FlixChatter Review: The Sparks Brothers (2021)

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Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Jane Wiedlin, Beck, Flea, Tony Visconti, Todd Rundgren, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost  

SparksBrothers-cool-placesAs a kid growing up in 1983, I’d watch Sparks’ Cool Places air a few times on MTV – back when it actually was “Music Television” instead of the reality TV monstrosity it’s become the past 3 decades. The video featured Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos. It was catchy as hell though way dated by today’s standards. But who were these other dudes in the video? The singer seemed normal enough, duetting with Jane and doing the 80s dance moves. But that other guy with the weird mustache – what’s his deal? An ear-worm of a song, cool as hell. But those guys were kinda strange… That singer is Russell Mael and the weird mustachioed guy is his real life older brother Ron. Together they are Sparks. 

And it was high time someone made a genuine documentary about these guys. That someone turned out to be Edgar Wright, who directed such high-profile films such as Shawn of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby Driver and the upcoming Anya Taylor-Joy horror fest Last Night in Soho. This seemed fitting for Wright, tackling a group who on the surface never took itself too seriously. But what we find here in The Sparks Brothers is a duo of uncompromising artistry, full of humor, reinvention and musicality. Add to that an enduring though rocky longevity in the music business for 5 full decades.

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The documentary chronicles their early life in Culver City, CA onto Pacific Palisades in the 40s and 50s. They were highly influenced by their artistic father, a graphic designer and cartoonist by trade, who brought home rock & roll records. Interestingly, Wright doesn’t run the regular course here in peeling back history or mining for dramatics to expose familial eccentricities or trauma. Instead, it’s a carefully molded unwrapping of a musical and theatrical history that begins in 70s Glam to almost every possible genre of music that exist today. In a career that spans 25 albums and countless songs, their constant reinvention of themselves is mind boggling –  and at the same time remaining true to themselves as Sparks.

Along with assorted commentary from a plethora of celebrities and musicians, The Sparks Brothers begs the question, how could a band that’s been around so long be virtually unknown? Jane Wiedlin comments, “I think they were too much for most people.” Not unlike David Bowie, their constant reinvention from album to album never acquiesced to expectation. Though never really achieving mainstream success, they broke through the culture when Paul McCartney parodied Ron and his mustache in the video for his hit Coming Up.

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Interestingly, by film’s end we don’t really know too much more about the Mael brothers as we had expected. What we do end up with is a natural appreciation of Sparks the band; the weirdness of it, its strange sensibility and outright curiosity. Somehow they were able to meld cinema, humor and art into what Giorgio Moroder referred to as the music of the future. 

The Sparks Brothers achieves what most rock docs never get to – and that’s putting the concept behind the band first and foremost. The idea of musical persistence, self-awareness and an odd body of uncompromising creative work is the principle of the film. Full of humor and wit, rare footage and interesting anecdotes, The Sparks Brothers is a classic, up there with Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. Wright does right in adding to the band’s mystique rather than tarnishing it. In some parallel universe, Sparks is big and No. 1 in Heaven. Now that would be something.

4.5/5 stars
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FlixChatter Review: THE DRY (2021)

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Directed by: Robert Connolly
Starring: Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell, John Polson, Bebe Bettencourt

There is a lonesome vastness in the Australian countryside; flat landscapes, aged trees sporadically placed within view and oblique farmland ravaged by a drought. These are the opening scenes from Robert Connolly’s The Dry, effectively setting the tone for this brooding but highly entertaining whodunnit based on the book by Jane Harper.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his hometown of Kiewarra, a small farming town a few hours from Melbourne, after his boyhood best friend Luke dies with his family in a presumed murder suicide. Luke’s parents however, aren’t satisfied with the local inquest’s findings and requests Aaron to investigate them further. Reluctantly, he agrees and with the help of a local sergeant, starts looking into the circumstances of Luke’s death. Run-ins with the locals reveal Falk being somewhat of a pariah and that 20 plus years ago was at the center of one of the town’s darkest chapters. To say more would be denying you all the fun…

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Robert Connolly’s direction is precise and compact. Shots and dialogue are as efficient as they come and effectively guide us through the labyrinth of this whodunnit. The film does not try to be too smart to mislead us outright but rather walks us through story. While looking for clues and clichés, The Dry avoids the latter and paves the path for us to follow whether it be dead-end, U-Turn or fork in the road. 

The film has understated performances throughout. Bana is very good as usual and channels something between a much reserved John Robie (from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief) and Jake Gittes (Chinatown), less cynical but adequately scarred by personal trauma. Keir O’Donnell is fine as Sergeant Raco as are the other supporting players including Genevieve O’Reilly as childhood friend Gretchen. 

