Movie Review ~ F9: The Fast Saga

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dominic Toretto and his crew battle the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve ever encountered: his forsaken brother.

Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Sung Kang, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Lucas Black, Finn Cole, Vinnie Bennett

Director: Justin Lin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Oh my, my!  Can 20 years have flown by so fast? The biggest thing I remember about 2001’s The Fast & The Furious is that on the way to the screening a rock hit my windshield and sent a huge crack through it and I obsessively thought about it during the whole movie, clouding my vision of what would kick off a multi-billion dollar franchise.  The second film two years later came out on what was then the biggest screen in my state but after that the movies in the Fast saga have tended to blend together, creating a bit of a mish mash in my head of plot lines and characters.  For a time, each entry built upon its predecessor and gained an edge, but they’ve never not been entertaining in one way or another. Part of the fun is the way the series is willing to go over the top to please its devoted audience.

While fans have waited longer for a sequel before, they’ve been positively chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel of F9: The Fast Saga, which was delayed a full year when it became one of the first films to commit to pushing their release date when the pandemic hit in early 2020.  And really, watching one of these adrenaline-fueled action pics in a theater is truly the only way to see them…at least for the first viewing.  Car stunt wise, I’m not sure that F9: The Fast Saga is the biggest the series has had to offer but the entire experience is certainly the furthest over-the-edge the unexpectedly hearty epic has to offer.  It’s also completely ridiculous and pushes credulity so far even ride or die fans might need to pull of for a breather.

After a flashback opening set far enough back in time that the film opens with Universal’s older logo (a nice little thrill for this nostalgia hound), we’re back in the present to find Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, She Dies Tomorrow) living the quiet life on a farm with Dom’s young son.  Out of “the life” long enough to mention it and then in the next scene have some old friends stop by to pull them back in for a rescue mission, the two leave their peaceful retirement behind and enter into a deadly operation that puts Dom face to face with his past. 

As with most of the Fast films, it pays to know the history of the franchise and the various characters that have floated in and out because a number of them zoom through.  Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Kurt Russell (Backdraft), Helen Mirren (The Good Liar), and Shea Wingham (The Quarry) are just a few previous players who make an appearance, along with several more whom I won’t reveal in order to keep some surprises for you to discover.  New to the racetrack is John Cena (Bumblebee) as Dom’s younger brother (this ain’t no spoiler) and due to their complicated history there’s more than a little sibling rivalry going on between the two that has led to the men operating on opposite sides of the law.  Cena (who looks two and a half times as large as Diesel) sort of works perfectly in the film, obviously meant to fill a gap that The Rock left when he and Jason Statham were spun-off into 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Cena may still have room to grow in the acting department but so did Diesel when he started back in the day and even he’s still finding the right gear to operate in.

By this stage, the plots are almost beside the point, seeing that we know each film is but a pit stop in an apparently never-ending highway of crazy.  Multiple times during this ninth outing I had to stifle a ‘bu**ls**it!’ from coming out of my mouth (and actually let one slip out) because what screenwriters Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) have come up with strains at the very limits of disbelief and it’s only because audiences are in the ninth go-around of this journey that they’ll likely absolve the filmmakers of some of the audacious flights of fancy they send Dom and his gang on or superhuman strength they imbue them with.  At the very least, you have to get some credit for not rolling your eyes all the way around in their sockets for Diesel making it through nearly the entire film wearing the crispest white T-Shirt you’ve ever seen and never see it get a mark on it.  I couldn’t walk through an airtight box of air without getting it stained somehow yet this racer can flip his car and send it soaring over bridges and escape without barely a smudge?  Or a tear? 

The rest of the group is accounted for and giving their same best pedal to the metal, with Rodriguez again finding more soul to her character than I ever could have thought way back when it was a one-note second banana that nearly exited before a miraculous resurrection.  I’m shocked Tyrese Gibson (Fast & Furious 6) and Ludacris haven’t also found themselves in their own film because their chemistry is locked and loaded – it’s time for them to branch out.  She’s featured much less in this one but Theron (sporting a haircut even worse than the last film) revels in her villainy, understanding completely the role she’s tasked with.  Jordana Brewster (Furious 7) gets roped in for more action, and it makes more sense because this one involves her two brothers and not just taking the place for her husband, Brian (the late Paul Walker).  While it is noble the filmmakers chose not to write Walker’s character out of the picture after his tragic death, it is becoming odd that they are continuing to pretend he’s still alive…going so far as to show Brian’s car driving around but not Walker driving it.

I haven’t done a full re-watch of the series yet and I think before the inevitable F10 it’s time for me to get around to that.  Timelines and storylines have all zig-zagged around so much that it’s beginning to get hard to track who is coming and going but as long as there is gas in the tank and air in the tires, this box office speedster is unstoppable.  It might not make any kind of logical sense, but F9: The Fast Saga has made the lengthy wait worth it for legions of its admirers.

