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Queen Bees: TV triumphant for The Santa Clause’s Michael Lembeck

The Now Ready For Prime Time Players

Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.
Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.

’Twas home video that first began sawing away at television’s umbilical cord. It was bad enough that stations sliced and diced movie running times quicker than a Popeil Chop-O-Matic to make room for commercial breaks. To further interfere with one’s enjoyment of cinema, objectionable scenes were bleeped, tiled, or in many cases eliminated altogether. And after the digital makeover converted movie screens into mini-Jumbotrons, cinema finally laid down its arms and declared television the winner. Hell, one of its proudest and most influential voices has been reduced to shooting TV-safe goodfellas for Netflix. The reason I don’t watch much television is because I get so much of it at the movies. So why all the buzz over Queen Bees?

The cast’s the thing. Throughout their careers, these major players have all earned prime real estate in the mental memory boards of generations of moviegoers. Ellen Burstyn’s (Helen Wilson) star turn as the feministic waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore not only put her on the map, the character lives on as the strongest female voice ever to advance to the foreground of a Scorsese picture. James Caan’s (Dan Simpson) “death by tollbooth” exit in The Godfather gave new meaning to the word “squib.” The mere thought of Ann-Margret (Margot Clark) belting a chorus of “Bye Bye Birdie” as she floats against the current of a Mediterranean blue backdrop still sets my heart twitterpating. Christopher Lloyd’s (Arthur Lane) contributions to the Back to the Future trilogy alone are enough to occupy an infinitely indexed storage block, while Loretta Devine’s (Sally Hanson) mighty comic presence breathed life into a pair of Whitney Huston vehicles: Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife. And to this day, Jane Curtin (Janet Poindexter) remains the most underappreciated Not Ready For Prime Time Player.

Helen has been on her own since her husband passed three years earlier. She’s relatively self-sustaining and as sharp as the proverbial tack, give or take a nasty habit of locking herself out of the house. It’s one thing to make a mistake in the morning, another to call in the fire department to break in and extinguish that night’s dinner after it has set the kitchen ablaze. It’s at her daughter Laura’s (Elizabeth Mitchell) insistence that Helen checks into nearby Pine Grove, a “swanky old people’s home,” just long enough for the structural damage to be repaired. But a renovation that was originally slated to take no longer than one month stretches on for several. Then Helen’s initial reluctance about the place begins to thaw, thanks to her acceptance by members of the titular power clique and a romance with newcomer Dan, the only lips to touch hers since becoming a widow.

Every spinster grade-school teacher that ever made your life miserable is contained in Curtin’s Janet Poindexter. A bully by nature, it says a lot about a character that her son informed a neighbor that his mother had died. Henry Kissinger has nothing on Poindexter’s ability to lead; it is she who decides if one deserves a seat at the lunch table. The ease with which Helen calls out her bitchery awakens Janet’s wrath, as well as stirring admiration among the ranks. When Janet at last begins showing signs of begrudging acceptance, Helen asks, “Who said I wanted to be one of you?” Without missing a beat, a composed but snotty Poindexter answers one question with another: “Why wouldn’t you?”

This is quite the departure for director Michael Lembeck, whose target demographic prior to this skewed considerably younger (The Santa Clause 2 & 3, Tooth Fairy). (Lembeck is the son of Harvey Lembeck, known to legions of grown up teenagers as Eric Von Zipper in the Frankie & Annette “Beach” series.) The script by Donald Martin and Harrison Powell walks a fine line between funny and maudlin, i.e. no main characters died during the making of this picture, and any talk of disease is expressed with surprising candor. Take Arthur, for example. For a spell, it appears that his sole function, other than wearing what appears to be a coonskin cap for a toupee, is playing the newest rooster in the henhouse. Margot is insulted by what she perceives to be a lothario in such demand by the facility’s female population that he can’t recall her name. It isn’t until gaining access to an apartment decorated by dozens of Post-Its — one of which reads, “My name is Arthur Lane” — that Margot learns that late-onset dementia and not besotted dames is the cause of his forgetfulness.

