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!

Film Reviews

Fresh, or: Reasons to Go Vegan

*Spoilers follow*

Unsurprisingly, a lot of our loosely structured themes on the Collab end up veering into horror territory. However, I think the unintentional cannibalism subtheme of the past couple of weeks is a first, even for us. This week’s pick has been getting a lot of buzz for its disturbing scenes in the vein of Sweeney Todd, though I can’t help wondering if some of the more upset stomachs have ever been around for a Julia Ducournau film.

The Film:

Fresh

Director:

Mimi Cave

The Premise:

A young woman who has all but given up on the world of dating is thrilled to meet a man who seems to good to be true…and definitely is.

The Ramble:

Noa has been on too many dating apps to count, and all she’s got to show for it are men who overshare details of their indigestion and share unsolicited dick pics. After a rather depressing evening, Noa discovers she has absolutely nothing in the fridge and must venture into the world for sustenance.

While in the produce section, Noa encounters surprisingly charming and extremely good-looking Steve, who more or less feeds her grapes?! It’s a more interesting trip to the store than I’ve had in a long time anyway. Desperate for the rom-com style meet-cute promised by any number of ’90s films, Noa gives Steve her number. Encouraged by bff Mollie, Noa decides to embrace the whirlwind romance that ensues.

Shortly after a single dream date where Noa feels really connected to Steve, she agrees to an impulsive weekend away. While Mollie gets rather sketchy vibes from this whole setup, she decides to be happy for her friend as long as she gets updates over the course of the weekend.

Of course, as soon as the couple arrives at their destination, it’s revealed that Steve’s isolated house in the country has no internet or cell service. Following their very first night in the house, Noa wakes up in a darkened room with Steve…who reveals he has drugged her and chained her to the floor. And it’s all in the name of cannibalism. Obviously.

To her horror, Noa learns she’s not alone in her prison, and is one victim among many in a massive underground bunker built expressly for the purpose of keeping women alive as Steve slowly carves them up. Not only does Steve enjoy human flesh himself, but he’s become a legend as the personal human butcher to the 1% of the 1%, who will pay excessive amounts of money for a taste.

With only the voice of Penny, the woman in the next room, to keep her relatively sane, Noa plans her escape. She quickly realizes a charm offensive is the way to go, though will Noa be able to stomach that any better than the prospect of pâté made from human liver…at least until Mollie can find her?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

This one has such a twisted heart, and I love it for that. It has many of the same instincts of Promising Young Woman, or perhaps the feel of a horror written by Margaret Atwood. Thank god this is a comedy, as the truly disturbing themes and events (and the ways they stand in for sexual violence, psychological abuse, and human trafficking) throughout would be even more nauseating without the film’s sharp humor. I applaud the well-timed comic use of soundtrack in particular.

I appreciate that the film establishes Noa’s perspective initially, specifically where Steve is concerned. Steve doesn’t have horror movie music playing in the background when we meet him as, through Noa’s eyes, he’s a charming and good-looking man who is miles apart from anyone on the dating apps. Though there are hints that all is not well with Steve, the film is careful about not making Noa’s failure to see his real intentions at all her fault in any kind of victim-blaming way.

Daisy Edgar-Jones does great work here, but it’s Sebastian Stan who has the flashier role, and I already feel like I’ve been haunted for years by his character. He’s honestly fun to watch as he’s such a nightmarish figure, flipping so easily from sweet to seething. The way Steve is willing to believe Noa could genuinely care about him while keeping the threat of physical violence in his back pocket (even throwing around the vomit-inducing take on “you’re not like other girls”) feels like a chillingly accurate reflection.

I’m here for Mollie and her brilliant use of reverse Google image search–the best on film, in my opinion. I got a laugh out of one of the characters starting to investigate some of the disappearances and then bailing…especially since it allowed female solidarity to shine.

Word of advice: don’t try to watch this one while eating dinner.

Would my blog wife serve up some home cooking for this one or send it right to the chopping block? Read her review to find out!

