Riding out a Hurricane without a “Smile”

As the Cat 4 menace known as Ian bears down on my corner of the world, theaters close, preview screenings are canceled and life goes on hold.

“Smile” will have to wait.

I still have my Warner Brothers provided rain slicker from this movie, which I’ve kept on every boat I’ve had for decades. They don’t make studio promotional material like this any more.

Batten down the hatches, file two reviews and this from my phone (a bitch with WordPress), “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” TTYL.

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Movie Review: Just a coupla “Bros,” looking for love

Billy Eichner brings strong “Billy on the Street” energy to his first film, the laugh-out-loud gay romance “Bros,” which he co-wrote with director Nicholas Stoller.

When you’ve got license to poke fun at acronyms and the different priorities across the wide spectrum of gay sex and romantic love, you might have the best shot of anyone who ever attempted to film a “non-hetero-normative” gay romantic comedy.

And when you’re famous for your breathless, almost angry pop-culture puncturing/gay-life celebrating patter, the results can be hilarious, if not exactly warm and cuddly.

Eichner piles decades of issues, angst and agenda into his character Bobby, a high-flying figure in New York and America’s gay scene. He’s an author, activist and popular podcaster who ridicules “Queer Eye,” which he auditioned for, and Hollywood, which wouldn’t let him write a “real” gay romantic comedy, because straight people can’t see “that our relationships are different.”

“Bros,” which follows Bobby through his efforts to get America’s “first LGBTQ+ history museum” off the ground, takes us into Bobby’s struggle to figure out if he wants something more than the shallow Grindr/shirtless meat market/ polyamorous hook-up culture he’s wholly invested in.

Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) is what has him thinking these thoughts. They lock eyes across a crowded club, exchange pleasantries about how “stupid” gay men are and how good they are at branding themselves as witty, and then shirtless, peacocking Aaron disappears just as Bobby is thinking there’s a kiss on its way.

That’s the running gag of this relationship and the movie. Insecure “sunken chest” Bobby isn’t able to quite close the romantic deal with hunky, roid-ripped Aaron, who sees every sexual situation as another item on the smorgasbord. Then again, is he clever enough to keep up with Bobby?

“I like someone who’s frail and won’t stop talking.”

This gets in Bobby’s head and interferes with his efforts to meditate the competing ideas of the spectrum-representing board of the museum. The bitchy bi, transgender, lesbian and “+” people on this LGBTQ+ crew won’t go for his “first gay president” pitch for a tribute to Abraham Lincoln.

Bobby’s cliched friends and support system are rooting for him, but in accordance with rom com convenience, his parents are dead and there’s no messy family to contend with. Well, maybe Aaron’s.

As Aaron continues to hook up with lusty jocks and gay couples –“thrupples” gags aplenty — Bobby struggles to cope with his first real interest in that mythic status of under 40 New York gay men — monogamy.

Riffs on the novelistic qualities of Grindr texts — “Whassup?” — the widespread acceptance of gay life and gay mores by straight culture (gay “Hallheart” Christmas movies), and the difference between gay generations (“We had AIDS, they had ‘Glee!'”) abound and amuse.

The zingers play into Eichner’s manic, mouthy TV persona — on steroided outdoorsy “tops.”

“They’re like grownup gay Boy Scouts and I’m whatever happened to Evan Hansen!”

An attempted love note — “What’re you writing, lyrics for Maroon 5?”

A walk that ends at his apartment door — “Like the bearded lady in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ ‘this is me!”

There’s lots of sex, sometimes played for laughs and often not limited to just two consenting adults

“Gay sex was more fun when straight people were uncomfortable with it!”

The contrast between Eichner’s polished, breathless, amusingly angry riffs and the acting around him calls attention to itself. He’s not an inviting presence and the performance lacks the acting tools that let the viewer in and make us warm to this relationship and root for this couple.

The contrast between what he’s doing and Macfarlane’s performance — Luke M. has a LOT of Hallmark Xmas hits in his credits– is striking and not flattering. Comedy veteran Stoller (“Neighbors,” “Get Him to the Greek”) can’t help Eichner find his sweet spot, if he has one.

The supporting cast might have sparkled brighter had more attention been paid there. Bowen Yang and Jim Rash have their moments.

The film’s energy flags as the picture settles into a long, less bitchy/bubbly second hour. The riffs and one-liners thin out and cameos take center stage. Debra Messing finds a few laughs, Harvey Fierstein has none written for him.

In the end “Bros” seems to hit a wall as it sends up Rom Com conventions while doggedly making the point that they don’t really apply here.

As in, whatever’s going on is funny enough, but is this really a “happy ending?”

Rating: R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use

Cast: Billy Eichner, Luke MacFarlane, Kristin Chenoweth, Dot-Marie Jones, Kenan Thompson, Harvey Fierstein, Debra Messing and Amy Schumer.

Credits: Directed by Nicholas Stoller, scripted by Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller.

Running time: 1:55

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Documentary Review: The Wonder that was Bowie — “Moonage Daydream”

An organized riot of images and sounds, “Moonage Daydream” is perhaps the only way a documentary biographer could approach the story of David Bowie. Brett Morgen (“Crossfire Hurricane”) has made his true masterpiece, the perfect film to celebrate a multifaceted life of aesthetic excess.

Morgen pieces together Bowie interviews from every medium imaginable, snippets of Bowie concerts, films and music videos, and clips from most everything that might have influenced David Jones as he invented and repeatedly reinvented himself as David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, husband and dad, to infinity and beyond.

He was a Brixton boy who “never became who I should have been.” A “mod” at 14, the King/Queen of Glam at 25, he put on personae, passions, artistic bents and belief systems like he changed hats and hair colors and styles.

“I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche on Thursday,” and that went for everything about his work and interests.

Keaton? Astaire and Rogers? Bing? “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Fashion? Makeup? Kabuki? Mime? Movement? He worked to combine them into the perfect visual line, pose, gesture and an unfathomably wide range of pop band rock styles.

“We we’re creating the 21st century in 1971,” and to the very end, it seemed the world still wasn’t able to catch up with this ethereal sprite of art, image and philosophy.

“Daydream” is a gorgeous, immersive, overwhelming and intimate and in the end simply touching experience, an artist saying “farewell” to his fans, the cosmos and the culture he bent to his musical, visual, androgynous will.

If you greet “Moonage Daydream” and Bowie on his terms, you can’t help but be moved.

It’s almost too much and never quite enough. So stay through the credits.

Rating: PG-13 for some sexual images/nudity, brief strong language and smoking.

Cast: David Bowie

Credits: Scripted and directed by David Bowie, a Neon release.

Running time: 2:15

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Movie Preview: A little girl and her dad, “Aftersun”

Breathless hype greeted this simple, emotional two hander when it premiered at Cannes.

Oct 21, A24 let’s us see what the fuss Is about.

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Movie Review: A “pop up store” inspires a Major Motion Picture — “Spirit Halloween: The Movie”

Well, that headline’s something of a bait and switch. “Major motion picture” doesn’t really fit this meek kiddie horror tale, a thriller that still has its training wheels on.

But what more could we expect from a movie that took its inspiration from those “Spirit Halloween” stores that open in empty storefronts all over America every August?

“Spirit Halloween: The Movie” is a “Goonies-lite” quest tale of 13 year-old boys who figure they’re too old to trick or treat, so why not sneak in and stay at the spooky only-store-in-the-strip-shopping center Halloween store on “Fright Night?”

It’s got Christopher Lloyd, whose character dies in a spooky (ish) prologue, and returns as a spirit wanting a new body. Rachel Leigh Cook plays the mother of one of the boys. And Marla Gibbs, sporting a single white blind eye, plays Grandma G, granny to another boy and a beloved local character, when she isn’t scaring the wits out of sensitive Jake (Donovan Colan).

“Dooooooont stay out late, JAAaaaake!”

He does not heed her warning, because what middle school kid would?

