Friday, September 23, 2022

'Blonde' and 'Sidney' stream; 'Darling' and 'Woman King' try to rule theaters

Still unreeling and catching up from 10 days at TIFF. (If you missed them, on-site reports can be read at left):

A special Netflix press screening of the tragically vivid "Blonde" in Toronto, with no connection to the 47th annual film festival there, still has me feeling that if Ana de Armas doesn't run away with a Best Actress Oscar, then the award simply should be abolished.

The demure Cuban beauty simply dazzles in her monumental portrayal of 20th Century America's No. 1 sex symbol, actress/icon/orphan/waif Marilyn Monroe, by looking, singing, speaking, walking and generally wearing pain just like the wounded superstar (real name Norma Jeane Baker) did in her maddeningly brief 36 years.

The latter assumption carries through an assortment of Norma Jeane's woes, including the memory of being raised by an unhinged mother (Julianne Nicholson), short-lived marriages to famous, unnamed  "Daddy" figures we now know as the abusive Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Carnevale) and more patient Arthur Miller (Adrian Brody), unimaginably brutal and warped relationships with anonymous/obvious men who ran a major studio (David Warshofsy) and the United States (Caspar Phillipson), respectively, and so much endlessly more.

Though the story is based on a fictionalized novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, there's no mistaking the reality of everything we've heard, read, and seen about Monroe's apparent drug-shortened life, which director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik offers up with both brilliantly orchestrated and peepshow glimpses.

Rated "NC-17" by MPAA: for some sexual content; 2:47; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Blonde" is now playing in select cities -- though none in Ohio -- and debuts Sept. 28 on Netflix.)

Another late screen legend more legitimately fills the screen in "Sidney," a documentary of requisite talking heads and clips from Sidney Poitier movies that remind us how elegant, eloquent and classy the man truly was. (A quick aside: The Oscar-winning actor was so genuine in taming a group of English hooligans in his 1967 hit, "To Sir with Love," that I often wished he could be one of my teachers.)

Poitier died just last January at age 94, itself an ironic achievement for someone so tiny when born two months prematurely, he tells us in his own words, that his Bahamian father brought home a shoebox to "discard" him. Later, he revisits the story and, with tears in his eyes, adds how his mother talked to a soothsayer who told her not to worry about the ailing son that would live a remarkable life.

Longtime filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, directing here, gets some especially touching help, too, from producer Oprah Winfrey and Civil Rights leader Willie Blue in describing the importance of Poitier's activism off the screen, while his two wives, six daughters, and a Who's Who of Hollywood Royalty nicely fill in a few necessary blanks.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: adult themes and racial slurs; 1:51; $ $ $ out of $5

("Sidney" made its world premiere Sept. 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now streaming on Apple TV+.)

Now only in theaters everywhere, "Don't Worry Darling" includes a memorable '50s soundtrack for those of us who have been around long enough to appreciate it, good-looking cinematography (from two-time Oscar nominee Matthew Libatique), and Florence Pugh in the lead role.

The latter, who has been nothing short of sensational as sexy "Lady Macbeth," a WWE wrestler (in "Fighting with My Family"), oft-played Amy March ("Little Women") and even the sister of "Black Widow," might meet her match here, though, as a scared woman with nowhere to go.

Of course, we don't know that until a head-scratching last act leaves us yearning for the possibilities promised by an experimental society of swaggering swingers (led by a cocky visionary played by the strong Chris Pine). He heads the kind of creepy-sounding Victory Development that demands loyalty from all its young-buck male employees and their pretty wives, who may or may not be from Stepford (spoiler alert: OK, they're not).

Pugh's character and hubby (Harry Styles) can't keep their hands off each other, that is, until the Missus starts experiencing a few oddities, breaks a key Victory rule, and starts remembering stuff. Uh-oh. Can't wait to see what happens next. (Just let me know if you figure it out.) 

Rated "R" by MPAA: sexuality, violent content, and language; 2:02; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally, "The Woman King," another world premiere movie from Toronto, has Viola Davis portraying a title character based on a real warrior and ruling her historically accurate, all-female army of Dahomey the same way she dominated the recent opening weekend of the film festival.

Seriously, she and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose year 2000 "Love & Basketball" remains one of the finest debut features ever produced, received before-and-after ovations for making "King," and then accepted a few more when the dynamic duo participated in TIFF's popular "In Conversation With . . ." program the day after their sold-out premiere.

At that last event, they talked about key career moments and why the director and Davis' own JuVee Productions came together to make a movie that's part epic, part action film and all actually set on the Africa continent.

Prince-Bythewood shared a few stories about the process, including one in which she feared that continuous rains would delay shooting enough to miss an important deadline. "I just had put my head in my hands, when I heard these wonderful sounds of singing and laughing," she said. "It was the 300 extras just spontaneously having a good time, and the spirit of it all became so infectious."

"The drummers were there and joined in, too," Davis added. "It was wonderfully moving, and I asked one of the dancers what they were singing about. She told me it was to stop the rain. And it did!"

