Friday, February 14, 2020

Except for Louis-Dreyfus, it's mostly all 'Downhill' for alleged comedy remake

Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play happy on a mostly failed family vacation.
Near the beginning of "Downhill," a shaky redo of the Critics' Choice and Cannes-winning "Force Majeure," a young lad ever-so-slowly zig-zags on skis toward his parents and an older brother, all urging him toward the bottom of an Austrian resort mountain. And, that's about as fast -- or funny -- as it gets from there, despite a mom and dad being played by the grand Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a clownish Will Ferrell, likely still an acquired taste for some after all these years.

In fact, Ferrell never really captures the attempted spirt of any of it. Honestly, he plays his same ol' dork/doofus from beginning to end and, if that's the way co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash persuaded him to go, well shame on them.

As it does in the easily superior 2014 original, the story revolves around the less-than-caring way a father, in this case Ferrell's self-centered Pete, appears to react to the "controlled" avalanche that seriously interrupts his scenic lunch with wife Billie and their boys. As media types love to say, the optics are not good, leading to some rather icy situations on and away from the snow.

A kind of obnoxious supporting cast does not help much, including the oversized performance from Miranda Otto, as a sexually aggressive resort regular. What amounts to a cameo by "Game of Thrones" mainstay Kristofer Hivju, who portrayed an entirely different character in "Force Majeure," only produces some nervous laughs, too.

That leaves Louis-Dreyfus to carry the gist of the dramedy balancing act playing out here. Certainly on the comic end, her uncomfortable scene with a seductive ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) pays off with the movie's biggest guffaw. The talented lady needs to do more films.

Rated "R": some language and sexual material; 1:25: $ $ out of $5

(Also opening for this lengthy Presidents' Day/Valentine's Day weekend: "Sonic the Hedgehog," "The Photograph," and "Fantasy Island." For the record, we were unable to attend screenings for the former two, while the latter was not screened for critics.)

Friday, February 7, 2020

Sad 'Song' won't cause much of a blip on Oscars weekend; maybe picks will

With Warner Bros. somehow deciding not to host a northeast Ohio critics' screening for DC's reportedly action-packed "Birds of Prey," only one new movie debut gets a little space here this weekend. Of course, if it's time for the Academy Awards -- and it is Sunday night on ABC-TV -- there's always room as well for our ever-intrepid prognostications below. 

Luke Doyle plays the young prodigy in "The Song of Names."
First, though, a few words about "The Song of Names," a somber drama that waits so long to deliver its heartfelt gut-punch perhaps a viewer's patience might be worn totally away by then. Based on a novel of the same name, it follows the almost 50-year relationship between musically inclined boys who literally become brothers for life during the horrors of WWII, get separated at age 21 and, naturally, are destined to meet again.

We know that because one, the son of a London concert enthusiast, grows up to be played by Tim Roth, as a guy simply obsessed with finding his infinitely more interesting pal. The latter is the Polish/Jewish violin virtuoso (eventually portrayed by equally top-billed Clive Owen). Always a bit of an arrogant and eccentric youth, the character actually had disappeared the same night he was scheduled to debut in a royal performance financed by his British host family.

Before its moving and title-related climax, the half-century tale is forever filled with back and forth jumps in time. More satisfying are an illuminating score from award-winning composer Howard Shore, and a fine turn from Catherine McCormack, as the woman between the men.  

Rated "PG-13": some strong language, brief sexual material, thematic elements and smoking; 1:53; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

And now, as promised, the envelopes please for our quick and easy Academy Awards predictions (with full list of nominees linked here):

Best Actress: From the moment after leaving "Judy," the first movie viewed at last year's 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, I started telling everyone that Renee Zellweger would win the Oscar for her dead-on portrayal of the legendary Judy Garland. Well, so far so good, since the petite Ms. Z, just like the favorites in the rest of the acting categories, has gone on to capture every major award this season. Sunday night she'll win again. 

Phoenix will become the second "Joker" to win an acting Academy Award.
Best Actor: The performance of Joaquin Phoenix as "Joker" Arthur Fleck is simply one of the most brilliant of all time. None of the other nominees can touch him.

Best Supporting Actor: Golden boy Brad Pitt ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"), whose acting chops always have been vastly underrated, wins his first performance Oscar here. In fact, all four of the other prominently named nominees already own at least one gold statue in front of the camera. 

Best Supporting Actress: Hollywood's popular Laura Dern ("Marriage Story") does not give my favorite performance in this category. It belongs to Kathy Bates, whose nomination as the incredibly supportive mom of "Richard Jewell" likely knocked both Jennifer Lopez ("Hustlers") and Nicole Kidman ("Bombshell") out of this competition. If there's an upset in the quartet of acting awards, it will come here.

