Friday, October 15, 2021

Special docs go way underground for amazing 'Rescue' and 'Velvet' times

If you have just one movie to see on this crowded, third weekend of October, then make it "The Rescue," a fabulously real documentation of how the world collectively helped save a baker's dozen young lives during one especially wet summer in Thailand.

Twelve boys and their coach -- all soccer players and rural kids who used neighboring caves as their "playground" -- were celebrating birthdays on a memorable June day in 2018 when extraordinary and sudden Monsoon rains engulfed the area, and then some.

Bicycles left at an entrance to a huge and treacherous cave became visual alarms, and within hours -- while limestone walls were acting like sieves taking in tons of water -- worldwide news cycles were catching up on the drama, with help already on the way from the U.S., Australia and China.

Thai Navy SEALs did their utmost to pitch in, but specal spelunking expertise had to come from a British expat, who remarkably suggested getting in touch with a handful of cave-diving hobbyists from his country. Their arrival sparked hope, a bit of humor, and the remaining 90 movie minutes filled with some of the most tense and emotion-generating drama you might see on screen this year.

Last month, "The Rescue" won the People's Choice Award (for docs) at the 46th annual Toronto Internatioal Film Festival. The honor was the second there for co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who took home the identical prize in 2018 for "Free Solo," which then went on to win the Best Documentary (Feature) Oscar. Don't be surprised if and when their thrilling latest turns the same neat trick during the Academy Awards telecast next March.

("The Rescue" opens today in numerous theaters, including six in northeast Ohio.)

Rated "PG" by MPAA: thematic material involving some peril and language; 1:47; $ $ $ $ $ out of $5

The thrills come visually and musically in "The Velvet Underground," a typically compelling film from director Todd Haynes ("Far fom Heaven," "I'm Not There," "Carol") whose features are fearless and generally rock.

His innovative documentary skills, though, show up early here with large moving headshots of the musicians/principals involved in the titular '60s band, blinking and staring out through an assortment of avant-garde images and experimental storytelling.

Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Lou Reed, likely both the most famous and infamous of the featured players, mostly stars, but anyone remotely contributing to their unqualified, if short-lived success earns mention from a knowing few insider talking heads or by way of sparkling archival leftovers. The result means that all, including pop superstar Andy Warhol, who was the group's producer and art director, and quiz-show host Garry Moore and his regular, irregular panelists on "I've Got a Secret," offer something weird, amusing or eminently watchable.

("The Velvet Underground" is playing exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights and streaming on Apple TV+.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: language, sexual content, nudity and some drug material; 2:03; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, October 8, 2021

3 to see: Craig's last big Bond, German-language 'Man,' and little 'Lamb'

Craig and de Armas: Agents just standin' around talkin'.
Daniel Craig never will be "Bond, James Bond" after his final scene in "No Time to Die," but he'll leave knowing that this 25th film featuring Ian Fleming's heroic 007 has him giving a grand-finale worthy performance.

Sure, his MI6 killer remains a cool tough guy while escaping gimmicky action moments in a lengthy effort that also finds room for welcome nods to previous Bond movies. Even better news, though, Craig is also up to task as a man ready to retire and settle down with the smart Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, returning from 2015's "Spectre"), and a sentimental side that shows up early and often. 

So do all the current ensemble regulars, including American agent/pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who seeks our main man's aid in finding a kidnapped Russian scientist carrying enough biological secrets, well, uh, to die for.

A pair of impressive newcomers, the new "007" agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch) and a CIA operative simply called Paloma (Ana de Armas), would have been labeled "Bond girls" in less sensitive times. Now, they're on board to fight villains (led by Rami Malek and a "Blofeld" cameo from Christoph Waltz) and help Bond save the world, not to mention a 60-year-old movie franchise destined to keep entertaining us with or without Craig in the role that made him a superstar.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive material; 2:43; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Stevens works on becoming Eggert's main "Man."
Up next in theaters today is a robot named Tom (the terrific Dan Stevens), trying to become the title guy in "I'm Your Man," a German rom-com coming off plenty of buzz from international film festivals in Berlin and Toronto. (Northeast Ohioans can see it exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights.)

With his android ways, Tom is wooing a scientist (the deserving Berlinale Lead Performance winner Maren Eggert), herself commissioned to live with him for three weeks and write a paper on what might be called future possibilities for such a logical arrangement.

Eggert's ever-researching -- but lonely -- Alma discovers many of the above, after meeting her potential paramour and "Puttin' on the Ritz" in a back-room club. It's where real people dance and drink with holograms and other high-tech wonders and, thus, maybe just feel a bit freaky and frisky.

