Movie Review ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

The Facts:

Synopsis: Still reeling from the loss of Gamora, Peter Quill rallies his team to defend the universe and one of their own – a mission that could mean the end of the Guardians if not successful.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone
Director: James Gunn
Rated: pG-13
Running Length: 150 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:   Marvel diehards may be united in their overall fandom for the ongoing adventure series seen on film and television, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded, it’s clear that specific groups are finding their niche favorites. In one corner, you have your Thor defenders (even if they were on shaky ground with 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder); on the other side of the field, you have the next-gen crowd looking forward to 2023’s The Marvels, which hopes to combine elements introduced on two Disney+ series with the long-awaited return of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel.

Over at the snack bar with their Air Pods in are the Guardians of the Galaxy stans. They’ve eagerly anticipated this (supposed) final volume in a trilogy shepherded by outgoing Marvel hire and new Warner Bros. kingpin James Gunn. Initially fired from the project over an old controversy that got him canceled, he was hired back after an outcry from fans and big-name stars attached to this third sequel. Disney mea culpa-ed their way back into Gunn’s good graces, and I’ve got a feeling the free-wheeling nature of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the November 2022 release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was the result of their hands-mostly-off deal to get him to come back.

I’ve never been a massive fan of these films, finding them the epitome of Marvel Humor run amok. What has worked in doled-out doses in other movies of the MCU throughout the various phases is unleashed at full volume in Gunn’s swan song. The result is a fitfully entertaining, overlong, self-indulgent space race that aims to give the true-blue fans what they’ve waited for. I’m sure those devoted to these grungy Guardians will gasp in delight at every needle drop pulled from the kind of classic rock greatest hits you’d expect to hear before a Monster Truck rally. However, it’s so devoid of surprise and basic imagination that you wish Gunn had spent less time putting together a playlist and more on giving the audience breathless unpredictability. 

To its credit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 works mainly as a stand-alone entry and doesn’t have many ties to previous (or future) films in the MCU, so if you’re a bit behind in the movie or television series, then you won’t be at a total loss as the movie begins. (As opposed to Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, which, while visually superior to Vol. 3, was narratively too intertwined with other projects.)  Residing on Knowhere, an intergalactic port of call they chill on between missions, the Guardians continue to grieve for the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña, Out of the Furnace), who met her end at the hand of her adopted father Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Unbeknownst to several, a new Gamora with no memory of her past life has found her way back (as shown in Avengers: Endgame – a detail I’d completely forgotten) and taken up arms with the Ravagers.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) blames himself for losing his love and continues his self-pity spiral we’ve seen in several films/specials. He’s still wallowing when Warlock (Will Poulter, Midsommar) crashes into Knowhere, disrupting the tranquility and causing intentional critical damage to one of their own. Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) is seriously injured, and the only way he can be healed is to locate the lab where he was given his genetically engineered strength. In doing so, the gang will unlock a secret from Rocket’s past and draw the ire of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, Daniel Isn’t Real) that created him. Eventually reuniting with an indifferent Gamora will put Quill, Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick),  Drax (Dave Bautista. My Spy), Nebula (Karen Gillan. Oculus), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) on a final mission that might save their friend or kill them all in the process.

There’s a lot of shouting in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which becomes aggravating as Gunn moves into the final act. The chief offender is Iwuji, who goes right off the rails with the villainous role he plays to the back of the movie theater and then some. It’s one thing to fill up the space on the screen and make yourself into a commanding presence, but it’s another thing to make the viewer want to plug their ears every time you speak. Iwuji is a strong actor and one of the more intriguing villains the MCU has created, but the performance is so enormous that it becomes a painful distraction. The rest of the cast also tends to deliver their lines with a guttural shout, as if they shot the movie in a machine shed. Gillan digs so far down for her coarse voice that you expect to see her tonsils sweeping the floor.

Speaking of Gillan, when she isn’t giving gravel voice, she’s offering a finely shaded performance that helps give the film some emotional arc, because it isn’t getting one from Pratt. While Pratt looks far more invested in this film than in the Jurassic World movies, he never feels entirely present. At least he has solid actors like Gillan and a surprisingly activated Saldaña to share scenes with. Watching the film also reminded me how much we undervalue Bautista as a successful presence onscreen. My mileage has always varied with Cooper voicing Rocket. I can appreciate that Cooper sounds like he’s having fun, and Vol. 3 is most definitely the Rocket show, giving extended glimpses into his origin story (one that reaches a peak with an emotional payoff I wasn’t exactly prepared for) and allowing a healthy amount of time for the Oscar-nominated actor to emote using only his voice. Painted Goldfinger gold, Poulter and especially Elizabeth Debicki (hidden behind a tousled stringy Gwyneth Paltrow wig) are wasted in their roles, undefined and only there to distract.

The fans of this trilogy (and the other MCU films the characters have turned up in) will undoubtedly walk out of the movie with a full belly – there are just too many Gunn-isms that I know will send them reeling with pleasure. I wish Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 had stuck to its, erm, guns more and trusted its finale status as just that. Promises of loose ends tied up are left slack, and windows that we think are locked when the final frame fades to black are already cracking before the last credits have run. That feels like giving us a slim slice of cake dripping with more frosting than it can support and then letting us watch while you eat a second steak dinner at your table.    

Movie Review ~ Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: In preparing for this review, I looked over the various covers of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, that have been released over the years, and marveling at how the front designs have changed with the times. A simple artist sketch in the first publication followed a more detailed illustration for the school paperback, giving way to a literal photographic interpretation of the central character on a recent reissue. Some designs are sparse, with only the title and a small flourish to make it pop or tie into a series of Blume YA novels. If you’ve read the book over the last five decades, you may spot a familiar scene depicted or any number of artist renderings of Margaret.

What hasn’t changed is what’s inside the front and back covers: the landmark story that Blume first published in 1970 and has remained a top-selling favorite among its target audience (growing young adults) as well as a hot-button issue for those that contest it being made available to that very population due to its mature subject matter. Countless books get their movie rights snapped up, often before they are even published, but Blume has always guarded her material closely and seldom grants requests to anyone for adaptation. With the book approaching its 50th anniversary, she put her trust in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and experienced producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) so that they could finally bring her gem of a novel to life for a new generation.