Make no mistake about it: this is as close to television as movies get, but damn if the cast doesn’t keep one watching. If the writers are guilty of anything, it’s over-plotting. As if Poindexter were not a big enough “B” to carry the picture, the authors can’t resist adding unnecessary drama by turning Laura into a heavy. If Helen is forced to spend so much as one night under her roof, Laura threatens to put in a call that will permanently put an end to the center’s planned expansion. Ditto the comedy of errors that emerges to temporarily clothesline romance. Compare this to the freedom and ease with which Helen and Sally share a joint together in bed. Why not trust your characters to do what’s right rather than pack on the forced melodrama? ★★

New Release and Video on Demand Roundup

The Misfits — Neither a remake of the turgidly depressing John Huston neo-western with Nick Cannon in the role originated by Montgomery Clift, nor a return to form by once-prospering action director Renny Harlin (Born American, Die Hard 2). It starts well enough, with narrator Ringo (Cannon) informing us that of the 19,000 bank robbers arrested over a 5-year period, 19,000 of them were incapable of doing their jobs. Ringo’s area of expertise is knocking over safe deposit boxes, and then only those that are heavily insured. A fan of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, Ringo eschews any comparisons to Robin Hood, if for no other reason than avoiding any obvious associations with the rogue of Sherwood Forest’s last name. And please don’t call them a gang: they’re just a few individuals trying to do what’s right. Joining Ringo in the internationally-assembled cast are a munitions expert named Wick (Mike Angelo), Violet (San Diego’s own Jamie Chung) — equal parts contortionist and sworn misandrist (“I don’t date men. I kill them”) — and real-life race car driver Rami Jaber as “The Prince.” Along for the ride is Pierce Brosnan, picking up a check as Pace, a pickpocket who has no interest in working on the side of good, at least until he learns that his estranged daughter Hope (Hermione Corfield) is spearheading a plot to funnel the gold to aid in a refugee crisis. (The generally reliable Brosnan brings little more to the show than clapped-hands and a Joker-esque cackle.) It all begins to grate the moment Cannon is called upon to pull an Eddie Murphy by playing multiple roles. Were it the early ‘90s, this tale of knocking off a prison housing millions in gold bars might have had a better chance, but its oversimplified worldview and travelogue leanings — the producers appear to be on an Abu Dhabi honeymoon — are better suited for a time capsule than a 2020 release. In the end, the coveted red bird falls miles short of the stuff dreams are made of. 2021. — S.M.

The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window — A floating neon triangle of paranormal healing provides the film with its elaborate title. Kosuke Mikado (Jun Shison) has been seeing dead people for as far back as he can remember. His fate changes the day Rihito Hiyakawa (Masaki Okada) appears on scene, not only possessed with the same psychic abilities as Mikado, but willing to hire the lad on the spot at double his current salary as a book clerk. (The job description calls for light housework and performing exorcisms.) His first assignment is to track down the missing body parts in an otherwise perfectly stitched Frankenstein creation. (One could have done without director Yukihiro Morigaki’s intercutting a bloody crime scene with steaks sizzling on the griddle.) Next case, that of Erika Hiura (Yurina Hirate), a young woman capable of willing people to their deaths with words. The crimes lead to a part of Koto City that seems to breed random acts of killing, particularly among the shop owners. (Cops initially wrote the violence off as mobsters looking to set up storefront businesses.) It’s around here that confusion sets in and the film’s style and inner-logic begin to veer off course. In the case of the former that’s not such a bad thing. Though it may seem like little more than a paranormal take on the Hardy Boys, according to The Japan Times this falls into a relatively new genre in Japanese storytelling known as “boy’s love.” But other than an occasional psychic embrace between boss and employee and Mikado’s mom asking if there are any pretty girls for him to hook up with at his new place of employment, the film packs as much homoeroticsm as a Chiquita Banana commercial. Coming soon to a streaming service near you. 2021. — S.M. ★★

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Howlin’ Rain, MohaviSoul, the Album Leaf, Shane Hall, Hemisphere
Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.
Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.