Harry Cripps and Connolly’s screenplay is tight and not over the top like other films of the genre. The film’s tone remained consistent throughout but also managed to sprinkle in subtle lighthearted moments (especially the scenes with Raco). While following the tried and true double narrative style, it still managed to avoid the clichés that could’ve turned this very good film into a mediocre one. 

Stefan Duscio’s non-flashy cinematography also helped propel the story forward by using the Australian setting as an essential character of the story. The drought-plagued landscape somehow manages to parallel our own pandemic-changed world with its sense of isolation. Regardless, The Dry is an atmospheric film without shouting itself out.

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While maybe not quite a classic, The Dry is indeed a very good, taut thriller that deserves a good viewing or even a few… Good direction, a well-written script, great performances and excellent cinematography make The Dry interesting, entertaining and engrossing. 

And it kept me guessing.

4/5 stars
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FlixChatter Review: Museum Town (2020)

Directed by Jennifer Trainer
Narrated by Meryl Streep

Museum Town is the first feature documentary from award-winning journalist Jennifer Trainer. It chronicles the history of Mass MoCA, the world’s largest contemporary art museum in the world and North Adams, the struggling Massachusetts town it resides in. Trainer herself is one of the co-founders of Mass MoCA. Narrated by Meryl Streep, it mainly focuses on Missouri-born artist Nick Cave (not the of the Bad Seeds) and his epic installation titled Until which involved large scale pieces of found and recycled art and contemporary objects. There are also brief cameos from other artists/musicians like David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Laurie Anderson.

In the early 80s as well as decades before, North Adams was a thriving factory town most well-known for housing Sprague Electric who manufactured electronic components such as conductors, semi-conductors, resistors/capacitors and ICs (integrated circuits). The factory was mostly a women’s workforce because of what was perceived as delicate detail work fitting small hands.

With a sprawling campus that encompassed 2 or more football fields, Sprague was a city unto itself and helped sustain the city’s economic growth into the 1980s. However, as component manufacturing gradually moved overseas, Sprague decided to cut costs and eventually closed its North Adams facility which put thousands of locals out of work. The connecting highway was also built on the town’s outskirts further debilitating its economic recovery.

Then in the mid 80s, Thomas Krens, an experienced museum director from Williamstown convinced the city’s leadership to convert Sprague’s abandoned buildings into what would become the largest contemporary museum in the world. The vastness of it gave some established and upcoming installation artists the opportunity to exhibit their work in a unique space. Mass MoCA as it was christened, partly rejuvenated North Adams and helped establish itself as a “Museum Town”.

As the film unfolds, we see the progression of North Adams’ history as thriving factory town to depressed city and Mass MoCA’s rise from conception to existence. While the museum continues to tread water in pursuit of financing, the town continues to be conflicted of its identity among the locals. While some have adapted to the museum’s high-brow reputation in the art world (some locals work for the museum) many more struggle to find their place as poverty and homelessness to continue to be problematic.

Though the film is honest about Mass MoCA’s relationship with North Adams, it’s unfortunate that the chasm between the museum and the townsfolk remain deep and wide. Being an artist, I personally feel there should be a common ground between art and audience. But in Museum Town, that seems to be a road less travelled. It’s a reality and perhaps the challenge of Mass MoCA – to reach a common appreciation, understanding and reflection of the people and the town of North Adams.

Museum Town is pleasant to watch but mostly feels like it’s confined within museum walls. And I can’t help feeling a certain detachment from the people of North Adams as if they are still being left behind. They need their voices heard too.

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TV Review: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020)

The Queen’s Gambit (2020 – Netflix)
Directed by Scott Frank
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, Bill Camp, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Christiane Seidel, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd

Nearly a month removed from debuting on Netflix, there’s no shortage of publicity and buzz surrounding this 7 part mini-series. During these pandemic times with nearly everyone (hopefully) staying home these days, there’s a plethora of quality streaming shows to discover. (If you need recommendations, just peruse Flixchatter and you will find truly informed reviews of what’s out there.) This is the age of the streaming platform and with The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix has really stepped it up and delivered an engrossing and wildly entertaining mini-series.

Set in 1960s Kentucky, the series chronicles the rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Orphaned at age 9, we see her meager beginnings at an all-girls orphanage run by the practical yet sympathetic Miss Deardorff (Christiane Seidel). While there she meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), a black orphan who takes her under her wing, showing her the ropes.

Isla Johnston as young Beth + Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel

While cleaning erasers in the school’s basement, she spies Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the school’s janitor playing chess and is intrigued to the point of obsession. She picks up the game just by watching and he proceeds to teach her the intricacies of the game as well as its etiquette. He recognizes her talent and invites a local high school chess organizer to play her. He then invites her to play the local high school team who she defeats singlehandedly. To complicate matters, Beth becomes dependent on Librium – a drug given out to the children to sedate them into compliance – a widespread and abusive practice at the time.

Marielle Heller as Alma

Eventually, she is adopted by a couple and develops a unique bond with her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) who nurtures her chess career while surrendering to her own addictions and disappointments. In the universe of high school and high stakes chess tournaments, Beth is faced with the trials of chemical dependency and psychological trauma, all in her quest at becoming a grandmaster.

Based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, director Scott Frank’s adaptation is concise and well executed. Frank, who wrote Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Logan (2017) has a proven track record and The Queen’s Gambit is no exception. Stylish with a good balance of wit and humor, Frank tones down the melodrama with subtle detachment. Scenes don’t seem overdone and you won’t find any extended soliloquies either. Frank gets and keeps it to the point with flair and confidence. Steven Meizler’s photography and Michelle Tesoro’s editing provide an exciting tension and suspense especially to the chess tournament sequences – no easy feat I’m sure. Gambit’s steady pacing and editing, excellent cinematography and a beautiful score (Carlos Rafael Rivera) make this binge-worthy.

The real joy here though is watching Anya Taylor-Joy’s magnetic performance as Beth Harmon. Her chameleon-like and quiet intensity is nothing short of brilliant. With silent-era charm, her strongest moments aren’t even when she speaks but when she stares down her opponent in icy coldness. It’s an establishing role in a film career that’s already well seasoned with starring roles in The Witch (2015), Thoroughbreds (2017) and most recently this year’s Emma. Supported by a terrific ensemble cast including Harry Potter’s Harry Melling in a nice grown up role and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the likable chess champ Benny, The Queen’s Gambit is full of memorable performances making it one of the most satisfying shows to stream in 2020.

 

The Queen’s Gambit succeeds on so many levels.  Origin story, coming-of-age, cold-war thriller, psychological drama – all apply to this highly entertaining series. Scott Frank has put together a well-oiled machine that’s fun to watch and easy to digest, so you might as well surrender to it. I’ve no doubt it will be on many critics’ top 10 lists this year.

5/5 stars

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FlixChatter Review: SYNCHRONIC (2020)


Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Written by: Justin Benson
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides

Coming off the critical success of The Endless (2017), Synchronic is the fifth collaboration between the directing duo of Benson and Moorhead. While not in the same universe as that of their previous 2 films (with 2012’s Resolution as a semi-prequel to The Endless), the film categorically shares the sci-fi/horror genre and with similar stylistic flair along with high tier lead actors in Anthony Mackie (The Avengers) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades franchise).

Set in modern-day New Orleans, Mackie and Dornan play paramedics Steve Denube and Dennis Dannelly who come across a bizarre case of young people overdosing over a new designer drug called Synchronic. The cases grow and become more horrifying each time, all while their personal lives are taking a dark turn – Mackie a lonely playboy with a serious illness and Dornan with domestic family difficulties. Everything falls apart when Dennis’ teenage daughter Brianna (Ioannides) disappears while allegedly taking the drug. While Dennis tries to repair things at home, Steve decides to try and find his friend’s daughter at a high cost.

With its atmospheric pacing and neo-psychedelic sequences, Sychronic is a stylish sci-fi thriller that seems to be the love-child of Ken Russell’s 1980 cult-classic Altered States and Scorsese’s 1999 supernatural film Bringing Out the Dead. The filmmakers set it up promisingly with creepy strokes of imagery and for the most part maintain it through the 2nd act. As in their previous films, Benson and Moorhead add touches of H.P. Lovecraft and at times mirroring some of the themes we see from Lovecraft Country. There are portrayals of racial profiling and segregation as well as slavery. However, for good or bad, the filmmakers chose not to use this as a plot development point, even though it’s insinuated that present day New Orleans is (as most of the country) still rife with racism.

Mackie is fine as an involuntary bachelor with an existential crisis. While he tackles the character with serious gusto as usual, he’s able to dash on some likable humor which tellingly are the filmmakers’ attitude in not taking things too seriously. Dornan is merely there and the other actors as just props.

The 3rd act is when Synchronic becomes a predictable time travel yarn with the usual flaws in believability. There are those moments of “really?” with a big question mark but that is to be expected and the film glosses over those shortcomings with pacing and Mackie’s likable performance. It is also commendable that the film did not devolve into a full-on gore-fest. That was comforting given the compelling subject matter of a drug epidemic.

Ultimately, beyond the two-dimensionality of the characters and the believability of the plot, the film is a nice enough pit stop for science fiction/thriller fans. While it doesn’t succeed wholly in making us forget the trivialities of time travel science, Benson and Moorhead seem to say that Synchronic need not be synchronous with reality. After all, momentary escape should do.

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FlixChatter Review: THE GOOD LIAR (2019)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher
Starring: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey

Advertised as the first ever pairing of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen, The Good Liar boasts perhaps two of film’s all-time greatest. Based on the best-selling book by Nicholas Searle (a former British Intelligence officer) and adapted to screen by (MN native) Jeffrey Hatcher, McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, an octogenarian career swindler who preys on greedy businessmen by day and conning rich, lonely widows of their retirement by night. Via online dating, he meets Betty McLeish (Mirren), a former Oxford professor and widower. She is immediately swept off her feet by Roy’s charming ways, to the chagrin of her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) who grows suspicious of his nebulous history and character. Is he there to steal her money? Of course. But will this be an easy con, or are there twists and turns up ahead?

As expected, the two leads give a solid performance. McKellen is smooth, easy to watch and almost fun. The same can be said of Mirren, who exudes an airy, determined cool that seems so effortless. The first two thirds of the film is a slow burn of calculated intensity. The thriller unfolds with the taut directness of a Graham Greene novel. Propelled by the actors fine execution, The Good Liar engaged me throughout the first and second act.

Craftily directed by Condon (Gods and Monsters), the film, while predictable, stays focused and lets the two leads carry the weight for the most part. But it all falls apart in the third and final act. While we anticipated the oncoming twists just around the bend, some aspects of the story bordered on the preposterous and came dangerously close to being camp. The final third of the film unintentionally gave off the scent of being an exploitation film. Revenge movies of the late 60s and early seventies come to mind as well as pulp novels they were based on.

Because of Mirren and McKellen, we can forgive the unconvincing story in exchange for their screen presence. And they do give off an entertaining and unique chemistry. But I left the theatre feeling a bit swindled myself. Conned out of an ending that wouldn’t leave me feeling hollow and ambivalent. As good as they were in the film, it seems an opportunity was lost here for something that could have been really special.

The Good Liar is a slick, almost elegant (thanks to Carter Burwell’s score) but uneven film. The genius of the two lead actors mask the inadequacies of the story and screenplay, but not enough to save it from its own predictability and obviousness. It should be said that it was well-intentioned – addressing important issues regarding gender and portraying the redemption of one of its characters. But in truth, The Good Liar is so-so and just missed being great.

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FlixChatter Review: LAST CHRISTMAS (2019)

Directed by Paul Feig
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh and Emma Thompson

The holidays are upon us and along with that – holiday films. From “A Christmas Carol” to “Die Hard” and even to “Eyes Wide Shut”, the genre covers a wide spectrum of styles and there is always something, some motif, setting, style or narrative that makes it what it is and marketable this time of year. Paul Feig’s latest “Last Christmas” falls within the conventional side of this spectrum and appropriately so.

Emilia Clarke plays Kate, an aspiring and struggling singer living in London who also works as an elf in a Christmas store owned by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate or Katerina (her Yugoslavian namesake) is a bit of a train wreck, borderline homeless, careless, irresponsible and jaded. Along comes Tom (Henry Golding), a stranger who happens to show up when she is at her worst but seems to melt her icy cynicism little by little. Slowly, she starts to turn things around, even with a hovering mother (played by Emma Thompson) obsessively doting on her.

To say any more would be revealing too much but Last Christmas reminds us of Bill Murray’s character turn/development in Groundhog Day, another holiday classic. Last Christmas follows the holiday template almost to a T in its predictability. However, Emilia Clarke’s performance is so charming that the movie succeeds in its intention. I’d forgotten she’d been Daenarys of Game of Thrones’ fame. Her comic turn as Kate is so natural and effortless that it’s enough to carry the film throughout the clichés, forced subplots, and feel-good story. We end up rooting for her through thick and thin. Clarke’s performance proves she’s not one-dimensional – a sign she will overcome being typecast, and hopefully more opportunities for complex roles in the future.

Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Emma Thompson are all merely there as supporting characters but there are some nice touches here and there. Last Christmas is cognizant of the times and reflects some of the political climate of today’s Europe and the western world. This is the world of Brexit and racism. Thompson (co-writer) and the filmmakers can be commended for at least trying to present a more realistic and diverse London.

The soundtrack is rich – filled with Wham! and George Michael classics. Michael’s song is the inspiration for the story and also a tribute to the late singer. Last Christmas is a cookie cutter of a film and not quite the classic it’s striving to be but it does have its heart in the right place. For some that might be enough.

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