Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Hellbender, or: A Worm Welcome

Sometimes we watch horror films that aren’t about witches…and I question this decision. Given the history of nonsense persecution for witchcraft, it’s deeply satisfying to imagine the mischief witches would get up to if they really did have dark magic. And, honestly, it just looks cool to see people get turned into dust onscreen every now and then.

Our film this month doesn’t necessarily fit well into the non-award-winning theme, but it did have decidedly mixed audience reactions upon release. Plus…witches.

The Film:

Hellbender

Directors:

John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser

The Premise:

A mother and daughter who live alone in the woods have a family secret (spoiler: it’s witchcraft).

The Ramble:

Back in the day, a woman is solemnly hanged by a group of women and children in the woods. She seems to die initially, but it’s not long before her feet are twitching again, and she’s immune to even multiple gunshots to the head. When she flies into the air in a flaming burst, it seems like a worrying sign. More on that later.

In the present, a punk band mother/daughter duo live in alone in the woods. Izzy, who has an autoimmune disorder, is never allowed in town or around other people. This includes a random hiker walking through the woods who asks Izzy a question…unknowingly related to her own mother’s witchcraft! When her mother (unnamed in the film) discovers this scene, it doesn’t bode well for the hiker, who discovers how fatal the woman’s magic can be. Rather than relishing her power to destroy, Izzy’s mother seems deeply troubled.

As there isn’t much else to do, Izzy frequently wanders around the woods. Eventually, she stumbles across a young woman her own age, Amber. Happy to have a new friend, Izzy begins to break the rules, hanging around other people, using a neighbor’s pool without permission, and abandoning her strict vegetarian diet. It’s after eating a worm that Izzy suddenly falls into a trance-like state, choking Amber and wigging her the fuck out.

Noticing a marked change in her daughter, Izzy’s mom reveals that there is no autoimmune disorder but a very different family trait passed down across generations: witchcraft! The band’s name, Hellbender, also describes the family’s dark magic, some combination of witch, demon, and apex predator. Women in this lineage have self-reproduced for generations, drawing power from the fear of whatever creatures they kill. Izzy’s mother has been working for years to temper the destructive witchy tendencies within. As it turns out, Izzy has not been kept from society because she is ill, but because she may be a danger to others.

Izzy essentially begins witch training, demonstrating perhaps a little over-eagerness to consume animals and test the limits of her power. After time passes and people begin to ask questions about that hiker from earlier and his disappearance. When Izzy and her mother find an increasing number of picked clean deer skeletons in the woods, it feels like a red flag, but her mother simply comments that there’s no moral judgment; whatever happened is in the creature’s nature.

After facing rejection when attempting to make amends with Amber, will Izzy choose to embrace the darkness?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This isn’t a high budget film–in fact, it’s more or less a family’s passion project as John Adams (Hiker), Lulu Adams (Amber), Zelda Adams (Izzy), & Toby Poser (Mother) are all related. The filmmakers really do their best to make use of limited resources, allowing the creatively shot landscapes to work effectively in creating atmosphere. There are a number of what I presume are drone shots that are stunning, along with scenes where the camera is peeking out from behind trees, waterfalls, foxgloves. I adore how this film looks.

Additionally, the effects aren’t big budget either, but they work well and were genuinely striking and/or creepy quite often.

I appreciated our rather dark ending, though I think a few things being left too vague did prevent me from giving this a full 4 stars. I don’t really understand why Izzy’s mother wasn’t honest with her from the beginning and train her from an early age to manage her witch powers? Some of this would ruin the metaphorical coming of age story here I suppose. However, given that the two lived apart from society anyway, why should Izzy not have known from birth about her powers? I don’t think we got enough of an understanding of Izzy’s mother’s mind to get how & why she made this decision, leaving a pretty large plot hole in my opinion.

Despite this, I was never bored and really enjoyed watching Izzy’s…growth? I’ll be looking forward to the family’s next feature, particularly if there are more witches.

Would my blog wife drink tequila shots with this one or pick it clean like a deer carcass? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Stylist, or: I’m Hair for You

Naturally, a fairly broad film category this month has us veering into horror territory. And while it’s true some prestige horror has gotten critical recognition in the past few years, don’t worry: all titles currently featured on the Collab were not and never will be award contenders.

The Film:

The Stylist

Director:

Jill Gevargizian

The Premise:

A lonely hairstylist befriends a client who is oblivious to her secret life…murdering people with hair scissors.

The Ramble:

Claire is the kind of hairstylist who gets you a glass of wine as she touches up your roots. Clearly I was not been going to the right hairdressers when that was a thing I did. Then again, Claire is the kind of stylist who may or may not scalp you, and I’ve done well from that perspective. I have a 0 tally for number of times scalped by a hairdresser.