AFI DOCS Film Festival – Part 1

The MN Movie Man loves a good documentary, so what a pleasure it was to be invited to virtually attend the AFI DOC Film Festival that was held June 22-27. Just coming off the Tribeca Film Festival and having family commitments, I had to be somewhat conscientious with my time and decided on around eight titles to cover in these next few columns. Thanks for bearing with some slight pauses in publishing while I’ve been consuming a lot of movies to bring to you now! So many wonderful films are on their way — get excited!!!

Storm Lake
It was truly by chance that one of the first titles this MN native chose for the 2021 AFI DOCS Film Festival was STORM LAKE from directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius about the Iowa town’s small local newspaper.  Imagine my surprise when MN senator Amy Klobuchar appeared in the opening to introduce the film and offer her words of support for print journalism at the local level.  It was an encouraging note to begin what would be a strong opening documentary feature that examines a period of time for the paper that prides itself on solid news reporting on topics that affect its community as well as human interest pieces that build up the spirits of its citizens.  This isn’t a hard-hitting investigative piece, and you aren’t going to find Risius and Levison trailing rumpled editor Art Cullen as he uncovers some big conspiracy that brings him national acclaim.  Instead, the camera unobtrusively captures Cullen and his family of employees (literally, his brother, wife, and son each have daily roles that are central to the success of the paper) making good on their respected reputation as a Pulitzer Prize winning publication and one that noted politicians happily offer interviews to.  Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Grassley, Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg are just a few of the familiar politico faces seen leading up to the disastrous Iowa caucus in 2020.  That’s when the film starts to stray a tad and get swept up in a political maelstrom, the pandemic, and their own financial woes.  As a reminder of the value of paper likes the Storm Lake Times, STORM LAKE is an intelligent curio to discover but when it starts to focus in on actual reporting it weakens because that’s when it can’t quite separate itself from other films about journalistic beats.

The Lost Leonardo
I know what looks nice on my walls but I couldn’t tell a fake Leonardo da Vinci from a real Portia de Rossi and that’s why films about art and art history are endlessly fascinating to me.  I missed THE LOST LEONARDO, a documentary on I know what looks nice on my walls, but I couldn’t tell a fake Leonardo da Vinci from a real Portia de Rossi and that’s why films about art and art history are endlessly fascinating to me.  I missed THE LOST LEONARDO, a documentary on a much-hyped possible da Vinci rare work, when it premiered at Tribeca a few weeks back and am glad to have had a chance to discover it at AFI Docs and find that it’s as intriguing as described.  A painting called the Salvator Mundi that was found in a garage with a number of issues has the look of a da Vinci devotee but, once a 5-year restoration is completed, is then attributed to the master himself.  This raises its value through the roof and sets it off on a journey all over the globe, where museums want to display it, critics want to disprove it, and collectors want to own it.  Directed by Andreas Koefoed, THE LOST LEONARDO is part detective fable and part tall tale as we watch a whopper of a story unfold through interviews and some cleverly disguised lessons on the history of da Vinci’s works and style.  It can get a little dense at times with subjects reading (in French) long back and forth emails that are then subtitled, but digging in when these moments arise makes the payoff that much sweeter.  It’s a refined film with pretty much everyone that speaks making 20 times more money each year than we’ll ever earn, but it’s nicely rendered and fun to follow along in the search for answers.

The Neutral Ground
Like many, I grew up watching films that portrayed a false impression of the South, both pre- and post-Civil War.  It wasn’t until later as an adult when I learned more about the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy that my eyes were opened to many of the blatant lies that were shown in entertainment and published in books.  Having a little knowledge of this going into CJ Hunt’s stellar documentary THE NEUTRAL GROUND helps understand just a little of why it was so pivotal that the Confederate monuments in the city of New Orleans be removed.  When the City Council voted to remove four of the most well-known monuments in 2015, it set off a wave of protests and shone a spotlight once more upon an ages old argument of reverence vs. relevance.  A comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, Hunt came to NOLA to learn more about not just the importance of this decision, but also to document the protests that sprung up from supporters of the Confederate movement that wanted to preserve these figures that represented troubling aspects of Southern history for black people.  The result is an extremely well made, informative, thought-proving, and reflective piece that leaves you with a checklist of items to think through further and do your own homework on.  Hunt applies the right amount of humor to his interviews, carefully sidestepping snark sarcasm in favor of asking the right kind of probing questions that let his subjects dig their own deserved grave. 

