Friday, June 18, 2021

Summer welcomes 'Sparks'-filled documentary and sweet, colorful 'Luca'

Sparks Bros, Russell (left) and Ron Mael, in a see-through moment.
Rarely, if ever, has a pop doc about celebrities, especially musicians a lot of people wouldn't recognize if they walked right past them, hit theaters on the first weekend of summer. Except today.

Yes, "The Sparks Brothers," a fab, hit-filled bio from director Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver"), tells the five-decades long tale of Ron and Russell Mael, still churning out music at 75 and 72, respectively.

Never heard of them? Well, you're not alone, since their on-and-off successes, including 25 albums and almost 500 songs, are recognized more easily around their Southern California home base, but truly most significantly overseas (especially in England because even some loyal fans likely think they're a couple of Brits).

As Wright's long and loaded doc notes: The Sparks duo -- apparently named because their antics reminded someone of the funny and rhyming Marx brothers -- "were always considered weird or just a novelty (act) in America."

Regardless, actor/comedians are among their legions of admirers, as Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, Fred Armisen and more testify in the film. So do members of various bigger-name bands, most notably the biggest-of-all Beatles, represented by Paul McCartney and a nifty cartoon, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (from Wright's "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead") voicing admiration as John Lennon and Ringo Starr.

There's something for snooty cinephiles, too, with mentions of French New Wave, legendary comic filmmaker Jacques Tati, and the likable brothers' own burning, yearning desire to make a movie. Their performance appearance in the disastrous 1977 disaster film, "Rollercoaster," doesn't count. This boffo documentary might be the ultimate stepping stone to getting their wish fulfilled.

("The Sparks" currently are flying on big screens across the U.S., including the Cedar Lee, Cinemark Valley View, Regal Westlake and Atlas Great Lakes in northeast Ohio.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: for language; 2:20; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Also available today, albeit ONLY on the Disney+ streaming service, is Pixar's remarkably absorbing "Luca," a legitimate fish out of water tale with an abundance of "Pinocchio" overtones. 

The "fish" in this case is the young and adventurous title character, actually a little sea monster (sweetly voiced by Jacob Tremblay from "Room"), who works underwater (just off the Italian Riviera coast) shepherding fish for his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan). 

If anyone is simply looking for genuine summertime fun, the charmer "Luca" has it all, particularly the colorfully magic animation that has become a lasting Pixar trademark, a memorable one-armed man, his tomboy daughter, and the lovingly lively score from composer Dan Romer.

By the way, the most lasting character in the film might turn out to be Luca's deep-sea doozy of an Uncle Ugo. Stick around -- or fast-forward -- for his special close-up following the closing credits.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: rude humor, some language, thematic elements and brief violence; 1:35; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Thursday, June 10, 2021

'Holler' about this poor Ohio community and embrace its lead performance

Barden sternly carries Ohio homegirl Riegel's "Holler."
Last September, during the 45th annual (and first ever virtual) Toronto International Film Festival, a small indie named "Holler" snuck up on many of us. 

In fact, though not an official festival entry, the movie from first-time feature director and writer Nicole Riegel was exhibited in a special section, "TIFF Industry Selects," which allowed potential buyers and distributors to take a look.

After months of open negotiations, the generally intuitive team at IFC Films stepped up to the plate with the right deal in February and, finally, the dramatic story of a smart if struggling young woman from Jackson, Ohio, hits theater screens everywhere Friday, as well as On Demand.

Not surprisingly, Riegel herself grew up in Jackson, a very small town in Athens County, and actually shot her film there in the midst of its gritty, blue-collar look, high unemployment, and minimal educational opportunities, especially for young women. Riegel's noteworthy grasp of her subject matter shows repeatedly in a story she has called "semi-autobiographical," at least when it comes to the emotional and practical challenges of living in the margins.

Her survive-at-all-costs mentality keeps Riegel's lead player Ruth also trying to find her own unique talents. And, as brilliantly captured by British actress Jessica Barden, the clever and loyal teen even might have to agree to some shady work to help herself get out of town.

Finding out if she actually succeeds certainly and quickly becomes well worth the 90-minute watch, particularly with Barden getting plenty of support from the likes of Pamela Adlon, as her incarcerated mother, Gus Halper (the protective brother), and Becky Ann Baker (the wise and supportive friend). 