As the stylist learns more about her client who travels for work, is having an affair, and seems dissatisfied with her life, Claire’s composure starts to slip. Ultimately, she makes a wig of her client’s hair by legitimately scalping her after she’s passed out from drugged wine. Claire seems eager to try on someone else’s life by wearing the wig yet is disturbed and conflicted about what she’s done. Her creepy basement reveals that Claire has a rather robust collection of scalp wigs.

Though Claire has her regular clients and routine visits to a local coffee shop where the barista knows her by name, it’s apparent quite early that she leads an extremely lonely life with no one really knowing her. Claire seems extremely repressed yet fixated on the marital statuses of those around her. She never does hair for weddings, but ultimately agrees to help Olivia, a regular client in need of a stylist for the big day.

As the wedding day rapidly approaches, Claire becomes closer with Olivia, even considering her a friend. However, as Claire doesn’t seem to know what a healthy friendship entails, she becomes obsessed with Olivia, in almost equal parts falling in love with her client and falling in love with her life.

Though in some ways Claire wants to give up her murderous tendencies, it doesn’t take much to revive her urge to kill. When she hits a rough patch with her new bff, what will Claire do to make sure the wedding is perfect?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

It seems the question this film asks is whether your social anxiety would ever drive you to kill…and the answer is a resounding yes. The film does a great job in depicting the depths of Claire’s loneliness, though as a result she seems almost more pitiable than terrifying. We don’t know much about her besides how alone she is as a person, and that doesn’t give us enough of a glimpse into her mind to understand her behavior. I appreciate the ways Claire wants to literally try on someone else’s life…but not enough that it makes murder seem like the logical next step.

The film does well in establishing the relationship between Claire and Olivia, leading up to the absolutely excellent final scene. And I’ll give this credit for being visually beautiful–not always what I’d expect from horror. However, the slow burn just becomes slow at times, and it’s not always clear where the film is going. There aren’t quite enough of the blanks filled in to make this as effective a horror as it could be.

Would my blog wife happily take care of this one’s split ends or give it much more of a trim than expected? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman, or: I Yacht the Sheriff

While I’m glad we crossed off some Oscar-nominated films during April, the month felt a lot like homework. And critical favor is so fleeting…is anyone going to be watching Licorice Pizza 10 years from now?

Of course, films that veer into tacky and trashy territory are much more our speed, so this May is dedicated to movies that under no circumstances would ever be award winners. Is there any category more fitting than horror based on serial killer true crime?

The Film:

Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman

Director:

Daniel Farrands

The Premise:

Facing execution, serial killer Aileen Wuornos recounts her early days, including an ill-fated marriage to a much older man.

The Ramble:

First interviewing the subject of your documentary the day before their execution feels like poor planning, but we’re apparently meant to believe this is something a good filmmaker would do. The fictional filmmaker of this fictional documentary (but confusingly based on a real documentary?) is determined to be the one to get compelling footage of Aileen Wuornos making never-before-seen confessions, though she has very little incentive to do so beyond enjoying the sound of her own voice.

For whatever reason, Aileen opts to do a deep dive on her brief early marriage to a much older man and the aftermath, years before the serial murders she committed. Though she hasn’t yet murdered, Aileen demonstrates violent tendencies from a young age, fairly regularly fighting, assaulting, and/or robbing johns as well as other men she encounters. In Aileen’s recounting, these men were by and large attempted rapists who had it coming.

It’s after punching a man who accuses her of being a lesbian that Aileen has a fateful meeting with Jennifer, and the two seem to be mutually attracted to each other. When Jennifer invites Aileen home to the family mansion, she doesn’t realize she’s about to introduce her father, Lewis, to his future wife. Aileen charms Lewis so completely that they’re married soon after.

Jennifer is shocked by the turn of events, vowing to dig up dirt on Aileen and remove her from the family forever. Considering that Aileen ends up being arrested for assault on the night of her wedding, probably not an overly difficult task.

As Jennifer keeps an eye on Aileen, she realizes that her new stepmother has problems with rage and impulsivity, along with a massive chip on her shoulder as she grew up poor. When Lewis’s friend and financial advisor manages to uncover information about Aileen’s prior troubles with the law, it seems she has no choice but to leave town.

But more than one character may find that underestimating Aileen is the last thing they’ll ever do…alive.

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

I will forgive anything but a boring film, and I found this one surprisingly dull, to be honest. This was supposed to have a theatrical release, but that was cancelled…and it’s not a shock as this one has an extremely made-for-TV feel. The plot is highly formulaic, the acting bad, and the dialogue horrible. I do appreciate the schlocky title, but that’s about it.

There’s a very good reason most discussions of Aileen’s annulled marriage to a much older man aren’t the focus of most media about her life: this is probably the most uninteresting thing about her. In anyone else’s life, the transparent gold-digging might make for a juicy story, but I’m guessing most of those cases don’t involve serial murders.

Because there are quite a few nods to Old Hollywood noir, I was really hoping for some soapy plot twists. Maybe Aileen and Jennifer would give in to a forbidden romance, scheme to murder Lewis, or have an unsettling Sunset Boulevard-style dynamic. None of these things happen, and Jennifer comes across as totally brainless and so dull. Aileen is somehow kind of boring to watch as well.