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!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Humans, or: Family Togetherness

Somehow it’s March, and if that fills you with existential dread, you’ll certainly enjoy(?) this week’s film. Or at least connect to it on a spiritual and emotional level? It’s another free for all/blog free month on the Collab, and it wouldn’t be us without familial dysfunction and a healthy dose of despair.

The Film:

The Humans

Director:

Stephen Karam

The Premise:

Gathering for a Thanksgiving celebration in the youngest daughter’s new apartment, the cracks begin to show in both the building and the family members.

The Ramble:

As the Blake family gathers for the annual Thanksgiving feast, they anticipate a rather minimalist celebration. Youngest daughter Brigid is hosting despite having moved recently to a new apartment in Manhattan with serious boyfriend Richard–so recently that the majority of their furniture and belongings have yet to arrive.

Though the new place is in Manhattan, don’t be fooled: this isn’t exactly the Upper West Side with scenic views of Central Park. Rather, Brigid and Richard have found a place with an “interior courtyard” view, major structural cracks, and water stains that seem to be actively growing.

In the midst of this decay are the family members themselves: parents Erik and Deirdre, hardworking “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” types who are struggling nevertheless. They bring along Erik’s mother, a woman with both physical and mental ailments that have progressed as she’s aged. Brigid’s sister Aimee joins the family as well, though she suffers from ulcerative colitis that has recently taken a turn, seeming to cost her job and relationship with long-term girlfriend Carol.

Both sisters have moved away from Scranton to the big city (Aimee to Philadelphia), which causes their parents some consternation as they fret over the rejection of their values and the unsafe streets of the city. It doesn’t help that Erik and Aimee were actually in Manhattan on September 11, with Aimee interviewing for a law job in the World Trade Center.

As the cracks in familial bonds are revealed, the lights begin to fail, and with no replacement bulbs, the apartment slowly descends into darkness. Dreams and memories seem to be the only things keeping the family together, though these don’t provide a particularly firm foundation. Can the Blakes survive the evening, admittedly in more of an existential sense?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I don’t 100% know what to make of this one. Both compelling and frustrating, it seems to simultaneously draw in the viewer and push us away. There have been some descriptions of this film as horror or even comedy(!?!), but it’s very much an old-fashioned family drama in the spirit of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Fraught family relationships, the impossibility of connection, and an inevitable, slow decline create the film’s bleak tone.

The darkness is in the mundane, the day-to-day lives and relationships of our characters struggling to understand each other and manage their personal grief. There are physical and mental illnesses to navigate, much as Erik and other members of the family believe they are genetically immune to depression. Dread of illness, death, and decay inhabits the apartment, and the slowly encroaching darkness reflects this onscreen. The characters have the impulse to share vulnerable moments and be honest, but secrecy and isolation are the result of many of their choices.

Our film is all about atmosphere, the camera angles from afar distancing the viewer from the family as well as reflecting their own disconnectedness. The slow creep of cracks & water stains are the symbolic decay of the family, the sudden disgust of cockroaches and bodily functions a stand-in for their feelings towards themselves and each other.

There are admittedly times things get a bit heavy-handed & full of hipster nonsense, but the film is extremely effective in evoking an oppressive tone. I find the nuances of the familial relationships and the realistic dialogue well done too. Truly unsettling.

Would my blog wife fix this one up with a bit of joint compound or condemn this property immediately? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Miss Juneteenth, or: Queen Me

Sad as I am to bring this year’s Feminist February to a close, I’m so pleased with the films we’ve experienced on the Collab. I truly hope to see continued changes in the (lack of) diversity behind the camera in filmmaking not only because movies directed by women of color have been some of my favorites, but also because greater inclusion & representation should be a goal in and of itself. We watched films by Black women directors this month, though rest assured: we will continue to highlight diverse directors and filmmakers throughout the Collab.

