Friday, November 19, 2021

It's all in the family with 'Richard,' 'Dog,' and 'Ghostbusters' 4 decades later

Will Smith takes center court with his strong, if not exactly breathtaking performance as "King Richard," father, manager and taskmaster/trainer for young tennis prodigies Venus and Serena Williams. 

Rather remarkably, the girls playing their roles seem like naturals, too. In fact, the sweet smiles of big-screen newcomers Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney sparkle so readily that they dominate their scenes almost as much as Serena and the elder Venus, whose groundbreaking personal story certainly does inspire here, skillfully went on to rule their sport.

Also credit director Renaldo Marcus Green -- going from underrated debut feature "Monsters and Men" to the not-so-hot "Joe Bell" and then, somehow, to this high-end studio project -- for helping turn what might have been a glorified TV movie into a legitimate family charmer. First-time screenwriter Zach Baylin obviously contributes as well, along with the solid Aunjanue Ellis, as the girls' hardworking mother, who also has her hands full standing beside Smith's self-centered and, thus, clevery titled patriarch.

"King Richard" is playing now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references; 2:24; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Cumberbatch and Plemons ride herd.
Next comes a landscape of pretty western skies and not-so-nice cowboys in "The Power of the Dog," a Jane Campion film, with touches of her Oscar-winning "The Piano," a potential nod or two to Ang Lee's much-admired "Brokeback Mountain," and enough dysfunctional family forces to call its own. 

Benedict Cumberbatch rides out of September's 46th Toronto International Film Festival -- where he brought home a "TIFF Tribute Award" and "Power" was the "People's Choice" runner-up (to "Belfast") -- as Campion's legitimate star (although this reviewer truly enjoyed his performance in the more whimsical "Electrical Life of Louis Wain").

Here, the man seems to like bullying folks for no particular reasons, except his own, which might become oh-so obvious to discerning viewers way too soon in a good-looking, though plodding piece. Somehow, his brother (Jesse Plemons) mostly turns the other way while Cumberbatch's mean hombre raises hell with a widow (Kirsten Dunst, the offscreen Mrs. Plemons) and her son (the smart Kodi Smit-McPhee). The ending ultimately gives the movie something to hang its hat on, too. It's a real good 'un. 

"The Power of the Dog" is now at just two Ohio theaters (including the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights), then bows on Netflix Dec. 1.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: brief sexual content/full nudity; 2:08; $ $ $ out of $5

Finally, this week there's "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," which someday could become a genuine movie lover's kind of film, warts and all. 

Before a press-only showing early this week, director and co-writer Jason Reitman appeared on screen calling it "a movie from a family about a family." Of course, he was referring to his father, producer Ivan Reitman, who directed the iconic original "Ghostbusters" in 1984 with a comedic cast to die for. By the way, the younger Reitman also asked the critical community not to reveal spoilers or any of the many surprises to come.

That's certainly never a problem in this neighborhood, but we will mention that the "Afterlife" family features Mom (Copley, Ohio's ever-grand Carrie Coon), an agreeable teen son (Finn Wolfhard from Netflix's popular "Stranger Things"), and the shy whiz-kid daughter (Mckenna Grace) destined to keep the ghostly film franchise alive. 

The latter, who has been so good in films such as "The Gift," "Annabelle Comes Home," and "I, Tonya," brilliantly helps make matters more credible than they really should be in this tribute to the past. And, referring back to Coon, look quick and you might spot her Pulitzer Prize-winner-turned actor husband (an uncredited Tracy Letts) among all the nifty revelations.

By the time the curtain comes down, it once more simply endorses Ray Parker's classic lyrical claim that, "Bustin' makes you feel good."

