Next screening? “Queen & Slim”

This is one of two or three end of year films I have been looking forward to, police racial harassment, a traffic stop escalated, a “Dirty Larry Crazy Mary” escape-flee “spree” (NOT “Bonnie & Clyde”).

Looks gripping.

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Netflixable? Might “Christmas Break-in” be a substitute for “Home Alone?”

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Let’s lower the bar here, straight off.

Say you’re snowed in, the kids are going stir crazy and you’ve still got power and Netflix. If those kids are “over” “Home Alone,” and not yet in their picky/discriminating taste years (say 7 and under), “Christmas Break-In” makes a perfectly passable time-killer. For them.

Adults? As you were, people. This isn’t for you. At all.

It’s about a Duluth area nine year-old, Izzy (Cameron Seely) with visions of shredding guitar solos dancing through her head. She’s so anxious to get that new Fender for Christmas that’s she’s Sparpied “Fender” and “Guitar” on her parents’ heads (Denise Richards, Sean O’Bryan). They’ve got to get to the “one day/half off sale” at the guitar store after work, on the last day before school Christmas break.

They just HAVE to! Izzy’s told everybody in school it’s happening. She’s told the janitor who gives her guitar lessons (Danny Glover) this, too.

But there’s a blizzard coming. Her workaholic parents forget to pick her up. And by the time they remember, driving is no easy thing.

Izzy’s all alone, waiting in an empty school. Well, empty, save for the three crooks (Katrina Begin, Douglas Spain, Jake von Wagoner) who just broke in to hide out.

They knocked over a Salvation Army Store and had planned to skip down. But numbskull Ned (von Wagoner) isn’t much of a getaway driver, when it comes to directions. And he chose an ice cream truck as their getaway car.

Testy Barbie (Begin), his sister, is their leader. She and the muscle, Rico (Spain) plan on spending the bags of change they scored from the bell ringer charity on umbrella drinks in Mexico this Christmas.

Maybe not.

And as Ray has come back to get Izzy after her parents tell him about their screwup, the getaway just got more complicated. Izzy is on the spot and on task, gathering gear and a war plan for foiling the bad guys and saving Christmas!

Glover gets the film’s few laughs, telling the robbers “haunted school” stories to scare them off (Izzy secretly provides sound effects).

The parents try various ways to reach the school — stealing a snowmobile, for instance. None of these are developed, as there was no budget for stunts. Apparently. The same goes for Izzy’s guitar mania. They always cut away lest we see how little girl fingers have a hard time with Fender fretboards.

The villains manage only a giggle, here and there. The biggest laugh might be Begin’s blown line making it past the script supervisor, the director and the editor.

Unless the line was written as “What does the time of year have ANYTHING to do with it?”

Anyhoo, this “Home Alone” knockoff has a ways to go to reach “middling.” But if the kids are stuck inside without appropriate fresh-made holiday fare to watch, it’ll do.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: Unrated, pretty much a G.

Cast: Cameron Seely, Danny Glover, Katrina Begin, Douglas Spain, Jake von Wagoner, Sean O’Bryan and Denise Richards.

Credits: Directed b y Michael Kampa, script by Spanky Dustin Ward. A Koan/Netflix release

Running time: 1:26

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Next screening? “21 Bridges”

It’s good to see Chadwick Boseman taking a shot at something that’s not a high minded biopic (“Marshall,'”Get on Up,” “42”) or a Black Panther turn.

But early reviews on this genre cop thriller have been weak. STX is still a relatively new studio, and while the genre and the star were worth a gamble, and the picture should sell itself (genre pictures usually do), I’d hate for Boseman to lose box office clout if this one tanks.

So fingers crossed, as usual. “21 Bridges” opens Thursday night at a multiplex near you.

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Movie Review: Life and emotions come in “Waves”

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Intimate, evocative and lurid, “Waves” captures the heat of youth and the fog one family navigates through as parents try to guide two teens to adulthood in Greater Miami.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults, in a major departure from his best known work, the Aussie apocalypse horror tale “It Comes at Night,” tells this story in densely saturated colors, with a swirling camera, seamless stream-of-conscience editing and a soundtrack — music sung along to, voices muffled, then brought into focus — to match.

The melodramatic first two acts play out pro forma, predictably but with intense feeling as Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an upper middle class high school senior who wrestles, plays a little piano and loves on his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and endures the loving but judgmental glower of his “We are not AFFORDED to the luxury of being ‘average'” father (Sterling K. Brown).

But “predictable” goes out the window with a third act that feels more like an overlong epilogue, taking the story from its climax and beyond, meandering into grace notes that point to how people go on and grow after a life-shattering event.

Tyler’s training regimen at school is rigorous enough. It’s when he gets home that “that extra mile” is covered. His taskmaster dad puts him through more reps in their home gym, and a post-match debriefing and coaching on the mat he’s laid out in the garage.

Homework? That comes next. And yet he has time for Alexis and tomfoolery with his friends after all that. The illusion of it all, the thin margin the kid is working with, is hinted at in his careless driving, rambunctious sing-alongs with his boys or Alexis, a camera spinning between them capturing joy, harmless fun and a lot of unbelted seatbelts.

That margin of error evaporates in ways we can see coming, even if a car wreck isn’t one of them. And the “push through it” pressure Tyler is living under means there’s no communication with his family when the wheels start to come off — an injury here, a girfriend crisis there.

Sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is all but ignored until Taylor’s crisis comes to a head. We then get to watch her sort her own life out and face the same stark choices he did as she finds a beau (Lucas Hedges) and the life-altering temptations of teenagers all over America. Will she make better choices?

The young players shine, ably getting across the emotional confusion of youth, the impulsiveness, and the stubborn unwillingness to communite with their elders. These are buttoned-down performances with flashes of temper, regret and guilt.

But it is Brown, of TV’s “This is Us,” who pops off the screen, pop-eyed in intensity, full of life lessons, directions and heavyweight parenting. He revels in the weightlifting bonding (with mirrors to peacock in front of) with his boy, stares at him with an unnerving focus. This is “toxic masculinity” with a loving touch. Ronald runs the family construction company, and whatever he and wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) agree on financial and childrearing matters, he is hellbent on raising a young MAN.

An opening credit — Damien Van Der Cruyssen is “colorist” on “Waves” — speaks volumes about Shults’ stylistic intentions here. He’s borrowed Harmony Korine’s production designer from “Spring Breakers” and put Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in charge of the score. The screen size changes aspect ratios as hypersaturated blues tint interiors, with neon-colored parties and grey overcast afternoons evoking the grim discipline of training.

It’s all a bit much, as the picture’s two halves are in no way equal, and the post climax scenes, reaching for “healing,” tend to soften the film’s blows. The emotions stick, but feel rather flat after the tension and release of the opening scenes.

That robs “Waves” of the gut punch we feel coming, even after the anti-climax has slow-walked out of the gate.

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MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges and Sterling K. Brown.

Credits: Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults.  An A24 release.

Running time: 2:15

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Movie Review: “Frozen 2” melts down

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Channeling one’s inner five year-old girl isn’t much help when considering the thin charms of “Frozen 2.”

It plays like an animated musical built around forgettable tunes and impressive animated effects that were cooked up before the script was decided on. And that script, by co-director Jennifer Lee? Undercooked, with heaping helpings of self-help speak shoved into tiny tots’ faces.

Odd moments of Josh Gad‘s giggly magic snowman Olaf — who breaks into pointless, random laughs, just like your stoner roomie in college — and a couple of funny tunes, including a proposal song rendered into a “Bohemian Rhapsody” with reindeer backing lovesick suitor Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), don’t break the visually and emotionally flat spell this Journey to Nowhere casts.

Magical Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and her mortal spitfire of a younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) have the run of Arendelle. But a song their dead mother sang them about a river “which holds the answers” and a troubled land “as north as you can go,” a place hidden by a menacing, magical mist, sticks in their minds.