From my perspective, what it comes down to is the flawed concept that playing with what’s true and what isn’t will make for an interesting film. Aileen is cast as an unreliable narrator, reflecting the contradictory stories she told in reality. However, the film doesn’t push this concept far enough, sticking with fact in a way that confines the events that depart from reality. It’s not inventive enough to be stranger or more sensational than what actually happened.

Would my blog wife invite this one out for a jaunt on a yacht or decide to take out the trash? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Encanto, or: Don’t Rat Me Out

*Spoilers follow*

I don’t know quite how it happened except that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to be determined to earn EGOT status at the moment…but our Oscars theme for the month has basically become Lin-Manuel Miranda fest. With the exception of Licorice Pizza, all of our films have ended up involving him in some capacity, though he’s still missing the Oscar for the EGOT. Hopefully that just means he’ll be involved with significantly more film productions then.

The Film:

Encanto

Directors:

Jared Bush & Byron Howard

The Premise:

When the magical Madrigal family’s home and powers are threatened, teenage Mirabel sets out to solve the problem.

The Ramble:

As it turns out, miraculously acquiring special powers and an enchanted, sentient house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…especially when those come along with intense familial pressure.

The central Madrigal family’s origin story is pretty dark, as it involves the murder of matriarch Abuela Alma’s husband shortly after the birth of their triplets. Alone and a refugee, Abuela is granted a miracle when the spirit of her husband, uh, becomes a candle, more or less. The candle represents the family’s magic, and causes a new home to spring from nowhere as a safe haven. What’s more, each member of the family is born with a unique gift, from healing with cooking to influencing the weather and shapeshifting.

Unfortunately, there are two members of the family who aren’t living up to the legacy: Mirabel, who didn’t receive a special gift, and Bruno (who, famously, we don’t talk about).

To make up for her perceived inability to contribute to the family, Mirabel overcompensates, attempting to solve everyone’s problems and make things better for all. Of course, the more she tries to impress, the more Mirabel falls short. This is particularly true on the evening of a big celebration to mark youngest Madrigal Antonio’s new gift (the classic & enviable ability to talk to animals). Having visions of the family home cracking and falling apart, Mirabel disrupts the party with all of this doom and gloom.

Sensing that (like Bruno) there are things troubling the Madrigal family that they’re not discussing, Mirabel is determined to surface the truth and heal what is broken…which may be difficult with her super strong but anxious sister Luisa and seemingly perfect sister Isabela. Accompanied by some memorable musical numbers, Mirabel eventually learns that fortune-telling Bruno had an ominous prophecy before suddenly disappearing. When she realizes that the prophecy seems to predict that Mirabel will bring about the family’s doom, will there still be a place for her as a Madrigal?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Sometimes the plot is stretched a bit thin, but the fun songs, refreshing message, and beautiful animation are enough to keep me entertained. The dancing donkeys during Luisa’s excellent song “Surface Pressure” are by far my favorite.

Possibly because I watched my share of (dysfunctional) Disney romances as a child, it always feels extremely welcome and fairly radical for the studio to release films that have almost no romantic love story. It’s about damn time, honestly. The emphasis is entirely on Mirabel’s growth as a character and the evolution of her family’s perspectives on the nature of their miracle. I really appreciate the way the film tackles heavy themes like healing from intergenerational trauma, the circumstances in which a gift can become a curse, and the toxic nature of perfectionism. It’s quite sweet and very needed that Mirabel’s gift is (spoiler/not really a spoiler) her empathy and curiosity in problem-solving.

Possibly my main criticism here is that some of the themes are wrapped up neatly rather than adequately explored. Part of me wanted an even more radical message from Disney in which the Madrigals lost their powers. It’s a little odd how the family is almost worshipped by the others in the village, and it seems like the power dynamic could very easily take a dark turn. People of the village, at least draft up some kind of constitutional framework.

And, though Abuela certainly is carrying a lot of grief and trauma as a widowed refugee, she does get something of a free pass to carry out some really toxic behavior. Her attitude to the family’s legacy results in her own son living inside the walls of the house for YEARS because he’s tired of hurting and disappointing the family with his gift. Which, by the way, he doesn’t control. Abuela also shames Mirabel when her granddaughter is 5 years old because she doesn’t receive a gift…which, again, is out of her control. The ways in which family compromise means Mirabel has to overlook a lot of toxic patterns does feel realistic, but maybe not the most satisfying conclusion for a children’s movie.

Those songs are going to be stuck in my head until the end of time, though.

Would my blog wife carry this one’s heavy burdens or decide not to ever talk about it? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Summer of Soul, or: Are You Ready?