The Film:

Miss Juneteenth

Director:

Channing Godfrey Peoples

The Premise:

A single mother and former winner of the Miss Juneteenth crown pushes her daughter to follow in her footsteps, like it or not.

The Ramble:

Though hardly meeting the criteria for overly competitive stage mom, this year’s Miss Juneteenth pageant is certainly bringing out the worst of these tendencies in single mother Turquoise Jones. Crowned Miss Juneteenth as a teen, Turq is determined that her daughter Kai will follow in her footsteps. The competition secures the winner an opportunity for greatness, including a full scholarship to the HBCU (Historically Black College & University) of her choice…chances that Turq missed out on.

Carrying around a massive chip on her shoulder after being unable to attend a 4-year college when she became pregnant with Kai, Turq holds things together working multiple part-time jobs as the de facto manager of a bar and a beautician at a funeral home. Unable to move on from the past in more ways than one, Turq is in an on-again/off-again relationship with Kai’s father Ronnie, possessor of good looks but poor decision-making skills (whose character is a much nicer person in Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas!).

Because she feels constantly judged for her failure to measure up as a former Miss Juneteenth, Turq cares a great deal about what other think. Unfortunately, her obsession with appearances and rehashing the past make it impossible to recognize the self-assured person her daughter has become…one who is much more interested in dance than a pageant competition.

As Turq works and attempts to get Ronnie to pay up his share for the expenses of the pageant, she balances the perspectives of her alcoholic mother, the funeral home director who wants to provide for her, and the proud but aging owner of the bar wearied by years of fighting as a Black business owner.

While bills pile up and Kai predictably shows no interest in jumping through the competition hoops, it feels the world is conspiring against Turq’s plans. Can Turq reframe the past in time to realize what it means for her daughter’s future?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The relationship between Turq and Kai is well written and the performances are strong, capturing the power and nuance of their mother/daughter bond. Though Turq comes across as fiercely determined to outside observers, Kai knows well the insecurity at her core. It’s actually really beautiful that Kai can understand her mother so clearly despite the amount of time it takes Turq to recognize her daughter’s own identity and dreams.

Set in the context of a Miss Juneteenth pageant, the story challenges some of the rather problematic ways this type of beauty contest presents barriers to young Black women even as it proclaims to lift them up. Internalized beauty standards that connect to whiteness (which Kai memorably breaks towards the end of the film) are challenged, as well as a very narrow definition of what it means to be considered great. With the setting around Juneteenth, we as an audience are reminded that survival despite the odds against Black Americans and those formerly enslaved is itself a remarkable accomplishment.

In addition to Turq and Kai, our story is about a Black community in Texas, the multiplicity of identities represented as part of it, and broader connections to Black identity and culture. The relationship between Turq and Wayman, the owner/manager of the bar, is understated but so important as she carves out a space for herself. It’s by building upon Wayman’s legacy that Turq is able to accomplish what she’s wanted for such a long time.

The story feels strongly connected to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, also about a woman deciding for herself who she will be and on what terms. I love the ending so much, and it seems fitting for both Turq and Kai. Miss Juneteenth provides the perfect note to wrap up Feminist February 2022.

Would my blog wife crown this one the winner or eliminate it from competition before the first round? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Zola, or: It’s a Long Story (But Full of Suspense)

Based on a viral Twitter thread about a woman’s mostly true story of a weekend in Tampa gone awry, this week’s pick continues the monthly focus on films directed by Black women. This one did get quite a bit of hype leading up to its release–does it live up to its reputation?

The Film:

Zola

Director:

Janicza Bravo

The Premise:

After joining a weekend road trip to earn some extra money, waitress and part-time stripper Zola recounts how it all went wrong because of a backstabbing witch named Stefani.

The Ramble:

By day, savvy Zola is a waitress charming customers while ignoring the problematic and overtly racist things they say. When she waits on Stefani, a young woman who is over-the-top yet fascinating, Zola doesn’t realize this chance encounter will lead to a weekend on the books as one of the wildest she’s experienced.

