Movie Review ~ Launchpad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A collection of 6 short films. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen.

Directors: Aqsa Altaf, Hao Zheng, Ann Marie Pace, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, Moxie Peng

Running Length: Each episode runs between 15-20 minutes

TMMM (Overall) Score: (8/10)

Review: Since its launch in November 2019, Disney+ has been a welcome resource for finding (most) of your favorite Disney films from the past as well as providing new content that has delivered on its promise to impress and inspire.  While the Marvel series it has fostered so far have created the appropriate brouhaha and its first foray into the Star Wars serialized universe with The Mandalorian brought it early legitimacy, the streaming service has also done quite a lot to support new talent for the next generation.  Recognizing the benefit of mentoring future bright minds, the company has made a concerted commitment to bringing more inclusive filmmaking programs to fruition and utilizing their new digital platform as an easy showcase for the finished products.

Disney+ subscribers were first exposed to this with the Sparkshorts series, an offshoot of Pixar in which the animation branch’s employees are given six months and a modest budget to develop their own short.  While some early works that weren’t exclusive to this program premiered in theaters, all formal participants go right into the Disney+ queue for viewers to discover…and evidently many have because within two years Kitbull and Burrow have been nominated for an Oscar. 

Encouraged by this success, the studio has now teamed with Panavision for the first season of Disney’s Launchpad which is now available.

According to the press notes,

Disney’s Launchpad is a collection of live-action shorts from a new generation of dynamic storytellers. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen. The goal of Disney’s Launchpad is to diversify the types of stories that are being told and to give access to those who have historically not had it. Inspired by life’s journey, these first six shorts for Disney+ are based on the theme, “Discover.”

Providing the filmmakers with twelve months to complete the work and the resources, support, and top of the line film equipment courtesy of Panavision to make their dream a reality, the studio not only has given visibility to a population that isn’t always represented in film but done so without a lot of grand ceremony to it.  If all six films were stuffy, hand-holding reminders to be culturally aware and sensitive then the initial message of representation would have been lost.  While not all winners, each film does well by telling a story from an individual perspective where race or culture isn’t always the first thing that defines the characters.

American Eid – directed by Aqsa Altaf
Synopsis: Ameena, a homesick Muslim Pakistani immigrant, wakes up on Eid to find out she has to go to school.
Review: At the end of Ramadan is Eid or “Festival of Breaking the Fast” and this first short of the collection expects you to have done your homework (or do it after the fact like I did) to learn about the importance of this religious holiday in the Muslim community. It’s certainly a big deal for Ameena, the young immigrant girl who is spending her first Eid in America and wondering why she has to go to school when back in Pakistan they had the day off.  Her older sister just prefers to be like a normal American teen and not take part in the usual festivities but Ameena just wants things to be as they were, going so far as to create a petition to have Eid recognized as a holiday at her school.  There’s a blithe sweetness to Ameena’s quest not just to get the day off but to reconnect with her sister.  The resolution to this one might have you reaching for the tissues.

Dinner is Served – directed by Hao Zheng
Synopsis: A Chinese student uncovers his true identity when trying out for a leadership role at a U.S. school.
Review: A number of these Launchpad episodes felt like short chapters from a longer film the director is interested in making and Dinner is Served is a great example of this. Xiaoyu is attending an elite boarding school in the U.S., hoping to train for a maître d’ position.  The entirety of the 20-minute run time feels so self-contained for the small story being told but you can easily see it being just a part of a larger journey Xiaoyu undertakes as he comes into his own in the United States.  For this particular section of his tale, he survives the rigors of self-doubt and slight setbacks to lead him on a path to success, until the reality of the world he has entered deals him a devastating blow, changing his future outlook.  It may not end quite as strongly as it begins because it falls into some expected traps of too-pat developments, but the restraint shown in the first 2/3 is laudable.

Growing Fangs – directed by Ann Marie Pace
Synopsis: Val Garcia, a Mexican-American half human/half vampire teenager, struggles to fit in either world.
Review: Oddly enough, this was the one I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into, yet it turned out being my second favorite of the group and the first one I could conceivably see Disney seriously considering expanding into a full-length feature or even a series of its own.  There’s an oddball tone to director Ann Marie Pace’s short that is a welcome change of pace from the previous episodes, introducing us to high school half human/half vampire teenager Val Garcia.  Struggling with this duality in addition to her blossoming love for one of her classmates, Val is a people pleaser first and worries about herself second.  This winds up causing more trouble than anything and Pace manages to consistently zig when we think she’s going to zag, making the twenty minutes fly by.  I could have easily watched this for another 20 or even 40 minutes.  Did I mention this was also riotously funny, especially an early family meal sequence that has a couple of true treasures in the laugh department?