Best Director/Best Picture: Though I thoroughly enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," this boils down to Brit Sam Mendes and his war epic, "1917," versus South Korean Bong Joon Ho and his genre-breaking "Parasite." Both movies are grand, each director is deserving, and their Best Picture wins would bust the longstanding tradition of not giving top honors to films without an acting nomination. That has happened only 11 times in Academy Awards history and not since "Slumdog Millionaire" (2009). Regardless, it says here that Mendes and "1917" will become a 12th exception.  

A few more surefire winners: Best Animated Feature, "Toy Story 4," emerging from a surprisingly strong field for a change; Best International Feature, "Parasite"; Cinematography, "1917"; Costume Design, "Little Women"; Documentary Feature, "Honeyland" upsetting "American Factory"; Makeup and Hairstyling, "Bombshell" will win, but "Joker" deserves to win; Production Design, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"; Best Song, "I'm Gonna Love Me Again" from "Rocketman"; Best Score, "Joker"; Film Editing, "Parasite"; Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, (both) "Ford v Ferrari"; and Visual Effects. "1917."

Finally, a couple of reaches at attempting to get it "write": Best Adapted Screenplay ("Little Women") and Best Original Screenplay ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"). You're on your own with anything not posted here. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Bland, unsteady 'Rhythm' makes Oscar-nommed 'Le Mis' a wiser choice

If you're searching for a viable thriller at the movies this weekend, a French-made gem borrowing the title of a Victor Hugo classic might be a better selection than a way-out-there spy film searching for a franchise.

Almost unrecognizable Lively begins a less-than-rhythmic quest.
The latter is "The Rhythm Section," with talented Blake Lively playing a devastated young Brit literally left an orphan by a terrorist-instigated airplane bombing that killed the rest of her happy family.

The story, based on the first of four intrigue-heavy novels by the screenwriter, Mark Burnell, starts with Lively's substance-addled Stephanie Patrick holding a silencer to the head of someone in Tangier. Then the shaky flashbacks begin with the murder of a journalist and -- based on some coordinates Stephanie finds on the dead guy's computer -- the introduction of a rough and tumble operative (Jude Law) she tracks down in a foggy corner of Scotland. Easy peasy, right?

Equally absurd is our soon-to-be-heroine's quick transformation from Law's character calling her a "cliche" (for apparent years of drowning herself in prostitution and drugs) to a stone-cold killer. It's likely some kind of shortcut symbolism but -- voila! -- the change occurs almost immediately after he forces Stephanie to cross a long and ice cold river alone, all despite the impairment of her not knowing how to swim. Huh?

The rest does us no favors, either, with Sterling K. Brown appearing as an ex-CIA guy consistently talking in whispers to this ever-grieving, avenging angel who constantly keeps seeing and thinking about members of her long-gone family.

Obviously, with prominent "James Bond" producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson at the helm, their hope is to put one or two more Stephanie Patrick movies on the big screen, too. Very good luck with that, folks.

Rated "R": sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use; 1:49; $ $ out of $5

"Les Miserables," so named because Victor Hugo wrote his 1860s literary classic in the same poor Paris neighborhoods where this one takes place, at times pulsates with the kind of suspense "The Rhythm Section" (above) might only wish it had.

There are four sides to its urgent surge of power: street kids, cops as cowboys, a criminal authority, and a group of Muslims actually acting as peacemakers during the film's more tense moments.

Early on, though, all sides are unified as soccer fans during a spectacular opening sequence of flag-waving, marching and muscular support for the country's World Cup champion football team.

The contrast between beginning and climax becomes slowly startling, and the shades of gray that director and co-screenwriter Ladj Ly paints on most of his characters delivers a portrait of crime and alleged justice that Hugo might have enjoyed.

By the way, this "Les Miserables" has been nominated for Oscar's first ever "Best International Feature" (formerly called "Best Foreign Language Film"). Though it has no chance against the universally praised, South Korean "Parasite," Ly's often sizzling tale surely will live on as one of the best movies of 2019. Meanwhile, since we're talking Academy Awards, please return here next Friday for our annual predictions in an Oscar year where winners certainly appear rather cut and dried.

Rated "R": language throughout, some disturbing/violent content, and sexual references; 1:44; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Tiny indie 'Family Obligations' includes charm, heart and lots of hope

Blink fast or you might miss "Family Obligations," a small independent sparkler now in streaming mode after making some noise during at least a trio of film festivals.

It opens at a sparsely attended church service, where a man called Peter (Chris Mollica) slowly rises up to talk at his father's funeral. No such luck! When our Pete reaches into his pocket, the piece of paper he pulls out is totally blank, likely signifying how much he cared for dear ol' Dad.

