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Juneteenth Drama, Pride Docs, Bad Hollywood

Hope Madden Hope Madden Juneteenth Drama, Pride Docs, Bad HollywoodMiss Juneteenth - Photo via IMDb
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Dude, so many movies come out this week! A few are really great! A couple really blow! It is a minefield out there, but we are here to keep you safe and on the path to enjoyable movie viewing. You’re welcome.

Miss Juneteenth

by Rachel Willis

When Turquoise (Nicole Beharie of TV’s Sleepy Hollow) enters her teenage daughter, Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze), in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, she is optimistic Kai will win. Turquoise herself was a Miss Juneteenth winner 15 years previously.

For those unfamiliar with the Juneteenth holiday, writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples weaves an explanation and short history into the film at relevant moments. You’ll quickly understand the importance of this holiday, not only in the film’s setting of Ft. Worth, Texas, but in the greater Black community.

If you are anticipating a film about the ins and outs of pageants, you won’t find it. Yes, there is some focus on the pageant, but mostly, this is a film about mothers and daughters.

Turquoise is the focus. Beharie and Peoples create a lot of empathy for a black, single mother trying to make it work.

There are numerous layers to Turquoise’s life. She’s separated from her husband, Kai’s father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), although he’s still around. It’s clear Turquoise loves Ronnie, but he’s disappointed her in the past.

The film’s strength is the way it lets this story unfold organically. As the plot takes us forward, we learn more about the connections between characters—small, intimate moments conveying vast amounts of information.

And the film’s main relationship, the one between Turquoise and Kai, is one of the most tender mother-daughter relationships you’ll find. Beharie and Chikaeze have a winning chemistry that completely roots the audiences in Turquoise and Kai’s relationship.

Of course the characters butt heads, but the conflict is secondary to the loving bond the two women share. Turquoise maintains a hard line with her daughter because she wants Kai to do better in life than she did. Though Kai at times resents this, she seems to understand her mother’s intentions. When Kai finds ways to push back against her authoritarian mother, you are never in doubt of Kai’s love for Turquoise, she simply wants to be her own woman.

The film also delivers a realistic view of poverty. Whenever Turquoise gains financial ground, something happens to pull the rug out from under her, leaving her with questions like whether to pay her late electric bill or the registration fee for the Miss Juneteenth pageant. Turquoise will always invest in her daughter’s future.

Turquoise has a supportive community around her, a cast of characters who round out the story nicely, and when life tries to knock her down, she will get back up with the help of those around her.

As we approach the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, this is a film worth seeing.

Grade: A-

My Darling Vivian

Streaming from Drexel Theater.

by George Wolf

Imagine if the world thought your father was one half of an all-time great love story, but the other half wasn’t your mother.

You’d probably want people to know her story, too.

Director Matt Riddlehoover lets the four daughters of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto remove the shadow that has long obscured their mother’s life. In the endlessly endearing My Darling Vivian, we’re introduced to a woman of great strength and grace, and an intimate story that reinforces both the power and pain of love.

Johnny and Vivian met as teenagers in Texas, writing passionate letters while he was away as an Air Force cadet, then marrying young and immediately starting a family before his legendary music career exploded.

Whether by necessity or choice, Riddlehoover interviews Roseanne, Tara, Kathy and Cindy Cash separately, and the result is a wonderful mix of memory and perspective. Roseanne’s remark that the sisters had “four different mothers” rings true as their recollections of youth often bounce off one another with a charming Roshoman-style variety.

The stream of still photos, home movies and excerpts from the nearly one thousand letters (!) Vivian saved presents incredible insight into the sweetness of young love and the increasing demands on the shy and anxiety-prone wife of a superstar.

While Johnny’s constant touring left Vivian alone to care for four children under six years old, the pressures of fame, Cash’s drug use and the shameful accusations about Vivian’s ethnicity all added to the toxic atmosphere. As rumors swirled about Johnny’s involvement with June Carter, news of their parents’ divorce actually came as a relief to the oldest of the Cash sisters.

The memories are often presented with aching detail – coming home from school and seeing fresh dry cleaning meant their mother had not committed suicide that day – and the openness of the family archives is breathtaking. And still, Vivian’s own voice remains absent, haunting much of the film until Riddlehoover plays that hand for maximum effect.

My Darling Vivian is essential to understanding the complete legacy of a cultural icon. But even beyond the celebrity trappings, it is a bittersweet testament to love, to family, and to scars that never quite fade.

And, most of all, it’s a record-straightening ode to a woman well worth knowing.

