Thursday, August 22, 2019

'Ready or Not,' here comes an actress with which to reckon and probably very soon

Here comes Samara Weaving, ready or not.
Even if you've never heard of Samara Weaving, it might be best to remember her name. The niece of the notorious Hugo Weaving (from "Matrix" and many others) might be familiar from her ongoing turn as the girlfriend of the pivotal baby daddy in Showtime's infamously cancelled "SMILF."

Samara played a kind of voice of reason on the crazy comedy, that is, until the last few episodes gave her some room to explode. Now she's doing just that on the big screen, too, with a movie-carrying performance as the put-upon bride taking care of family business -- and herself -- in "Ready or Not."

By the time the sun shines through the day after Weaving's Grace (owning one helluva misnomer in this case) marries a rich guy (Mark O'Brien), she has chewed up and spit out just about every mean-spirited member of new hubby's excessively elite clan.

Certainly they deserve what they may or may not get, since some historical hocus-pocus dictates a kind of game night escapade whenever a potential new beneficiary enters their midst.

So, on her wedding night, Grace gets her official "welcome" after she somewhat merrily pulls the venerable Hide and Seek card from a likely fixed deck. After all, the family fortune came from the gaming business, and everything that might entail, including deal-making. Get it? Wink, wink.

On this lengthy but quick-moving evening, our heroine gets to know a mansion filled with closets, kids, various weapons of choice, servants, and one very smart dumb waiter. There's also the in-laws, headed by strange birds (Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell), the groom's drunken brother (Adam Brody), and their ferociously bloodthirsty aunt (longtime TV actress Nicky Guadagni).

None, though, are as watchable as the pretty, prancing, plotting, primal Weaving, who also helps deliver some of the dark humor she teams with to save this predictable, but engaging enough summer horror silliness.

Rated "R": violence, bloody images, language throughout and some drug use; 1:35; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, August 16, 2019

'Where'd You Go Bernadette?' Who cares? Besides, 'Mike Wallace Is Here'

Richard Linklater has been one of my surefire, go-to filmmakers for years now. In fact, I still think his "Boyhood" should have been the Best Picture Oscar-winner (over "Birdman" in 2014). Similarly, Cate Blanchett just may be might favorite working actress. That standing began after I watched her in, then interviewed her for "Elizabeth" more than two decades ago and predicted big things for the talented Aussie, who certainly didn't need someone such as I to tell her how successful she would become.

Blanchett and Nelson strut their somewhat strange mother/daughter stuff.
Anyway, the first collaboration between writer/director Linklater and Blanchett, as his leading lady, opens today. Unfortunately, their "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" lost me at hello.

As based on Maria Semple's best seller, which certainly must be less nonsensical than this adaptation, the film opens with Bernadette/Cate paddling a raft alone in icy waters somewhere very close to the South Pole.

Narration by the title character's daughter Bee (nicely played by newcomer Emma Nelson) accompanies that first of a few oddly shot, framed and edited scenes, but it's clear she's in her mother's corner no matter how Bernadette gets to the destination of her choosing.

Flash back to five weeks earlier and we learn that smart cookie Bee herself is yearning for a family vacation to Antarctica, of all places, before she will head off to boarding school. Her low-key dad (Billy Crudup in a rather off-putting turn), still a techie god who now works for Microsoft after it buys his own ultra-successful company, seems on board with the proposed trip. However, Bernadette, a somewhat wacky if brilliant wife who constantly dictates duties to a virtual helper in India, never seriously commits until . . .

Uh, why don't you just decide for yourself if it's worth buying into the series of outrageous events that leads to the title question and, most disappointingly, features Blanchett giving an effort that screams diva more than presenting a perfect piece of performance art.

Hey, maybe you'll love it. Then again, maybe you'll hit an iceberg walking out of the theater.

Rated "PG-13": strong language and drug material; 1:40; $ $ out of $5

Not surprisingly, considering what's written above," Mike Wallace Is Here" remains a much better choice at the movies this weekend. Now making its way around the country after collecting a best documentary nomination at last spring's 43rd annual Cleveland International Film Festival, this fast-moving bio piece is a jam-packed gem in the hands of director Avi Belkin.

Wallace's nightly CBS reports from Vietnam became must-see TV.
Surely everyone recognizes the Wallace name from his 40 years of uncovering scoops and delivering compelling interviews on TV's fabled "60 Minutes," but did you know he was an actor, pitchman, and self-confessed "bad father" as well?

Of course, some of his interview subjects included in this who's who of enormously famous names and faces might use a few different words to describe the late, great broadcast Hall of Famer. In fact, in a movie that pulls no punches about the man or his opinions, defrocked Fox News host Bill O'Reilly refers to Wallace as a dinosaur, Barbra Streisand calls him an SOB, and CBS News pal Morley Safer describes him with a term that suggests much worse than a jerk.