An ancient betrayal and wrongs never made right won’t touch Arendelle, right? Even if “nothing is permanent.”

The snowman doesn’t fret about such things. He’s too busy making age jokes, the “OK, Boomer” cracks of a fairytale jester — to the sisters.

“I can’t wait until I’m ancient and I can worry about important things.”

But there’s a voice only Elsa hears, a siren’s call of warning. When a cataclysm strikes the kingdom, she resolves to find closure, to visit the mist and venture, in song, “into the UNknoooooooown!”

Anna won’t be left behind. That leaves poor Kristoff with a ring and no right moment to pop the question. One of the few lightly amusing bits here is how he repeatedly says the wrong thing, and she blows up that wrong thing into self-criticism and a Federal case.

Just as in real life.

Their collective mission on this vague quest is to “Do the next right thing.” Olaf’s mission is to entertain one and all with his vast knowledge of trivia — “Did you know that wombats poop squares?”

Anything to get him off his endless collection of Tony Robbins “self-actualizing” quips.

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The land of Northuldra (If any Northuldrans want to correct my spelling of their homeland, have at it.) is a place and a people of perpetual fall. So we’re really NOT in “Frozen” territory here at all, are we?

The songs, by by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez of “Frozen” and “Coco” fame, include a folk lullaby, a couple a classic rock-tinged tunes including that “Lost in the Woods” tribute to Queen. And one with a lyric unique to the entire history of animated films for children.

“Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb.”

Welcoming the end of the movie, where the tunes place so few demands on the Great Menzel and plucky Ms. Bell is one thing, but welcoming death?

There are new “Earth Giants” (rock monsters) to fear. And there’s a new critter, a fire-gecko, for the plush toy crowd.

Yeah, it’ll earn a cool $billion. But seriously, if “Frozen” was lukewarm mush to anyone over the age of eight, “Frozen 2” is mush that’s melted.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril and some thematic elements

Cast: The voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown, Alfred Molina, Jeremy Sisto and Martha Plimpton

Credits: Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, script by Jennifer Lee, A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 1:43

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Next screening, an Oscar contender: “Waves”

A South Florida father trying to guide his kids to a better life, young love. A trailer that gives you just enough.

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Netflixable? Vikander has to move to Japan to hear the “Earthquake Bird”

 

 

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There’s little forward motion or narrative drive to “Earthquake Bird,” a moody whodunit set in 1989 Tokyo. But Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice,” “Collette”) almost render that deficiency moot.

It’s a chilling exercise in isolation, woven out of muted tones and low light, lifted by a fearsomely guarded turn by Vikander, playing a Swedish emigre accused of murdering an American woman.

Vikander is Lucy Fly, a young translator and loner who, when we meet her, is picked up by the police — at work — because of a headline that’s in the days papers. “Body part found in (Tokyo) Bay.”

Her unemotional cool makes trying the old “good cop/bad cop” with her a dicey proposition. The older officer (Kazuhiro Muroyama) uses the testy younger one (Ken Yamamura) as translator for their interrogation. They discuss strategy, in Japanese, in front of her. They have no idea what she does for a living.

“Be careful,” she purrs, in Japanese (with English subtitles). “I understand EVERthing.”

Her day long third degree is the frame that the film’s flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, tell the story within.

The missing American woman, Lily, (Riley Keough) was forced on Lucy by a mutual friend (Jack Huston), a bon vivant who thinks nothing of inconviencing Lucy with an easily underestimated looker who has moved to Japan, on impulse.

Lily can’t really support herself, doesn’t like much of the food, can’t speak the language and is angling for work as a bartender. Of course Lucy will help her find an apartment. On-the-make Bob (Huston) is banking on it.

We see that meeting, and another first encounter that spins off a police query. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

Teiji takes Lucy’s picture, on the street, and uses his tactlessness as an introduction and a dinner invitation. He is tall, brooding, mysterious and handsome. She is smitten. FYI, Teiji is played by Naoki Kobayashi, a Japanese pop idol. No shock there. He looks like a pinup.