The summer before sixth grade has been good for sensitive Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, Ant-Man and the Wasp). She’s spent it at sleepaway camp in upstate New York and made a host of new friends, and while she’s wistful to see it end, she’s excited to get back home to see her parents and grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell). The warm fuzzies don’t last long because before mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Game Night) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza) can break it to her gently, Sylvia spills the beans that the three of them are moving to New Jersey. Leaving her friends, her spry grandmother, and the allure of the Big Apple behind is tragic to Margaret, but she’s assured this new beginning and a new job for her father will be the first step in accomplishing shared family goals.

It’s an adjustment for everyone. A former art teacher, the free-spirited Barbara is now a stay-at-home mother and throws herself into the suburban PTA domestic life while Margaret begins the school year with a leg up on the social circuit. She’s living close to Nancy Wheeler (Elle Green, She Said), a popular girl that wears a bra and expects all of her friends to wear one too, not that Margaret or Janie (Amari Alexis Price) or Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer, Widows) need one yet. That’s an embarrassing bridge to cross over with their mothers (definitely NOT their fathers) at a date yet to be determined, preferably in a neighboring town. 

The real issue weighing on Margaret isn’t the pressure from her friends about identifying each part of their changing bodies and highlighting who is growing faster and hitting milestones first, but in the tumult growing in her household. A child of interfaith parents, she realizes that with a Christian mother and Jewish father, their hands-off approach to religion and preference to let her make up her mind has left her even more confused about what she believes. So she begins to have (often nightly) conversations with God, probing discussions about her tiny corner of the world and its major impacts. As the school year goes on and adolescent hormones start to rear their raging head, Margaret and her friends experience the pains of growing up, the beauty of understanding yourself, and the joy of owning your path toward adulthood.

Blume’s wonderfully rich and insightful novel had been around for eleven years when director Kelly Fremon Craig was born, and Blume was wise to wait for her to grow up to adapt it for the big screen. A thread of confidence runs through the core of each film frame that gives it such power that it’s almost like electricity. Even if the performances weren’t so incredible, I think it would still have been a high achievement. Blessedly, the stars have aligned, and Fremon Craig landed the perfect actors to play these roles many of us had imagined over the years. 

Margaret Simon is a literary figure many young girls looked up to, and many boys had come to understand by reading Blume’s novel. Fortson embodies the character, all the emotional highs and lows, with marvelous grace – she understands Blume’s creation at its very center. The young actors from top to bottom are strong, from Margaret’s close friends to the well-cast members of her class (I was howling with delight at the one boy in class no one wants to be paired with), and Safdie continues to prove himself as interesting an actor as he is in the director’s chair. It’s a pleasure to see Bates all dolled up, looking like she just stepped out of Bergdorf Goodman and getting the chance to play a little broad comedy again. She needs to do more of it.

Though it’s Margaret’s movie, no question, I have to say that I was knocked out by what McAdams was doing in her supporting role. McAdams has always happily flown under the radar in Hollywood, content to do good work with strong directors and her fellow co-stars. She is attracted to roles that she can get passionate about no matter how high profile they are, and while I doubt she took this film thinking she’d get buckets of bouquets, I wouldn’t count her out for a strong Oscar push for Supporting Actress. Fremon Craig allows Barbara to grow in a different kind of awakening, and McAdams leaves us as wide-eyed as she is. 

The kind of tear-jerker that gets them out of you without resorting to cheap rug pulls or by going down the expected routes, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret represents the correct way to adapt a beloved novel. Patience is a virtue and key in ensuring you have found the right team to hand over something special. In my recent review of the document Judy Blume Forever, I expressed my eternal thanks to the author for providing us with rich characters and novels that helped us feel less lonely as we grew up. Now, there’s a movie that gives a similar feeling. 

Movie Review ~ Polite Society

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ria Khan believes she must save her older sister Lena from her impending marriage. After enlisting her friends’ help, she attempts to pull off the most ambitious wedding heists in the name of independence and sisterhood.
Stars: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Shobu Kapoor, Ella Bruccoleri, Seraphina Beh, Shona Babayemi, Nimra Bucha, Jeff Mirza, Akshay Khanna
Director: Nida Manzoor
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Mesdames and Messieurs, your attention, please. We have an audience-pleasing banger on our hands, and it’s not even summer yet. A clash between the refined snooty toots of the Bridgerton set, and the high-kicking, fast-paced zing of an undiscovered VHS Bollywood actioner, a breath of fresh air never smelled so confidently fragrant. Indeed, Polite Society comes roarin’ into theaters off a much-talked-about premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and a rapturous reception at the 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in seeing the film, make sure to avoid the trailers like the plague; marketing for this one gives an incredible amount of footage away – I mention this immediately because even if you read no further, make sure to skip the trailer and any footage you come across.

Now that you have my warning, we can get down to business and discuss Nida Manzoor’s action comedy built on feminist principles but not relying on them to lead their narrative. Manzoor gained notoriety in 2021 with her Peacock TV Series We Are Lady Parts, a sitcom following a punk rock band in Britain made up of all Muslim women. Highly awarded in its native country, its short run got a lot of attention for its creator, and soon after, Manzoor was hard at work bringing Polite Society to the screen. Several film festivals runs later, the movie is released to the general public, and I’ll be interested to see how it fares among other films that don’t provide a quarter of the brains or entertainment.

Intent on becoming stuntwoman like her idol, Eunice Huthart (played in voiceover by the real person), Ria (Priya Kansara) doesn’t recognize just how far into a depressive funk her sister Lena (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) has fallen. Dropping out of art school and wiling away her time at home in the house both sisters share with their parents, Lena’s so far gone that she’s eating an entire rotisserie chicken on the street in full view of her parent’s friends. Though Ria is otherwise occupied with her friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), it’s only after the family is invited out to an Eid celebration at the home of Rahela (Nimra Bucha) and her handsome son Salim (Akshay Khanna) that she begins to pay attention to the changes in her family dynamic.