 Apparitions, spirits and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" are showing up only at theaters everywhere. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: supernatural action and some suggestive references; 2:04; $ $ $ out of $5

Sunday, November 14, 2021

'Summer of Soul' sweeps sixth annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards

(BROOKLYN, NY) – This just in: The Critics Choice Association (CCA) has unveiled the winners of the Sixth Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards, recognizing the year’s finest achievements in documentaries released in theaters, on TV and on major digital platforms, as determined by the voting of qualified CCA members.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) topped every category in which it was nominated, including the evening’s most prestigious award, Best Documentary Feature, as well as Best Director, Best First Documentary Feature, Best Editing, Best Archival Documentary and Best Music Documentary. 

"Soul" helmer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson shared the Best Director Award in a tie with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin for The Rescue, which also received top honors for Best Cinematography and Best Score.

The D A Pennebaker Award also was presented at tonight's ceremony to legendary documentarian R.J. Cutler. Formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, the recognition is named in honor of  Pennebaker, a past winner. It was presented to Cutler by Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s widow and long-time collaborator.

Hosted by Roy Wood Jr., the star-studded event featured presenters and attendees including Amir Arison (The Blacklist), Selma Blair (Introducing, Selma Blair), Wyatt CenacDana Delany (The American Guest), Jessica Hecht (The Sinner), Dr. Vernard Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson (Critter Fixers: Country Vets), Barbara KoppleSheila NevinsPiper Perabo (The Big Leap), Mariana van Zeller (Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller), and Thompson among others. 

To learn more about the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and see the full list of nominees, visit the Critics Choice Association website.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

'Belfast' bursts with life, family relationships, war and, oh, so much more

The damndest things might come out of a pandemic, including a few good ones, such as Kenneth Branagh's very personal and brilliant "Belfast." The writer/director said as much last September when he told a thrilled audience at the 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival that he began the screenplay process for his semi-autobiographical tale during the coronavirus quarantine and after an examination of the "precious things" in his life. 

The result -- charming and moving and mostly filmed in glorious black and white -- follows a marvelous working-class family in Northern Ireland, circa 1969, balancing the thick with mostly thin of their wartorn country. In the middle of it all is 9-year-old Buddy (the terrific Jude Hill, looking and acting very much like a miniature Branagh), learning about Protestants vs. Catholics, fire and brimstone, love and laughter, and even movies. ("High Noon," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "One Million Years B.C." are featured, along with some perfect family commentary and relevance to plot.)

Speaking of Buddy's memorable clan, which includes supportive older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), the film's most distinguished performances and finest moments come from tough and loving "Ma" (Caitriona Balfe), hard-living and working "Pa" (Jamie Dornan), stout and tender "Granny" (Judi Dench) and -- it says here -- this year's surefire Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ciaran Hinds, as the "deep" and streetwise ("Pop"). 

Certainly, all four members of the parental quartet will be nominated for various awards while also collectively garnering considerable favor from voting groups offering "Best Ensemble" prizes. 

As for Branagh, expect both screenwriting and director recognition to be plentiful for what is now his 21st feature as the helmer of the piece. (If anyone's curious, Branagh's only previous Best Director and Best Actor noms came for "Henry V," his first venture behind the camera way back in 1989.)

All this and a moody score from the great Van Morrison make getting to "Belfast" a must. The Toronto "People's Choice" Award winner unspools Friday at theaters everywhere. 

Rated PG-13: some violence and strong language; 1:38; $ $ $ $ $ out $5 

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Movies have four words for you: 'Eternals,' 'Finch,' 'Passing' and 'Spencer'

Four capsule reviews for as many new, single-word titles (in alphabetical order): 

From the (comic) Book of Marvel comes "Eternals," a kind of soap opera for the gods, filled with action sequences featuring head-chomping, CGI bad guys called Deviants. Of course, it doesn't help that the titled -- and immortal -- superheroes, directed by Olympian-like Celestials, mostly stand and watch 700 centuries of Earth history pass them by without lifting a finger to save anyone but themselves. Instead, a dozen or so movie stars, including Angelina Jolie (the unstable Thena), Salma Hayek (handpicked leader Ajak), Richard Madden (an arrogant Ikarus) and Kumail Nanjani (the downright silly Kingo) preen, pose and say little that matters as if they were all appearing in an old satiric episode of "The Californians" on "SNL." Even acclaimed filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who collected Best Picture and Director Oscars for last year's "Nomadland," can't save her first venture into the MC Universe from being laughable too often in all the wrong places. "Golden Raspberry Awards" here we come.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: fantasy action and violence, some language and brief sexuality; 2:37; $ $ out of $5

