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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.