Thursday, January 26, 2023

Academy Award nominee Nighy puts some memorable life into 'Living'

What's not to like about "Living," a remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic "Ikuru" and featuring a just-this-week, Best Actor-nominated performance by the incomparable Bill Nighy?

The latter heads a mostly unrecognizable cast in a distinctly British production, written by 2017 Nobel Prize Winner and, now, Nighy's fellow Oscar nominee, Kazuo Ishiguro (for Best Adapted Screenplay), and directed by Oliver Hermanus (of some "Moffie" fame).

Nighy plays the early-on enigmatic "Mr. Williams," a fellow who heads a small group of impersonal bureaucrats in a big city government division that passes the buck with the best of them. He and his co-workers take the same train downtown each morning, but "Mr. Williams never rides with us," one of them tells London County Hall's newest hire, the friendly bloke (Alex Sharpe) whose inquisitive eyes give us the first glimpses and impressions into how the boss goes about his rather boring business.

Then, Mr. Williams has to leave work early one afternoon. Soon after, he starts missing full days as he deals with the life-changing news the widower finds difficult sharing with the less-than-engaging son and daughter-in-law who reside with him. 

The people he surprisingly does reveal his secret to and how he deals with, uh . . . well, living -- and moving forward -- help create the polished gist of a small, thoughtful gem deserving of a wide audience to embrace it.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some suggestive material and smoking; 1:42; $ $ $ $ out of $5 

Also opening in theaters: "Fear," "Infinity Pool," "Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist," and "Shotgun Wedding" (only on Prime Video).

Friday, January 20, 2023

'Women' finally talks to everyone, but 'Son' is not even close to 'Father'

It has been a full four months since Sarah Polley's "Women Talking" enjoyed the sensational awards buzz of a world premiere showing at September's 49th annual Telluride Film Festival (and then just a few days later at the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival).

Now, the actress-turned writer/director's fourth consecutive acclaimed movie behind the camera at last earns wider release today in theaters (including exclusively in northeast Ohio at Westlake's Regal Crocker Park). With Academy Award nominations to be announced Tuesday (Jan. 24), "Women" will expand even more next weekend after, as expected, Polley herself likely earns at least a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for a story based on a real incident, as detailed in the novel by Miriam Toews. (Polley actually won the same screenplay honor at the recent Critics' Choice Awards, while her potent "Talking" ensemble already owns a SAG Awards nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Movie.)

If somehow you haven't heard already, the primary players include names such as Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, and the dialogue-stealing Sheila McCarthy, among others, all trying to decide whether to escape from or stay in the patriarchal Mennonite community that mistreats them well beyond belief, including unspeakable abuses that spit in the face of their devout faith.

Since all the male offenders are away, the ultimate choice of these women comes with bits of rage, reasoned discussion, sadness, and a gripping fear that even hangs over viewers constantly wondering what might happen if and when the violent evildoers return. Thank goodness Polley holds firm enough rein to keep proceedings well under two hours. Much more and such tension would smother us.

Rated "PG-13": mature content, including sexual assault, bloody images, and some language; 1:44; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

"The Son" heard a little similar festival buzz when its own September introduction to the world took place overseas at the 79th annual Venice Film extravaganza.

Yes, the performance of Hugh Jackman, as the concerned dad of a troubled young man (Australian teen Zen McGrath), has received some good notices, but the film itself reeks of self-importance. And, honestly, perhaps it should since director/co-writer Florian Zeller has called it a prequel to "The Father," the infinitely more compelling 2019 feature that earned Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and Anthony Hopkins a Best Actor victory in the title role. 

Regardless, Hopkins, whose appearance here amounts to no more than a solid cameo, co-stars with Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby in a graceless family melodrama that mixes bushels of schmaltz with a minimum of common sense. Maybe it played better on the French stage from whence it came.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: mature thematic content involving suicide, strong language; 2:03; $ $ out of $5

Also opening today in theaters: Alone at Night, Missing, When You Finish Saving the World, and You People (which also streams on Netflix, beginning Jan. 27).

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Hanks and cast score with 'Otto'; possessive 'M3GAN' scares hard, too

No one will ever guess why Tom Hanks is buying rope in the funny, pre-title sequence of "A Man Called Otto" but, then again, the world's greatest "Everyman" actor has shown capable stretches of surprise in his long, distinguished and twice-Oscar-winning career.

Why, in 2022 alone, few might have expected him to visit the bizarre world of Colonel Tom Parker in the electric and year-end-contending "Elvis," or even that he would portray the truly elderly Geppetto in Robert Zemeckis' ill-fated "Pinocchio."

Here, Hanks becomes a seriously grumpy senior citizen in another '22 entry that actually opens wide Friday (despite what the poster at left claims), after playing a moment or two in a few theaters last month in order to qualify for its own awards run. 

Regardless, the early mentioned rope and the smartly sour disposition of Hanks' Otto Anderson have urgent reasons for existing in a screenplay by David Magee ("Life of Pi"), as based on a novel and 2015 Swedish film ("A Man Called Ove").