The rest is history, with "The Women King" leading all others at the box offfice last weekend with a $19-million haul. It remains in theaters everywhere.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: strong violence, partial nudity, brief language, some disturbing and thematic content; 2:06; $ $ $ out of $5

(New in theaters: Three more TIFF flicks, Lena Dunham's "Catherine Called Birdy," the David Bowie doc "Moonage Daydream," and Sanaa Lathan's "On the Come Up," also on Paramount+; the re-release of "Avatar"; "Control," and "The Infernal Machine," also On Demand. Tyler Perry's "A Jazzman's Blues," still another TIFF world premiere, is streaming on Netflix.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

'Take the Night,' 'Forbearance' manage powerful stories on small budgets

As Hollywood moves over, under, and through the final dog days of summer (not to mention scouring for quality product to feed starving movie-goers), two small indies now making the pay-to-watch rounds display enough chutzpah, energy and smarts to earn recommendations right here.

First comes "Take the Night," a debut feature from writer, director and star Seth McTigue, whose tricky shuffling of brotherly love with envy-rich rivalry presents similar dynamics in two families on different ends of New York City's socio-economic spectrum.

McTigue himself does nice work on the blue-collar front, as a PTSD-suffering vet, leading "my last job" and a combination of clever and inefficient thieves. Certainly, it won't take long, though, to deduce where his goofy, tag-along brother (the scene-stealing Brennan Keel Cook) falls in this gang. 

Meanwhile, the pair of siblings on the extravagantly wealthy side of the city own the long-successful Chang Export Co., but there's apparently leadership jealousy at the top there, too. 

Why else would the big brother (Roy Huang), surely not the level-headed one in this clan, give their late dad's favorite son (Sam Song Li) the scare of his life by "surprising" him with an extremely disturbing birthday stunt? Kidnapping almost becomes the least of it all, as McTigue mixes some serious twists with a few outrageous turns while not really taking up even half your own night with his quick-moving crime drama.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some violence; 1:22; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Take the Night" can be found on Vudo, Prime Video, AppleTV+ and other places to watch movies.)

Speaking of serious, writer Cedric Gegel opts for a smaller role in his first big screen writing job. The often melancholy "Forbearance" has him as a kind of alienated son finding his way through mostly unspoken woes with his dad (Travis Hancock) and a solid kinship with his mom (Juli Tapken).

In fact, the minimal dialogue between Gegel's plot-prominent parents becomes one of the strengths in a script that features a woman ready to file divorce papers, then finds out her husband has three months to live -- at most! 

Such is life -- and death -- as the particularly strong Tapken, who might remind some of Edie Falco facially and even with disposition to match, carries the past, present and future on her visage throughout. Naturally, her character is juggling still-existing reasons for considering a permanent separation in the first place with profound feelings for her stricken husband of at least two decades.

For his part, Hancock carries a brave countenance, though his persistent and consistently blood-inducing cough, a result of the terminal illness, likely will be harder to watch for some than the prognosis delivered by his stern doctor (Vernon Welles, of "Mad Max 2" fame, among others).

Credit director Lana Read for keeping her cast -- and the story from Gegel, himself a cancer survivor -- together in all their primary and pivotal moments.

("Forbearance" is currently available on a number of VOD platforms.)

Not rated by MPAA; 1:48; $ $ $ out of $5

(Opening Sept. 2 in theaters: "Gigi & Nate," The Good Boss," and "Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul."

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Look for big-screen 'Love' all around in gentle 'Song' and funny 'Kilnerry'

Maybe there's not one particularly soothing ditty -- if any at all -- in "A Love Song" to justify the title, but combine the good feeling of the whole with another straight away performance from world-class character actor Dale Dickey and it all makes glorious sense. 

In fact, most of the film's heavily country-influenced music comes from the big old transistor radio that Dickey's widow (named Faye) often carries around a remote Colorado campsite while killing time waiting for an old friend (the strong Wes Studi) to show up, as promised.

Dale Dickey excels once more.
When he finally does arrive, sparks of romance might not exactly ignite the cool night air, either. There's mostly just meaningful moments of memories, minimal conversation and the couple's oddly moving rendition of the folksy "Be Kind to Me." 
This nice and hopeful little film comes from first-time feature director/writer Max Walker-Silverman, who certainly won't mind another shout out for cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo somehow situating western landscapes and gorgeous skies to become perfect co-stars for the always memorable Dickey.

Of course, the talented woman really needs nothing more to entice fans to see her performance as it slowly rolls into wide release Friday (and exclusively in northeast Ohio at the Cedar Lee Theater).

Rated PG by MPAA: mild thematic elements; 1:21; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

There are some similarly lovely and scenic vistas dotting "Love in Kilnerry," along with the tiny fictional town's mayor and parish priest sharing a huge grudge, the longtime mailman hitting on the resident old maid, and just about everybody except the lonely shopkeeper finding a particular reason to despise the sheriff.

