Barbuto column: Skip or stream? ‘Military Wives,’ ‘Spaceship Earth,’ ‘The Wretched,’ ‘Lucky Grandma’
Video on demand is having a moment - and with movie theaters closed indefinitely, it’s likely to gain even more popularity. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, studios dropped a batch of flicks on streaming platforms, and we gobbled them up. Fast forward a dozen weeks and there’s an avalanche of choices. This week’s foursome runs the gamut: horror, documentary, comedy and uplifting drama. Skip or stream? Read on and find out.
"Military Wives": You could do worse than this uplifting, but saccharinely story about British army wives forming a choir while awaiting the return of their spouses from deployment. The film is based on real events that occurred at Flitcroft Garrison and is directed by "The Full Monty’s" Peter Cattaneo. The cast is headed by ever-dependable Kristin Scott Thomas as the buttoned-up, efficient Kate, wife of the colonel. Sharon Horgan is the more laidback, wine-swilling Lisa, who becomes a reluctant leader after her husband is promoted. Sparring ensues as the two women have different approaches to running the choir. Just like a sports movie, the by-the-numbers plot moves along smoothly, hitting all the expected beats and culminating with the big game - a nationally televised event at London's Royal Albert Hall. A sisterhood forms, conflicts wrap up tidily and the message of "stronger together" is certainly on point. The effort is so earnest that it’s hard to hate, especially when accompanied by songs by Cyndi Lauper and The Spice Girls. (PG-13 for some strong language and sexual references. Available to rent from Plimoth Virtual Cinema, www.plimoth.org) Grade: B
"Spaceship Earth": There’s nothing less inviting than watching people live in quarantine while most of us do the same. But that’s where documentarian Matt Wolf takes you in exploring the notorious Biosphere 2 ecological experiment, where from 1991 to 1993 four men and four women occupied a sprawling three-acre $200 million, hermetically sealed structure in the Arizona desert. The goal was to see if life could thrive in a controlled, cloistered system. Like Matt Damon in "The Martian," the "biospherians" grew their own food, recycled their air, water and waste, independent and untouched by the world outside. Or was it? Therein lies the problem. Accusations of fraud abound, which makes for riveting viewing but bad science. The documentary plays out like a season of "Big Brother," with interpersonal conflicts, cults, deception, sabotage and even Steve Bannon, the ex-Trump adviser running the experiment. (Not rated; Available to rent on Amazon and Hulu) Grade: B+
"The Wretched": The low-budget indie horror flick from siblings Drew and Brett Pierce has been the No. 1 rental since it was released May 1. The story centers on Ben (John-Paul Howard), a rebellious teenager discovering - "Rear Window"-style - there’s a witch (Zarah Mahler) living next door. And she’s thirsty. The setting is an idyllic tourist town where Ben goes to spend the summer working at his father’s (Jamison Jones) marina. He befriends Mallory (Piper Curda), his Girl Friday. Ben’s suspicions are ignored. So he makes it his mission to put an end to the witch’s reign of terror. The plot moves along swiftly, relying on rote genre tropes (dark basements, creepy woodsy setting, children in peril) before descending into supernatural shenanigans. Some effective scares are enhanced by creative sound mixing evoking enough dread to keep you engaged. (Not rated; Available to rent via video on demand) Grade: B-
"Lucky Grandma": I saved the best for last. Director Sasie Sealy’s feature film debut is one, fun flick. Eighty-six-year-old Tsai Chin ("Joy Luck Club") steals the show as a recently widowed, chain-smoking, gambling granny running into a load of cash that pits her against the local mob boss in New York’s Chinatown. After she’s chased and shaken down by goons named Pock-Mark (Woody Fu) and Little Handsome (Michael Tow), Grandma hires a sizable bodyguard called Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha). He turns out to be a Teddy bear, naturally, and he and Grandma develop a bond. They’ve got an engaging dynamic, but it’s Chin who carries a film that at times is tonally jarring, as the plot veers off into an abduction situation. Yet, you follow along. Chin’s presence conveys gravitas, and she does it all with piercing eyes and scathing expressions. She’s one tough cookie. (Unrated and available to stream from the The Brattle’s Virtual Screening Room, www.brattlefilm.org) Grade: B+
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.