the big action moments, bigger brawls, huge celebrations and, surprisingly, a few meaningful tears.

Unrated, but with its fair share of sporting language and even some blood; 1:38; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Unless you either hate animals or own the proverbial heart of stone, watery eyes definitely become the order of the day a few times in "A Dog's Journey," the calculating little family film designed to work the ways it does as a sequel to 2017's "A Dog's Purpose."

I did not venture out to see the latter, but it doesn't take a genius to conclude that "Purpose" likely ended with Dennis Quaid owning the same big "Boss Dog" he runs around with during the first reel of "Journey."

That means he's back in good ol' boy mode, after his recent creepy work in "The Intruder," returning again as Ethan, now grandfatherly and living with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger) on a huge farm in Michigan. It's also a good  fit for his similarly aging canine, named "Bailey," finding plenty of pasture to exhibit the gentle spirit that thinks aloud (because Josh Gad provides the comic voice), loves kids, and can't understand how some people can become such total emotional wrecks.

Cases in point on both ends of that spectrum are Ethan's little grandgirl CJ (played by Emma Volk as an outrageously adorable toddler), and his widowed-too-young daughter-in-law (Betty Gilpin from "GLOW" on Netflix).

The grief-stricken mom is already essentially in victim mode from the moment we meet her and carries her burdens well into the life of CJ, who manages to grow admirably into adulthood despite it all. A convincing turn from British actress Kathryn Prescott helps a bunch.

Of course, Bailey still gets the top treats by way of funniest lines (from author-turned screenwriter W. Bruce Cameron) and most affecting scenes (as orchestrated by Emmy-winning sitcom director Gail Mancuso). The dog also proudly displays his own acting chops as at least three other memorable mutts named Molly, Big Dog and Max. You'll get it if and when you see it, but let's just add that reincarnation plays a key role throughout, too.

In that regard, it's probably worth a somewhat ironic mention that Peggy Lipton, who passed away six days ago, portrayed Hannah in the aforementioned "A Dog's Purpose." It was her last big-screen appearance.

Rated "PG": thematic content, some peril and rude humor; 1:48; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, May 10, 2019

Score one for 'Tolkien' over 'Joan' in screen battle of Brit period pieces

Hoult woos Collins through thick and thin of a properly paced "Tolkien."
Two historical dramas open here this weekend, with the author of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" outdistancing an alleged Soviet spy -- and quite easily, it says here -- in the department of dueling British bios.

"Tolkien," an exceptionally good-looking film, not only features rich performances from Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, but also offers an assortment of hints about how the works of the title student/soldier might have been influenced by certain pieces and events in his early years.

It begins in the taxing trenches of World War I, where Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Hoult) endures a Battle of Somme-inspired fever dream, overflowing with flashbacks to meaningful moments from his life. Many of Tolkien's hallucinations detail his camaraderie with a trio of energetic school mates and, maybe not so ironically, the most artistically bloody war images quickly become reminiscent of the recent and stunning documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old."

Of course,  Peter Jackson is the Oscar-winning director behind both that doc and, as everyone likely knows, his enormously successful, fellowship-filled adaptation of "The Rings Trilogy" for the big screen. Now, there's no sin in perhaps borrowing from the best, not to mention the possibility of actually enticing Jackson's fantasy fans back into the theater to learn more about Tolkien's personal history.

Besides, there's much more here than nods to Jackson, et al, including a few fine literary moments for Tolkien's ill-fated mother (a nice brief turn from Laura Donnelly), his sweetly proper romance with Edith Bratt (Collins), and only a couple of sparkling exchanges opposite an Oxford professor (Derek Jacobi), whose expertise in languages should provide learning motivation for all.

Director Dome Karukoski ("Tom of Finland") doesn't exactly make it a connect-the-dots trip to Tolkien's own triumphs, but he does drive a cohesive and entertaining vehicle that the Masterpiece Theater crowd will gratefully -- and likely gracefully -- hop aboard.

Rated "PG-13": some sequences of war violence; 1:49; $ $ $ $ out of $5

On the other hand, there's "Red Joan," a stale and stodgy telling with no real hints of the intrigue or urgency commonly associated with any number of more invigorating stories of espionage.

In fairness, as based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, this one starts when Joan Stanley is already old enough to be portrayed by the usually grand Judi Dench and living the sedentary life of suburban retirement. It's then that she is arrested suddenly in London and charged with treason for reasons explained in a series of, what else, but considerable and especially supportive flashbacks that might even turn her into a heroine.

In fact, though, the real Joan, on which Rooney's novel is based, truly betrayed Britain, not only by selling secrets to Soviet forces, but by helping them develop their own atomic bomb. As it is, Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan as a Cambridge genius-turned physicist and someone we probably are supposed to admire.

No such luck. Then again, we are, after all, writing about bombs here.

Rated "R": brief sexuality/nudity; 1:40; $ $ out of $5

Friday, May 3, 2019

'Long Shot,' 'Extremely Wicked,' and 'Intruder' spring onto May screens

A politically slanted rom-com and two villains dominate middling movie openings this weekend as well as the trio of brief reviews below.
Theron and Rogen play mostly for fun as "Long Shot" lovers.

