Thursday, May 28, 2020

Stars of name-dropping 'High Note' have a few moments, just not enough

A musically inclined movie called "The High Note" ends in a way to make its title proud. If only getting there was half as much fun and not such a jumblin', stumblin' concept the director has offered up before.

Ellis Ross flashes some serious star power as multiplatinum singer Grace Davis.
That helmer is Nisha Ganatra, whose previous feature behind the camera was last year's "Late Night," in which Emma Thompson starred as an aging TV-host eventually warming up to an industry up-and-comer (played by screenwriter Mindy Kaling). In "The High Note," Tracee Ellis Ross portrays a nearing-50 singer slowly finding out that her personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) believes she could make some beautiful noise herself.

First-timer Flora Greeson wrote the screenplay, but Ganatra likely contributed to shaping the ever-changing relationship between fun-loving diva Grace Davis (Ellis Ross), not nearly as intimidating as the movie's promotional campaign might suggest, with the overly confident young Maggie (Johnson). Both stars shine mostly bright, with the former truly glowing in some credible comic moments and the latter talking softly but nicely carrying her savvy recording-studio shtick.

Along the way, if somebody might be reminded that Ellis Ross herself is the daughter of diva/superstar Diana Ross, well. so be it. The script certainly helps in that department since the fictional Grace's most recent chart-topping single -- a full 11 years ago -- is a ditty called "All the Way Up," while former Supremes super-group leader Ross' last solo No. 1 record went "Upside Down" (in 1980). The closing "Love Myself" finally gives Ellis Ross the best opportunity to show off her own vocal chops, too, in what is being called "the first single from the film" after teaming with producer Rodney Jenkins.

Harrison Jr., Johnson reach for more than studio high notes.
Uh, back to the story and speaking of producing, the self-possessed Maggie not only finds time for discreetly assembling a remix of Grace's greatest hits, but also to fine-tune the career of a talented if insecure crooner/love interest (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). That association significantly allows Greeson's script, which already had been peppering conversations with an unthinkable assortment of celebrity names, to drop a couple dozen or so more.

Alas, none of the personalities really show up on screen but, if anyone's counting, Stevie Nicks and Michael B. Jordan each earn more than one mention for plot-particular reasons. And, for pleasantly vocal ones, so does the late and legendary Sam Cooke.

Of course, N.W.A. rapper-turned actor Ice Cube actually co-stars, likely the result of more gimmicky than convincing casting as Grace's agent/manager/friend. Ex-comic Eddie Izzard adds a smaller, finer turn as a grizzled rock star aiding the ambitious Maggie in a ridiculously over-reaching scheme that leads to nothing good, except maybe a key role for Bill Pullman.

The ever-relaxed actor rushes in late to help answer a few pertinent questions that anyone with a brain just had to be asking before our previously recognized "High Note" finish. Some might even find it all happily plausible.

Rated "PG-13": strong language and suggestive situations; 1:53: $ $ and 1/2

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

You'll miss Snap Wexley, Kevin Mitnick and more by letting 'Burning Dog' lie

Grunberg (right) and Xuereb stay consistently in view as Smythe and Wesson.
No animals were harmed in the making of Burning Dog. In fact, there are no canines connected to this title, derived from a silly if instructive line of dialogue. And, believe me, there is plenty of throwaway conversation here

It's the action that speaks louder than words, especially during some climactic warehouse escapades that might remind crime-story junkies of early Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") or more recent vintage Ben Wheatley ("Free Fire").

Beware, however, that critical perspective likely will be tainted by your feelings about POV viewing. The storyteller in this dog-eared thriller is heard, but never seen, which means viewers observe a lot of framed and fleeting flashbacks, as told to an interrogator who most likely rescued him.

The eyewitness (voiced by Adam Bartley) is a video-game creator accidentally caught in a web of blackmail, shady cops, bad Russians, FBI guys, and a tough dame (Adrienne Wilkinson). That leads to the characters growing more compelling than the somewhat inconsistent telling.