Regardless, love really does remain in the air when the EPA orders Kilnerry's dog shampoo-producing chemical plant to release a new drug called "P172." Turns out, though, that the Feds' mandate not only keeps the water safe but features a scintillating side effect that might increase everyone's -- oh my! -- sex drive.

If the premise sounds silly, just know the result becomes a sometimes laugh-aloud and ever-charming situation that could put director, writer and star Daniel Keith on the entertainment map. The actor-turned filmmaker, who plays the sheriff having trouble dealing with all the personality changes afoot, originally authored the story for the stage before workshopping (with many from the film's likable cast) in the real and extremely picturesque city of Portsmouth, N.H.

The rest became indie film history during a lengthy festival run that earned "Kilnerry" almost 50 awards in various cities along the way. Now Keith, also acting as his own distributor, has brokered a deal with Regal Cinemas to put the rib-tickling tale Friday in 75 theaters across the U.S.

The mail carrier (Roger Hendricks Simon), spinster (Sybil Lines), mayor (Tony Triano), priest (James Patrick Nelson), shopkeeper (Kathy Searle) and a few more of their friends likely can't wait to show anyone and everyone a good time. Find them if you can.

Not rated by MPAA: (but with a bit more than innuendo and some brief nudity); 1:40; $ $ $ and 1/2 out $5

(Also opening Aug. 19 in theaters: "Beast," "Delia's Gone," "Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero," "The Immaculate Room," and "The Legend of Molly Johnson." In addition, "Orphan: First Kill" will be available in theaters, on digital, and streaming only on Paramount+, while "Look Both Ways" plays exclusively on Netflix.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

Plaza plays 'Criminal' like a pro; 'BodiesBodies' may find Gen Z fans, fans

If you think "Emily the Criminal" sounds like a raucous comedy with former "Parks and Recreation" TV star Aubrey Plaza in the all-important lead, well guess again. 

The funny stand-up girl has grown up to become the woman in little-seen films such as "Black Bear" and "Best Sellers." Now, as a struggling artist-turned expert in credit card fraud, Plaza offers one of the year's most versatile performances in the role of her career.

Just steal yourself away and watch her Emily go from getting warned in the first scene about a one-time indiscretion being on her "permanent record" to hustling desperately to make an illegal mark in a contemporary world that rarely even offers the proverbial sucker a legitimate break.

By the way, Greater Clevelanders might want to know that "Emily" becomes the latest from Low Spark Films, the indie production company headed by Chagrin Falls native Tyler Davidson. "Take Shelter," "The Kings of Summer" and "The Signal," among others, have come previously. It's also a first-time feature writing/directing gig for a 40-year-old AFI graduate named John Patton Ford. Please remember the name; you'll certainly see it again. 

Rated "R" by MPAA: language, some violence and brief drug use; 1:34; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Some rich and totally full of themselves Zoomers get to stir in their own juices a little while in the darkly comic "BodiesBodiesBodies." Thankfully, a boffo ending saves the day for anyone still hangin' around and, uh, perhaps that includes some viewers, too.

Before then, Dutch-born director Halein Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe take off on similar films of this ilk and occasionally poke dead-on fun at these young Floridians (maybe?), who so easily toss a so-called Hurricane Party Cocktail of alcohol, drugs, sex, snarky comments and a full assortment of weapons.

Playing the alleged title game spurs on the proceedings, but most folks might do some serious maturing when all that you'd expect to occur in a dark mansion on a stormy night does just that here. The only gals coming close to wising up, though, make up the movie couple portrayed by distaff headliners Maria Bakalova ("Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"), naturally the lone non-American in the group, and Amandla Stenberg ("The Hate U Give").

Among the "boys" -- surprise, surprise -- now ex-"SNL" funnyman Pete Davidson looks like a skinny, young Uncle Fester and acts like the total jerk as the host of it all. Also along for the quick ride is Lee Pace, nicely cast as an aging "vet" and apparent pick-up pal of a much younger vixen (Rachel Sennott of "Shiva Baby" fame). Anybody for a sequel? Nobody?

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence, bloody images, drug use, sexual references and pervasive language; 1:35; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, August 5, 2022

4 for August: 'Hallelujah,' 'Prey,' 'Bullet Train' and 'Easter Sunday' (huh?)

