Movie Preview: George Clooney directs and stars in “The Midnight Sky”

The Big Guy makes a movie for Netflix , slated to stream Dec. 23. Looks bleak.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Preview: Pixar’s “Soul” trailer 2

A little cartoon theology coming to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “The True Adventures of Wolfboy”

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is “Teen Wolf” with some edge, a wistful fable that tends towards the melancholy.

It’s not about THE wolfman of myth. There are no farmers with torches and pitchforks, no midnight howling at the full moon. There’s just a lonely, scrawny bullied kid trying to find out who and what he is, longing for the mother he never knew.

Jaden Martell of “St. Vincent” is Paul, who starts in the bathroom mirror muttering his mantra — “I’m normal. I’m just a regular kid. I’m just like everyone else.”

The first clever twist in this tale from a screenwriter for “Legion” and a Czech making his feature directing debut is what it doesn’t show. Yes, Paul is bullied when his Dad (Chris Messina) takes him to the carnival. Yes, this “safe, inclusive” private school Dad enters him in might improve his quality of life. But we never see that.

We just meet the thirteen year-olds who taunt his father with the observation that he must’ve had sex with a dog. Dad’s at a loss for life advice for his “special” boy. “Show some dignity.” And whatever you do, “Paul, don’t run.”

But Paul does, and with his crested private school uniform jacket on. Thus begin his “true adventures.”

John Turturro is the carnival operator who seems sympathetic — at first. “That is…some kind of beautiful” he says when the kid removes the stocking-mask he wears to hide the fur. But Mr. Silk has an eye for the main chance, a billing — “The Dangerous DOG BOY” — and a promise. He’ll help the kid get to Pennsylvania, where a mysterious birthday present originated, if the boy will join the show.

The present? It’s a map, with an inscription, “When you’re ready, there is an explanation.”

But the carnival’s not the story they’re telling, either. Paul flees that as well, and not without revealing something a lot of unhappy 13 year-olds dabble in.

The next “chapter” in his adventure is “Wolfboy Meets Mermaid.” He falls in with teen dancer/lip-synch performer Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore of “Transparent”)) and sees her bubble act at a sort of Island of Misfit Toys bar-nightclub. He’s just met her and not-quite-addressed why her mother calls her “Kevin,” when Aristiana’s pink-haired, eyepatch-wearing pal Rose (Eve Hewson of “The Nick” and “Tesla” ) abruptly picks them up in her ancient van for that trek to Pennsylvnia.

Gas money? No worries. Lemme borrow that MASK. The quest has wheels, for a while, and armed robbery. Now there are cops and the carnie-wronged Mr. Silk after him, to say nothing of Paul’s Dad.

The parable here is heavy-handed and a little haphazard. It’s about the kids “who don’t fit in,” basically “The Greatest Showman” without songs or Hugh Jackman. Characters and means-to-an-end are introduced and dispensed with before we can commit to them.

Any one of these quest-threads — “transitory entertainment business” (carnival) convenience store hold-ups, “underworld” of gay or “special” young people — would have made for a more succint, if far more conventional movie.

Martell is quite good at this “lonely, disturbed boy” thing, as he proved in “Defending Jacob,” “The Book of Henry” and “St. Vincent.” Messina is sympathetic, Giannamore has hints of a spitfire and Hewson’s Rose is devil-may-care far beyond the pink hair and eye patch supercials.

The resolution isn’t as picaresque as the movie that precedes it, but good actors are brought in for that, too.

All of which makes for a movie that lopes along, introduces characters which make an impression or two, and then kind of fizzes away in the finale.

This “Wolfboy’s” adventures leave a sweet aftertaste, even if we realize it isn’t exactly a meal, or even a full portion of dessert, when we think about it.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, drinking, some strong language, sexual references and violence – all involving teens.

Cast: Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Sophie Giannamore, Eve Hewson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chloe Sevigny and John Turturro

Credits: Directed by Martin Krejcí, script by Olivia Dufault. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:28

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Nazis, stolen art and the man who sold “The Last Vermeer”

It plays like a fable, but the bulk of this bizarre story of World War II, Nazi art thefts and those who helped with the stealing is true.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or in this case, you don’t need to.

Stuntman and producer Dan Friedkin, making his feature directing debut, renders this case of Han van Meergeren and Vermeer in broad strokes (sorry), struggling to turn what could have been a dark (or darkly comic) fable into a “ticking clock” thriller.

