Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman, It Started as a Joke is a new documentary film exploring the comedy scene in New York City. A consistently entertaining homage to a legendary event, this movie may be a little too short for its own good, but fans will love it nonetheless.
The documentary explores the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in Brooklyn and the way in which the festival and its creator helped nurture some of the most iconic voices in the NYC alternative comedy scene. Many popular comedians make an appearance in the documentary having performed at Mirman’s festival over the years, so this film will be of interest to anyone with any stakes in modern comedy.
Clem and Druckerman use this movie as a way of showing the impact of the festival, and there really is no better way to do so than to show footage from the performances. Although the festival has (purposefully) come to an end, those who are just now learning about it can experience a little bit of comedy history by seeing what is essentially a best-of reel from the fest.
Because Clem and Druckerman filmed at the last edition of the festival, they had access to get interviews from plenty of recognizable faces. Among the top names seen in the movie are Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Ian Black, Reggie Watts, Kristen Schaal, Jon Glaser, and Bobcat Goldthwait. They all do a good job of showing how wide-reaching the festival is.
That said, the film also doubles as a look into the life of Eugene Mirman. Although the movie isn’t a biography, and it never claims to be, there is a significant portion of the film that focuses on Mirman and how he uses his comedy to cope with his wife’s cancer diagnosis. (She has unfortunately passed since the movie’s production.)
With this, Clem and Druckerman’s film also delivers a message to the audience, that laughter is the best medicine and that even when the world has you down, there’s a way to get back up. It’s thoroughly surprising to see a comedic documentary like this get so personal and emotional, but it works extremely well.
On a technical level, Clem and Druckerman do a very good job of blending the performance footage, interviews, and fly-on-the-wall footage from Mirman’s life. While the movie doesn’t break expectations or take a particularly innovative approach to its storytelling, it still manages to juggle all of its moving parts quite well.
It Started as a Joke is an entertaining and touching documentary that is a must-see for any comedy fan. The hilarious performance footage is worth the rental price by itself, but there’s plenty more that makes this film stand out.
It Started as a Joke hits VOD on April 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
From director Malgorzata Szumowska comes The Other Lamb, an eerie and atmospheric new horror-thriller set in the world of religious cults. Thanks to gorgeous visuals, strong performances, and a thoughtful script from C.S. McMullen, this ends up being one of the first can’t-miss horror films of the year.
The movie tells the story of a young woman in an all-female cult led by a male “Shepherd” as she begins to question the group’s ideology and its leader’s intentions. As is the case with many films about cults, McMullen’s script is so effective because it plays into the audience’s fascination with the unknown to create a mysterious and thrilling story.
Arguably the strongest aspect of McMullen’s script is its world-building. By throwing the audience into the movie’s world with little to no context, it is up to the viewer to acclimate themselves to the mythology. There isn’t a new initiate as the protagonist, but instead, the viewer is left as an outsider to this world.
Regardless, the film does a very good job of creating sympathy for the characters. The protagonist’s arc is a relatively common one for the genre — disillusionment with the traditional ways of the group causes a rift with the elders of the group — but it is a compelling one nonetheless, and McMullen and Szumowska’s approach is insightful enough for the movie to stand out.
The film explores the idea of religion, and while it does so in a very extreme sense, the movie still feels very relevant. McMullen’s particular focus is the indoctrination of youth into religion, which is a discussion that has largely been avoided by most forms of popular media, but is something that needs to be discussed.
Raffey Cassidy (Vox Lux) plays the lead in the film and does an excellent job of bringing the character to life. Although it isn’t quite her strongest work, that just goes to show the tremendous talent that she has. Michiel Huisman also gives a great performance as the cult’s charismatic but menacing leader.
That said, the single most impressive part of the movie is its beautiful and hypnotic visuals. Although there are a few sequences in which it does start to feel like Szumowska is going a bit overboard, most of the film is very deliberate and nightmarish. It is the type of aesthetically-driven and highly-stylized art horror that fans have come to expect of the genre.
The Other Lamb takes a lot of risks thematically and stylistically, and the result is an immensely satisfying horror-thriller. Although it isn’t as traditionally exciting as general audiences will want, the niche audience to which it appeals is sure to love it.
The Other Lamb hits VOD on April 3.
