June Blooms With Indie Films Carrying Artful Ambitions

Cincinnati-filmed “The Bikeriders” and Kevin Costner’s first “Horizon” chapter headline a wave of interesting movies with wider appeal as well as arthouse titles and one-off events.
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This time last year, everyone was awaiting two big summer movies that, while big-budget Hollywood productions aimed at the multiplex masses, also had artistic ambitions. A term was even coined to refer to both of them as a single combined entity: Barbenheimer. That turned out to be worth the hype—both Barbie and Oppenheimer were smash hits, with the latter dominating the Academy Awards.

There doesn’t seem to be anything of that cultural and financial magnitude coming our way this summer, but June does bring the planned release of two new movies, The Bikeriders and Horizon: An American Saga (Chapter 1), with similar hopes for widespread appeal.

Check out my May preview column for interesting movies that might still be playing on local screens, including I Saw the TV Glow. Now for the June highlights.

“The Bikeriders”

The Bikeriders

[Watch the trailer. Likely opens June 21 at multiplex cinemas as well as at the Esquire Theatre and the Kenwood Theatre.]

The Cincinnati market in particular is being thought of as prime commercial territory for The Bikeriders, since it was shot around the region (including Lockland). It’s a rough, tough exploration of biker culture, based on a 1968 black-and-white photo portfolio by Danny Lyon, today considered one of our best living photographers. He spent time with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and also observed bike riders—both on and off their vehicles—in Dayton, Columbus, Louisville, Detroit, and elsewhere.

“The material in this book was collected between 1963 and 1967 in an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bikerider,” Lyon wrote in an introduction to a 2014 edition of his work. “If anything has guided this work beyond the facts of the worlds presented, it is what I have come to believe is the spirit of the bikeriders: the spirit of the hand that twists open the throttle on the crackling engines of big bikes and rides them on racetracks or through traffic or, on occasion, into oblivion.”

With that kind of introduction, it’s no wonder a (color) film adaptation, or rather film interpretation, set in the 1960s could attract a top director/writer like Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Loving) and lava-hot actors Jodie Comer (the mesmerizing assassin on Killing Eve) and Austin Butler (Oscar nominated for Elvis). Also in the cast are Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon.

The Bikeriders originally was set for an Oscar-season release last year but was delayed because of the SAG-AFTRA strike. It did premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, though, and netted some strong reviews. Variety published a review with the to-die-for headline “Austin Butler and Tom Hardy Are Cool Personified in the ‘Godfather’ of Biker Movies.” Reviewer Peter Debruge wrote, “With The Bikeriders, Nichols brings us into the big city—or the outskirts, at least—and then zeroes in on a social microcosm all of us recognize, but few have penetrated.”

“Horizon: An American Saga”

Horizon: An American Saga (Chapter 1)

[Watch the trailer. Opens June 28 at multiplex cinemas as well as the Esquire Theatre and the Kenwood Theatre.]

This film is Kevin Costner’s return to directing and starring in long Westerns (1997’s Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves; 1997’s three-hour The Postman, which really was a post-apocalyptic movie; and 2003’s Open Range. It’s also his grand return to showbiz since leaving the hit TV series Yellowstone, a modern Western. Horizon tells, with attempted grandiosity, the story of American’s western expansion through the lens of post-Civil War societal divisions.

It’s a great topic, and the public may well flock to it if the audience at its recent Cannes Film Festival debut is any indication—they gave it a seven-minute ovation and shouted “Kevin! Kevin!” according to Variety. The early reviews have not been kind to the film or to Costner’s command of large-scale story-telling, however, but you may want to wait to see what others say when it opens here. Costner has a lot riding on this film, since Horizon is meant it be a four-part opus. The second installment is set for August release, and he’s reportedly working on part three as we speak.

Tuesday

[Watch the trailer. Likely to open later in June at the Mariemont Theatre.]

There are several first-run art/indie films listed as “likely” to come to the Esquire or Mariemont in June but without firm dates, led by one that’s already having its trailer shown as a coming attraction, Tuesday. It’s a very strange family film starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a mother facing a quite unnerving problem: supporting her teenage daughter Tuesday (Lola Petticrew), who is facing a fatal illness. It gets really stressful when they’re visited by an unconventional personification of death. Shades of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, perhaps?

