Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away


Phil Lynott (foreground) and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy get down to it.

(2021) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Phil Lynott, Gale Claydon, Scott Gorham, Eric Bell, Adam Clayton, Huey Lewis, James Hetfield, Suzi Quatro, Midge Ure, Peter Lynott, Carl Shaaban, Niall Stokes, Caroline Taraskevics, Sarah Lynott, Jerome Rimson, Darren Wharton, Brush Shiels, Philomena Lynott, John Kelly, Hugh Feighery, Gus Curtis, Cathleen Howard-Lynott, Diane Wagg, Rebecca Hickey. Directed by Emer Reynolds

 

As a crusty old rock critic who grew up in the 70s and listened to classic rock throughout high school. I am more than familiar with Thin Lizzy and their captivating frontman Phil Lynott. Most Americans who are younger than I probably only know their seminal Jailbreak album and their iconic hit “The Boys are Back in Town.”

But Lizzy was more than that album and more than that song, and for us Yanks who are less familiar with their output than we should be, this film is a very good way to get introduced to the band and the man. Lynott was a mixed race young man born in England’s Midlands to a single mom (an absolute scandal in the Fifties) who saw the wisdom of shipping him off to Dublin to be raised by his maternal grandparents (although he remained close to his mum Philomena throughout his life). He put new meaning to the term “Black Irish,” as he was something of a rarity back in those days and while he did encounter racism growing up, that seemed to be less of a thing once he emerged as a rock star, although black men weren’t a big part of classic rock with the exception of Jimi Hendrix and a few others. But Lynott wasn’t one to care about expectations.

He merged Irish legends with American idioms, blending street rats and mythic warriors into a seamless but completely unique mixture. Lizzy also utilized twin lead guitarists, making for a graceful but thunderous sound that recalled the power of bands like the Allman Brothers but with a distinctly Celtic flair. Lynott played bass which he learned in order to start his own band, and became quite good at it; he was certainly a charismatic frontman who although generally shy offstage, wasn’t above utilizing a little Irish charm at concerts “I hear a lot of ladies here have a little Irish in them.” Loud roar. “Would you like a little more?” Louder roar.

For the most part, this is a typical rock doc that thoroughly dives into the music of Lizzy albeit with a minimum of analysis; there are an awful lot of talking heads, most of whom are effusive in their praise of Lynott as a nice guy and a devoted family man. Both of his daughters appear here, as well as his ex-wife (they divorced a few years before Lynott passed away) and a former girlfriend. So do bandmates Eric Ball (the original guitarist), Midge Ure (who briefly replaced Gary Moore as second guitarist before leaving to front his own band, Ultravox) and Californian Scott Gorham who is entertaining in his own right, but when discussing his friend’s passing gets uncharacteristically reflective.

We also hear from journalists and fellow rockers like U2’s Adam Clayton, Metallica’s James Hetfield, Huey Lewis and Suzi Quatro, as well as those who knew him in Dublin like his Uncle Peter Lynott and friend Gus Curtis. We do get a sense of who he was; his intense Irish pride (he often corrected journalists who got his heritage wrong, or details about Ireland wrong), his devotion to his daughters (he wrote each of them a song dedicated to them), and his fascination with things American (he grew up on American television, and was eager to break through in the American market, but had the worst luck with it – the tour for Jailbreak had to be cut short because of illness, which would be a critical opportunity lost).

There are a few oddities though; often throughout the film Reynolds uses water as a metaphor to an almost head-clubbing point. While mentioning that Lynott had drug “problems,” she doesn’t bring up that he was actually addicted to heroin, which led to the septicemia that would claim his life at age 36 in 1986. But let’s face it; the band is almost criminally underrepresented on American radio, other than three or four songs mostly off of a single album. They actually released 12 albums that contained a mixture of balls-out rockers and introspective power ballads. Lynott was one of the best songwriters in classic rock and much of his music remains undiscovered by American audiences. However, a viewing of this movie is likely to motivate people to explore his other albums. While devoted fans of the group and of Lynott may find nothing here that is new, casual fans will definitely get their money’s worth.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative packed with some terrific music.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too cutesy with cutaway shots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual references and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A life-size statue of Lynott was erected on Harry Street near Grafton Street in Dublin in 2005. Many electrical junction boxes in Dublin have been painted with Lynott’s likeness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
An Intrusion

Black Friday


Some people would kill for a good deal on Christmas presents.