"Holler" opens Friday in a handful of Ohio theaters, including the northeast area's Cedar Lee (Cleveland Heights), Chagrin Cinemas, Cinemark Valley View and The Nightlight (Akron).

Rated "R" by MPAA; language and sexual references; 1:31: $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Other films hitting theaters -- and apparently stingy about offering advance press screenings -- include the much-delayed "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" and "In the Heights" (also on HBO Max). Meanwhile, the streaming-only "Infinite" is available on Paramount+. If and when we catch up with any of them, you can find our ratings at left and on Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Summer movies roll out with alien-heavy 'Place' and mean 'Cruella'

So one isn't up to snuff when compared to the truly terrifying original, and the other attempts a so-so origin story that simply snuffs out any thought of those 101 darling Dalmatians that started it all.

Of course, we're talking about the two films neatly positioned to signal the unofficially-official, holiday start for the 2021 summer movie season, and the titles look like really big ones, boys and girls.

The Abbotts -- Jupe, Simmonds, Blunt -- face the unknown.
Let's launch with the much publicized, Covid-delayed "A Quiet Place Part II," where writer/director John Krasinski doesn't quite match the smart pacing from his 2018 thriller and those memorable sounds of silence that spoke volumes. Instead, we get many more entanglements with invading hordes of aliens we hardly saw at all in that less monster-happy original. 

The latest piece actually begins with an easily established panic sequence -- arguably among the movie's finest moments -- even before the title card appears. It's also the only time we get to watch Krasinki's steadying influence as the Abbott family patriarch who advanced his family through constant thick and thin during the last go-around.

Wife Evelyn (real-life Mrs. Krasinksi Emily Blunt), son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and daughter Regan (the almost magical Millicent Simmonds) all return anew, still moving forward, along with the unnamed infant born late in the first "Place" and again being creatively kept quiet so that the sound-hunting creatures won't attack and start chomping away. Yes, Evelyn remains the strong mom, and the deaf, ever-determined Regan stands tall to improve upon what she learned from her parents about courage and know-how.

Injured Marcus, though, is left only with a youthful curiosity that really serves no purpose other than to get in the way by bringing on the bad-guy beasties. That plot sham finds a sharper fix with Regan and a reluctantly helpful survivalist (Cillian Murphy) cutting to the chase in the search for safety.

Our own Great Lake Erie shoreline earns a cameo in that duo's most cinematically intense confrontation, this one featuring ever-watchable character actor Scoot McNairy, here billed as the creepy "Marina Man." If anyone asks, tell them the watery staging and filming occurred in Western New York's Chautauqua County, an annual vacation spot for many northeast Ohioans simply looking for a legitimately quiet place.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: terror, violence and bloody/disturbing images; 1:40; $ $ $ out of $5

Also opening for the masses is the crowd-reaching "Cruella," a packed production apparently attempting to establish another film franchise with an assortment of gimmicks and gadgets and girl power galore.

Director Craig Gillespie ("I, Tonya") and five -- count 'em 5! -- credited screenwriters do dazzle with a few special moments, especially in areas of London-based extravaganza and, shall we say, "borrowing" the look and feel of "Oliver" to surround a '70s fashion set. Otherwise, theirs is a by-the-book procedure. I mean, the villainess (Emma Thompson, chewing scenery as the tyrannical "Baroness") precisely arrives at the half-hour mark; chief adversary and mean-spirited title character (Emma Stone) shows up in full fiery glory right on the hour; and the major, tell-all, see-it-coming "twist" gets unveiled 30 minutes later.

Alas, nearly another quarter hour is handed over to the final credits, which hint at the requisite sequel and lists the more than 30 songs often intruding on this costume-design rivalry story. Readers here know how much I appreciate music in a movie, but some choices play lamely at best. 

"Cruella" and "A Quiet Place Part II" both open in scores of theaters today, with the former also streaming now on Disney+ and the latter set to play on Paramount+ in 45 days.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some violence and thematic elements; 2:14; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A sweet ride: 'Dream Horse' just might gallop away with a few hearts

Every couple of years, a charmingly small indie film -- almost always from an English-speaking country other than the U.S. -- finds more than a few devoted fans in movie theaters everywhere.

As spring turns toward summer during what everybody hopes is close to the end of our pandemic worries, "Dream Horse" just might be the one for 2021.

