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.

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