Let’s Be Tigers – directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz
Synopsis: Grieving for her mother, Avalon finds comfort when she’s put in charge of a 4-year-old for a night.
Review: The shortest of the offerings is also the most emotionally raw so I wound up being glad it wasn’t that long of a commitment.  Admittedly, it wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, mostly because it didn’t feel as polished or complete of an experience as the others. That’s not to say director Stefanie Abel Horowitz doesn’t initiate some important conversations about death and what it’s like for those who grieve.  When compared to the previous episodes, this has a slower pace and employs a less flashy style, allowing the performances to come out.  There’s not a lot to the story, but Hororwitz and her cast have an easy flow with filling in some gaps of narrative when called to do so.

The Last of the Chupacabras – directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros
Synopsis: A lonely Mexican-American woman unknowingly summons a dark and ancient creature.
Review: Yes, I completely went out of order and watched this one first because I thought it was going to be a scary one.  I’m totally guilty of actually thinking Disney handed over all these cameras and money so a director could make a splatter film about the Mexican creature from folklore.  Instead, this is an eccentric tale of a woman who pushes a tamale cart who arrives home after another long day on her feet to her crafty home filled with puppets and creatures representing her culture.  Somehow, she manages to conjure up a Chupacabra and proceeds to adopt it as her pseudo-pet for the evening, eventually using it to bite back at the tourists that gawk at her from their tour busses while taking her picture but otherwise pretending she isn’t there.  You can see what director Jessica Mendez Siqueiros is getting at and from a production standpoint the short looks grand, but the zany story and wide-eyed acting of the leading actress made this one lower on the rung for me.

The Little Prince(ss) – directed by Moxie Peng
Synopsis: When Chinese kids Gabriel and Rob become friends, Rob’s dad questions Gabriel’s feminine behavior.
Review: Obviously saving the best for last, the first season of Disney’s Launchpad concludes with The Little Prince(ss) and, again, we’re wading in familiar water in this short from writer/director Moxie Peng.  Tiny Chinese first grader Gabriel loves to wear pink and dance ballet, very different from his new friend, 2nd grader Rob who plays basketball but doesn’t have a true passion for it.  Meeting on the bus one day, the boys become friends…which is OK by Gabriel’s dad but a problem for Rob’s.  Objecting to Gabriel wearing “girly” clothes and “not acting like a boy”, Rob’s dad pays a visit to Gabriel’s home one night to deliver a message but winds up getting one himself.  Remember that tissue box I told you to get out for American Eid, you’ll definitely want to have it handy for this one.  Peng’s film might not feature the strongest performances (the children are beyond adorable but…yeah…) but it has the most direct pathway to your heart/mind message as a takeaway. 

Season 2 of Disney’s Launchpad is already in the works and while this season had a theme of “Discover”, season 2 will be built around a different theme, “Connect”. Based on the overall strength of the initial run of episodes, I’ll be looking forward to what’s launching next.

Movie Review ~ Port Authority

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul’s momentary encounter with Wye, a trans woman of color, leaves the 20-year-old Midwesterner transfixed by her beauty and confidence. But as the two learn more about each other, Paul’s false narratives begin to surface and the double life he lives must be reconciled.

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom, McCaul Lombardi, Jari Jones, Devon Carpenter, Eddie Plaza, Louisa Krause, Christopher Quarles, Taliek Jeqon

Director: Danielle Lessovitz

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  So much for that whole “wokeness” thing, I guess.  Maybe that’s being a tad harsh toward the filmmakers of Port Authority but there’s something more than a little off-putting about watching a movie released in 2021 that features a vibrant LGBTQ+ cast in supporting roles of a love story between a trans woman and a “straight” white male.  When the film is seemingly about this male’s journey of discovery it’s kind of, well, lame in this current climate because it feels as if that story, that angle, has been looked at and analyzed from every conceivable vantage point already in film, on stage, and recently on television in the never-quite-got-its-due series Pose.  Who needs to see this problematic arc of redemption via self-aware reflection play out yet again, albeit with some memorable performances that almost take your mind off the main sticking point?