But the generally straightforward approach serves his cast well, and provides a rare tour de force for Guy Pearce, who is always good, especially when he has a role that requires a certain flamboyance.

Pearce is van Meegeren, an artist, art lover, art dealer and slippery swell laying low in his native Netherlands as if he’s expecting a shoe to drop.

Claes Bang (“The Square”) is a “Dutch Jew in a Canadian uniform,” a former tailor and jazz fan turned resistance fighter, now a Canadian officer trying to track down Nazi collaborators.

One of the key points of stress in this multi-handed script is that between those who “fled” Holland, to Britain, plotting a return to power after liberation, and those who stayed behind and fought, as Joseph Piller (Bang) did, or those who “did what we had to” in order to survive, like Pillar’s wife (Marie Bach Henson). She kept the company of German soldiers.

So did van Meegeren. Apparently. What Piller wants to find out if this insanely valuable painting by “The Master of Delft,” Jan (Johannes) Vermeer van Delft, which wound up in the collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, was stolen, and from whom.

Piller is Jewish, and those noting his passion for the case figure that the artwork was stolen “from Jews,” which they assume further motivates him. As the people jumping to this conclusion are non-Jewish, and under suspicion for collaboration with the Anti-Semitic enemy, you can see why he’d get his back up.

But his prisoner is a mixture of unctuous charm and white-haired menace. And even though the State Police are hunting for him as well, he’s not cooperating.

“I find that in life, as in art, it’s always best not to spoil the surprise.”

We sense we’re being set up for a game of cat and mouse, and we’re not wrong. When van Meegeren wonders about his own “redemption,” and perhaps the captain’s secret need for it as well, we wonder if that’s a parallel the script will play up. Not really.

Piller interrogates van Meegeren and those who knew him, with an old Resistance friend (Roland Møller) there to provide muscle and menace. A cocked pistol is quite the incentive. Eventually, they have to hide their prisoner from government officials who’d love for van Meergeren to carry his secrets to his grave.

And that’s when he starts bargaining — an internment with good light, canvas and oils, access to “my assistant,” who is also his lover and model (Olivia Grant).

Through monologues and flashbacks, the painter and art lover tells his story. Meanwhile, events outside are conspiring to bring this all to a head and this “traitor” to trial.

Public firing squads are a common sight. So yes, the stakes are high. What will be van Meergeren’s defense?

The period detail and immersion in the art of the Dutch Masters creates the color palette of “The Last Vermeer,” and set its tone.

And all of it — the strife in Pillar’s marriage, the government intrigues, literally chasing van Meergeren at one point — is but the canvas for Pearce to paint his portrait of the duality of man, the shared guilt of those who seemed to thrive under Nazi Occupation, a guilt Meergeren seems to not understand.

Pearce makes him ramrod-straight in posture and ever-the-epicurean about his tastes in art, and people and whisky. We can believe he dealt with the Nazis, and we can believe he figured he could outsmart them, you as we wonder if he’s outsmarting Pillar, or even himself. Even with a firing squad at stake, Pearce’s van Meergeren is slow to panic, reluctant to lower himself to ask for help.

What an interesting pigeon-hole Bang has um, painted himself into. He’s now made three films set in the world of art –“The Square,” “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and “The Last Vermeer.” Something about him says “at home in the world of art and its pretenses.” Perhaps he should have a word with his agent.

The cat-and-mouse stuff, the “discoveries,” aren’t the hardest plot points to detect, nor are the under-developed distractions Piller has thrown in front of him.

But the courtroom finale, eating up much of the third act, is a corker. And Pearce holds our focus, still or animated, chewing up a scene or so underplaying it he’s still the center of attention.

Like the Great Master he is, he knows how to grab the eye and hold its focus, with or without a menacing mustache.

MPAA Rating: R for some language, violence and nudity

Cast: Claes Bang, Olivia Grant, Vicky Krieps, Marie Bach Henson, Roland Møller and Guy Pearce

Credits: Directed by Dan Friedkin, script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, James McGee, based on the book by Jonathan Lopez. A Sony TriStar release.

running time: 1:53

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Preview: Streep and Kidman, Kerry and Corden are out to save “The Prom”

A Ryan Murphy romp about theater “types” who show up to right a wrong I’m a right wing Indiana town that has a problem with same sex prom dates.

Tracey Ullman is here, you betcha. Coming to Netflix

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: The curse of “Bad Hair,” on Hulu

Writer-director Justin Simien has more experience in satire (“Dear White People”) than horror, and a better handle on lighthearted lectures than laughs.

