Review by Sean Boelman
It’s always interesting to see when filmmakers take two genres that are seemingly at odds with each other and attempt to combine them, as it can either result in something intriguingly creative or a colossal misfire. Wyatt Rockefeller’s sci-fi Western Settlers may not be the pinnacle of originality, but it’s an entertaining and ambitious flick nonetheless.
The film follows a family of refugees living on Earth whose attempts at a peaceful life are disturbed when a stranger threatens to invade their lives. It’s a story we’ve seen in plenty of times in the Western genre before — the mysterious outlaw getting involved in the lives of the innocent townsfolk with unknown intentions — and it translates well into a sci-fi setting.
What Rockefeller struggles to do in his script is find the balance between concise and fully-developed storytelling. It’s clear that his priority here was to write a movie that was entertaining from start-to-finish, but the final product has very little room to breathe. Lots of time jumps with little explanation will leave viewers a tad confused.
Rockefeller’s script also lacks a clear deeper meaning. Some of the ideas that he is playing around with in the script are obvious, but are presented in a way that is too subtle to be insightful. Ultimately, the action and family drama ends up taking center stage, relegating any commentary that Rockefeller had to the background.
The film also could have done more in terms of character development. The final act hits that sweet spot that the movie was trying to find of ambiguity in terms of the characters, but the first two-thirds feel a bit disconnected. The mother-daughter relationship that should have served as the emotional connection isn’t fully explored.
That said, the cast does an absolutely exceptional job of making the most out of their characters. Young actress Brooklynn Prince has finally gotten another opportunity to showcase her range after her breakout in The Florida Project. Ismael Cruz Cordova is sinisterly alluring in his role. And Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller round out the supporting cast quite well.
It is on a visual level that Rockefeller is perhaps most successful. This is an independent production, but Rockefeller makes the most of what he had at his disposal to make a film that is immersively claustrophobic. The audience will feel this future and otherworldly setting come to life, but feel like they are absolutely trapped in it at the same time.
Many of the imperfections of Settlers are in its script, but there are enough great elements in Wyatt Rockefeller’s debut to make it worthy of recommendation. It’s an enjoyable movie that elevates itself beyond its constraints quite well.
Settlers hits theaters and VOD on July 23.
Review by Sean Boelman
Lots of films try to tackle issues that are timely and relevant, but few manage to pull it off in a way that doesn’t feel disconnected to some extent. Magnus von Horn’s confident character study Sweat is a mostly captivating film, exploring its themes in a way that both creates a compelling atmosphere and poses some interesting questions.
The film follows a fitness influencer with a massive social media following who, despite the adoration of her fans and employees, struggles to find true intimacy in her life. It’s a rather one-note character study, but the thing that allows it to stand out is how it feels like it is fundamentally a film made for the moment we are going through now.
There’s a lot to be said about the way in which interaction has changed since social media has become dominant, but the thing that holds most satires back is that they tend to be overly paranoid cautionary tales. Magnus von Horn’s script explores both the good and the bad of the social media generation in a way that makes it feel much more representative of reality.
The protagonist of the film has a satisfying amount of nuance. When it comes to a character that is on such a completely different wavelength, it would be very easy for them to come across as annoying. Yet von Horn presents the character in a way that is empathetic and peels back the curtain early enough on her showy personality for the audience to connect with the story.
Magdalena Kolesnik gives an absolutely breathtaking performance in her leading role. Her ability to switch from a bright and cheery online persona to a more muted and down-to-earth one is thoroughly impressive. She absolutely sells every moment she is in, no matter how exaggerated it might be.
In the director’s chair, von Horn brings a very accomplished style to the film. Starting with the very kinetic opening scene, it’s clear that what van Horn is doing here will be something interesting. And as layer upon layer is peeled back and darker things are revealed, the style of the film goes along with itto great effect.
The film’s substantial flaw is that it ends up being somewhat one-note. The first thirty minutes or so are intriguing as we are drawn into the protagonist’s spiraling world, and it definitely sticks the landing, but there is a middle section that drags quite a bit. While this portion is adequately distressing, it doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention as much as the rest of the film.
Sweat succeeds where a lot of other social media satires have failed, and while there are some moments that lose their momentum, it’s still a very impressive film. It’s a fascinating European art film that cinephiles will eat up.
Sweat is now in theaters and hits Mubi on July 23.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
A lot of people know Rita Moreno for her Academy Award-winning role as Anita in West Side Story, but her career is much more complex and broader than that. The title of the documentary says it all. It was kind of funny that she found it on a tee-shirt and it became her motto and a phrase she lives by today in her late 80s. It's great to see somebody so successful in their career at such an older age.
Moreno was originally from a small town in Puerto Rico when her mother decided to move to New York City. Like a lot of immigrants, she struggled to find a life in the big city. The weather was blistering cold and not like the tropical island she had come to know as home. Manhattan, a different island, would be where she would have to grow up the rest of her life and try to fit into the biggest melting pot in the world. She was too stubborn not to. New York City was definitely a culture shock for both of them.
Early on, she got some work in her career as the Indian squaw, or gang member's girlfriends, but a lot of her roles were opposite white leading men. She had to talk with a Latino accent and have a "spicy attitude", whatever that means. She was sick of these stereotypical character roles. She knew she was better than these types of roles. Her dancing skills as a child paid off when she won the role of Anita in West Side Story. She finally was able to be herself.
As a star in Hollywood and a contract player for the studios, she was obligated to go out to parties with leading men as eye candy. They would bring different girls to parties all the time. She never felt satisfied by this kind of shallow relationship. It wasn't until she caught the eye of the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, Marlon Brando, that she would find some satisfaction in life. He was madly in love with her and she had eight solid years with him by her side. Their relationship would fizzle out though because of violence on his part. Violence is a thing women go through all over the world let alone in Hollywood, but her background made it more prevalent.
Violence was an everyday part of her life from Puerto Rico to New York and out to Los Angeles. She always seemed to be involved in some form of abuse or bad relationships that had violence in them. Inadvertently these instances helped make Moreno a tougher girl than most. Even after the relationship with Brando was over she got a role in a movie with him, The Night of the Following Day. She put her emotions from the abuse she got in the relationship into this role. The talking heads we're able to share their thoughts on these relationships and a whole lot more in the film.
After West Side Story and her Oscar win, her career dried up so she did some stage work in The Ritz and a lot of television work in shows like The Rockford Files and The Electric Company, where she was famous for the quote "Hey you guys!" The Electric Company was a staple of my childhood growing up. She and Morgan Freeman were fantastic in that show. Later she got a role as a nun in the highly praised HBO prison drama Oz. She received more awards for these roles.
The EGOT is the accumulation of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. She did so much in her career that she was able to win awards in multiple avenues of entertainment. This shows how versatile she was as an entertainer. This wasn't her whole life though. She was also an activist fighting for women's rights and various other causes during her long and storied career. Her celebrity allowed her to give of herself like this. This was the true love of her life. She was able to put her heart into these causes.
Rita Moreno transcended her upbringing and her Latino heritage. She proved no matter where you come from and what kind of background you have, if you want something bad enough, and work hard for it you can accomplish your goals. She did that and more in her career. She's still acting to this very day in the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time and she's got a role in the remake of West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg. She has been a role model for all Latinos, women, and her own family in which she has a daughter and a couple of grandkids. By any standard, she is a success. This film does a great job of depicting that to the fullest. For those who may not know about her, this documentary will get you up to date on this amazing woman.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It hits theaters on June 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
The hangout movie is a subgenre of comedy that is especially hit-or-miss, but the few which are able to effectively capture the intended feeling can be enjoyable beyond belief. Jamie Adams’s Love Spreads is an absolute surprise thanks to a sharp script and a cast that is strong all around.
The film follows a band who, following a successful debut, are in disarray when they try to make their second album. There have been plenty of movies that have shown the creative forces in a band at war with each other, but Adams’s script is refreshingly light on melodrama, taking a much more low-key approach than is typical for films like this.
Like much of the genre, the pacing of the movie is very laid back, but that isn’t a bad thing. For the ninety-three-minute runtime, audiences won’t feel as if they’re watching a movie, but rather a series of sessions by this fictional band. And for those who are into the music scene, the film will prove particularly entertaining.
The thing that Adams’s script largely lacks is something to say. There are some moments which show the promise of this being a commentary on the music industry, this isn’t really the movie’s focus. It’s much more observational than it is insightful, refraining from taking much of a stance on the issues that it could have explored.
That said, as an ode to creativity in the music-making process, it works exceptionally well. The dynamic between the members of the band feels extremely lived-in and authentic. This believability is what makes the film tick, as our investment in their creative process is fundamentally tied to how much we buy into their relationship.
The acting in the movie is also very strong. Alia Shawkat does a great job. Recent years have seen her evolve from being goofy to more straight-faced, even when she’s in a comedic-leaning project like this, and it suits her well. Eiza González, Chanel Cresswell, and Tara Lee are all good in their roles as well.
As expected, the film is very low-key, but it does a great job of capturing the intimacy of the setting. The recording studio Rockfield is fabled, and the movie does a great job of bringing to life what one would imagine the place to be like. The soundtrack is strong as well, with some catchy tunes, but one will be left wishing the filmmakers had done more with it.
Love Spreads is a charmingly quaint film, and while it certainly could have done more with its premise, part of the appeal is how simple it is. It’s a great hangout movie set in the music world, and that’s a niche that is fun to watch.
Love Spreads hits VOD on June 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Abel Ferrara and character actor Willem Dafoe have had very fruitful collaborations in the past, having worked together six times at this point, and Siberia is about the weirdest they come. With a bountiful amount of haunting imagery but too weak of a narrative to justify it, this is on the weaker end of Ferrara’s filmography.
The film follows a man who spends his days fighting hallucinations tied to his past demons and tending a bar whose patrons speak a different language than him. For better or worse, this movie shows all of Ferrara’s most abstract tendencies, but it’s not quite experimental enough to fully work as such.
There is definitely some very aggressive pacing in this film. Certain portions completely drag, and others are loud and frantic, which will create some serious whiplash. Even though it only clocks in at around an hour and a half, the frequent shifts in how the story moves will be off-putting for anyone who isn’t a hardcore Ferrara devotee.
However, that isn’t the only thing that is wildly inconsistent about this movie. At some points, it feels extremely vague, and at others, it is far too on-the-nose. Ferrara isn’t exactly known for the subtlety in his films, but with this movie, he shoots for something much more ambiguous but doesn’t exactly pull it off.
The character development in the film is also very lackluster. The backstory that we are given to the protagonist’s past is very generic. There is such little development to the characters that it completely fails to create an emotional connection, instead feeling like a smattering of thematically connected images.
Willem Dafoe’s performance in the leading role is absolutely the highlight of the movie. Dafoe is such a central component of every single moment that the effectiveness of the whole film rests entirely on his performance. He single-handedly makes a movie that otherwise feels cold and distant into something that is at least compelling to watch.
The film is also mostly successful on a visual level. Apart from a few scenes that aim much bigger than the budget that Ferrara had, the movie is effectively nightmarish. It is when Ferrara is focusing on the hauntingly simplistic motifs that the film is at its best, allowing it to capture the atmosphere for which it is aiming.
Siberia has some very effective elements, but it is about as divisive as they will come. A majority of viewers will reject it for how abstract it is, and others may not like how much it is lacking in subtlety, although there is a sweet spot of the audience that will dig Ferrara’s vibes.
Siberia hits theaters and VOD on June 18.
Reviewed by Adam Donato
Summer is the time for fun and love, but June in particular is important for pride. What a perfect time for Summer of 85 to be released. Directed by François Ozon, this film is about two young men who become infatuated with one another until their love runs dangerously hot. The film stars young guns Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, and Philippine Velge.
Obviously, comparing it to Call Me By Your Name is unfair. That’s an Oscar-winning movie and even though it’s a similar type of romance that takes place in the summer of a beautiful European country, this should be judged on its own. Certainly can recommend it to those who are a fan of Call Me By Your Name. Summer of 85 is an enjoyable movie. Obviously it’s beautiful thanks to the setting. A lot of the music is fits and adds to the vibe.
The performances are the highlight of the movie. Lefebvre and Voisin have a lot of chemistry and own all of their scenes. Their romance is easily sold and a delight to watch. The worst thing you could say about it is that it wasn’t given enough time. At just about ninety minutes, their romance feels rushed. That did help with expressing the nature of their relationship. Being that it was a young summer fling, it would be underdeveloped and rushed. That being said, the third act comes seemingly out of nowhere and takes the viewer out of the experience.
This leads to the larger point in that it is a very typical movie. The plot is very run-of-the-mill. That is until the third act where things become more unique. Getting to the conclusion is rushed, but once they get there, they wrap things up quite nicely. Starting the movie at the end is also problematic. This makes the plot behind the romance feel contrived and unnecessary. It’s one of those things where all of the problems could be solved very easily, but the main character is being weird. Obviously the circumstances allow for a lack of strategic actions, but as a viewer, it is extremely frustrating. Also, it does take place back in 1985, so times were different, but still.
Overall, Summer of 85 is an enjoyable watch. The movie leans into the season and provides for solid vibes. The romance is cute despite their adolescence providing much poor decision-making. It will be interesting to continue to see Ozon’s other projects as there is clear talent here. Check it out by the end of the month and especially before the end of the summer. Double feature it with In The Heights for some summer fun.
Summer of 85 hits theaters on June 18.
Review by Camden Ferrell
The Sparks Brothers is a documentary about the iconic band Sparks, which is cheekily described as “your favorite band’s favorite band”. It had its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is the first documentary from director Edgar Wright. This eccentric group is given an equally fun and eccentric treatment in a comprehensive documentary that celebrates their music.
Sparks is a band consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, and their career has spanned five decades and influenced numerous musicians. This documentary tells the story of their career from their formative years as children, attending a Beatles concert with their mom all the way to the present day. These are some truly fascinating and influential musicians that provide so much potential for a great documentary.
Upon watching this film, it certainly does not feel like someone’s first time directing a documentary. Wright seamlessly enters the genre with the skill of a seasoned documentary filmmaker. It feels like the eccentricity of Sparks compliments Wright’s own unique and quirky style of storytelling. While it’s his first documentary, it definitely feels like an Edgar Wright movie. It has a unique visual style that’s effective at telling a story entertainingly, and it’s a style that has fun with itself. There are lots of animations, cutaways, and gags sprinkled throughout the documentary that give it a noticeable personality.
The movie features various interviews with people like Beck, Weird Al, Flea, and many others. They all provide interesting commentary and anecdotes that elevate the film and truly illustrate the widespread affect Sparks have had on several people in the music industry. Sparks may not be the most popular act in the United States, so it’s nice to see so many significant figures acknowledge the impact Sparks have had on the industry.
The movie is around 140 minutes, and there are some moments that could have been cut. However, to the film’s credit, it surprisingly captures the entirety of their career and allocates time efficiently between all the eras and styles their career has spanned. It’s more comprehensive than I thought it would be, and it does a mostly good job of focusing on the most important aspects of their career over the last fifty years. The movie has plenty of archival footage and features many songs from their catalog that features hundreds of unique songs by them.
This is a movie that is great for die-hard Sparks fans as well as those who want to learn more about them. Wright does a great job of making this accessible to fans and novices alike, and he imparts his own style that sets it apart from other musical documentaries. This is a movie that captures the past and present of these two brothers while also getting us excited for what’s to come from them.