Four brief takes on as many movies bringing us into the dog days of August:

Maybe nobody ever had a cooler voice or style than the man featured in "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song," and it's proven here once again. The crowded documentary neatly dissects how the title song -- first written and released by the Montreal baritone in 1984, then tinkered with endlessly and rewritten in some 150 notebooks by Cohen for years -- is of course now considered an epic international hymn. Even with versions and tributes from artists such as Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Judy Collins, Brandi Carlile and many more, "The Man" himself remains the ultimate star. During a Q&A after a late-June screening of the film at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, co-director Dayna Goldfine explained why she and partner Daniel Geller went all in on their own long journey to make it: "We attended his 2009 concert in San Francisco, and the image of Leonard going down on his knees (to sing THE song) was just so indelible." The rest became fully documented movie and music history, with "Hallelujah" rolling into a slew of additional theaters today, including a few in northeast Ohio.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: brief strong language and some sexual material; 1:55; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

I love quicksand. Always have, always will -- even though it scared the Johnny Weismuller out of me as a kid watching all those old jungle movies on TV. Now today, some up-to-the-neck moments are among a few reasons to recommend "Prey," a wild and wooly "Predator" franchise prequel set to stream exclusively on Hulu. It takes place 300 years ago on and around a historically accurate Comanche settlement, where the brave young Naru (a marvelously intense Amber Midthunder, who somehow might resemble Aubrey Plaza) becomes an axe-wielding hunter, proceeds to kick butt and never really thinks about taking any prisoners. All this, naturally, goes against the wishes of an older warrior brother (Dakota Beavers). Expect both on-screen siblings to keep finding work in movies for years to come.

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong bloody violence; 1:40; $ $ $ out of $5

A couple of great personas aside, including "twins" nicknamed Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), the promisingly titled "Bullet Train" keeps getting slowed down by both flashbacks to exceptional violence and painstakingly cutesy phone banter between its big-name players (Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock). In sleek, Tokyo-to-Kyoto-bound compartments filled with assassins, you'll also find some equally intrusive star cameos, what might be a big inflatable kitty, Bad Bunny, one frighteningly poisonous snake, and Japan's legendary Hiroyuki Sanada, fittingly portraying the only character on board with any real sense of honor. Ride with it long enough and you might discover a legitimate headache, too.

Rated "R" by MPAA: bloody violence, pervasive language, brief sexuality; 2:06; $ $ out of $5

Last, truly least, and with its large heart constantly worn on a long sleeve in some outrageous places, "Easter Sunday" just might take the traditional holiday lamb cake as the most head-scratching wide release of 2022. I mean, stupid me figured that a film starring a funny guy like R-rated comic Jo Koy would offer valid and hilarious reasons for connecting his first major foray onto the big screen with a springtime Resurrection feast and still release it on Aug. 5. Alas, it does not. Instead, a few tame, lame and obviously forced Koy stand-up bits, along with a cameo by Tiffany Haddish, as a kooky cop, play remarkably wrong-headed, too. The main story -- surrounded by more sinister silliness than you can throw a package of Peeps at -- really does simply focus on escapades linked to an Easter Sunday dinner at the home of Jo's mother, one of two constantly bickering matriarchs (Lydia Gaston and Tia Carrere) in a large, mostly Filipino-American family. Better smile with it when you get a chance, 'cause any real laughs come few and extremely far between.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: strong language and suggestive references; 1:36; $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Novak brings 'Vengeance' to big screen, but is it best served so cold?

B. J. Novak, the fictitious on-screen schmuck and real backstage honcho from NBC's ever-popular "The Office," delivers some fine moments with "Vengeance," which has the obviously versatile performer starring in and first-time writing/directing a movie feature.

The recent Tribeca Film Festival hit spotlights Novak as an alleged East Coast intellectual who has contributed to the esteemed New Yorker and yet never has heard of Abilene, Texas. 

We learn that tidbit early when Novak's Ben Manolowitz literally gets called upon by the grieving family of a dead, Lone Star State girl to attend her funeral. And guess what?

Her name is Abilene -- even if Ben knew her only as Abby and very briefly at that -- AND her resting place comes near the family home, which is situated "about a three-hour drive" from the city of Abilene itself. (Much later we also find out that the unnamed town is about 2 1/2 hours away from the closest Uber ride, by then just about ending a series of jabs poking fun at the size of Texas, among other occasionally humorous and politically aimed swipes.)

Honestly, "Vengeance" mostly scores as a murder mystery, since our obvious writer-fish out of water not only reluctantly shows up and is asked to speak at the funeral, but starts acting like a detective (disguised as a podcast producer) when Abby's colorful kin convince him that their sweet, All-American girl (Lio Tipton) might have been the unfortunate victim of very foul play.

Ashton Kutcher and Emmy-winning "Insecure" star Issa Rae are the biggest name contributors to a large, mostly and (I guess) purposely unlikable cast. Only Abby's mom (the grand J. Smith-Cameron from HBO's vaunted "Succession") and the clan's put-upon little brother (Eli Bickel) get to display any real warmth in a dish of "Vengeance" that's served up precisely for such cold, modern times.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and brief violence; 1:47; $ $ $ out of $5

Also opening Friday in theaters: the animated DC League of Super Pets and the documentary Fire of Love. Meanwhile, Ron Howard's "Thirteen Lives" is slated for extremely limited theatrical release before streaming Aug. 5 only on Prime Video.

Friday, July 22, 2022

There's enough to say yes to 'NOPE,' but tiny 'Marcel' might fill your hearts

So, d'ya think Jordan Peele made the 130-minute movie called "NOPE" simply to hear someone actually shout, "Run, OJ, run!"?