Watch THE NEUTRAL GROUND on @POVdocs starting July 5th

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Scheduled perfectly by the AFI Docs Film Festival on Bourdain Day, ROADRUNNER: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is an intriguing look at a very complicated man, a documentary that balances a warts and all approach with a deeply felt sense of loss at the empty seat at the table left by his suicide in 2018.  I’ve had my ups and downs with Bourdain over the years, starting out hot with his early entry into popular entertainment courtesy of his bestselling book that was later turned into a very short-lived television show starring newcomer Bradley Cooper.  Bouncing right into a hybrid of travel/cooking show that he largely pioneered, Bourdain became known for his extreme tastes and willingness to try just about anything and that’s about when I started to drift away to less spicier meals that didn’t always seek to press the hardest of buttons with such vigor.  Bourdain just rubbed me the wrong way, and from what I gather in director Morgan Neville’s sharp interviews in his highly stylish doc, many of his closest friends felt that way at one time or another as well.  That’s the Tony many saw on camera but not the one that struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, or a need to be loved/perfect.  Neville interviews numerous people in his life: bosses, co-workers, colleagues, ex-wives, friends, and they all paint a picture of a man that lived hard and loved at the same speed.  At nearly two hours, ROADRUNNER is a lot of Bourdain to take and the trajectory of his life is approached by Neville in fairly standard measures, so it plays easily even when it grows slightly staid.  The final fifteen minutes, when discussing Bourdain’s death and the aftermath are when Neville’s expertise as a filmmaker really show and when the emotional ripple through his circle of friends takes its notable toll.  Fans of Bourdain will, I think, find this hard to watch and rightfully so…and I think that’s Neville’s point to show the impact of such an act.  Bourdain was a popular personality and I’m confident this will prove to be a project that is much sought-after and not just by foodies that know their salad fork from their dinner fork. This has crossover potential for even those with casual knowledge of Bourdain.

Tribeca: The Final Entry

a-ha: The Movie
Viewers don’t have to wait too long into A-HA:THE MOVIE, director Thomas Robsahm’s engaging documentary on the Norwegian pop band, to hear the song they became best known for but they may be surprised at how long Take On Me had been bouncing around within the minds and riffs of the musicians before it achieved ear worm status.  That’s just one of the many behind-the-scenes bits of information Robsahm presents in this doc that thankfully is more focused on the drama involved with the music than anything else that might have been pulling at the three-member team over the past five decades.  I liked that while Robsahm finds a healthy number of individuals to interview as he charts the band’s timeline, only the men themselves are ever shown responding to questions in the present day.   I can’t say I was a big enough fan to keep tabs on them above and beyond their #1 chart topper and their evergreen tune for the 007 film The Living Daylights (though I loved hearing about their tempestuous relationship with John Barry!), but I’m happy to have watched A-ha get their moment.

Being BeBe
It was with no small amount of hometown pride that Minnesota cheered on popular local performer BeBe Zahara Benet when she won the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009.  This was back when the show was a novelty and before it became an established brand and although it has gone on to win a truckload of Emmy’s and spawned international versions and spin-offs, you always remember your first…and it’s not likely you’d forget BeBe anyway.  Director Emily Branham has an interesting doc for audiences, filmed over a number of years and with footage from BeBe in and out of drag.  There’s so much footage, in fact, that Branham actually has the vibrant star of BEING BEBE watch some of the film that’s been captured and provide commentary on how things have changed, or how their own personal thinking has evolved since Branham first started taping.  The breadth of that time allows the documentary to show growth right before our eyes, not just in the way that BeBe navigates some of the harsh realities of the reality television industry but in the levels of acceptance in their own life of where they see themselves fitting in among the influencers of the community.  While Branham makes some interesting discoveries on queer culture during some all-too-brief footage from Cameroon, I almost wish it was more of that or nothing at all because there’s clearly more to that side of the world we should know more of…maybe that’s Branham’s next film we’ll see at Tribeca.

Queen of Glory
I’m a sucker for a lived-in NYC tale and QUEEN OF GLORY, from first-time feature director #NanaMensah (who also writes and stars), has its authenticity certified gold almost from the beginning.  I’m not quite sure how Mensah sets the mood so quickly other than using a lot of real people and interesting/rarely used location shooting, but working with 75 minutes of story the multi-hyphenate star is able to bring audiences right into the world of Sarah, a daughter of Ghanaian-American parents that’s set to graduate with a doctorate from Columbia University and move to the Midwest where her married lover is about to start work.  Then, her world caves in and she inherits a Christian bookstore in the Bronx (and its parolee employee) after her mother unexpectedly dies.  With new responsibilities and new relatives to worry about, not to mention neighbors, friends, and lovers to juggle, Sarah has to find a strong foothold if she wants to regain balance.  Mensah has been in several movies/tv projects that I’ve liked her in and tailor-making this role for herself leads to success in all the right ways.  It’s not a vanity project in so much as the wealth of funny/dramatic scenes are spread around for a memorable supporting cast and the technical achievements are high.  It feels like a pilot of a television series, if I’m being honest, but it’s a show I’d want to see more of.

Enemies of the State  
Those crazy hackers!  When will they learn that in the end, the government will always find a way to get the good guys?  At least that’s what the family of Matt DeHart will have you believe.  In director Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary ENEMIES OF THE STATE, audiences are told several different versions of the truth and then asked to piece together what is the real deal from the burnt pieces of paper the numerous subjects interviewed have managed to torch at one time or another.  There’s little use in holding onto one theory for too long in the case of the DeHarts, a seemingly ordinary and all-American family that all served their country but who exhibited behavior at one time or another that indicated otherwise.  Less incendiary than the blurbs and synopsis would have you believe and relying more on carefully edited conversations to drive the swerves of plot than actual factual twists, the film engages to a point but comes up flat.  I think the dramatic reenactments sunk this one a bit too…I understand the need for them, maybe, but anytime you have actors playing the real-life people who are also being interviewed there’s just something in the viewers brain that always feels off.  Not the most breathless documentary you’ll see this year but if the topic interests you, give it a whirl.

