CVIndependent

Thu04252019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

Lucas Hedges continues to establish himself as one of his generation’s best actors as a young gay man forced into conversion therapy by his Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) in Boy Erased, an adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir.

Hedges plays Jared (a character based on Conley), a college student who, after a horrible event on campus, reveals to his parents that he “thinks about men.” This sends his parents into a religious panic, and they send him to a facility where a shifty preacher/counselor (Joel Edgerton, who also directs and wrote the screenplay) tries to convince him that homosexuality is a sin and the wrong choice. Jared is forced to withstand psychological torture and gradually realizes that, despite his upbringing and the wishes of his parents, he’s gay—and no amount of bullshit preaching is going to change that.

Edgerton does a respectable job of keeping all of the characters based in reality; the crazed preachers and misguided parents have depth to them and aren’t reduced to caricature.

Kidman and Crowe are both very good, but the film’s main triumph is Hedges, who continues to amaze. The movie packs a wallop, and that’s due in large part to what Hedges brings to Jared.

Boy Erased is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033) and the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Kurt Russell might be the best Santa Claus ever in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, a inconsistent but ultimately enjoyable movie that is sure to make it into a lot of holiday-movie rotations for those of us who like Christmas movies with a little edge.

Kate (the adorable Darby Camp) is dealing with the loss of her father, a struggling mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her jerk brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), during the holidays. She makes Santa a request video—and then accidentally stumbles upon the big guy himself as he drops by.

Russell is a comic gem here, bemoaning the way cola ads portray him as fat (the guy is in great shape) while embodying the joy and eternally happy spirit of the legend. While the movie drifts a bit in the middle—including some unfortunate, cutesy CGI elves—Russell keeps the whole thing movie forward with the power of his unique and totally new Santa.

The movie is a treat in the end, and Russell takes the big man to all new levels.

The Christmas Chronicles is now streaming on Netflix.

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie get-together at the diner. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son, Viktor, with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned; he’s replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in the first chapter, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This success actually surprises me, because the film dared to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports-underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on 1980s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character, and by then, Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth. Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Adonis (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Does this sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances; a sense of humiliation oozes from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen). Caple and his screenwriters (including Stallone) manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

The movie wisely jettisons the U.S.-vs.-Russia angle and just focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. An actor playing Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV: Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader! Nuclear war was averted! God that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing of a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it really hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment, a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky; he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on Creed, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV 33 years later. That’s a notable accomplishment.

Creed II is playing at theaters across the valley.

Writer-director Steve McQueen follows up his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave with Widows, an above-average thriller made very watchable thanks to a terrific performance by Viola Davis.

Davis plays Veronica, the wife of lifetime criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). When Harry meets an untimely end, he leaves behind a nasty debt—and some nasty people want it paid back. Veronica hatches a plan to pull a heist, and she looks to the wives of Harry’s also-dead gang mates to help her out.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are good as the other widows, while Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell steal scenes as father-and-son politicians. The plot is fairly standard, and you’ll see some of the “big twists” coming a mile away. That doesn’t keep the movie from being a sufficiently stylized, serviceable thriller that gives Davis her best vehicle in years.

Widows also costars Lukas Haas as a mysterious boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya as a scary henchman and Carrie Coon in a throwaway role. This is not the sort of greatness one hopes for from McQueen, but it’s no mishap: It’s a good movie from a very good director.

Widows is playing at theaters across the valley.

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

American soldiers get up close and personal with mutant Nazi soldiers in Overlord, one of the weirder films to make it to the big screen in 2018.

J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot company have come up with something peculiar here. While initial reports had this one as a Cloverfield movie, it is not: It’s a standalone film … a weird, freaky standalone.

World War II American paratrooper soldiers—led by Kurt Russell’s lookalike/soundalike son, Wyatt, as demolition expert Ford—land on the eve of D-Day in a Nazi-occupied French town, intent upon destroying a Nazi communication tower. Director Julius Avery’s flick starts off as an effective war movie as those paratroopers, including Jovan Adepo as Boyce and John Magaro as Tibbet, must escape a crashing plane and then evade Nazis on the ground.

Soon after meeting up with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the soldiers find themselves in a safehouse. It’s a typical small house … except Chloe’s aunt down the hall is ill, and we aren’t talking whooping cough. Wyatt remains focused on the tower mission, but Boyce inadvertently stumbles upon the root cause of the aunt’s sickness: Nazi doctors are screwing with dead people’s biochemistry in an effort to create a 1,000-year army. This results in some messed-up experiments like Chloe’s aunt, but also brings about superhuman, crazy Nazi soldier zombies—with direct orders to tear people apart.

The whole Nazi-zombie thing has been done before, but never with such authentic style and gory aplomb. Avery deserves credit for a nice slow burn as his movie goes from army-mission adventure to Sam Raimi-style crazed horror when Boyce discovers strange cocoons inside an old church.

The first legitimate appearance of a full-blown, raging dead Nazi is a good, super-scary time. There’s also an unfortunate incident with another guy that involves collar bones shooting out of his skin due to massive contortions; I must give high marks to the makeup-effects team on that one. Avery made a concerted effort to use practical special effects rather than CGI, so much of the film’s gore and gross stuff is made from scratch. This is a good thing, because when the film does use CGI, it doesn’t look great.

Pilou Asbæk is a memorable villain as a Nazi officer who winds up mutated without ever dying. He’s the ultimate Nazi/zombie/superhuman/dickweed, with a face that reminds a bit of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He apparently went through five hours of makeup for these scenes, and that was time well spent: He totally sucks in a good way.

There’s talk of remaking Escape From New York. I hope they don’t do that, but if they do, they should quit screwing around with casting the likes of Gerard Butler as Snake Plissken, and just give Wyatt Russell the job. He’s the son of Kurt and Goldie, and he’s got his dad’s superior jawline and an identical speech cadence. His determined demolition expert here is a nice balance of hero and total asshole—a mix his pop also does well.

Adepo is the person with the most screen time, and his Boyce is a good, slightly unreliable and nervous central character. Ollivier has a nice moment with a flame thrower that reminded me of Ripley in Aliens. Magaro is so authentic as a New York native World War II soldier that you might wonder if he arrived on set via a time machine.

It’s interesting to see something like Overlord coming outpost-Halloween, when Oscar favorites and holiday films dominate the new releases. The movie doesn’t score major points for originality, but it’s nonetheless a good time for those of us who enjoy seeing bad things done to Nazis.

Overlord is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Collin (Daveed Diggs), a man on his last few days of probation, faces a challenge when he not only witnesses a cop shooting a suspect in the back; he also winds up being in the presence of another person shooting off a firearm, multiple acts of violence, and more things that would get him thrown back in jail.

Did I mention that Blindspotting is a comedy?

Diggs, along with buddy Rafael Casal, wrote the script for what turns out to be one of the year’s better directorial debuts, by Carlos López Estrada. The two also share the screen together, with Casal turning in a breakout performance as Collin’s best friend and co-worker, an outspoken troublemaker who courts mischief with every word.

The final act includes some daring choices, and they pay off. Diggs and Casal have the potential to be a great writing/acting duo, and I am curious to see what comes next.

Blindspotting is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray Nov. 20.

Rami Malek gives it his all as Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Oh, and there’s a competent re-creation of Queen’s Live Aid domination.

Unfortunately, those are the only good things one can say about this embarrassing effort to memorialize an incredible person and his sadly short life.

The movie basically takes Mercury’s legacy, completely screws with his life’s timeline, and makes up a bunch of unnecessary occurrences to pad its 134-minute running time. So much of this film isn’t true; that, and the fact that they took this hard-living rock star’s life and homogenized it for a PG-13 film makes Bohemian Rhapsody far from authentic.

Mercury died from pneumonia while battling AIDS in 1991; he was diagnosed with the illness in 1987. This film—partially directed by Bryan Singer and then finished by Dexter Fletcher—has Mercury learning about his diagnosis before his incredible 1985 Live Aid performance, and even shows him telling the band about his illness shortly before they went onstage. This is complete bullshit.

The film also suggests that Queen was broken up for years before hitting the stage for Live Aid. While the band members did put out some solo albums, and they probably squabbled like most groups do, the band continued as a unit. They were friends. The film purports to show Live Aid as their reunion gig, but the band was already on a live tour when they took the stage for those legendary 20 minutes. More complete bullshit.

Mercury’s boyfriend at the end of his life was a man named Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). The film shows them meeting when Mercury groped Hutton, depicted as a servant, while cleaning up after a crazy Mercury party. Again … complete bullshit: The two met in a gay bar; Hutton was a hairdresser, not a hired servant at Mercury’s house. The film depicts Mercury going through the phone book after meeting Hutton and trying to find him for years. Actually, the two met once; Hutton rejected Mercury; they then met up again a couple of years later, before dating and moving in together.

As for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman Mercury considered his common-law wife … the movie over-dramatizes what went on between them, and basically slanders the special bond these two people had.

Why do filmmakers need to distort facts like this, especially when the life in focus is so damned interesting? Mercury’s life could fuel five incredible movies, but instead, Bohemian Rhapsody is one mostly made-up soap opera. Perhaps this explains some of the drama that took place during the production. Singer was fired from the movie after fighting with producers and Malek; was his take more realistic? Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury, but he left when the milquetoast version coming from producers and the remaining members of Queen began taking form. One could only imagine what we would’ve gotten had he remained involved.

Malek—acting through a set of big, fake teeth—is decent in the role. He actually sang on set, and his voice blended with a Mercury sound-alike to keep the movie from being a completely lip-synched affair. The musical sequences, including the Live Aid gig, are fun to watch. But, hey, if I want good Queen music, I can just watch the videos of Queen.

The movie between those musical sequences is terrible—a messed-up bit of fakery that promotes a lot of unintentional laughter. There’s a great, truthful movie to be made about the life of Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t even come close to being that movie.

Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing at theaters across the valley.

The title of this film, Juliet, Naked, is a nod to The Beatles’ release of Let It Be … Naked, a stripped-down version of that album. In this movie, Juliet, Naked is a demo version of an album recorded by a fictional indie-rock star, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).

I can’t think of a more appropriate role for Hawke at this point in his career. Over the last couple of decades, he’s grown into one of the best actors on the planet. He had promise in the first act of his career, but he was a little annoying, self-important and boring … like the younger version of Tucker Crowe. But he’s older now, and so is his character in this movie, a reclusive star who retreated into obscurity after a bad breakup. That part isn’t autobiographical—Hawke has been pretty active throughout—but there are fun parallels between Hawke and Tucker Crowe.

Rose Byrne plays Annie, the girlfriend of mega-Crowe fan Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). When a demo of Crowe’s album winds up in their home, it receives opposing reviews from the two on the Internet—with Annie’s being far more critical. Crowe responds to her review, and the two strike up a kinship that’s far more plausible than it seems on paper.

The three stars are great, especially Hawke. One of the funniest things about the movie is Byrne trying to obscure her pregnancy during filming—a lot of travel bags obscure her baby bump). It’s like that season of Seinfeld when Julia Louis-Dreyfus was pregnant.

The movie is adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby, which is no surprise—because it is insightful, witty and entertaining.

Juliet, Naked is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 13.