Picking up on the odd behavior of Rahela and Salim, Ria assumes Lena will also write them off as bad news and thinks nothing more of it. However, Lena has been swept off her feet by Salim and soon finds herself engaged to the eligible bachelor. Actually, he’s only eligible because his young wife died under mysterious (but natural) circumstances…a factoid Ria can’t seem to forget about. Working with her BFFs, she hatches a plan first to split up her sister and potential future brother-in-law. Eventually, she concocts a plot to abduct her sibling at a lavish wedding celebration before it’s too late. She couldn’t be tapping into her wild imagination, could she? Salim and his mother offer reasonable explanations for their weird ways, or so it seems. Respected members of the “polite society,” neither would do anything to risk their positions in the community. Then again, mothers can be so protective of their sons…

In fairness, Manzoor’s film takes a few laps to get going. Surviving early on by the strength of Kansara’s ability to convey the right amount of non-annoying determination to pursue her chosen career and eventually the sheer gumption she uses to save her sister, Polite Society requires a bit of effort to settle in. Once it does, it connects in a big way. The fight sequences are bold and unique, and its rich color palette allows the actors and the scenery to pop. (Not that I could always see it. Once again, I was stuck at an AMC that refused to turn its bulbs up or replace them outright, so much of the movie was barely visible). 

Apart from Kansara, the actors playing her friends were nicely matched comic foils. Both have faces that lend themselves well to sizable comedic reactions, especially Bruccoleri. The casting, in general, was strong, with even the most minor roles utilizing actors I wanted to know more about, even if they were just popping in to buy an apple from a shop where the leads were getting groceries. Snagging the juiciest role is Bucha as a menacing figure who enters the sisters’ lives and doesn’t plan on going anywhere once she arrives. It’s an intense showcase, but the actress handles herself nicely, never quite showing her cards as to what she may have up her sleeve.

What a great time to go to the theater and see a movie like Polite Society with a large audience! The screening I attended was packed and nicely participatory throughout; you could feel the energy of viewers engaging with the material and the characters. That’s why there were random applause breaks throughout and at the end. While we’re known to be quite kind in MN, we don’t automatically dole out applause or standing ovations unless it warrants it. I’d strongly suggest catching this one at a theater near you. It’s fast, funny, and speaks volumes about this next generation of filmmakers with influential voices to keep amplifying.

Movie Review ~ Peter Pan & Wendy

The Facts:

Synopsis: Wendy Darling, a young girl afraid to leave her childhood home behind, meets Peter Pan, a boy who can fly and refuses to grow up. Alongside her brothers, Michael and John, and a tiny fairy, Tinker Bell, she travels with Peter to the magical world of Neverland.
Stars: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Jim Gaffigan
Director: David Lowery
Rated: PG
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: In 2016, I grumbled through the pre-release news of Disney’s remake of their fun 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. Now, it’s not as if that blend of live-action and animation (featuring a gorgeous Oscar-nominated tune sung by star Helen Reddy) was a jewel in the crown of the House of Mouse, but it was one of my childhood go-tos’s when I needed a pick-me-up. I wasn’t bothered by the other makeovers the studio had given their previous releases, but this seemed too sacred. I balked before giving director David Lowery’s take on the material a fair shot. And was I ever proven wrong!  

Lowery managed to keep the patina of the original film for devotees like me while coaxing a modern look at it that capitalized on its big heart. It was one of the best films of that year and still the best representation of how to do it right in the cycle of Disney remakes. With that success, Disney lined up Lowery to bring Peter Pan, another animated classic, to life, but it would take seven years for it to take flight. During that time, Lowery released four more films (A Ghost Story, The Yellow Birds, The Old Man & the Gun, and my favorite movie of 2021, The Green Knight) and produced four more. Thankfully the schedules lined up, and he’s made the time for Peter Pan and Wendy, a personal passion project he’s taken pains to get right.

By now, J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (aka Peter and Wendy), could be filed under the ‘oft-told’ stories section of our collective consciousness. We’re all familiar with the tale of the boy searching for his shadow in the nursery of a stately London home one evening and taking the children living there on a joyflight to Neverland. With his trusted fairy Tinkerbell giving them the pixie dust to buoy their “wonderful thoughts” that help them fly, Wendy, Michael, and John go on adventures with Peter Pan and his troupe of Lost Boys. 

Danger lurks in the form of the dreaded Captain Hook, always out to get Peter and only stopping to evade a crocodile stalking him. Pirate shenanigans ensue, with Tiger Lily joining forces with Peter to save a captured Wendy from walking the plank and forcing Hook to stare down his reptilian nemesis that has returned for seconds after getting a taste of his hand. With balance restored, the three children return home to their panicked parents with new friends who want to try this “getting old” business, but one boy holds back, determined to stay young forever.

I wouldn’t typically give such a complete description of the plot, even if the story of Peter Pan is one that we’ve seen numerous times on film in the 1953 animated Disney flick, on stage with Cathy Rigby, or in television specials starring Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan. Or perhaps we’ve waited in line for the ride at one of the Disney theme parks (an old-school track ride, for my money, it’s still the most enchanting one there) and are familiar with the storyline and could recite it in our sleep. It’s what Lowery does with that familiarity that makes this version so impressive.

Unlike Pete’s Dragon, a ‘lesser’ Disney title that Lowery could take some big swings with, there isn’t as much room to change things up in Peter Pan and Wendy, and that’s a smart move. Aside from rounding out the more problematic areas that have plagued the plot as the years go by and we’ve all learned about better representation, Lowery lets Barrie’s story speak for itself and instead focuses on creating a magical world with emotional performances that feel resonant. Performing a bit of a balancing of sorts to allow Wendy to be more in the equation where the narrative force is concerned helps the film not feel like it’s being ruled by the whims of an immature flying boy that only learns his lesson when a man-child (Hook) taunts him. In Lowery’s eyes, both have important lessons to teach the other, and the story isn’t complete until they understand what the other is bringing to the table.

Lowery has consistently shown himself fascinated with that transition from the young to the old. There’s a critical examination in Peter Pan and Wendy of not wanting to age and resisting it as long as possible for fear that life won’t be fun anymore. The tweaks made in Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks’s script make sense, including adding more nuanced interplay for Peter and Hook (an excellent Jude Law, The Grand Budapest Hotel, overdoing it slightly but only so far as the character he’s playing will allow it) and reducing the irritability of Tinkerbell (the lovely Yara Shahidi, Alex Cross) to make her more of an ally for Wendy (Ever Anderson, Black Widow) than a competitor for Peter’s affection. Peter (Alexander Molony) is also smoothed out a bit, asking him to be more responsible for his actions and behaviors than previous iterations have.