No Man of God
Jeez, another Ted Bundy film you may ask?  Really?  After the 2019 Netflix documentary series as well as the Zac Efron dramatized movie from the same year, it seems like Bundy has had his day in the sun but maybe it was time to look elsewhere for inspiration.  It was with that trepidation I approached NO MAN OF GOD, director Amber Sealey’s exploration of Bundy’s relationship with FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier during his last years as an inmate on death row.  Surprisingly, I didn’t find the film to be as staid or stuffy as I thought (or, honestly, as it could have been) but instead discovered some real electricity happening between stars Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby as the FBI Man and serial killer, respectively.  Meeting up at first to discuss behavioral trends but eventually for Hagmaier to take down Bundy’s final confession, Sealey handles the material respectfully and without giving any type of glory to Bundy after all the time.  Any time Bundy appears on film it does reopen these old wounds for his numerous victims so it’s conflicting to report on movies based on his life, but there’s good work being done here by both Wood and Kirby.  Almost working like a two-man play, Sealey doesn’t let the actors or the film get stuck too long in one spot and the action keeps moving at a good pace, allowing good supporting actors like Aleksa Palladino to have their moments as well.   

Catch the Fair One
Out of every film festival comes a few titles with buzz that continues on past the closing night party.  It’s the movie that comes back around as “Premiered at Tribeca” or “Made a splash at Tribeca” and most of the time they are on the money…but sometimes it’s just festival fever that takes over people’s good sense.  CATCH THE FAIR ONE is a movie you’ll be hearing about with good reason…at least I hope so.  Here’s a dark and riveting piece of revenge served ice cold featuring a debut performance that’s about as impressive as they come.  US boxing world champion Kali Reis plays Kaylee, a former professional boxer that puts her life at risk as she searches for her missing sister in a viper’s den of human traffickers.  Hoping to discover what became of her younger sibling, she isn’t prepared for the dark journey the answer provides.  Director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s film is gristly around the edges and oily in the center, the perfect condition for a thriller that consistently surprises and shocks, right up until the end.  Reis is dynamite, honest and forthright with a performance that devastates.  Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, it’s not hard to see what drew the director toward the subject matter or the stars on the rise involved.  Keep your eyes open for this one and catch it, it’s far more than fair

7 Days
Oh yes, the pandemic films are already upon us and while we wait for the inevitable slew of documentaries on the subject that I’m sure will have us covering our eyes in horror and our ears in disgust at how it could have gone so wrong, why not make the most out of the interim time with the comedies that have had quick turnarounds?  Director and co-writer Roshan Sethi is used to churning out fast material after creating the popular television series #TheResident and he teams up with co-star Karan Soni to write 7 DAYS, a charming bit of fun that might have turned cloying had it not been for some justly earned care we develop for our lead characters.  Soni co-stars with the always dependable Geraldine Viswanathan as an Indian couple set-up on a blind date by their parents who don’t feel the spark but wind up spending a week together after being forced to shelter-in-place.  Naturally, this odd couple (of course he’s a germaphobe and she’s a slob) learns a thing or three about each other over these days, upending that whole “first impressions are hard to break” notion.  It has some of that same effervescent vibe that another Tribeca film about complicated millennial dating had (Dating & New York) but its super serious final act feels counter-productive to the lively peak it had just climbed. 

On the Divide
It’s the topic that continues to be the sole lynchpin in the way many people vote and a subject most steer clear of in polite conversation: abortion.  While not as frequent a subject of documentaries as it once was, with the heightened focus on the abortion act and reproductive rights, I’d expect more films like ON THE DIVIDE to emerge from the festival circuit in upcoming years.  For the most part, directors Leah Galant & Maya Cueva stay out of the debate and let the subjects they follow and interview speak for themselves and that feels like the way to go in order to present the most weighted conversation.  (And yes, it does need to be a conversation involving listening…not that I, identifying as male, have any real say or skin in the game).  Lucking out with three very distinct voices, over the span of several years Galant/Cueva chart the lives of a heavily tattooed young mother, formerly associated with gangs who now stumps daily for a Christian pregnancy center outside the Whole Women’s Health clinic next door as well as one of its volunteers and security guards.  We spend the most time with the mother, watching her begin the film deeply involved with her pro-life mission but eventually becoming sidelined when her own home life makes it difficult to follow the practices required of her new group.  Rey, the security guard for the clinic, is the most insightful and you’ll be longing for more of him each time the film cuts away.  While it doesn’t offer any magic solution to the problem at hand, it does highlight the backward slide facing the people in and around where the film takes place, serving as a cautionary tale for what the future holds.