’Twas home video that first began sawing away at television’s umbilical cord. It was bad enough that stations sliced and diced movie running times quicker than a Popeil Chop-O-Matic to make room for commercial breaks. To further interfere with one’s enjoyment of cinema, objectionable scenes were bleeped, tiled, or in many cases eliminated altogether. And after the digital makeover converted movie screens into mini-Jumbotrons, cinema finally laid down its arms and declared television the winner. Hell, one of its proudest and most influential voices has been reduced to shooting TV-safe goodfellas for Netflix. The reason I don’t watch much television is because I get so much of it at the movies. So why all the buzz over Queen Bees?

The cast’s the thing. Throughout their careers, these major players have all earned prime real estate in the mental memory boards of generations of moviegoers. Ellen Burstyn’s (Helen Wilson) star turn as the feministic waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore not only put her on the map, the character lives on as the strongest female voice ever to advance to the foreground of a Scorsese picture. James Caan’s (Dan Simpson) “death by tollbooth” exit in The Godfather gave new meaning to the word “squib.” The mere thought of Ann-Margret (Margot Clark) belting a chorus of “Bye Bye Birdie” as she floats against the current of a Mediterranean blue backdrop still sets my heart twitterpating. Christopher Lloyd’s (Arthur Lane) contributions to the Back to the Future trilogy alone are enough to occupy an infinitely indexed storage block, while Loretta Devine’s (Sally Hanson) mighty comic presence breathed life into a pair of Whitney Huston vehicles: Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife. And to this day, Jane Curtin (Janet Poindexter) remains the most underappreciated Not Ready For Prime Time Player.

Helen has been on her own since her husband passed three years earlier. She’s relatively self-sustaining and as sharp as the proverbial tack, give or take a nasty habit of locking herself out of the house. It’s one thing to make a mistake in the morning, another to call in the fire department to break in and extinguish that night’s dinner after it has set the kitchen ablaze. It’s at her daughter Laura’s (Elizabeth Mitchell) insistence that Helen checks into nearby Pine Grove, a “swanky old people’s home,” just long enough for the structural damage to be repaired. But a renovation that was originally slated to take no longer than one month stretches on for several. Then Helen’s initial reluctance about the place begins to thaw, thanks to her acceptance by members of the titular power clique and a romance with newcomer Dan, the only lips to touch hers since becoming a widow.

Every spinster grade-school teacher that ever made your life miserable is contained in Curtin’s Janet Poindexter. A bully by nature, it says a lot about a character that her son informed a neighbor that his mother had died. Henry Kissinger has nothing on Poindexter’s ability to lead; it is she who decides if one deserves a seat at the lunch table. The ease with which Helen calls out her bitchery awakens Janet’s wrath, as well as stirring admiration among the ranks. When Janet at last begins showing signs of begrudging acceptance, Helen asks, “Who said I wanted to be one of you?” Without missing a beat, a composed but snotty Poindexter answers one question with another: “Why wouldn’t you?”

This is quite the departure for director Michael Lembeck, whose target demographic prior to this skewed considerably younger (The Santa Clause 2 & 3, Tooth Fairy). (Lembeck is the son of Harvey Lembeck, known to legions of grown up teenagers as Eric Von Zipper in the Frankie & Annette “Beach” series.) The script by Donald Martin and Harrison Powell walks a fine line between funny and maudlin, i.e. no main characters died during the making of this picture, and any talk of disease is expressed with surprising candor. Take Arthur, for example. For a spell, it appears that his sole function, other than wearing what appears to be a coonskin cap for a toupee, is playing the newest rooster in the henhouse. Margot is insulted by what she perceives to be a lothario in such demand by the facility’s female population that he can’t recall her name. It isn’t until gaining access to an apartment decorated by dozens of Post-Its — one of which reads, “My name is Arthur Lane” — that Margot learns that late-onset dementia and not besotted dames is the cause of his forgetfulness.

