Movie Review ~ Queen Bees

The Facts:

Synopsis: Helen is an independent widow who moves into the Pine Grove Senior Community and discovers it’s just like high school – full of cliques and flirtatious suitors.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Elizabeth Mitchell, Matthew Barnes, Christopher Lloyd, French Stewart, Alec Mapa

Director: Michael Lembeck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I normally wouldn’t mention this because it has little to do with the movie proper, but when I fired up the online screener for Queen Bees I noticed that the file was titled At Last.  Having recently received the wrong link for another movie I paused, wondering if the same thing had happened again.  Deciding to forge ahead to see what I might have received instead, the mystery deepened as the movie began with the title Never Too Late.  What was going on?  Now I was really confused.  At least Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn is one of the first things we see once the film actually begins so I was able to relax and know a mistake wasn’t made in the screening factory.  However, the triple title snafu proved a harbinger of just how much Queen Bees can’t decide what type of film it wants to be.

Still regal as she approaches her 90th year, Burstyn (Pieces of a Woman) seems to always be game for trying out different genres and colorful characters and cantankerous Helen is no different.  Continuing to live alone in her house though her concerned daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell, The Purge: Election Year) would rather she sell it and move to a nearby retirement community, she finally agrees to a month’s stay at Pine Grove Senior Community after a fire causes damage to her kitchen.  {Side note: what kind of senior residential community just allows for an extended stay in a furnished unit? Aren’t we always hearing in films how precious these properties are?} Owly and not happy about being displaced from her home, at first Helen doesn’t bother getting to know people around Pine Grove but after some encouragement from her adult grandson of indeterminate age (Matthew Barnes) she forms a friendship with the ladies in her bridge group.

Well, almost all the ladies.  Known as the Queen Bees (“the ‘B’ stands for”…you know the drill) by the other residents, the women sit where they want and rule the roost around Pine Grove.  In actuality, it’s Janet (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who is the chief mean girl with Sally (Loretta Devine, Urban Legend) and Margot (Ann-Margret, Kaye Ballard – The Show Goes On) mostly her silent followers.  Helen’s arrival inspires Sally and Margot to be more vocal toward Janet, driving a wedge between their once-tight bond.  Out for revenge, Janet makes several nasty moves to keep her status, which has a cascading effect on Helen’s relationship with her family and a new man (James Caan, The Gambler) that’s been successfully wooing her with his charm.

Let’s start with the good.  You can hardly ask for a better cast to carry this old folks comedy with jokes far creakier than the septuagenarians (and upward!) who are telling them.  Burstyn manages to bring some depth to the screenplay from Donald Martin and Harrison Powell which often comes off like a television movie of the week instead of one intended for a larger audience.  That might make sense considering Martin’s history of writing Hallmark movies and director Michael Lembeck working almost exclusively in television sitcoms with only the occasionally feature film on his resume. It’s no great acting exercise for Burstyn at the end of the day but you can see she’s not phoning it in, either.

I wish I could say the same for Caan.  Obviously dealing with some back issues (you can see a rigid brace holding upright), Caan looks uncomfortable and not just because of any lumbago that might be flaring up.  To be fair, he’s often struggled with playing second banana to strong women and with this movie already being light as a feather you can hardly blame the guy for swinging by to say his lines and pick up his check.  As always, Devine is a riot when she wants to be but can turn on a dime to pull at your heartstrings and if anything, Queen Bees just proves again we don’t have enough Ann-Margret in our lives.  Her tender relationship with Christopher Lloyd’s character suffering from dementia is unexpectedly heartbreaking.  It more than makes up for sticking Lloyd (Nobody) in a stunningly bad, on purpose, toupee.  Though I love Curtin, she’s always come off as a solid television actress to me and I think she makes the most out of an unrelentingly mean character.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how truly terrible French Stewart is as the director of the senior center.  How we allowed him to become a TV star back in the day (co-starring with Curtin on 3rd Rock from the Sun) is something we all have to live with.

It’s obvious the movie has gone through some significant editing to get it to where it is now and that gives it a bit of a gangly energy, never able to sit with a theme or emotion for too long.  One moment, it’s a drama about Burstyn struggling to come to terms with moving on from her perceived independence, the next it’s a comedy involving pot smoking grandmas, then we have your expected cancer diagnosis, but wait, we’re back to more adventures of the old ladies foiling a purse thief.  Somewhere, there’s a through line that would indicate some steady plot that focuses on Burstyn’s story or is more aware of sharing the wealth, but in the end only a few loose ends feel tied off appropriately.

The ups and downs of Queen Bees can be distracting at times, but I have to tell you, I don’t regret watching it for one second.  These are fine performers and good acting is good acting – I’d take an up-for-anything Ellen Burstyn performance in a middling comedy way before I’d sign up for another Adam Sandler mess, that’s for sure.  For me, it’s nice to have something I can recommend to my mom and her friends that won’t give me pause – and that’s not a dig at the movie…or my mom’s taste in movies.

Movie Review ~ In the Heights

The Facts:

Synopsis: Lights up on Washington Heights, a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big.

Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  It’s been good to get out of the house and see several movies in the theaters these past weeks.  I didn’t think I’d be able to say that as recently as a few months ago but the experience has been a welcoming one.  As much as I love going to the movies and the feeling of getting the rush of excitement as the lights go down before any expectations can be met or missed, some small part of me aches for the moments of magic that are rarely found amidst the CGI created worlds of fiction.  I used to chalk it up to childhood nostalgia for films of my youth setting an unrealistic bar no modern film could ever hope to meet, but every now and then a movie, a performance, a scene, a look, just sends this wave of, and forgive me if this is schmaltzy, serenity over me and I recognize it as a familiar emotion I felt when I was much younger. 

The film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical In the Heights was not the first movie I saw in theaters since they reopened and after I was fully vaccinated.  It was not a stage show I was a fan of and my coolness toward it was a chief reason I avoided Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next show, Hamilton (ever heard of it?), believing I’d again leave the theater unaffected after the massive hype. (Of course, like the rest of the world I’m a Hamil-fan)  Also, I’ll be totally honest and say that Miranda himself, pure genius and goodhearted soul though he is, had failed to win me over after all the years of his shameless mugging at awards shows.  As a fan of musicals and, of course, film musicals I was looking forward to In the Heights but it wasn’t one I was super busting down the theater door to get to.  So how is it that the feeling I described above, the movie magic moment, hit me like a ton of bricks before anyone had spoken a word?