It’s silly that this is bypassing movie theaters and heading straight for Disney+ because Lowery has made Peter Pan and Wendy for the big screen. The production values are luxe, the art direction is meticulous, and the cinematography from Bojan Bazelli (Underwater) is creative without distraction. Watching it at home, even on a large screen, doesn’t do it justice. Also, a vague attempt at making sections have a musicality doesn’t exactly work…as much as I wish it had. Still, I enjoyed hearing the strains of the songs from the original used as recurring themes in Daniel Hart’s score. As with every Lowery production, it looks impeccable and easily puts you into the world the filmmakers have created.

Lowery waited so long to make the film because he wanted to get it right. I think the wait was worth it. The work is yet another showcase not just for the intuitive filmmaker Lowery is for tapping into emotions but for how to take a known property and change its form while retaining what was so special about it at the beginning.

Movie Review ~ Sisu

The Facts:

Synopsis: When an ex-soldier who discovers gold in the Lapland wilderness tries to take the loot into the city, Nazi soldiers led by a brutal SS officer battle him.
Stars: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo, Onni Tommila
Director: Jalmari Helander
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Among the various ways movie studios tried to market their films on BluRay back in the day was to introduce a new way of watching the movie: Maximum Movie Mode. That could mean any number of things, depending on the studio. It could mean you’d watch the film while a video of group commentary played in a small corner of the screen. Or you could branch out at various points to making-of documentaries without losing your place in the movie. You could also have your BluRay player send you an order of Buffalo Wild Wings and a six-pack of beer when the film was half over. OK, that last one is a lie, but I bet it wasn’t far off. I never got into this viewing experience – it was just too distracting.

A film like Sisu already exists in its own version of Maximum Movie Mode, so I couldn’t fathom how anything could be done to make the experience of watching it more eye-popping or blow-your-hair-back than it already is. This is the type of film you wouldn’t dare put on after midnight because you’ll be up way past your bedtime, desperate to know how it ends. (Yep, that was me.) A take-no-prisoners splatterfest that goes big, goes home, gets a shovel, and then hits you over the head several times with it. It’s an insane treat to take in and could easily be a buzzy hit in the making.

The end of World War II is drawing near, and the Nazi soldiers exiting Lapland know it. Heading home to what is undoubtedly their doom from a country that seeks to punish them for their crimes against humanity, they are slowly returning and exercising final acts of brutal power while at it. Happening to cross paths with what looks like a simple miner on horseback with his dog, they have no idea they’ve run afoul of Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), an ex-soldier dubbed Koschei (The Immortal) because he refused to die. 

Korpi has risked the trek through this land to get to town for a critical deposit: chunks of pure gold he found on his land that are worth a fortune. He just must get them past the greedy Nazis that figure if they had the gold, they could use it to bargain their way out of being executed. Under the direction of high-ranking Nazi official Bruno (Aksel Hennie, The Martian), the ungainly troopers are sent in to forcibly take the golden treasure from the guy who has yet to speak a word. One man against an army of soldiers. Sounds easy. It’s anything but as Korpi takes out an entire fleet of combatants one by one by one by one, in gorgeous, brutal form. 

The beauty in Jalmari Helander’s film is not just in how the violence is so over the top that it becomes comical but because Helander establishes the winking tone of the kind of movie he’s making from the start. It’s a Finnish Spaghetti Western, a David and Goliath story recast as a violent tale of critical survival. Our hero (or what we believe is our hero – who knows what he’s done before we meet him) receives massive injuries as well, grotesque maladies that would send any of us fleeing but only motivates him further to penalize them for their desire to steal what is not theirs.

As the man of few words (he only speaks once in the entire film), Tommila is superbly cast. Believable as a man who has already seen his fair share of death and tried to put it behind him, it is out of necessity, not want when he has to spring back into action.    The more he’s pushed, the harder he pushes back, hoping he will be left alone. Hennie is also good, building on a rote part and making something bigger than a simple Nazi officer out of it. I liked Jack Doolan as Bruno’s sidekick, too, and though women’s roles are underdeveloped, Mimosa Willamo is memorable and delivers the movie’s two greatest scripted moments of dialogue.

Divided into multiple “chapters” and benefitting from a wild but pitch-perfect score from Juri Seppä & Tuomas Wäinölä, I kept wondering what Quentin Tarantino would think about this. It feels like a liberal pull of style from Tarantino’s preferred comfort zone of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t doubt he’ll be commenting on it at some point. I’d also hedge a bet that once this is released and a few more important eyes are on it, Helander will get the Hollywood red carpet rolled out for him. You can count on the fact that based on the quality of Sisu, Helander is the one that’s truly struck gold.

Sisu opens in theaters nationwide on April 28
A full list of theaters is here

Movie Review ~ The Black Demon

The Facts:

Synopsis: Stranded on a crumbling rig in Baja, a family faces off against a vengeful megalodon shark.
Stars: Josh Lucas, Fernanda Urrejola, Venus Ariel, Carlos Solórzano, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Raúl Méndez, Héctor Jiménez
Director: Adrian Grünberg
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: All together now: What genre does The MN Movie Man love above all else? The Big Shark Movie! And what genre constantly lets The MN Movie Man down above all else? The Big Shark Movie? Oh, the pity. Oh, the pain. Yes, I have been burned by many a bad shark movie over the years, which I have lamented in several reviews during my tenure here. I’ve never remotely thought that any would match up to my beloved JAWS, but you’d think that after all this time and all the technological advances, someone would be able to strike gold at some point, right? I mean…right?

Here’s what you came here for. Is The Black Demon any good? Yes, it’s not half bad, and the half that isn’t very good isn’t as bad as you fear it might be, and even so, it’s a heckuva lot better than the best worst dreck that’s been chumming streaming rentals ad nauseum. In that sense, The Black Demon is quite the breath of fresh salty sea air because there’s a sense there are more than a few people involved with the production that cared about making a movie that has value to its entertainment. It’s got its problems (mostly narrative; surprisingly, the effects are why I’d recommend it). Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that those who have scoffed at its comically askew plot might enjoy this mother-of-a-shark movie more than they initially thought.