Unintentionally, my picks this month have featured a subtheme of music and its power in political activism. They also connect Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of The Roots, as Lin-Manuel and his father are interviewed here (and Black Thought had a brief cameo in tick, tick…BOOM!). This week, however, our story isn’t inspired by a true story…it is a true story. Time for a documentary, the ideal film to bring up at cocktail parties and book clubs.

The Film:

Summer of Soul

Director:

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The Premise:

This documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a huge celebration of Black music and identity that was largely erased from history.

The Ramble:

When the Harlem Cultural Festival was held during the summer of 1969, it was the event for the Black community of New York City. A celebration of Black music and culture at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at a crossroads, the event was ultimately overshadowed by Woodstock. Largely forgotten until the making of this documentary, archival footage and contemporary interviews recreate the festival and underscore its significance.

Starting off with an incredible lineup from Stevie Wonder to Mavis Staples, the 5th Dimension to Nina Simone, the festival wasn’t only an opportunity to hear a young Gladys Knight’s soulful sounds (though how amazing, right?). The massive gathering also represented an opportunity for the Black community of Harlem to come together and heal in light of trauma related to the Vietnam War and political assassinations of the decade, include the fairly recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the wake of grief, it was a time when the Civil Rights movement seemed to be splintering, and the fundamental split between violence and non-violence only deepened. There was a sense that revolution was coming, and a reevaluation of Blackness was on the horizon. Some speculated that the ultimate purpose of the festival was to ease tensions and prevent a riot.

Tony Lawrence was the organizer and host of the festival, described as a hustler and schmoozer in the best sense. Through his influence, some of the biggest acts of the time performed at the festival, and the mayor of NYC at the time, John Lindsay, made an appearance.

In addition to the performances, there are some excellent interviews, including from artists and attendees. The commentary from the Fifth Dimension is particularly moving, as Marilyn McCoo explains it was meaningful for the group to perform as their music was often not considered “Black enough.” Mavis Staples’ perspective on her father’s Blues stylings and her own due with her hero Mahalia Jackson at the festival make for fascinating stories as well.

The documentary is great about interweaving cultural, artistic, and historical elements together to enhance our understanding of the festival. The crossover between Latin and African music, and Afro-Caribbean influences get attention and analysis. At the same time, we dive into perspectives on the moon landing, the heroin epidemic, and struggles for liberation in African nations at the time.

Because the festival was largely forgotten until this documentary was made, the film is both an artistic work and act of historical and cultural preservation.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Hmmmm, I’ve never felt more like I’ve written a book report on the blog than with this review. I find it much more difficult to review a documentary than other films, especially one about a time in history where I have a significant number of gaps in knowledge. There were a lot of performers I didn’t recognize at all, not aided by the fact that many have fallen into relative obscurity. Truthfully, I’m not into religion in the least, but I do love the gospel sound, and I did appreciate the songs in that vein.

What’s most impressive to me about this film is that it does a great deal to recreate the experience of being there at the festival in real time. Beyond that, it also contextualizes things so we can appreciate not only what the festival meant at the time, but the broader significance it holds. One criticism to this approach is that we really just skim the surface on certain themes and events, as the film runs slightly under 2 hours.

Would my blog wife squeeze her way to the front row or be okay with this one getting rained out? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Licorice Pizza, or: Slow Your Roll (Downhill)

Based on the strength of the trailer alone, I was excited for this week’s film; admittedly, it’s difficult to go wrong with a well-timed David Bowie song. Considering our picture is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and features Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) in their first starring roles, it would seem destined for classic status.

To be upfront, this is my second viewing, as I was looking forward to this so much that I watched in theaters and risked contracting Covid for it (though the risk was relatively low at the time, and theaters have been pretty [depressingly] empty of late). Was it worth all of that trouble, or at least the trouble of sitting at home in loungewear for another showing?

The Film:

Licorice Pizza

Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson

The Premise:

While experiencing the 1970s in the Valley, a former child actor hustles and schemes while falling for a stubborn woman in her mid-20s.

The Ramble:

Alana Kane is a Grump, and she’s not having any nonsense from the greasy, unkempt teenagers roaming the halls on picture day. Working for a local photography studio that specializes in school pictures, 25-year-old Alana is extremely bored with her job, which almost entirely involves offering a mirror and comb to the teens waiting in line for a picture.

Included on the list of people Alana is very uninterested in speaking with is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor and businessman who seems to be on a mission to charm the world. Impulsively asking Alana to meet him for dinner, Gary is astonished when the young woman actually shows up that evening. Unlike most other teenagers, Gary is driven, seemingly always on the lookout for his next opportunity. Along with his acting career, Gary manages a PR company, designing ad campaigns for local businesses.

Alana, eager to escape the Valley, feels stuck in a rut, destined to stay in the same dead-end job for the rest of her life. Gary senses an opportunity for both of them when he’s in need of a chaperone for a press tour as he’s underage (ay). Alana is attracted to Gary’s costar, Lance, and eventually invites him home to meet her family. Unfortunately, Lance blows his chances when he proclaims he’s an atheist in front of Alana’s observant Jewish father. (This does lead to probably my favorite exchange of the film, in which Alana’s sister advises her “You’ve got to stop fighting with everyone all the time,” and receives the realistic sibling response, “Oh, fuck OFF, Danielle!”)