Not so ironically, its major star, none other than Toni Collette, is someone who knows a thing or three about engaging little films, especially after starting her own illustrious career in the cheeky "Muriel's Wedding" more than a quarter century ago.

Of course, that comedy was brought to the States from Collette's native Australia by sturdy Miramax Films, when it was known more for its eclectic assortment of releases than for the unsavory conduct of co-owner Harvey Weinstein.

Ah, but we digress. Let's just say that Collette easily takes the reins over both an appealing ensemble cast and the truth-based story of "Dream Horse," as the working-class Welsh wife convincing many in her tiny town to go into the racing business. Certainly there are many reasons for her attempting such madness, and some even get explained in this spirited crowd-pleaser, which occasionally overwhelms itself with the all-too-familiar trappings of sports-related cinema. (And I don't just mean that every 30 minutes the place goes crazy.)

Still, that leaves myriad moments to grab, amuse, and simply make you feel good about pride and accomplishment taking precedence over the almighty dollar (translated across the pond into the pre-eminent pound). Many of those best scenes involve astute musical choices in a score credited to Benjamin Woodgates, group singing of country anthems, and one final humdinger of a surprise down the stretch that might make legendary Welsh crooner Tom Jones stand up and cheer.

Besides, it's also swell to see esteemed Brit Damien Lewis, who became a real star himself in a pair of award-winning series on cable's Showtime ("Homeland" and "Billions"), now actually playing a very nice and ordinary bloke for a change. 

"Dream Horse" rides into theaters Friday all over northeast Ohio and beyond.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: language and thematic elements; 1:53; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, May 14, 2021

Stalwart women steer 'Dead,' smart divorce film, and the heavy 'Gunda'

Patience might pay dividends in watching a redemption tale called "Those Who Wish Me Dead," the book-based, Taylor Sheridan thriller that starts slowly but eventually carries some big kicks.

With his serious connections to such legitimate gems as "Sicario," "Hell or High Water" and "Wind River," the director/co-screenwriter certainly has earned a little leeway here until this chase film, which begins a bit wobbly in Florida, gains footing among Sheridan's more familiar western landscapes.

Besides, we don't meet the real star of the piece until the plot gets us out there. That would be Angelina Jolie, the only female face among a group of smoke-jumping firefighters and the one still dealing with a major blaze-related tragedy she couldn't stop. Enter a lost and frightened lad (the fab Finn Little), who has experienced even worse trauma while trying to outrun a mean pair of corruption-inspired hit men (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen).

Also memorable is Medina Senghore, making her major movie debut as a capably heroic -- and quite pregnant -- survivalist. One quick, bad-guy cameo from a much bigger name also might stir the emotions.

("Those Who Wish Me Dead" opens today in theaters everywhere and on HBO Max.)

 Rated "R" by MPAA; strong violence and language throughout; 1:40; $ $ $ out of $5

Steeves' stage actress eyes single life in the Big Apple.
Speaking of emotions, "Before/During/After" says it all in summing up how a seemingly happy 15-year marriage disintegrates during a quick, sad and often funny 83 minutes of screen time.

Such tidy filmmaking features a wise portrayal by Jeremy Davidson, as the unfaithful husband, but there's no denying that this picture belongs to the exceptional Finnerty Steeves. Her caught-by-surprise wife Jennie, suddenly dealing with the urgency of the future, talks to as many as five therapists and gets advice from both neurotic and stable friends. Whether any of it sinks in, though, ultimately depends on Jennie's own standing with herself, which evolves through reflections and memories stimulated by daily occurrences.

Her successful work as an actress, especially the audition process, not only helps Jennie figure it out but likely gave Steeves immense insights into such an impressive screenwriting debut. Co-directors Stephen Kunken and Jack Lewars probably deserve some credit, too, for the movie's nifty narrative structure, with the former also contributing a scene as "therapist No. 5."

Kunken, now seen on "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Billions," is one of numerous familiar New York acting names and faces dotting a crowded ensemble that includes John Pankow, Kate Burton, Richard Masur, Marin Hinkle, Austin Pendleton, and Kristine Sutherland, to name just a few of the credited many.

(Star, writer and producer Finnerty Steeves receives the "Emerging Artist Award" tonight at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., where her film not only concludes a long, prize-winning festival schedule, but also will enjoy a special outdoors screening. Otherwise, "Before/During/After" is streaming now on Amazon Prime and a few pay-to-view outlets.) 