No Running
There’s no reason NO RUNNING should be as disappointing as it turned out to be.  It’s got a picturesque location, the cast is made up of “Oh yeah, I like them” faces (Shane West, Rutina Wesley, Bill Engvall, Taryn Manning) and the young stars Skylan Brooks and Diamond White are, for a time, promising as appealing leads in a story involving some mystery and suspense in a small town.  Alas, all of director Delmar Washington’s stylish attempts at making the film flashy can’t breathe life into Tucker Morgan’s fairly dreadful script that breaks apart early on and continues to shatter into smaller pieces the longer the movie plays.  What could have been a paranoid thriller that harkened back to the old ‘50s thrillers of yesterday, albeit with a bit of that modern twist, turns into a lame Get Out wannabe that neverwas.  It’s a town where people turn horrifyingly racist in the blink of an eye and believe they can find decades old evidence (and do!) without so much as a magnifying glass.  Washington also imparts my absolute least favorite way to open a film…starting at one point in time and then flashing back “X” number of days in time.  Washington (or Morgan?) doesn’t even pick the right scene to start with…I was able to fix it with just one quick edit in my brain, immediately improving the opening and closing of the film which would start NO RUNNING off on much better footing. 

Settlers
On the website for Tribeca, SETTLERS is described as a ‘riveting ride’, which is a bit deceiving because it insinuates the film has a place to go.  For my money, after an admittedly intriguing first 45 minutes it never felt like this one knew where it was ultimately headed and that leaves it in a strangely sedentary state.  That keeps the viewer from fully pursuing the ins and outs of all the characters, because we’re never all that concerned that they are going anywhere.  First-time feature director Wyatt Rockefeller thankfully has an eye for visuals and while the budget was likely not huge for the film, it looks like whatever cash there was has been spent in all the right places.  The family living in a homestead on Mars has a small farm with animals and an outpost home that doesn’t just look like a recycled set from the latest cancelled Star Trek series.  Father (Johnny Lee Miller), mother (Sofia Boutella), and daughter (Brooklynn Prince) are going about their daily business until one day they awake to see the word ‘LEAVE’ written in giant letters from outside their window. Who wrote it? Are they coming back? Who are the real enemies? Who was here first?  All questions Rockefeller poses, answers, but doesn’t satisfy completely.  None of the resolutions are that intriguing, even if the performances from everyone in the cast are almost universally better than the material they have been provided with.  It’s a shame, too, because the production design and performances are there…they just needed the script to meet them at their level.

Werewolves Within
A number of films have been adapted from video games and felt like it, but while I knew this horror comedy was brought to life based on the popular 2016 multi-player game, WEREWOLVES WITHIN pleasingly played like its own beast.  That’s largely thanks to director Josh Ruben casting the movie just right, starting with Sam Richardson as an earnest forest ranger newly arrived in the town of Beaverfield who barely arrives before he’s on the hunt for whatever (or whomever?) is picking off the ruddy townfolk one by one.  The suspects are plentiful and colorful, from the gay tech millionaires to the town crank to a visiting environmentalist attempting to stop an industrialist wanting to build a pipeline through the town (he’s also in town for an extended stay with others at a rustic lodge).  Writer Mishna Wolff keeps things fast and loose throughout, nicely keeping the identity of the lycanthrope at bay as long as possible.  This allows the cast to take their time and to my surprise the various comedic bits don’t feel strained in their capable hands.  I have to again call out Richardson’s enormous charm heading up the cast, the movie works as well as it does because he plays the lead with such ease and just the right amount of a sideways glances at the rest of the townies.  Second place cheers to Milana Vayntrub as the town’s kindly postal worker that becomes Richardson’s tour guide and partner in sleuth.

as of yet
There’s a pleasing DIY vibe to writer and co-director Taylor Garron’s observant comedy AS OF YET which finds her character Naomi struggling to navigate pandemic life in NYC without her roommate while at the same time nurturing a new relationship that has potential.  Sounds simple enough but Garron is up to something far more interesting involving everything from pandemic paranoia to clashes over racial tolerance in a newly charged climate.  I wasn’t sure at first I was going to respond as well as I did to as of yet but once it gets rolling it is frequently extremely funny and surges ahead at break neck speed.  It also takes time to offer some good dialogue between friends just being friends, talking about nothing but eventually getting to the root of the matter.  This conversational tone (which gave off an early Lena Dunham vibe) is helped in no small part because Garron has nabbed some excellent supporting players for her film that she co-directed with Chanel James.  Each time a new face pops up, hold on to your seats.  This one also has maybe the best ending of any film I saw at Tribeca…just perfect based on everything that has come before.  Others will disagree but I loved it.