Next up are a humorously awkward meeting with an urn of ashes (thanks to an equally droll burial director), soon followed by preparations to sell the house Peter grew up in and the slew of memories that entails.

Certainly there's much more, not the least of which amounts to a life-changing phone call ultimately leading to the sickly, cranky and immensely entertaining Uncle Frank (Frank Failla) re-entering Peter's suddenly hectic life.

A single mother (Chandler Rosenthal) living a few doors down the hall might bring major changes, too, but let's leave that possibility for viewers to decide.

Just don't spend too much time worrying about the film's production values, or even some key conversations in which the actors might be reading dialogue off camera. Concentrate more on the movie's personal values, and you might agree that this first-time effort from writer/director Kenneth R. Frank nicely gets it done despite only an apparent eight-day shooting schedule.

Not rated (with little, if anything, to offend anyone); 1:23; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

(This is one in an intermittent series of reviews, featuring buzz-worthy films currently playing the festival circuit, soon to be released, or ready to stream. "Family Obligations" was an official selection of the Austin Film Festival, and was voted Best Feature Film at the Long Island International Film Festival, the Erie International Film Festival, and the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival. It is available for viewing now on Amazon Prime, with AppleTV, Roku and a few other services expected to add it soon.) 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Not-so-merry, Ritchie rich 'Gentlemen' offer a lively caper nonetheless

Dockery and McConaughey look just lovely together.
The motley crew of criminals and con artists masquerading as "The Gentlemen" certainly looks mighty impressive. It includes Hugh Grant, as the blackmailing narrator; Matthew McConaughey, the suave antihero and marijuana impresario; Colin Farrell, a trying-to-go-straight pug/thug; and Jeremy Strong (the terrific middle son in HBO's "Succession"), here looking to succeed McConaughey's Mickey Pearson as Britain's biggest pot dealer for both aristocrats and the deprived.

And, please, don't forget handsome Charlie Hunnam, rugged right-hand to Pearson and the guy ever listening intently to the scheme presented by Grant's ambitiously crooked private eye. Of course, all of the above present themselves with style, smugness and cleverly cocky conversation from writer/director Guy Ritchie, himself a bloke who never has been accused of modesty on or off the screen.

Ritchie's gentlemanly excesses become obvious, a bit convoluted and, honestly, not radically different from what we've seen before in early gangster-filled and violence-heavy hits, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch," and the almost decade later "RocknRolla."

What remains, though, are some entertainingly funny bits, not to mention an electric turn from "Downton Abbey" regular Michelle Dockery, kinda slumming now as Pearson's wily wife. Even the most politically correct might admire her toughness, that is, when not being offended more than once by lots of salty, sexist talk and ill-mannered treatment of the masses from bad guys who seem to truly love everything they claim to know and do.

Rated "R": violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content; 1:55; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, January 17, 2020

Latest 'Bad Boys' never lets life get in the way of its fast and furious story

"Bad Boys for Life," the second sequel in a 25-year-old franchise fueled by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, begins with a bang, almost as if still-credited producers (the late) Don Simpson and (real-live billionaire) Jerry Bruckheimer were calling the shots like it was 1995.

There's clearly enough machismo energy and silly one-liners for recycling onto the screen here to make your head spin, and not always in a negative way. The ever-popular, fast and furious car chase takes charge right away, with flashers flaring, sirens blaring and the colorful environs of Miami on fire with activity. Naturally, Lawrence's Marcus Burnett is still screaming at Smith's Mike Lowrey, too, with the latter at the wheel of a Porsche that's preening and careening like clockwork.

Trouble is, these old cop buddies and bad boys for life might not have all their juices working anymore. In fact, you'll be surprised -- pleasantly, it says here -- to find out where they're headed in such a hell-raising hurry.

Then the plot -- crazy, convoluted and teeming with more preposterous turns than maybe a try-hard action movie really deserves -- kicks in with a violent visit to Mexico City, of all places. That's where an ultra-bloody prison break, engineered by a witch-like cartel widow (the appropriately scary Kate del Castillo) and borrowing heavily from "The Silence of the Lambs," signals a series of law-related assassinations back in Florida.

By the time our heroes and their loyal but ever-frustrated police captain (an always solid Joe Pantoliano) get wind of any of it, a masked and cycle-riding killer hits close and deadly enough to home to almost stop the show in its tracks.

Never fear, however, 17 years after their seriously lousy last ride, these "Bad Boys for Life" show some actual signs of resuscitation. Heck, there's even room for wild and woolly director Michael Bay, who helmed both the original and that very bad "Bad II," in a cameo.