Intermittent moments of fun, mixed with just enough sturm und drang, then ensue in a mostly convincing screenplay, co-written by director Maria Schrader (Netflix's "Unorthodox"), as based on the short story by Emma Braslavsky.

Rated "R" by MPAA: some sexual content and language; 1:42; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

What happens in Iceland stays in Iceland. 

That's certainly what one more formidable screen couple (depicted by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Guonason) could be thinking, if not exactly saying, about circumstances in "Lamb," a tight, taut family drama from first-time feature director and co-writer Valdimar Johannsson. 

As played out in an extremely remote part of the country nicknamed "The Land of Fire and Ice," their story might be filled with dreams and myths and folklore. Or not.

The fact is, hardworking farmers Maria and Ingvar rarely have much to say to each other. Something looks to be smoldering between them, though, and then they have a kid, and their world begins to change. Even their pets, an observant sheep dog keeping constant vigilance outside, and a housecat, silently seeing and knowing all that goes on inside their residence, seem to take notice 

And life apparently does begin anew, especially for the motherly Maria, as sensationally portrayed by Rapace, the big screen's original "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo." Her performance -- and one matter-of-fact kitchen reveal -- not only might make you drop your coffee, but also become primary reasons to wait intently for Johannsson's inevitable follow-up to such oddly intriguing stuff.

("Lamb," like "No Time to Die," is in theaters everywhere, just not in as many as the big Bond film.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: some bloody violent images and sexuality/nudity; 1:47: $ $ $ and 1/2 out of  $5

Friday, October 1, 2021

'Many Saints' finds a younger Soprano and more; 'Titane' defines madness

Stoll and Farmiga give new life to Uncle Junior and Livia Soprano
There's seriously a lot to embrace in "The Many Saints of Newark," even without the heft of the late, great James Gandolfini carrying the load in a big-screen prequel about "The Sopranos" crime family he hauled into heavy Emmy territory from 1999-2007 on HBO.

Of course, the big guy is missed as Tony Soprano, but plenty remains in a loaded screenplay from series creator David Chase and episodic contributor Lawrence Konner. The show's common themes -- anger management, mommy issues, infidelity, racism, greed --all remain, and so do younger versions of other iconic characters from -- it says here -- the most influential cable series of all time.

Most notable in that department are Tony's mom, Livia Soprano (played now by a terrific Vera Farmiga), his whiny Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll) and right-hand man Silvio Dante (Akron's own John Magaro). Michael Gandolfini, the son of James, carries himself well, too, and at times, quite spookily, as the teen-age Tony, whose scene at Holsten's eatery might seem like the most meaningful of many homages to the series for diehard fans and followers.

Two guys named Moltisanti -- Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) and dad Dick (Ray Liotta) -- become the main men in this movie, though, and it's another family name those same fans surely will recognize since Tony and the boys mentioned it especially glowingly on TV. 

"Many Saints" attempts to show everyone why, while also introducing another key player, Black gangster Harold McBrayer. As slyly portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr., expect to run into him again somewhere down the road. Until then, Harold and company can be seen in theaters everywhere, as well as on HBO Max. 

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content, and some nudity; 2:00; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Opening today in fewer theaters (only four in northeast Ohio) is “Titane," the daring and daunting tale from French director and writer Julia Ducournau.

Before one of three public showings at last month's 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival, programmer Peter Kuplowsky called “it a midnight masterpiece,” and a Cannes Film Festival jury (headed by Spike Lee) went one further last May in giving the bewildering story its Palme d’Or top prize. 

Surely deserving credit, too, is the performance of newcomer Agathe Rousselle, as a pregnant, serial-killing showroom model who, while on the lam, starts looking like a young man and becomes a firefighter. Hey, it’s a strange, occasionally funny brew, folks and, in fact, the aforementioned Kuplowsky (who heads TIFF's "Midnight Madness" section) also rightly called it "a movie that defies description."

"There are certain scenes where you'll cover your eyes," he added, "yet, it does have a tender side, too."

And, did I forget to mention that Rousselle's character literally loves cars? See it to believe it at the Atlas (in Mentor), Cedar Lee (Cleveland Heights), Cinemark (Valley View), or Nightlife (Akron).