THEY CALL ME DR. MIAMI -- An Entertaining Look at the Life of One of the World's Most Unexpected Celebrities
Review by Sean Boelman
Exploring one of the most surprising viral sensations of the social media generation, They Call Me Dr. Miami is an extremely entertaining documentary. Taking a surprisingly nuanced approach to its subject, Jean-Simon Chartier’s documentary is by no means an average biography.
The film tells the story of Dr. Michael Salzhauer, better known as Dr. Miami, a plastic surgeon who broadcasts his procedures over Snapchat and has created an extravagant persona around his practice. Plastic surgery is already interesting in and of itself, but the story of someone who became a celebrity because of it is even more intriguing.
Arguably what Chartier does best with his movie is creating the dichotomy between Dr. Michael Salzhauer and Dr. Miami. There’s definitely a very clear division between who Salzhauer is when he’s on the clock and when he’s at home, and the film does a good job of using this to humanize him as the subject of the documentary.
The main focus of the movie is exploring the ethical implications of Salzhauer’s live streams. Interviews with competing surgeons expose some of the concerns that the medical field has about his unorthodox methods, and Salzhauer is given the opportunity to defend himself and his practice. Ultimately, the decision is left up to the viewer as to whether he is right or wrong.
That said, the film also explores Salzhauer’s desire to maintain his family life despite his newfound notoriety. Some of the most interesting moments of the movie explore the relationship that Salzhauer has with his religion and how other individuals within his community look upon his career and public image.
Clocking in under an hour and twenty minutes long, the film is quite short, and at times feels a bit rushed. There truly is a wealth of material here for Chartier to explore, and while what he does look into is absolutely fascinating, there are certainly areas of Salzhauer’s life that could have been explored in more depth.
As one would expect, the movie is shot in a very flashy and stylistic manner, which is fitting given the nature of its subject’s online presence. In addition to interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage, Chartier incorporates footage from Salzhauer’s real Snapchat videos. The result is a film that is true-to-form enough to appeal to fans and informative enough to draw in outsiders.
They Call Me Dr. Miami is one of the more unusual documentaries that was set to appear on the festival circuit this year, and as a result, it’s pretty fascinating. Apart from those who are squeamish (there is some graphic plastic surgery footage included), this documentary seems like it has the potential to catch on with audiences.
They Call Me Dr. Miami was set to screen at the cancelled 2020 Miami Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman, Slay the Dragon is a new documentary taking a look at one of the most pressing political issues of all time. However, even though the film has obviously noble intentions, it doesn’t offer much information regarding the issue beyond what one would learn in a basic middle school civics class.
In the film, Durrance and Goodman take a look at the political phenomenon that is gerrymandering and the group of activists who are working to fight its influence over the government. Anyone who is familiar with how government operates will undoubtedly be aware of how substantial an impact this issue has on politics.
It would be inaccurate to say that gerrymandering is an easy topic to explain because there are so many levels of deception that go into it, but the film simply scratches the surface on the consequences of these political actions. While this does help the film be more easily accessible to the general voting populace, it likely won’t have the political impact it needs to make the difference.
More than anything, the film simply spews facts and figures to the audience. While this information does a good job of communicating the urgency of the situation, it fails to effectively explain why the average American should care. It’s a call to arms that doesn’t give the people a reason to fight, and as a result, the film fails in its efforts.
That isn’t to say there is nothing worthwhile in the film — if nothing else, the film encourages audiences to take a more active and participatory role in the government. Since it is the elected officials that are doing this manipulation, the easiest way for people to voice their displeasure is to vote, hence why the film is being released in an election year.
Additionally, the film includes the voice of some activists and politicians who are working to prevent these crooked officials from continuing to take advantage of the people who put them in office in the first place. While it would have been nice if more of the film’s runtime had been dedicated to exploring their part in the story, their portion of the film is very compelling.
On a technical level, Durrance and Goodman’s film is very polished and done in a way as to make the information as easily consumable as possible. Techniques used to simplify the information being presented to the audience include interviews with experts who translate some of the jargon and graphics used to make the information more visual. For the most part, it works.
Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman’s Slay the Dragon obviously means well, but there was a lot of room for it to cut deeper than it does. Ultimately, the fact that it doesn’t cover much new political ground means that it really isn’t a necessary watch.
Slay the Dragon hits VOD on April 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Jay Cheel, Cursed Films is a new five-part documentary series taking a look at some of the most notoriously unlucky productions in all of horror movie history. While the premise will undeniably be intriguing for anyone who is interested in the horror genre, it doesn’t offer much in the way of new or revelatory information.