The flashbacks prompted by threads of questioning take Lucy through her relationship with the standoffish but sexy Teiji, who says “Tell me everything” at their every meeting. His own secrets? Aside from him being from the provinces, workings as a noodle chef and pursuing (pre-digital) photography as a passion, he gives little away.

“You must trust me,” he smolders.

That relationship is lopsided. He photographs Lucy incessantly. Every time she stands up for herself, she apologizes.

And Lily is more imposition than friend. Lucy politely invites her along to everything she and Teiji have going on, not that he’s that into going out in public with either of them.

Lucy’s brooding nature has an origin story. “Death follows me,” she tells him (if not the cops, later). “It always has.”

There’s something cagey about her interaction with the police. She’s not quite toying with them, but she’s not volunteering much, either. It’s as if she’s expected something like this to happen, has carried that weight before. She can feel responsible even if she isn’t guilty. And she’s not saying, one way or the other.  

Westmoreland anchors “Earthquake Bird” firmly in the realm of period piece. We glimpse Lucy at work, coming up with subtitles for the Ridley Scott thriller of that era, “Black Rain” (Scott’s company produced “Earthquake Bird.”).

This is pre-Internet Tokyo, pre-cell phones. The cops can’t do much homework and research on the principals, here. Mail from the U.S. takes eight days to get there. And in a flashback that could only be set in 1989, Lucy and the others hike near Mount Fuji.

“Did anyone bring a camera?” No. Ancient history.

The “bird” of the title is one that you can only hear sing in the deathly still silence after an earthquake. What will it take to make Lucy “sing?”

The film’s resolution, and really its third act, is so frustrating that it rather spoils much of what has come before. It makes the subtle story in which not a lot happens (and little that’s not predictable) feel malnourished.

But even if this film of a Susanna Jones novel makes a middling whodunit, it’s still a fine vehicle for Vikander, an actress of quiet reserve and inner fury. She and the exotic setting lift “Earthquake Bird,” even if it never fully takes flight.

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MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, full nudity and brief language

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Naoki Kobayashi, Kiki Sukezane, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Jack Huston and Riley Keough

Credits: Written and directed by Wash Westmoreland, based on the novel by Susanna Jones.  A Netflix Original.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: A dying granny, family grudges, a “triggered” student, a lot goes on “After Class”

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The holiday season seems like the perfect time for “The Messiest Dramedy of the Year” to show its face. That’s what “After Class” is, a movie that grabs at a lot of themes, subtexts and characters and doesn’t really wrestle any of them into shape or into submission.

It’s still a fun mess to watch, and a fine showcase for Justin Long, who plays the harried and harrassed “adjuct professor” of writing whose smarts and sensisity collide with his arrested development and quarrelsome, noisy New York Jewish family.

We see the “trigger” moment when it happens. We don’t have to know this film was first titled “Safe Spaces,” before Adam Carolla ruined that phrase forever with his recent documentary.

Josh is engaging with his college writing students, bantering, treating them as adults and equals. A young woman has written a short story based on real-life experience that the class has attacked. Josh probes to find out what interesting details she left out of her account of a bad date. We don’t need to see the class’s mass-exchange of side-eyes to know what he doesn’t. He’s crossing a line.

He gets what he’s after, entirely too enthusiastically — creepily. But it’s all good. “We’re WRITERS. We get to turn these embarrassing, painful things into art! Write that HURTS!”

Thus begin his endless meetings with the college dean and (perhaps) representative. It starts with “You’re new here” and veers into “Some of these students can be very sensitive” and meeting by meeting, it’s all downhill from there.

Not a good time for Josh. He’s not making ends meet, his podcasting pest of a sister Jackie (Kate Berlant) pesters her way into his apartment, which he shares with a sexy Italian grad student he met in Florence (Silvia Morigi).

And his grandmother (Lynn Cohen, of “Feast of the Seven Fishes”) is dying. That’s got the whole family on edge.