Yeah, probably not, but it becomes one of a few standout horror/humorous moments in an oddball assortment of images, scenes and, just maybe, messages in another creative Peele effort that will make you both laugh out loud and squirm in your seats.

Best of all is the apparent Hollywood urban legend about a monkey going berserk during a sitcom performance, included because one of the film's pivotal characters is rather intimately involved. That bizarre episode earns screen time more than once, not to mention a hilarious discussion that recalls some classic, late-'90s "SNL" sketches featuring athletic comic Chris Kattan.

Writer/director Peele's main story, though, occasionally thrills with UFOs -- or at least what might be described as one huge white Stetson -- darting through enough beautiful California sky to keep scared steeds and cowboys focused on it before the whole shebang kinda runs out of power during a less-than-spectacular final half-hour. 

Oscar-winner and Peele favorite Daniel Kaluuya quietly and firmly stars in heading a quality cast as a horse wrangler/trainer trying to keep the family entertainment business alive after the early and neatly choreographed death of his renowned father (Keith David). 

His younger sister (Keke Palmer), who can light up the Hollywood BS meter with the best of them, a neighbor (Steven Yeun from "Minari") with a surprising flair for the Old West, and a wily old cinematographer (Michael Wincott), hired to shoot whatever it is up there, all contribute pieces that can help encourage positive feelings for the whole "NOPE" experience. Uh-huh.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout and some violence/bloody images; 2:10; $ $ $ out of $5

There's really little to do with "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," except embrace and adore this former YouTube short sensation-turned sweet little feature.

Whether filmmakers geared their project toward the Covid pandemic or not, the lonely adventures of the tiny mollusk sure seem that way in a creatively wholesome tale filled with sentiment, kindness, ever-surprising humor and family connections.

The latter element takes center stage since Marcel (exceptionally voiced by co-creator Jenny Slate) and his aging grandmother (a fab Isabella Rossellini) have been living alone ever since a mishap, the kind that only can happen to someone -- or something -- so small, separated them from the rest of the clan. (We're gently told it usually takes 20 shells to make a community.)

Most of the give and take unfolds in popular mockumentary form (think TV's "The Office" or "What We Do in The Shadows"), only with writer/director and co-creator Dean Fleischer-Camp doing the live-action interviewing of the animated subject (in stop-action) who spouts info such as, "I like myself and have a lot of other good qualities as well."

There might be some personal allusion, too, to the relationship between Fleischer-Camp and Slate, who married after making Marcel a literary and Internet star. They have since divorced. 

("Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" finally walks into a few northeast Ohio theaters today after testing the waters in some other cities for the last month or so.)

Rated "PG" by MPAA: some suggestive material and thematic elements; 1:28; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, July 15, 2022

'Mrs. Harris' shows off her spunk; 'The Gray Man' finds color with action

Lesley Manville is the main reason to see "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," a really feel-good story that has been around for 65 years.

Naturally, the grand lady of stage, screen and (predominantly) British TV, plays the title dynamo, most likely as author Paul Gallico originally conceived her in the first of four "Mrs. 'Arris" books about the ever-traveling cleaning woman.

Here, of course, the widow Harris charmingly enters the City of Lights to buy a Dior dress similar to one she spots at the residence of the chintziest of her rich, London-based bosses. That discovery, along with the recent sad news that her long-lost soldier husband finally and officially has been declared dead in WWII, are enough to get going with her '50s-era, working-class life. 

Manville, Oscar-nominated for a key, upscale role in 2017's "Phantom Thread," her last foray into the world of high fashion, breezily bumps heads with a haughty "dress-shop girl" (Isabelle Huppert), but hits it off easily with a host of new and connected acquaintances at Dior's modern and equally fresh French headquarters. Count a lovely if mysterious model (Alba Baptista)) and the smitten Marquis (Lambert Wilson) among them, while a streetsmart dog-track clerk (Jason Isaacs) and BFF (Ellen Thomas) offer plenty of support from back home.

By the way, the busy and always awards-worthy Manville next can be seen as Princess Margaret when the Emmy-hogging series, "The Crown," returns in November for a fifth regal season on Netflix.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: suggestive material, language, and smoking; 1:55; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Speaking of what's ahead on the streaming service, a strong cast and credible ending almost makes up for the screenwriting sins in "The Gray Man," a wall-to-wall actioner with, perhaps, some franchise possibilities. 

Cleveland's favorite movie sons, Anthony and Joe Russo, return to the directing helm, with the latter also appearing in a late cameo and sharing a co-writing credit opposite Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (the same pair of scripters as on the Russos' trio of Marvel-ous box-office beauties, "Captain America: Civil War," "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame").

Despite its title, "Gray" opens colorfully with some plain talk between a prisoner and a visiting operative with a get-out-of-jail-free card for becoming a CIA-inspired assassin. Since the quickly likable conversationalists are portrayed by ever-watchable performers Ryan Gosling and Billy Bob Thornton, respectively, you know you'll be in for a fast ride even before some stylish credits and the litany of good actors to follow.