A vague air of the supernatural haunts The Black Demon from the start, with the insinuation being that the locals in a tiny town near Baja, Mexico, have called for assistance from a mystical Megalodon shark which supposedly hunts near the Sea of Cortez. An oil rig from a smarmy corporation has killed the tourism industry and the profits for the town, and the people want revenge. So now a shark has crippled the rig and ensures no one comes or leaves. 

Too bad no one told Paul Sturges (Josh Lucas, She Dies Tomorrow) that. Using a work trip (for the oil company he stumps for) to Baja to double as a family vacation, he brings his wife Ines (Fernanda Urrejola, Blue Miracle) and bickering children Audrey (Venus Ariel) and Tommy (Carlos Solórzano, Flamin’ Hot) along to see the tropical locale. He’ll do a little business quickly on the rig and then return to his family. When they arrive, they don’t get the warmest greeting and instantly feel that something is off – as if the boarded-up shops and glaring locals didn’t indicate that. No matter, Paul still needs to check some things out for his company, and then they’ll find a new location to enjoy their time together.

Of course, the entire family somehow winds up on the rig, along with two workers and a yappy Chihuahua. Obvious math will tell you who won’t be touching dry land again, and so we put our remaining 60 minutes into the hands of director Adrian Grünberg and ask that he is kind. And he is, mostly. While Carlos Cisco & Boise Esquerra’s script doesn’t go all the way with its supernatural angle (it could have gone even further and had more fun), Grünberg is a whiz at finding the right visuals to keep us hungry for more and not hangry for being kept waiting too long. The CGI of the shark is above average, and as long as it’s acting on its own, it’s often impressively menacing. Things can get wonky when the big guy (or gal, I don’t know them personally) gets up close and personal with other objects. 

In the realm of The Big Shark Movie, The Black Demon rises high near the surface. Instead of allowing the movie to sink on the weight of its ludicrous premise and overzealous performances (I’m looking at you, Josh Lucas, wearing an ill-advised tank top), Grünberg has taken pains to jostle his film to a level of brisk entertainment not often found in this genre. It’s not the fastest swimmer in the bunch, but it gets a good bite occasionally.

THE BLACK DEMON will be exclusively in theaters April 28

Movie Review ~ From Black


The Facts:

Synopsis: A recovering drug addict, desperate for closure and saddled by crushing guilt after the disappearance of her young son, is presented with a bizarre offer to learn the truth about what happened and set things right – if she is willing to pay a terrifying price.
Stars: Anna Camp, Jennifer Lafleur, John Ales, Travis Hammer, Richie Montgomery
Director: Thomas Marchese
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: If I had more time, I might be tempted to go back to From Black and fast-forward through all of the parts of the film where a character a) walks s-l-o-w-l-y up a staircase/down a hallway, b) is shown in slow motion, or c) is shown doing something slowly in slow motion. I’d be willing to bet it should shave off at least (at least!) 10 minutes off the already bloated run time for this disappointing demonic horror which could have turned out quite differently.

Let’s start with the fact that the film has no right being as long as it is, with barely any premise to build off of. As the film opens, Cora (Anna Camp, Pitch Perfect) has been brought in by the police because Something Bad Happened, and she’s cagey about the details. We know there are buckets of blood strewn about a room in her house, and Cora’s in such a state of shock she’s not talking. Still grieving over her son’s disappearance, adding these recent events to her continued pain has only pushed her further toward her breaking point. 

That’s when big sister Bray (also an officer) comes in and gets her talking. Can she tell us whom the blood belonged to and why her floors had so many odd symbols, melted candles, and salt sprinkled around? And where is her low-life ex-boyfriend and grief counselor Cain (John Ales, Gatlopp) that had been visiting her more and more lately? Bringing us back to the beginning, Cora recounts the past few months’ events and starts with her son vanishing while she was drugged out and not paying attention to his well-being. Her inability to cope with the loss led her to Cain’s support group, but her guilt prevented her from progressing toward the acceptance she needed to move on.

Cain notices this within her and strikes up a strange friendship, culminating in offering her a seemingly impossible opportunity. She could still see her son again, but only if she worked with Cain on an ancient ritual they would perform in her house over several days. Recoiling at first, Cora’s motherly instincts finally compel her to call – a call that will change everything she knows about life and death. As the ritual proceeds and she’s exposed horrific truths about her life’s trajectory and the death that waits in the darkness, she’ll understand her overall role in a long-standing agreement with evil. 

Ours is an Anna Camp household, which is one reason I jumped at seeing the actress leading a horror film. Left to her good instincts, Camp does well as the single mother struggling to battle her grief and lingering addiction with diminished willpower. Paired with an equally watchable Jennifer Lafleur (Nope) as her big sister, the two have an excellent bond. It’s Ales that sours the mix in From Black, bringing uncomfortable energy to the proceedings…and not the type his character is supposed to be offering. With Ales treating the film like a playground for zealous scene-chewing and Camp going for a more naturalistic breakdown, a misalignment of acting styles further drags down From Black.

It’s evident director, and co-writer Thomas Marchese has a firm grasp on the intended tone of From Black. Shot in Mississippi (I’m guessing during COVID due to the lack of extras and the number of 1:1 scenes between Camp and Ales), cinematographer Duncan Cole makes good use of the locale and location shooting. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t give the film high marks for its few decent chills the further Cora ventures into troubling territory, especially the nefarious creature that appears to get stronger the closer she gets to the answers she seeks. That slo-mo, though, kills the pace whenever Marchese employs it. Anytime you see someone mournfully looking up a flight of stairs or pensively peering down a hallway, you better sit back and close your eyes – it’s going to be a long walk.

