Friday, July 1, 2022

Here's to more 'Minions,' less Gru; 'Nolan' is a hit; small 'Stalker' still rattles

The best thing about "Minions: The Rise of Gru" just might be an 87-minute running time that still leaves what mostly plays like an overblown TV cartoon seem a lot longer than it should be.

As a matter of fact, "The Rise" begins with a 10-minute car chase of villainous creatures you might see on the Saturday morning small screen and, yet, does not feature any of the title characters. What it does do is set up this prequel story, if not perhaps appeal to a few starstruck adults in the crowd impressed by the latest, ahem, vocal artists playing bad guys and gals. 

Nicknames such as Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean Clawed (Jean Claude Van Damme), the religiously robed Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolphe Lundgren) and Stronghold (Danny Trejo) take advantage of the '70s-era look and feel that also gives rise to jokes and sight gags with an occasionally welcome assortment of golden oldies. (The Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love" becomes a real reel highlight.)

It's all the early villainy afoot, though, that has franchise bad boy and increasingly obnoxious Gru (now almost 12 and still voiced by Steve Carell) eager to join the "Vicious Six," so the mean wittle kid attempts just that. As is their happily accepted plight, his game and tiny yellow henchman engagingly try to help, too, with all their vocal spontaneity provided by the only legitimate vocal star in the house. That remains to be the gifted Pierre Coffin, a French animator who has nicely learned how to squeak, giggle and talk gibberish with the best of them. 

Among other lenghthy segments, a few Minions get some martial arts pointers from a Kung-Fu master (Michelle Yeoh), and another rides cross-country on a Big Wheel to pursue a tough-looking cyclist (rapper RZA). Certainly the charming title characters remain cuter than the average bear, but their latest pushy adventure remains a movie that only small fry up through the grammar school set might really enjoy. 

Rated "PG" by MPAA: some action/violence and rude humor; 1:27; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

(Naturally, "Minions: The Rise of Gru" is playing at just about every theater everywhere on this long holiday weekend.)

Next up is a fine baseball documentary "Facing Nolan," which should attract quite a few enthusiasts for America's favorite pastime (that is, if there are any of us truly left).

I mean, big righthander Nolan Ryan, who holds an astonishing 51 MLB records, probably is the best pitcher never to win a Cy Young Award, which is given anually to the top hurlers in the American and National League. Despite performing in both leagues, with four teams, for a combined 27 years, throwing seven no-hitters and likely striking out just about every batter he faced more than once, the "Cy" slight also might be called astonishing

Then again, the apparently unperturbed Ryan only preferred to prove himself on the field, perhaps especially since -- as a pitcher who might have been baseball's original "Wild Thing" -- his early goal was to play in the "Bigs" for four years, simply long enough to earn a pension. Besides, as the thoroughly assembled doc from director Bradley Jackson suggests, the real competitor in the family might be Nolan's wife Ruth, who first saw him in the fourth grade and "in those days always wished" she could play organized baseball, too.

The faith-inspired couple has held firmly together ever since their first date in 1962. As fate might have directed, the film they watched included the line: "For every woman, there's just one man." (It was the otherwise forgettable "Rome Adventure," starring Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue.)

Ruth, their kids and even grandchildren speak freely among eons of family, friends and baseball-connected talking heads saying compelling things here about Ryan, his achievements and his current rancher doings in Texas. Former President George W. Bush and all-time MLB hit leader Pete Rose pop in and out mostly to bust chops but, among many other top players, fellow-Hall of Famer Randy Johnson calls Ryan, "Mythological."

The fact that big lefty Johnson sits second to Ryan in most strikeouts ever recorded -- and still trails him by almost 900 Ks -- itself speaks volumes and shows why actually "facing Ryan" and his way-over-100-mph fastball had grown men shaking in their spikes. You, on the other hand, may just be a little moved by a bit of it all.
Not rated by MPAA (with a couple of swear words that likely won't offend many); 1:43; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Facing Nolan" was shown recently at a special "Fathom" national event and is now making its rounds at a few select theaters.)

Finally this week, look around long enough and you're likely to find the simply named "Stalker," a nifty little potboiler with no official web site but still worthy of a quick look for its sizzle down the stretch.

Carrying tags like "Best Thriller Feature" from something called "Shriekfest" (in Los Angeles) and the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, the story -- perhaps not-so coincidentally -- concerns a nice-guy teacher named Andy (Vincent Van Horn), who actually moves to L.A. from Austin because of a troubling breakup.