Bonding over their disdain for fake people (later confirmed as a giant red flag) and their part-time work dancing in strip clubs, the two swap numbers and begin messaging each other non-stop. Based on her initial connection with Stefani, Zola joins her on a road trip to Tampa only days later despite rather hazy details surrounding the event. As an aside, the film incorporates texting & using social media on phones in rather interesting ways that go beyond the standard *box with notification appears onscreen.* The weekend should be an easy way to make some quick money dancing…keyword being “should.”

Along for the ride are Stefani’s boyfriend and her supposed roommate, a man who is initially friendly yet gives off sketchy vibes from miles away. The group stays in a rather seedy motel during their first night in Tampa. Or, rather, Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek will stay in the motel while the others head to a strip club. Derrek seems concerned about Stefani, waiting anxiously in the motel until meeting up with a local man who promises to show him around Tampa.

At the strip club, where tips are okay but nowhere close to the quick, easy cash Stefani promised, Zola becomes increasingly suspicious about all of her acquaintances’ motives. Learning that Stefani’s roommate X is her pimp isn’t a complete shock to Zola, but realizing that he expects Zola to do sex work that evening does catch her off-guard.

Concerned for Stefani’s well-being, and a bit morbidly curious to see how things will unfold, Zola stays around as clients from the now shut down site Backpage arrive for sex. When Zola learns that X has set a rate of $150 per transaction, which Stefani won’t even see, she insists on increasing the rate. Not necessarily to help either X or Stefani, but on the principle that sex work should be worth more.

Having streamlined Stefani’s sex work, X insists that Zola stay around and continue to make money for him. Derrek, on the other hand, is distraught. Posting Stefani’s Backpage details on Facebook in an attempt to “save” her, Derrek finds himself very much on X’s bad side.

As Zola and Stefani are sent into increasingly disturbing and dangerous scenarios in service of X’s bank account, it’s not such a much a question of what will happen, but how dramatic it’s going to get.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The chaos of the characters, their questionable choices, and the wild circumstances they’re thrown into all make for an attention-grabbing series of twists and turns. Some of the ways we examine sex trafficking and victimization are particularly fascinating. Stefani is both victim and victimizer, and her behavior as a woman who is trapped in a pattern of abuse doesn’t necessarily make her likeable. On top of this, there are so many racist encounters Zola experiences that remind us of the problematic racial dynamics between Stefani and Zola–after all, a white woman intentionally misleading a Black woman into a dangerous situation.

Taylour Paige and Riley Keough deserve the most credit for their roles in this film, depicting characters who simultaneously feel exaggerated and real. All of our leads are great, honestly, and I really appreciate the Greg Hirsch vibes Nicholas Braun is channeling for the sort of well-meaning but clueless Derrek.

If there’s a drawback here, it’s the scaled-back commentary from Zola. Her voice coming through in sarcastic commentary (much like that of the Twitter thread) provide the best humor of the film, and I wish we’d gotten more of it. Likely to let the suspense of some of the more tense moments land, the opportunity for comedy is dialed back. We do contend with some serious issues like sex trafficking and some of the extremely unglamorous elements of performing sex work, though in a more matter-of-fact than judgmental way.

I admittedly mostly follow award nominations so I can complain about them, so I’ll continue that trend. This should have gotten at least a best director nod for taking risks and telling a unique story well. There are a lot of clever scenes and camera angles focused on mirrors, image, and deception that look great on camera while underlining these themes throughout the story. I’m particularly aggravated when contrasting this film with recent releases I found boring AF like Belfast and Nightmare Alley that largely played it safe and got quite a lot of Oscar love regardless. *eyeroll*

Would my blog wife join this one for the ride or take the wheel and leave it to hitchhike back home? Read her review (at her new site) to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., or: He Bought a Jeep

Is there anything trendier at the moment than a ’90s throwback? (Maybe early ’00s.) If the Collab is known for one thing, it’s having a finger on the pulse of all that is trendy, so of course this month won’t go by without a peek back into the ’90s as we focus on films directed by Black women.