Jake is still hanging onto childhood, dressing up for Halloween, missing his late father. He’s a nervous ball of phobias and just-past-tween lashing-out. Mom (Cook) has remarried, and Jake doesn’t like his new “Dad” or princess-obsessed baby sister.

But there’s no trick-or-treating this year, as the slightly-older Carson (Dylan Martin Frankel) has decreed that it’s for “babies.” Their other friend Bo (Jaiden J. Smith) always caves to Carson, so no candy for any of them this year.

The animatronic fright displays at the “spooky” new Spirit Halloween store give them an idea of what to do this All Hallow’s Eve. The fact that the film’s prologue showed a mean old man (Lloyd) dying of a hex for trying to evict a witch who ran an orphanage back in the ’40s means that if this old building is haunted, we can guess which voice from “Back to the Future” will be speaking from beyond the grave.

And since Jake has a crush on Carson’s cool older sister (Marissa Reyes), we know the plot will contrive a way for her to get stuck in that store fighting that spirit in every ghost, ghoul or giant stuffed bear costume our villainous spirit inhabits.

There’s some cute local color in this low-budget affair — the old movie house converted for Little Theatre use, turned into a “Fright Night” spooky exhibit, haunted house and “The Legend of Alec Windsor” (Lloyd’s character) puppet show.

But the script is just a collection of horror tropes. Jake reads from the “Encyclopedia of Shadows” book his dad left him. A fortune teller animatronic display spooks the kids.

The frights are tepid at best. The banter is “sick, and not in a good way.”

And the acting is mostly child actors rushing and slurring their lines with director David Poag not taking the time to get a clean take.

Rating: PG-13, scary elements, didn’t hear any profanity, but…

Cast: Donovan Colan, Marissa Reyes, Jaiden J. Smith, Dylan Martin Frankel, Marla Gibbs, Rachel Leigh Cook and Christopher Lloyd.

Credits: Directed by David Poag, scripted by Billie Bates. A Strike Back release.

Running time: 1:20

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Movie Review: Disaster at sea — “VampyrZ on a Boat”

The latest horror tale from the director of “Valentine DayZ” is about a cargo ship with a vampire in its hold — “VampyrZ on a Boat.”

It is badly acted, with a mostly high-mileage cast that for the most part hasn’t exactly mastered this acting thing over the course of what one hopes have been long and happy lives. Even the younger players are pretty bad, just to avoid any hint of ageism here.

The script is garbage, the feeblest attempt at camp I’ve seen in years. One of the passengers on board wears a smoking jacket and “never comes out,” another is a ventriloquist whose wooden dummy might be immune to vampire bites, but not deathly bad jokes. The captain of the ship (Robert Acres, I think), who keeps the heirloom wooden leg and an unneeded eyepatch at the ready, shouts out encouragement over the intercom as his crew is battling the undead.

“Remember me mateys, the pessimist sees difficulty at every opportunity, the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty!”

Maybe the weirdest thing about this is that the credited director, Mark Allen Michaels, uses the same headshot as the lead actor, Dallas Valdez. As he’s terrible at both, this is of no consequence whatsoever.

But if you deign to watch this waste of a good shipboard location, remember this, me mateys. As bad as “VampyrZ on a Boat” is, there’s a Western epilogue that’s even worse.

Rating: unrated, bloody violence

Cast: Dallas Valdez, Carrie Keagan, Curt Lambert, Robert Egan

Credits: Scripted and directed by Mark Allen Michaels. A Random Media release.

Running time: 1:11

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Movie Preview: Denmark’s Oscar contender is a serial killer tale set in Iran — “Holy Spider”

A woman reporter travels to the misogynist state investigating killings.

Timely, and it looks terrific.

“Holy Spider” comes out Oct. 28, from Utopia.

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Movie Review: African American Actors make Orson Welles a legend via “Voodoo Macbeth”

Movies about the early career of stage and screen “wunderkind” Orson Welles are, by definition, for fans. And one thing fans are always going to insist on is casting a convincing version of the charismatic, sonorous stage and radio tyro of the ’30s and ’40s who became a film legend of the ’40s-70s, Orson Welles. 