Most notable certainly will be the eye-catching Ana de Armas, introduced during a very early kill that goes bad but still very much in ass-kicking mode from the last James Bond movie, AND a later-on-the-scene Chris Evans, as a bad guy who would embarrass and truly piss off the aforementioned Capt. America in oh-so-many ways.

Toss in trustworthy young players such as Jessica Henwick ("The Matrix Revolutions"), Rege-Jean Page ("Bridgerton"), Indian-film superstar Dhanush and the memorably scene-stealing Wagner Moura (Apple's "Shining Girls"), and viewers might look past the plot holes you can drive the proverbial truck or motorcycle or train or even a plane through. You get the idea, and maybe an international geography lesson, too. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: intense sequences of strong violence and strong language; 2:09; $ $ $ out of $5. 

("The Gray Man" opens in select theaters today and debuts July 22 on Netflix. Also new in theaters: "Where the Crawdads Sing," "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank," "The Deer King" and "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down." Streaming debuts include "Persuasion" on Netflix.)

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Don't close sequel door on 'Thor'; it's simply that we expected a bit more

With "Thor: Love and Thunder" marching over the horizon and into movie theaters on Friday, the latest from director, co-writer, narrator and voice of sidekick "Korg" Taika Waititi brings expectations far beyond the imagination of mortal men.

After all, the guy is legitimately creative -- as proven when he helmed "Thor: Ragnarok," perhaps the funniest Marvel sequel of all time -- among his other huge influences on such big- and small-screen projects as "What We Do in the Shadows," "Jojo Rabbit," "Flight of the Conchords," "Reservation Dogs" and a few more in the streaming realm. 

Even in the hands of this Oscar, BAFTA and Grammy winner, though, the new "Thor" becomes a real mixed bag of shuffling genres and just maybe a bit too much Waititi wackiness where a little more sensibility probably should reside.

Of course, "Love and Thunder" never really gets dull, either, starting with the superb Christian Bale going all Shakespearean on us as a desperate father-turned "butcher of the gods," quickly followed by a fat and sassy Thor (the body-shifting Chris Hemsworth), introduced as still working with the whole "Guardians of the Galaxy" gang to defeat apparent bad guys, with the ones here going down on some distant "Mad Max"-like planet. 

Wait, a real load remains to be absorbed, including the returning Tessa Thompson's "King Valkyrie" becoming mayor in a New Asgard community that plays more like Bizarro World, not to mention Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, now not only fighting cancer but actually beside her big lug of a boyfriend as well. Then, perhaps seriously getting back to fat and sassy, Russell Crowe debuts as Zeus in a wild "Golden Temple" routine that has him defiantly refusing Thor's godly pleas for help.

The best dark moments in Waititi's quick-moving adventure collection finally arrive later, during an eerie black-and-white sequence that brings Hemsworth's "Space Viking" into a kind of barren, yet mind-bending Twilight Zone. If only all of it landed so neatly.

Rated "PG-13": sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material and partial nudity; 1:59; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, July 1, 2022

Here's to more 'Minions,' less Gru; 'Nolan' is a hit; small 'Stalker' still rattles

The best thing about "Minions: The Rise of Gru" just might be an 87-minute running time that still leaves what mostly plays like an overblown TV cartoon seem a lot longer than it should be.

As a matter of fact, "The Rise" begins with a 10-minute car chase of villainous creatures you might see on the Saturday morning small screen and, yet, does not feature any of the title characters. What it does do is set up this prequel story, if not perhaps appeal to a few starstruck adults in the crowd impressed by the latest, ahem, vocal artists playing bad guys and gals. 

Nicknames such as Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean Clawed (Jean Claude Van Damme), the religiously robed Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolphe Lundgren) and Stronghold (Danny Trejo) take advantage of the '70s-era look and feel that also gives rise to jokes and sight gags with an occasionally welcome assortment of golden oldies. (The Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love" becomes a real reel highlight.)

It's all the early villainy afoot, though, that has franchise bad boy and increasingly obnoxious Gru (now almost 12 and still voiced by Steve Carell) eager to join the "Vicious Six," so the mean wittle kid attempts just that. As is their happily accepted plight, his game and tiny yellow henchman engagingly try to help, too, with all their vocal spontaneity provided by the only legitimate vocal star in the house. That remains to be the gifted Pierre Coffin, a French animator who has nicely learned how to squeak, giggle and talk gibberish with the best of them. 

Among other lenghthy segments, a few Minions get some martial arts pointers from a Kung-Fu master (Michelle Yeoh), and another rides cross-country on a Big Wheel to pursue a tough-looking cyclist (rapper RZA). Certainly the charming title characters remain cuter than the average bear, but their latest pushy adventure remains a movie that only small fry up through the grammar school set might really enjoy. 

Rated "PG" by MPAA: some action/violence and rude humor; 1:27; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

(Naturally, "Minions: The Rise of Gru" is playing at just about every theater everywhere on this long holiday weekend.)