Yes, it’s true.  The moment the Warner Brothers logo came onscreen and we see a first glimpse of NY’s Washington Heights neighborhood through the lens of cinematographer Alice Brooks (Jem and the Holograms), I felt my face flush and eyes tingle with the threat of, could it be?, actual tears.  My shoulders relaxed down and my stomach flipped over.  What exactly was happening here?  While I can attribute some of my emotions to just being a big softie in general (don’t spread that around), there was something almost imperceptibly moving about the film in its simple opening moments. That feeling remained for the rest of this captivating modern musical.  It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s joyous, and it’s a perfect film to see on the big screen if you can make it happen. 

Taking over the role Miranda created and played onstage, Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) is Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega in an ordinary neighborhood of Washington Heights with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and restoring the bar his father owned before immigrating to the U.S.  With no immediate family ties to keep him there, all he worries about is the elderly woman who raised him, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, The Place Beyond the Pines), and his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Vampires vs. the Bronx) who lives with his troubled father (an almost unrecognizable Marc Anthony).  Just as he makes up his mind to head back to the D.R. and bring the two with him, the chance of a relationship with hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) whom he loved from afar for years puts all of that into question.

Over the course of several days, Usnavi is the nucleus around which numerous characters and stories circle.  We don’t see the world of Washington Heights totally through his eyes but he is the driving force of the piece, and his storyline is pivotal in the lives of many of his neighbors and close friends.  Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of the proprietor of a family-run cab company, has returned home from her first year at an Ivy League college with doubts on returning. As she rekindles a romance with Benny (Corey Hawkins, BlacKkKlansman) an employee of her father’s, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector) tries to persuade his child to seize the opportunity she has been afforded through her hard work and his sacrifice.  The high cost of rent has forced salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her business to another borough, upsetting her regular clientele.  With dreams of something more than working in a salon, Vanessa is hoping to secure an apartment closer to Manhattan where she can pursue her passion in fashion design, but her current address is making this hard to achieve.

When a winning lottery ticket is sold at Usnavi’s bodega with a payout of $96,000, it changes and challenges the dreams of many of the neighborhood residents right about the time a massive blackout hits their part of the city, plunging their nights into total darkness and asking them to survive in the sweltering heat.  As the temperature rises, so do the stakes for every kind of relationship that exists in the close-knit neighborhood, leading to a cathartic finale which feels like the breath of fresh air type of release we all could use right about now.  Utilizing newly implemented bookends created for the film was a wise choice by screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the original musical) because onstage it’s easy to just hit the audience with a wall of music right away.  Opting to ease into it instead reinforces Usnavi’s role as the narrator and removes him having to speak directly to the camera which robs some of the realism that helps propel the movie forward emotionally.

Oh, the music.  I forgot to mention the music.  I’m almost convinced that In the Heights would work just as well with the music removed (not that I’d want that) but the music is a whole other piece to dissect that I won’t delve as deep into.  I will say that Miranda had to trim or remove a number of songs and that frees the movie to open up more and thereby showcase the stronger pieces and voices.  Like onstage, the number “96,000” is an absolute showstopper and I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences in the theater or at home applaud when it’s over.  Set at a local pool (filmed on location at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights) it’s intricately choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical with so much energy emanating from the screen I swear I was nearly levitating in my seat by the time it was over.

Even more than the staging, it’s one of the best sung films musicals I’ve seen in quite some time.  Barrera and Grace have fantastic voices and are pitch perfect in the acting department as well, same goes for Hawkins and the always under-utilized Smits who is so good they combined two roles in the stage musical to create this one for him.  The original Mimi in the Broadway cast of RENT, Rubin-Vega regrettably doesn’t show up in film much but is a ball of fire as the gossipy hairdresser and I loved that Hudes changed her relationship with her business partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) and also made them romantically involved.  You have to wait a bit for Rubin-Vega to get her moment in the spotlight due to some rearrangement of material but it’s worth it when it arrives.

The biggest names to remember associated with the movie version of In the Heights are Ramos and Merediz.  Not only are they going to nab Oscar nominations for their work but Merediz is going to be fighting off other nominees to claim her Best Supporting Actress award for the next six months.  As the kindly “abuela” to all the neighborhood in one way or another, Merediz is the only Broadway actor to recreate their role onscreen and it’s not hard to see why.  The role is played to perfection and her big number, “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” is not only beautifully staged by director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) but performed with the kind of raw emotion and honesty that is next to impossible to capture without adornment on film.  For his efforts, Ramos is delivering the kind of star making performance that comes along rarely in film, perhaps he learned a trick or two from working with Lady Gaga on A Star is Born.   It only takes a few frames of film to understand he possesses the charisma and natural talent to go a long way past the highs In the Heights will surely take him.

Like the stage show, the film does feel overly episodic at times and storylines are picked up and dropped seemingly at random, but that’s a small nitpick in what is generally a free-flowing movie that doesn’t feel like it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours.  And I suppose I could mention that while it is lovely to look at in the moment, a song that defies the law of gravity feels a tad out of place and overly effects-laden when the rest of the film is largely grounded in the realism of the neighborhood…albeit with a little magic thrown in here and there. 

Delayed from its original release date of June 2020, Warner Brothers could have released this one at any time during the past year, but they decided to wait until the time was right…and the time is absolutely right for In the Heights to make its debut.  With the country experiencing a heatwave and the chill of the air-conditioned movie theaters beckoning (it will also be available on HBOMax), I can see In the Heights being a favored destination for many over the coming weeks.  Do yourself a favor, a kindness even, and see it on the big screen.

Movie Review ~ Awake

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons. 

Streaming Review ~ Loki (Episodes 1 & 2)


The Facts:

Synopsis: After stealing the Tesseract during the events of Avengers: Endgame, an alternate version of Loki is brought to the mysterious Time Variance Authority who give Loki a choice: face being deleted from existence due to being a “time variant” or help fix the timeline and stop a greater threat.

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku, Richard E. Grant, Sasha Lane

Director: Kate Herron

Running Length: ~50 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Can you believe it’s been nearly two years since the last Marvel film was released in theaters?  It’s true, not since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home have we seen one of our favorite superheroes on the big screen.  Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have missed out on their chance to see Black Widow in theaters this past year when it was delayed due to the pandemic, but in 2021 we’ll make up for lost time as that film is released along with a whopping three others, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. It hasn’t been too quiet in Marvel’s world, though. We’ve all had our fair share of consolation prizes in not one, but two well-received television series that have premiered on Disney+. 