Partner cops Smythe (Greg Gunberg) and Wesson (Salvator Xuereb) easily take charge and, son of a gun, the recurring gag about their names somehow holds up during the whole caper, too. By the way, while Xuereb's familiar mug has been seen in a slew of TV and film stuff, Grunberg probably has made a more indelible mark on cinematic history as Snap Wexley, a pilot for the Resistance in a couple of recent "Star Wars" movies.

Also recognizable is Eddie Jemison, still best known as the tech/surveillance expert (albeit the 11th, 12th or 13th billed character) from Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy. As a thug here, he's very fond of tazing our first-person guide while teaming up with a more physically psychotic pal (Hugo Armstrong).

The crowded screenplay also flaunts the mention of and, perhaps, an appearance by Kevin Mitnick. Now, knowing that name might offer some insight into where all of this is going. Still, it's not a mighty spoiler; nor is the suggestion to hang around for a look at the nifty closing credits in this watchable first feature from director/writer Trey Batchelor, himself a frequent Soderbergh collaborator.

Not rated by MPAA (but with language, violence and sexual situations); 1:29; $ $ $ out of $5

("Burning Dog" is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and an assortment of world-wide VOD and cable platforms.)

Friday, May 15, 2020

'Vast of Night' looks, sounds perfect for spooky drive-in or at-home viewing

So, what might Rod Serling, Orson Welles, old box radios, black and white television sets, and New Mexico all have in common?

Well, all proved themselves highly capable of producing some extraordinary stories, especially when it came to sightings and encounters with otherworldly situations. Now comes "The Vast of Night," from debut director Andrew Patterson, a man likely influenced by all of the above -- and very much more.

A disembodied Serling-sounding voice, in fact, introduces these "Vast" proceedings before a show called "Paradox Theater," a not-so distant cousin to Serling's own classic "Twilight Zone." That makes this week's "Paradox" episode a clever teleplay within Patterson's already cool movie, which expands from hazy blurs on the small screen to equally simple big screen effects.

Flickering lights, a few actual stretches of total darkness, conversation about squirrels, rats and owls biting through power lines, and even mention of some dog getting electrocuted occur easily in this tale of one strange night in '50s-era Cayuga, N.M.

It starts innocently enough, as smalltown basketball fans -- that means just about everyone in Cayuga-- slowly enter the high school gym to see the Statesmen squad play its opening game of the season against some big, tough cross-state rivals.

Radio host Horowitz and switchboard op McCormick listen for bumps in 'Night.'
Two who won't be watching, though, are kids named Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a chain-smoking technical whiz who closely resembles Robert Carradine in "Revenge of the Nerds," and cutely spunky Faye Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a gal with her eyes on the future. Each has a part-time job that people seem to know about: He's a nighttime radio host, and she's an evening phone operator whose genuine prowess on an old-fashioned switchboard becomes particularly memorable in one lengthy sequence.

Meanwhile, with first-time screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger dishing out distinctive dialogue, and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz sweeping his lens all over town,
the aforementioned Orson Welles influence has been slowly sneaking up on us.

Welles, if you don't know, gained much initial acclaim in radio, including as the popular voice of "The Shadow," but probably by most notably creating a "War of the Worlds" broadcast that freaked out much of America's East Coast one frightening night in 1938. In "Vast," Patterson hurls some similar vocal and sound vibes toward DJ Sloan at station "WOTW" (get it?) and town hall operator Crocker, as both get calls from scared listeners and citizens, respectively, about some bizarre things they've witnessed.

That's all the actual plot inferences you'll find here, but one more Welles connection: Though not a member of the "War of the Worlds" radio ensemble, longtime character actor Everette Sloane (yes, with the "e" on the end) not only shares a name with the radio expert in this film, but he also became one of the Welles' troupe of Mercury Players that went into the movies with "Citizen Kane." Perhaps not so ironically, Sloane also starred in a 1960 "Twilight Zone" episode that pitted him against a taunting slot machine.

Finally, after his superbly visual climax, there's a little something you might find interesting in Patterson's closing credits, too. Like, why does NBA superstar Kevin Durant earn special thanks? Is it because the director hails from Oklahoma City, where Durant played most of his career before high-priced free agency lured him away? Maybe only The Shadow knows but, by the looks of what he was able to do with a shoestring budget in this initial movie outing, certainly Patterson will be around long enough to answer that question some day.