While the ever-professional Hanks gets to show both comic and grave reaches of range, director Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner" and many others) also leans on a nicely assembled supporting cast of pertinent players to help explain it all most agreeably, if a bit both relentless and formulaic. 

Note to Northeast Ohio readers: Among many in the rich ensemble, longtime politico-turned actor Peter Lawson Jones impresses with some worthy screen time as Otto's estranged old best friend.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: mature thematic material, and language; 2:06; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also debuting Friday in theaters everywhere, "M3GAN" easily might have turned into the kind of junky film Hollywood usually serves up in the first week of a new year. Surprise! It has some special moments!

That means it is one hoot of a scarefest at times. Hey, even before a preview screening actually began just last evening, the audience started popping when a still, promo photo of the robotic doll started moving its head and lips -- initially with a few words, then adding some serious commands, mostly about not texting or talking during "my movie."

"You need to learn some manners! I demand your full attention," M3GAN's otherwise motionless visage spit out from the screen just before the feature started. "I promise it's going to be a killer time."

Though the movie then unreeled with a comical, rather juvenile, and less-than-compelling advertisement for a kids-companion toy called, "PurrPetual Petz," it serves a purpose in setting the stage for a plot that rarely takes itself too seriously. Allison Williams ("Get Out" and HBO's "Girls") and comic Ronnie Chieng ("The Daily Show with Trevor Noah") attempt to co-star with their creepily entertaining lead.  

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: violent content and terror, some strong language, and a suggestive reference; 1:42; $ $ $ out of $5

Other films opening Jan. 6 and already reviewed: "Corsage" (exclusively at the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights) and "The Pale Blue Eye" (on Netflix). Also currently playing: "The Old Way" (at some Atlas Cinemas before going "On Demand" Jan 13).

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Christmas 6-pack: 'Babylon,' 'Corsage,' 'Eye,' 'Boots,' 'Whale,' 'Whitney'

"Babylon" ($ $ $ out of $5): The first 60 minutes of wunderkind director Damien Chazelle's latest three-hour razzle-dazzle is a frenetic masterpiece of lust and probably everything anyone thinks they know about what goes on in Hollywood, even now. The last act ain't too shabby, either, nor are Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo ("Fences") and dashing newcomer Diego Calva, as the four main Silent-Era players not so easily dealing with the advent of talking movies. See it if you dare now at theaters everywhere! (Rated "R") 

"Corsage" ($ $ $ $): Speaking of naughtiness, Vicky Krieps ("Phantom Thread") gives a period-piece performance to behold as the Empress of Austria (in 1878). She's a regal woman turning 40, obsessed with keeping her figure wrapped more tightly than her own smartly irreverent actions. Writer/director Maria Kreutzer obviously toys with historical accuracy in return for some fun during the oh-so serious-minded reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. The ladies' work unspools today in select theaters and (at the Cedar Lee in northeast Ohio) Jan. 6. (Rated "R.") 

"The Pale Blue Eye" ($ $ $ and 1/2): An exceedingly more macabre 19th century story finds Christian Bale portraying a detective and grieving widower hired by haughty military academy officials at West Point to investigate an on-campus hanging that turns shockingly brutal with the details. Cadets appear to be involved on all ends, and one of them, a captivating young soul named Edgar Allan Poe, steals the picture as poetically played by Harry Melling (of previous "Harry Potter" fame). The darkly distinctive thriller will continue its reach into a few theaters until it lands for good Jan. 6 on Netflix. (Rated "R.")

"Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" ($ $ $ and 1/2): Energetic animation and famous voices galore literally offer new life to the swashbuckling title cat during this long-awaited sequel. I mean, it is a full 11 years since Antonio Banderas smoothly gave rich, valiant timber and big-screen adventure to "Puss," who remains "your favorite fearless hero." Or so he immodestly claims -- and sings! Now he proudly prowls anew with the returning Salma Hayek (Kitty Softpaws) and impressive new castmates Florence Pugh (Goldilocks), Olivia Colman (Mama Bear), Ray Winstone (Papa Bear), and John Mulaney ("Big," not little, Jack Horner), among some cool and funny others. The plot's a hoot to boot, including an ending that gives hope to Puss and pals reuniting with the "Shrek" franchise that started it all. (Rated "PG" and in theaters.)

"The Whale" ($ $ $ and 1/2): The year's biggest performance certainly comes with a remarkably moving Brendan Fraser, as a reclusive, 600-pound English professor named Charlie. The tearjerker from director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan," "Pi") also includes top-rate supporting turns from the massive patient's tough-love nurse (Hong Chau, most recently in "The Menu"), an estranged daughter (Sadie Sink from "Stranger Things"), and just one fabulous-enough scene with Samantha Morton, chewing up the film's meager interiors, as the ex-wife Charlie left for a male student. None of it is particularly easy to watch, but the gentle humanity in Fraser's demeanor will stay with you a while. (Rated "R" in theaters only.)

"Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody" ($ $ and 1/2): The tragically late, enormously great chanteuse's vocal stylings become the reason to see this so-so biopic, especially since two documentaries about her crowded life and drug-related death in 2011 probably rehashed more than her most devoted fans wanted to know, anyway. Regardless, it's all here -- again -- from Houston's awe-inspiring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV to her "Love" medley at the 1994 American Music Awards, which this film uses to bookend itself. In between, too, for good or bad, better or worse, Robin Crawford (the scene stealing Nafessa Williams of CW's "Black Lightning") or Bobby Brown (Ashton Hudson from "Moonlight"), all earn lavish screen time right up to the unhappy end. Unfortunately, where this "Dance" stumbles most, though, comes with the college-try approach of Brit Naomi Ackie, who simply never provides the kind of pop that "Pop Princess" Houston herself almost always delivered. (Rated "PG-13" and in theaters just about everywhere.)

Friday, December 16, 2022

No surprise that new 'Avatar' is one to behold as holiday releases appear

Holiday movies begin to open wide today, and the biggest of them all could become "Avatar: The Way of Water," the 13-years-in-the-making sequel from Oscar-winning director/co-writer James Cameron and his committed technical cast of thousands.

Certainly, all their demanding work looks marvelous in the most astonishing 3D ever (especially during early moments and some thrilling closing sequences) and various other well-publicized, extra special effects. (Those include WETA-inspired faces and sensational underwater, performance-capture techniques, which even find room for a few nods to Cameron's all-time fan favorite, "Titanic.")

Of course, if film wasn't still such an all-encompassing visual medium, the director's partners in screenwriting, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (themselves a team best known for "Jurassic World" and this century's trio of "Planet of the Apes" sequels), might have had some trouble putting together a story that fills more than three hours for ever-restless audiences. 

As it is, returning lead characters portrayed by Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, don't find much penetrating dialogue to deliver, but they do have four kids, including one that sounds a lot like Sigourney Weaver. Listen to any or all of them if you'd like, but wide eyes become the only tools anyone really needs to enjoy the epic entertainment offered here. 

Rated "PG-13 by MPAA: sequences of strong violence and intense action; partial nudity and some strong language; 3:12; $ $ $ $ out of $5

("Avatar: The Way of Water" starts today on reportedly more than 3,000 screens nationwide.)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Guillermo del Toro delivers 'Pinocchio'; Will Smith works 'Emancipation'

So, honestly, does anyone really think we need another story about a wooden child who rebounds from naughtiness to turn into a real boy? 

Well, by adding a new twist here or there, the reliable filmmaker sharing his name with the familiar title character on "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" obviously figured he should and could. Now, after a few short weeks in a select group of theaters, his exceptional result premieres Friday for the rest of the world to see on Netflix.

The classic Carlo Collodi children's tale made more famous by Walt Disney and his long-lasting, 1940 animated fantasy, this time features a stop-motion stick kid (neatly voiced by young Brit Gregory Mann) that sings rather haltingly, dances a bit and, without giving much away, again eventually steals the heart of his good-natured ol' man.

Believe it or not, though, all of it occurs after the latter -- still a world-class woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) -- creates Pinocchio during a drunken stupor 
instigated by a personal tragedy and the resulting dark years of pain.

Among voices of renown in the gorgeously made wonderland, there's Ewan McGregor (as brilliant, squishy cricket/narrator), Christoph Waltz (evil impresario Count Volpe), Cate Blanchett (providing appropriate noises as Volpe's put-upon monkey), and Tilda Swinton (in the dual role of Death and a gentle version of Life).

Naturally, del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale smartly pack their adventure with emotional family messages and a few more of a decidedly political nature. Truth be told, in fact, their latest "Pinocchio" just might be 2022's best animated film. Why would I lie?

Rated "PG" by MPAA: dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor, and brief smoking; 1:57; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Also streaming anew Friday (on AppleTV+) after a brief theatrical run is "Emancipation," a movie certainly to be endured and not easily enjoyed by anyone with a heart and soul.

The inhumane images become startlingly real in the hands of director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose pristine black-and-white actually speaks volumes when his big-screen canvas displays even a little red.

One particularly sad scene screams out the color when a little girl's dress shows it off while saying Grace with her obviously Christian family, just moments before she jumps up to point toward their well-appointed plantation fields and starts shouting "Runner! Runner!" Of course, she's attempting to draw the attention of slave chasers, who have been after God-worshipping, family-man Peter (played by a convincingly relentless Will Smith) for days since his escape from a brutally maintained Confederate work camp.

A little later, "the biggest man hunter around" (the ever-intense Ben Foster) tells his own bloodcurdling story about how he, as a young boy himself, learned how to become the hateful, racist killer that Foster's performance now makes him proud to be. 

Such disquieting segments stand out in this savagely vicious and glorified action film, set and disguised as the truth-based telling of events during the closing chapters of our country's most shameful and sinful disregard for life. 