We hear about the latter, after some nicely placed locator shots in the City of Angels, when our hero reveals all to a pretty if cautious potential pickup (Christine Ko) in a "dive bar" (one of a few telling terms viewers themselves might pick up during quick glimpses of Andy's cell phone).

Plotting heats up and ambiguities follow from there when the new couple calls for a "ryde"share and the driver (a cleverly creepy Michael Joplin) eagerly volunteers to show Andy around his new hometown. Both characters and viewers might even discover places they probably didn't expect to explore. 

Not rated by MPAA (but it contains just about all the "R"-rated stuff you'd likely see in a film called "Stalker"); 1:26; $ $ $ out of $5

("Stalker" is streaming now on Hulu and available to rent on other subscription services. Among newer films opening in theaters today are "The Forgiven," "Mr. Malcolm's List" and "Official Competition." Debuting but streaming only is "The Princess," also on Hulu.)

Friday, June 24, 2022

'Elvis' fully rocks; 'Phantom' swings for fun; 'Black Phone' rings for scares

Summer brings in a second straight weekend of fine films, with this current trio headed by "Elvis," a dazzling swirl of music, motion and emotion from director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann (of similarly flashy "Moulin Rouge" fame).

This strange brew of a biopic begins with a fever-dream kind of telling from an old and confused Colonel Tom Parker, the equally famous and infamous manager of rock 'n' roll "King" Elvis Presley. Parker (here in the form of an almost unrecognizable if beguiling Tom Hanks) looked odd, spoke in squeaky tones and yet somehow charmed his way into a wealth of riches as, perhaps, a Svengali-like con artist to a talented young man heavily influenced by family, spellbinding gospel rhythms and the sweet smells of success.

Luhrmann energetically puts all of it up on the big screen and then some by quickly touching the tentpole events in a pop-culture life that everyone knows and even including a few more that only Presley's most intimate circle could possibly recognize.  

And, through almost every minute of this lengthy, ever-rocking epic, you'll rarely pull your eyes away from Austin Butler, the 30-year-old actor who seriously becomes a star by embodying one of the brightest of all time. I mean, at the very end, you might wonder if it is the real Elvis leaving the building. Come to think of it, maybe it is.  

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: substance abuse, strong language, smoking, and suggestive material; 2:39; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Leave it to the Brits -- again -- to find an offbeat story and turn it into such a charmingly engaging film as "The Phantom of the Open," another '70s biopic, only this one involving someone you probably never heard of before.

The real name of this "Phantom" is Maurice Flitcroft, a career crane worker-turned late-in-life golfer, who amazingly gets himsef into a (British) Open qualifier to often hilarious results. (The key joke becomes Flitcroft's total ignorance about golf until he steps onto a course, and it's truly priceless.) 

Even finer, Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, himself the grand master of offbeat roles, portrays our otherwise smart and likable hero from tee to green with love, faith and humanity, while surrounded by a fabulous group of supporting -- and mostly supportive -- characters.

Ever-strong Sally Hawkins ("The Shape of Water") leads the latter batch in delightful fashion as the lovely wife who, in one grand moment, has to be told "lower scores are better." Almost unbelievably, another level of levity comes with the presence of Flitcroft's twin sons, who were real-life disco-dance titleholders, as placed here in the hands (and feet) of actors Christian and Jonah Lees.

Credit director Craig Roberts ("Eternal Beauty") and screenwriter Simon Farnaby ("Paddington 2" and the upcoming "Pinocchio"), too, for making it all happen in such a championship way.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some strong language and smoking; 1:46; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Another real relic from the past, "The Black Phone," uses balloons, baseball and bullies to ring in an occasionally disturbing supernatural thriller with some good adolescent performances and the legitimately scary Ethan Hawke playing a very naughty (apparently his word, not mine) guy.

Actually, the phone gimmick gets a little old after a few chilling occasions, but siblings Finney (Mason Thames), all athletic and shy, and streetsmart kid sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), prayerful, profane and a little spooky in her own right, remain welcome throughout in leaning on each other simply to put up with their kinda weird and tipsy widower dad (the always just a bit off Jeremy Davies). 

The major plot point, of course, involves Hawke's personification of evil and, if you really need more details about that before watching this latest little Blumhouse grabber, please don't be afraid to read someone else's review.  

Rated "R" by MPAA: violence, bloody images, language, and some drug use; 1:42; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, June 17, 2022

'Cha Cha' really dances; 'Lightyear' nicely animates; gentle 'Leo' surprises

"Cha Cha Real Smooth" offers a title that comes from a gifted party-starter at bat and bar mitzvahs, of all things, but entertains with its sensitivity, warmth and a cast that never quits. Oh, yeah, it's often true-to-life funny, too.

Writer and director Cooper Raiff, 25, plays the recent college grad, always looking for a real job, with a chutzpah that likely accounts for his own precocious filmmaking skills. His non-Jewish Andrew can talk dirty in front of a rabbi, hit on a single mom (the terrific and lovely Dakota Johnson), protect her autistic daughter (legitimate scene-stealer Vanessa Burghardt) from bullies, and easily love and or hate his sweet young brother (Evan Assante), who's smitten with a classmate that only rarely converses with him.

Despite one overly precious kitchen scene he shares with a bipolar mom (the otherwise fine Leslie Mann), Raiff charges full speed into a dramedy that should make him a recognizable name for years to come. Already his "Cha Cha" has twirling onto the short list of best movies in 2022.

("Cha Cha Real Smooth" is playing in a few select theaters, including the Cedar Lee in northeast Ohio, and streaming on Apple+.)  

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and some sexual content; 1:47; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

"Lightyear," only in theaters, starts before the "Buzz" in the immensely popular "Toy Story" movies took off in 1995. In fact, an opening burst of script tells us this is the movie which human kid Andy saw, then caused him to buy the "Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger" action figure that came to life with Woody and the rest of the "Toy" gang way back at the end of the last century.

But, man, that's a full 27 years ago, and a nice message movie that attempts to make Andy's hero then into a team player and not show off the self-centered traits he has displayed in the franchise that created him causes a disconnect in time travel. Or somethin'.

Regardless, even without any real breath-taking adventure here, the as-usual, sparkling Pixar animation and a remarkable robotic cat named Sox become the key reasons to see it today. Believe me when I say it surely won't take nearly three decades to create a "Sox" film.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: for action/peril; 1:45; $ $ $ out of $5

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" features a pair of truly grand performances in a two-hander of four acts (and sorry if we're talking both theatrical and sexual connotations here).

That's because the ever-superb Emma Thompson, as a sixtysomething widow who never has been fulfilled during lovemaking, hires the 40-years-younger title character to turn the, uh, trick. Certainly charming and handsome leading man Daryl McCormack looks and acts more than capably enough to do it, and the script from first-time screenwriter Katy Brand sizzles with wit and an uncommonly consistent sense of where can we possibly go next?

Then, just when you think that director Sophie Hyde and her nifty adult production might be running off the tracks, a curve from a third character helps set the stage for a final, incredibly unexpected money shot that might knock more than your socks off.

What definitely can be expected now, though, are significant mainstream (acting) offers for McCormack and more water-cooler talk about the brave Ms. Thompson than she's ever heard before in a distinguished, 35-year career.

("Good Luck to You, Leo Grand" is streaming exclusively now on Hulu.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: sexual content, graphic nudity and some language; 1:47; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, June 10, 2022

Final 'Jurassic' parks all over the place; 'Hustle' hits some three-pointers

What words can possibly describe yet another theme park sequel, "Jurassic World Dominion"?

Long? Check. Lame? Yep (especially since its returning dinosaurs are now too plentiful to inspire much awe). And seriously tame? You betcha (and that's not even considering the endless number of times that Chris Pratt, back as courageous dino trainer Owen Grady, reaches out his left hand as if to pet one of his favorite beasts).

The mixed bag of "B"-movie dynamics might remind some of westerns (lassos and horses), jungle adventures (poachers), creature features (giant bugs) and huge-monster flicks, complete with ancient '50s-era tropes to allow the sizable "Dominion" cast to either run from danger or, perhaps, keep posing en masse for photo opps. 

By the way, even with the return of Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum, all as environment friendly scientists from early franchise films, the only real human scene-stealer becomes genuine star-in-the-making DeWanda Wise ("The Harder They Fall"), as a mercenary pilot with a conscience.

Meanwhile, dino protector Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), back again to double as action heroine and Grady's love interest, gets one of the few truly memorable moments by going underwater to elude a giant predator. On the other end of the congested proceedings, the corporate villain of the piece  -- or, at least, an oddly cast Campbell Scott portraying the closest thing to one -- has liittle to do but look like the poster boy for bewilderment.