(2021) Horror Comedy (Screen Media) Devon Sawa, Ivana Baquero, Ryan Lee, Stephen Peck, Michael Jai White, Bruce Campbell, Louie Kurtzman, Celeste Oliva, Ellen Colton, Peg Holzemer, Mark Steger, Andria Blackman, Mike Murphy, Chris Siepietowski, Stanley Bruno, Lonnie Farmer, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Ripley Thiebeault, Matea Thiebeault, Bates Wilder, Cindy Lentol. Directed by Casey Tebo

 

With all the holiday-themed horror movies that are out there, it was inevitable that one would be made for the holiest, most sacred day of the year – Black Friday. Yes, the day that retail giants pray for finally gets a horror film of its own.

It’s Thanksgiving and the employees of All Toys, a big box toy store – are there really any of those left? – are preparing to start their shifts to open the store at midnight for Black Friday. Ken Bates (Sawa) is a dad undergoing a divorce, bitter that he gives half of his already-meagre check to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and never gets to see his daughter. He compensates by drinking on the job, which began as a stopgap measure when he got laid off and still ten years later, there he is, and having a brief fling with Marnie (Baquero), who realizes she deserves better. Then there’s Chris (Lee), a germophobic young man who sees Ken as a cautionary tale and is already looking to find a path out of a dead-end retail job. There’s Archie (White), an older man making a little extra cash on the side; Emmett (Kurtzman), a brand-new employee still learning the ropes, and Ruth (Colton), a retiree.

On the management side is Brian (Peck), the floor manager who loves to flex what little power he possesses, particularly in regards to the hapless Chris, and Jonathan (Campbell), the genial, wants everyone to like him, manager who is as ineffectual as he is awkward. The employees gird their loins for what promises to be another sucky day at the store.

But their day is about to become suckier. An alien parasite has crash-landed in the store and has begun infecting hapless customers and a few of the employees, turning them into maniacal, violent zombies who infect other humans by dropping what appears to be a mouthful of snot onto their victims. The gross factor is reasonably high.

The zombies also possess something of a hive mind, and they’re up to something, something that doesn’t bode well for the remaining humans gathered in an employees-only section of the store. With the world going nuts all around them, they need to band together, overcome their differences and show those customers who’s boss.

Horror comedies are fiendishly hard to pull off; often they come off soft on the horror, or soft on the comedy. Fortunately, Black Friday manages to avoid that fate, although the humor does have a Dad joke vibe at times. Writer Andy Greskoviak appears to be making a comedy on unhinged consumerism, which seems to be de rigeur for almost any movie with the day after Thanksgiving as a setting. He doesn’t quite do it, missing opportunities to make meaningful points while going for the low-hanging fruit. While Campbell gives a speech that kind of goes down that road, it’s really the only moment that the script transcends the material.

While we’re on the subject of Bruce Campbell, can I just say that he’s still as amazing as ever? He is one of those performers that recognizes the line between underplaying and overplaying; he understands the character and gets them believable while allowing us to laugh at their foibles. He’s also a producer on the movie, and he’s really the best reason to see it. Fans of the actor shouldn’t miss his monologue late in the film; it’s one of his best.

On the other end of the spectrum is Michael Jai White. This is an actor who has made for some memorable action roles over the years, but is criminally underused. That trend continues as he is dispatched way too early, but he shines every time he has the ball. Somebody, anybody, please give this guy a leading role.

Sawa and the rest of the cast do solid work as well; there aren’t any performances that really are groan-worthy. Tebo relies heavily on practical effects and they’re appropriately gooey and disgusting. The issues with the film like largely on the technical side; the score is mighty annoying and some of the monster make-up is unremarkable.

The film’s biggest sin is the stereotyping. Brian comes off as a bitchy Joan Crawford gay man, which seems tone-deaf in 2021. Also, with the exception of Marnie, the women here are basically awful or zombie fodder and even Marnie doesn’t really have much in the way of characterization. I don’t think horror movies necessarily need to be woke, but avoiding tired cliches about various groups would seem to be a better idea than playing to them. Otherwise, the movie isn’t too bad and might even grow on you as it did me. Bruce Campbell’s fans should definitely find a way to check this out sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is solid and the movie grows on you.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, profanity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers used a closed store in Massachusetts that had been formerly a Babies R Us retail outlet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Willy’s Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away

The Tomorrow War


Tomorrow isn’t looking quite so bright.