Grade: A-


Screening at the Strand Theater in Delaware and available streaming.

by Seth Troyer

I am basically still on the verge of tears as I write this. Bill Gallagher’s emotional documentary Runner opens with sports coverage of a marathon and slowly zooms in on one man in particular. “Now this particular runner,” says a dorky sportscaster, “has an unbelievable story.”

He doesn’t know the half of it. This is the story of Guor Marial, a Sudanese refugee who went on a journey to become an Olympian. 

As a young boy, Marial runs from hardship to hardship, eventually getting separated from his family, and ultimately finding himself in America. It’s wild to hear Marial’s initial confusion at the absurdity of it all, that something he did to survive in Sudan is something westerners do as a sport. Marial hits the high school track field and metamorphosizes. From there we watch the harsh juxtaposition of this high school dream athlete winning medals, while simultaneously struggling with the fact that his family members in Sudan are dying. 

My reservations about macho corporate sports went out the window as I watched this boy running in the name of his faraway home. It’s also a wonderful thing to see journalists, coaches and politicians (mostly white, privileged Americans) one by one lay down their false crowns in awe before this kid who has gone through actual hell and is using his power to reach for nothing less than the Olympic games. 

This is the rare documentary that truly does justice to its incredible hero. It is cinematic to the point where your first reaction might be to think you are watching staged reenactments, but no, this is all real. They have footage of seemingly every moment of Marial’s journey, as well as animation and news footage depicting the hell of war and starvation in Sudan. 

Arguably the film’s most emotional moment occurs when Mrial returns to South Sudan to be reunited with his parents, who he has not seen in years. The moment when his mother, who lost so many of her children, collapses to the ground at the sight of her long-lost son is one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen captured by a camera.

This is still only the beginning of the story of the first Olympian from South Sudan: a beautifully human story that is about nothing less than what makes us go, what makes us try, and what makes us run. 

Grade: A

You Should Have Left

by Hope Madden

Most weeks there’s at least one streaming movie option that will cost you. These are ostensibly the films that were meant to be theatrical releases, as opposed to your garden variety direct-to-streaming options. The idea is that you’re paying a premium to get to see it now, rather than waiting for theaters to open up.

It’ll be interesting to see how long this tactic lasts, but one thing is for sure: You Should Have Left is not worth $20.

Always likeable, always reliable Kevin Bacon reteams with his Stir of Echoes writer/director David Koepp to bring Daniel Kehlmann’s novel to the screen.

Bacon plays Theo, a man with a past and a much younger wife (Amanda Seyfried), Susanna. She’s a sought after actress and he’s feeling a little neglected, so they decide to spend the three weeks between her shoots with their 6-year-old Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) in a remote rental property one of them found online.

Which one found it, though?

From the early dream sequences to the small town shopkeep with an accent, an attitude and a secret —well, hell, every single thing—You Should Have Left squeezes the life out of standard horror tropes.

Not that this is horror, really. It’s certainly not scary. I wouldn’t call it a thriller, either, assuming those have to thrill at some point. Nope, it’s just a boring, predictable waste of talent.

Seyfried, in particular, elevates her stale character, sharing a believably conflicted lived-in chemistry with Bacon. Uncharacteristically, it’s Bacon who struggles.

Theo’s internal conflict is weakly depicted, his arc equally anemic, and for that reason, his epiphany feels unearned. The actor does develop a lovely onscreen relationship with Essex, although she’s asked to do little more than look pensive.

Or maybe she was bored. Hard to blame her when Koepp works so hard to make the film tedious. Uninspired sound design and mediocre FX blend together with the filmmaker’s hum drum storytelling to betray a tiresome lack of imagination.

No way Universal believes they deserve your $20 for this.

Grade: D


by George Wolf

Why would a first-time feature director make sure her camera lingers a few extra beats on one of those old karaoke videos where the visuals bear no relation to the lyrics being sung?

Because it’s a sly reinforcement of the abrupt, defiant way that Shannon Murphy is telling the story of Babyteeth, and of the unconventional soul at the heart of the film.

That soul would be Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a seriously ill Australian teen who literally bumps into the 23 year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) while waiting for a tram.

She likes his hair, so he gives her a haircut. She brings him home, and suddenly Milla’s parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) have something new to worry about.

“That boy has problems!” Mom shouts.

Milla answers, “So do I!”

True enough, and Rita Kalnejais delivers a debut screenplay that embraces the tough and the tender while taking us inside a fraying family dynamic.

Mom Anna used to be a impressive pianist, but she struggles to stay off pills and keep her tears at bay. Dad Henry is a psychiatrist who handles Milla’s illness in a more pragmatic fashion while he develops a strange fixation on the pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay).