Socks on Fire
An entry from the 2020 all-virtual festival that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, Bo McGuire’s SOCKS ON FIRE got an encore presentation at the 2021 in-person festival and I’m glad audiences were able to catch this one virtually again this year.  How else would us Midwesterners have seen this peculiar but enthralling look into the dark side of one Southern family’s dirty laundry hamper, exposed for all to see by one of its own?  Using home movies, interviews, and reenactments, McGuire paints a picture of growing up in Hokes Bluff, Alabama as a relatively serene youth but having a far different view as an adult when he returns after the matriarch of the family dies and all hell breaks loose.  That’s when the in-fighting of his relatives began and the real story of Socks on Fire takes off.  While it occasionally drifts into a syrupy Southern gothic noir that doesn’t always work, by and large this is both a sad reflection on the progress of acceptance and a satisfying bit of just desserts to those that need their bad deeds exposed.

Accepted
When you think of controversy over college admissions, your mind instantly goes to the scandal uncovered in 2019 that arose over the criminal conspiracy to unfairly influence admissions decisions at several top American universities.  (Let’s be honest, you REALLY think of Aunt Becky from Full House though, don’t you?).  Prior to that, the biggest news story about questionable college admission practices came out of the TM Landry Prep School in Louisiana.  Originally heralded for its 100% acceptance rate, many of which were for minority students that wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to go to Ivy League schools they were admitted to, it came under scrutiny after it’s methods of teaching and faulty transcripts were uncovered by the New York Times. Director Dan Chen had a bit of good (cinematic) fortune to already be there following the students and leaders in the school and ACCEPTED is the result of his years following them along their path.  Viewers get a real time view of the salad days of the school and the benefits three students find not just in the educational structure of the institution but in the emotional structure provided with friends and growing self-confidence.  That stands in stark contrast to life for the three after they leave the school when the truth comes to light and it’s difficult to see spirits break before your eyes.  However, Chen’s project has full follow-through in its short running time and is the rare documentary that feels rounded off even if the story isn’t yet finished. 

The God Committee
More entertaining than anything about it (trailer, poster, cast) currently suggests, THE GOD COMMITTEE was one of the last movies I watched at the #TribecaFilmFestival and almost felt like a fine transition piece back into the mainstream film world after a week of off-the-wall shorts and indie features that were attempting something different.  This one is pure entertainment and works quite well, despite some late-breaking moroseness which betrays its strikingly cold exterior it displayed for the majority of its run time.  Kelsey Grammar plays a duddiest of fuddy duddy doctors in a NYC hospital that’s part of a group who decides the order in which patients get organ transplants.  When a heart becomes available, it comes down to three candidates, each with their pros and cons.  Deciding with Grammar are fellow doctors Julia Stiles, who manages to be convincing as a physician but struggles with the deeper layers the role requires later on, and Janeanne Garofalo.  The real reason to see this movie is Garofalo who never got the credit for being the good actress she is…and she’s great as a possibly compromised doctor, bringing nuance to the character in subtle ways.  Taking place in two different time periods, director Austin Stark handles the jumps well and while its aspirations gets the better of it in the end, THE GOD COMMITTEE held my attention based on more than just the performances.

False Positive  
Going by surface dynamics, you’d be forgiven if you saw FALSE POSITIVE as a modern-day Rosemary’s Baby, though it does have a little of that sinister ‘60s classic paranoia going for it.  However, in the hands of star Ilana Glazer and co-writer/director John Lee the film takes a modern and decidedly take-no-prisoners feminist satirical spin on that old gaslighting trope that finds a sensible woman betrayed by a number of people she is meant to trust.  Glazer’s Lucy is trying to get pregnant with her older husband while building her career and when she finds success with both, juggling the two becomes an issue when the pregnancy tosses several curveballs her way.  As her doctor that might be more malevolent than miraculous, Pierce Brosnan savors each line as if he’s eating his last meal and it was particularly nice to see Gretchen Mol show up as Brosnan’s head nurse that’s scarily devoted to her boss.  Glazer and Lee populate the film with hugely awkward interactions between Lucy and a number of men who think they’re being “woke” but come off sleazier than ever…and just try not looking away from the screen when Brosnan goes about his preparation for an examination. (Insert total body shuddering sound here.)  Eventually, the film gives way to its lesser impulses and ditches the clever fun for bloody business but it’s an incredibly welcome entry in a musty genre that needed a polish.  It’s available now on Hulu.

Tribeca: The Sequel

We Need to Do Something
A rare stumble for a number of otherwise reliable players, WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING is nothing to get that excited about, despite a frighteningly relatable array of terrible happenings to one Midwestern family congregated in their tacky bathroom as they weather a heckuva bad storm.  Initially, it seems like it will be a family vs. nature run wild sort of deal, with thunder and lightning giving way to crashing trees that prevent an already high-strung foursome from leaving an increasingly bad situation.  Sadly, it becomes a “who can be the most awful to one another” bit of ghoulish no-fun, almost frustratingly so.  The filmmakers throw a few effective sequences into the mix (snakes in enclosed spaces = gold) but rely far too much on human ugliness for the real horror.  Performances range from quite good (Loved Vinessa Shaw as the matriarch and Sierra McCormick as the angsty daughter with several secrets she’s sitting on) to whatever Pat Healy is doing. Director Sean King O’Grady is far more successful in flashback scenes taking place outside of the privy prison…so I’d be interested to see what they could do with a project that allows for more expansion.