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong racial violence, disturbing images, and language; 2:13; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

New in theaters Friday: "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed," "Christmas, Bloody Christmas," "Loudmouth," and "Spoiler Alert." Streaming newbies include "Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again (Disney+)" and "Something from Tiffany's" (Amazon Prime).

Friday, December 2, 2022

Ohio-based 'Noise' and Marine base 'Inspection' join late-year film rush

Once again searching for universal truths that rarely come easy on the big screen, director/writer Noah Baumbach turns "White Noise" into an odd assortment of family issues, occasionally rollicking professorial discussions, and perhaps simply one huge, 136-minute fever dream.

The best news, though, is that the film looks terrific in a wide array of northeast Ohio settings, from Akron and Cleveland Heights to Peninsula and Wellington, with some nice location shots showing up in between. (You certainly can't miss downtown Cleveland's venerable Terminal Tower, either, when the climax takes such a rambling story into a seedy motel built especially for the film under the Innerbelt Bridge.)

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig star as Jack and Babbette Gladney, each now in their fourth marriage and heading a family with four kids, including three from previous couplings. He's a recognized expert in Hitler Studies at "College on the Hill," and she's a "magnificently coiffed" homemaker, who might be on drugs. Oh, and, uh, both have these constantly uneasy feelings about death.

Of course, that truck-and-train-crash induced "Toxic Airborne Event" hovering in the skies above (any small town in America from the much-discussed -- and award-winning -- 1985 novel by Don DeLillo) might have a little something to do with the latter. See it to buy into it. Or not.

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence and profanity; 2:16; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("White Noise," the Opening-Nighter at this summer's Venice International Film Festival, debuts today in a few select theaters -- including the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights -- before landing Dec. 30 on Netflix.)

"The Inspection" mostly tells a true story that turns into a smart and thoughtful first film from uniquely named writer/director Elegance Bratton. That's because it seriously is a tale about Bratton himself, and how his tough, religious, prison-guard mom threw her 16-year-old son out into the mean streets of Trenton, N.J., because she could not accept that he was gay.

Scenes between mom (the never-better Gabrielle Union) and child (the fabulous Jeremy Pope), both before and after the young man joins the Marines to prove and maybe improve himself, become as profound as they are heartbreaking.

The often hard-to-embrace training segments, though, provide the meat and potatoes of a recruit's struggles to not only deal with severe homophobia in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, but also the bootcamp indignities of a military mindset attempting to break a man in order to build a man. In fact, a hard-nosed drill sergeant (the ever-worthy Bokeem Woodbine) introduces himself with: "I will become the nightmare that makes you afraid to close your eyes."

Through it all, the twice Tony-nominated Pope delivers one of the year's most potent performances, while Bratton, who eventually created instructional movies for the Marines, becomes a filmmaker to watch. Oorah!

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and violence; 1:35; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Inspection," another world premiere movie from the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, opens today in theaters and exclusively in northeast Ohio at the Cinemark Valley View.)

Also debuting today in theaters: "Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams" and "Violent Night"; Streaming: "Darby and the Dead" (Hulu) and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (Netflix),

Thursday, November 24, 2022

A full bounty of movies for a big, busy and blessed Thanksgiving holiday

Get a taste of a huge holiday movie banquet with a few thoughts and ratings below, today even including some tempting leftovers from last weekend. (Thank goodness, too, we could watch six of these films when they premiered during September's crowded, 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival.)

"She Said" ($ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5): A year ago, German director Maria Schneider had some fun with romance in a clever A.I. comedy ("I'm Your Man"). Now, there's nothing funny about her follow-up about the real newspaper folks (seriously played by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson and more), In fact, their dedication in helping to send movie mogul and conceivable monster Harvey Weinstein to prison not only becomes a brilliant case study of how investigative journalism is supposed to work, but a tribute to his countless victims as well. Two of them, as so grandly portrayed by Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle, further enhance the remarkable ensemble involved. (Rated "R," in theaters everywhere)

"The Wonder" ($ $ $ $): Director Sebastian Leilio ("A Fantastic Woman") lets the voice of his well-chosen star (Florence Pugh) ask us to "believe in this story" to begin a hypnotic journey into 1862 Ireland. Methinks you will, with Pugh thoroughly convincing as an English nurse paid to watch -- not treat -- a young girl (Kila Lord Cassidy) showing nary a sign of starvation, despite not having eaten for at least four months. Is she a "wee faker," as doubters and agnostics suggest, or the "miracle child" that devout Catholics in her spare village believe she is? Screenwriter Alice Birch, who brought Pugh to films in "Lady Macbeth," co-pens with Leilio, as based on a book by Emma Donoghue of psychologically moving "Room" fame. (Rated "R," on Netflix now.)