For now, his current release seems like a perfect fit for drive-in movie theaters, which open this weekend in Ohio for the first time since that really scary pandemic began creeping into everyone's vocabulary and nightmares. At least three outdoor picture shows around the Cleveland/Akron area will be screening "The Vast of Night" before it starts streaming May 29 on Amazon Prime. Just keep the lights off, no matter where you watch it.

Rated "PG-13" (brief strong language); 1:31; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Teen hero ignites 'Soundwave'; 'Third Strike' listens to wrongly imprisoned

If you search long and hard enough, you might uncover a kinda cool little sci-fi thriller streaming on a laptop or TV near you. It's called "Soundwave," which starts in style with the attractive night landing of a jet over the opening credits, as small talk and simple noises from a slew of passengers gets mixed in meaninglessly. Or so it seems.

The sequence serves as a serene prologue to what immediately follows: seriously urgent foot chase; soon-to-be repeated, though initially compelling stop-action images; and nicely amplified conversation track with a whooshing/whirring vibe that won't hurt your ears -- at least not yet.

By the time the young lad being pursued suddenly leaps off a building and into ever-requisite flashback mode (signaled by the caption reading "One Week Ago"),  writer/director Dylan K. Narang already has shown off a bag of nifty tricks on how to make a low-budget film look like a million or more.

I mean, there's a reason why the potboiler is titled what it is, and such an impressive opening allows us to watch -- and mostly listen -- to the setup with some alacrity. The leaper, we soon find out, is teen techie Ben Boyles (Hunter Doohan), who works in a small audio appliances store and, most importantly, has invented a gizmo that allows him to hear conversations from the past.

Somewhere along the way, the kid has shared his wares with an aggressive cop (Vincent Nappo) now paying him a standard fee to help solve cases. That work does not sit well with his employer, the nice-guy shop owner (Mike Beaver) who worries that Ben may end up in trouble -- or maybe worse. After all, Ben's late father apparently died under mysterious circumstances that his similarly talented boy is eager to unravel.

Enter the rather obvious bad guy (Paul Tassone), an "agency" bigwig not afraid to kill people to get what he wants. Ben's listening device also gets him mixed up with a potential love interest (Katie Owsley) who, ironically, has some theories on why her own mom committed suicide, a detail that mostly comes out of nowhere.

Still, if we dare actually jump out of the past and into the future, the dead-parent issues likely could get resolved as part of a sequel just dying to happen. For now, though, we'll just have to enjoy the small pleasures of this odd, but beguiling tale, including the "Midnight Express"-like music that sounds appropriate enough in most tense situations.

Not rated by MPAA (but with violence, blood and language); 1:38; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

("Soundwave" is now playing on Prime Video, Apple TV, and other streaming services after successful festival showings in Orlando, North Hollywood, and Virginia, to name a few locales.)

A soulful, if limited score helps lift a new documentary as well, especially since it currently includes Beyonce's aptly named "Freedom" in the often sad story of "The Third Strike." But, please, don't confuse the title with baseball and the worst thing that can happen to a batter in that sport.

Life becomes no game here, as talked about by an assortment of political personalities, including President Barack Obama, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (during his 2017 confirmation hearings), and still-sitting senators Dick Durbin and Cory Booker.

Appearances by the latter, whose own presidential hopes likely already had been ignited, play occasionally as if he's in a campaign commercial. Still, those moments don't take much away from other discussion surrounding a controversial 1994 federal law which, in too many cases, wrongheadedly punishes three-time offenders with life sentences for minor crimes.

That means this "third strike" provision affects male minorities most significantly, with many young families left behind. Thankfully, as the film from first-time director Nicole Jones portrays, legal eagles such as MiAngel Cody and other distaff members of  her "Decarceration Collective" have worked doggedly to free more than 30 prisoners serving their own collective 638 years behind bars.

During an early interview, Cody explains why members of her team "are just trying to be the best lawyers that money can't buy," and their payoff will become yours by watching how a handful of her most grateful clients memorably react to their release with both words and actions.

If there truly is any justice, "The Third Strike" eventually will attract a wider audience than it has been able to find so far.