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong violence and disturbing material, graphic nudity, sexual content, and language; 1:44; $ $ $ out of $5

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Musical 'Evan Hansen' and wobbly, wounded 'Starling' fly in from TIFF

Platt and Stenberg share school stuff on their plates and more.
Two more world premieres from this year's Toronto International Film Festival get to face the general masses this weekend, most notably the one that earned the honor of opening the 46th annual smorgasbord of movies on Sept. 9. That would be “Dear Evan Hansen,” and six stars from the film, based on the six-time Tony-winning musical, did their part by showing up on the red carpet, before moving inside and being treated to a warm response from ever-appreciative TIFF patrons.

Director Steven Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) tagged along, too, with his mostly appealing message movie, now opening wide on Friday. Ben Platt, who ran with the lead role on Broadway, turns the same trick on screen -- from the rousing first-day-of school start, through to a troubling, bittersweet turn -- all the while in great voice, though maybe, by now, looking a bit older than most high-school seniors usually do.

The quick gist has Platt/Evan totally lacking people skills, scared silly and worried about meeting anyone and, so, writing letters to himself as prescribed by a therapist we never see. When one of his missives gets into the hands of a schoolmate (Colton Ryan) with more radical social woes of his own -- well, a tragic situation somehow gets Evan on the road to recovery, even while representing himself as someone he may not really be.

The film's likable ensemble also seriously benefits from a quartet of formidable females -- Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, as distinctively caring mothers, and Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg, as fellow students possibly making their own marks on the world, as well as on the title character. 

Regardless, this is Platt's film to carry, and he credibly pulls it off, especially while making amends for some deceitful ways in a story (by playwright-turned screenwriter Steven Levinson) that overtly points out the heavy-handedness of social media, too.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and suggestive references; 2:17; $ $ $ out of $5

Bird-bothered McCarthy seeks counsel from vet Kline.
This week's other festival entry comes from director Theodore Melfi, who not only helmed 2016 Best Picture nominee "Hidden Figures," but also guided Melissa McCarthy and Chris Dowd, among others, through some fine acting paces in the small, though memorable "St. Vincent" a few years earlier.

Well, guess what? Melfi, McCarthy and Dowd have reunited for "The Starling," and the title bird must have flown into a window on its way to the screen. It's that disappointing. (Actually, an opening sequence shows a closeup of the title bird in flight and looking as fake and flimsy as one of those tiny and stuffed feathered friends you could buy at any dime store in the -- ahem -- good old days.)

In fact, speaking of rickety, a plot tragedy that should provide some chicken soup for the soul, offers just so much pablum, including McCarthy wearing a football helmet to protect herself from the aforementioned dirty bird that keeps attacking her. 

One loopy bit that does click a little comes courtesy of Kevin Kline, as a veterinarian who makes us believe he used to be a successful shrink. McCarthy and Dowd, as sorrowful wife and husband, get too little to work with to produce many indelible moments of their own in a tearjerker that just never flows. "The Starling" will stream, though, starting Friday on Netflix.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: thematic material, some strong language and suggestie references; 1:44; $ $ out of $5

Friday, September 17, 2021

Two from Toronto: 'Mad Women's Ball' and the mixed-up 'Tammy Faye'

Director/star Laurent (right) faces off with de Laage.
The 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival brings down its final curtain tomorrow after 10 days of cinematic binging, but two of its high-profile entries become available to everyone today.

"The Mad Women's Ball," directed by and co-starring Melanie Laurent ("Breathe"), will stream only on Amazon Prime as a spellbinding period tale about the medical mistreatment of women and, oh, so much more. 

Laurent portays an administrative nurse at a 19th century French sanitarium, where a few of the female inmates actually might need to be patients. Many, though, were dispatched there by men seeking to victimize them or by families who just didn't know how to cope. 

Such is the case with the heroine of the piece (the strong Lou de Laage), whose scary talent of communicating with the dead gets her committed and then some in a what feels like a grand-looking, distaff version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It also makes a fine Prime choice to become the streaming service's first original French-language film.

Not rated by MPAA (but with sexual situations and hospital nudity); 1:54; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Chastain gets her 'Eyes' on.
The other early arrival from TIFF, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," features a top-notch performance from Jessica Chastain, as the personable title gal, and a rather lame one from Andrew Garfield, as her scandal-ridden, TV preacher/husband, Jim Bakker.

Otherwise, the lengthy story of the Bakkers' rise and fall comes complete with too much sitcom-like dialogue and only a few intriguing relationships. Those would be the ones between Tammy Faye and her ever-disapproving mother (Cherry Jones), and Jim's constant fawning and kowtowing to fellow religious pitchman Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio). 

Hey, no surprise, but the brief, 2000 documentary of the same name really nailed it. This one should be labeled "for entertainment purposes only."

