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.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Gambler (1974)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Axel Freed is a literature professor with a gambling vice.

Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, M. Emmett Walsh, James Woods

Director: Karel Reisz

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Movies like 1974’s The Gambler exhaust me.  Like, honestly exhaust me.  Though clearly a product of its time in direction, production design, costume design, and performance it features the same hopeless characters that still populate movies 40 years later.  I call these Lost Cause Characters because it’s clear from the get-go that no amount of mountain moving or lesson learning will move them from their path to ruin.

With his star on the rise after his tough-guy role in The Godfather earned him an Academy Award nomination, James Caan (Misery) plays the role of the lit professor by day / gambling addict by night (and sometimes day) with all the right moves.  With his groovy print shirts never having more than three buttons in use, he looks the very image of 70s hunk with a tough edge.  Opening on a daytime binge of cards, dice, and lost cash the movie wastes no time in establishing that he’s an experienced gambler but one on the endless hunt for a winning streak.

Even in his early 30s Caan always looked like he was pushing 40 so it’s hard to buy him as a spoiled trust fund kid that manages to weasel out of any sticky situation.  His doctor mother (Jacqueline Brookes, playing conflicted to the point of incapacitation) continues to bail him out even when his wealthy grandfather won’t.  His relationship with a pretty thing (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo) isn’t fleshed out enough to give audiences anything to grasp onto and the overall effect is that this character is very much alone in his universe…with his best relationship a shady guy (Paul Sorvino) who would just as soon break his legs as he would sit down for dinner with him.

James Toback’s script is heavy with far too many scenes that feel repetitious but light on the kind of forward momentum that would allow director Karen Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) the opportunity to make something memorable out of this mish-mash.  Maybe the whole point was for the audience to be talking back to the screen yelling “Don’t double down!” and if that’s the case then bravo to all involved…but I doubt that an early 70s film would be (or could be) that self-aware.

The film totally loses all focus in the last twenty minutes and never more so than in the final moments.  I had to rewind it to see if I missed a key plot point but alas, it’s just another bust for this rough crap table of a film.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Misery (1990)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtely of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it alot.  So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them.  Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.


Misery (1990)

My dad was cool for many reasons, not the least of which was that he’d gladly take me to most any film as long as I’d steal, ahem, BORROW the salt from the concession stand so he wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the movie for a light re-dusting of his popcorn.  I vividly remember seeing Misery at Centennial Lakes 8 in Bloomington on a Wednesday evening and even as a 10 year old I knew it was the blackest of black comedies.

While a later trailer fell into the trap of providing perhaps too many details, this ultra brief teaser for Misery, like the teaser poster, gives you precious little information about the movie itself and instead focuses on the people behind the scenes.  Those familiar with Stephen King’s novel knew the dark tale of an obsessed fan imprisoning her favorite bestselling author would provide the thrills, but who could have predicted that Kathy Bates (Titanic) would win an Oscar for her role as a benign caregiver that slowly shows how unhinged she can become when crossed.  Don’t forget the important work of James Caan or director Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle) either…

Miss yesterday?  Check out my look at the teaser for Alien!