The film screened at last year’s Telluride Film Festival and London Film Festival, which gave critics the opportunity to explain its complex, bizarre plot. In that effort, Emily Zemler of Britain’s Observer offered the strangest plot summary I’ve read in a long time: “Grief manifests in strange ways, but perhaps not as strange as it does in Tuesday, the directorial debut feature from Daina O. Pusic. The film stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, ever-mutable in surprising roles these days, as Zora, a single mother grappling with the impending loss of her dying teenage daughter Tuesday (Lola Petticrew). Zora leaves Tuesday with a stream of nurses and pretends to go to work while instead laying on park benches and eating cheese. Tuesday lays in bed or sits in a wheelchair in the garden, wheezing and waiting to die. And then, one morning, Death, in the form of a parrot-like bird, shows up.”

That should either make you want to see it, as it does me, or avoid it. (Zemler liked it by the way.)

“Thelma”

Thelma

[Watch the trailer. Likely to open later in June at the Mariemont Theatre.]

Like Tuesday, action/comedy film Thelma takes its title from a character’s name—and 93-year-old grandma Thelma, played by June Squibb, is also a pretty unusual character. After a phone scammer cheats her out of $10,000, she takes things into her own hands to get back what is hers.

Those who have seen it (it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) like the film—and especially its star—quite a lot. “At 94 years old, June Squibb has worked with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen (in her film debut), and Todd Haynes, appeared in both Disney and Pixar films (including a role in the upcoming Inside Out 2 this summer), and has earned an Oscar nomination for her scene-stealing performances in Alexander Payne’s 2013 film, Nebraska,” explains Collider’s Ross Bonaime. “But despite this impressive resume that just keeps getting better, Squibb has somehow never been the star of her own film. After all these years as an actor, Squibb has finally received her first leading role with Thelma from writer-director Josh Margolin, in an action-comedy that reminds us why she has been a delight in projects for so many years.” 

“Robot Dreams”

Robot Dreams

[Watch the trailer. Likely to open later in June at the Esquire Theatre or the Mariemont Theatre.]

The Spanish/French co-production of the animated Robot Dreams was one of the greatest surprises among this year’s Oscar nominations. Against the greatest of odds—given how major players Hayao Miyazaki, Pixar, Sony, and Netflix took four of the five nominations for best Animated Feature Film this year—the fifth spot went to this tender and funny yet melancholy entry.

While it’s a foreign production, the film is based on a comic by American graphic novelist Sara Varon. The film’s story centers on a lonely dog in 1980s Manhattan who sees a TV ad for a robot companion and orders one. The two become inseparable, until the dog accidentally loses the robot at a beach, then must struggle to rescue it. The film is just now starting its national distribution, buoyed by the Oscar nomination.

By the way, director/screenwriter Pablo Berger also directed the visionary 2012 silent film Blancanieves, which opened the much beloved Mindbenders film series at Art Academy of Cincinnati in 2013. Well, it was beloved by me, at least, since I produced it.

“It’s Such a Beautiful Day”

It’s Such a Beautiful Day

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 7:30 p.m. June 5 and 17 at the Esquire Theatre, 7:30 p.m. June 19 at the Kenwood Theatre, and 6 p.m. June 13 at the Speed Art Museum Cinema in Louisville.]

An animated film that should be of special interest to devotees of photography and unusual cameras is It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Don Hertzfeldt, returning to theaters for the first time since 2012 and being paired with his new short Me.

The Speed Museum’s website does a good job of explaining It’s Such a Beautiful Day’s film’s significance: “Originally released as three short films over the course of six years, the picture was captured entirely in-camera on a 35mm rostrum animation stand. Built in the 1940s and used by Hertzfeldt on all of his animated films since 1999, it was one of the last surviving cameras of its kind still operating in the world, indispensable in creating the story’s unique images and visual effects. It’s Such a Beautiful Day painstakingly blended traditional hand-drawn animation and experimental optical effects with new digital hybrids, printed out one frame at a time and placed under the camera. … In 2012, the three completed short films about a man named Bill were seamlessly combined to create a new feature film. Upon its original release, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was named by many critics as one of the best films of the year.” 

I saw the powerful film this past weekend and highly recommend it.

Gummo

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 7:30 p.m. June 11 at the Esquire Theatre.]