Certainly, a number of interview clips follow to prove Wallace's legendary prickliness, not only in sitdowns with other colleagues, but in some legendary exchanges with the likes of actress Bette Davis and fellow TV icon Larry King, among others.

A couple of moving moments included about Wallace's personal life offer a more human look at a man who lived to a ripe old 93, but rarely acted like more than a hell-raising machine asking only the tough questions.

Some jazzy rat-a-tat-tat music, credited to to John Piscitello, accompanies it all in a way that might even make Wallace smile, a rare occurrence indeed.

Rated "PG-13": thematic material, some violent images, language and smoking; 1:34; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening today are a trio of promising comedies whose press screenings I missed during a recent two-week getaway. "Good Boys" is an "R"-rated excursion by adolescents apparently discovery the joys and jitters of forbidden fruits. Then there's "Blinded by the Light," a "PG-13" lark featuring a Pakistani immigrant obsessed with the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Finally comes an animated sequel, "Angry Birds 2," which arrives with a "PG" rating that might keep some (very) small fry away. Regardless, happy -- not angry --viewing to all!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

'Maiden' voyage made history and now a pretty fascinating documentary

Edwards leads her tough yachtswomen through some real challenges in "Maiden."
While American sports fans were reveling in a 1989 baseball pennant race that would find the Oakland A's sweeping their neighboring San Francisco Giants in what became known as "The Earthquake Series,"  a group of young ladies on a yacht already were beginning a nine-month journey that eventually would shake up the rest of the world.

Their boat was the aptly named "Maiden," skippered by a 27-year-old former short-order cook whose early life struggles deserve to make a quite compelling feature film some day soon. Her all-female crew, with equal room for an assortment of actresses to play them with strength and guts, was the first distaff assemblage to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race from Southampton and back (with stops in Uruguay, Australia and Florida along the treacherous way).

Currently, their story is making the rounds in a documentary from first-time film director Alex Holmes. No-BS captain Tracy Edwards -- and a few of her still-remarkable and personable ship mates --  also share anecdotes and snippets from the rousing adventure that captivated the sizable throng following them as closely as they could in those long-before-Internet days.

Edwards starts the proceedings with this warning: "The ocean is always trying to kill you . . . It doesn't take a break . . .  There is just no hope if anything happens."

Simply just go watch it to get an eyeful of what she was talking about.

Rated "PG": language, thematic elements, some suggestive content and brief smoking images; 1:37; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Platform competition names 10 films for Toronto International Film Festival

The Toronto International Film Festival today unveiled the 10 features that comprise the Platform competition for 2019, a year rich in perspectives, genres, and exceptional performances by newcomers as well as established actors.

Ranging from first-time feature directors to veterans at turning points in their careers, this year’s Platform filmmakers offer a panoramic view of the diverse range of talent and distinct directorial voices that are emerging around the globe. Of the 10 features in this year’s Platform selection, 40 percent are directed by women.

The films hail from a wide range of regions, including Europe, Latin America, East Asia, and the U.S. Kazik Radwanski’s “Anne at 13,000 ft” is the standout Canadian title in the programme’s lineup this year, reportedly grounded in a performance by Deragh Campbell (a TIFF 2015 Rising Star). “With a dynamic, international slate that assembles some of brightest cinematic voices of today and tomorrow, this year’s lineup distills the essence of the Festival,” said Cameron Bailey, Platform Co-Curator and TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head.

Eva Green juggles motherhood with her career as an astronaut in "Proxima."
“Competitions should celebrate the range of what great cinema is and what it can accomplish. Platform is alive to those possibilities,” added Platform Co-Curator Andréa Picard. “Whether they are debuts or mid-career works, these films push the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in surprising and rigorous ways, some using documentary or experimental techniques in their approaches.”

Highlights include the world premieres of “Wet Season,” by Singapore-based director and producer Anthony Chen, the anticipated follow-up to his breakout debut “Ilo Ilo” (TIFF 2013); Julie Delpy’s “My Zoe,” a genre-bending tale of a mother’s navigation of grief that stars Delpy alongside Richard Armitage and Daniel Brühl; and Alice Winocour’s “Proxima,” an incisive drama following an astronaut and mother as she faces an impossible decision, featuring performances by Eva Green, Lars Eidinger, Matt Dillon, and Sandra Hüller.