"The Menu" ($ $ and 1/2): If you love watching difficult people dish and dine, then you might swallow the intriguing premise here. I did not, although a scary chef (Ralph Fiennes) catering only to the filthy rich leaves room for a lot of explaining to do about how he treats his regulars. Of course, they are a mostly unlikable mix anyway, even if their faces belong to Nicholas Hoult, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, and the good-to-see Judith Light. Back-of-the-house chores get properly stolen, though, by an assistant chef in the on-the-rise guise of Hong Chau, also soon to be seen in "The Whale." (Rated "R," in theaters everywhere)

"Spirited" ($ $ and 1/2): Firmly established song-and dance-men Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, both of whom seem to enjoy a genuine screen talent for pushing buttons that can turn them from obnoxious to agreeable and back again, get together to urge, "Hey, gang, let's put on a show!" Ok, ok, I'm jesting. Besides, even if nobody needs another twist on "A Christmas Carol," especially one with run-of-the-mill tunes and production numbers usually stopping the show in the wrong kind of way, the dynamic duo does produce -- and share -- a few humorous moments. The best ones, though, feature scenes with the always-giving Octavia Spencer and the amusing, ghostly presence of Sunita Mani. (Rated "PG-13," now on AppleTV+)

"Devotion" ($ $ $ and 1/2): Quickly overcoming a few clunky moments at the start, the stirring story of groundbreaking Black aviator Jesse Brown reaches for the stars, features enough emotional moments to dampen a few handkerchiefs, and stands tall behind the romance between the stoic Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his lovely wife (Christina Jackson). Both offer solidly credible turns and so does Glen Powell, as Brown's best friend before and during America's "forgotten" war in Korea. Whether true or not, a shore-leave encounter with actress Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swann) finds a way to interject some fun into an otherwise strong and serious telling. (Rated "PG-13," in theaters only)

"The Fabelmans" ($ $ $ and 1/2): Ever since winning its notable TIFF People's Choice Award, Steven Spielberg's latest and most personal film has been pegged as the one to beat for the 2022 Best Picture Oscar. Uh, not so fast my friends. This is simply an accomplished coming-of-age story, and so what if it borrows a few real moments from the life of a guy who became a legendary filmmaker? The youngster here is the film-obsessed "Sammy," nicely captured by a pair of kids both showing signs of actually growing up to look like Spielberg. The first (a long-named Mateo Zoryon Frances-Deford, honest) finds huge influences while watching "The Greatest Show on Earth," and the older one (Gabriel LaBelle) deals with family drama, mostly involving his spirited mother (an overtly showy Michelle Williams). Otherwise, Judd Hirsch almost runs away with it all during just 10 wonderful minutes as the fascinating Uncle Boris. (Rated "PG-13," only in theaters)

"The Swimmers" ($ $ $): The actual TIFF Opening-Nighter, written and directed by the festival's "Emerging Talent" winner Sally El Hosaini, is based on two sisters who ran away from war-torn Syria with dreams of becoming Olympic athletes. The real "swimmers" attended the world premiere of their story, as did the pair of acting newcomers (Manal and Nathalie Issa) giving them life on the big screen.  All four earned loud, long ovations from Toronto crowds, the same ones which for years have been called "the best movie audiences in the world." They might have been a bit kind to this one, though, especially after a superfluous ending truly pales in comparison to El Hosaini's powerful presentation of the girls' dangerous trek. (Rated "PG-13," streaming on Netflix)

"Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery" ($ $): I still can hear the positive chants and whistles from yet another sold-out TIFF audience, which so obviously enjoyed Rian Johnson's star-studded sequel at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, no less. Meanwhile, color me disappointed by the murderously convoluted plot points that had to be repeated to prove the tacky cleverness of things. Add the silly reminders of the Covid-19 pandemic too few of us actually managed to survive, and even an over-the-top Daniel Craig, back again as super sleuth Benoit Blanc, could not save my day. By the way, of all the players assembled for this latest and extremely long cat-and-mouse activity, it says here that Janelle Monae fares best. Regardless, what really killed me is that I hardly laughed at all. (Rated "PG-13," in theaters until Nov. 29, before it debuts for good Dec. 23 on Netflix)

"The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special": ($ $ $ $) A genuinely happy ending to this special day features the release of a terrific offering from writer/director James Gunn and his Marvel(ously) outrageous team of superheroes. I mean, absolutely all the goons and gals from my favorite MCU extension show up for an ever-funny attempt to figure out what this magical and distinctively Earthly thing called Christmas really is all about. A few also believe that their melancholy leader, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), could use some legitimate cheer, so why not bring him the special gift of the "heroic" Kevin Bacon? That means pairing mind mischief from Mantis (the sparkling Pam Klementieff) with the mighty humor of Drax (Dave Bautista) for one hoot of an intergalactic mission to kidnap the actor. Without giving away too much of this crowded, 45-minute treat, talented Bacon gets to sing, a new franchise reveal becomes a memorably charming moment, and a laugh with the trademark end-of-credits segment ties a big red bow around it all. Happy holidays indeed! (Rated "TV-14" and showing only on Disney+) 

Other new viewing possibilities: "Bones and All (only in theaters)," "Disenchanted (exclusively on Disney+)," "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" (in a few select theaters before its Dec. 9 Netflix debut), and "Strange World" (for now just in theaters).