FROM BLACK will stream on
Shudder and AMC+ on April 28

Movie Review ~ Clock

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman who enrolls in a clinical trial to try and fix her seemingly broken biological clock after friends, family, and society pressures her to have children.
Stars: Dianna Agron, Melora Hardin, Saul Rubinek, Jay Ali
Director: Alexis Jacknow
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: We’ve barely gotten to the end of April, and already 2023 has been a weird year for moms onscreen. February’s Baby Ruby found the idyllic life of a famous blogger undone by her pregnancy, with the difficult birth and subsequent post-partum depression mined for all its real-world horrors. It’s not out yet, but Birth/Rebirth will deliver soon on Shudder, and it will put mothers through the wringer as they watch a nurse team up with a pathologist to bring her deceased daughter back from the dead. Now there’s Clock, a Hulu original that aims to join the ranks of these effective mommy movies but can’t quite make its case thanks to muddy execution on the flimsy premise.

Having made up her mind long ago not to have children, it’s only recently that Ella (Dianna Agron, The Family) has started to feel the pressure around her growing to reconsider her decision. Her widowed and lonely father (Saul Rubinek, Blackberry) always raises the subject in passing, frustrating his daughter in the process. Though her husband Aidan (Jay Ali) entered their marriage with the same outlook on parenting, he has even appeared to change his stance. Surrounded by new mothers or mommies-to-be, Ella surprises herself when she agrees to upend her life and participate in a recent study by Dr. Simmons (Melora Hardin) at a private retreat.

Until this juncture, writer/director Alexis Jacknow had been making good headway in solidifying the argument that women claim to feel ostracized from their peer group if they aren’t in line to start families. Give in and have a baby and you may resent your child because you had them for the wrong reasons, resist and stick to your gut and feel the need to defend your right not to procreate constantly. Unfortunately, the moment Ella steps into the study with Dr. Simmons, Clock starts to wind down rapidly, devolving from a thriller going somewhere to a film that’s hitting its snooze button.

Mumbo-jumbo is the best way to describe what’s going on in the latter part of the film during sessions between Ella and Dr. Simmons. You might be tempted to be swayed by the stellar performance of Hardin, who is quite convincing in her role, but you get to the point where even Hardin can’t keep it all straight. Agron’s not much help either, losing all her strong character traits established in the beginning for the sake of the script. The same goes for Rubinek, who enters the picture with a gleam in his eye but comes back for another scene so changed for the worse (he gets downright hostile) it’s as if the character’s backstory was rewritten entirely. Also – you’ll likely be asking yourself where true horror is in this horror film – because it’s rarely rousing. (Save for one shot I won’t spoil that will have men instinctively crossing their legs and grimacing.)

I appreciate that Hulu continues to throw money at filmmakers with new voices, especially those expanding earlier good works into longer feature-length films. As with the upcoming Appendage, (like Clock, adapted from that director’s earlier short film), I hoped this would find a way back to a solid center by its conclusion, but there’s little left to scrape together by the finale. Even with Hardin keeping the gears turning for most of the running time, it can’t stop this Clock from breaking down.

MSPIFF Reviews ~ Tough Mary Factory Mean

40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World

Director:  Marius Anderson
Synopsis: What is the Arrowhead 135? Nothing more than one of the world’s most challenging, most dangerous races. Run, bike, or ski; you have to make it 135 miles in America’s coldest, most desolate area in the dead of January. And the participants wouldn’t change a thing.
Thoughts:  My friend once bought a Groupon for a “picturesque bike ride through St. Paul” and invited me along. I bought a helmet, and we showed up with bikes we rented from those hourly kiosks, thinking it would be a lovely summer catch-up event. Well, it turns out it wasn’t a casual ride but a competitive race that stretched 20 miles up/down/around our capital city. Not only did I think my friend was trying to kill me from exhaustion, but l thought I’d die from the embarrassment of having these professional cyclists coasting by us and giving our granny bikes an eye-rolling glance.

That was the closest I’ve come to “extreme endurance” sporting, which is nothing compared to what the committed entrants (who should be committed, j/k) of the Arrowhead 135 race subject themselves to. Beginning in International Falls, MN, and weaving 135 miles during the coldest stretch of winter, athletes trek on foot, skis, or bicycles in beyond harsh conditions for the bragging rights of finishing what many in this tight-knit athletic community regard as the toughest race in the world.

A recent transplant to Duluth, German director Marius Anderson learned about the race from his father-in-law and soon found himself following two participants (wildly colorful Bill Bradley and determined cyclist Leah Gruhn) as they prepared and participated in the 2019 race. The resulting film, 40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World, is the result of years of work with that footage, and it’s a doozy. The tiny crew manages to be in several places simultaneously as they track the treacherous trek, watching the success and defeat of the best of the best along the way.

He may be new to the state, but Anderson completely nails the local humor that gives the mostly MN set film such charm. Along with Bradley, who possesses a never say die spirit that provides the movie with its compelling through-line, Anderson grabs choice bits of local humor that had the audience rolling. Bradley’s rip-roaring wild card is complimented nicely by the more erudite Gruhn, who approaches the race with greater consideration for the science of how the conditions can affect the body and plans ahead for how to change course.

 I would have loved more information on the origin of the race and perhaps more rounding off of a few participants we meet, but overall this is tightly edited, assured work. It’s easy to see why a third screening was added to accommodate demand after its first two shows sold out. It’s sitting on top of the audience rankings for a reason.

Being Mary Tyler Moore

Director: James Adolphus
Cast: Mary Tyler Moore, James L. Brooks, Rob Reiner, Treva Silverman, Beverly Sanders, S. Robert Levine, MD, John & Ronda Rich Tinker, Ed Asner, Jim Burrows, Bill Persky
Synopsis: With unprecedented access to Mary Tyler Moore’s vast archive, Being Mary Tyler Moore chronicles the screen icon whose storied career spanned sixty years. Weaving Moore’s personal narrative with the beats of her professional accomplishments, the film highlights her groundbreaking roles and her indelible impact on generations of women who came after her.
Thoughts:  As I write this, I’m staring at the box set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on top of one of my movie bookcases. One of the best cast and most awarded television shows in the medium’s history, when it began in 1970, it was not only a forerunner of what was to come in the changing roles of women in the workplace but how they were thought of in Hollywood as well. The titular star was a chief reason behind all that. As she moved into the direct spotlight from her respected second banana spot as the wife of Dick Van Dyke in his self-titled show, Moore demonstrated that she could hold her own at the epicenter of another comedic marvel.