Each episode of the series explores a different movie that suffered from mysterious circumstances occurring during and after production, leading some of those involved to believe that the films were “cursed”. The validity of these “curses” has been debated, and the purpose of the series is to address this discussion.
The two episodes of the documentary that were screened for press centered around the films Poltergeist and The Omen. Both rank among the most iconic horror movies of all time, and fans will undeniably be familiar with all of the weird happenings associated with the films for which they would become notorious. As a result, much of the series’s information will already be known by its target audience.
The episode dealing with Poltergeist is particularly shallow, as it doesn’t offer much beyond a basic recap of the bizarre fates that befell the cast and crew. While the episode is a nice and respectful tribute to Heather O’Rourke, who passed away tragically at a young age, it doesn’t feature the perspective of anyone that audiences would really want to hear from (apart from Poltergeist III director Gary Sherman).
That said, the episode does feature a brief segment with interesting discussion of the psychological foundation of curses and how people use them as a means of justifying experiences that they can’t explain. Hopefully the rest of the series continues these interviews with expert psychologists that offer a scientific approach to the series’s concept.
On the other hand, the episode on The Omen explores a completely different aspect of curses — the occult side. This is probably the most unique and intriguing information that the documentary has to offer, as Cheel interviews black magicians that present their take on whether these events are supernatural or mere coincidence.
Cheel does a good job of incorporating footage from the movies that the episodes are exploring. Given the seeming lack of cooperation Cheel had from relevant parties (neither Steven Spielberg nor Tobe Hooper was interviewed for the Poltergeist episode), it is impressive that he was able to get access to the materials needed.
Although Cursed Films may not be the in-depth exploration of superstition that audiences will want, it is mostly entertaining nevertheless. With other episodes focusing on The Exorcist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie, it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here.
Cursed Films debuts on Shudder on April 2, with new episodes on April 9 and April 16. Two out of five episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
Starring and directed by Jon Abrahams (Scary Movie), Clover is a new action-comedy paying homage to classic mobster movies. However, apart from an interesting and unexpected third act twist, the film never manages to find its footing because it feels constantly unsure of what it wants to be.
The movie follows two brothers who are sent on the lam with a teenage girl when she kills the son of a powerful mob boss and they are blamed for his death. For a majority of the film, it’s very predictable and leans heavily on tropes of the genre. However, writer Michael Testone redeems himself with a third act that, while not entirely fitting within the rest of the movie, is much more entertaining than anything that came before.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is that its tone is wildly inconsistent. At times, it’s obvious that the movie is a comedy as the two leads are cracking jokes with each other and the film is a lot more playful. Yet there are other parts of the movie that are overly dark and serious, some to the point of being disturbing. It would have been beneficial for the film to pick one tone and stick to it.
The pacing of the movie is also aggravating. It takes quite a while for all of the gears to get turning, and while everything eventually comes together in the end, the process of getting there isn’t entirely satisfying. There are simply too many moving parts in this story, and not enough time to build a world around them, and as such, the film falters.
That said, the movie does a very good job of making the audience sympathize with the characters. Granted, there are a lot of archetypes in play, but it is almost fitting given that the film functions more as a parody of crime movies than anything else. Still, Testone writes them in a way that is charming and endearing.
But alas, the actors in the film don’t do a good job of working with the solid foundation they are given. Abrahams and his co-star Mark Webber have solid enough chemistry, and this is a majority of what makes the movie move forward. Everyone else in the cast has wooden delivery. Young actress Nicole Elizabeth Berger’s performance is particularly rough, although that may be due to the fault of poor direction.
Abraham also had mixed results with the film on a technical level. Much like the movie couldn’t decide what tone it wanted to follow, it couldn’t decide what era in which it wanted to take place. Anachronisms between the material and production design can be found galore. Additionally, the film relies a bit too heavily on mediocre gore effects.
Clover is saved from being a waste of time by its solid ending. Even though this obviously seems like a passion project for Abrahams, it didn’t pan out, as there are more misses than hits in the script and execution.
Clover hits VOD on April 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
Every once in a while, there is a film that is so bad that one can’t help but revel in the absurdity of what they have just seen. Writer-director Spencer T. Folmar’s didactic action-drama Shooting Heroin falls into that category as one of the most hopelessly misguided movies to have gotten the green light in quite a while.