You don’t make a “Night That Panicked America” without a Paul Shenar, a “Mank” without Tom Burke or roll cameras on “R.K.O. 281” without someone of Liev Schreiber’s stature, voice and caliber. “Cradle Will Rock” won’t rock without an Angus MacFadyen as Welles, and if you’re really lucky, you land The Gold Standard, Christian McKay if you’re making a movie titled “Me & Orson Welles.”

The only excuse for not getting a properly magnetic Welles would be if you’re making a “student film.” Even the best of those don’t attract top drawer talent, and they generally aren’t released, with cause.

Voodoo MacBeth” is a USC student film version of the theatre event that gave the “wunderkind” his “boy wonder” nickname. It’s an ambitious account of how Welles was handed his big break, a chance to direct a Federally-backed make-work-for-actors during the Depression production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Tragedy.” Working with an all Black cast — because The New Deal recognized that Black actors need to work, too — Welles turned “Macbeth” into a Haitian voodoo fantasy set in the early earl 19th century.

The film never comes close to catching the lightning in a bottle this famed production became. It rubs much of the edge off many characters (especially Welles), lacks spark or anything resembling a sense of occasion, and is — at least — historically defensible even as it takes many liberties with the “real” events.  

Ten student directors and eight student screenwriters and a cast of mostly little-known players take their best shot at this touchstone event in 1930s theater and in the career of Welles. They fall well short of the mark. Yes, this “Voodoo” film won awards at mostly lesser known film festivals, so the idea of releasing it theatrically isn’t insane. But it does border on delusional.

“Voodoo Macbeth” recreates, on the cheap, the New York of the mid-1930s, when the Federal Theatre Project was set up to employ starving Depression Era actors. New York Negro Theater Unit head, actress and producer Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) was talked by fellow producer and future Oscar-winning actor John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) into getting stage and radio actor and sometime director Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridge) to take on McClendon’s dream, a chance for her to play Lady Macbeth.

In the Jim Crow 1930s, it took a Great Depression for this “crazy” idea to even get considered.

Welles and McClendon are at loggerheads as he struggles to cast this show with the biggest names in the Black theater of the day, few in number, and a lot of unknowns. Welles was a childish, headstrong newlywed of 20 (June Schreiner plays Virginia Welles, who is credited here with thinking up turning the witches into “voodoo” mystics, with jungle drums in the score, etc.). Unused to dealing with Black actors and Black people outside of servile jobs, Welles cast a singer with no acting experience here, a boxer (Wrekless Watson) with “presence” there, a drunk (Gary McDonald plays Jack Carter), the would-be thespian elevator operator (Jeremy Tardy) at his apartment building, and a leading man with immigration problems (Ephraim López is Juano Hernandez).

The superstitious Welles becomes convinced the show is cursed thanks to the play that they’re doing, with accidents, bad luck and the like, with their chief obstacle to success a showboating conservative Texas Congressman (Hunter Bodine) hellbent on shutting them down. 

But they soldier on — Welles directing — “Say the words Shakespeare gave you…and MEAN them” — and the cast overcoming the odds as the Black community pickets (Welles dons blackface to fill in for a missing player), Federal money is withheld and an early critic, painted as corrupt here (Ben Shields) savages the show.

None of it, not Welles’ flirtation with his Lady Macduff later Lady Macbeth (Ashli Haynes), not Welles’ domestic problems, not the cast’s various burdens and foibles, is scripted or acted in ways as compelling as the real story, which has been related, in great detail, by every Welles biographer. 

Student filmmakers are allowed to overreach, to make mistakes in tone, tight pacing and clear messaging. It’s a learning experience, even in a written-and-directed-by LARGE committees project like this. The only thing releasing this middling effort accomplishes is keeping the Welles lore it’s based on alive, even as it discourages others from taking a shot at filming this. 

But if it’s any consolation, remember another touchstone theatrical event from Welles’ electric years in the New York theater. “Cradle Will Rock,” the leftist labor musical he staged with Houseman and composer Marc Blitzstein, also made for a disappointing movie, even if it had a pretty good Orson as one of the leads.  