GraceLand
This is a home of major Anna Camp and Elvis fans so I have to thank the makers of GRACELAND, a friendly and easy-going short, that gave me ample doses of both.  While this 14-minute reel of a girl who thinks she’s the reincarnation of The King feels more like the beginning idea of a longer narrative feature, there’s clearly something to play with should Bonnie Discepolo want to open this up a bit and flesh out a few more of the themes introduced.  As a viewer just dropped into the lives of Grace and her family, we don’t get much time to know anyone or much of their history before we’re asked to care about the tricky emotional peaks they need to climb.  I’ve a feeling there’s more to come with these characters and it’s a role Anna Camp would be an inspired choice to stay with.  Wisely written and played with some incredulity at the situation but never intentionally inflicting judgement, Camp previews just a little of her own character’s insecurities during the film and that’s worth exploring further.      

With/In, Volumes I and II
Two volumes of short films written and made by celebrities tasked with capturing life during the pandemic could have been such a bunch of pretentious baloney and let me tell you, I was 100% prepared for WITH/IN VOL I and VOL II to be booooooooring.  I mean, really.  All these stars.  Something had to fly off the rails.  What a surprise to find that both volumes, even with the occasional passage that’s marginal at worst, is quite a delightful mix of thoughts and ideas cleverly brought to the screen with creativity.  Championed by the likes of Trudie Styler (who appears in one segment), the anthology is broken up oddly into two inequitable halves with strong chapters found in both.  I particularly liked Bart Freundlich directing his wife Julianne Moore in a piece that feels excised from a movie both would be interested in making when their schedules allow…and please please please bring @taliabalsam along when you do! Rosie Perez directs herself and friend Justina Machado in a funny and ultimately moving look at how the emotions our friends have seen via FaceTime over the last year might not be what we’re really feeling inside. While it goes silly in the end, Julianne Nicholson’s entire family gets in on the action with a often riotously funny examination of how a peaceful day with your family can upend itself quickly.  Even Gina Gershon’s completely random closer is totally unique and authentically her, sidestepping affectation in favor of approaching the material differently.  Both volumes are worth watching and while you’ll need to see Vol I for Moore, Vol II gets you more bang for your buck.

Shapeless
Earlier this year, The Father took us inside the mind of a man slowly careening downhill suffering from brain disease and Anthony Hopkins wound up with an Oscar for it.  Now along comes SHAPELESS, which makes a similar play in exposing the inner demons associated with eating disorder and having the guts to go all the way. All. The. Way. Co-written by star Kelly Murtagh, giving the kind of bravura strenuously physical performance you wind up watching through hands covering your eyes, Shapeless uses body horror to jerk you to attention but derives its biggest shocks for pain found in grounded reality. Watching hopeful singer Ivy slide into a black pit of her own making could be exhausting, but don’t look to director Samantha Aldana to cut viewers much slack.  As Ivy’s obsession with her consumption intertwines with her music, she begins to transform in ways that are slight at first, shocking in conclusion.  The film’s got some amazing, haunting visuals (ooo-wee, some of those last moments are splendid!) but learners looking for outright horror are best directed elsewhere — this is strictly a horror horse of a different color.  Kudos to Murtaugh for exposing some raw nerves and also for her alluring vocals throughout.

The Beta Test
It’s hard to talk at all about the newest film from writer/director Jim Cummings without giving too much away so let me just say this: THE BETA TEST serves as both a cautionary tale of manhood run amok & a cinematic facial peel for wheelers and dealers in Hollywood. While the previous films from Cummings have enjoyed some under the radar cult status and grown in popularity with some grassroots word-of-mouth PR, I’d expect IFC to get this one out in front of people in a unique way. It’s a thriller for those that like something more intelligent and satirical than lowbrow and ordinary. Cummings is excellent as is the other players assembled, especially Virginia Newcomb as his hapless fiancée that has her eyes opened just a fraction of a second too late.

See for Me
The first movie I saw at Tribeca, I think I got a little swept away in my admiration for SEE FOR ME because the more I think about it the less I am solid in my praise for it. Not that it isn’t worth a recommendation because I love a home invasion thriller as much as the next person. And star Skyler Davenport takes what could have been a stalwart character that refuses to be a victim and gives her a tricky moral compass that you don’t often see in these films. As a blind athlete using a new app to help “see” around a house they are cat-sitting, Davenport makes a fine pair with Jessica Parker Kennedy as the eyes on the other side of the screen. This becomes a sneaky little B & E thriller with a mid-point twist that doesn’t just make the film more interesting, but the characters as well. Director Randall Okita manages some taut pacing, and the score is right on target score. Never underestimate the power of a good baseline! It may show some large holes in the light of day but that first viewing was pleasant enough for me to have been amped about the rest of the festival offerings.