A note about the I.R.T. for those of us not in ’90s New York: I.R.T. was the Interborough Rapid Transit, one of the former operators of what would become the NYC Subway. Despite the title, there aren’t many scenes on the subway, so this may not be the film for you if you’re only in it for the trains.

The Film:

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.

Director:

Leslie Harris

The Premise:

A confident Brooklyn teenager with big plans to graduate high school early and become a doctor finds her future disrupted by an unexpected pregnancy.

The Ramble:

A proud ’90s Brooklyn girl, 17-year-old Chantel Mitchell knows all too well what people think of her and her neighborhood. Determined to tell her own story, Chantel breaks the fourth wall frequently to offer her own teenage perspective on her life and future.

Breaking stereotypes, Chantel is loud and bold while earning good grades and planning to graduate from high school early to pursue college and medical school. Her teachers are probably relieved, in all honesty, as Chantel is constantly getting in trouble for talking back and challenging the curriculum’s failure to adequately address slavery and racism. She has decided she won’t be stuck in her job at the corner store forever or end up like her parents, stressed and struggling to make a living.

In many ways, the future feels like a long way off for Chantel, and nothing will stop her from chilling with her friends and dancing with all of the cute guys at parties. So though she’s a smart & precocious young woman, Chantel is a teenager who acts impulsively and without all of the facts. In a commentary on the lack of sex education in the States (which has not significantly improved), Chantel and her friends believe a number of complete myths, such as having sex standing up makes it impossible to get pregnant.

It’s in this context that Chantel ditches her not-quite-boyfriend Gerard and takes an interest in self-assured Ty, who has a Jeep, aka a way for Chantel to avoid remaining another girl on the IRT. When Chantel has unprotected sex with Ty, it’s not long before she realizes she’s pregnant. In denial and anxious about her future, Chantel decides to keep things a secret and not make a choice about her pregnancy.

However, surely keeping her pregnancy hidden will only be possible for a rather limited amount of time?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Director Leslie Harris’ vision was to film the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman at a time when this type of narrative received so little attention or acclaim. Based on the lack of funding for any future Harris ventures, it seems little has changed in filmmaking. In addition to the director’s vision, I love the ’90s fashions and the bold, unapologetic tone of Chantel’s character.

What makes this film feel uneven at times is the tension between two approaches here: that of celebrating Chantel’s coming-of-age and portraying her life realistically. I appreciate the film’s hopeful tone, which embraces Chantel’s tough persona and recognizes her as a determined yet flawed teenager. It’s refreshing to see her self-assuredness onscreen, including when she claps back with facts about the problematic whitewashing of history.

The tone shifts quite significantly when Chantel realizes she’s pregnant and tries to hide from this reality. Structural problems surrounding the lack of education and resources for sexual health have a real impact on Chantel’s life. The pregnancy morphs from scary to absolutely horrifying when she goes into labor prematurely and frantically searches for answers much too late. Shifting from Chantel’s confidence to horror to hope makes the last third in particular feel jarring.

Harris’ commitment to telling a realistic story that breaks down stereotypes and celebrates the everyday lives and survival of Black characters seems to be a major reason her film didn’t gain much traction despite recognition at Sundance. It’s frustrating that she’s been unable to make a film since, as my sense from Just Another Girl is that Harris has significantly more creative storytelling up her sleeve.

Would my blog wife cruise around the city with this one in the passenger seat or make it take the train? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Secret Life of Bees, or: Practice What You Peach

You know, bees on film don’t necessarily have a lot of positive associations for me. Candyman, My Girl, Bee Movie, The Wicker Man (the Nic Cage remake, of course): bees bring about nothing good in these films. Can this week’s pick save the bees, or at least their image in popular media? Either way, Feminist February, featuring films directed by Black women, rolls on!

The Film:

The Secret Life of Bees

Director:

Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Premise:

After running away from home, teenage Lily and her housekeeper find shelter at an apiary owned and operated by Black women in 1960s South Carolina.