Hanks, Jones (as Jeff) and friend.
Unless you count best friend Goodyear (a dog actually played by Seamus) and robots named Dewey and Jeff (smartly voiced by Caleb Landry Jones), "Finch" would be another one-guy show for Tom Hanks. That means the Everyman actor actually gets to chat with something besides the volleyball he made famous in year 2000's "Cast Away." A number of sci-fi films quickly will come to mind, too, perhaps animated classics such as "The Iron Giant" and "Wall-E," and certainly last year's underrated "Midnight Sky," from and with George Clooney, as the last man on our planet. Here, Finch/Hanks' expert in AI engineering is probably not alone, but sun flares and more have him on the run from unbearable heat and radioactivity in Springfield, Mo., to San Francisco. Why would this heart-tugging road movie take us there? Everything  -- from how Goodyear got his name to the lanky, lumbering and especially loquacious Jeff's purpose to exist in the first place -- suitably gets explained by the time the world ends. Or does it? ("Finch" starts streaming Friday only on Apple TV+.)

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: brief violent images; 1:55; $ $ $ out of $5 

Negga and Thompson stir "Passing."
Looking like the finest movie of the week, "Passing" uses a pair of powerhouse performances to tell its period tale, as based on a 90-year-old novella by Harlem's own Nella Larsen. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga (an Oscar nominee for 2016's terrific  "Loving") star as ex-schoolmates meeting again years later to find each other married to successful men, a hardworking doctor (Andre Holland) and successful businessman (Alexander Skarsgard), respectively,  Oh, yeah, the latter also happens to be a raging racist, which is just one of a few reasons why Negga's Clare has been pretending to be a white woman for many years. In fact, the relationship between Thompson's Irene and her long-lost friend reignites only after "passing" herself by the doorman of a swanky New York hotel, where air conditioning allows her to escape stifling summer temperatures. Some other forms of steaminess also might be suggested the rest of the way, as the vivacious Clare begins making regular visits to the comfortable household of an increasingly insecure Irene. With strikingly meaningful black-and-white cinematography from Eduard Grau ("Boy Erased," "A Single Man"), the subtle complexities of it all come courtesy of first-time writer and director Rebecca Hall. Yes, the still very actively working actress delivers the goods, with both odd and wonderful choices behind the camera and despite a few editing transitions that might make viewers wish for a rewind button.    

("Passing" starts Friday at only a few theaters, including the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights, and Wednesday on Netflix.) 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: thematic material, some racial slurs, and smoking; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of 5

Stewart as the Princess of Wales.
During a virtual interview at September's 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Kristen Stewart said she to decided to portray the late and iconic Princess Diana because she "appreciates stories that ask questions more than tell you things." Well, no doubt  the resulting "Spencer" does exactly that since the film is immediately presented on screen as "a fable from a true tragedy." The chamber drama from director Pablo Larrain mixes dreamy sequences of Diana's well-revered fashion sense with an ongoing anxiety bordering on paranoia. Hey, screenwriter Steven Knight ("Eastern Promises" and "Locke" remain two of his best) even throws in visits from the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Not surprisingly, the warmest energy in the movie comes during Christmas celebration moments with then-young sons William and Harry, nicely rendered by up-and-coming Brits Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry. Otherwise, the film's best performance belongs to the ever-realiable Timothy Spall, as a tough ex-military man hired to keep tabs on the ditzy Diana in what some definitely will be calling a hatchet job on a woman who became a legend long before her tragic death soon after that unforgettably infamous crash in a Paris traffic tunnel. Surely Diana's legions of admirers will resent the way her life is pictured here. By the way, Stewart likely follows the bizarre script to the word in a turn that neither sounds nor seriously feels like the Princess she portrays. ("Spencer" opens Friday in theaters everywhere.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: some language; 1:51; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Here come a newsy 'Dispatch,' sad anti-'War Story,' and flashy 'Soho'

Wes Anderson's literate and densely layered latest, "The French Dispatch," will do wonders for fans of the written word, and that might tell you all you need to know about the movie.