In addition to new films by established directors, this year’s lineup boasts a number of feature debuts, including Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” starring Riz Ahmed, (alongside Olivia Cooke and Mathieu Amalric) as a professional drummer whose life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing. Also of note is “Workforce,” the debut feature by Mexican filmmaker David Zonana. Produced by Michel Franco, the class-conscious drama follows a group of construction workers who seek justice after a workplace accident.

Now in its fifth year, Platform is the Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive programme that champions bold directorial visions. All 10 films in the programme are eligible for the Toronto Platform Prize, an award of $20,000 given to the best film in the programme, selected by a three-person jury. Berlinale Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, film critic Jessica Kiang, and filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari make up this year’s jury.

Named after Jia Zhang-ke’s trailblazing second feature, Platform is curated by Bailey and Picard, who is also Lead Curator for the Wavelengths programme. Previous Platform selections have included Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” (2018); Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” (2018), Clio Barnard’s “Dark River” (2017), Kamila Andini’s “The Seen and Unseen” (2017), Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama” (2016), Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight” (2016), and Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” (2015).

The 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5–15.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Saying 'Farewell' comes with some valuable family complications, lessons

Is there a more endearing individual in any international culture than a grandmother? I mean, just think about it: Have you ever heard or seen any grand kid anywhere, at any time say anything bad or unkind about his or her grandma?

Zhau and Awkwafina share a traditional meal. You might need the Kleenex.
That's the spirit defined in "The Farewell," a wee little film from  Lulu Wang, whose sophomore feature effort (after "Posthumous") has drawn raves since its premiere at Sundance last January. Honestly, most are deserved, if a bit overstated about the writer/director, who seems fascinated by death, particularly the difficulties of dealing with it.

In Wang's latest, it's an especially feisty "Nai Nai," which apparently translates to Nana in English, who becomes the focus of the piece. Trouble is, her assembled family, which includes an oldest son and his brood from Japan and a youngest (the familiar face of Tzi Ma) with his wife (Diana Lin) and daughter from New York, is trying hard not to let Nai Nai (wonderfully captured by an actress named Shuzhen Zhao) in on the attentiveness.

You see, they know she's dying -- a doctor claims she only has a few months left -- but the old gal remains in the dark because the clan has plotted collectively to keep various test results from her.

Other than a cough, there's no indication that Nai Nai is even sick, and Americanized granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina, fine again after her scene-stealing in last year's "Crazy Rich Asians") thinks her relatives should be committed for such culturally inspired lying.

Regardless, Nai Nai is led to believe that everyone has returned to China for the wedding of her clueless grandson and his confused but lovely Japanese fiancee. So, naturally, the take-charge matriarch, an ex-soldier who often refers to offspring as "stupid child," eagerly becomes the boss behind the resulting celebration.

Not surprisingly, it's a joyously odd affair that surely will remind some of 1993's "The Wedding Banquet," and nicely serves to fill in the blanks among tender moments, a few playful ones, and the universal recognition of love, people and events no matter where you come from or what language you speak.

Rated "PG": thematic material, brief language and some smoking; 1:38; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, July 25, 2019

'Once Upon a Time' a filmmaker named Tarantino strikes paydirt again

If "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" isn't on the top shelf of 2019 films so far, then it only sits a rung below.

This ninth feature from writer/director Quentin Tarantino certainly becomes a must-see for any child of the '60s, a decade that smothered the senses and which the writer/director resurrects with a cultural onslaught of fashion, TV Guide covers, memorable music, and mostly lesser-known film titles sprinkled throughout his 165-minute extravaganza.

Though his picture is not always perfect, many scenes are hoot worthy. Others may rivet you to your seat, even the few that could use substantial trimming. An early one features a typically smarmy producer (Al Pacino) trying to talk "Hollywood" star Leonard DiCaprio, as our alcoholic actor/hero, into keeping his career afloat by giving spaghetti westerns a try.

At first, the conversation seems never ending. Then, you might find yourself thinking, "Hey, this is Pacino in top baroque form," with DiCaprio, already an acting heavyweight himself, actually  sweating, as warranted by script, just listening to him.

It's often classic stuff, as is a later episode when Brad Pitt, portraying Cliff Booth, hunky stunt double/buddy to DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, bursts into the Manson "Family" compound -- after an invitation from a jail-bait hippie (wonderfully spirited by young Margaret Qualley, who just happens to be the daughter of Andie MacDowell) -- and winds up conversing with a great and grumpy Bruce Dern.

Now, because we don't believe in giving away too much of a good thing that paying audiences deserve to discover for themselves, the name of Dern's character won't be mentioned here. Let's just say that anyone with knowledge of the scary Manson clan's historical/criminal standing in Tinseltown will recognize it.