The Ramble:

Tragedy strikes Lily Owens’ life at just the age of 4 when her mother dies as a result of an accidental shooting. After leaving behind her abusive husband, Lily’s mother Deborah returns for one day…either to collect her things or her daughter. Lily’s belief that she can live with her mother is quickly dashed when, witnessing a struggle between her parents, she accidentally fires the shot that kills Deborah.

Years later, as a teenager on her father’s peach orchard in South Carolina, Lily’s most earnest wish is to learn more about the person her mother was. Aaaand guess which topic is the very one that T. Ray has absolutely no interest in discussing? Relying on just a few hidden treasures from her mother’s past to imagine what her life was like, Lily holds on to the belief that her mother was returning for her daughter.

Though largely oblivious to the sociopolitical happenings around her, even Lily learns about the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as she watches the news with housekeeper Rosaleen. While she is fairly skeptical that the law will result in real change, Rosaleen, tired of enduring racist insults and attacks, stands up to a group of white men who harass her. When she refuses to apologize for her actions, Rosaleen is assaulted and arrested. After T. Ray makes the casual remark that one of the more vengeful men may ultimately kill Rosaleen, Lily fears for her friend’s life.

For Lily, the last straw is really when T. Ray claims decisively that Deborah never loved her daughter and merely returned to the family home to reclaim her belongings. In response, Lily busts Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two run away, with Lily’s agenda to learn about her mother always on the backburner. Stumbling upon a shop in a small town, Lily recognizes the label on a jar of honey featuring the Black Madonna and decides to seek answers there.

The apiary is owned by the Boatwrights, a family of 3 Black sisters: August, June, and May. Lily is reasonably good at lying on the spot and claims her parents are dead; though August sees through the lie, she offers the two travelers a place to stay in exchange for help with the bees.

As Lily learns more about beekeeping, she gets to know the sisters better: maternal leader August, impatient activist June, and sweet but depressed May. Lily also meets family friend and employee Zach, a young man who dreams of being a lawyer who she’s definitely crushing on.

The amount of time Lily spends with Zach does not go unnoticed by the local racists & segregationists, and things take a turn for the horrific pretty quickly. How will Lily and her newfound family endure the terror they face?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

First, the cast is absolutely the element that stood out to me before watching, and that’s even more true after. Our leading ladies Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo are great, particularly given some of the character development limitations. Because the film centers on Lily’s experiences, we don’t always see these characters brought to life as vividly as I’d like. Queen Latifah is charismatic AF in everything she does, but I don’t know if I could tell you much about her character August here except…she’s maternal? Perhaps to a degree that creeps into problematic territory?

On a related note, having Lily’s perspective drive the plot forward is frustrating. I don’t discount the psychological pain she experiences throughout her traumatic childhood. However, focusing on this pain in the narrative fails to give the racist trauma of Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters the consideration it needs. Lily seems pretty fucking selfish when she puts Black friends and family in dangerous situations multiple times because she hasn’t at all considered the impact. This isn’t really ever addressed, so the film glosses over the terror and violence while allowing Lily to obliviously hold on to her privilege.

I do give a lot of credit for the house and set design; it’s done beautifully and feels every bit the safe haven it’s meant to be. The issue with it being such an idyllic home does reflect a major issue I have with the film: as much as I want this vision of life in the ’60s South to be true, I don’t believe it. We get so close to addressing some of the heavy themes brought up in the story but then immediately back away. The story is so determined to be a happy one that it makes some of the major plot elements ring false.

Though this analysis has largely been negative (what else would you expect, regular reader[s] of the blog?), this is by no means a bad film. It’s entertaining and sweet, and refreshing to see a story involving a family of Black women building a home and business against the odds. It’s just a shame that these are supporting characters in yet another white girl’s coming-of-age story. Because Hollywood.

Would my blog wife risk a multitude of bee stings for this one or make it kneel in a pile of grits all night? Read her review to find out!