The streaming service watched the quirky WandaVision become a bona fide hit with its tonal differences from the previous films.  It had its moments where it reared its more Marvel-y moments but by and large this felt like a self-contained bit of creative freedom that wouldn’t have been possible outside of Disney’s weekly platform release structure.  This was followed fairly quickly with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier mere weeks after WandaVision concluded its 9-episode run.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s 6-episodes, by comparison, were much more like the traditional Marvel movie.  Not that that was an all-together bad thing.  Allowing supporting player Anthony Mackie (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) to rise to leading man status was welcome and if Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya) didn’t do as much to forward his character as I would have liked, the duo proved to be a smart pairing.

Now comes Loki, the third Marvel series to debut on Disney+ and it appears to be the most ambitious one to date.  But wait, you may be asking, didn’t Loki, you know, perish in Avengers: Endgame?  Well, that’s where the storytellers in the big Marvel warehouse have worked some magic and come up with an interesting way to keep Loki alive, but as a “variant” of himself.  In fact, according to the Time Variance Authority (TVA), there could be multiple timelines that we follow if we aren’t careful and that’s why they are there, to help police the master timeline and ensure it is proceeding as intended. 

When he steals the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive) upends the timeline and sets into motion a series of events that puts him in front of Ravonna Lexus Renslaye (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, A Wrinkle in Time) from the TVA who prefers that he be “reset”, i.e. zapped, for his infraction.  She’s persuaded by TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson, Bliss) to release Loki to his watch because he needs the trickster’s help in solving a mystery currently confounding the TVA.  Apparently, someone has been jumping through timelines and getting rid of any TVA security detail that comes looking for them.  Agreeing to help Mobius but planning his own escape by infiltrating the TVA from within, Loki becomes an unlikely ally to combat a most unexpected villain.

Above and beyond the production design for the series which has a retro vibe from the late 60’s/early 70’s mixed with a dash of steampunk (not the annoying kind), there’s a boldness to Loki that feels like another step forward for Marvel where their television endeavors are concerned.  Further, it’s totally different than WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, showing that Marvel is having fun experimenting with their style as well as their substance.  Director Kate Herron keeps the vibe fresh and fun, allowing Hiddleston free range to let his Loki grow in stature without making the villain too unlikable.  It’s also a great showing for Wilson, who takes the role just seriously enough to be convincing but not overtly dry.

Time-travel shows can be a tough sell because it’s easy to play fast and loose with the rules.  At times during the first two episodes there are some head-scratching moments where the action can be tough to track, but that is what the rewind button is for.  Still, I wouldn’t want to keep having to think too terribly hard over the remaining four episodes about how the timelines merge together but trust that it will all line up by the finale.  Loki proves that Marvel is running a solid three for three.  Still to come in 2021 is an animated series (What If…?) and two more live-action entries, Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye.  Based on the track record so far, the bar is set awfully high for what’s next.      

Tribeca 2021 Preview – Tribeca at Home

If you’re like me, you’ve simply read about the Tribeca Film Festival from year to year and thought “one day, I’ll go” but the logistics of scheduling yourself for the length of the festival is quite the commitment.  Luckily, the organizers of the fest have found a way to bring Tribeca out of Lower Manhattan out to the communities around the country by introducing Tribeca at Home.  While you may be missing the fun atmosphere that comes with attending a film festival and being in the room when a movie screens for the first time, you can be one of the first audiences to see a title before it’s released or finds a distributor.  Hey, I’ve been to film festivals and seen very good films that haven NEVER come out in the U.S. so…you might get lucky and see a hidden gem that stays hidden!

The final category to examine is brand new this year: Tribeca at Home.  Like many film fests did this year, Tribeca will stream a number of films through their portal so audiences can watch the movies on their computer or compatible devices on their television.  (Side note: buy a Roku, they have every app for every service you could want…screening life is so much easier now!)

Let’s take a look the films I am going to make some time for over the next few weeks.  Surprisingly, we’ll start with several shorts that aren’t part of the other group but do show up in the online-only option.

Almost a Year, directed by Jamieson Baker

Face it, over the next several years the pandemic is going to play a key role in a heaping helping of documentaries, plays, TV shows, movies, and, yes, shorts.  In Jamieson Baker’s Almost a Year, we watch the lives of three New Yorkers over time and witness how they can change with little notice.  This one is produced by Katie Holmes, which is a key reason I have this on my list.  Famous names also attracted me to David, directed and written by Zach Woods and starring Will Ferrell.  The plot doesn’t say much but with a comedian creating the short and Ferrell as the star, it’s not one you can easily skip.  Rounding a sharp turn of tone is Last Meal, from writer/director Daniel Principe, a documentary about the final meals of death row inmates.  Likely one that will be hard to watch, it’s another subject that feels like it could be of some importance later in the year and I’m interested to see how Principe captures this important event. It took 10 years for Caleb Slain’s surreal musical Enough, to make it to the screen and after all that time I’m intrigued to see how it all comes together. There’s a good chance that Agazi Desta’s Waves, could be a sleeper hit if my gut is leading me in the right direction.  A Black, deaf teen heads to the barber shop before prom night but gets paired with the wrong barber – sounds excellent.

David, written and directed by Zach Woods

Digging deeper into the at-home offerings, viewers have a wide range of selections at their fingertips.  From biopics to road-trip comedies to horror to documentaries – even if you wanted to try out just one film, I know you’ll be able to find one title that will spike your curiosity.

Glob Lessons, directed by Nicole Rodenburg

For instance, I’m not all that familiar with the Britpop sounds of the 90’s so Nick Moran’s Creation Stories might not be first on my list, but the appealing cast and nostalgia for the era have absolutely moved this one into a high position on my “to see” list.  As someone that toured through the Midwest with one other person doing a children’s show, Nicole Rodenburg’s Glob Lessons which follows pretty much the same plot is an absolute must in my book.  I also felt an instant attraction to a film like Peace by Chocolate, with its idyllic (or maybe is it familiar) sounding story of a son of Syrian immigrants being torn between honoring his family and following his own dreams. The pandemic theme rears up again in the road trip dramedy No Plan A, directed by Linda G. Mills, and Venus as a Boy, written and directed by Ty Hodges could be a refreshing take on the California/New York mismatched lovers storyline we’ve seen a million times over.