Next up is a fine baseball documentary "Facing Nolan," which should attract quite a few enthusiasts for America's favorite pastime (that is, if there are any of us truly left).

I mean, big righthander Nolan Ryan, who holds an astonishing 51 MLB records, probably is the best pitcher never to win a Cy Young Award, which is given anually to the top hurlers in the American and National League. Despite performing in both leagues, with four teams, for a combined 27 years, throwing seven no-hitters and likely striking out just about every batter he faced more than once, the "Cy" slight also might be called astonishing

Then again, the apparently unperturbed Ryan only preferred to prove himself on the field, perhaps especially since -- as a pitcher who might have been baseball's original "Wild Thing" -- his early goal was to play in the "Bigs" for four years, simply long enough to earn a pension. Besides, as the thoroughly assembled doc from director Bradley Jackson suggests, the real competitor in the family might be Nolan's wife Ruth, who first saw him in the fourth grade and "in those days always wished" she could play organized baseball, too.

The faith-inspired couple has held firmly together ever since their first date in 1962. As fate might have directed, the film they watched included the line: "For every woman, there's just one man." (It was the otherwise forgettable "Rome Adventure," starring Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue.)

Ruth, their kids and even grandchildren speak freely among eons of family, friends and baseball-connected talking heads saying compelling things here about Ryan, his achievements and his current rancher doings in Texas. Former President George W. Bush and all-time MLB hit leader Pete Rose pop in and out mostly to bust chops but, among many other top players, fellow-Hall of Famer Randy Johnson calls Ryan, "Mythological."

The fact that big lefty Johnson sits second to Ryan in most strikeouts ever recorded -- and still trails him by almost 900 Ks -- itself speaks volumes and shows why actually "facing Ryan" and his way-over-100-mph fastball had grown men shaking in their spikes. You, on the other hand, may just be a little moved by a bit of it all.
Not rated by MPAA (with a couple of swear words that likely won't offend many); 1:43; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Facing Nolan" was shown recently at a special "Fathom" national event and is now making its rounds at a few select theaters.)

Finally this week, look around long enough and you're likely to find the simply named "Stalker," a nifty little potboiler with no official web site but still worthy of a quick look for its sizzle down the stretch.

Carrying tags like "Best Thriller Feature" from something called "Shriekfest" (in Los Angeles) and the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, the story -- perhaps not-so coincidentally -- concerns a nice-guy teacher named Andy (Vincent Van Horn), who actually moves to L.A. from Austin because of a troubling breakup.

We hear about the latter, after some nicely placed locator shots in the City of Angels, when our hero reveals all to a pretty if cautious potential pickup (Christine Ko) in a "dive bar" (one of a few telling terms viewers themselves might pick up during quick glimpses of Andy's cell phone).

Plotting heats up and ambiguities follow from there when the new couple calls for a "ryde"share and the driver (a cleverly creepy Michael Joplin) eagerly volunteers to show Andy around his new hometown. Both characters and viewers might even discover places they probably didn't expect to explore. 

Not rated by MPAA (but it contains just about all the "R"-rated stuff you'd likely see in a film called "Stalker"); 1:26; $ $ $ out of $5

("Stalker" is streaming now on Hulu and available to rent on other subscription services. Among newer films opening in theaters today are "The Forgiven," "Mr. Malcolm's List" and "Official Competition." Debuting but streaming only is "The Princess," also on Hulu.)

Friday, June 24, 2022

'Elvis' fully rocks; 'Phantom' swings for fun; 'Black Phone' rings for scares

Summer brings in a second straight weekend of fine films, with this current trio headed by "Elvis," a dazzling swirl of music, motion and emotion from director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann (of similarly flashy "Moulin Rouge" fame).

This strange brew of a biopic begins with a fever-dream kind of telling from an old and confused Colonel Tom Parker, the equally famous and infamous manager of rock 'n' roll "King" Elvis Presley. Parker (here in the form of an almost unrecognizable if beguiling Tom Hanks) looked odd, spoke in squeaky tones and yet somehow charmed his way into a wealth of riches as, perhaps, a Svengali-like con artist to a talented young man heavily influenced by family, spellbinding gospel rhythms and the sweet smells of success.

Luhrmann energetically puts all of it up on the big screen and then some by quickly touching the tentpole events in a pop-culture life that everyone knows and even including a few more that only Presley's most intimate circle could possibly recognize.  

And, through almost every minute of this lengthy, ever-rocking epic, you'll rarely pull your eyes away from Austin Butler, the 30-year-old actor who seriously becomes a star by embodying one of the brightest of all time. I mean, at the very end, you might wonder if it is the real Elvis leaving the building. Come to think of it, maybe it is.  

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: substance abuse, strong language, smoking, and suggestive material; 2:39; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Leave it to the Brits -- again -- to find an offbeat story and turn it into such a charmingly engaging film as "The Phantom of the Open," another '70s biopic, only this one involving someone you probably never heard of before.