With Martin Scorsese serving as executive producer, this NYC-set romantic drama seems to start off on the right foot as we meet up with Paul (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), newly arrived from Pennsylvania at the titular transit station expecting to be picked up by his half-sister.  Scouring the location to see if she’s as lost as he feels, he steps outside for a smoke and sees a group of twenty-somethings that give off a different kind of energy he can’t quite put his finger on.  Amongst them is Wye (Leyna Bloom), and for the briefest of moments the two lock eyes and it’s obvious we’ve witnessed that rare spark of attraction…but it’s only for moment because Paul has to get find a way to his sister’s apartment and Wye’s group is off into the charged bustle of the evening crowds.

As Paul acclimates to the city, he finds a place to stay at a grungy hostel and manages to quickly find work from the first person that showed him kindness, a tatted homophobe named Lee (McCaul Lombardi).  Lee is in the business of intimidating low-income minority families that have landlords threating to evict them, forcing them either to pay their rent or sacrifice their possessions and soon Paul is participating in these illegal actions. Not so far away, Wye is a popular star in the ballroom scene and a member of the House of McQueen, performing in nightly contests that lift up queer society and with exquisite performances.  Delirious displays of fashion, runaway walks, dancing, and severe attitude, these ballroom scenes are exclusive and not a spectator sport.

By chance, one of the ballroom participants is staying at the same hostel as Paul and one night Paul follows them to an event where he again comes in contact with Wye.  This time, they don’t let opportunity pass them by and a flirtation turns into a full-blown romance after hanging out a few times.  Now, I don’t want to say Paul is slow on the uptake but after hanging out with Wye and her “brothers” at their “house” (apartment), he apparently gets the idea that the guys might be gay but has no clue that Wye is trans. Unfortunately, this isn’t the extent of Paul’s limited exposure to life outside of his own bubble, as we’ll witness over the next days where he systematically dismantles several relationships he has – work, love, family, and all because he can’t be honest, really honest, with any of them.  At least someone like Lee wears his misogyny and bigotry loud and proud and Wye keeps it real above all else.  Anytime Paul is faced with owning up to something or providing a false excuse he tends to always opt for the lie – and this is the character we’re supposed to root for?

Writer/director Danielle Lessovitz has one half of a good movie going on here and when Port Authority is in its better half, it has a liveliness that is attractive and intoxicating, much like NYC itself.  When it strays into the uglier parts of the action, it can feel like the end of a long day walking around the city in the heat…exhausting and chafing.  I just did not care what sort of issues Paul had to work through because it was becoming more obvious he was using some of his experiences with Wye and her family to help him through that.  Not finding much love or support in his own life, he acts as a sort of parasite until he takes too much, and people get hurt. 

The other side of the coin has Whitehead and Bloom turning in tender and often terrific performances amidst all the noise, creating genuine chemistry that goes a long way in selling what Lessovitz can’t quite convey in her screenplay.  After Voyagers, this is another performance from Whitehead where he’s emotionally broken and needs the attention of another to find his way back to being whole and Bloom is just the right actress to make that fix work.  I could have used a few mores scenes with the two of them together (or even of Bloom doing her own thing) but this is firmly Paul’s story and, like it or not, you’re stuck with him for the good scenes as well as the bad.

Every time we left Wye and her family to tag along with Paul and his gross friends, all I was thinking about was how much fun the others must have been having.  If only Lessovitz had opted to tell that story instead, jettisoning Paul’s acceptance of himself by seeing what he could become through Lee’s deplorable work in favor of a deeper dive into Wye’s ballroom scene.  That would have made Port Authority more of a destination worth looking forward to.

Movie Review ~ A Quiet Place: Part II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Forced to venture into the unknown, The Abbott family realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, Wayne Duvall, Okieriete Onaodowan, Scoot McNairy

Director: John Krasinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even before this bugger of a pandemic arrived on our shores and fairly quickly shuttered businesses, not to mention effectively cancelling the summer movie season, a great number of people were saying that theaters were on the decline.  The streaming services were offering up faster ways to watch movies at home, and it was becoming easier than ever to get the entertainment you wanted at a far lower price than you would if you went to the cinema.  Plus, watching from the comfort of your living room meant the only person you had to worry about kicking your seat, obnoxiously using their cell phone during a movie, or eating loudly would be your significant other, friend, or family member and not a random stranger you didn’t have the courage to silence. 