(2021) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovsky, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Matthews, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell, Jared Shaw, Alexis Louder, Rose Bianco, Seychelle Gabriel, Alan Trong, Chibuikem Uche, Dave Maldonado, Kasandra Banfield. Directed by Chris McKay

 

Among the pandemic’s casualties was this film, meant to be one of Paramount’s tentpoles in the never-to-be-forgotten (no matter how hard we try) summer of 2020 but relegated to the indignity of direct-to-streaming the following year.

High school biology teacher Dan Forester (Pratt), a former Green Beret who has felt unfulfilled since returning home from the Iraq War, is trying to find a research job without success. His wife Emmy (Gilpin) and daughter Muri (Armstrong) believe in him, but he still feels like he’s missing something. Perhaps it’s his estranged dad (Simmons), a no-nonsense macho sort who has become an anti-government hermit living off the grid.

But his life – and everyone else’s – is turned upside down with the appearance of time travelers appearing at a soccer game with disturbing news; earth has been invaded by aliens and 20 years in the future, mankind is on the verge of becoming extinct. The future needs soldiers and they’ve come to the past to recruit them.

The survival rate is appalling, but Dan knows he has to go and despite the objections of his wife and tears of his daughter, he knows that this is the war he was meant to fight. On the jaunt back to the future he befriends fellow scientist Charlie (Richardson) and soldier Dorian (Hodge), the latter of whom is entering his third seven-day tour. Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you – they can only spend seven days in the future before being bounced back to their own time.

He also meets a hard-boiled colonel (Strahovsky) who has a nagging familiarity to her (and only the most dullest of intellects won’t be able to figure out why). He faces the aliens – all tentacles and teeth, shooting bony white projectiles from their tentacles, which nets them the name “White Spikes.” But even the infusion of cannon fodder from the past isn’t making much of a difference as the aliens are too many, breed too quickly and are too blamed hard to kill. Mankind may well be doomed – unless someone can come up with a solution to nip the problem before it rears its ugly multi-tentacled head.

This sci-fi action/war movie has elements of alien invasion movies like Skyline and sci-fi war tales like Starship Troopers and falls about in the middle of those two films in terms of quality. Pratt is a bright spot, one of Hollywood’s most consistently successful stars since emerging in the MCU as Star-Lord nearly a decade ago. This doesn’t feel like another franchise film for him; while he excels in the action sequences, he sometimes falters when the scenes are more dramatic in nature. He has always tended to do better with a bit of a smirk than with a bit of pathos.

Strahovsky is a capable actress who should have become a big star after Chuck ended, but hasn’t gotten the kinds of roles that would elevate her there. Simmons shows off his buff bod, astonishing for a 66-year-old man, but is given little else to do. Richardson and Hodge supply good support – Richardson as comic relief, Hodge as resident badass support – but it’s clear that the centerpiece are the CGI alien and action set pieces.

What bothers me most about the movie is the plot inconsistencies. People from the past are sent forward in time to essentially serve as cannon fodder; doesn’t that affect the future if they die in the war, leaving them unable to return to the past and live out the lives they were meant to? It also seems somewhat odd that we are able to invent time travel and yet we have made no significant improvement in armament. Most wars tend to lead to breakthroughs in military technology but nothing here seems to be terribly advanced.

Still, there’s plenty of action, plenty of carnage, plenty of nasty aliens and plenty of Chris Pratt. Chances are this would have done only middling business in the theaters had their not been a pandemic, and likely would have lost money but the sale of the movie from Paramount to Amazon meant it will at least break even for the studio, although whether that translates to profit for Amazon is anyone’s guess.

=REASONS TO SEE: Pratt has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some oddball plot inconsistences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and carnage, as well as some profanity including sexually suggestive dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt is married to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:
Amazon
CRITICAL MASS:& As of 11/28/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Black Friday

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain


A bipolar veteran takes stock of his situation in the last hour of his life.

(2020) True Life Crime (Gravitas) Frankie Faison, Steve O’Connell, Enrico Natale, Ben Marten, Angela Peel, Tom McElroy, LaRoyce Hawkins, Christopher R. Ellis, Anika Noni Rose, Antonio Polk, Dexter Zollicoffer, Kelly Owens, Kelly Owens, Armando Reyes, Eunice Woods, Daniel Houle, Linda Bright Clay, Kate Black-Spence, Alexander Strong, Nayeli Pagaza, Kristine Angela. Directed by David Midell

 

On November 19, 2011, 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was asleep in bed and somehow managed to trigger his LifeAid medical alert necklace. When the LifeAid operator called to check on him, the call box was in the living room and Chamberlain didn’t hear it. Not getting a response, the LifeAid operator notified the White Plains, NY police department to do a wellness check. Police officers were dispatched at 5:30am that morning. By 7am, Kenneth Chamberlain would be dead.