Mendelsohn and Davis are customarily excellent, each reinforcing the different ways that grief can manifest itself, often pulling them closer and increasing their distance in equal measure. In lesser hands, the eccentricities of these characters could have dissolved into caricature or misguided comic relief, but Mendelsohn and Davis each bring a weary stoicism that keeps both parents grounded.

Scanlen, fresh off playing Beth in last year’s glorious revision of Little Women, is completely transfixing as a girl impatient to experience life. The more Milla is reminded of her sickness, the more she rebels, and Scanlen finds a mix of courage and fear that never feels false.

The whiff of death in coming-of-age dramas has often been reduced to manipulative claptrap, but Murphy takes a bulldozer to that notion with an ambitious narrative that does not allow you to get comfortable.

She introduces themes using chapter titles (some generic, some genuinely touching), transitions very abruptly and leaves some matters unexplained. Murphy’s approach is uniquely assured, requiring our attention but rewarding our emotional investment, as the few mawkish leanings are swept away by the film’s wickedly perverse sense of humor.

After years of directing shorts and TV episodes, Murphy lands on the big screen as a vibrant new voice. Like Milla, she is setting her own pace in the search for the beauty in life, and Babyteeth finds that beauty in unexpected places.

Grade: B+


by Hope Madden

7500, the emergency code for an airplane hijacking, is the title of the feature debut for writer/director Patrick Vollrath. An Oscar-nominated and much lauded filmmaker of shorts, Vollrath and his lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, prove fine instincts for building tension while maintaining understatement in a film that probably just shouldn’t have been made.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, co-pilot of a German aircraft on its way to Paris. When Muslim terrorists attempt to overtake the plane, Tobias finds himself in the unenviable position of refusing their demands and witnessing the havoc they wreak.

We haven’t really seen JGL since Oliver Stone’s mediocre 2016 biopic Snowden. (He’s done a lot of voice work since, but we haven’t seen him.) But there was a time when the ageless actor (he’ll be 40 in February but he’s still playing baby-faced 30-year-olds) appeared in almost every interesting film being released: Inception, The Dark Night Rises, Looper. And then came his own debut as writer/director: Don Jon—the best antidote for a romantic comedy perhaps ever.

Since then, even when his performance is solid (and it usually is), his film choice is not.

There are some exceptional reasons for the actor to show us his face again in 7500. The role offers clear, no doubt fascinating challenges. Much of the film is a one-man-show, and more intriguingly, the actor and filmmaker work together to ensure that this hero is as dialed-down and honest as he can be.

Vollrath’s film never revels in vengeance, never lusts after opportunities for comeuppance. And the downplayed emotion, the minutia of flying, the fear—all elements generally discarded in your Big Heroic Movie—give this film an unexpected air of humility.

Better still is the savvy use of limited vision, the claustrophobic nature of air travel, the confinement of the hero to ratchet up tensions.

And yet.

For its subdued, humble approach, 7500 is a white savior film about an American man protecting those in his care from scary brown people. It picks a scab that’s been fingered to death, offers no real new take and absolutely no excuse for its choice of antagonist.

This isn’t a true story. Vollrath could have imagined absolutely anyone to be hijacking this plane, and the subtlety of the filmmaking feels even more insidious because of his choice. No swelling strings, glib one-liners, flying flags or bombast mark this as pandering white supremacy.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t.

Grade: D

Jack & Yaya

by Brandon Thomas

LGBTQ youth often find themselves at the receiving end of family and friend abandonment. The people who are supposed to support them through the coming out simply walk away. The story at the heart of Jack & Yaya is about what happens when two childhood friends go through the same life-changing events, and how those closest to them stick around to champion their lives.

Jack and Yaya grew up as next-door neighbors in south New Jersey. From early on, they both saw who the other truly was, a girl and a boy, even if the rest of their family and friends did not. 

In her directorial debut, Jennifer Bagley wisely lets the film’s two subjects be front and center. Jack and Yaya share a genuine openness about their lives. Absent is any kind of hubris when the two of them talk about their struggles or their successes. This honest, matter-of-fact nature feels immediately welcoming.

The focus on day-to-day struggles for transgender people is real and evident even in this sunnier-than-normal documentary. Jack struggles with running into discrimination even in a city as large as Boston. Yaya worries about the constant financial stress around obtaining hormones. It’s a needed dash of reality. 