I wish I knew the success secret for the monthly special presenters at the Esquire Theatre, Conveyor Built Books, and Outer Cinema. Each month, they bring in arty, cutting-edge, and often challenging films and attract crowds of very knowing and discerning cinephiles. I’m not sure where these fans come from, but we need more of them!

Conveyor Belt, the discerning bookstore in Covington, will really be testing its followers on June 11 when it shows 1997’s infamous Gummo, Harmony Korine’s directing debut after he wrote the screenplay for 1995’s Kids. I saw Gummo when it was new at a film festival, and many in the audience found it very unlikeable as it followed around some dead-end kids in a tornado-struck Ohio town.

Korine has done some distinctive work since, though, especially 2012’s Spring Breakers. Also, Gummo’s Jacob Reynolds gives an unshakably memorable performance. In explaining his selection, Conveyor Belt’s Brandon DiSabatino writes via email, “I think there is a tremendous peace in the film’s chaos—very rare balancing act to achieve something truthful while being purposefully, violently provocative.” I’m now curious to rewatch with fresh eyes.

Nowhere

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 7:30 p.m. June 26 at the Esquire Theatre.]

Meanwhile, Outer Cinema’s Justin Wiese is bringing in another film by the highly regarded cult film director and New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki. Last year’s showing of Araki’s classic The Doom Generation sold out the Esquire’s largest screen. This time the film is Araki’s 1997 comedy Nowhere, which has received a restoration after long being out of circulation. “Hopefully, we get a big crowd for this one, too,” Wiese says via email.

Counter Weights

[Screens at 8 p.m. June 25 at the Woodward Theater, Over-the-Rhine]

The Woodward Theater is growing its cinema program this month to at least five presentations instead of the four in May. One of those, Counter Weights, merits special attention for its experimental nature. Two filmmakers and friends, Anna Kipervaser and Zack Parrinella, will “weave a conversation through the moving image” by presenting a program of 12 short digital video and 16mm film works by contemporary filmmakers, including themselves.

“Westermann”

Other Woodward Screenings

The other Woodward films for June are all relatively new indies from small distributors: Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea at 7:30 on June 10, I Used to Be Funny at 7:30 p.m. on June 17, and Truth Be Told at 7:30 p.m. on June 24.

Westermann is the portrait of a major Post War artist, the late H.C. (Horace Clifford) Westermann—and if the name is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. As Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago put it for a 2001 retrospective of Westermann’s work, “(He) is one of the most influential, yet underrecognized, figures in postwar American art. His work and the tough, no-nonsense persona he created for himself earned the respect and admiration of peers.” Ed Harris plays the artist; he also played Jackson Pollock in Pollock.

“Truth Be Told”

Truth Be Told is a documentary by Nneka Onuorah about the experiences of LGBTQ individuals within the Black church. The Woodward’s description says that “with the aim of sparking a conversation that has never been had before, the film dives deep into the culture, struggles, and triumphs of those who navigate their faith while also embracing their sexual and gender identities.” The documentary features interviews with Billy Porter, Cedric the Entertainer, and David and Tamela Mann, who offer insights into the complex dynamics between the Black church and the LGBTQ+ community.

And I Used to Be Funny, from director/writer Ally Pankiw, is about a stand-up comic struggling with PTSD (Rachel Sennott) who must decide whether to join a search party to look for the missing teenage girl to whom Sennott’s character once served as nanny.

Find details on all three films here. 

Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour

[Watch the trailer. Screens June 14-16 and June 21-23 at the Garfield Theatre, downtown.]

Cincinnati World Cinema, which presents its movies at the Garfield Theatre at 719 Race Street downtown, is showcasing the 10th annual Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour a total of 10 times over two weekends this month. The 110-minute compilation includes seven 2024 Jury Award winners and nominees that were selected from 12,098 short film submissions this year.

“Bug Diner”

“The program you will see at the Garfield is arguably the best of the best,” says Cincinnati World Cinema’s Tim Swallow on his website. He also says that “humor is abundant, the stories are unique, as are the ways they are told. Winner of the Jury Award for animation, Phoebe Jane Hart’s Bug Diner may well be the funniest film we’ve seen in over 20 years of working with short films.” That’s quite a recommendation!

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