Meanwhile, Gary is up to his next scheme as his charm as a child actor seems to have worn off. Since it’s 1970s Los Angeles, waterbeds are set to be all the rage. One step ahead of the trend, Gary starts up a waterbed business, eventually recruiting Alana to help with sales. This is only briefly disrupted when Gary is wrongfully arrested for murder after wearing the same shirt as the suspect.

Hijinks ensue as Alana attempts to land a breakthrough acting gig only to fall from a motorcycle in a pointless stunt gone awry, and the waterbed company makes a sale to Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend during the oil crisis. This leads to the most dramatically tense scene reversing a truck down a hill I’ve seen on film.

What is a moment of victory for Gary is a sort of turning point for Alana, who recognizes how little she has done with her life so far. Joining the political campaign for an idealistic young councilman, Alana seems poised to re-learn an essential lesson of this film: there’s always an ulterior motive involved.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Oh, wow. I sort of liked this the first watch through, and didn’t particularly appreciate it this time around. I had a lot less patience for the rambling, unfocused plot full of asides, and the (over)commitment to ambience & niche references. The title itself (which I had to look up as it’s never explained in the film) is another name for an LP and an homage to a ’70s-era record store in Southern California. To me, this goes well past the line from knowing nudge to extremely specific/condescending insider reference.

One of the challenges of this film is the rather vague character interactions to go along with the vague plot. There is frequent casual sexual harassment and racism, which is sort of presented as factual information rather than making commentary either way. Some of these elements (like the widely discussed scenes related to a Japanese restaurant and their anti-Asian racism) take on a supposedly comedic edge that just falls horrendously flat.

Based on the interactions between Gary and Alana as well, I don’t know if I’m supposed to like them, root for them as a couple, or feel the ever-present discomfort of knowing an adult woman is dating a teenager. The film consistently reminds us of this reality as its very setup relies on the strangeness of the Alana/Gary dynamic. Alana is an interesting character whose annoyance I appreciate, but it does indeed strike me as odd that she hangs around with teenage boys during her free time.

This brings me to Gary, who still in many ways seems the sketchier one in all of this (I KNOW). On first viewing, I was willing to give PSH’s son the benefit of the doubt with his earnest face and floppy ’70s hair. (And still no shade at all on the acting from either of our leads, who are both excellent.) However, Gary seems so much more manipulative upon closer examination, fully committed to getting the things he wants without respect for boundaries or at times integrity. This seems to be a reflection of Hollywood culture, then and now, though again presented confusingly free of commentary.

The focus is primarily on recreating a very specific youthful 1970s feel in the Valley…failing to make the specific seem universal in the process. It does succeed aesthetically, though I am baffled by the Oscar nominations (but also not because Hollywood). Who knows if PTA even gives a fuck if you like this or not, honestly.

Would my blog wife run around town with this one or wait until it’s…hmmm…legally an adult? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

tick, tick…BOOM!, or: Friendly Neighborhood Sondheim-Man

*Spoilers follow*

Full disclosure: I love a musical but have a love/hate relationship with the Theatre. I have a very surface-level musical theatre knowledge, and I’m extremely selective about which shows I’ll buy tickets for…largely because they’re so fucking expensive. Some of my favorite memories have been of going to the theater; by that same token, some of the times I’ve been most annoyed and resentful have been at the theater.

In light of this, it may be unwise to watch a 2-hour semi-autobiographical musical that I know very little about. Well, here on the Collab we’re nothing if not rebels living on the fringes of society and taking astonishing risks.

The Film:

tick, tick…BOOM!

Director:

Lin-Manuel Miranda

The Premise:

An adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical sees Jonathan Larson struggling to finally finish the show he’s been working on for 8 years before turning 30.

The Ramble:

On the verge of turning 30, musical theatre playwright Jonathan Larson is convinced he has only a few more days to seize long-desired Broadway success before he’s officially Old. Unfortunately, the only thing missing from Superbia, the dystopian rock musical he’s been working on for 8 years, is a second-act song. And while Jonathan has no problem whatsoever writing songs on any number of unlikely topics, he seems unable to finally write the missing song, which will make or break the entire production.

As Jonathan struggles to prepare his musical for a workshop, his hopes are high that he will get an offer to produce the show and stay on track to achieve the success of his idol Stephen Sondheim (whose first Broadway show was staged when he was just 27).

Predictably, as Jonathan focuses his energy entirely on the musical, he ignores the changes happening in the lives of those closest to him. Roommate and gay bff Michael has finally given up on his acting career, instead pursuing a well-paid advertising job and a luxury apartment. Long-term dancer girlfriend Susan abruptly decides to accept a teaching job in the Berkshires, hoping Jonathan will choose to move with her. Meanwhile, the AIDS crisis is hitting close to home as one of Jonathan’s diner coworkers contends with his HIV+ status.