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sexual content and drug abuse; 2:06; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Marvel serves up tame but crowded dish of Asian 'Legend,' CGI action

Liu is ready, set and gung-ho to become the latest Marvel superhero.  
Anxious for another Marvel screen saga to be born? Then you must be among the hordes just dying to see "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" Friday in theaters only (at least for now). 

Think back about 1,000 years and you'll recognize the story, at least according to some intriguing, subtitled narration claiming that "The Legend" about to unfold has been passed down from generation to generation for at least that long.

Certainly those of us around long enough to remember old "Fu Manchu" movies on late-night TV might even recognize such Oriental lore as a memorable force in cinematic adventure. Of course, it was never as sopisticated as it gets in this latest and occasionally less than Marvel-ous contribution to the media franchise's crowded Universe.  

The great news: Superheroland has its first Asian lead, the titled Shang-Chi, who goes by the American name of Shaun in his day job as a parking valet. Even better, he's portrayed by aw-shucks newcomer Simu Liu, who simply explodes onto the screen early during a boffo bus-fight segment.  

The rest becomes a lengthy mix of clunky dialogue; a few gorgeously choreographed martial-arts sequences, especially one featuring Shang-Chi's mysteriously ancient parents (Tony Leong and Fala Chen); and various mystically colorful locales.

The generally funny Awkwafina works hard as Shaun's best friend (or something like that), though rarely gets much to work with in the department of humor. Also of note, Meng'er Zhang, as our hero's roughneck sister, likely will become a force to be reckoned with in future episodes. Nice to see Michelle Yeoh, too, remaining lovely as the hero's aunt, but not so much Sir Ben Kingsley, returning from "Iron Man 3," as the clownish Trevor. Huh and why?

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sequences of violence and action, and language; 2:10; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, August 27, 2021

Don't expect sweets from 'Candyman,' but dumb-fun 'Friends' may surprise

Don't say "Candyman" out loud five times while facing a mirror or you'll be looking for real trouble -- in the worst ways imaginable.

Of course, three previous films about the scary and fabled hook-handed killer already have warned us about all that. This same-name reboot from producer and co-screenwriter Jordan Peele ("Get Out," "Us") aspires to bigger and better things -- literally and figuratively, while marching to colossal beats visually, too, in the hands of methodical director and co-writer Nia DaCosta ("Little Woods").

Much of it succeeds, a little rings loudly with redundancy, and the last reel explodes into creepiness of the don't-look kind -- from, uh, skin-crawling closeups to blatant butchery. (Intriguing shadow puppets intrude often, too, offering relevant scenes of urban violence in a stylish slasher film-turned unwavering message movie.) 

The couple (Yayha Abdul-Mateen and Teyonah Parris) at the center of the piece are successful Chicagoans working and living around the site of the troubled and now demolished Cabrini-Green housing project, where a spooky prologue opens proceedings years earlier. He's a talented painter, she's a rising curator, and their world-is-an-oyster life means dealing with arts-scene monsters as much as with gentrification, cops and bee stings.

There's some good news for fans of  the 1992 original as well, with smartly placed cameos from the legendary Tony Todd, Vanessa Williams, and the voice of Virginia Madsen.

("Candyman" is now appearing in theaters all over the place, including close to 50 in northeast Ohio alone. Just be careful what you look for!)

Rated "R" by MPAA: bloody horror violence and language, including some sexual references; 1:31; $ $ $ out of $5

Ironically, Lil Rel Howery, the scene-stealing agent from Peele's massive "Get Out," also opens today in "Vacation Friends," a raw and rowdy comedy that will make you laugh out loud more times than anyone else will ever actually know ('cause you'll never admit to it).

Think "The Hangover" films with a pair of couples instead of bachelor party pals, getting in and out of dumb and disturbingly distasteful jams, first on a vacation in Mexico -- where they initally meet -- and then during a wild wedding weekend in Atlanta. 

Everyone in this quirky quartet sparkles. That means Howery and Yvonne Orji, as his main squeeze, and wrestler-turned legitimately funky funnyman John Cena, with Meredith Hagner, as his unfiltered, live-in love, all saying and doing outrageously silly stuff they certainly never learned in drama class. It's an unexpected hoot that reportedly was supposed to star Will Smith and Nicolas Cage more than a decade ago. Who knew?

("Vacation Friends" is now streaming exclusively -- and at times, hilariously -- on Hulu.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: drug content, crude sexual references and language throughout; 1:43; $ $ $ out of $5