Not rated by MPAA; 1:22; $ $ $ out of $5

(This is one in an intermittent series of reviews, featuring buzz-worthy films currently playing the festival circuit, soon to be released, or ready to stream. "The Third Strike" reportedly received a standing ovation after a March 7 showing at Cinequest before concerns over Covid-19 cancelled the second week of the San Jose-based film and creativity fest. It will be screened there again in August if  state health policy permits Cinequest to resume. The doc currently also remains on schedule for August's Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, and another film gathering in Denver slated for Oct. 6-10.)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

'Dalai Lama' doc shows different side now; 'Nemesis' short impresses

World-class physicist Steven Chu chats with the Dalai Lama.
Richard Gere, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie and England's Prince Charles are all numbered among the closest celebrity pals of one Tenzin Gyatso. Maybe thankfully, though, none of them can be found mingling with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in an occasionally enlightening documentary, "The Dalai Lama -- Scientist."

Instead, the film features a parade of absorbing experts in fields running the gamut from cosmology to psychology and an assortment of disciplines in between. Most take part in a series of dialogues with the likable Holy Man, who opens the proceedings with a smile and a brief, self-effacing notion: "Since my childhood," he says, "I loved technology. I'm really (a) very, very lazy student. I always prefer (to) play."

No longer it seems. For decades, Dahli Lama XIV has been hosting guests at his compound in India, where talk is heavy and maybe a bit too deep at times. (At least it is for this former chemistry major. Of course, that became a brief venture for me, anyway, after required study for a freshman final exam too readily gave way to an opening night viewing of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Ha!)

Certainly, the Lama's doc has no such levity in it. However, more curious -- and focused -- types in the crowd might discover moments of insight and, perhaps, even unexpected wonder in observing discussions about The Big Bang Theory (no, not that TV show!), now timely mention on how meditation might connect positively with influenza inoculations, and various other matters of intellect.

Not so surprisingly, the good man in the title easily finds that his own Buddhist philosophies generally go hand in hand with the western sciences offered up by the genuine authorities surrounding him. The Dalai Lama seems as comfortable among them as he regularly demonstrates in the aforementioned world of celebrity. And, all the while, his humanity also keeps shining along with the wisdom shared in this often instructional piece from activist filmmaker Dawn Gifford Engle.

Not rated (with little, if anything to offend); 1:34; $ $ $ out of $5

("The Dalai Lama -- Scientist," which had been scheduled for a limited May theatrical release, has been featured at numerous film festivals, including venues in Venice and London. It is currently streaming on Kanopy, Google Play, and Vimeo.) 

Also showing now on Vimeo is "Nemesis." It's a thriller with some bite from writer and director Tim Earnheart, a design whiz who obviously knows how to make an audience pay attention.

The requisite intro advances frigid dinner conversation between two start-up business partners, and at least one (Joy Park) feels betrayed by her suddenly more wealthy friend (Esha More).

When they eventually conclude with small talk, the latter gets curious about an elite "club" that's likely to whet the appetites of viewers as much as it already has made such an ambitious young lady so eager to join.

The rest becomes some smashing short-film history and a game that might stir cinematic images of Texas chainsaws, terminators, and perhaps even forbidden planets to dance through more than a few heads.

Not rated (but probably a hard "R" if so); 17 minutes; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Some effective moments of 'Panic' may lure you into its uneven stream

No, "Silent Panic" is not a new nickname for the worldwide reaction to the coronavirus. It's simply the title of a so-so thriller that's now one of myriad streaming options available to so many of us with too much time on our hands.

This one's psychological trappings develop early when three pals -- a falsely accused ex-con named Eagle (Sean Bateghi), recovering cokehead Bobby (Joseph Martinez), and writer Dom (Jay Habre) -- discover a corpse in their trunk upon walking back to their car from a camping trip. Naturally, Eagle wants no part of calling the cops, since they already have a history of not believing him

Meanwhile, the nervous Bobby goes bonkers after seeing the body, while Dom, a journalist with the personality of a goldfish, goes into deep introspective mode. Such diversity of moods makes for an assortment of possibilities, not to mention a viewing urge to find out how it all eventually ends.