While the workshop quickly approaches, Jonathan’s producer Ira has some hard truths: a) the show absolutely needs the completed second-act song, and b) Jonathan can’t afford the musicians he demands unless he finances them himself. Desperate for money, Jonathan accepts a gig Michael offers as part of an advertising focus group.

Unable to hide his disdain for the corporate world, Jonathan fails to take the focus group seriously, making his bff look bad. All of this leads to a major fight between the two friends, in which Michael points out the massive amount of privilege Jonathan has to live his life without shame as a straight man. At the same time, Jonathan is doing everything he can to avoid having a conversation with Susan about their future.

Ready or not, the day of the workshop inevitably arrives. Will Jonathan manage to write the musical’s hit song before the show starts…without burning all of his bridges?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I enjoyed this film so much more than I expected. Further disclosures from above: I’ve only seen the film adaptation of Rent (not a stage production), and I didn’t particularly enjoy it (pretty sure theatre people will back me up on this). Beyond that, I’m not usually keen on biographical films, as it can be difficult to get the balance right without turning the subject into a god-like figure. AND I’ve been burned by quite a few musical films disappointing me of late (with the exceptions of West Side Story and Encanto).

This is great, though, and avoids the problems that concerned me. Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves a lot of credit for the directorial choices here, and the film succeeds both as a movie and in capturing the energy & approaches of a stage production. There’s not actually much that happens in terms of plot, but the themes focused on the creative process, relationships, and the feeling of running out of time do keep things moving. It doesn’t hurt at all that the catchy and heartfelt songs provide a solid foundation (all of which are penned by Larson), and the balance of humor and tragedy is spot-on as it is in the best shows.

Beyond the ups and downs of creating, Jonathan’s friendship with Michael is the heart of the story, and we’ll always appreciate that approach on the Collab. Both Andrew Garfield (who I admittedly know nothing about beyond Spider-Man) and Robin de Jesús are perfectly cast and have fantastic chemistry in their scenes. We get some high quality cameos as well, with Tariq Trotter/Black Thought’s performance a particular standout.

I will say Jonathan’s anxiety about turning 30 to the point that he imagines his life is over does get tiresome. Thankfully, he gets called out on this, as one of the film’s messages is about what a privilege it is to make it to 30 (with some irony given Larson’s short life).

A couple of issues: first, I find Susan a boring character who exists onscreen primarily to nag Jonathan. I’m honestly so relieved that she chose herself and career over staying with Jonathan, as he was awful to her. It would have been nice for her to feel more like a real character.

Additionally, the film has the challenge of deciding how closely to connect Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical with his real life, and it doesn’t always do this well. It’s impossible not to address Larson’s young death before seeing the success of Rent, particularly since that’s probably 75% of what I’d heard about the film before watching it. However, the film choosing to bring this up in the very beginning and the very end is odd, making this element feel tacked-on. What’s more, this takes away some of the focus from the themes around HIV and AIDS.

Overall, I’m really impressed and surprised by how good this was; that’s what I get for doubting Lin-Manuel. I’d say this is my favorite of the Oscar nominees so far, and it wasn’t even up for Best Picture!

Would my blog wife accompany this one on piano or skip its big premiere altogether? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Power of the Dog, or: Hiding Secrets & Secret Hides

*Spoilers follow*

For better or worse, most of the content we consume for the Blog Collab isn’t exactly an award contender. Let this month be the exception, then, as we catch up on some of the Oscar nominees we missed out on (which is most of them). And not to worry–I won’t be the 10 millionth person on the internet to weigh in on the slap.

The Film:

The Power of the Dog

Director:

Jane Campion

The Premise:

A controlling cattle rancher clashes with his sister-in-law and her son as everyone hides secrets from everyone else on a remote ranch.

The Ramble:

If there’s anything driving the economy of 1920s Montana, it’s cattle. Cattle and secrets. No one exemplifies this more than rugged, hypermasculine rancher Phil Burbank, as hot-tempered as his brother George is calm and compassionate. Phil seems to find joy only in belittling others (constantly calling George “fatso”) and fondly remembering his mentor Bronco Henry, no doubt an equally delightful legend of the West.

While driving cattle through the harsh Montana landscape, the Burbanks and their team stop at an inn owned and operated by widow Rose and her son Peter. Phil immediately makes an impression by mocking the sensitive Peter, an aspiring doctor, while George attempts to make amends. It’s not long before George and Rose are married, to Phil’s dismay.

As Peter goes away to medical school, Phil turns his full attention to tormenting Rose, already rather on edge. Phil undermines and embarrasses her at every turn, while easily earning points even in polite society based on his reputation for being an unrelenting asshole.