Even if one of the stories in this magazine for the big screen pales in comparison to the rest, there constantly remains something to salvage and keep buried in the brain. It might be a quip here, a look there or mostly just a line of dialogue that comes out of nowhere to knock you over for a moment until the next and then another ambles along.

One constant reportorial reminder from "Dispatch" editor Arthur Howitzer (Anderson regular Bill Murray) is to "just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose." And then off his exceptional staffers go to do their things for various sections of the crowded digest, including cycling (Owen Wilson), art (Tilda Swinton), politics (Frances McDormand) and, ahem, food (Jeffrey Wright). 

Howitzer created his periodical in the wonderfully named French town of Ennui-sur-Blase in order to bring the world to Liberty, Kansas, by way of this Sunday supplement to his hometown paper, "The Evening Sun." Certainly his readers might be blown away by the lengthy feature story about a pyscho killer (Tony Revolori, the memorable bellhop from "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), who grows into a master artist (Benicio Del Toro), with equally masterful help from a prison guard (the fabulous Lea Seydoux, looking distinctly different than the way she does in the latest James Bond film).

The engrossing tale is simply a very tiny taste of all that can be discovered in this currently rich and actor-packed "Dispatch" from director Anderson and his credited co-writers Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwarztman. No doubt more stories will appear down the line about screenplay awards and the like. If not, someone surely will present something about the investigation into why.

Rated "R" by MPAA: graphic nudity, some sexual references and language; 1:44; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Fisher plays a small if pertinent role in this 'Story.'
Veterans deal with their military experiences and resulting difficulties in various therapeutic ways. The appropriately called "This Is Not a War Story" offers a unique telling about a group of injured souls, many nursing psychological wounds that cannot be seen, pulling together to help each other heal.

Writer, director, producer, editor and star Talia Lugacy ("Descent") utilizes a supporting cast of real Iraq and Vietnam War vets in what she calls "a hybrid narrative," mixed in with documentary techniques. The group's artwork and craftsmanship, which includes cutting up actual uniforms and turning them into their working canvases, is on display throughout and so is the distinct anti-war sentiment of the title.

One stirring moment, in fact, blatantly disses acclaimed movies such as "American Sniper," "The Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "especially," a character says, "Saving Private Ryan." Meanwhile, thoughts of suicide more than just hang in the air as a peer counselor (Sam Adegoke) and troubled ex-MP (Lugacy) become lead players, not to mention sad, potent remnants of their time in the military. Danny Ramirez (soon to be seen in "Top Gun: Maverick") and Frances Fisher ("Titanic", "Unforgiven") also star.

("This is Not A War Story," the Audience Award winner at San Francisco's Independent Film Festival, debuts Nov. 4 on HBO Max.) 

Not rated by MPAA: 1:52; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Taylor-Joy turns heads in "Soho." 
Finally and just in time for Halloween there's "Last Night in Soho," an Edgar Wright film with suitable flash, style, great soundtrack and one big problem: it's simply not scary, and I never bought in.

Sure there are ghosts and gore in a gorgeous '60s re-creation of London's hippest neighborhood, but intrigue is lacking because of a nonsense plot: Sweet fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) of the here and now keeps going back in time to cavort with a sexy floozy (Anna Taylor-Joy).

Even if the climax brings it all together more comfortably than you'd expect, getting there might make eyes roll, heads hurt, and butts shift incessantly. 

Now, about that soaring sixties sound. Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield, and The Searchers all warble in the first 10 minutes alone. Lots of grand Cilla Black, too. Bravo!