The real name of this "Phantom" is Maurice Flitcroft, a career crane worker-turned late-in-life golfer, who amazingly gets himsef into a (British) Open qualifier to often hilarious results. (The key joke becomes Flitcroft's total ignorance about golf until he steps onto a course, and it's truly priceless.) 

Even finer, Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, himself the grand master of offbeat roles, portrays our otherwise smart and likable hero from tee to green with love, faith and humanity, while surrounded by a fabulous group of supporting -- and mostly supportive -- characters.

Ever-strong Sally Hawkins ("The Shape of Water") leads the latter batch in delightful fashion as the lovely wife who, in one grand moment, has to be told "lower scores are better." Almost unbelievably, another level of levity comes with the presence of Flitcroft's twin sons, who were real-life disco-dance titleholders, as placed here in the hands (and feet) of actors Christian and Jonah Lees.

Credit director Craig Roberts ("Eternal Beauty") and screenwriter Simon Farnaby ("Paddington 2" and the upcoming "Pinocchio"), too, for making it all happen in such a championship way.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some strong language and smoking; 1:46; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Another real relic from the past, "The Black Phone," uses balloons, baseball and bullies to ring in an occasionally disturbing supernatural thriller with some good adolescent performances and the legitimately scary Ethan Hawke playing a very naughty (apparently his word, not mine) guy.

Actually, the phone gimmick gets a little old after a few chilling occasions, but siblings Finney (Mason Thames), all athletic and shy, and streetsmart kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), prayerful, profane and a little spooky in her own right, remain welcome throughout in leaning on each other simply to put up with their kinda weird and tipsy widower dad (the always just a bit off Jeremy Davies). 

The major plot point, of course, involves Hawke's personification of evil and, if you really need more details about that before watching this latest little Blumhouse grabber, please don't be afraid to read someone else's review.  

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence, bloody images, language, and some drug use; 1:42; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, June 17, 2022

'Cha Cha' really dances; 'Lightyear' nicely animates; gentle 'Leo' surprises

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" offers a title that comes from a gifted party-starter at bat and bar mitzvahs, of all things, but entertains with its sensitivity, warmth and a cast that never quits. Oh, yeah, it's often true-to-life funny, too.

Writer and director Cooper Raiff, 25, plays the recent college grad, always looking for a real job, with a chutzpah that likely accounts for his own precocious filmmaking skills. His non-Jewish Andrew can talk dirty in front of a rabbi, hit on a single mom (the terrific and lovely Dakota Johnson), protect her autistic daughter (legitimate scene-stealer Vanessa Burghardt) from bullies, and easily love and or hate his sweet young brother (Evan Assante), who's smitten with a classmate that only rarely converses with him.

Despite one overly precious kitchen scene he shares with a bipolar mom (the otherwise fine Leslie Mann), Raiff charges full speed into a dramedy that should make him a recognizable name for years to come. Already his "Cha Cha" has twirling onto the short list of best movies in 2022.

("Cha Cha Real Smooth" is playing in a few select theaters, including the Cedar Lee in northeast Ohio, and streaming on Apple+.)  

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and some sexual content; 1:47; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

"Lightyear," only in theaters, starts before the "Buzz" in the immensely popular "Toy Story" movies took off in 1995. In fact, an opening burst of script tells us this is the movie which human kid Andy saw, then caused him to buy the "Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger" action figure that came to life with Woody and the rest of the "Toy" gang way back at the end of the last century.

But, man, that's a full 27 years ago, and a nice message movie that attempts to make Andy's hero then into a team player and not show off the self-centered traits he has displayed in the franchise that created him causes a disconnect in time travel. Or somethin'.

Regardless, even without any real breath-taking adventure here, the as-usual, sparkling Pixar animation and a remarkable robotic cat named Sox become the key reasons to see it today. Believe me when I say it surely won't take nearly three decades to create a "Sox" film.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: for action/peril; 1:45; $ $ $ out of $5

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" features a pair of truly grand performances in a two-hander of four acts (and sorry if we're talking both theatrical and sexual connotations here).

That's because the ever-superb Emma Thompson, as a sixtysomething widow who never has been fulfilled during lovemaking, hires the 40-years-younger title character to turn the, uh, trick. Certainly charming and handsome leading man Daryl McCormack looks and acts more than capably enough to do it, and the script from first-time screenwriter Katy Brand sizzles with wit and an uncommonly consistent sense of where can we possibly go next?

Then, just when you think that director Sophie Hyde and her nifty adult production might be running off the tracks, a curve from a third character helps set the stage for a final, incredibly unexpected money shot that might knock more than your socks off.

What definitely can be expected now, though, are significant mainstream (acting) offers for McCormack and more water-cooler talk about the brave Ms. Thompson than she's ever heard before in a distinguished, 35-year career.

("Good Luck to You, Leo Grand" is streaming exclusively now on Hulu.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: sexual content, graphic nudity and some language; 1:47; $ $ $ $ out of $5