Yet as we find out in Being Mary Tyler Moore, the new documentary from director James Adolphus premiering on HBO in May and seen at the 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival,in reality, the star led a more complicated life that stood in stark contrast to the single, childless, effervescent personality she played on TV. She turned the world on with her smile, but in private, the pain of self-doubt and pressure to please often overshadowed her significant accomplishments in an industry that would turn fickle with each stumble.

Adolphus takes a largely valentine approach to his portrait of Moore, framing much of it with several key television interviews where Moore is grilled with unusually difficult questions about her choices surrounding her career and personal life. Ever graceful, Moore is firm but friendly to even the most absurd questions that no one would ever think to ask a man. Charting her good fortune rise through early roles on TV to her casting on The Dick Van Dyke Show, her wildly popular seven-season run as the iconic Mary Richards, and her Oscar-nominated turn in Ordinary People, Adolphus tangents along the way to show how her home life often bore little resemblance to the types of roles she was playing on the screen. All subjects interviewed are heard but not seen, so you never know where the sound byte has come from, either an archive interview or conducted exclusively for the doc.

It’s probably just as well that Adolphus holds back a bit when discussing Moore’s struggle with alcohol because, by that time, the documentary had refrained from visiting the darker side, which feels like a topic discussed in another profile. While it leaves the work incomplete as a whole picture, Being Mary Tyler Moore offers viewers more than a simple glimpse behind the smile and a chance to know the woman offering it.

Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory

Director: Justin Johnson aka Justinsuperstar
Cast: Brian Johnson, Randi Johnson
Synopsis: When director Justinsuperstar’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, his father, an inveterate inventor, crafted a prosthetic nipple that impressed all their medical staff. But Mom and Dad’s business is a bit of an embarrassment for this conservative couple and is kept under wraps until their little secret is discovered.
Thoughts:  First things first. So far, this is the very best movie I’ve seen at the film festival. Running a brisk 81 minutes and carrying the most eyebrow-raising title, it’s also got the biggest heart and exposed a sensitive spirit I wish we could see more of on film.

On the surface, this documentary is about a husband and wife who have created something out of a need, providing a service to those who have gone without it. At its core, it’s a film about family and the gaps created when we leave words unspoken and the rewards offered when we find ways to communicate in the best ways we know how. It takes time for children to understand their parents as more than their universal job descriptions and for parents to see their growing kids as the adults they are, but when both find that awareness of the other and they align, gigantic doors can be opened.

First and foremost, I think director Justin Johnson has given the viewers of Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory a film charting how his tinker-y father, frustrated with seeing his wife given little options to feel whole after having a unilateral mastectomy to treat breast cancer, took it upon himself to create a more realistic nipple from a practical standpoint. Through trial and error and no formal training in the process, he produced a sample that fooled surgeons with years of experience. Operating the business out of their home in Wisconsin, the conservative Christian couple began to give women from diverse backgrounds options on their path to healing, helping them to feel better about themselves when looking in the mirror.

Secondly, Johnson has found a way to communicate with his parents, namely his father, to mend fences that time had weathered. Johnson’s father is a man of few words, the last to play any loud instrument, least of all toot his own horn. In a sort of kindly, gentle way, the documentary forces him to see his ingenuity’s effect on women like his wife, who have benefited from what he creates by hand in his house.

Oh boy, Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory got me good in the tears department, not just because I found the story highly relatable in multiple categories from a personal perspective. There’s much humor to be found, sometimes in just the matter-of-fact way Johnson’s father talks about his creation and in the way those that know the family speak of their reaction to first hearing about the at-one time secret operation being conducted in their town. The sentimentality comes not from an overly saccharine tone (Johnson’s mother is an eternal optimist and is rarely seen without a smile) but in letting the premise and purpose sink in. I won’t spoil the finale, but there’s a satisfying cry waiting for those with tender heartstrings waiting to be plucked.

If you are a breast cancer survivor and/or to learn more about Brian and Randi Johnson’s company, please visit Naturally Impressive, LLC: Prosthetic Nipple Restores Confidence! after seeing this film!

Minnesota Mean

Director: Dawn Mikkelson
Synopsis: Following six fierce members of Minnesota Roller Derby as they fight to win the Hydra, the prize for the best women’s flat track roller derby team in the entire world.
Thoughts:  Attending enough regional festivals, you see that local filmmakers often get an in-state advantage to appearing on the bill when viewing the big picture of programming. Mostly, the output is admirable but nothing earth-shattering, but at this year’s 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, I’m finding a robust slate of films/documentaries either from local filmmakers or with ties to the area that are inching their way to the top of my all-fest favorites. I mention this at the beginning of my Minnesota Mean write-up because while I didn’t always connect to the subject presented by director Dawn Mikkelson, overall, it’s nicely crafted and full of the midwestern spirit of unity through a good ass-kicking. That’s what makes it worthy of your time.

I’ve known a few of the bold athletes that have been part of the world of Minnesota Roller Derby but miraculously have never made it out to see a live tournament in all the years they have been active at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Mikkelson follows a team, the Minnesota Mean, through one championship stretch where they go after their most significant prize. Witnessing the players’ lives on and off the track gives us an inside glance into their sacrifices to their relationships, physical and mental health, and often their plans for starting families and focusing on career goals. It’s not the glossy world of roughhousing portrayed in fictional filmmaking, but skirmishes in auditoriums with huge crowds to smaller venues sparsely attended.

Through it all, the players remain steadfast to one another and supportive as teammates. If there was internal strife or issues between players, Mikkelson skates right past it because the picture presented is genuine camaraderie. Structurally, I found it to be uneven as the timeline between matches and during the jam can be a tad confusing, even with a quick rundown of the rules at the beginning. A tighter edit and a more straightforward introduction of when players arrive and depart (several leave before the season ends) would benefit Minnesota Mean immensely. There’s compelling material here, especially considering the end title cards updating us on the players. Still, we need to feel like we understand it all more for that ending to land correctly.

MSPIFF Reviews ~ My Sailor, My Love & Flamin’ Hot (and a Secret Screening!)