When Peter returns for the summer, he once again becomes a target of Phil’s scorn ostensibly for his tenderness. However, it’s when Phil has a change of heart that his attention acquires a troubling tone. Taking Peter under his wing, Phil teaches his new student to ride a horse and begins braiding a lasso, promising to show Peter how to use it before the season ends. And color the whole world surprised when it’s revealed that Phil has been guarding a secret for many years related to the nature of his relationship with Bronco Henry.

As Rose observes Phil’s influence on Peter, she despairs more and more, reflected in the secret liquor stashes she has throughout the house. The hostility between Rose and Phil reaches its peak when she trades cattle hides for a pair of gloves–hides that Phil considers his property.

In the midst of all this, Peter seems to be heading towards a rather dramatic choice between his mother and Phil–one that will involve more sexually tense rope braiding than expected.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s nothing wrong with this film, and I do support Jane Campion getting the Best Director Oscar for this–despite that problematic comment about the Williams sisters in her Critics’ Choice Awards acceptance speech (which is not ok).

In thinking about the film itself, it’s not bad by any means, though its intentional pacing becomes plodding at times. This is a very classic Hollywood film, and it makes sense to me that it had so much Oscar buzz. It feels we’re about halfway through the film before much happens beyond setup, and it’s so subtle in places that I had to rewind to catch the intention behind certain lines of dialogue. I support the messaging on toxic masculinity so much, though it would have been nice for Kirsten Dunst to have something more interesting to do.

Benedict Cumberbatch deservedly gets a lot of credit for his performance in this film, and I can’t argue with that. He manages to pull off truly terrifying and charismatic without becoming cartoonishly evil. The cinematography is gorgeous too, though the film was actually shot in New Zealand, not Montana.

On the Collab, 75% (conservatively) of what we do is watch weird films, and this one honestly lacks some of the gutsy innovation that our favorite picks tend to share. I believe this is the 5th Best Picture nominee I’ve watched for the 2022 awards season, and I haven’t really been enthralled by any of them. I’m becoming a broken record here, but my favorite film release of 2022 by far was Titane, which is decidedly not the kind of film that the Academy goes for.

I’ll probably remember this one primarily for its inventive approach to murder.

Would my blog wife help this one round up some cattle or annoy it to death with her banjo strumming? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Greener Grass, or: Something in the Water

*Spoilers follow*

It can’t be too much of a surprise at this point that, left to our own devices (and the open-endedness of a month without a theme), things tend to take a turn towards the darkness on the Collab. B-horror is our origin story, after all.

This week’s pick, not necessarily classified as a horror film, certainly borrows a feeling of dread from the genre that accompanies the slow realization that all is not well. And, no surprises here, one of the most terrifying places on film is our setting: a seemingly peaceful and quaint US suburb.

The Film:

Greener Grass

Directors:

Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe

The Premise:

A suburban mother in a surreal town begins to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to be perfect…a fact that her closest friend is prepared to use to her advantage.

The Ramble:

A children’s game of soccer in a suburban neighborhood park is not the most thrilling time for anyone involved, but opting out seems impossible. For long-term frenemies Jill and Lisa, the game represents an opportunity to show off their parenting skills and catch up on the most shocking gossip. The latest scandal to rock the town is the murder of a young yoga instructor, though the majority of locals are most concerned with whether or not the suspect bagged their groceries.

As Lisa envies her friend’s seemingly perfect life and crushes on her husband Nick, even the queen bee has worries. Jill is secretly frustrated with her son Julian, who she frequently brags about. People pleasing to a fault, Jill is constantly smiling and trying to live up to absolutely everyone’s expectations, clearly an impossibility. Behind her braces-lined smile (which, btw, all the adults in this town wear), Jill is crumbling beneath the pressure of being a flawless Stepford-style wife and mother.

Impulsively, Jill gives her baby Madison to Lisa to raise as her own, and things just get stranger from here. Jill and Nick’s awkward child Julian transforms into a golden retriever after falling into the pool during Nick’s 40th birthday party. Nick, already obsessed with the pool water’s taste, becomes increasingly fixated on drinking only water that has come from the family pool.

Meanwhile, Lisa and her husband Dennis contend with the increasingly bad behavior of their son Bob, and welcome an unexpectedly odd new baby into their home. As Julian is no longer enrolled in an accelerated math program or allowed to participate in soccer (no Air Bud rules here), Jill feels like a failure as a parent, particularly as she has no human children left.

As all of these events unfold, Jill unknowingly has a stalker who periodically drives by in a golf cart (like the braces thing, all of the adults drive golf carts). What does it all mean? If anything, that is.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The vast majority of the time, all that I ask of a film is that it be weird. This one certainly fits the bill, and it makes quirky observations & social commentary while doing this. Based on the limited amount I knew about this film, it seemed inevitable that I would either love or hate it.

While this is usually described as a dark comedy, its interest in portraying the suburban dream transformed into an unending nightmare aligns this one quite closely with horror. There is always something slightly jarring about the smiles, bright colors, and non-sequitur dialogue that Jill tries to make sense of and belong in. Friendship, marriage, parenthood, divorce–all of these prove to be empty social signifiers above anything else.