This dramatization of those events, which after a successful festival run and brief theatrical run, debuted on HBO Max on the tenth anniversary of the event, appropriately enough. The police officers – whose names are changed here – arrive at the doorstep of Chamberlain (Faison) and begin pounding on the door. Sgt. Parks (O’Connell) is a veteran of the WPPD who doesn’t think too highly of the residents of the apartment complex, a public housing unit where drug arrests are not uncommon. Officer Jackson (Marten) is a racist with a hair trigger, while Officer Rossi (Natale) is a rookie whose last job was teaching middle school.

Chamberlain, a Marine Corps veteran, suffered from a heart condition necessitating the LifeAid (called LifeAlert here) necklace. He also had bipolar disorder. He is initially confused by the banging on his door, but eventually is contacted by the LifeAid operator and is informed what’s going on. Chamberlain insists he’s okay, that the alert was an accident and there’s no need for the officers to remain. However, he is adamant that he will not open the steel door and let the officers into his apartment. Like many African-Americans, he has a distrust of the police and this is compounded by his mental illness, which rendered him a bit paranoid. He was certain that if he let the cops into his apartment, he would end up dead.

We see the events play out in real time. Much of what happens in the movie is corroborated – the encounter was caught on the LifeAid callbox (portions of which are played at the end of the film), and some of the final moments were captured on a camera mounted on a police taser. The police claimed that Chamberlain was armed with a butcher knife and that the officers shot him in self-defense, a charge the family of Mr. Chamberlain denies. The film seems to validate this; by the time the police broke in, Chamberlain is shown to be disarmed. He is also tasered – which is not recommended for someone with a heart condition – and then shot by Jackson while he is down and essentially helpless.

So in that sense, this isn’t a he-said-she-said situation; many of the facts are not in dispute. What is absolutely mind-boggling is that despite several trials, nobody has ever been charged in Chamberlain’s death. Supporters of police officers will be quick o point out that had Chamberlain simply cooperated, the men would have been in and out of the apartment in five minutes and he would still be alive today.

However, the police should never have forced entry into the apartment. They didn’t have probable cause. Chamberlain’s reluctance to let them inside didn’t constitute probable cause. He didn’t let them in because he was not required to. It’s his own home. They would have needed a search warrant to lawfully enter his residence and they didn’t have one.

We watch the escalation unfolding with eyes wide open; Sgt. Park muses that Chamberlain might have a hooker tied up in a closet in there, or a meth lab in his kitchen. Chamberlain’s military service was the subject of snide comments by the officers, and racial slurs were used at least once on the tape.

Throughout, Chamberlain is clearly terrified and Faison wisely doesn’t overplay it, nor does he overplay the mental illness aspect. For the most part, he plays Chamberlain as a cantankerous, somewhat confused old man who was (justifiably, as it turned out) concerned with his safety should he allow the officers into his home. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that I hope won’t get overlooked which could happen, considering that the movie didn’t get wide distribution although having HBO behind it might help.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch and I imagine that African-American viewers will have a particularly hard time not being triggered by it. One can feel the cops testosterone-fueled rage up against the outrage by the other residents and the desperation of Chamberlain’s niece (Peel) – who also lived in the building and begged the cops to let her talk to her Uncle and defuse the situation, which they steadfastly effused to do. And it was all so very avoidable, and points out one of the flaws in our system of policing – as much as this could have been averted had Chamberlain cooperated, it also might have turned out differently if at the first sign of trouble, mental health professionals trained to deal with this type of behavior had been called in. The police officers weren’t trained to deal with Chamberlain’s mental condition, and saw his refusal as a challenge to their authority. That the judicial system has agreed with that assessment is proof positive that we have a very long way to go before we can claim that our African-American brothers and sisters have equal justice before the law.

REASONS TO SEE: An extraordinary performance by Faison. Shines a light on an incident that should have gotten broader coverage. Gripping from start to finish.
REASONS TO AVOID: The use of loud sound cues is somewhat distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including racial epithets, violence, and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it appears to be depicted here that Chamberlain died on the scene, he actually passed away in the hospital while in surgery.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If Beale Street Could Talk
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Tomorrow War

The Beta Test


Jim Cummings promises that he’s not a douchenozzle like Jordan.