The film follows a group of small-town residents grappling with the burden of grief from loved ones who lost their lives to drugs as they begin to use violent methods to combat the heroin crisis. Although it is obvious that Folmar is trying to communicate the urgency of the heroin epidemic, particularly as it relates to youth in America today, it seems in poor taste to bring back the idea of the “war on drugs” when society is dealing with more pressing issues involving violence.
Folmar’s movie is a tonal mess all-around, and as a result, it’s hard to take the film seriously. (The title makes it even harder to approach the movie with a straight face because of its absolutely horrible pun.) Portions of the film want to be an earnest character study about the human impact of drug addiction, and then there is an ATV chase scene thrown in, seemingly in an attempt to keep the audience’s attention.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that Folmar has done most of his work to this point in inspirational religious-themed movies. While this isn’t the type of wholesome, family-friendly entertainment that the genre usually offers, it shares many of the overly sentimental and preachy characteristics that are notoriously problematic.
The character development in the film is also lackluster because it tries too hard to milk emotion out of the audience. There are some moments that have the potential to be hard-hitting, but for the most part, the movie doesn’t earn any emotion from the viewers. Only those who fall victim to the most manipulative of tactics will feel anything from this film.
As expected, the movie features a lot of no-name actors with a few appearances from C-list celebrities (Brian O’Halloran of Clerks fame is probably the biggest name in the cast). The thing that unifies all of the performers in the film, though, is that they consistently overact, another quality that seems to have transferred over from Folmar’s previous work.
On a technical level, the movie is about as unprofessional as one would expect. The cinematography and production design are obviously very low-budget, and distractingly so. As a whole, the film looks and feels painfully cheap, but the extent to which it looks terrible is often laughable, giving the movie an added “so-bad-it’s-good” factor.
Shooting Heroin is undeniably going to be one of the worst movies of 2020, but there’s something about it that demands to be seen, for better or worse. Connoisseurs of terrible cinema will surely want to check this one out.
Shooting Heroin hits VOD on April 3.
The latest true-crime docuseries from acclaimed documentarian Erin Lee Carr (At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal), How to Fix a Drug Scandal seems destined to be Netflix’s next sensation. However, even though the story is truly fascinating, the approach that Carr takes in telling it is often unsatisfying.
The film tells the story of a scandal in Massachusetts in which two crime drug lab analysts were charged with tampering with evidence, one of them soon being discovered to have used the drugs she was tasked with investigating. This is the type of so-crazy-it-must-be-true story that Netflix docuseries have become known for in recent years, and on that front, it certainly delivers.
That said, the series is not particularly well-paced, and as a result, it will not rank among the most entertaining that the service has to offer. The four episodes of the series clock in at a total runtime of a little under four hours, but at least an hour of that runtime is dedicated to unnecessary subplots that aren’t particularly compelling.
The main subject of the documentary, Sonja Farak, has what is undeniably the most interesting story of the bunch. Her tragic rise and fall from respected forensic scientist to criminal is the type of infotainment that true-crime-loving audiences have come to expect. This portion of the documentary also allows for some interesting exploration of the flaws of the American justice system.
Had the series focused exclusively on Farak, it likely would have been great, yet Carr seems to feel the need to present the entire story rather than just the important details. As a result, almost an entire episode is dedicated to Annie Dookhan, another analyst who was discovered before Farak. While this is important context, ten or so minutes would have sufficed, an entire episode being an absurd amount of time to dedicate to this portion of the story.
Then, in the final two episodes, Carr includes an aside about one of Farak’s victims and the lawyer who helped bring justice to all of the people she potentially wrongly convicted. Although this is the most emotional portion of the series, too little time is spent developing the audience’s connection to these people, and as a result, the series as a whole suffers.
On a technical level, Carr edits the film in a way that is very entertaining and done in a way to help the audience get as much out of the story as possible, but viewers will be able to see past the flashiness to see how hollow the series actually is. Some interesting use of testimony recordings aside, the film resorts to a lot of gimmicks that shallowly intrigue.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal is ultimately a very disappointing docuseries. Even though it has one of the most insane true stories in a while, it doesn’t have the balanced narrative that it needs to work.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal streams on Netflix beginning April 1. All four episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Brent Wilson, Streetlight Harmonies is a new documentary taking a look at one of the most influential genres of music. Thanks to a wealth of interviews from familiar faces, and excellent use of some iconic tunes, the film is able to be entertaining despite the fact that it offers only a cursory glance at music history.