Tribeca

 

Blind Ambition
Went into the spirited documentary BLIND AMBITION fully expecting it to be a narrative feature and after seeing it, I’m just waiting for the announcement that it is Hollywood bound.  The story of four Zimbabwe immigrants living in South Africa that enter The World Wine Blind Tasting Championships, becoming the first team from their country to do so, is perfect fodder to get a dramatization from a big studio and I spent much of the film casting it with stars who would likely play the colorful characters featured in Warwick Ross and Rob Coe’s doc.  Though fairly mannered in terms of documentary beats (you can see every roadblock, stumble, phoenix rise, etc. coming from several vineyards ahead) Ross and Coe suck you in early on by introducing you not just to the men that make up the Zimbabwe team but to their families in South Africa and back in their homeland.  Ross and Coe even manage to find a quasi-villain of the piece, the men’s rotund, past his prime, and mostly deaf French coach, and make him a wee bit lovable.  It needs a change in title ASAP but otherwise this is audience-pleasing ready for release.

Dating & New York
The rom-com gets a millennial overhaul in DATING & NEW YORK, a charming as all get out bit of whimsy set in the “city than never sleeps but sleeps around a lot” and featuring a trio of winning performances from Jaboukie Young-White, Francesca Reale, and Brian Muller and one outright barnburner.  That would be the riotous Catherine Cohen playing the “best friend” character but taken to a different level with the right mix of acerbic wit and honest worldly wisdom.  Director Jonah Feingold could turn the volume down on that score (the city never sleeps because it needs earplugs) and opt for less straight-forward shooting at times, but of all the Ephron-esque attempts to examine friendships with benefits in recent memory this one gets closest to the bullseye.  Those smart folks over at IFC just snapped this one up so keep an eye out for its release in the near future. 

Liza Anonymous
The theater nerd in me is what instantly attracted me to a short like LIZA ANONYMOUS.  Shows like Dead to Me have explored how imposters can infiltrate a recovery or support group but @aubreysmyth’s likable small bite short takes it a step deeper, but thankfully not darker. In fact, it could have been easy for this one to slide into a grody place as we follow Liza (Danielle Beckmann) through her attendance at weekly meetings for addicts and the varying personalities she takes on while there.  When she’s caught, it initially exposes truth comically but then dovetails into a sweet message of forgiveness and acceptance of self…which is often the same end result of the sessions Liza fakes her way into.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please
Now available on Discovery Plus and screening at this year’s festival, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a striking documentary about the lives of a group of gay men in 1950s New York City.  The letters found in the storage unit of a late Hollywood agent provide the entry point for directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera to bring the audience into the underground drag scene of that era. A far more dangerous time to live for the LGBTQ+ community, through interviews with people that lived it or knew people that died for it, the wealth of information is top-notch.  However, it gets repetitive and at 105 minutes the doc begins to feel long after some time.  Essentially, it becomes the same story over and over again (which is sort of life, right?) and while I feel the doc could use some trimming, it’s hard to lose the interviews with the men that survived the onslaught of AIDS in the 80s and watched their friends and loved ones die.  Worth a watch, but be prepared to feel the squirm around the 75-minute mark.

All My Friends Hate Me
Poor Pete, he’s having a terrible birthday weekend in All My Friends Hate Me by the time he starts getting chased through the woods by an axe-wielding psychopath.  Oh, I’ve started my capsule review too far into this cheeky UK comedy with a dash of horror thrown in on top of some thrills.  Don’t worry, I didn’t give away too much of director Andrew Gaynord’s unpredictable yarn and I definitely didn’t reveal why Pete would be running away from his birthday party in the first place.  After all, a stay at a luxe mansion owned by the parents of his college friend for his celebration sounds like the perfect getaway…until a last-minute addition to the guest list changes the group dynamic for the worse.  Co-writer and star Tom Stourton nicely threads the needle of his performance in a way that has us tossing Pete our pity one moment and pretending we don’t know him the next.  The script keeps changing direction so much that it’s next to impossible to nail it down, much less figure out quite where it’s headed, until it reveals its endgame.  Quirky, maddening (in a good way), and increasingly ominous with a sufficient payout for your time, this is one to keep an eye on.

The Novice
Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance in 2009’s very underrated horror film Orphan still is sort of burnt onto my brain, so I didn’t need a lot of encouragement to buy that her character in THE NOVICE, a college freshman that joins the school rowing team, is a little, er, dark.  A sport not greatly captured on film, director Lauren Hadaway shows how rowing crew demands both physical and mental alacrity and only those operating at the top of their game will move ahead.  Used to being the best and punishing herself physically for anything less, Alex (Fuhrman) leaps headfirst into crew with the intent on moving to the elite varsity squad as quickly as possible.  In competition with her former novice friend, Alex tunes out all other aspects of her life and own physicality in her focus on winning.  Despite obvious comparisons to Black Swan and Whiplash (both of which are favorable and true), Hadaway’s The Novice is visually rich in the storytelling department with razor sharp editing (from Hadaway) and has Furhman turning in a devastatingly haunting performance.  It’s the type of superior work in indie cinema that should be hand delivered to awards voters over the next six months to ensure they see it, remember it, recognize it.

Movie Review ~ Queen Bees

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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

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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

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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.