("Last Night in Soho," like "The French Dispatch," is playing only in theaters everywhere.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: bloody violence, sexual content, brief drug material, and brief graphic nudity; 1:56; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, October 22, 2021

Trio of fair-to-middlers arrive from TIFF 46: 'Dune,' 'Wain' and 'Cousteau'

If hard-working director Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," his long-awaited retelling of Frank Herbert's epic '60s novel, wasn't necessarily the best movie at last month's 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival, then the star-studded, sci-fi adventure was the biggest and most breathtaking, at least in terms of visual cinema. That likely means seeing it, if you can, on an IMAX screen such as the one I was fortunate enough to absorb it all on at the Cinesphere Theater in Ontario Place.

Otherwise, the genuinely huge event film depends on a somewhat unwieldy ensemble that includes Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Stellen Skarsgard, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista and Rebecca Ferguson. In other words, you might not be able to tell a player without a scorecard, as characters -- none of whom are particularly engaging in this lengthy "Part 1" assortment -- weave in and out of the omnipresent sand sets like a busy bunch of heavily clothed beach volleyballers.

For the uninitiated, "Dune" focuses on the mining of the precious Spice (read: drug without the capital "d"), not so easily extracted from the endless sands on the stiflingly warm planet Arraxis in a galaxy far, far away about 8000 years from now. That means no one hardly ever smiles in a war-filled world, headed by a gross-looking Baron (Skarsgard), who definitely will remind everyone of Jabba the Hutt of "Star Wars" saga fame.

The latter's substantially more famous "Force" probably has its roots growing firmly out of the original story of "Dune," too, since Chalamet's young Paul, no doubt headed for heroic heights in "Part 2" and maybe even a "3," has his own mind-bending skills at the ready. For now, though, we'll settle for Villeneuve's crack craft team giving us even more to take in on a really big screen than they did in their director's last two great films, "Arrival" and "Blade Runner 2049."

(If you can't find "Dune" in IMAX, you can watch it now at a slew of theaters and on HBO Max. Also, northeast Ohioans can go one better by checking out both David Lynch's ill-fated 1984 version of the film and the 2013 documentary, "Jodorowsky's Dune," next month at the Cleveland Institue of Art Cinematheque.)

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: Sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material; 2:35; $ $ $ out of $5

Cumberbatch as the loopy "Louis."
"The Electrical Life of Louis Wain," a chaotic and often whimsical biopic, also evolved into a visual treat I was able to see in IMAX at TIFF, although staring at an array of housecats that big became a bit alarming down the stretch. (I'm kidding, I'm kidding!)

Seriously, the quirky Wain, played consistently on the nose by the gifted Benedict Cumberbatch, is the boxer/inventor/artist whose paintings made felines so popular in Great Britain after he and his equally kooky bride (Claire Foy) took in a stray they found in a rainstorm. 

Sadly, not much of anything he actually did played well with his brood of Victorian-era sisters, especially the ever-unhappy eldest (the sharp Andrea Riseborough) in a famous man's eventful life riddled with as much tragedy as joy.

("The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" is currently playing in a select few theaters, including the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heghts, before its Nov. 5 streaming debut on Amazon Prime.) 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: thematic material and strong language; 1:51; $ $ $ out of $5

Cousteau and his men at work.
"I am miserable out of the water," the subject of a more by-the-book biography says very early in the documentary, "Becoming Cousteau," a third Toronto Film Festival entry ironically making its full theatrical debut this week.

People of a certain age definitely will recognize the face and probably also the voice as belonging to Jacques Cousteau, a diver, scientist, filmmaker, TV star, humanitarian and so much more.

Director Liz Garbus ("All in the Fight for Democracy," "What Happened, Miss Simone") shows us a lot in a collection of nifty archival footage, although nothing becomes very surprising about any of the man's celebrity or accomplishments. Well, yes there is. Hold your breath now: Cousteau was a chain smoker. 

("Becoming Cousteau," a National Geographic fiilm, is playing exclusively in theaters.) 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: brief strong language, some disturbing images and smoking; 1:36; $ $ $ out of $5

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