At first, I found it strange to watch a film I knew was meant for the big screen on a smaller scale in my home theater but eventually I got accustomed to it like many people did.  You could see where the idea that maybe theaters weren’t as in-demand as on-demand would be coming from…but then a movie like A Quiet Place Part II comes out and you’re reminded that going to the movies, and the right kind of movie, is the best kind of communal event.  Now, I can only guess at this because I saw this sequel to the 2018 blockbuster in a Dolby Theater with about 10 other members of the press, but I would wager a bet that if you saw this in a packed theater (as packed as social distancing could be) you’d feel the same way.  The energy the film creates is tangible and I don’t think it’s simply because it was the first one I’d seen in a theater in over a year.

It sounds silly now, but I was almost nervous my senses would be too overwhelmed to take the theatrical experience after all this time, but I clearly needed no slow re-introduction.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t waste any time, either.  If by some chance you’re reading this and haven’t seen the original, fair warning that spoilers are ahead because it’s impossible to review the sequel without talking about a significant plot development at the end of the first film.  No major spoilers for the second chapter will be shared but I strongly suggest you don’t see this one before you have caught up with the film that scared the beejebus out of audiences three years ago and fast-tracked a follow-up set to arrive May of 2020.  Now, exactly a year later, Paramount is cashing in on a big gamble that audiences wanted to wait and see this in theaters, and I’d be willing to bet this is the film that will be how many make their return to the movies.

Picking up so close to the end of A Quiet Place that you could nearly edit the two films together, returning writer/director John Krasinski cleverly finds a way for his now-tragically deceased character to make an appearance.  Beginning the film with a flashback to Day 1 of the invasion when alien creatures arrive from the sky and wreak havoc in a small town (and, apparently, the rest of the world), Krasinski parallels the opening of the predecessor with sly winks to locations and props that we know will be important hundreds of days from now.  This prologue is the first pot of water Krasinski lights a fire under and slowly brings to a boil. When it bubbles over it sets the stage for a heart stopping sequence with creature scares that come in unlikely directions at unexpected times. 

Once we get into the proper film, after Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns) and her children Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe, Holmes & Watson), and a days-old newborn, ensure the creatures on their property are cleared out they quickly realize they need to leave the protection of their farm for a nearby outpost.  Hoping for friendly inhabitants, perhaps a townsperson they used to know like Emmett (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins), they make the perilous journey in silence, arriving at an abandoned metalworks plant where a painful surprise awaits.  It’s here I’ll stop and save the rest for you to discover, noting that Krasinski almost out of necessity has to find a way to split the family up but devises a believable way to do so.  In doing this, he’s able to stage several sequences where he uses some extraordinarily effective editing to hop between narratives and raise the blood pressure of everyone watching.

What I appreciated quite a lot about the film in general is that it sidesteps many of the duties that sequels feel obliged to fulfill.  True, you see more of the creatures in this one, but only because they’ve already been introduced so the mystery of them is gone. Why continue to hide them?  However, Krasinski doesn’t make it a priority to explain why the monsters have come to Earth or fashion a lot of backstory into the proceedings and that’s because it doesn’t matter one iota.  Why they are there doesn’t matter as much as what is happening in the here and now.  We actually don’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the beasts and why would/should we?  There isn’t time to waste studying them, they just need to be stopped.

Stopping them requires a brave spirit and Krasinski (Aloha) recognized that Simmonds is a natural choice to step into the driver’s seat for this round.  While Blunt is still a warm, commanding presence in the movie and earns the top-billing she receives, she’s less of the natural central figure.  That aura transfers to Simmonds and, to a lesser extent, Jupe.  While Jupe has shown great acumen for unlocking unique personalities in the children he’s played, his character feels less of a priority to develop than the others.  Simmonds makes up a lot of ground Jupe doesn’t cover as she rises to a challenge put forth early on which takes Regan out of her comfort zone.  Anyone coming into the dynamic that was so tight in the first film is at a disadvantage but with his bushy hair and beard, Murphy is more than an acceptable stand-in for Krasinski as a neighbor who has had a very different experience of survival than the Abbott family.

Not all sequels need to tread new ground, that’s why they are sometimes called Part II which insinuates it’s a continuation of a previous iteration.  Krasinski has exceeded expectations and given audiences exactly what they asked for, maybe even a little more.  There’s an ample number of scares to be had, some of the cheap jump variety (watch out for those random flocks of birds!) but most of the creeping flesh kind that make you squirm in your seat from anxiety.  I’ve a feeling Krasinski has a third one of these in him and if I were Paramount, I’d give him the time, money, and freedom to make it when it fits into his schedule.  If A Quiet Place Part II is any indication, it’s loud and clear he’s worth the wait.