Which is to say, so what if this supernatural satire “Bad Hair” is more about the message of the monster than the monster itself? It works.

And that monster? African American women’s hair, that one bit of “Black Girl Magic” that requires…assistance. Simien serves up genuine torture porn about what women with naturally kinky hair, “as nature intended, go through to Be Like Beyonce’.

Anna Bludso (Zaria Kelly) learned this lesson in childhood, that “relaxer” accident administered by her step-sister. She wears the scars of it into adulthood as she (Elle Lorraine of “Insecure”) struggles to fit in at Culture, a Black MTV facing major changes in Music Television in 1989.

All Anna wanted to be was on-air talent. But it was the hunky receptionist (Jay Pharaoh), the guy she sleeps with on the sly, who got that gig.

But her tinted-glass ceiling may be about to shatter. The pre-“woke” Woke workplace that Black Pride Preacher Edna (Judith Scott) presided over has a new corporate boss Grant (James Van Der Beek) and a new EVP of programming, former-model and “influencer” before than was a thing, Zora (Vanessa Williams, perfection).

Out goes Edna, and Zora — as intimidating and probably conniving as she is — hears out Anna’s pitch for a show that sounds exactly like “Total Request Live,” before that was a thing. They’ll go all-in on “hip hop and this new jack s—.” This makeover could fulfill bossman Grant’s vision.

“If this succeeds, it could change popular culture!”

Anna, behind on her rent and more bubbly than sexy or confident on camera, has one thing holding her back — her hair.

“Sisters get fired for less than that every day,” Zora purrs. To be “one of MY girls,” she’s got to “flow.” More precisely, her hair does.

The “creamy crack” (hair relaxer) won’t cut it. She needs to go for broke (literally) and go all-in on this new thing — “the weave.” And no weaver but Virgie (Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black”) will do.

The scariest scene in this “horror comedy” is the (slightly) exaggerated torture of picking “her,” how Virgie describes the hair that will be the New Anna, and weaving it in.

“My sources are exclusive.”

And her methods? “Essential oils” and curved needles more commonly used for surgical stitches? Exquisitely painful.

Simien sets up Anna’s new path as a contrast to the foster family of African American folklore professors (Blair Underwood. Michelle Hurd) who raised her. She may see eerie similarities between her story and a folk horror tale about “The Moss-Haired Girl.” Anna may wonder about what Zora’s weave, and that of a pop star (Kelly Rowland) who has extended her Janet Jacksonish music video career with her weave, have cost them.

But she will not know the “full” story until she’s gotten hers.

There’s just a hint of the delicious bitchiness of this office culture that Simien captures, and perhaps could have brought in a female co-writer to fluff up. The women are all “sister to sister” until the urge to backbite overwhelms them.

Williams, reviving her “Ugly Betty” edge, plays a character who’s a comment on her persona and her screen career. Fair-skinned and “beautiful” by “European” standards, Zora doesn’t sound like any of the music-savvy African Americans who are now her minions.

Zora’s attempt to leap into an argument with an enraged Social Justice Warrior Princess may be the funniest line Williams ever said. And it’s only a single two-syllable “word” that Ms. Elocution and Poise plays as if it’s her first-time ever saying it out loud.

“Yo yo yo.”

Sister please.

Simien’s film has a cluttered feel, and in trying to steer clear of archetypes, he robs us of the satisfaction of a clearly-defined villain mentor vs. the more high-minded one. Zora may take credit for ideas and covet the spotlight Anna craves for herself, but she’s doing what the righteous but imperiously snobby Edna never would — hear Anna out, give her a chance to rise.

The “hair” with a murderous mind of its own is more funny than scary.

“Bad Hair” and its follicles are on their firmest ground just poking at the prejudice, pressure and unnatural (but admittedly lovely) beauty that women feel compelled to pursue to get noticed, get ahead and get theirs. The supernatural element feels unnecessary, save for the finale.

Still, hair that promises to deliver super powers, but that comes with supernatural trade-offs? That’s a killer concept and a satire that almost writes itself.

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, profanity, smoking

Cast: Elle Lorraine, Laverne Cox, Jay Pharaoh, Yaani King Mondschein, Usher Raymond, Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams

Credits: Written and directed by Justin Simien. A Hulu release.