Not Rated by MPAA: (but with mature divorce themes, content and some language); 1:23; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

The titled Gunda in all her glory.
Nothing speaks except the wonders of quaint farm life in "Gunda," a sparkling, black-and-white documentary named after the giant sow that steals the show along with her ever-appealing piglets.

About a dozen of the little devils come sneaking out of their huge Mom at the beginning of this slow, if rare adventure from Viktor Kossakovsky, a director whose films, including 2018's energizing "Aquarela," always graze the senses. A herd of fly-swatting cows, in one segment actually shown running out to pasture, do some introspective grazing of their own, and a one-legged chicken also entertains.

Of course, even animals never should simply expect a bed of hay, a coop filled with corn, or an inviting field of grass. There's always some heartache, which the discombobulated Gunda sadly learns when an unsettling climax literally comes out of nowhere. Fascinating stuff. 

("Gunda" is now making her theatrical run everywhere, including at the Cedar-Lee Theater in northeast Ohio. Just remember that those wonderful dogs from "The Truffle Hunters" (reviewed here last week) also are still running around there. Hence, you might consider treading lightly in the theater's lobby.)

Rated "G" by MPAA: for audiences of all ages (but I'm not sure I'd bring restless kiddies); 1:33; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Friday, May 7, 2021

Delish 'Truffle' finally shows; Ritchie's 'Wrath' and tiny indie signal 'Action'

It's been promised a while, but my favorite film of  the "Pandemic Era" -- and, perhaps, the most appealing documentary since 2018's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" -- has begun showing up in theaters around the country.

After constant release-date postponements, "The Truffle Hunters" arrives today locally (at the Cedar-Lee in Cleveland Heights) and maybe you already have heard some good things. I mean, it's been around long enough, having premiered in January 2020 as a favorite at the Sundance Film Festival and mostly only various one-shot venues ever since.

I dug up its many surprises during September's virtual coverage of the 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival and still regularly think about the assorted joys put on screen by writers, directors and immensely talented cinematographers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. 

On the surface, their film follows a few skillful old Italians and their wonderfully smart and personable dogs. Yet, an incredibly quick-moving 85 minutes get filled with so many more moments to digest, naturally featuring one mouth-watering breakfast of eggs topped with the expensive and lushly white Alba mushrooms this group has long lived and, yes, occasionally died for.

Other riches tracked down by these memorable woodsmen from Italy's Piedmont Region likely will stick to body parts besides the stomach, too. A glorious soundtrack and a few beautifully matching images might even reach the soul.   

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some strong language; 1:25; $ $ $ $ $ out of $5

Statham's stoic "H" stirs "Wrath."
Also opening today at several more theaters than the above title, the action-packed "Wrath of Man" brings co-writer/director Guy Ritchie back to what he does best. That would be gathering a bunch of scalawags and arseholes together for a violent ride, all competently led by stone-faced, revenge-ridden anti-hero Jason Statham.

Of course, it was Ritchie who introduced Statham to feature films in both "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) and "Snatch" (2000), then rewarded him with the lead role in the lesser "Revolver" five years later. Partnering again, they make a worthy run at the darkly entertaining here, at least after a first half-hour of silly, boys-will-boys dialogue sets things up for Statham's simply nicknamed "H" in his new job riding shotgun for a Brinks-like, cash-pickup outfit.

Savvy camera work (by Alan Stewart) and a pounding score (Christopher Benstead), both introduced during a pivotal, pre-credits heist, contribute big time throughout. So does a generally swell cadre of players, featuring names such as Eddie Marsden, Josh Hartnett, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood and Andy Garcia crisply turning and twisting through their director's familiarly complex paces.

One excessive moment: A torture scene, orchestrated to an oddly cool version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," is not for the timid.

Rated "R" by MPAA: some sexual references, pervasive language, strong violence throughout; 1:57; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Finally today comes a pair of fledgling filmmakers showing off a smattering of comedic skills while skewering an entire genre with the wittily named "In Action," a legitimate two-hander.

Sean Kenealy, as Sean, and Eric Silvera, as Eric -- what else? -- not only play themselves in their purposely shoestring production, but also co-write, co-direct and even provide voices for an assortment of kooky characters. The latter group mostly is comprised of a few government agents and insurgent types, all of whom catch wind of the film's terrorist plot and mistakenly accept it as the real deal.