My Sailor, My Love

Director: Klaus Härö
Cast: James Cosmo, Bríd Brennan, Catherine Walker, Nora-Jane Noone
Synopsis: A retired sea captain and his daughter must reassess their strained relationship after he begins a new romance with a widowed housekeeper.
Thoughts: On my way into the screening of My Sailor, My Love, I glanced at the audience rankings of films screened so far at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and noticed it had found its way into the Top 5. That set the bar a bit high for this delicate, if predictable, Irish romance that isn’t out to recreate the Claddagh but will win over audiences hoping to warm their heart by its welcoming hearth.

Nurse Grace (Catherine Walker) finds her marriage as unfulfilling as her weekend trips to visit her burly barnacle of a father (James Cosmo). Emotionally withholding is the nicest way to describe his attitude toward her, not that Grace throws around good vibes, either. Both find their lives changed when Grace hires local widow Annie (the glowing Bríd Brennan, a Tony Award winner) to help Howard tend to his house on the Irish seaside.  

Sparks fly when Annie and Howard initially meet, and not the kind you’d imagine would lead to the late-in-life love affair that develops, all while Grace watches, glowering from the sidelines. Director Klaus Härö’s film is at its best when we’re focused on the tender developments between Annie and Howard as both navigate something new. On the other hand, it feels like it’s battling against its good intentions each time it involves Grace (which is no thumbs down on Walker, who is terrific) and her sour woes.

Audiences looking to be transported for 105 minutes will be appropriately enthralled by Robert Nordström’s lush cinematography of prime Irish real estate in My Sailor, My Love, and Michelino Bisceglia’s gossamer score matches the changing of sensitivities. It’s all a bit of a pat package that is likely headed in the direction you think but may take a curve or two. It’s a journey worth taking, especially seeing actors like Cosmo and Brennan presenting such strong work.

Flamin’ Hot

Director: Eva Longoria
Cast: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Emilio Rivera, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, Pepe Serna, Bobby Soto, Jimmy Gonzales, Brice Gonzalez
Synopsis: The story of Richard Montañez, the Frito Lay janitor who channeled his Mexican American heritage and upbringing to turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into a snack that disrupted the food industry and became a global phenomenon.
Thoughts: Aside from the occasional episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network, I had never thought much about how the snack chip industry decided on its flavor variations. I definitely hadn’t considered the crucial ways culture could also factor in as influential.  Then a pure audience-pleasing flick like Flamin’ Hot gives that fresh perspective on how consumer tastes for a spicy favorite have been molded – and it wasn’t by lab techs or corporate yes-men.  Instead, it was a blue-collar worker with a vision that rallied his family, community, and colleagues to work together toward bringing something bold to a bland landscape.   

When Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) joined a California branch of Frito-Lay as a janitor in the early ‘80s, he was married with two kids and desperate to stay off the streets.  Narrowly avoiding jail time for errors in his past, he had his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez), who stood by him and encouraged him never to settle.  Naturally curious about mechanics and self-possessed enough to ask engineer Clarence C. Baker (Dennis Haysbert) to teach him what he doesn’t know, he spends the next decade learning how everything in the processing plant works while holding down his maintenance position and never receiving a promotion. 

As the Reagan ‘80s give way to the Bush ‘90s, the economy is hurting, and there are rumors Richard’s plant may shut down if they can’t compete with a plant in a neighboring town.  Inspired by a video from the company CEO (Tony Shaloub, who I swore was Bobby Cannavale for most of the film) as well as his youngest son’s reaction to biting into a spicy piece of elote, Richard sees the gap that’s always been present between the product his company produces and the Latin community he’s a part of.  Where’s the spice?  All around him, he says he sees people buying Cheetos, Doritos, and Fritos but then dousing them with hot sauces to give it an extra kick.  If Frito-Lay could tap into that market by creating a desirable flavor, maybe the potential cutbacks and shutdowns wouldn’t have to happen.  But how can Richard, a janitor on the lowest rung, make his pitch to the CEO when he has no way of contacting him? 

Actress and producer Eva Longoria (who I’m pretty sure has a millisecond cameo; see if you can catch it too) makes her feature film directing debut with Flamin’ Hot. I was initially concerned that the narrative (and narration) wouldn’t take a breath long enough for an audience to take in the story being told but it finds its footing when Richard’s adult life stabalizes.  This isn’t so much a rags-to-riches story because Longoria and screenwriters Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette (adapting Montañez’s book) prefer to stick with Richard and family up until Flamin’ Hot took off and went on to become a billion-dollar brand.  The essential parts of the story are how the Montañez family pooled their resources and know-how to figure out a solution to the complex equation in front of them. 

Flamin’ Hot takes place over several decades, so expect to see several changing wigs and styles, which can sometimes lend the film to a TV movie of the week look.  Some of that feeling is dissipated with the performances of Garcia (an actor who can be confident one moment and vulnerable the next) and Gonzalez (the film’s secret weapon of strength) and nice supporting turns from Haysbert (when is he not good?), Shalhoub, Bobby Soto, and Jimmy Gonzales. 

One more thing to add – I think it’s a shame this is going straight to Hulu and Disney+ without getting at least a short theatrical run.  Released by Fox Searchlight, Flamin’ Hot should be granted wider theatrical exposure. Seeing it with a large audience helped it through overly sentimental moments that might play too sweet if you watch from home.

Secret Screening

Director: Can’t Say!
Cast: I promised!
Synopsis: No!
Thoughts:  Look, I took an oath.  No, really.  They made us raise our right hand and everything.  I’m only including this Secret Screening segment for three reasons. 

The first is to thank The Main Cinema and staff for doing such a bang-up job so far with this fest. It isn’t easy to run a movie theater when it’s not showing 150+ movies in two weeks, but everyone I’ve encountered, from the front of house to concessions, has been excellent.  And shout out to all the #MSPIFF42 volunteers!

The second is to give major props to the MSP Film Society and their programmers for securing this screening and then swearing us to secrecy.  You had to jump through many hoops to get it here, but we all appreciated it. And now we have something to share.

The third is to encourage you always to attend the secret screening when offered.  It’s your opportunity to stick your neck out and go for broke.  I had no clue what would be playing, but unless it was a single shot of an ant crawling up a log for 100 minutes, I wasn’t going to run for the hills.  Once again.  Always go to the secret screening.

P.S. If you wanted a clue, you’ve already been provided one. And not by me.