No Running, directed by Delmar Washington

It’s a good thing these next five titles are available in your home because I’m not sure I’d want to be watching them in a dark theater and then have to drive home to a dark house.  Featuring a blind former Olympic hopeful trapped in a secluded house with a trio of criminals and only a third-party app to help her “see” the danger, Randall Okita’s See For Me, looks freaky as all get-out and if this doesn’t land at IFC Midnight I’ll be shocked.  Speaking of IFCMidnight, they’re already represented here with Settlers, directed and written by Wyatt Rockefeller, and set on Mars.  Like every film set on Mars…something terrible happens.  Horror loves a good scary nun film so now we have Agnes to keep us up at night. Directed by Mickey Reece, it concerns two priests who arrive at a convent to determine if one of the nuns is indeed possessed by a cruel demon and finding that it’s another nun they need to worry about instead. If you’re going to take a chance on something, I’d suggest thinking about Delmar Washington’s No Running, which has the makings of a paranoid thriller with supernatural elements to it.  There’s a little bit of a Get Out vibe with a M. Night Shyamalan essence to it. I’m also curious about Asking For It, written and directed by Eamon O’Rourke. Featuring names like Kiersey Clemons, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexandra Shipp, Ezra Miller, Radha Mitchell, Gabourey Sidibe, and Luke Hemsworth and with a plot centered on revenge and frat boy comeuppance, it could be a sly winner.

See For Me, directed by Randall Okita

Right now, I’m only tracking two documentaries in this at-home space but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your own investigation to see if there are others that fit into your tastes better.  As an out and proud MN, I know my RuPaul’s Drag Race stars and of course had a “I remember her when” moment when Bebe Zahara Benet won the first season of the show in 2009.  Now, Emily Branham’s Being BeBe, charts the drag queen’s journey from being the first winner when the show was still finding its feet to now when life has forced certain concessions to be made.  I’m also looking forward to learning more about Will Vinton, the “Father of Claymation” in ClayDream, directed and written by Marq Evans. 

Claydream, written and directed by Marq Evans

So many movies – never enough time to see them all but hopefully over the last three posts you’ve gotten a good taste of what Tribeca has to offer.  Look these titles up, buy your tickets, support this programming because this is a well balanced and diverse line-up.  Keep checking back here for my reviews – I’ll be posting them shortly after the films have premiered officially in person or virtually.

Tribeca 2021 Preview – Shorts

Now if you have read my blog on a regular basis, you know that I love a good short.  Live Action Short, Documentary Short, Animated Short, Deck Short (finally, they’re in season!), and so this list of films was a lot of fun to look over and see what the possibilities were!  Pardon my Minnesotan, but what a smorgasbord!  A total of 46 films were selected from 20 different countries and you can already see it showcases the innovation that is taking place in media around the globe.

Taking a page out of the Oscars, I’ll break these down into three groups.  Documentary, Live Action (Narrative), and Animation.

Documentary

If you’re in NYC, I’m jealous because you might get the chance to see the subjects of Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, directed by Rob Roth.  The iconic rock band will be performing in concert as part of the festival programming in support of their documentary about traveling to Havana to perform for the first time.  As a longtime fan, this is top on my list.  William A. Kirkley’s Radical Love also looks appealing, delving into the lives of Michael and Eleanora Kennedy, legal eagles who counted a number of those going against the political grain in the 1960s as clients.  Then there’s Coded, directed by Ryan White which uncovers the legacy of J.C. Leyendecker, an illustrator of carefully designed ads that would pave the way for more overt marketing toward the LGBTQ+ community.

Blondie: Vivir En La Habana, directed by Rob Roth

Lamar Bailey Karamañites pays tribute to Miss Panama, which is about far more than winning a crown.  National kata karate champion Mahiro Takano faces her greatest challenge in James Latimer’s Kata, and keep your eyes out for The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot which I have a feeling might be the type of documentary short to stick around come awards season.  Proudfoot’s profile of Lucy Harris, the Olympic basketball player most of us have never heard of sounds like just the inspiring story audiences eat up. Finally, I’ll be interested to the dynamics of two filmmakers forced to live together in How to Fall in Love in a Pandemic, directed and produced by Michael-David McKernan.

Kata, directed by James Latimer

Live Action

Here’s where you really can get adventurous because with these live action shorts, you just never know what you’re going to get.  The best thing about your choices?  If you don’t care for them, they’ll be over pretty quickly.  So if you aren’t feeling the family drama of Peninsula, directed and written by Fiona McKenzie, you could switch things up with the light zombie apocalypse comedy The Last Marriage, directed by Gustav Egerstedt & Johan Tappert.  If The Cocktail Party is any indication, I’m guessing writer/director Jessica Sanders knows how to throw a good shindig, what with its unforeseen shift into a martial arts action film. Judging by the logline for Liza Anonymous, directed by Aubrey Smyth, there’s going to be ample room for its star to make several shifts of her own during the short as she changes characters based on what support group she is attending.

Liza Anonymous, directed by Aubrey Smyth

There are at least two different shorts where dance plays a central role.  First up is Stephanie Bollag’s Esther In Wonderland, finding a married Hasidic woman drawn to the freedom she feels through hip hop and breakdance.  In Tj O’Grady Peyton’s Silence, a man at a crossroads happens upon a young ballet dancer in an abandoned building.  I’m not sure if that constitutes a “meet cute” but there’s definitely one in The Angler, directed by David Darg. I mean, when you have a fisherman who gets his line tangled with a single mother…that’s straying into some fairly cute rom com territory, right?  I suppose Girl With a Thermal Gun, directed and written by Rongfei Guo could also fall into this “meet cute” area.  Any man that has fantasies about a woman that takes his temperature can’t be a Mr. Wrong, right?

GraceLand, written and directed by Bonnie Discepolo

The final four shorts to keep watch for are a bit of a jumbled bunch but I think will be worth seeking out if you can find the time. A Syrian FBI informant is put into a desperate situation in No Longer Suitable For Use, directed and written by Julian Joslin. This is another title I could see being an early one to play the long game on its road to the Oscar ceremony.  Something about the plot seems on target to me.  I think the relationship between a bumbling carjacker and his kindly victim in Jon Huertas’s Two Jacked, sounds like twisted fun.  What else sounds fun right about now?  The chance to hear some Elvis in early June, courtesy of writer/director Bonnie Discepolo’s GraceLand, starring the great Anna Camp as a mother to a daughter that thinks she is the reincarnation of The King.  Lastly, the high-school dropout planning to rob her drug dealer in Molly Robber, directed and written by Austin Hall and Zach Visvikis gives the film the whiff of a tightly wound crime nugget and I’m more than ready for it. 