In the movie, Wilson traces the history of harmony groups in music, from its origins on street corners to the success of Doo-Wop all the way to its most modern occurrences in boy bands and R&B. Anyone who is familiar with this era of music will know how important these singers and producers were, not only to the genre, but the industry as a whole.
That said, the film focuses mostly on the things about which even general audiences will already know. Unfortunately, as is the case with many music documentaries, the movie will appeal mostly to pre-existing fans, many of whom will already be familiar with the origin stories of these groups. The more interesting and important material, like the segment of the film talking about Phil Spector and his innovations, are disappointingly cut short.
It almost feels like Wilson does not trust the audience to care about the more technical aspects of the music industry, and while some viewers will certainly be pleased with hearing these musicians reminisce about their heyday, those wanting to learn something deeper will find themselves disappointed by the movie’s lack of depth.
However, Wayne did a very good job of gathering interviews that tell the story of the film in a compelling way. Of course, a majority of the movie is told via interviews with musicians who actually worked during this time. These interviews lean heavily on the nostalgia factor, but are still a joy to watch because of how iconic these performers are. In addition, Wayne interviews some high-profile musicians influenced by the genre, including Lance Bass (NSYNC), Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and Brian McKnight.
Furthermore, the film is worth watching if only for the magical end sequence alone. The credits start rolling about ten minutes before the run time is up, and that is because Wilson has a special tribute for legendary singer Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”) in store. While it would be a disservice to viewers to spoil it, it is exactly the emotional tribute that the movie needed.
Wilson’s film is also very accomplished on a technical level. Wilson blends the well-shot interviews and archive footage in a way that is consistently aesthetically-appealing. As expected, the movie also features a soundtrack composed of some of the most recognizable tunes that are being discussed, and the film will have viewers humming along.
Streetlight Harmonies may not offer a lot of depth of information, but it is saved by great interviews and some solid decision-making on the director’s part. The movie’s finale is honestly worth the price of rental alone.
Streetlight Harmonies hits VOD on March 31.
Review by Sean Boelman
Finally hitting Apple TV+ after a months-long delay due to allegations against one of the film’s producers, George Nolfi’s ‘60s-set biopic The Banker is likely the highest-profile release for the service yet. A safe if moderately entertaining drama, the movie relies a bit too heavily on its charming and star-studded cast.
The film tells the story of two African-American entrepreneurs who hire a white man to impersonate them in order to form a business empire in real estate and banking. Based on a true story that doesn’t get a whole lot of space in history books, this story is nonetheless fundamentally tied to what is arguably the most important era in the history of civil rights.
That said, Nolfi’s movie never hits as hard as it potentially could, seemingly in an attempt to make the film as neutral and inoffensive as possible. Portions of the story had the potential to dive into some of the more important issues of race relations that still plague society today, but the movie instead settles for some of the more generic racial antagonism that comes with awards bait movies like this.
The film does a good enough job of making the characters sympathetic, but there isn’t much depth to them. Viewers are given very little information about the characters outside of their personal endeavors. Two of the three lead characters have spouses that get a decent amount of screen time, but those relationships seem more like an afterthought instead of a legitimate means of characterization.
However, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it is questionably structured. For the first act of the film, this is very much Bernard Garrett’s (Anthony Mackie) story, but in the second act, Matt Steiner (Nicolas Hoult) effectively becomes the protagonist. Why the movie’s five credited writers (four wrote the screenplay, with one additional writer getting story by credit) chose to make this white man the lead in a story about civil rights is inexplicable.
Regardless, the actors do a great job in the film. Mackie and Hoult are great as the leads, both having roles more weighty than is usual for them. Mackie, in particular, takes advantage of this opportunity to have a greater chance at the spotlight, leaning into the inspirational elements of the movie well. Yet it is Samuel L. Jackson in a role that is more reserved than usual (he still gets his PG-13 f-bomb moment, though) who steals the screen.
On a technical level, Nolfi’s film is the type of polished period piece that one would normally expect older audiences to flock to in droves. The cinematography and production design are slick and do a good job of periodizing the movie, and the score is jazzy and sets the mood well. But much like the script, many of Melfi’s decisions seem like they come from the safest place possible.
The Banker is an enjoyable enough film for what it is, but it doesn’t achieve its full potential as a true story set during the era of civil rights. Ultimately, since the movie is coming out on a relatively new platform, it may take a while for it to reach its intended audience.
The Banker is now streaming on Apple TV+.