Truth be told, despite the huge and well-deserving success of Steven Spielberg's triple Oscar-winning original a full 30 summers ago, "Jurassic Park" has been slowly melting in the dark ever since. Maybe this alleged "epic conclusion" finally -- and thankfully -- really will put a lid on it. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: intense sequences of some violence and language; 2:26; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Adam Sandler remains on his game as producer and star of "Hustle," a by-the-book basketball story that hoopsters will embrace and others may simply tolerate.

Actually, it's the comic-turned actor still doing his thing of busting chops, all the while playing a hard-working, ever-traveling pro scout trying to achieve a coaching dream and, thus, spend more time with his family. The husband-wife partnership offered by Sandler and Queen Latifah forms a surprisingly strong element here in the midst of the former's keen desire to make a star out of a young man he discovers during a pick-up game in Spain.

The performance from current Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangomez, as Sandler's pet project, is a pivotally fine one, and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards stands out, too, as a trash-talking hotshot competing for first-round draft glory. 

Otherwise, an assortment of NBA stars, legends and connections make mostly quick appearances. A few among many range from current Slovenia homeboy Luka Doncic, to all-timer Allen Iverson still "talkin' 'bout practice," to Kenny "the Jet" Smith (swell as a friendly sports agent), and even wealthy superfan James Goldstein showing up to watch a secret game only a handful of insiders know about. (And, I still say that guy looks a lot like late, great rocker Tom Petty.)

("Hustle" remains in a few select theaters and is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: for language; 1:58; $ $ $ out of $5

Friday, June 3, 2022

'A New Orleans Story' features all that cool jazz and much, much more

Not many documentaries will get the joint jumping as easily as "Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story" manages to do with its smorgasbord of Big Easy panache.

The movie's music quickly becomes the key ingredient to making toes tap and shoulders shimmy from the get-go, but the unmatched culture, mouth-watering cuisine and often fascinating history of NOLA gets so easily unveiled, too, that its touristy telling hardly ever seems intrusive.

Of course, it never hurts that a great crew of artists-turned talking heads, such as legendary crooner Tom Jones or Cuban-American superstar Pitbull -- neither exactly what you would call a classic jazzman -- immediately interject personal feelings about what happens every year at the world famous, 50-year-old New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

I mean, even before an event organizer mentions "7,000 musicians on 14 stages for eight days," Jones exclaims, "Wow! This is the real stuff!" or Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Perez) touts, "I can give you just one word: Magical!"

Truly most significantly, the latter is among the slew of "names you know and others you should know," coming through with as many sizzling as moving performances and more than enough to match the lavish words of local praise. They include Al Green, the entire Marsalis royal family of jazz, Aaron Neville, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, Earth Wind & Fire and even Jimmy Buffett. 

The original old Parrothead, doubling here as the film's executive producer, now calls himself "a child of Mardi Gras." You might, too.

 Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: brief language and some suggestive material; 1:35; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also scheduled to open in theaters today: Crimes of the FutureEiffel, Watcher, and White Elephant. Streaming: Fire Island (Hulu), Hollywood Stargirl (Disney+) and Interceptor (Netflix).

Friday, May 27, 2022

A familiar ol' 'Top Gun,' some stale 'Burgers,' and the real 'Emergency'

The first Academy Award winner of 2022 arrives with "Top Gun: Maverick," but it actually shows up after all is mostly said and done. That's when the inimitable Lady Gaga belts out "Hold My Hand," already a dead-mortal-lock Best Original Song ballad she co-wrote to soar majestically over the closing credits, just like the many fighter jets do over enemy territory during this typically explosive summer blockbuster sequel.

Of course, Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" walked away with the Song Oscar from the original "Top Gun," even if "Danger Zone" (which did go on to earn Kenny Loggins a Grammy Award) was the upbeat credits closer 36 years ago. In fact, some quickly "Danger"(ous) notes can be heard dancing around "Maverick," which also uses more photos than clips to bring back memories from America's No.1 box-office hit of 1986.

Otherwise, the biggest reminder obviously comes with the return of legitimate movie star Tom Cruise, now admirably playing a more mature and wiser version than the young hotshot who earned his titular nickname as a heroic and excitingly successful test pilot. 

Also back is Val Kilmer, still called "Ice" by some, but now the U.S. Naval Commander of the (entire) Pacific Fleet. Naturally, his emotional reunion scene with Cruise will be the best 10 minutes in the film for many, but they also might notice all the nifty and newest digital cinematography moments from Claudio Miranda, already an Oscar winner himself for 2013's "Life of Pi," currently in his fifth big-screen collaboration with director Joseph Kosinksi.

The rest has Kosinski ("Only the Brave," "Tron: Legacy") serving up the requisite summer schmaltz and gravy, including a side of Jon "Too Much" Hamm," as the superior officer who repeatedly, testily and haplessly rags on Maverick's every spirited move. Talk about mad men!

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sequences of intense action and some strong language; 2:12; $ $ $ out of $5

Please excuse the bun, but "The Bob's Burgers Movie" really must be more than just an acquired taste, no? After all, the FOX-TV series on which it's based has been running every Sunday night for 11 years.

I think I watched the animated show's opening episode and never went back (unlike "The Simpsons," first noticed in this corner as a cartoon short on the old "Tracy Ullman Show" in 1987, and still occasionally viewed today during its own incredibly enduring -- and on-going record -- 33rd season).

Sad to say, the "Burgers" movie simply doesn't go down so easily. Three or four laugh-out-loud-instigating jokes and a few (very) silly songs in a dinosaur-paced 100 minutes do not a successful comedy make. 

Besides, the murderous plot has gloomy Bob Belcher (H. Bob Benjamin) and ever-boosting wife Linda (John Roberts) worrying about paying the rent. And, that's even before a sudden and huge sinkhole not only hampers their eatery business, but leads to daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal), the youngest of three oddball Belcher kids, to finding skeletal remains at the bottom. Uh, maybe next time we'll just order fries.   

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: rude/suggestive material and language; 1:42; $ $ out of $5

Finally, that leaves the movie week's only real thought-provoker with "Emergency" (already in some select theaters and debuting on Prime Video today).

It features two college kids hoping to enjoy the fun of their senior-year spring break. Though Kunie (welcome newcomer Donald Elise-Watkins) is trying his best to complete the mold experiment that will help him advance to post-grad studies at Princeton, he somewhat reluctantly agrees to take his party-hardy cues from best pal Sean (RJ Cyler, still smartly funny after his "Harder They Fall" success).

The setup suggests lotsa rollicking stuff ahead, right? Well, what follows does provoke some satirical laughs, but potential racial implications speak timely and emotional volumes, too.

It all comes from director Carey Williams ("R#J") and writer K.D. Davila, who collected the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award after the film premiered at Sundance last January. The movie's final image alone is a killer.
Rated "R" by MPAA: pervasive language, drug use and some sexual references; 1:44; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Meet the haves of stuffy 'Downton' and have-nots of warm-hearted 'Valet'

Just about all of the usual suspects return in the sequel, "Downton Abbey: A New Era," with silent movies and a villa on the French Riviera chief among the show-and-tell talking points, not to mention a plot as crowded as the poster at right would indicate.

It's no, uh, "Masterpiece," but legitimate fans of the long-running PBS-TV series surely will enjoy how the film gives everyone a chance to contribute in their own special if predictable ways.

"Downton" creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") and director Simon Curtis ("My Week With Marilyn") bookend these proceedings with a wedding and a funeral. In between, those richly famous Crawley Family dynamics -- still overseen by Countess/matriarch Violet (as always, so smartly portrayed by truly Grand Dame Maggie Smith) -- include a few period-piece swoons and some inevitable redemption to smooth over any potential cracks.

Violet herself is inheriting the aforementioned and fabulously picturesqe villa, which has been willed to her by a wealthy former suitor. That means tongues start wagging, too, when part of the clan heads to France to discuss closing arrangements. Meanwhile, the rest stay home to deal with a film crew using their estate for a location shoot beset with numerous problems.

Perhaps worst among them is a pretty, petty actress (the fine Laura Haddock), whose difficulties with the spoken word seem borrowed from the memorable struggles of Jean Hagen in the '50s "Singin' in the Rain." Don't worry, though, it's the formidable Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and two wait-staff cuties (Joanne Frogatt and Sophie McSharra) who might come up with solutions. Otherwise, Dominic West, as the star of the movie within the movie, also contributes mightily.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: suggestive references, language and thematic elements; 2:05; $ $ $ out of $5

Ironically, it's truly seeing how the other half lives in a generally Hollywood-neglected part of Los Angeles that becomes one of the movie charms of "The Valet" (starting Friday only on Hulu).

The mild-mannered Antonio (lovingly played by Eugenio Derbez, the choir director in the Oscar-winning "CODA") unassumingly rides his wobbly old bike to park cars at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel each morning and back to his Hispanic neighborhood off Pico Boulevard, near fabled MacArthur Park, every night. But who knew an accident on the way home would get the guy involved with paparazzi ("Hey, I don't even like to be in family photos," he says) and, more significantly, one of the world's most glamorous movie stars (the terrific Samara Weaving).

The silly story comes from a 2006 French film ("La Doublure"), re-imagined here for American audiences by a couple of writers, Bob Fisher ("Wedding Crashers") and Rob Greenberg (TV's "Frasier"), with some classic successes on their busy resumes. Still, it's the way they let Antonio and Weaving's Olivia spark a friendship and deal with the valet's loving, immigrant family that often makes their screenplay shine. 

The engaging ensemble includes scene-stealing Carmen Salinas (in the last role before her December passing), as Antonio's outspoken live-in mother. Naturally, she doesn't speak English but nevertheless enjoys a full-on fling with the Korean landlord (Ji Yong Lee). Since neither undertands what the other is saying, Mom explains (through subtitles), "we speak a deeper language."

So does their movie, which at times is as meaningful about good things happening to decent people as it is funny. Kudos, Hulu, for picking it up. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sexual content, some strong language and brief drug material; 1:57; $ $ $ 1/2 out of $5

(Also opening in theaters Friday is the Sundance hit "Emergency,," which will start streaming, too, May 27 on Prime Video; the horror-laden "Men," and the political documentary "2000 Mules." The animated "Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" streams exclusively on Disney+).

Friday, May 6, 2022

'Strange' goings-on take backseat to playful 'Duke' and tiny French charmer

So, if "summer" blockbuster season is really upon us, why does Marvel's latest unspool so unsteadily compared to a couple of much smaller (read: better) films on the all-important opening weekend?

I mean, there's nothing particularly awful about "Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," but the title really says it all, and so does a warning from a pivotal character who quips, "Rule number one of multiversal travel is you don't know anything." 

And, oh by the way, the plot -- helped immensely since the last multi-billion-dollar "Spider-Man" smash kinda spurred on the idea of multiverses -- gives the extremely wealthy Marvel Universe license to dismiss anything and everything fans think they know about other stories and movies they paid to read and watch previously. (According to a count provided by the same super-traveling heroine mentioned above, the number of multiverses she has visited already stands at 72. Geez!) 

The multi-dimensional result thus becomes a mix of the same superheroes turning from good gals and guys in one world to bad ones in another, with even a very distinct possibility of changing back and forth again in the same film. Without giving much away, such a convoluted notion leads to perhaps the loveliest segment in this "Madness," when two sides of Dr. Stephen Strange, both portrayed again by the influential Benedict Cumberbatch, brawl mightily while accompanied by a cacophony of music nicely orchestrated by Danny Elfman.

Not as successful in the department of the ol' switcheroo, though, is Disney+ "WandaVision" star Elizabeth Olsen, helping as much as hindering in the dual role of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, with the latter playing like a soccer mom's answer to Maleficent.

Now, that's a Disney villain you'll probably never see in a Marvel movie, but the odd assortment of old and new players, either brought back or introduced anew, should keep genuine fans of crossover franchising happy. If anyone cares, it says here that returning "Strange" love interest Rachel McAdams and a cameo from Bruce Campbell (legendary friend to director Sam Raimi) weave their way through such messy madness as two of the legitimate standouts.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language; 2:12; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Adults in the room may have more luck embracing "The Duke," based on the true story of a devilish Brit accused of stealing a Goya painting from the National Gallery "for the greater good."

The notoriously fine Jim Broadbent, an Oscar winner from way back for "Iris," plays the rascal seriously named Kempton Bumpton with a charming singularity galore and enough working-class wit to keep bewildered UK authorities guessing in all the wrong places. 

And, if amusing courtroom sequences down the classic stretch and some moving moments of family torment somehow can't keep you involved, then a famous actress named Helen Mirren surely will. The Dame is spot-on perfect as Bumpton's wife, a cleaning lady with ample common sense to match her hubby's wild-eyed idealism.

