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

No comments: