Also worth seeing: Heartfelt ‘Concrete Cowboy,’ gripping ‘Rose Plays Julie’
The blockbuster era returns with “Godzilla vs. Kong” this week, and that battle royal, which is already storming up the international box office charts, tops our new release list. Other standouts include an Idris Elba Netflix movie, a “Promising Young Woman”-like Irish psychological thriller and what could turn out to be one of the best films of 2021.
“Godzilla vs. Kong”: After the upheaval and turmoil we experienced in 2020, it’s somewhat comforting to watch Godzilla and King Kong sink battleships and stomp all over cities. And it is these CGI smackdown scenes when “Godzilla vs. Kong” roars. But then it gets back to the tortured monster myth-building and that’s when “Godzilla vs. Kong” simply gets way too full of itself with a batch of screenwriters trying to pull off a multi-tiered Marvel-like Universe, a scheme that even leads to a journey to the center of the Earth. By then the story has gone so overboard on numerous power struggles and side stories, it feels as strained as Millie Bobby Brown’s performance. But let’s not give the “Stranger Things” actress too a tough time; everyone in this fine cast — Alexander Skarsgard, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry and Julian Dennison (the comic-relief scene stealers) along with Demian Belcher and Kyle Chandler — is but an accessory to the grandiose action pieces, and oh, how do those deliver. Horror director Adam Wingard earns extra points for amping up the atmospherics and keeping us semi-interested even during the dull stretches, but this rematch, the fourth in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse series, needed more fighting and less muddled mythmaking. Details: 2½ stars out of 4; opening March 31 in theaters and on HBO Max.
“Concrete Cowboy”: Director/co-writer Ricky Staub was dubbed by Variety as one of “10 Directors to Watch,” and he shows why here. His first feature is an entertaining, emotionally involving adaptation of Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboys. Staub shows grace shifting between the gritty and the sentimental as he invites us into the fascinating world of Philadelphia’s Black urban cowboys, living and training horses on littered streets, much to the dismay of real estate developers. While “Cowboys” takes a traditional story arc, with 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) sent to live with his estranged dad (Idris Elba) by a mom fed up with his juvenile-detention behavior, it’s the unique setting, complicated characters and authentic-feeling situations that make it worthwhile. McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”) demonstrates real acting range and Elba commands the screen whenever he appears, but it’s the real-life North Philadelphia cowboy Jamil “Mil” Prattis, as Paris, a cowboy in a wheelchair who teaches Cole how to clean out stables and how to take command of his life, who gives the film its heart and soul. Details: 3 stars; available April 2 on Netflix.
“Rose Plays Julie”: This sophisticated psychological thriller about toxic masculinity strikes with just as much venom as Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated “Promising Young Woman.” The acting is of the master-class variety, with Ann Skelly creating a haunting impression as the determined Rose, a morose veterinary student who takes inappropriate measures to meet her actress birth mother (a shattering Orla Brady) and then her birth dad (Aidan Gillen), a celebrity archaeologist and serial abuser. Directors/writers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy avoid the obvious in this very dark Irish tale on the duplicitous roles we play in life to hide from who we are and what we’ve done. Details: 3½ stars; available to stream on various platforms.
“Tina”: She’s been immortalized in a biopic and a stage musical. So what more could there be to say about rock star Tina Turner, now 81, even after her tell-all book? Quite a bit as Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s engrossing documentary reveals. While much of the story is well-known, including the years of emotional and physical abuse she endured at the hands of husband/producer Ike Turner, some of it isn’t. “Tina” comes alive whenever it explores the toll that the public revelations have taken on this survivor of domestic abuse. From electrifying concert performances to intimate footage with her family, a composite of the real Tina Turner starts to form. Details: 3 stars; available now on HBO (check local listings).
“French Exit”: It’s baffling that Michelle Pfeiffer hasn’t won an Oscar. Rarely, if ever, has she given a bad or routine performance. From the trailers, it looked like “French Exit” might be the vehicle to deliver her to the Academy Awards podium. Guess again. Besides a cute black cat that’s integral to the elusive plot, Pfeiffer is the best asset in Azazel Jacobs’ kooky mess. “Exit” strives too hard to be breezy, witty and whimsical as a broke and widowed Manhattan socialite (Pfieffer) ventures to France with her son (Lucas Hedges). It all comes across as disingenuous and insincere, topped (or bottomed) with a laughable seance scene that is awkward and terrible. Pfeiffer is luminous, this film isn’t. Details: 1½ stars; in select theaters April 2.
“Kuessipan”: Director Myriam Verreault does everything so well here it’s hard to believe her tale of friendship and family on a Quebec Innu reservation is her first feature. “Kuessipan” is a beautiful portrait of two female friends, and their committed, brittle and fiery relationship. Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) is the brainiac of the two and comes from a more stable home. Shannis (Yamie Grégoire) has a troubled home life and goes after the bad boys. Both suffer setbacks, tragedies and triumphs big and small, but Verreault’s empathic approach and the two stars’ powerful, multi-layered performances make this adaptation of Naomi Fontaine’s novel a revelation. It’s one of the best, most genuine films you’ll likely to see this year. Details: 4 stars; screening as part of the Virtual Cinema series at the Roxie Theatre, and the Smith Rafael Film Center, rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.
“Shoplifters of the World”: Recollections of being an ‘80s teen inform director/writer Stephen Kijak’s harmless high school senior year lament, a predictable party film where rebellious kids suddenly become adults. Kijak frames this angst between four friends — some questioning their sexual identities — over the demise of the Smiths new wave band in 1987, an announcement that even leads a righteous youth (Ellar Coltrane) to storm a Denver radio station and demand the DJ (Joe Manganiello, a standout) play Smiths songs all night. While there’s nothing much new here, “Shoplifters” does have heart and soul, and some killer Smiths songs. Details: 2 stars; available to stream here.