Among other things, "The Duke" is the final film for prolific stage/screen/TV director Roger Michell, a man who gave jobs to Daniel Craig long before the actor did his 007 thing. Naturally, then, the final shot might leave you nicely stirred while probably not shaken.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language and brief sexuality; 1:36; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Finally this week, there's the festval and art house favorite "Petite Maman," a wee fantasy from writer/director Celine Sciamma, the same auteur who gave us 2019's powerful "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

Her latest is as subtle as the last one was rousing with its intricate explorations of death, mother-daughter connections and childhood friendship all sneaking up on us through the brilliant camera work of Claire Mahon.

Identical twins (Josephine and Gabriel Sanz) star as unrelated 8-year-olds, who meet sweetly in the woods after one's grandmother dies, then become fast pals. Before we realize it and the quickly arriving end, Sciamma's smartly titled work (translating to "Little Mom") turns into a bit of a lark that still flies away with our hearts.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: thematic elements and brief smoking; 1:12; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("The Duke" and "Petite Maman" have been making their rounds at select theaters for a few weeks. They both open today in northeast Ohio, with the latter showing exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theater.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Shatner, 'Jay & Silent Bob' among top celeb guests at FAN EXPO Cleveland

A "Clerks" reunion presents Jason Mewes & Kevin Smith. 
Three days of "unlimited fandom" in an "ultimate playground" for movies, comics, gaming and more hits the North Coast on Friday when FAN EXPO Cleveland arrives at the Huntington Convention Center.

A slew of celebrity guests -- headed by legendary "Star Trek" sci-fi maestro William Shatner, not to mention a "Clerks" film reunion featuring writer/director Kevin "Silent Bob" Smith with pal Jason "Jay" Mewes, Brian O'Halloran and others -- will be on hand for autographs, photos and just sittin around talkin'.

For a complete list of activities, times and guests, including numerous voiceover artists, visit FAN EXPO Cleveland.

(As for movies, an unusually large assortment of smaller films arrives in time for the weekend. Among them: "Anais in Love," "Charlotte," "Hatching," and "Memory" are all new at local theaters; "The Survivor" (HBO Max), "Crush" (Hulu), "I Love America" (Amazon Prime) and "Polar Bear" (Disney+) debut exclusively on listed streaming services; "The Aviary" may be found in theaters or VOD and, finally, "Marvelous and the Black Hole" is only On Demand.)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Eggers swings for the fences with 'Northman' but falls short of real power

One of the early strengths of young filmmaker Robert Eggers has been his uncanny ability to entertain us with low-key scares, as he did mostly in "The Witch" and, perhaps, less successfully if more creepily in "The Lighthouse."

Now, though. the director (and co-writer) really goes straight for the jugular with a big budget blood and mud bath, "The Northman," which takes a mythic tale that apparently inspired "Hamlet" and dresses it up for the big screen with "Game of Thrones"-like mayhem. (Hence, the creepy stuff is saved this time for Nicole Kidman's "maternal" character. Get it?)

Eggers brings along a couple of stalwarts from his aformentioned movies, too, with "Lighthouse"-keeper Willem Dafoe here portraying a combo jester/advisor to a murdered Nordic king (Ethan Hawke), and Anya Taylor-Joy, now an A-lister after playing "The Witch" and a chess whiz on "The Queen's Gambit," nicely still settling for supporting love interest to the dead monarch's muscular and revenge-happy son (Alexander Skarsgard).

Of course, none of the players should be blamed for the uneven historical canvas or the unnecessary length of some scenes. One, in fact, the great Dane named Claes Bang, who was so good in little movies such as "The Square" and "The Burnt Orange Heresy," even mightily impresses with his own kingly clout. 

Regardless, if anyone really is looking to be entertained by stories of this ilk, may I suggest a 1958 spectacle simply called "The Vikings"? Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Orson Welles -- full-fledged movie stars all -- carried the film to a resounding $13 million international box office and spawned a TV series in which none of them worked. By the way, if you can't locate the movie on a streaming service, a place called your local library might find a copy somewhere.

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity; 2:20; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Also opening only in theaters Friday: "The Bad Guys" (animated) and "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" (with Nicolas Cage actually playing himself).

Thursday, April 14, 2022

'Father Stu' and newest 'Beasts' each tries hard to convert the masses

Wahlberg's "Stu" at church.
Mark Wahlberg has changed body type for various movie roles throughout a nearly three-decade Hollywood career. Now, he gets to show off a spiritual side to shape "Father Stu," the real life-priest he portrays in a faith-based film arriving just in time for the holy Easter holiday.

For what might be the actor's best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006 Best Picture "The Departed," he again goes through a plot-induced transformation that takes him body and soul from bruising boxer to aspiring, if somewhat delusional actor and, finally, to inspirational man of God.

There's another unexpected physical twist down the emotional stretch, but it's Wahlberg's ability to have us believe his foul-mouthed crusader actually might relate to the stained masses that makes a pivotal difference in Stu's very Catholic conversion. 

The church-going Wahlberg's personal passion project gets strong help from worthy parental turns by Jackie Weaver and Mel Gibson, whose often angry roles finally earn some softer moments, too. Still, the story's most positive presence comes from Teresa Ruiz, as the religious young woman who instigated Stu's reclamation in the first place. 

By the way, producer Wahlberg might have received a real blessing with the casting of ever-grand Malcolm McDowell, on hand here as Stu's pastor. The British star played perhaps filmdom's most sadistic bad boy in Stanley Kubrick's now 50-year-old classic, "A Clockwork Orange."  

Rated "R" by MPAA: for language throughout; 2:04; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

While on the subject of the dark side, the special-effects witchcraft in "Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore" truly is the reason to see this third franchise effort to convert "Harry Potter" fans to watch more wizardry from author-turned screenwriter J.K. Rowling.

As for story, rate it somewhere between Rowling's superior and original "Beasts" of 2016 and her disappointing "Grindelwald" sequel of 2018. Certainly the fun of the former does not seriously return in this latest, though the daunting presence of Mads Mikkelsen, chosen to replace the limply weird Johnny Depp as the latter's powerful and unquestionable villain of the piece, just about really does move mountains.  

Here, Grindelwald's genuine evil shows up early in a lunch meeting with the kind Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Presumably so does the first of the titled "Secrets," and then maybe this film's most engaging character, Professor of Charm Eulalie Hicks (Jessica Williams), nicely recruited to help the series' mainstays keep things right. Most notably, those would be creature keeper Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and funny Muggle sidekick/baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

Meanwhile, most "Fantastic Beasts" in this third installment of same remain vital and deserving of such billing. If you haven't viewed the first two, though, catching up on them probably will make getting through this one less, uh . . . tricky. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some fantasy/action violence; 2:22; $ $ $ out of $5

Thursday, April 7, 2022

All-star cast helps nurture book-based, war-tinged 'Mothering Sunday'

Way back in September, "Mothering Sunday" was the first movie I watched on the second day of the 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Now, finally, it's making some overdue theatrical rounds and premieres Friday at a half-dozen theaters in northeastern Ohio.

The opening credits of this very British, class-conscious period piece simply and understatedly claim it's "with" some actors whose names you just might recognize. In fact, Olivia Colman ("The Favourite"), Colin Firth ("The King's Speech") and Glenda Jackson (both "Women in Love" and "A Touch of Class") all have won Academy Awards, but this post-WWI story centers around a very determined leading lady (Odessa Young), as the lovely young handmaiden who always offers an eyeful -- and plenty more.

Young easily dominates the novel-based proceedings, despite working for the rich and grieving Nivens' family (headed by Firth and Colman) and regularly dallying with their equally wealthy neighbor (Josh O'Connor, himself the Emmy-winning co-star of Colman's on "The Crown"). 

We'll stop here before spilling the beans on where and how the legendary Jackson comes into the engaging picture. Just know that the gorgeous-looking melodrama arrives from director Eva Husson ("Gang Bang") and playwright/screenwriter Alice Birch ("Lady Macbeth"), a formidable combination obviously destined for similarly flashy cinema ahead.

Rated "R" by MPAA: sexual content, graphic nudity and some language; 1:51; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Among other films opening only in theaters on Friday: "Ambulance," "Everything Everywhere All at Once," and "Sonic The Hedgehog 2." Meanwhile, "All the Old Knives" debuts both in theaters and on Prime Video, with "Cow," a BAFTA-nominated documentary, apparently available in even fewer theaters and On Demand. Finally, "Minamata," one of the features voted among the year's top five Oscar fan favorites of 2021 in a Twitter poll, launches on VOD and digital outlets just about everywhere.