They'll also know about Sharon Tate (a sweetly subdued Margot Robbie), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Tex Watson (Austin Butler) and the scene-stealing assortment of famous movie types Tarantino sneaks into his mad mix of fact and fiction. Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) lead that latter pack, but wide-eyed viewers will embrace even more in the all-star cast and a film that probably demands at least a couple of lengthy viewings.

Rated "R": language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references; 2:45; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

'Joker' will meet Mister Rogers and many more at 44th Toronto film bash

TV's lovable Mister Rogers, Batman's eternal nemesis The Joker, and Charles Dickens' young David Copperfield are among the subjects of about 50 movies announced today in the first batch of names on the 44th annual slate of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Fred Rogers, the late, great morning friend to millions of youngsters watching PBS for decades, is played by Tom Hanks in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," directed by Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me"), and one of 29 world premieres to be unveiled when the festival runs from Sept. 5-15.

"Joker" goes wild on a subway train, with Joaquin Phoenix on board it all. 
"Joker," a North American premiere, stars Joaquin Phoenix in an original back story of how a man becomes a villain, as directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, of "The Hangover" fame. Meanwhile, "The Personal History of David Copperfield" will be another world premiere coming from "Veep" creator Armando Ianucci ("The Death of Stalin"), who likely will give the classic tale his usual satirical twists with Dev Patel in the lead role.

"Some of the year's biggest films will land in Toronto this September," said Cameron Bailey, co-head and artistic director of TIFF. "We're thrilled to unveil galas and special presentations that bring the brightest lights in film to our Festival audience.

"Our new programming team has been hard at work for months to deliver compelling stories, acclaimed filmmakers and top onscreen talent that mark our two highest profile sections (in the festival)." Among other selections announced this morning:


GALAS
"Abominable," Jill Culton | USA World Premiere
"American Woman," Semi Chellas | Canada Canadian Premiere
"Blackbird," Roger Michell | United Kingdom World Premiere
"Clemency," Chinonye Chukwu | USA International Premiere
Matt Damon and Christian Bale stand ready to pit "Ford v Ferrari"
"Ford v Ferrari," James Mangold | USA Canadian Premiere
"The Goldfinch," John Crowley | USA World Premiere 
"Harriet," Kasi Lemmons | USA World Premiere 
"Hustlers," Lorene Scafaria | USA World Premiere
"Just Mercy," Destin Daniel Cretton | USA World Premiere
 "Ordinary Love," Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | United Kingdom World Premiere
"Radioactive" (Closing Night Film), Marjane Satrapi | United Kingdom World Premiere
"The Sky Is Pink," Shonali Bose | India World Premiere
"The Song of Names," François Girard | Canada World Premiere
"True History of the Kelly Gang," Justin Kurzel | Australia World Premiere
"Western Stars," Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen | USA World Premiere 

SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

"Bad Education," Cory Finley | USA World Premiere
"Coming Home Again," Wayne Wang | USA/South Korea World Premiere
"Dolemite Is My Name," Craig Brewer | USA World Premiere
"Ema," Pablo Larraín | Chile North American Premiere
"Endings,Beginnings," Drake Doremus | USA World Premiere
"Frankie," Ira Sachs | France/Portugal North American Premiere
Eddie Murphy heads the cast as Rudy Ray Moore in "Dolemite Is My Name."
"Greed," Michael Winterbottom | United Kingdom World Premiere
"Guest of Honour," Atom Egoyan | Canada North American Premiere
"Honey Boy," Alma Har’el | USA International Premiere
 "Hope Gap," William Nicholson | United Kingdom World Premiere
"How to Build a Girl," Coky Giedroyc | United Kingdom World Premiere
"I Am Woman," Unjoo Moon | Australia World Premiere
"Jojo Rabbit," Taika Waititi | USA World Premiere
"Judy," Rupert Goold | United Kingdom Canadian Premiere
"Knives Out," Rian Johnson | USA World Premiere
"The Laundromat," Steven Soderbergh | USA North American Premiere
"The Lighthouse," Robert Eggers | USA North American Premiere
"Military Wives," Peter Cattaneo | United Kingdom World Premiere
"Motherless Brooklyn," Edward Norton | USA International Premiere
"Pain and Glory," Pedro Almodóvar | Spain Canadian Premiere
"The Painted Bird," Václav Marhoul | Czech/Ukraine/Slovakia North American Premiere
"Saturday Fiction," Lou Ye | China North American Premiere
"The Two Popes," Fernando Meirelles | USA/United Kingdom/Italy/Argentina Canadian Premiere
 "While at War," Alejandro Amenábar | Spain/Argentina World Premiere 

For film synopses, and more information, go to tiff.net/galas and tiff.net/special presentations.