Mom (Fran Drescher) is at her wit’s end, ready to divvy up Grandma’s furniture and possesions, even though she’s in the hospital and “better.” Her ex-husband, their dad (Richard Schiff) has remarried, won’t visit this woman who was “like your own mother.” Jackie isn’t on speaking terms with him.

Brother David (Michael Godere) is squeezing bedside vigils in between business meetings and his suburban family.

They all get along, after a fashion. But they bait each other endlessly. Every discussion turns load, with a lot of people shouting at once.

And there’s this professional crisis that Josh can’t charm or good-intentions he way out of.

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Writer-director Daniel Schechter did the kidnapping Jennifer Aniston farce “”Life of Crime,” and if anything, he’s taken on more items to juggle here. Too many more.

But here’s what I liked. He forces Josh to explain his predicament to the Italian, who doesn’t “get” it because he didn’t have sex with a student or do anything remotely that offensive.

“You’re European, it’s different over there!”

Schechter may park Josh in the middle of the “triggered” era and its “cancel culture.” He may write and cast some of the same shrill stereotypes of today’s easily-offended college student as the documentary “No Safe Spaces.” The kids here are mouthy, belligerent, self-absorbed and self-righteous.

The little darlings — gay or straight, sometimes black, often female — are perpetually outraged and quick to cross lines they themselves would flip out if anyone but themselves crossed them.

“Thank you so much. But we don’t need your hashtag right now.” She’d say “OK, Boomer,” if she was talking to a baby boomer.

Josh’s writing class might be interrupted by a student whipping out a cell phone to video him as the student sets out to provoke a fight. Josh’s writing seminar has assorted outraged young women of color exploding with accusations of sexism, racism and homophobia, and patting themselves on their backs for “calling you out” when their chief beef is “I am sicking of f—–g straight white men!”

Um. OK.

Josh, an arrested development case at 38, is shocked that “college wasn’t like this when I went.” But he’s just an earlier part of the slide down the slippery slope that created them. We can see this extended childhood even in his own parents. And the whole slope is even clearer when we meet the very young son of his dad’s second-marriage . The kid is rude, impatient, defiant and out of control.

Decades of “treat your kids like adults” parenting has produced clingy, abrasive offspring who don’t respect authority, life experience or expertise. His students call Josh by his first name, and a lifetime of being empowered, allowed to think that whatever attitude or opinion they have is as valid as those with more experience of the world, has made them hyper-sensitive, emboldened and dispectful.

That’s an interesting message to slip into the middle of a lightweight ethnic family comedy about kids, grandkids and great grandkids who haven’t grown up, and a doting grandmother about to leave this world.

There are laughs and moments of warmth. And there are annoyingly familiar confrontations that have a grounding in legitimate cultural grievances, but which a lot of funny shouting cannot resolve, during or “After Class.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, sexual conversations, off-camera drug use

Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Fran Drescher, Lynn Cohen, Silvia Morigi, Richard Schiff.

Credits: Written and directed by Daniel Schechter. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:33

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Franchise fatigue has set in this year. ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is proof

That’s what is missing from the Variety analysis linked below. The notion that the audience is not merely tiring of “tired” franchises, but that something broader might be in play.

A year filled with “unoriginals” which have flopped —“Shaft,” “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Men in Black: International,” “Doctor Sleep” and now “Charlie’s Angels”— suggest audiences tiring of the same old stuff, remade. Disney is making bank by duly remaking animated classics, and endless iterations of the same Marvel formula, to say nothing of beating “Star Wars” to death, Sony won’t let go of “Spiderman,” Warner’s and Batman, MGM and Sony with James Bond. They should all be shaking in their boots and hunting for original content and not established brands.

The writing’s right there, on the wall an on their bottom line.

https://variety.com/2019/film/box-office/charlies-angels-box-office-flop-1203407429/

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Next screening? “Frozen 2”

Disney has been pitching this sequel as more an action adventure cartoon than a musical.

But of course there’s music in”Elsa: The Next Mission.”

Let’s hope it’s a dazzler. Hasn’t been the most epic fall for animation on the big screen.

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