No one is particularly likeable, and almost all of the characters are so self-absorbed that they don’t even know what’s going on around them, unless it can be used to their advantage. The humor is pitch-black, and I legitimately laughed at some of the shows within shows the characters watched–shows like a reality baking competition where contestants are judged on others’ bakes or a taboo children’s show called Kids with Knives. Nick’s obsession with pool water is so odd but is never not funny to me, and the scenes he shares with Julian (both in dog and child form) are silly but sharp.

This doesn’t even touch the storyline of Lisa’s new baby being an actual soccer ball, or the children’s teacher (D’Arcy Carden!)’s repeated references to her mother’s murder of the other members of her immediate family.

I will say the film does lack cohesion in some regards, but this didn’t impact my enjoyment. What’s more, some of the approaches that come across as pretentious hipster bullshit in other contexts work quite well here.

Coincidentally, this is the 2nd social satire of the Collab featuring a human to dog transformation (though not quite as literally with Bitch). I’d watch more in this subgenre, honestly.

Would my blog wife love this one like her own child dog or flunk it out of accelerated math? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, or: Art Is Pain

No regrets about our recent picks on the Collab, but my brain could certainly use a change of pace. The old comfort of B-movie madness seems to be the only part of the world that consistently makes sense, and the joy of picking apart the major leaps in logic in a film is my drug of choice. While we anticipate a different & extremely buzzy cannibal movie (looking at you, Fresh), here’s one to tide us over.

The Film:

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal

Director:

Boris Rodriguez

The Premise:

When an artist discovers he finds inspiration in bloody violence, he’s hesitant to stop the sleepwalking acts of cannibalism he witnesses.

The Ramble:

While driving along snowy country roads to start a new job teaching in a rural school, serious artist Lars hits a deer with his car. As it’s dying in agony, Lars makes the decision to end the deer’s suffering…by repeatedly bashing its head with a rock. In the midst of this unsettling spectacle, the local sheriff happens to walk by, cautioning a guilty-looking Lars not to leave the deer in the middle of the road. This does not bode well.

Years ago, Lars was a rising star in the contemporary painting scene, though he no longer paints, much to the dismay of the school principal, who had hoped to drum up some money based on their pseudo-famous hire’s career. Guaranteeing funds becomes especially important when the institution’s wealthy benefactor dies, leaving a fortune to the school, as long as care for her nephew Eddie is provided (IDK what kind of lawyers would sign off on this, but ok).

When he is assigned to care for Eddie (seriously, the logic never makes a lot of sense on this), a silent man with a cognitive disability, Lars learns that Eddie has a secret quirk: at night, he sleepwalks and unknowingly preys upon small animals. Eddie regularly returns home covered in animal blood…until the night he’s covered in human blood.

Lars would probably be more disturbed by this in normal circumstances; however, he finds the blood and guts stir up long-dormant artistic inspiration. Once again painting masterpieces, Lars is reluctant to intervene and, in fact, covers up Eddie’s acts of cannibalism. Predictably, this opens up the door to an ethical downward spiral as Lars shifts from accomplice to vindictive God figure, pointing Eddie towards anyone who is a bit of an asshole.

While Lars begins a romance with a fellow teacher he’s been crushing on and revels in his artistic acclaim, the sheriff becomes suspicious of the number of disappearances in their quaint small town. It’s all going to come down to the classic Hollywood dilemma: romance or cannibalism?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Okay, there are a lot of plot points that don’t make sense, but I have a lot of appreciation for this one’s incredibly dark humor and interest in exploring themes related to the creative mind. Our film has a lot to say about human nature and the lengths we will go to when justifying bad behavior. I never get tired of a film that underlines the hypocrisy of the mythology surrounding a tortured genius, and I enjoy how director Boris Rodriguez approaches things here.

Lars is an interesting if not particularly likeable character, ultimately becoming a sort of Dr. Frankenstein figure who is more monstrous than his creation. Eddie’s existence is a stark contrast, and he’s incredibly sweet. He’s got more than a bit of a Fido zombie quality to him, and I’m guessing the zombie mythology wasn’t embraced largely because “sleepwalking cannibal” makes for a catchier B-movie title.

I will say the characters don’t make a lot of sense here, as their opinions of Lars swing wildly from distrust to complete trust, condescending art prick to pure-hearted golden child. Lars himself makes really odd choices, like agreeing to take care of Eddie and taking the teaching job to begin with, neither of which we really get much of an explanation for. Teacher crush Lesley is just annoyingly written, not a fully formed character in many ways.

Considering the title, I believe we could have gotten a much wilder story to rival our favorite B movies from the Collab. Lesson learned: no cannibal film will ever beat Ravenous, though I did have fun with this.

Would my blog wife pair this one with a nice Chianti or leave its limbs scattered in the woods? Find out in her review!