(2021) Mystery (IFC) Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Applegate, Jacqueline Doke, Christian Hillborg, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Wilky Lau, Keith Powell, Lya Yanne, Jackie Michele Johnson, Brayden Reeves, Dustin Hahn, Ammar Alderi, Joy Sunday, Julio Trinidad, Bryan Casserly, Jeffrey Markle, Cheri Chen Julian. Directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe

 

Hollywood is not a place for the faint of heart. It is full of rampaging egos and cutthroat businessfolk who chew up and spit out the gentler souls. It is a place that needs thick skins and a cold heart in order to survive.

Jordan (Cummings) is an agent for a three-letter talent agency (Hollywood insider junkies can likely figure out which one it’s supposed to be) who is pretty much a douchebag. He makes deals of questionable legality and unquestionable immorality, treats assistants like cannon fodder, and outwardly dotes on his fiancé Caroline (Newcomb) while viewing her as essentially a stepping stone on the way to real power.

He receives a strange invitation in a purple envelope, promising him a one-time no-strings-attached sexual encounter if he shows up to such-and-such a hotel room at such-and-such a time. He barely gives it a second thought and shows up, where he is blindfolded and has passionate sex with a similarly blindfolded partner.

But paranoia runs deep in the heart of an agent, and Jordan begins to suspect that he’s been set up. He confides in his partner PJ (McCabe) who launches a quiet investigation; in the meantime, Angelinos are dropping like flies, being murdered by their partners for their infidelity. Is that what’s in store for Jordan?

There’s a lot going on here; multiple layers of different genres, from a whodunit, to a Hollywood insider satire, to a dark comedy and to an erotic thriller. The movie tilts at windmills like Big Tech, misogynistic Hollywood culture, toxic masculinity and infidelity. Some might even see it as a parable about modern society and morals; I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but I can see where the idea might germinate. In the first two acts, the various elements are interwoven deftly, although co-directors (and co-writers) seem to lose the threads in the final act when the violence begins to accelerate.

One of the big problems here is that Jordan is a walking talking bag of feces, and the longer you spend with him, the more unclean you’ll feel. There comes a point where you begin hoping that Caroline will find out what’s going on and attatch a bomb to his testicles; at least that might give the audience a sense of satisfaction, but alas, that’s not to be. Does Jordan get what’s coming to him? I’m not telling, but suffice to say that you may or may not leave the film’s final credits feeling vindicated.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of different layers going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lead character is such a jerk you don’t want to spend another minute with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from testimony given the filmmakers by eleven agents, former agents and assistants at the four largest talent agencies in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

New Releases for the Week of November 26, 2021


ENCANTO

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero, Angie Cepeda, John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama. Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard

The Madrigal family have been blessed to live in an enchanted house called Encanto in the mountains of Columbia. The house bestows upon each of them a special power – all except Mirabel. But the magic of Encanto is in danger and the only one who can save it might just be Mirabel.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and mild peril)

A Holiday Chance

(Faith Media) Nafessa Williams, Sharon Leal, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tobias Truvillion. Two estranged rival sisters must come together to help save the family business when their father suffers some tragic events during the holidays.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Holiday
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and a suggestive reference)

Antim: The Final Truth

(Zee) Salman Khan, Aayush Sharma, Mahima Makwana, Mahesh Manjrekar. A penniless village boy sacrifices family and nearly everything else to rise to the top of organized crime, pursued closely by a relentless police officer.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Crime
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Springs, Regal Pavilion Port Orange
Rating: NR

Anubhavinchu Raja

(Annapurna) Ajay, Raj Tarun, Krishna Murali Posani, Sudharshan. A young man who inherits wealth at an early age becomes the village laughingstock when his lavish lifestyle catches up to him. Determined to prove himself worthy, his quest to gain respect goes awry.

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For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando
Rating: NR

For the Love of Money

(Freestyle) Keri Hilson, Rotimi, Jason Mitchell, Keith Sweat. When shadowy figures threaten a woman’s daughter, she is pulled into the life she had escaped and had hoped never to return to.

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For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content/nudity and violence)

House of Gucci

(United Artists) Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons. Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott may have another awards contender on his hands as the family behind an Italian fashion empire is unraveled by the naked ambition of an outsider who married into the family.