The former, an aptly named "Long Shot," considers the extremely odd coupling of Charlize Theron with Seth Rogen, while offering a few hearty laughs and not as many D.C.-based insights in its lengthy telling of how a gorgeous presidential candidate actually falls for the schleppy guy she babysat for as a teen.

The really good news is that both have brains, making their adult match, which strengthens particularly during an equally strong middle hour, a step above most ridiculous Hollywood pairings. It certainly helps, too, that tall and talented Theron inspires us to giggle as much as the comically inclined Rogen's speechwriter does here.

Too bad the film's twist resolution plays similarly to something pulled off infinitely more intriguingly --- and credibly -- on a recent episode of Showtime's popular "Billions" series. Of course, it remains a long shot that anyone else might notice anyway.

Rated "R": strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use; 2:05; $ $ $ out of $5

A Netflix movie that's totally void of comedy arrives today, too, with the psychologically spooky character study of famously charming serial killer Ted Bundy. It's title, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," comes from words spoken by a Florida judge while handing down Bundy's sentence in 1989, a full 15 years after his first horrific murder.

King of Quirk John Malkovich appropriately portrays the jurist, but most of the scene-stealing in the unsettling drama comes from Zac Efron, whose own nice-guy persona will play tricks on viewers likely falling themselves for his smiling visage as Bundy.

As it is, much of director Joe Berlinger's telling comes from the female perspective of Bundy's longtime girlfriend (an OK Lily Collins), whose own suffering from alcohol abuse obviously pales in comparison to Bundy's 30 or more dead victims. Actually a smaller role, portrayed by Kaya Scodelario, as the devoted, mousy woman who eventually gave birth to Bundy's only child, somehow works more effectively. But, talk about the mind playing tricks, maybe that's just because Scodelario so much resembles Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in 2017's totally unrelated "Battle of the Sexes."

Certainly, even without the director showing an abundance of Bundy's murders or re-creations of such, fans of oh so many TV crime and punishment shows might readily embrace all of it. And, by the way, Berlinger, an acclaimed filmmaker and 2017 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentary Filmmaking from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, already is the creator of "Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," a four-part doc series that has been streaming on Netflix since January.

Rated "R": disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language; 1:49; $ $ $ out of $5

Quaid intrudes rather easily.
Finally, and since we're talking about creepy, there's "The Intruder," a smarmy tale starring Dennis Quaid as the unstable title character, whose oddly fascinating facial expressions almost become worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, we're pretty sure that this thriller is supposed to be more scary than funny, although comments from the good-natured crowd at a recent screening made for a much more entertaining final reel than anticipated.

Quaid's persistent intrusiveness centers in and around the big ol' Napa Valley home he sells to an engaging couple (Meagan Goode and Michael Ealy) in the early going and, naturally, Meagan has more patience with ex-owner's visits than Michael does. Well, one cross word leads to a more stressful house call and, before we know it, a family friend (Joseph Sikora) learns the hard way that it's never OK to pee in the bushes.

Some other key scenes -- with Thanksgiving and Christmas settings -- indicate that this stalking chestnut has been hanging around for a while in search of a worthy release date. So, if you decide to see it on date night Saturday, May the Fourth be with you. And it!

Rated "PG-13": violence, terror, some sexuality, language and thematic elements; 1:42; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, April 26, 2019

'Endgame' already looks like beginning of summer blockbuster season

And so it goes. The summer's biggest hit likely has arrived almost a full two months before the June solstice with today's official debut of the epic comic-book adventure, "Avengers: Endgame," destined for box-office domination, if not exactly cinematic greatness.

Johansson's Black Widow remains a straight shooter in the "Avengers" finale.
Truth be told, at a tad more than three hours long -- but who among the fanboy masses is really counting, anyway -- this alleged finale to an arc of 21 previous films, including the first three pieces of an "Avengers" quartet, might not be the easiest movie to sit through. Sure, NE Ohio's favorite directing sons, Joe and Anthony Russo, again deliver an assortment of action, with seemingly at least a little something to do for every important character who ever stepped into the teeming Marvel Universe.

Still, you might not recognize all the players without a scorecard in an enormously crowded and occasionally confusing mid-section that plays like five separate stories for the most well-known superheroes in the bunch. Those may or might not be Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). And, in hooking up with, dare we say a couple of "lesser" likes, they're each looking for precious ways to bring back friends and fellow icons that disappeared at the end of last year's "Avengers: Infinity War," thanks to that tough, tall tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin). 

Don Cheadle's War Machine and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man get on board.
Expect other recent big names, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), to make sparkling appearances, too, along with crews from their own hit films and everything that entails.

Please don't forget to spot a few legitimate Hollywood heavyweights hanging around as well. Folks such as Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tilda Swinton and Rene Russo, all of whom appeared in earlier Marvel movies, could get to deliver a key line or two. Or not. And, speaking of Russos, even that co-directing guy named Joe shows up for a group-therapy session amid early grief-laden sequences and downright depression as personified by a few overt sulkers and, perhaps, a couple of split personalities.

Thank goodness, though, for some fine ol' trademark, avenging humor saving the day and carrying us through much of the weltschmerz with almost a full two hours remaining in this really big show.   

Rated "PG-13": sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language; 3:02; $ $ $ out of $5

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.)