Running time: 1:42

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie preview: Sophia Loren is a Holocaust survivor in “The Life Ahead”

This Netflix drama pushes a lot of the right buttons, and parking a screen legend in it is very smart.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

“The Good Lord Bird” actual historic site

John Brown’s Kennedy Farm HQ outside of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. #moviesinspiretravel

It’s about 8 miles from the town, and a tiny place that Brown, played by Ethan Hawke in the wonderful “The Good Lord Bird,” packed himself and 21 other men, along with two Brown daughters, in prep for his assault on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Preview: Aliens invade…some more, “Skylin3” is headed our way

Lindsey Morgan, Jonathan Howard and queen of low budget sci-fi Rhona Mitra are the stars, with James Cosmo, Alexander Siddig, Daniel Bernhardt, Cha-Lee Yoon.

This third “Skyline” pic streams Dec. 18.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Bingworthy? Anya Taylor-Joy looks for checkmate in “The Queen’s Gambit”

There’s a set of the jaw, a mercenary narrowing of the eyes in Anya Taylor-Joy that hisses “relentless.” It’s reminiscent of Natalie Dormer’s ravenous gaze, although less sexual.

She can soften it a little, as she did in “Emma.” But it’s always there, in “Thoroughbreds” or “Peaky Blinders” and it’s what makes the limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” seem tailor-made (sorry) for her.

In this adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel, she’s a chess prodigy, an “intuitive” champion utterly myopic about the world she lives in and the life she’s eschewing to keep her eyes on the prize, and the board.

Family may fail her — her mad mathematician mother (Chloe Pirrie) may have even expected to end Beth’s life the day her childhood ended, when her mother died in a Kentucky car crash that Beth survived. And the couple that eventually adopts her (Marielle Heller and Patrick Kennedy) don’t support her passion, and can’t even stay together for her sake.

Her one friend childhood friend at the orphanage (Moses Ingram) might let her down. And the chess players she runs into, afoul of and tumbles into bed with will never be up to snuff.

Beth Harmon won’t let any of them stand in her way, and Taylor-Joy lets us see the unworldly, naive but heartless Beth calculate the costs-to-benefits transaction that every relationship in her life represents. She’s even relentless in her vices, the ones that either aid her rise, or point to its obvious pitfalls — booze, pills.

Scott Frank’s series takes us from young Beth (Isla Johnson) picking up the game from the custodian (Bill Camp) at Methuen Hall, and picking up a lifelong tranquilizer habit from a facility that in the ’50s and ’60s drugged the kids in its charge.

The older Beth remembers falling in love with “the board, all the world in just 64 squares.” Alone in the world, with chess “I feel safe. I can control it. I can dominate it.”

She isn’t self-aware enough to understand the instability that comes with the brain one has to have to conquer this game. Her mathematically-published mother should be at least a cautionary lesson for her — in literary (and dramatic) cliche terms. But no.

Her inexorable march into and through the man’s world of 1960s chess takes up much of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Win after win, men (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Harry Melling, others) taking her lightly because she’s learned the game without knowing about “ratings,” rankings and tournament etiquette and protocols.

Movies on the subject have covered covered the mind-crushing mania that this ancient and inscrutable game generates (again, cliched) — “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Pawn Sacrifice”). “Gambit” goes deeper into the chess, especially when Beth finds a foe worthy of her talent (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of the “Maze Runner” movies).

But that “relentless” march quality means the series telegraphs its chapters, even as it bogs down in the late ’60s, tourneys, “Russians,” crises of confidence and every predictable drink-Ripple-from-the-bottle pitfall along the way. That makes it drag, not always, but more than you’d like.

There’s just a little humor, much of it of the female empowerment variety. And creator-director )and writer of two episodes) Frank, a wonderful screenwriter (“Out of Sight,” “Logan,””The Lookout”) allows the odd perfectly-composed shot to call attention to itself.

Some of the co-stars (Camp) seem shortchanged, while Heller, an actress, writer and director (“Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Brodie-Sangster at least get to make enriching impressions and contributions.

But this is Taylor-Joy’s quest and march, and we see Beth’s monomania mature her as an actress over seven episodes. She marches into the frame, lets us see the girl acquiring a poker-face and developing killer instinct and gamesmanship.

And she sashays out of the frame, dancing by herself (’60s pop) with regret never furrowing her brow, even in that rare moment when she figures out what “longing” feels like. First scene to last, she makes this a character with her nose to the ground as she sniffs out weakness and vulnerabilities, in all the men she faces off with, and in herself.

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, profanity

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Credits: Created and directed by Scott Frank, based on a novel by Walter Tevis. A Netflix release.

Running time: Seven episodes @ 49-59 minutes each

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment