Favorite

Short Takes On What's Playing In The Theater 

Baghead - Baghead is a clever, funny and suspenseful film about a group of low-level actors who decide to write their own movie in the hope of getting some attention. Chad (Steve Zissis) wants to use the movie to get closer to Michelle (Greta Gerwig), but Michelle has the hots for Matt (Ross Partridge), even though Matt's ex Catherine (Elise Muller) still has feelings for him. After Michelle dreams about seeing a man with a bag over his head, the group decides to use the dream as the basis for a horror movie. But as tensions in the group grow, they all begin to realize the horror movie they're writing just might be real. The suspense and soap-opera elements of the story are leavened with a fair amount of satire of indie-film clichés and stereotypes. Imagine something like Tropic Thunder making fun of self-absorbed indie-film types rather than self-absorbed Hollywood types, and you'd be pretty close to Baghead. Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre. *** (Robert Ignizio)

Bottle Shock - Directed by Randall Miller, Bottle Shock tells the story of the event that put California wines on the map: the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which California wines unexpectedly prevailed over some of France's finest vintages. The film focuses on Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a struggling vintner who gave up his law practice to run a vineyard, cultivating grapes and meticulously bottling Chardonnay with the help of his long-haired, easygoing son Bo (Chris Pine), his young Mexican American assistant Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) and a pretty intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor). Barrett can scarcely keep the winery afloat until his Chardonnay is chosen to compete in the contest by Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a supercilious British wine expert and merchant in Paris, who has devised the contest as a means of confirming the superiority of French wines. The movie recreates a mid-'70s vibe with an authenticity seldom seen onscreen, from the cars (an AMC Hornet!) to the jeans to the haircuts and music (Doobie Brothers, Foghat, Bad Company). The beautifully photographed Northern California landscapes and the script's detailed appreciation of the winemaking craft create a palpably sensual experience that cleanses the palate of the insipid, overpraised Sideways. **** (Zoslov)

A Countess From Hong Kong (Great Britain, 1967) - Charlie Chaplin's final film and his only one in color may rate as one of the most disappointing features ever (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace defenders, take heart). It had been 10 years since Chaplin last directed (the fitfully entertaining satire A King in New York), and for this anachronistic comeback he allegedly drew from his 1930s memories of refugee White Russian exiles in the Far East - penniless aristocrats reduced to pulling rickshaws or trolling the dance halls. The beautiful but gravely miscast Sophia Loren plays a fallen Moscow blue blood, who stows away in the luxury-liner cabin of a wealthy American diplomat (Marlon Brando, who unwisely took his part without reading the script - such was his admiration for Chaplin) and toys with charging him with abduction in a blackmail scheme. En route to Hawaii, of course, they fall in love. Chaplin's direction, possibly a deliberate stylistic choice but a woeful one, is straight outta the early sound era; static, stiff and ponderous, with dialogue that seems more like recitation. The real offense is that this will make you think Chaplin had no finesse doing material in which he wasn't the star. Not true: Check out his long-neglected 1923 silent melodrama A Woman of Paris - also a box-office dud in its day but finally revived and reappraised as a masterwork, an unlikely fate for A Countess From Hong Kong. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27. *1/2 (Charles Cassady)

The Dark Knight - Writer/director Christopher Nolan took over the Batman franchise with 2005's Batman Begins, giving the character back the dignity he had lost in Joel Schumacher's execrable Batman and Robin. As the story begins, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been making some real headway in cleaning up Gotham City, thanks in part to the help of policeman Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who has more than just a working relationship with Wayne's ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But with this success comes unintended consequences. The Joker (Heath Ledger), a dangerous new criminal, offers to help Gotham's crime bosses get rid of Batman. But perhaps the most interesting story arc belongs to the character of Harvey Dent. Dent is exactly the kind of decent man the Joker wants to corrupt, and Aaron Eckhart makes the most of the part. Co-writing the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, director Christopher Nolan has crafted a complex and thematically rich story that will bear up to repeated viewings long after the CGI thrills of lesser movies have dissipated. **** (Ignizio)

Fly Me to the Moon - Made exclusively in 3-D, this feature film tells the tale of three ordinary tween-aged flies - Nat, I.Q. and Scooter - who courageously decide to hitch a ride aboard Apollo 11 after being inspired by heroic stories told by Nat's well-respected grandfather. After successfully stowing away in the helmets of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the flies are in for more than they bargained for when they realize "contaminants" are aboard the mission. Some sleazy Soviet flies with counteractive plans also add to the mess when a race to the moon commences. There's no doubt that 3-D makes this movie. Prepare to be slapped in the face with startling graphics that will have you wanting to swat those lovable insects buzzing above your head. A catchy title and fantastic music also add to the film's charm. However, the movie's filled with stereotypical characters, questionable obesity remarks, repetitive life-or-death situations and passable jokes. Oh, and there's nothing like having a live action/animation cameo by Buzz Aldrin to inform audiences that basically, the whole plot of the movie is scientifically impossible - something that will surely burst any 6-year-old's bubble. Although it may have its faults, Fly Me to the Moon is still a successful, whimsical tale that does encourage kiddies to keep reaching for the stars. **1/2 (Lauren Yusko)

Henry Poole Is Here - When he can't purchase the home he grew up in, Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) settles for the next best thing - a place on the same block. But why he's come back to his old Southern California 'hood is a bit of mystery for the first half of this slow-moving film. Things start to come together as he opens up to the single mother (Radha Mitchell) living next door, telling her he might not have long to live because of a terminal illness. When a neighbor sees what appears to be an image of Christ on the wall of his home, nosy neighbors he'd rather have nothing to do with start to bombard him. And when strange "miracles" occur to those who touch the impression, Henry begins to question even his own skepticism. Ultimately sentimental (there are some cheesy flashback scenes), this film takes too many predictable turns in imparting its message about hope and the strength of the human spirit. ** (Jeff Niesel)

The Last Mistress - Controversial director Catherine Breillat ambitiously brings Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century once-immoral novel to life in this torrid adaptation about love, passion, temptation and scandal. The film is set in France during a time when the politeness of Parisian aristocrats masked the dark, lustful actions of a more private sector. Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a charming libertine whose scandalous past as a womanizer becomes the talk of the town. After he decides to change his life around by marrying the beautiful and pure Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Hermangarde's grandmother, the Comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau), must find out whether the young man's love is true. Breillat paints an exquisite picture by creating a film that's both graceful and shocking, unlike most dull period pieces. Asia Argento as Ryno's mistress, Vellini, steams up the screen, alluring the audience with her sensuality in every scene. Although you may feel uneasy watching the movie at times, this is definitely one saucy and sophisticated affair to remember. *** (Yusko)

L'lmmortelle (France/Italy/Turkey, 1963) - A lonely man begins a search in Istanbul for a beautiful woman with whom he had a romantic affair. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, and at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22.

Mamma Mia! - Inspired by the music of '70s Swedish pop group ABBA, Mamma Mia! features an all-star cast in this film adaptation of the Broadway musical phenomenon. Donna (Meryl Streep) is a single mother to 20 year-old Sophie (Mean Girls' Amanda Seyfried), who runs a villa on a picturesque Greek island. When young Sophie decides to get married, she also secretly decides to invite her father to the wedding. There's only one problem: three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) are potentially the baby's daddy, and they all arrive at the island unbeknownst to Donna. Add Donna's two kooky, lifelong friends and fellow members of Donna and the Dynamos (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) to the mix and you have one hell of a celebration. Mamma Mia! is a fun, campy guilty pleasure about mothers and daughters, old friends and revived flames. *** (Yusko)

Man on Wire - On the morning of August 7, 1974, New Yorkers watched in awe as an unstoppable Frenchman by the name of Philippe Petit pirouetted on a tightrope between the magnificent Twin Towers without a net. Inspired by an article about the towers when they were still under construction, Petit, a juggler and tightrope walker, made it his goal to journey between what would be the two tallest buildings in the world. Directed by James Marsh, the documentary focuses mainly on the obsessive planning of Petit and his accomplices. It includes actual footage, black-and-white reenactments and intimate interviews. Man on Wire is a fearless example of following one's dreams and facing the ultimate obstacle in life, and unveils a gripping story about a mad genius and exactly how he made it to the top of the World Trade Center without any detection. At times, listening to him recount his stunt is like watching the heist in Ocean's Eleven unfold. Yeah, the story drags on and the introduction of different characters is confusing, but the adventure is continuously intriguing. Only a small portion of the film is dedicated to actual tightrope walking, but images of Petit 1,350 feet above ground are priceless: He spends 45 minutes in the air, lying down, kneeling and saluting. A photograph of Petit with an airplane flying above is equally eerie. Although 9/11 is never once mentioned, watching Petit dance on top of the world becomes a beautiful and emotional memorial. Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre. ***1/2 (Yusko)

Mirrors - Mirrors starts off promisingly enough, with Kiefer Sutherland as a recovering alcoholic ex-cop forced to take a job as a security guard in a creepy, burned-out department store. The first third of the movie may be fairly standard-issue ghost-story stuff, but it creates an effectively creepy atmosphere. As the movie goes along, however, the viewer's suspension of disbelief gets strained to the breaking point as the film gets more and more ridiculous and Sutherland's performance starts to veer into William Shatner territory. This was co-written and directed by Alexandre Aja, who previously directed High Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. As in those two films, Aja shows that he has great visual style but could care less about logic and believability. And yet, as truly bad as this movie is, I had a hoot watching it. Probably not for the reasons Aja intended, but a hoot nonetheless. **1/2 (Ignizio)

Monsieur Verdoux (US, 1947) - The Natural Born Killers of 1947, starring Charlie Chaplin - if you can believe the McCarthyist boycotts, critical catcalls and opportunistic political speeches raised against the silent-slapstick idol when Chaplin appeared here in a startlingly different role, said to be based on an idea by Orson Welles (but discernable as the old, oft-filmed Bluebeard fairy tale, dressed up for the 20th century). Verdoux is an elegant, well-mannered Frenchman who supports his crippled wife and child by methodically marrying and murdering rich, elderly and/or vulgar women (young Martha Raye is a scream as his most frustrating target, a loudmouthed lottery winner). Not a drop of blood is shown, but the darkness around the edges of the genteel black comedy still disturbs, as Verdoux defends his crimes as a logical response to 1930s bank failures and fascism. You're left wondering how much of that is Verdoux self-justifying and how much is the creator, as the beloved Little Tramp, speaking his mind. Much later - after Chaplin left a hostile America for Europe - Monseiur Verdoux was re-released to the critical acclaim it deserves - or at least to audiences who learned to embrace serial killers as matinee heroes. Cleveland Musuem of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, and 6:45 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22. **** (Cassady)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - The O'Connells (Brendan Fraser reprising the role of Rick and Maria Bello stepping into Rachel Weisz's shoes as Evelyn) find themselves bored in post-WWII England. But when their son Alex (Luke Ford) unwittingly unearths the immortal Emperor Han (Jet Li), they get all the excitement they can handle. Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong provide support as an immortal mother/daughter team, and John Hannah returns from the first two films to provide comic relief as Evelyn's brother Jonathan. The mix of action and comedy we've come to expect from this series is here, and Fraser is his usual heroic self. There are also some pretty cool monsters, including a group of yeti and a three-headed dragon. On the downside, the movie takes too long to get started, Jet Li's character is mostly CGI, Maria Bello doesn't have any chemistry with Fraser and Luke Ford's Alex is just annoying. It's probably best for all concerned if the Mummy franchise stays buried after this. **1/2 (Ignizio)

Pineapple Express - Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) has got it good. He might drive around in a beater car and wear a dingy, decidedly unfashionable brown suit, but he dates a hot high-school chick (Jeanetta Arnette) and holds down a job that doesn't require too much effort (he serves subpoenas). Hell, he spends half his day getting stoned. So when his drug dealer, Saul (James Franco), offers him a blend of weed called "pineapple express," he goes for it. It's at this point that the trouble begins in Pineapple Express, a stoner caper produced by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin). In the end, the chemistry between Rogen and Franco overcomes the movie's flaws, bringing to life the quips and banter (Rogen co-wrote the script) in such a way that the film's likely to become the kind of thing you'd watch again and still find something worth laughing at. *** (Niesel)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 - Lena (Alexis Bledel), Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Carmen (America Ferrera) and Bridget (Blake Lively) reunite for this surprising but most welcome follow-up to 2005's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Based once again on the novels of Ann Brashares, the sequel picks up the sisterly quartet's individual and collective stories a year after the first movie ended. Tibby and Lena have elected to take summer classes (at N.Y.U. and the Rhode Island School of Design, respectively), and Bridget is headed off to Turkey for an archaeological dig. To avoid helping her pregnant mom (Rachel Ticotin) and stepdad move into their new house, Carmen decides to enroll in a Vermont theater camp. Nothing goes quite according to plan for the girls. Like Traveling Pants 1, there's nothing particularly subtle or even original about the soapy, schematic plot. What makes the films special, though, is the delicacy of emotions so vividly and movingly conveyed by these four wonderful young actresses. *** (Milan Paurich)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - In the Star Wars universe, the Clone Wars were a three-year skirmish involving the Republic and the burgeoning Empire that filled the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Back in 2003, Dexter's Laboratory mastermind Genndy Tartakovsky created a 25-episode series that became a cult hit and remains a more satisfying experience than any of the later Star Wars movies. The new Clone Wars isn't quite that stellar. Tartakovsky's anime-style drawings are replaced by sleek CGI videogame-like images. Characters are rail thin, with heads too big for their bodies, but the terrific battle scenes benefit from the angular design. The story sidetracks to smaller adventures featuring Anakin Skywalker, his protégé and a dual-lightsaber-wielding female baddie named Asajj Ventress, while many old faves appear throughout the movie. Like the live-action films, The Clone Wars doesn't really offer a tidy ending. Some of that has to do with the lack of narrative; some of that has to do with the fact that a new TV series based on the movie will be launching in the fall. Still, fans will have fun spotting all the new droids, ships and characters that buzz through the action, but George Lucas' knack for finding ways to milk a series peaked a long, long time ago. **1/2 (Michael Gallucci)

Step Brothers - From the start, Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly), two adults forced to live with each other after their single parents marry, have it out for each other. Because space is limited, they have to share a room, and on their first night together, they threaten each other with extreme forms of bodily harm before falling asleep. Initially, it's all good, foulmouthed fun, with Ferrell and Reilly delivering the physical comedy and offbeat antics for which they're known and really reveling in the fact that they get to play characters who never matured into adults. It all comes to a screeching halt when the two make up due to their mutual hatred for Brennan's younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), a successful sales guy. While the language and sexual situations push the film's R rating in ways that would make John Waters proud, it all grows a bit tiresome by the film's end, especially since many of the jokes seem lifted from other comedies associated with Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), who serves as the film's producer. **1/2 (Niesel)

Swing Vote - Bud (Kevin Costner) is your everyday delinquent single father. Most of the time, he's so hungover, he can't even get his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) to school on time. But in a presidential race where the outcome rests on a single vote, he becomes the center of national attention after his ballot is negated by a computer glitch. As a result, he gets to vote again, and since he will decide the fate of the candidates, the national media descends upon the tiny New Mexico town he calls home. The outcome of Swing Vote is predictable, but it sure does take a long time to get there. You know that Bud will come to understand the significance of the election process, and you know the two presidential candidates (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper) will flip-flop on the issues just to secure his vote, yet they too will have a change of heart. And despite all this, you can't help rooting for Bud and his precocious young daughter, who is the mouthpiece for everything a democracy should be. **1/2 (Niesel)

Trans-Europ Express (France/Belgium, 1966) - When an author drums up ideas for a film while riding the Trans-Europ Express, a drug dealer boards the same train - and his story begins to come to life in this erotic thriller. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23.

Tropic Thunder - While shooting on location in the jungles of Vietnam, the cast and crew of a "Rambo"-esque adventure movie are attacked by a real band of guerrilla fighters/heroin dealers. The ensuing stand-off between the feral Flaming Dragons and the clueless, girly-man actors is a meta-hoot, even when (especially when) it's spurting enough blood to keep Count Dracula in plasma for several lifetimes. Only the fourth movie directed by Ben Stiller in the past 14 years, this acid-tinged valentine to Hollywood sends up a particular mind-set of Tinseltown player to a fare-the-well. Not since Borat has a comedy been so eager to make you cringe - and chuckle - at the same time. The mostly terrific cast includes Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. as an Aussie Method actor who undergoes a pigment dye job to play an African American soldier. In an extended cameo appearance, a foul-mouthed, prosthetics-laden Tom Cruise generates the film's biggest laughs playing a studio boss equivalent to Austin Powers' Fat Bastard. *** (Paurich)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds director Woody Allen in a lighter mood, telling the story of two friends: dark-haired, sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and blond, impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who share a summer vacation - and a lover, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) - in Barcelona. After a weekend trip to Oviedo, Juan Antonio, to Vicky's disappointment, takes up with Cristina, who moves in with him. Vicky resigns herself to marrying the ambitious and reliable Doug (Chris Messina), who seems, by contrast, hopelessly dull. Cristina and Juan Antonio's romantic idyll is interrupted when he is forced to rescue his suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who moves into the house. After some initial mistrust, the three fall into a comfortable ménage. Later, Vicky tries to reignite the flame with Juan Antonio, resulting in an absurd twist of fate. It's a mere wisp of a movie, but the clever, talky script and fine cast make it go down like a cool glass of limonada. (Zoslov)

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