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For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: True Crime Drama
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity and violence)

Julia

(Sony Classics) Julia Child, Ina Garten, Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson. This is the story of the woman who essentially created the modern cooking show, transformed the way Americans see food and cooking, and even made a difference in the role of women in society.

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For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Cinematique Daytona, Enzian
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language/sexual references, and some thematic elements)

Maanaadu

(V House) S.J. Suryah, T.R. Silambarasan, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Bharathiraja. The bodyguard of the chief minister of the state and a police officer are caught in a time loop on the day of an important conference.

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Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: NR

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

(Screen Gems) Kaya Scodelario, Hannah John-Kamen, Robbie Amell, Donal Logue. The exodus of pharmaceutical giant Umbrella has turned a boom town into a ghost town, but the problems for Raccoon City are far worse below the surface, where the evil of the Umbrella Corporation is being born.

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For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: R (for strong violence and gore, and language throughout)

The Unforgivable

(Netflix) Sandra Bullock, Jon Bernthal, Vincent D’Onofrio, Viola Davis. A woman convicted for a violent crime serves out her sentence after which she returns home, where she is decidedly not welcome. Her only hope for redemption is in finding her estranged younger sister, whom she was forced to leave behind.

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Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Cinemark Universal Citywalk
Rating: R (for language and violence)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible (Monday)
Adrienne
(Wednesday)
Angéle
Badland Doves
(Wednesday)
Burning
(Monday)
Dig Deeper: The Disappearance of Birgit Meier
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand Me
(Thursday)
Dog Years
Good Thief
(Tuesday)
Green Snake
Lady Buds
More the Merrier
(Monday)
Nash Bridges
(Saturday)
The Power of the Dog
(Wednesday)
South Park: Post-COVID
(Thursday)
Spoiled Brats
The Summit of the Gods
(Tuesday)

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Encanto
House of Gucci
Lady Buds
The Power of the Dog
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City
The Unforgivable

The Feast


When Wales becomes wails.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Steffan Cennydd, Sion Alun Davies, Rodri Mellir, Lisa Palfrey, Chris Gordon, Caroline Berry. Directed by Lee Haven Jones

 

Some horror movies are an adrenaline rush from start to finish, keeping one on the edge of the seat, pulses pounding, going from one scare to another with little let-up. Others are slow burns, building up a mood and tension, building up to an explosive climax that leaves the viewer feeling wrung-out and exhausted, like a wet dishrag.

The Feast is the latter kind of film. In the green Welsh countryside, a monstrosity of a house stands out like a sore thumb. It is owned by the Member of Parliament Gwyn (Jones), who is the kind of politician whose idea of service only encompasses his own bank account. His wife, Glenda (Roberts) – Gwyn and Glenda; I wonder if Jones and writer Roger Williams noted the similarity to the title of a classic Ed Wood film? – is from the countryside but yearns to be considered an urban sophisticate. She is supervising a dinner party to be thrown for a local farmer whom Gwyn is anxious to get to sell his mineral rights to a large mining company; it is a deal with the devil from which profit is king and the damage to the countryside not even a consideration.

But Glenda can’t do it all alone, so she has enlisted the aid of Cadi (Elwy), a local waitress who is happy to make a little extra cash at this side gig, but when she arrives, she’s strangely soaking wet and muddy and her whole personality seems a little…off. As we meet the two sons of the house – arrogant triathlete Gweirydd (Davies), and the family black sheep and drug addict Gweithiwr (Gordon), we begin to notice that there’s more than a little bit strange about Cadi and as she observes the family and their guests, it becomes clear that the family is headed for a reckoning, one they richly deserve. But who is Cadi, or perhaps more to the point, what?

The script lets slip only tantalizing tidbits of information, keeping the audience in the dark until the very final act when the true nature of what’s happening is revealed. By then, it’s far too late for the victims, and also for the less patient viewer who may give up on the movie much earlier than that. That would be a mistake; the payoff is pretty satisfying, and while there are no characters who are really going to grab your rooting interest for survival, at least there is some grim satisfaction in seeing some despicable people get made examples of. It’s not justice – unless you believe in the extreme sort – but there is something deeply satisfying with seeing people who put greed and profit above everything else be made to pay big time.

