The biggest edge-of-your-seat summer thrill ride isn't The Matrix Reloaded, Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle, or even the sex-change drama From Justin to Kelly. It's a little documentary called Spellbound (opens Friday, June 13, at the Little) that follows eight children to the national finals of the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.
That's right --- a spelling bee. Maybe you've drunkenly stumbled onto ESPN's annual coverage of the bee, and watched it with the same confusion-slash-horror-slash-curiosity as when you accidentally found late-night coverage of curling during the Olympics.
Spellbound, which was nominated for an Oscar, spends 45 minutes introducing us to its eight subjects, who come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. There's Angela, from Perryton, Texas, whose parents can't even speak English. There's Ashley, from DC's projects, whose single mother complains about the bee's lack of "publicticizin'." There's Neil, from San Clemente, California, whose parents hire a series of different coaches; and three-time finalist Emily, from New Haven, Connecticut, whose loaded family boasts an au pair. And there's the film-stealing Harry, the quintessential hyper-nerd who barely studies and whose own mother didn't even know he was competing.
I can't recall a more tense moment in any documentary than the excruciating seconds in Spellbound between the end of a kid's attempt at spelling a word you've never heard of and the judge's decision to ring the bell (meaning they got it wrong) or not. What's priceless, though, are the looks on the faces of both the children and their parents when the kids totally guess at a spelling, and assume they're about to get dinged, but don't. Do not miss this Rockwellian slice of Americana.
Slightly less enjoyable --- because of its subject matter, not its documentary filmmaking technique --- is Sister Helen, which screens at the Dryden on June 13. It played at last year's High Falls Film Festival, and has gathered awards from Sundance and the Directors' Guild.
The titular Helen became a nun at the age of 56, after losing her husband and two sons to alcohol and drugs, and now runs what you could easily call the real Bronx Zoo. Helen lives with 21 recovering addicts in a decrepit, rat-infested South Bronx building called the John Thomas Travis Center, which she opened and named after her late husband.
Helen isn't like any of the nuns you've likely encountered in your life. Sure, she's a squeaky-voiced, formerly alcoholic Irishwoman (who would probably be played by Fionnula Flanagan, should anyone make a feature of her life's story). But Helen is more like Joe Pesci in a habit, spouting un-nunlike phrases like "Shit or get off the pot" and "Not all the balls are on men."
Helen is nice to her tenants, so long as they keep their rent current, make curfew, and never have any problems with their frequent drug tests (she pronounces the word "urine" as yur-EEN). But heaven help the junkie who tests positive for anything more powerful than Sanka. Co-director Rob Fruchtman will be on hand at the screening to answer your questions.
If you're not all documentaried-out, ImageOut's June 19 fundraiser Radical Harmonies will unspool at the Little at 6:30 p.m. Harmonies tells the story of the feminist movement in music back in the early and mid '70s, when Lilith Fair was still a fairy tale.
Directed by Oscar nominee Dee Mosbacher, Harmonies featured artists with whom I was completely unfamiliar (aside from The Weavers' Ronnie Gilbert). I imagine the same could be said by most folks who haven't heard of Olivia Records and don't know the words to the groundbreaking single "Angry Atthis." Strangely, this music movement was also responsible for both the popularization of using ASL translators at public events, as well as the intentional misspelling of words (i.e. womyn and wimmin), which has since been appropriated by date-rape frat-rockers (i.e. Limp Bizkit, Staind, and every other band you hear on The Nerve).
Advance tickets for Harmonies are $10 (they'll be $12 at the door, if there are any left), available at Gutenberg Books, The Pride Connection, and Outlandish Video and Gifts.
If you're at all familiar with the animated television show Cowboy Bebop, chances are you're a huge fan. I'm in a totally different boat. To me, Bebop is the show you program your VCR to avoid while recording Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Home Movies, The Brak Show, and The Oblongs during the Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim program block. Bebop was a late-'90s show from Japan that has since found a niche American audience on that network.
I'm not a fan of the whole Japanimation thing, and to me, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (opens Friday, June 13, at the Little) is just a tired mix of Speed Racer, Pokémon, and the crap my Nintendo games try to sell me when there isn't any action happening. The movie is set in Alba City, Mars, in the year 2071, and focuses on a story about bioterrorism (so long, escapism!) and a rag-tag bunch of bounty hunters who, apparently, pool their plunder together to buy Ramen noodles.
I was given a tape of Bebop, and I tried really hard to get through it, but just couldn't do it. Here's the question you have to ask yourself about the Bebop flick: If it was a live-action film with the same story, would it be remotely interesting? I don't think so. But for fans of the show, the answer to that question won't matter one bit.
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.