Friday, November 11, 2022

'Wakanda' might play forever; 'Oppy' and fellow robot keep on ticking, too

At a tad more than 160 minutes, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" delivers much for diehard fans of the action-packed Marvel Universe and, of course, a few sleep-mode moments for the rest of us. Those latter ones arrive during lengthy water, water everywhere sequences, when the magical if powerful villain of the piece (portrayed by Indigenous-Mexican star Tenoch Huerta) shows off the world from whence he came by sporting wings on his ankles, of all things.

To these old eyes, though, the brilliance of the piece comes in how co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, back from 2018's epic (in every way imaginable) screen original, manages to fill in the somber blanks left by the sad absence of his legitimate bright light, Chadwick Boseman.

There are nice tributes galore to the young "Black Panther" actor, whose quiet and shocking death from cancer two years ago left Coogler to come up with special sequel plot possibilities -- from the lavish funeral for Boseman's King T'jalla dominating the first act to a sweetly touching segment during the end credits, virtually assuring how Wakanda seriously and truly just might live forever. 

That last moment shares time with a worthy closing ballad, "Lift Me Up," sung by Rihanna and already 2022's frontrunner for a Best Original Song Oscar.

Speaking of awards, don't be surprised if Angela Bassett, who kinda goes all Shakespearian on us as the dazzling Queen Ramonda, earns some acting mentions for her energetic work here. Meanwhile, even if lithe and lovely Letitia Wright doesn't yet project the heft of her motherly co-star, her own moments of both sadness and strength, as T'jalla's sister Shuri, certainly promise to serve the future of the franchise well.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sequences of strong violence, action and some language; 2:41; $ $ $ out of $5

("Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" is playing at theaters everywhere -- and then some.)

Angela Bassett, once again showing off more of her singular versatility, narrates another new movie today, "Good Night Oppy," an offering about rover robots on Mars that's scintillating enough to have been among the pacesetters for Sunday night's Critics Choice (Association) Documentary Awards. 

In fact, Bassett's vocal delivery earned her one of the film's six nominations, which include Best Feature and possible Best Director honors for Ryan White. (Find the complete list of CCA nominees (then victors) here. Winners will be announced during a New York ceremony, which will stream live on Facebook and Instagram.) 

If "Oppy" does drag home a big haul Sunday, it will be because of its warmth, spirit and seeming humanity, an odd combination for an inspiring bucket of bolts that roamed the Red Planet for 15 years after expectations "to live" just 90 days.  

That makes for often fascinating and unexpectedly touching stuff, even if some of the affection looks a bit long in the tooth by the time "Opportunity," the real name of the title gizmo, has paid its geological dues.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: some mild language; 1:45; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Good Night Oppy" is now in select theaters, including northeast Ohio's Cedar Lee, before its Nov. 23 streaming debut, exclusively on Prime Video.)

Friday, November 4, 2022

Exceptional 'Banshees,' 'Tanya' returns, and a little something 'Weird'

Even with one of the year's most tongue-twisting titles, "The Banshees of Inisherin" still easily becomes one of 2022's most bloody good films, too. Certainly the reasons are numerous, starting with writer/director Martin McDonagh, who never has made a bad movie in his life.

The darkly comic, Irish storytelller's "In Bruges" remains one of my all-time favorites, and his "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017) and "Seven Psychopaths"(2012) each made my personal Top 10 lists in their respective years. Right now, it looks as if "The Banshees" will be on one, as well.

In fact, another reason to see it arrives with those credible stars of the aforementioned "Bruges" returning here in ever-fine form. Colin Farrell (Pádraic) and Brendan Gleeson (Colm) this time portray longstanding besties on the island of Inisherin, which McDonagh gorgeously places just off Ireland's Civil War-torn coast. Trouble is, the boys just aren't getting along from the get-go, since Colm suddenly and inexplicably disses Pádraic's happy-go-lucky aimlessness, and the sadder, not wiser pal just refuses to understand.
 
On the go-between sideline are the latter's appealing, single sister (Kerry Condon) and maybe the isle's oddest inhabitant (King of Quirkiness Barry Keoghan), a rowdy young man with plenty of tragic troubles to call his own. All four in the movie's main acting quartet should be in line for awards-season mention, and a win or two would not be a surprise. They're all that watchable -- and eminently deserving.

Of course, Inisherin itself does not really exist, but McDonagh gives it some distinctive, 1920s character, anyway. The acceptance of farm animals living with families in cottage houses, hard-drinking residents mostly taking long, scenic walks to wherever they want to go, and a general hard-to-shake vibe of discovering a place you'd love to examine yourself might certainly encourage a visit.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout, some violent content, and brief graphic nudity; 1:54; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Banshees of Inisherin" opens today in theaters just about everywhere.)

"The Return of Tanya Tucker (Featuring Brandi Carlile)" comes four years in the making and 17 more before that, when the former country sensation gave up a career upon the death of her parents and, just maybe, during some very hard livin' herself.

Besides, her tough-as-nails Dad directed Tanya's career from Day One at age 13. "So, I didn't have a manager," Tucker tells new friend and comeback partner Brandi Carlile in one of the many privately engaging onscreen conversations for all of us to hear.