Animation

Simply by process of elimination as I went through the list, I found that I wasn’t left with a lot of animated titles, though that could change as the festival kicks off and I hear the good buzz about certain premieres.  For now, I’m setting my sights first and foremost on Namoo from writer/director Erick Oh.  Nominated for an Oscar just this past year for his captivating short Opera, Oh is back with this poem brought to life as a tribute to his grandfather.  Could Oh nab a nom two years running?

Namoo written and directed by Erick Oh

Even though I’m slightly wary of owls (ok, they freak me out), I’ll make an exception for the baby owl in Try to Fly, who, when inexplicably pushed from her nest, experiences an entire life flash before her eyes. For a darker tale, we turn to director Jeff Sher’s Dirty Little Secret, a retelling of The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 through song and animation.  How about even darker?  You got it!  I also have Death and the Lady, directed, written, and produced by Geoff Bailey & Lucy Struever on my list.  This one has Death itself visiting an elderly woman and her faithful canine companion on a rainy evening.   Perhaps ending things with Blush, written and directed by Joe Mateo will send you out on a lighter note.  This looks like a just lovely animated film following an astronaut crash landing on a barren planet…and the visitor that soon arrives.

Blush, written and directed by Joe Mateo

You aren’t tired after the Feature Film category, are you?  We still have Tribeca at Home to explore!

Tribeca 2021 Preview – Feature Film

Originally founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, and Craig Hatkoff to kickstart the once-thriving neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, the Tribeca Film Festival has grown year after year into a multi-week event that’s about more than just movies.  While 2021’s fest will be slightly scaled back due to more cautiously optimistic panning at the outset, there’s still plenty to keep people busy both in NY and virtually June 9 – 20.

To mark the high achievement of their 20th year holding the festival, the organizers of Tribeca have pulled together a massive list of titles for their feature film division across a wide spectrum.  Over 3,000 films were submitted, and the final list was (at the time of this writing) down to 66, with some holdovers from the postposed 2020 festival. It’s nice to read in the press notes for the festival that more than 60% of the films this year are directed by women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ filmmakers, voices from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in film.  Giving them a platform like this where their movie could gain wider distribution if it plays well is just the thing that keeps our film community advancing in the right direction. 

For this special year, Tribeca is going the extra mile with something completely new, a community screening program in all five boroughs of NYC in indoor and outdoor spaces.  Great effort has obviously been made to accommodate everyone no matter where the comfort level is as we all slowly emerge from our year in lockdown.

The three main lineups that I’m following and will be previewing for you are Feature Film, Shorts, and Virtual and while this won’t be representative of all the titles available at the fest (check out Tribeca’s website for all the info on titles and tickets) it will give you an idea of how to navigate the options open to you.

Like I said above, this bucket covers a wide range of film and film styles and a number of these will only be available to screen if you attend the fest in person.  Check the website for full details as screenings through Tribeca at Home may be added but if something piques your interest, do what I do and keep a notebook handy so you can make sure to watch for it in the future.

Any time I am faced with a long list of movies to choose from I tend to always look for two categories first, documentary and horror/thrillers. These are often the films that can emerge from festivals with a warm glow of buzz surrounding them, and I’m already hearing good things about Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the late superstar chef Anthony Bourdain.  Neville is an Oscar winning documentarian and Bourdain, though a complicated man in life and death, is a dynamic screen presence so expect this one to hit big.  On my radar is also Dan Chen’s documentary Accepted, concerning an elite prep school with a solid reputation that crumbles after a NY Times article shatters public perception.  

a-ha the Movie, directed and written by Thomas Robsahm

If you like celebrity documentaries, there are three that I think might be fun ones to get in line for. a-ha the Movie charts the career of the Norwegian synth-pop band who had several massive hits and even landed a coveted James Bond theme song.  The wild life of a funk legend and music icon is explored in Sacha Jenkin’s BITCHIN’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James and Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, from director Laura Fairrie, goes between the pages of the life of the glamorous novelist of lusty fiction

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story from director Laura Fairrie

Fans of the arts will get their cups filled with documentaries on world-famous choreographer Alvin Ailey (Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot) and Oscar-winning actress Rita Moreno (Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera) while lovers of the written word should consider checking out selections such as Suzanne Joe Kai’s Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres focused on the Rolling Stone writer and editor and Vivian Kleiman’s No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, following five LGBTQ+ comic book artists as they rise from obscurity to international fame.

Finally, there are three that might wind up being sleeper hits based on their content and appeal to crowds on the ground.  The Scars of Ali Boulala, directed by Max Eriksson introduces us to Swedish skateboarding prodigy Ali Boulala “through the DIY videos and fast-paced lifestyle of his coming-of-age in the ’90s skating scene.” The trailer for CJ Hunt’s The Neutral Ground sold me on it, though I already know I’ll be wincing at some of the conversations he’ll have as the comedian explores the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, leading to a deeper look into the history of the Confederacy. Evan Mascagni’s Building a Bridge feels like a film with a message we could all use right now, profiling a NY priest attempting to bring the Catholic Church and LGBTQ+ community together.

Ultrasound, directed by Rob Schroeder

Documentary not your thing?  What about something a little more on the scary/nervy side of the aisle?

Shapeless, directed by Samantha Aldana

I’m keeping an eye on Shapeless, directed by Samantha Aldana.  Written by a husband-and-wife team that also star, this looks like a scary little bit of body horror using an eating disorder as a jumping off point. Director/writer Jim Cummings is building a nice following with his quirky and dark films and The Beta Test, about a Hollywood talent agent that lives to regret a steamy sexual encounter appears to be another feather in his cap.  The preview reveals more of a comedic slant but Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within, could be winning Agatha Christie-esque thriller…plus it has a great cast. I’m also listening closely for early word on the creepy Ultrasound, directed by Rob Schroeder, revenge thriller Catch the Fair One, written and directed Josef Kubota Wladyka and executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, and We Need To Do Something, directed by Sean King O’Grady, about a family weathering the aftermath of a tornado unaware something worse is out to get them.