Rating: unrated, violence, profanity

Cast: Inger Tudor, Jewell Wilson Bridges, Jeremy Tardy, Wrekless Watson, Ashli Haynes, June Schreiner, Daniel Kuhlman, Hunter Bodine and Gary McDonald

Credits: Directed by Dagmawi Abebe , Rohy ARwas, Hannah Bang, Christopher Beaton, Agazi Desta,  Tiffany Kontoyiannis Guillen, Zoe Salnave, Ernesto Sandoval and Sabina Vajraca, scripted by Agazi Desta, Jennifer Frazin, Morgan Milender, Molly Miller, Amri Rigby, Joel David Santner, Erica Sutherlin and Chris Tarricone. A Lighthouse release.

Running time: 1:48

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Documentary Review: You think you’re “Metal,” but you’re not All-Woman-Thrash Band-in-Beirut-Metal — “Sirens”

The leather gives them away — the tattoos, the piercings, the black boots and wristlets and matching Flying Vee replica guitars.

This here is a metal band, and judging from the “Enter Sandman” era hair, they’re all about the thrash.

Slaves to Sirens plays it fast and hits those chords hard behind the vocal-cords-shredding yowl/growl of its lead singer.

You can hear a version of this quintet in any metal club on any given weekend. But the novel thing about these Sirens is that they’re all women. And they’re trying to break-out from one of the least likely heavy metal hotspots on Earth — conservative, strife-riven Beirut, Lebanon.

“Sirens” is an engaging behind-the-scenes doc about this band, which formed in 2015 and got good enough/fast enough that they were abruptly summoned to make their Glastonbury festival debut a couple of years back.

Rita Baghdadi’s intimate, fly-on-the-wall documentary captures the tightrope walk artists have to walk in a place where “conservative” could mean “intolerant” and violently so, where women are more emancipated than say, Syria or Jordan, but where “we’re living in a cycle of fear” just for donning the leather and cranking it up in a divided place with such a troubled history.

“War, instability and unemployment” is all anyone there’s known “since my grandparents’ time,” lead guitarist Lilas Mayassi complains. Her mother mutters “It will always be like this,” (in English and Arabic with English subtitles) and we believe it.

Rhythm guitarist Shery Bechara’s father and mother are just as supportive, and equally fatalistic.

“My parents always tell me ‘There is no future here.'”

And yet she and Lilas and the Sirens persist.

Director Baghdadi zeroes in on the guitarists, their inspire-each-other co-dependent relationship and the band’s first heady taste of fame — a Revolver Magazine write-up and an abrupt invitation to be flown to Britain to play at Glastonbury.

The story ebbs and flows like the relationship between these two founding members, one of whom was just now acting on same sex sexual attraction in a part of the world where that can have deadly consequences.

The strife in the band is something of a cliche, even if the shouting matches and fractious band meetings are all too real. It’s ongoing, as two members quit this past summer. The film’s dating sequence has a long coaching-a-new-love-about-how-to-meet-her-mother on a drive to the house, with a dash-cam, that can’t help but seem contrived if not staged.

But as the band cusses each other out, busts up and reunites, as older musician/mentors and relatives talk about how much easier life would be if they’d just play pop, as Beirut experiences yet another tragedy (the infamous fireworks factory explosion) that calls for regime change, and a benefit concert, we come to appreciate how it’s still about the music, man.

And if you’re asked to kiss and make up and join an orchestra and more experienced musicians for a Beirut performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” you tune up, don the fishnets and halter tops and get it done.

That’s pretty damned metal, I have to say.

Cast: Shery Bechara, Lilas Mayassi, Maya Khaiallah, Alma Doumani and Tatyana Boughaba

Credits: Scripted and directed by Rita Baghdadi. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 1:20

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Next screening? Billy Eichner’s big ol’ R-rated gay romance “Bros”

This could be hilarious and is almost certain to be triggering to the homophobic. Bring it on.

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