Most of the violence occurs off-screen, although the director Lee Haven Jones doesn’t shy away from showing the results of the violence. The atmospheric cinematography by Bjorn Ståle Bratberg does much to establish the uneasy tone that builds throughout the film. The actors, mostly known for appearances on British television shows and movies, go about their business professionally and keep their performances subtle and centered.

This is not the kind of movie that feels like a roller coaster ride, but it IS the kind of movie that will give you nightmares and leave you feeling creeped out long after you’ve seen it. This is a very striking and solid horror experience that is going to take a few folks by surprise; definitely seek it out if you’re looking to spend the rest of the night jumping at every sound in your house.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out unsettling and the discomfort only grows from there. A bit of a comment on privilege and class distinctions.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too long in developing for the impatient.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the few films whose entire dialogue is in Welsh.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beatriz at Dinner
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
King Richard

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road


Brian Wilson , in many ways, carried the Beach Boys.

(2021) Music Documentary (Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Gustavo Dudamel, Don Was, Steven Page, Nick Jonas, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, Mark Linett, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Bob Gaudio, Probyn Gregory, Andy Paley, Taylor Hawkins, Darian Sahanaia, Stephen Kalioich, Melinda Ledbetter. Directed by Brent Wilson

Without a doubt, the musical legacy of Brian Wilson is right up there, as Los Angeles Philharmonic Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel opines, with Schubert and Mahler. He has been described as “Pop’s Mozart” and while the man himself would probably squirm at such descriptions, they aren’t wrong.

Wilson, the man who wrote most of the big hits of the Beach Boys and produced their greatest records, also has struggled with mental illness, exacerbated by his drug abuse in the late Sixties and Seventies. Before that, he was churning out incredible songs extolling Southern California as a kind of paradise of warm sand, sunshine, beautiful girls in bikinis, and clean-cut guys in hot rods. It was a different era – for many, this sounded like heaven on Earth and the Beach Boys sold it like aggressive real estate agents. The Los Angeles chamber of commerce should have pictures of these guys up on their wall; they helped bring a lot of business and industry to California because they brought a lot of people to the Golden State.

He comes off here as a gentle soul, uncomfortable with talking about himself, nervous and anxious about any sort of interview. The fact that his friend and Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine is conducting the interviews probably helps some. Fine drives the former Beach Boy around Los Angeles to points of interest on the Brian Wilson tour; to the site of the house he grew up in Hawthorne – long since demolished to make room for a freeway, although a plaque stands at the site marking it as a California Historic Landmark. He also takes him to Paradise Cove, where the covers to some of the early Beach Boys albums were photographed – there’s a plaque there, too. Fine also takes him to various houses where he lived during the heyday of the band, and to his brother Carl’s home – he generally doesn’t get out of the car, except at the Deli where they have lunch (and run into Vanna White, a former neighbor of Wilsons and their brief chat occurs off-camera; ah, Hollywood).

We listen to a long of the songs that Brian and the Boys made famous (and a few less famous ones), and listen to the expert opinions of fellow greats Springsteen and Sir Elton John, both who admit being mesmerized by the music and inspired by it. John even admits to cribbing a few of Brian’s studio tricks for his own albums. Don Was, the veteran producer who also directed the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Wasn’t Made For These Times, listens to “God Only Knows” from the magnificent Pet Sounds album and shakes his head in wonderment and delight. “I’ve been doing this (producing music) for forty years and I still can’t tell you how he did that,” listening to the intricate instrumentation, some of which he can’t identify – “A flute with reverb, maybe?”

But maybe the most emotional moments, even as director Brent Wilson (no relation) looks at the abusive of Brian’s father Murry, and his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, are reserved for Brian’s relationships with his brothers, both gone. He listens, for the first time he says, to Dennis Wilson’s overlooked gem of a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and is impressed. “I wanna hear it ALL,” he says when asked if he wants to hear more. He also is brought to tears talking about his brother Carl (who passed away in 1998 from cancer, and asks Fine to turn off the song on which Carl is singing. “I can’t listen to this anymore,” he says quietly. Dennis drowned in 1983.

This isn’t a documentary that is going to reveal much more about Brian than is already out there – you probably need to go to I Was Not Made For These Times if you want more of that. But this is a sweet and affecting documentary that reminds us that although Brian may not like being identified as a genius, he nevertheless has produced some of the greatest music of his time and we are all the better for it.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some strong and powerful moments here. Lots of really good insights throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nothing really revelatory here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilson has been diagnosed with schizoactive disorder, and continues to hear voices in his head to this day.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Feast

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road