Make no mistake about it: this is as close to television as movies get, but damn if the cast doesn’t keep one watching. If the writers are guilty of anything, it’s over-plotting. As if Poindexter were not a big enough “B” to carry the picture, the authors can’t resist adding unnecessary drama by turning Laura into a heavy. If Helen is forced to spend so much as one night under her roof, Laura threatens to put in a call that will permanently put an end to the center’s planned expansion. Ditto the comedy of errors that emerges to temporarily clothesline romance. Compare this to the freedom and ease with which Helen and Sally share a joint together in bed. Why not trust your characters to do what’s right rather than pack on the forced melodrama? ★★

New Release and Video on Demand Roundup

The Misfits — Neither a remake of the turgidly depressing John Huston neo-western with Nick Cannon in the role originated by Montgomery Clift, nor a return to form by once-prospering action director Renny Harlin (Born American, Die Hard 2). It starts well enough, with narrator Ringo (Cannon) informing us that of the 19,000 bank robbers arrested over a 5-year period, 19,000 of them were incapable of doing their jobs. Ringo’s area of expertise is knocking over safe deposit boxes, and then only those that are heavily insured. A fan of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, Ringo eschews any comparisons to Robin Hood, if for no other reason than avoiding any obvious associations with the rogue of Sherwood Forest’s last name. And please don’t call them a gang: they’re just a few individuals trying to do what’s right. Joining Ringo in the internationally-assembled cast are a munitions expert named Wick (Mike Angelo), Violet (San Diego’s own Jamie Chung) — equal parts contortionist and sworn misandrist (“I don’t date men. I kill them”) — and real-life race car driver Rami Jaber as “The Prince.” Along for the ride is Pierce Brosnan, picking up a check as Pace, a pickpocket who has no interest in working on the side of good, at least until he learns that his estranged daughter Hope (Hermione Corfield) is spearheading a plot to funnel the gold to aid in a refugee crisis. (The generally reliable Brosnan brings little more to the show than clapped-hands and a Joker-esque cackle.) It all begins to grate the moment Cannon is called upon to pull an Eddie Murphy by playing multiple roles. Were it the early ‘90s, this tale of knocking off a prison housing millions in gold bars might have had a better chance, but its oversimplified worldview and travelogue leanings — the producers appear to be on an Abu Dhabi honeymoon — are better suited for a time capsule than a 2020 release. In the end, the coveted red bird falls miles short of the stuff dreams are made of. 2021. — S.M.

The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window — A floating neon triangle of paranormal healing provides the film with its elaborate title. Kosuke Mikado (Jun Shison) has been seeing dead people for as far back as he can remember. His fate changes the day Rihito Hiyakawa (Masaki Okada) appears on scene, not only possessed with the same psychic abilities as Mikado, but willing to hire the lad on the spot at double his current salary as a book clerk. (The job description calls for light housework and performing exorcisms.) His first assignment is to track down the missing body parts in an otherwise perfectly stitched Frankenstein creation. (One could have done without director Yukihiro Morigaki’s intercutting a bloody crime scene with steaks sizzling on the griddle.) Next case, that of Erika Hiura (Yurina Hirate), a young woman capable of willing people to their deaths with words. The crimes lead to a part of Koto City that seems to breed random acts of killing, particularly among the shop owners. (Cops initially wrote the violence off as mobsters looking to set up storefront businesses.) It’s around here that confusion sets in and the film’s style and inner-logic begin to veer off course. In the case of the former that’s not such a bad thing. Though it may seem like little more than a paranormal take on the Hardy Boys, according to The Japan Times this falls into a relatively new genre in Japanese storytelling known as “boy’s love.” But other than an occasional psychic embrace between boss and employee and Mikado’s mom asking if there are any pretty girls for him to hook up with at his new place of employment, the film packs as much homoeroticsm as a Chiquita Banana commercial. Coming soon to a streaming service near you. 2021. — S.M. ★★

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