Rated "R": strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use; 2:04; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, January 10, 2020

'1917,' 'Just Mercy' take first week of year movie honors from newer duds

Though the the calendar now reads 2020, a pair of 2019 holdovers just debuting on northeast Ohio screens easily outpoint a pair of January newbies likely to start the year with a major thud.

Chapman and MacKay too easily discover that war truly is hell.
Let's begin with "1917," the WWI stunner which already owns Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director (Sam Mendes) and waits to see what happens Sunday night with its eight nominations at the 25th annual Critics' Choice Awards (7-9 p.m. on The CW Television Network).

Give or take a few prominent cameos, its mostly no-name cast, headed by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, take us through an action-packed assault on the senses. The mission of the two soldier boys -- and that's really what they are at the start of their story from the French trenches -- is to travel almost 10 miles through mostly enemy-controlled terrain to warn fellow Brits about an impending possible slaughter.

Not only is time obviously of the essence, since the German attack is looming, but the brother of young Lance Cpl. Blake (Chapman) is also an officer in the unit facing a quick demise. Such urgency, combined with the nightmarish trappings of war along the way, some brilliant single-take images from legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and Thomas Newman meaningfully conducting the magnificent score behind it all help make "1917" a year -- and movie -- to remember.

Mendes' film certainly will remind many of Peter Jackson's startling documentary from early last year, "They Shall Not Grow Old." If you missed that one, it's available on HBO and various streaming services. Just remember, there's nothing as immersive as big-screen viewing.

 Rated "R": violence, some disturbing images, and language; 1:59; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5
Jordan and Foxx give their all as key players in "Just Mercy."

Thought-provoking and based in reality, Just Mercy earnestly scrutinizes capital punishment, civil rights and one man's fight for equality in Alabama. The once-again solid Michael P. Jordan stars, this time as crusading young lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who helped found "The Equal Justice Initiative" soon after his graduation from Harvard Law School.

Also on hand are a pair of Oscar winners: Brie Larson plays the committed paralegal who aided him in representing various death-row inmates, and Jamie Foxx delivers some exceptionally moving work as "Johnny D," a proud and personable soul railroaded by a rigged system of injustice.

Though a lot of what we see becomes straightforward, if penetrating legal drama, a few powerful sequences -- including one of  Stevenson being humiliated during an alleged weapons search and another that re-creates a prison execution -- should startle anyone. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton ("The Glass Castle"), apparently using Stevenson's own memoir as a guide, also includes a few convincing moments of jail camaraderie that deeply humanize an otherwise unimaginable life behind bars.

Rated "PG-13": thematic elements, including some racial epithets; 2:17; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Before Wednesday night's screening of "Underwater," a diving expert from the Greater Cleveland Aquarium told an eager audience that a shark will grow more than 30,000 teeth during a normal 35-year lifespan. If only the movie she was there to help preview had as much bite.

Stewart and Cassel get all wet.
I mean, there must be a reason that this Kristen Stewart star vehicle sat on a shelf for a couple of years before today's wide release. But, if anyone cares, there is no shark involved, just a terror dwelling well beneath the ocean and resembling the well-traveled "Alien" in some ways, and the giant squid from the ancient "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in others.

T.J. Miller, on hand to intrude with an assortment of one-liners, even mentions Jules Verne's latter story while portraying a member of a research/drilling team whose deep sea dwelling gets destroyed during a somewhat disturbing opening sequence. Of course, it features the watchable Stewart, as the so-called mechanical engineer in the bunch and, because a couple of clues might suggest as much, the likely main squeeze of the veteran captain (Vincent Cassel) trying to lead his handful of shaky survivors to safety.

Yes, there are a few fright-inspiring moments here, but no, there is really nothing else to recommend just another mediocre January release trying to find an audience.

Rated "PG-13": sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language; 1:35; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally, rude, crude and chock-full of unfounded 'tude, "Just Like a Boss" not only might be the most shallow film to open a new year, but certainly already is assured a place on a slew of 2020 "worst" lists. It's that dreadful, despite the previously respected trio headlining it.

That includes comic Tiffany Haddish and, except for "Bridesmaids," the more dramatic Rose Byrne starring as besties since middle school, now running a small cosmetics concern with some good things going for it. Enter Salma Hayek, as a ruthless and flamboyantly over-the-top makeup magnate, attempting to take over their business and ruin their friendship.

Timing is non-existent in this alleged comedy, one "joke" sequence concerns an infant smoking pot, and Byrne gets to dance and sing, neither of them very well. Happy New Year, folks.

Rated "R": sexual content, language and brief drug use; 1:23; $ out of $5