If you don't know, Carlile herself is one of the current singing/writing stars of the country-music scene, already owning 19 Grammy Award nominations and six wins in the past seven years alone, including a few as a major crossover artist. Oh, yeah, she also looked for a way to get the career of  the Tequila-lovin' Tucker, a major influence on Brandi growing up, goin' mightily again. 

One of the results becomes this bliss-and-vinegar documentary (from "Indigo Girls" director Kathlyn Horan), which chronicles a Carlile-produced album, tour and some surprising details on the way to a unique rebound story that still might have a few more chapters to tell.

Rated "R" by MPAA: for language; 1:48; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Return of Tanya Tucker -- Featuring Brandi Carlile" is singin' and playin' in theaters right now.)

The "Tanya Tucker" doc world-premiered at September's 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, and "Banshees" made its North American debut there, but "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" is the only member of this week's TIFF trio of new releases to have walked away with a coveted "People's Choice Award." 

That came in the festival's lively, wacky and always-lotsa-fun "Midnight Madness" program, which offered the universe's first complete look at "Weird" on Opening Night, when it also was rewarded with thunderous applause from a packed house. (A second, daytime festival screening sold-out as well.)

No concidence, naturally, but co-writer Yankovic himself (with director Eric Appel) made his mock-bio aptly wacky and fun, too, especially in a first 45 minutes that's downright rollicking. I mean, a terrific Daniel Radcliffe somehow magically turns into the title player, particularly during a monumental celebrity pool party, where he meets the likes of Wolfman Jack (Jack Black), Pee-Wee Herman (Jorma Toccone), Alice Cooper (Akiva Schaffer), and Andy Warhol (Conan O'Brien) to name only a hilarious few. 

Alas, the rest turns lame quickly, especially once Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) gets her fingers into our hero, reaching for a career jolt of her own from the accordion-playing Al's famously infamous song parodies. Not so interesting -- and stupid.

Not rated by MPAA: (but filled with typically naughty things); 1:48; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

(You can watch "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" now, streaming exclusively as the Roku Channel's first major movie release.)

Also debuting in northeast Ohio theaters today: "Armageddon Time" (see mini-review at left), "The Estate," "On the Line," and "One Piece Film Red." Streaming only: Still another TIFF world premiere, "Causeway," and "Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me" (both on AppleTV+), and "Enola Holmes 2" (Netflix).

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Dance on screen with 'Everybody' and 'Me,' just not on 'Retaliators' toes

One of 2022's most underseen documentaries, "Everybody Dance" undoubtedly must be among the year's most uplifting ones, too. 

This small-budget gem from first-time director Dan Watt highlights a brief -- and invaluably moving -- story of an equally tiny studio/school smartly called "Ballet for All Kids," as founded by a remarkable woman, who gets volunteer help from a group of secondary and college students all deserving of medals or more, too. 

Many of their dancers, you see, are special needs kids, whose own lives keep getting enriched and, perhaps, a little bit nicely frazzled, in preparing for the school's annual recital. So do some parents, whose words and faces reveal a wealth of emotions in watching their boy or girl earning his or her own unique moments under a spotlight on stage with similar dance mates. Talk about exhibiting legitimate pride, one young miss compares the moment to "like being in heaven"!

Leading up to the those deeply felt displays down the stretch, the heroic Barbara Schlachte tells us why she created her school, introduces us to this year's aspiring and uniquely inspiring talents, and discusses the well-documented benefits of teaching ballet.

"Learning a classical art supports a student in so many ways," she says. "It improves self-esteem, self-confidence, focus, motor skills. The list just goes on and on." 

So does the poignancy. Be sure to watch with a very large handkerchief ready.

Not rated by MPAA (but filled only with moments of joy and love); 1:25; $ $ $ $ out of $5

("Everybody Dance" debuted at the 47th annual Cleveland International Film Festival and is now available on VOD outlets everywhere.)

If you want to keep those feet moving, "Ask Me to Dance" just may be your ticket, not to mention a source for providing a bunch of loud and unexpected laughs.

Of course, who doesn't think that Mario Cantone is funny? I mean, the guy is always a riot, whether making a TV talk-show host fall on the floor or introducing his favorite horror movies on the TCM Network.

Cantone happily jumps in and out throughout, but also just happens to open the proceedings here on the dance floor, as a fun-loving matchmaker type, with his BFF Jill (lovely and likable Briana Evigan) somehow still single while the world around her keeps pairing up.

Well, wouldn't you know that someone named Jack (Tom Malloy) will within moments find himself up on that same floor in a souped-up dance contest, then leave quickly before meeting the potential Jill of his dreams -- at least for right now. (And wait'll you see the gypsy Jack and Jill each runs into on their way home.)