Regardless, none of them can stop the constantly bickering Sean and Eric, a couple of college friends apparently never seriously fond of one another, from taking pot shots at themselves and making observations about everything. Book clubs, lamaze classes, cocktail wieners and Hollywood are among frequent topics, but listen carefully or you might miss quickie mentions of funny stuff like Robert Redford's facelift.

Two rather nifty animated story fillers and clever end-credit outtakes showing before-and-after set designs become added bonuses in this bold debut from the promising partners in film.

(After enjoying some success at a handful of film festivals, "In Action" starts today on a couple of digital platforms and Tuesday on all major cable/satellite VOD services.)

Not rated by MPAA: (but with more than enough hard language and bloody scenes to go around); 1:24; $ $ $ out of $5

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Being 'Together' and finding 'Touch' both seem shrewder than 'Vanquish'

A few brief thoughts on a trio of indie films you might find in various places:

Harrison and Helms certainly do shine "Together."
"Together Together," opening Friday in a quartet of Greater Cleveland theaters, provides an often charming, occasionally silly look at having a baby from a rather surprising perspective.

With biological clock ticking, fortysomething Matt (Ed Helms) wants and needs to be a dad so makes a payment arrangement with 26-year-old Anna (Patti Harrison) to become his gestational surrogate.

In the hands of producer/director/writer Nikole Beckwith, who coaxes the standard competent work from Helms and a remarkably likable performance from standup comic Harrison, some real movie chemistry is made. Beckwith's uncomplicated ending should touch a few hearts, too.

By the way, Harrison, who grew up in Orient, Ohio, honed her comedic chops as a member of the Black Sheep improv group at Ohio University. Of course, she's also a regular on the Hulu series "Shrill," and has been a voice artist in a number of animated productions, including the current Disney film, "Raya and the Last Dragon."

Rated "R" by MPAA: some sexual references and language; 1:27: $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Newcomer Aleksandra Szczepanowska, another producer/director/screenwriter making a name for herself, actually one-ups the aforementioned Beckwith in a film simply called "Touch." In fact, not only did the filmmaker become the first western woman to shoot an indie feature in the People's Republic of China, her performance in the leading role certainly will open some eyes, too.

Szczepanowska recently told a Film Daily interviewer that her good-looking movie was most inspired by Kar-Wai Wong's "In the Mood for Love," and "Touch" viewers actually might recognize both plot and visual similarities to that year-2000 beauty. In the same interview, though, she explained that "the first kernel" of inspiration came more than 15 years ago when she actually encountered a blind massage specialist during a previous visit to China. 

No surprise here then that Szczepanowska, as a westerner seeking permanent residency and getting little help from her jerky husband, seeks comfort -- among other things perhaps -- from a blind masseur (Jiangwe Yuan) whose sensitive ways allow him to see right through her during a chance meeting in the park.

From there, various senses take charge, not to mention unexpected changes of attitude on the part of both the husband (Jun Yang) and the mysterious lover, each suddenly helping to shape it all into this nifty little thriller.  

Just concluding a lengthy festival run, during which it won a variety of awards in some cities, "Touch" debuts Monday exclusively in the U.S. on Amazon TVOD.

Not rated by MPAA (but with erotic references and a few intense moments); $ $ $ out of $5

Finally, action junkies might find something to embrace in "Vanquish," while the rest of  us likely will have to settle for a one-liner from a bad guy happily quipping: "I heard you killed more people than Quentin Tarantino."

Otherwise, laughs mostly come unintentionally in this dreadfully shot, mercilessly gratuitous crime drama from writer/director George Gallo, the same guy who gave us "Bad Boys" and the fabulous "Midnight Run," albeit almost 35 years ago.

Here, though, he offers up the often great Morgan Freeman, as a "heroic" cop blackmailing a "protege" (tough gal Ruby Rose) into making a series of cash pick-ups during one long night. (Well, at least it seemed long.)

Now, in the spirit of leaving everything to the imagination, the hows and whys of the blackmail attempt -- and even the words in quotation marks above-- will not be explained here. Simply watch it if you must.

"Vanquish" is now showing at the Atlas Cinemas Diamond Center 16 in Mentor, Ohio, as well as on Digital and On Demand outlets everywhere.

Rated "R" by MPAA: bloody violence, language, some sexual material and drug use; 1:36; $ and 1/2 out of $5