Werewolves Within, directed by Josh Ruben

Bridging the gap between horror and drama are films like God’s Waiting Room, from writer/director Tyler Riggs about dangerous lives intersecting in Florida and director Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice featuring Isabel Fuhrman as a college freshman who becomes obsessed with achieving top status on her university’s rowing team.  Count on hearing about Amber Sealey’s No Man of God in some form after Tribeca concludes.  Not only is it another film about Ted Bundy (this time about his conversations with FBI investigator Bill Hagmaier) but because it stars Elijah Wood.

God’s Waiting Room, written and directed by Tyler Riggs

If you’re looking for stars, check out the cast list for With/In: Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Sanaa Lathan, Rebecca Hall, Rosie Perez, Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola, Debra Winger, Arliss Howard, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Gina Gershon – just some of the names of the writer/directors/stars who made short films on their iPhones during last year’s quarantine, tasked with turning their lockdown into something freeing.  That’s followed up with another pandemic-filmed, cameo-laden effort, How It Ends, directed and written by Daryl Wein & Zoe Lister-Jones, but this one has a more comedic tale to tell. Another feature in a similar vein but told entirely through video calls and digital diaries detailing the ups and downs of lockdown is as of yet, directed by Chanel James & Taylor Garron.

as of yet, directed by Chanel James & Taylor Garron

The remaining titles all focus on the human relationships and the funny/sad/dramatic/happy ways they shape our daily lives. In Mark, Mary & Some Other People, writer/director Hannah Marks follows two newlyweds through some unexpected turbulence, revealing more truths than they had originally known about each other.  Director Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me, invites us along on an awkward birthday weekend for Pete and his college crew. The Columbus, OH music scene and a tricky mentorship is the setting for Ori Segev & Noah Dixon’s Poser. Will audiences hail the Queen of Glory, directed and written by Nana Mensah with central character Sarah, a Ghanaian American reevaluating her future plans when a tragedy at home shifts her priorities?

Wild Men (Vildmænd), directed by Thomas Daneskov

Travel the world a bit and venture toward Ayten Amin’s Souad, featuring an Egyptian university student struggling with the duality of her traditional family life and more free-spirited peers – which sounds similar in theme to Geeta Malik’s India Sweets and Spices. Hear the call of the Wild Men (Vildmænd), in Thomas Daneskov’s Norwegian comedy about a man who seeks purpose by emulating a strange historical character.  Star Essie Davis has been on the cusp of a breakout role for several years now, could The Justice of Bunny King, directed by Gaysorn Thavat, help her crash through as a woman attempting to gain back her estranged children?  Writer/director Ziyang Zhou travels to a dinosaur theme park in the Inner Mongolian desert for his drama Wu hai and wine is on the menu for the Australian entry Blind Ambition, directed by Robert Coe following four Zimbabwean men who form their country’s first Wine Tasting Olympics team.

Perfume de Gardenias, directed by Macha Colón

Three final films to pay attention to would be Oscar-nominee Vanessa Kirby’s newest film, Italian Studies, directed and written by Adam Leon.  I don’t know much about this one, but it sounds like something an indie distributor (or Netflix) would like to get their hands on. I’m also encouraged by the press materials for Macha Colón’s Perfume de Gardenias concerning an elderly Colombian woman’s talent for creating the perfect funeral…and the lengths to which the town biddies will exploit it.  Finally, I must confess that I’ve already seen 12 Mighty Orphans, directed by Ty Roberts, and it’s very good.  It’s the true story of the Depression-era football team the Mighty Mites, made up of players from a Fort Worth orphanage.  This one will sneak up on you.

So, you see…lots to choose from and we haven’t even gotten to the Shorts or the Tribeca At Home options even!  Have you bought your pass yet??

SpaceCamp (The Movie) Turns 35

The Facts:

Synopsis: To be an astronaut is the dream of thousands of young people around the world. It is this dream that leads a diverse group of young Americans to enroll in Space Camp for the summer, totally unsuspecting that their “Space Play” will turn into a real mission aboard a Space Shuttle.

Stars: Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, Joaquin Phoenix, Larry B. Scott, Tate Donovan, Tom Skerritt, Terry O’Quinn

Director: Harry Winer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Like many kids growing up in the 1980s that hadn’t hit puberty yet, there were two things that I was constantly thinking about: space and movies about space.  I wasn’t quite into the physics and science involved with the exploration of space, but the possibility of it all was of great interest to me and I definitely fell asleep on more than one occasion thinking about what it would be like to achieve liftoff from Earth on the Space Shuttle.  My view of outer space had been molded by science fiction that was clearly meant as entertainment but also in news reports about the evolving space program that was making continued strides forward with renewed public energy after a period of dormancy.  It just all stimulated my young mind, and I’d jump at every chance I’d get to soak up knowledge, whether at our local Science Museum of MN, in an episode of NOVA airing on PBS, or, yes, even cracking open a textbook or two in school.

The epitome of all knowledge regarding space for a child of the ‘80s was SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama and while I never attended, oh boy did I try to persuade my parents to make it happen.  By the time it was my turn to venture out to test the waters of overnight camp, I was a tad too young to make the journey that far south and so my summer experience was limited to the YMCA camps in the (admittedly gorgeous) North Woods of MN.  It was actually at one of these camps a few years later that I learned a movie about SpaceCamp was made and let me tell you, time practically stood still for my remaining stay until I could get home and make it to my local video store to claim my VHS copy and see what I had been missing.

I couldn’t have known then when I saw SpaceCamp for the first time all the circumstances that surrounded the film which contributed to its poor reception, dooming its scheduled summer release ever since that fateful day on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger experienced its fatal accident 73 seconds into its journey.  Killing all seven crew members aboard, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the launch had been broadcast on television as many had been before, so the world got a real time view of the disaster.  Along with people remembering where they were the day Kennedy was shot and during 9/11, I remember being in school and hearing an announcement over our PA system about the incident.  Our teacher tried to offer some explanation for our first-grade hearts and minds to take in but how do you explain that to such young souls?

With a finished film about a crew of young kids accidentally blasted into space and put into numerous scenes of peril, ABC Motion Pictures was left with a huge dilemma of what to do with their movie.  At a cost of 18 million dollars to produce and a plum June release date, it wasn’t something they could just write off; but could they still release a film that, while not entirely similar, had overlapping themes with the Challenger accident?  Unlike today where a streaming service may have stepped in to offer a smaller tiered release, the studio had little option but to release it and, as expected, the film was shunned by critics and audiences who felt it infringed upon the mourning the country was still experiencing.  Judging the film by that criteria isn’t very fair because it was wrapped long before the seven brave souls boarded the Challenger that January morning.  That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of reason to take SpaceCamp to task for its numerous implausibilities and clichéd dialogue and over time the film has lived and died in the public eye on its own merit.  The journey out from under that shadow wasn’t easy, though.

How is the movie, celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2021, you may ask?  Though it enjoyed many multiple night stays in my home between 1987-1990, I hadn’t seen the film in probably a decade or more and it didn’t take long for the nostalgia of it all to kick in.  The movie wears its Reagan-era influences like a badge of honor with hairstyles, clothes, and soundtrack all turned up to 10.  Thankfully, the performances don’t follow the garish design or music choices and I was surprised by what a solid acting ensemble director Harry Winer put together. 

Aside from Kate Capshaw (Dreamscape) and Tom Skerritt (Steel Magnolias) as the requisite adults, there’s good work from Lea Thompson (JAWS 3-D), fresh off of Back to the Future as an ambitious go-getter, the late Kelly Preston (Twins) playing a free spirit that’s all glitter and glam, Revenge of the Nerds’ Larry B. Scott as a nerd that tends to fold under pressure, and Tate Donovan (Rocketman) appearing in his first role as the trust fund brat about to learn a lesson in working as team.  True, it’s a check list of types and personalities along with their expected hang-ups, but it’s a far cry from the clear equality by design method employed today. This group is supposedly matched at random and it looks that way. Yes, that’s a very young Joaquin Phoenix (here credited as Leaf Phoenix) as the junior member of the squad, long before he would win an Oscar for his own shoot-for-the-moon performance in Joker.

Chances are if you’ve read this far you know a little something about the plot of SpaceCamp, so I won’t go too much further into it, only to say that watching it now it’s pretty pointless to hold it to any kind of scientific fact checking.  We’ll overlook some patently deadly gaffes, like the young team wearing what appears to be astronaut/motorcycle helmets with face shields that are up for the entire blast off and other key moments of their unplanned voyage into space.  There is no mention of needing oxygen to breathe during their transition from the Earth into orbit…until they start to run out and need to make a daring connection with the space station, resulting in a tense space walk that has its own set of head shaking (as in “no”) sequences. The no-gravity scenes are kind of a hoot too, with some wires either evident or the actors doing their best to wave their bodies and arms from side to side to simulate the anti-gravity of space.  Let’s not also forget the entire reason they are in space is because a rogue robot that Phoenix befriends takes it upon itself to reprogram NASA’s computers to force the Space Shuttle into a launch or else the fuel tanks will explode.  Never mind that if the robot calculated wrong, he might have killed his human friend in the process of helping him reach the stars.

For how silly the entire business is, I don’t think you can watch the film (now or then) and not say that it isn’t captivating or successful in keeping your engagement for much of the duration.  This is owed to the cast taking the material seriously, not so serious it turns campy, but serious in that they don’t let their characters come off looking like goofballs for being invested in having the knowledge to navigate through a crisis.  Preston initially is introduced as wanting to be a “the first cosmic DJ” and Scott wants to open an intergalactic chain of restaurants.  That might get some chortles now but back in 1986…who knew what the future held the way things were headed?  Capshaw helps to keep everything grounded and for my money is the true MVP of the show.  Clearly the 107 minute adventure is obviously targeted at teens and Capshaw’s brittle teacher who hasn’t gotten her own shot at full-fledged astronaut isn’t intended to be the central figure, but when I watch it now, she leaves the biggest impression.  While she’s mostly Mrs. Steven Spielberg now, Capshaw was a reliably dependable actress in her day, and this is quite a good example of how warm she could be even when playing cold.

Over the last three decades since it played in theaters, SpaceCamp has found its way out of the gloom and doom it opened under back in the summer of 1986, but the memory of the Challenger is hard to shake off even now.  In the special features on the BluRay that was released several years back, both Thompson and director Winer speak about experiences they’ve had where fans of the movie have told them how seeing SpaceCamp served as the inspiration for their own journey into the field of science and that’s worth noting.  Even a cheesy teen sci-fi adventure that I can imagine was originally designed as little more than an advertisement for a NASA-affiliated summer camp can have an impact all these years later.  With its rather beautiful score by multiple Oscar winner John Williams (Jurassic Park), more than serviceable direction from Winer, and strong performances from its cast of seasoned veterans and newcomers, SpaceCamp might be held together by duct tape at times but it has weathered the last 35 years well.

Movie Review ~ Super Frenchie


The Facts:

Synopsis: From humble beginnings to top extreme athlete in his field, Matthias Giraud weighs his passion for skiing and BASE jumping against the grounding effects of raising a young family

Stars: Matthias Giraud

Director: Chase Ogden

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The propulsive energy that fuels the first 25 minutes of Super Frenchie is enough to both inspire you to get out and enjoy Mother Nature in all her glory while simultaneously shame you for watching the movie from the air-conditioned safety of your own home.  You won’t have to listen too close to hear echoes of the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo throughout, what with the awe-inspiring visuals captured by the filmmakers and the tense moments generated as fearless BASE jumper Matthias Giraud soars through the air from often dizzying heights.  Out of planes, off mountains, with skis, without skis, with clothes and without (hey, I said he was fearless), Giraud kept pushing the limits of his sport even knowing the inherent danger involved.

Director Chase Ogden has enough jaw-dropping material (with the assistance of Giraud’s valuable Go-Pro attached to his head) in the breathtaking opening of his film that it could easily have been a fine short film showcasing Giraud’s prowess as a risk taker.  No joke, I could have turned off the film after the shot of Giraud in mid-air looking back at the alpine cliff he just careened off as the snow cascades down and been content.  Yet the film is about more than just Giraud’s adventures in flight, it’s about him sticking his personal landing when he’s away from the rocky mountain highs and how an injury sustained on a perilous jump puts all of that into perspective.

It’s when this reality sets in that the film should be taking a dramatic turn for the better but instead winds up getting lost amongst the trees.  Mostly, this is because it’s hard to rationalize away a free spirit that claims to value family above all else who turns around and continues to take risks that could leave the people he loves in jeopardy.  At least, I find it hard to watch movies like this.  As understanding as the spouse, children, friends, or other immediate family can be, there’s a whiff of selfishness on top of the already present bravado which has a souring affect on the subject as a whole.  So as personable and camera-ready as Giraud is, it’s hard to remain engaged the more we see him choose one over the other.

This is especially strange because Giraud makes a point to highlight his upbringing and the strained relationship he had with his own family, which may come a shock to his mother who, as interviewed, seems to think they get a long great.  If his growing up was hard because of absenteeism, how is what he’s doing any different?  Ogden does circle back nicely within the trim running time to show Giraud triumphing over an obstacle which ends the movie on a high note, but did it come at a price that required more than physical therapy and time away from the slopes? 

As a representation of one of the talented BASE jumpers out there, Super Frenchie is quite super in scope and scale of what Ogden can put on film.  It even manages to impress on a smaller home viewing.  It’s the more dramatic (yes, more than the actual jumps!) moments that hold it back from catching a high velocity of excitement.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren fight for the soul of a young boy, taking them beyond anything they’d ever seen before and marking the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Who ever could have imagined that a scare masterpiece as impressive as 2013’s The Conjuring could have created two such unlikely super(natural)heroes like Ed and Lorraine Warren?  Nearly a decade later, the God-fearing duo based on the real-life paranormal investigators have appeared in five movies set within The Conjuring Universe, successfully kicking off a cottage industry of scares that could expand as large as their filing cabinet of cases will allow.  Going from the academic demonologists called in by a family living in a house of horrors of the first film to the ghost hunting detectives pursued by demons and the occult in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens could very well be the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the horror landscape.

It’s been five years since the Warrens have had a proper film and some changes have been made during that time.  For starters, James Wan (Insidious) took a step back from the director’s seat, allowing The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves to take over and continue the franchise flagship Wan started. The Conjuring 2 screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) is back but wisely steps away from detailing another haunted house case after the overstuffed sequel from 2016 incorporated Amityville and the Enfield poltergeist — too much of a good thing.  There’s also an interesting decision to ever-so slightly side-step events for the Warrens in The Nun as well as Annabelle Comes Home, which should be called Annabelle Comes A-Conjurin’ since it is all about the Warrens and their youngest child, played there by McKenna Grace and not Sterling Jerins who has the role in all three Conjuring films. 

That brings us to the newest film, set in 1981 which pits the Warrens up against a demon that first appears in the body of a little boy during the rattling prologue and then in Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), his sister’s boyfriend, after the young man foolishly welcomes the entity in as a last ditch effort to save the tormented child.  During this climactic switcheroo, Ed (Patrick Wilson, Midway) suffers a health scare and is sidelined and unresponsive for a stretch.  This allows for enough time to pass that Arne and his girlfriend Diane (Sarah Catherine Hook, Monsterland) can get back to their normal life working for a dog kennel alongside its drunk proprietor. 

As Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Commuter) stands vigil for her ailing husband, Arne begins to exhibit strange visions and feels a presence not just near him but within him.  As this evil gets closer and deeper, the line between what is real to Arne and what is imagined get blurred.  Then, just as Ed is waking but before the Warrens can reach out with a warning, something takes over Arne and he winds up in jail for murder.  On trial and facing capital punishment if convicted, he seeks help from the Warrens to prove his demonic possession defense, the first of its kind.  Feeling responsible not just for the murder but the original botched exorcism that helped the demon find Arne, Ed and Lorraine launch their own investigation into the case to discover how the monster found its way into the initial host to begin with.  What they uncover involves more dead bodies, witch’s curses, human sacrifice, lots of candles, and the kind of sleuthing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo mystery.

Don’t read that last statement as a dig at the screenplay from Johnson-McGoldrick.  The story that Wan provided feels like the sequel that should have come after the first film, one that truly gives the Warrens room to grow a bit more.  Whereas The Conjuring 2 was more about the traditional “bigger” sequel gains (don’t forget about that head-scratching long pause for Wilson to strum a guitar and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’) it didn’t move any pieces forward in as significant a way as they are here.  True, there are far more liberties taken with the story than anyone would care to admit, but the fabricated storyline pairs nicely with the real-life tale of Arne Johnson’s case.

There’s also something sort of fun about watching Wilson and Farmiga, both pushing 50, awkwardly snooping around like these types of academics-first would.  While both could easily pull off a lead in an action film, neither turn the Warrens into warriors once they launch into action.  Ed still gets winded after his illness and walks with a cane and Lorraine always wears the loudest and frilliest of blouses, boxiest of pants, and most modest of skirts.  (Side note: there are a few outfits Farmiga dons that I swear are meant to test the audience’s laugh response…but darn it if Farmiga doesn’t wear the absolute heck out of them!)  Wilson has gotten used to playing second banana in most films and that’s his sweet spot, he’s that person and he excels at it.  To try to grasp for something more would feel like he’s taking more than he needs, and Farmiga definitely doesn’t need his help commanding the screen. Arguably the central focus of all the films in one way or another, Farmiga’s character always runs the risk of coming off as insincere because she’s always so sure of herself and her intuitiveness but it’s only an actress of Farmiga’s caliber that can carry off this type of material and not have it feel goopy.

It’s nice to see carryover characters from previous films and viewers with keen eyes will spot a few familiar trinkets along the way, not to mention deep cut callbacks to preceding movies if you want to take the time to connect those dots.  Often in these mystery-oriented films I tend to find them less interesting the more we find out answers but The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It managed to get more engaging as it went along.  Helping this is Chaves who keeps the film tight and taut by not repeating the scares in similar scenes ad nauseum.  Instead of having large set-pieces that present some looming terror for the Warrens (and the audience) as they move through it (think the water-logged basement in the sequel), Chaves prefers to unleash his scares without much advance warning.  This makes for an exciting watch that’s rarely, if ever, boring, or slow.

I know the film had a post-credit scene that was removed, rumored to set the stage for additional cases to be opened.  Taking this out is a strange move to make considering the number of cases the Warrens were involved with that have yet to be told.  Even if the filmmakers wanted to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It the end of an unofficial (now official?) trilogy, there is still room to leave the door ajar, if not fully open.  While the movie has a satisfying ending, it does feel like something is missing…like a breath was taken but never exhaled.