Actually, Malloy also writes, directs and co-produces the fun-loving feature that's never afraid to mix adult friskiness with the downright weird. Celebrities such as "Three's Company" legend Joyce DeWitt, as a shoot-from-the-lip Nana, and WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle, playing his smiling self, enter the fray out of nowhere and help get the mostly fast-moving rom-com to where everyone knows it's going.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: crude sexual material and language; 1:35; $ $ $ out of $5

("Ask Me to Dance" is finding its way into select theaters around the country before a Nov. 8 release on VOD.)

And now for something completely different: It's "The Retaliators," just about perfect for hardcore-Halloweeners and with a Christmas-time message of its own, no less.

Michael Lombardi (from TV's "Rescue Me") genuinely portrays a Christian pastor named Bishop and a single dad with two daughters. What happens to the oldest one, though, becomes too much for even the most "other-cheek"-oriented man among us, no matter what faith he practices or preaches.

Getting Bishop into real retaliation mode even might mean putting him in touch with a tough homicide detective played by Marc Menchaca. If you don't recognize the name, you might know him from two memorable roles: Russ Langmore in Netflix's "Ozark" or Klansman Joe on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Then look rather quickly or you'll miss cameos from Brian O'Halloran (from the "Clerks" movies, among others), the real Tommy Lee, and probably a few more rockers, whose music screams so loudly along the way.

In fact, Lee's Motley Crue bandmate, Nikki Sixx, is credited with co-writing the movie's spiritually heavy theme song. Some might even give a big Amen to that!

Not rated by MPAA (but brimming with blood and gore, violence, language and all the rest); 1:37; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Retaliators" is now available on VOD outlets everywhere.)

Friday, October 21, 2022

Some standard stuff: A couple TIFF premieres and a Clooney/Roberts romp

Poster boy Harry Styles set more than a few Canadian hearts aflutter early last month outside and inside the city's venerable Princess of Wales Theater, where the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of "My Policeman," featuring the rock star-turned actor's work as the title character.

A few hours after raucous Styles' fans stampeded down King Street for a glimpse at their idol, he, his director (Michael Grandage), a couple of co-stars (Emma Corrin and David Dawson), and their lovingly made movie received a standing ovation.

I definitely wouldn't go that far, but the kind fans at TIFF almost always do. Regardless, the book-based, '50s-era story of "forbidden" love and some fine performances, especially from Dawson and the heartbreaking Gina McKee (playing a decades-older version of the same gentle teacher initiated by Corrin), make it all easy to embrace.

By the way, TIFF gave one of its very special Tribute Awards to the soapy film's six-person, lead ensemble, which also includes British veterans Linus Roache and Rupert Everett.

Rated "R" by MPAA: for sexual content; 1:53; $ $ $ out of $5

("My Policeman" opens today in select theaters before streaming exclusively Nov. 4 on Prime Video.)

Young Styles had more than a little celebrity company of all ages earning cheers and whistles at a variety of TIFF venues and red carpets. In fact, fiftysomethings Ethan Hawke and Ewan McGregor were among many on hand, too, though perhaps enjoying more polite applause for another world premiere showing, "Raymond & Ray."

The plot in the dramedy from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia ("Nine Lives") finds our ever-swell duo easily becoming half-brothers and reluctantly reuniting for the funeral of their derelict ol' man.

Of course, their father is the guy responsible for giving them the same first names, just one of a few purposeful acts of cruelty they discuss when getting together again. None of it is really much fun, but their inevitable homecoming allows each to discover things about their sibling, themselves, and the not-so-dearly departed's last wish for both of them: He actually wants his boys to dig his grave. 

A couple of strong women (portrayed by Maribel Verdu and Sophie Okonedo) pop in often enough, as well, to energize the proceedings and let us and the kids know that maybe the man they called Harris really wasn't such a bad persom down the stretch after all. 

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and some sexual material; 1:46; $ $ $ out of $5

("Raymond & Ray" opens today in a few theaters, including the Cedar Lee in northeast Ohio, and streams only on AppleTV+.)

Maybe the latest from Hollywood superstars Julia Roberts and George Clooney, another big-screen coupling with tons of red-carpet experience, didn't make the final cut for TIFF this year, but their fifth film pairing in "Ticket to Paradise" once again finds them as a divorced twosome with a problematic past.

Honestly, though, it's really as pleasant of a rom-com partnership as it sounds, especially since good-looking Julia and George just might now hold the all-time record for number of combined smiles in a movie. Despite their over-the-top bickering early on, playing the parents of a smart and pretty daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) finding first-sight romance in beautiful Bali, of all places, obviously pays dividends (apparently even with a gorgeously appealing part of Australia standing in for paradise).

Uh, on the other hand, all-the-way-at-the-end-credits begin with some insufferable outtakes, whose presence alone usually signals a production team's lack of confidence in much of what precedes them. Screenwriting certainly is not always the sharpest here, and predictability surfaces almost immediately. Ah, just go to see the stars (only at your local cineplex), and you'll smile along, too.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some strong language and brief suggestive material; 1:45; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

(Also new in theaters now: "Black Adam," "Detective Knight: Rogue," and "Till." Streaming just on Netflix: "The School for Good and Evil.")