The Sparks Brothers is in theaters June 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, Disney and Pixarʼs “Luca” is a coming-of-age story about a boy and his newfound best friend experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. But their fun is threatened by a secret: they are sea monsters from another world. “Luca” is directed by Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”). © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
People can usually count on Disney/Pixar to release some of the greatest animated movies of the year, and even when they aren’t firing on all cylinders, they are still putting out pretty impressive work. Luca doesn’t quite have the same level of heart that made Pixar’s best films such hits, but it’s still an enjoyable and lovely ode to friendship.
The movie follows two best friends who are sea monsters trying to blend in with the human world in an attempt to have fun and buy themselves a Vespa. Like many Pixar films, the novelty here is in the concept — a sea monster coming-of-age story — rather than the arc itself, but Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones seem very content with letting their script stick to the tropes.
There are some choices in the movie that definitely seem a little misguided. The fact that a moped serves as the film’s MacGuffin makes it a bit difficult at times to take it seriously. And while the movie is clearly obsessed with anything Italian, it spends more time on the basic stuff like pasta and gelato than the more specific cultural symbols it should have explored.
Perhaps most disappointing about the film is that it doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say. Yes, the movie has messages about growing up and sticking up for your friends, which culminates in an expectedly emotional finale, but the film is missing that unique sense of poignancy that defines some of the studio’s best work.
Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, Disney and Pixarʼs “Luca” is a coming-of-age story about a boy and his newfound best friend experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. But their fun is threatened by a secret: they are sea monsters from another world. “Luca” is directed by Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”). © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
The two central characters are both very likable and charming, serving as each other’s foil quite well. And the human character that they befriend is surprisingly well-written, having a fully-developed arc of her own. However, the antagonist is perhaps the worst in any Pixar flick, a manchild that is absolutely annoying any time he is on screen.
The main duo of Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer are great together. They both bring genuine emotion to their roles and work brilliantly together. The supporting cast has some recognizable names such as Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, and Sacha Baron Cohen, and they’re all fine, but the movie is at its best when it is focusing on Tremblay and Grazer’s characters without the need for any big stars with them.
In an artistic sense, the film is less stunning than most from Pixar, but there are still some excellent things going on here. The character design is much more cartoonish than one would like, but the level of detail that went into animating the settings is wonderful. The music by Dan Romer is great as well.
As a whole, Luca isn’t as consistent as one would have come to expect from Pixar, but it’s still a lot better than most animated content this year. As far as family entertainment goes, this is certainly a solid choice.
Luca hits Disney+ on June 18.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Becoming a new parent is already a daunting task. Becoming a new parent after the death of your spouse is even more daunting. Fatherhood is the new movie from director Paul Weitz based on the New York Times best-selling memoir Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Matthew Logelin. Even though it is incredibly cheesy and bland at times, it’s an honest and commendable effort from Kevin Hart as a leading man.
Matt is a new father whose wife unexpectedly dies the day after their daughter is born. Now a single dad, Matt must learn how to raise his baby girl and deal with all of the challenges of being in a motherless family. This is a good premise for a story that benefits from the autobiographical nature of the source material.
The screenplay, written by Dana Stevens and Weitz, is probably some of their best work, but it is still heavily flawed. It is far too formulaic to be as effective as it could be, and it resorts to tired tropes and gags that don’t do the heartfelt source material justice.
However, the most surprising aspect of this film is the great performance delivered by Kevin Hart as Matt. This role gave him the opportunity to tread similar comedic ground like he’s done before, but it also gives him some emotional depth to work with. This may be his finest performance, and although there are problems with it, it’s a commendable performance from him.
The supporting cast, featuring Alfre Woodard and Lil Rel Howery, is decent but fairly forgettable. They are quite talented actors, and it feels like the movie could have done more to utilize their talent and charisma. It also means a lot of the burden of carrying this movie falls on Hart, and even though he does well, developing these side characters could have improved the momentum of this movie.
At nearly two hours, the movie does overstay its welcome. It has a very strong first half but eventually peters out and becomes dull in its middle section. It has a skillfully cheesy ending that lands well, but it still feels like the movie could have been twenty to thirty minutes shorter.
I enjoyed how the movie explored the long-term effects of grief on a widow, and Hart excels in these moments. It almost tried to deliver some commentary on gender roles, but it fails to explore that topic as much as it deserves. This is a simple movie that will tug on your heartstrings even if it rehashes a lot of narrative beats.
Fatherhood isn’t the gut-wrenching comedy drama it could have been, but it’s an adequately enjoyable movie that has a big heart. Hart gives his best performance in a role that sees him broadening his horizons. There are a lot of narrative flaws and problems with pacing and execution, but it is sufficient and will be a good discussion starter for families.
Fatherhood will be available on Netflix June 18.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Gangster pictures or mob movies are considered some of the best movies ever by a lot of people and critics alike. The Godfather and its sequel and Goodfellas are revered amongst movie aficionados as three of the greatest films of all time also by me personally. So any new gangster/mob movie that comes out is held to a high standard. The Birthday Cake is that rare surprise I didn't see coming from a mile away. It's that good! Jimmy Giannopoulos has a hit on his hands with this film.
Shiloh Fernandez and David Mazouz (Gotham) play older and younger Gio. He learns things the hard way as a youth, but he takes these lessons to heart as a young adult. On the 10th anniversary of his father's death, he goes to his mother Sofia's (Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos) house. She gives him a birthday cake to bring to a party. All the guys in the family are celebrating his father. Along the way, he has some interesting encounters with friends and authority figures.
The party is a who's who of actors we may know from movies and TV shows: Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos), William Fichtner (The Dark Knight), and John Magaro (First Cow). These guys are just the tip of the iceberg of actors in this film. It's littered throughout with cameos from people like Luis Guzmán and Aldis Hodge, among others. The filmmaker really went all out with this cast.
The standout is Shiloh Fernandez, though. He has to carry the weight of the film on his back. Most of the film is him traveling from place to place with the MacGuffin, the titular birthday cake. All of his interactions and conversations are like pieces to a very large puzzle. As the film goes along he as the lead character and we as the viewer put the pieces together very slowly. Both of us start to figure out what is going on in the film. That being said there is a twist that I never saw coming and I am grateful for it. It's one of the best twists since Keyser Söze in movies and that's saying a lot.
Giannopoulos knows his way around a gangster picture. He uses all the established tropes and adds his touches to the plot. All the supporting characters play their parts perfectly as well. The modern turns in the story are fascinating as well. Russians are trying to muscle into the neighborhood, an FBI surveillance truck driving around and an added bachelorette party that throws a monkey wrench into the mix. The film has so many little touches, but it never scratches the surface of the real story until the end. It's a masterclass of independent filmmaking.
Ewan MacGregor plays a priest in the film. He is used as the narrator as well. His framing sequences are a very pivotal part of the film because we see where Geo starts out and where he ends from the priest's point of view. The narration is a key part of the film as well because good narration can give clues to the story without giving everything away. This film had great narration from MacGregor. He played his part as the priest to perfection. It wasn't a big part, but it was one of the biggest in the overall context of the film. And I loved it!
Giannopoulos is a filmmaker to watch in the future. He takes a tried and true genre and puts his own twist on it. It has one of the best twists in movie history. There is no way anybody could see this twist coming. The cast of familiar character actors is fantastic, but the standout is Fernandez in the leading role. McGregor shines as the narrator as well. This is the best gangster/mob movie since Donnie Brasco. It deals with topics we've seen before in these films, but has one of the most original ways of telling its story. It's an amazing movie that is a pleasant surprise.
The Birthday Cake hits theaters and VOD on June 18.