As the colorful cast of characters who revolve around Jack and Yaya are introduced, it’s not hard to see how these two became the people they are. Bagley naturally captures the warmth and love that flows between all of them. Amidst the alcohol and ‘70s rock, Yaya’s uncle Eddie spills to the camera how much love he has for both Yaya and Jack. “All you need is frickin’ love!” bellows Eddie. 

Jack & Yaya works exceptionally well at being a celebration of these two people as they figure out their ever-changing lives. This isn’t a film interested in making a grand social statement. Bagley lets these two tell their story, and show us who they really are through their own words and actions.

Jack & Yaya beautifully shows how good we all can be when we prop each other up. Jack and Yaya’s lives could’ve gone so much differently. But they had each other and a support system that evolved into a deep friendship of genuine acceptance and caring. 

“All you need is frickin’ love!” indeed.

Grade: A-

Queen of Lapa

by Rachel Willis

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the neighborhood of Lapa is home to Luana Muniz, the focus of directors Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s documentary, Queen of Lapa.  

A photoshoot of Muniz opens the film. She is elegant in black lingerie, holding a cigarette; the audience learns that she has been a sex worker since the age of eleven and is now one of the most recognized transgender (Luana prefers the term transvestite) activists in Brazil.

A hostel run by Muniz for over two decades provides a safe haven for transgender sex workers. It is this world that Collatos and Monnerat are privy to. They are given a level of access that allows the audience to experience these women’s lives as they live them.

Muniz is a bit of a mother hen to the women, many of them even call her Mother Luana. She scolds them for not cleaning up after themselves, expresses concern over injuries, and fights to ensure the house remains a place where transgender men and women can live and work safely.

It’s an important concern. Transgender men and women, and sex workers, experience violence at alarming rates. One of the women speaks of having gasoline poured on her before she escapes her attacker. The same woman is beaten and robbed one night, showing her injuries to her Facebook Live audience. Another woman is nearly raped but manages to flee.

However, the film focuses on more than one aspect of these women’s lives. It allows us a chance to spend time with the housemates and get to know them. There is a familial atmosphere as the roommates watch TV, do each other’s nails, eat meals together, and argue.

Some of the conversations are more interesting than others, but the filmmakers play a critical role with their lack of presence. They allow the group to share their own stories, to let their voices be heard at a time when it is essential that those who have been silenced in the past are allowed to speak. 

Muniz says of herself, “the only star here is me,” and in some ways, she is the sun to a community of people who need an advocate like her. One of the women recalls seeing Muniz on TV as a child, never expecting to know her as an adult, but it’s an example of the impact she has had on the community. She teaches the women how to be safe, how to not be ashamed of who they are, and that they are loved.

The world could use more people like Luana Muniz.

Grade: A-

Scare Package

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

Has there ever been a place as glorious as the video store? The brain trust behind the horror anthology Scare Package clearly understands the secret joys of the independent VHS retailer and their beloved horror wares.

“This weekend is all about no rules, no clothes, and no cell service,” begins Emily Hagins’ surprisingly fresh meta-horror Cold Open. It sets the stage for a really funny way to spend about an hour and 40 minutes.

Chad Buckley of Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium (directed by Aaron B. Koontz) is training a new employee, covering the ins and outs of the VHS game and dodging that creepy regular customer. Periodically we get a glimpse at the store’s rentals, taking shape as the set of horror shorts that make up the anthology.

Chris McInroy’s consistently funny One Time in the Woods plays like a good-natured Troma flick. So, it’s a bloody, gooey, gore-soaked, viscera-saturated mess with a bright disposition.

Noah Segan (Knives Out) makes his directorial debut with M.I.S.T.,E.R., which boasts the great casting of Noah Segan (how’d he get him?!) as well as Jocelyn DeBoer (Thunder Road, Greener Grass). You wouldn’t call it inspired, but a nice sleight of hand and one subtly creepy bartender are enough to keep you guessing and entertained.

Anthony Cousins’s The Night He Came Back IV: The Final Kill doesn’t offer much in the way of a fresh perspective and feels especially tame compared to the two other meta-horror episodes in the package. The two shorts that bridge sci fi and horror—Courtney and Hilary Andujar’s Girls’ Night Out of Body and Baron Vaughn’s So Much To Do—don’t answer nearly as much as they ask, but they do keep your attention.

The collection is weaved together with love and a lot of nerdy horror know-how. Was it destined for Shutter? Well, that Jo Bob Briggs cameo couldn’t have hurt.

Scare Package sports an excellent use of budget for a fun, campy set of horror-loving films—the kind of short movies that lovingly mock the genre. Most of the episodes offer a knowing lampooning, and each ends abruptly enough to avoid wearing out its welcome.

Grade: B-

Read more from Hope, George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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