One of the most intriguing scenes, though, comes complete with actor Jeff Dowd, as Bobby's former drug dealer. If you don't recognize the name, he's an acquaintance the Coen Brothers patterned their legendary "Dude" after in "The Big Lebowski." Keen eyes also may recognize Helen Udy, who played the recurring role of a hooker in CBS-TV's long-running "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Here, she portrays the divorced Bobby's ever-understanding mother, not to mention the go-to grandma for babysitting his young son on a few frantic visitation weekends.

The rest are mostly newcomers, which occasionally becomes obvious in how some deliver dialogue from first-time writer/director Kyle Schadt. By the way, Schadt gives himself a quick cameo during an outrageous poker game where the film's pivotal Eagle doesn't exactly fly very straightforwardly.

No rating (some language, drugs and glimpses of the body); 1:36; $ $ $ out of $5

("Silent Panic," an official selection of the Studio City International Film Festival, is now streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and a few other platforms.)

Friday, March 6, 2020

'Onward' barely moves upward; 'Greed' never really pays dividends

Marvel/Disney action stalwarts Tom "Spider-Man" Holland and Chris "Guardians of the Galaxy" Pratt voice brothers in "Onward," the latest animated feature from the geniuses at Pixar and certainly not one of their creative best.

Pratt's Barley (left) and Holland's Ian take departed dad for a long ride.
Still, it slowly becomes a serviceable adventure, leaning very heavily on magic, which the film reminds us about 10 times during some early narration. From there, you might recognize it as a mix of "Harry Potter" types looking to repeat some "Frozen"-like, box-office wizardry of their own, if mostly for boys and without all the girly-girl music.

Truth be told, any distaff fireworks come from widowed mom Laurel Lighfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a newfound pal, the mythical manticore now running a local, Fantasyland dive and properly vocalized by Octavia Spencer.

Of course, it's the teen-age Lightfoot siblings, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt), dominating the show. They're actually a couple of elves taking off on a rather bizarre road trip that keeps them looking for the top half of their dead father's body.

Huh? Yes, ya really gotta see it to understand, but just-turned 16-year-old Ian never knew dear ol' Dad, older bro Barley barely remembers him and, perhaps not so ironically, their mom is now dating a cop (Mel Rodriguez), who doubles as a centaur with an exceptionally big bottom to boot.

Too many other odd creatures to count also show up throughout the mish-mash directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University"), but another warm Pixar ending finds a way to pardon its assorted sins.

Rated "PG": action/peril and some mild thematic elements; 1:42; $ $ $ out of $5

Also opening today is the satirical "Greed," a dark take on a rich man (ever-reliable Steve Coogan) who loses his way early on, thanks to a surly disposition and doting mother (Shirley Henderson).

Coogan is the wealthy fool, but certainly no hero in the farcical "Greed."
The British production comes from Michael Winterbottom, whose various hits (including "The Trip," "Tristram Shanty," and "Welcome to Sarajevo") have been sprinkled throughout a long career. Here, though, the writer/director risks losing us all very quickly with an almost inconceivable number of leaps in time during the film's first 15 minutes alone.

The story of  the immensely unlikable Sir Richard "Greedy" McCreadie (Coogan) starts with his handing out sizable bonuses to a few connected employees of his monolithic fashion company, then literally jumps to "5 days earlier" in Greece, where his lavish 60th birthday party is in the works.

That brief interlude runs into a "3 months earlier" cue and the beginning of what will become the mogul's recurring -- and always dull-- appearance at a parliamentary subcommittee investigating his shady business practices. Add the other unkindly events screen-splashed before us in "1973" (extremely creepy school days), "1977" (London's rag district), and "1990" (a Sri Lanka sweatshop), and it too quickly becomes a hammering onslaught of how slime turns into wealth.

Thank goodness for McCreadie's often bewildered biographer (David Mitchell), his dimwitted daughter (Sophie Cookson) with her scripted reality show, and some particularly funny bits involving a few celeb lookalikes hired to appear at the aforementioned birthday bash. Otherwise, we might truly get suffocated by "Greed."

Rated "R": perversive language and brief drug use; 1:44; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5