Friday, November 16, 2018

A weekend with 'Widows,' 'Wildlife,' a western and a wizard's 'Beasts'

The November onslaught continues today with seven more films opening on northeast Ohio screens, and, somehow, we've managed to see only five of them.

Leading the way is "Widows," director Steve McQueen's remarkably different follow-up to 2013's Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave, " with this one again featuring another smart and compelling ensemble cast.
Rodriguez (left), Davis and Debicki portray the ever-plotting "Widows."

Certainly, as the title suggests, some clever women dominate, including the superior Viola Davis as the brains behind a major heist, inspired when their criminally inclined significant others all die during the dangerous robbery that opens the movie. 

After that, Davis' sweet-living Mrs. Rawlings, who desperately misses her own husband (Liam Neeson), recruits similarly grieving gals, played by Michelle Rodriguez and scene-stealing Elizabeth Debicki, and an ultra-cool babysitter (Cynthia Erivo, who was the best thing in last month's "Bad Times at the El Coyote") to help her walk away with millions.

Nothing ever comes easy, though, with a drug kingpin (Brian Tyree Henry) and his psycho brother (Daniel Kaluuya from "Get Out") standing wickedly in their way. On the white-collar end, so are ever-maneuvering father-son pols (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell).

Also sneaking on board this heavy thrill ride are Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal and Jacki Weaver in a screenplay from McQueen and Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl") that crackles with twists, turns and even some pointed social relevance.

Rated "R": violence, language throughout and some sexual content/nudity; 2:09; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5


Next comes "Wildlife," a much more deliberate experience with a few memorable scenes organized quite nicely by actor-turned first-time director Paul Dano, who adopted the film with actress/girlfriend Zoe Kazan from a novella of the same name. 

One of the highlights is the stunning advance of a raging wilderness fire that likely carries special significance now with all the devastation occurring in California. This one takes place in '60s-era Montana, where a fired golf pro (Jake Gylenhaal) takes teen-age son Joe (a remarkable Ed Oxenbould) to get a glimpse of the widespread blaze that moves so quickly you'll swear that you actually can smell it. 

Naturally, considering the film's title, it's also one of a few revealing metaphors for what's going on in the life of the young man, whose parents obviously aren't getting along too famously. His mother (the superb Carey Mulligan), apparently uprooted one time too many already, comes close to seriously losing it when her brooding husband decides to depart to fight the fires, leaving Joe to find work in a photo shop while mom unravels in various ways. 

Expect Dano to find work himself behind a camera again.

Rated "PG-13": thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language and smoking; 1:44; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Hedges and Kidman in "Boy Erased."
Similarly understated in its telling – but also with a fine set of performances – is “Boy Erased,” based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, a young man whose parents sent him to gay therapy camp.

Talented Aussie Joel Edgerton once again becomes a triple threat here (as he was with "The Gift"), writing, directing and in a smaller role as the less-than-charismatic program leader whose aim is to change the natural course of growing up and everything that entails.

Conley stand-in Jared Eamons, as played quite convincingly (what else!) by Lucas Hedges, is a much more appealing character, and so is his shrewd mother (Nicole Kidman), the effortless go-between for her Baptist preacher husband (Russell Crowe) and their coming-to-grips son.

This balancing act becomes the best reason to see a movie whose pacing, including some intrusive flashbacks, can get in the way of its good intentions.

Rated "R": sexual content including assault, some language and brief drug use; 1:54; $ $ $ out of $5

If you haven’t heard, the popular Netflix service has begun releasing certain films in select theaters to coincide with its same-day streaming, and that includes today's “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” from the fabled Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Actually, their latest is a violent series of six separate western stories, named after the title of the first one, which stars Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson, as a nasty and ironically coiffed singing cowboy.

I wasn't exactly thrilled with such an inauspicious beginning, or with the second adventure, either, which continues the entire anthology's apparent connection of living and (mostly) dying in the Old West. That one stars James Franco, playing a bank robber, who meets the wrong end of a noose once too often.

More convincing and, it says here, up to the Coens' eccentric speed is the one called "Meal Ticket," starring Liam Neeson, as the promoter/benefactor of a limbless little man (Harry Melling) entertaining, I guess, locals with his oratorical skills.

Zoe Kazan is nicely featured in an oddly intriguing love story that's the longest tale of the piece, and Tom Waits, as a hardworking prospector, stars in the shortest one.

That leaves a nifty ensemble, including Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek, for the end of the road. It's the final segment called "Mortal Remains," a story that takes them on a stagecoach into what just possibly could be the Coen Brothers' version of the Twilight Zone.

Rated "R": some strong violence; 2:12; $ $ $ out of $5 

Finally and most disappointingly, there's the (not-so) "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," a sequel to a J.K. Rowling original that I so thoroughly enjoyed.

What's missing here is the whimsy of the first go-round, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," in which we were introduced to all those oddly compelling characters, most of whom return here. Of course, chief among them is beast-searching zoologist/wizard Newt Scamander, played so amusingly and affectionately then by Eddie Redmayne.

Redmayne returns with all the "Fantastic" magic of a wizard's world.
In this one, which seems to be pursuing Harry Potter connections more than interesting creatures, Scamander suddenly has become a combination Rain Man/Dr. Doolittle with political intentions. Surely that's thanks to a Rowling screenplay that's darker and creepier with the re-introduction of the titled Grindelwald, as played by Johnny Depp, who himself has become the poster boy for weird, and his character, who just happens to be BFF to the Potter franchise's beloved Dumbledore (Jude Law).

After Grindelwald's less-than-fabulous escape from confinement in New York begins the picture, Dumbeldore sends Scamander on a secret mission to Paris to find him and and another ultra-mysterious sort named Credence (Ezra Miller). Once there, Newt reunites with his baker sidekick (Dan Fogler, given little for us to laugh about this time) and kooky girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), now suddenly a devoted follower of Grindelwald.

Meanwhile, Newt's own love interest (Katherine Waterston), who doubles as Queenie's sister and a witch cop, too, is also among the cast of thousands in Paris searching for the perplexing Credence.

Thank goodness for all those still extra special effects and filmmaking magicians behind the scenes. They just might keep some wandering minds away from such convoluted storytelling. 

Rated "PG-13": some sequences of fantasy action; 2:14; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening are two films we have not seen: "Instant Family," a "PG-13"-rated, foster care comedy with Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, and "A Private War," the true, "R"-rated story of a celebrated war correspondent, starring Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan and Stanley Tucci. 

The latter was the closing night film at this year's 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival and, by the way, that's where we did see "Widows," Wildlife" and "Boy Erased."

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