Review by Camden Ferrell
Higher Love is a documentary that will be premiering at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival. This film also serves as the directorial debut for Hasan Oswald. While it is often hard to watch, this is a captivating and bleak look into one man’s story of desperation and love.
This movie mostly follows the exploits of one man who is trying to save his drug-addicted girlfriend in Camden, New Jersey. The real pain of this documentary comes from the fact that his girlfriend is pregnant with his son. It’s a gripping story that unfortunately seems to not be limited to this one case. However, it is a premise that is great at communicating the film’s themes.
Oswald constructs this documentary in a way that feels like a traditional narrative playing out. These moments are where the movie feel the most natural and entertaining. He makes a bold creative choice to show the graphic extent of drug abuse and addiction, and that is why this film is thematically effective. It’s a film that will make you want to turn away, but its immediacy compels you to stay with it.
Our main subject, the father, is one that feels three-dimensional. We see him at his best but also at his worst. The documentary is a candid portrait of the emotional turmoil of a man trying to save his family. He does a great job in leading many sections of this documentary, and he really gives it a unique voice. His girlfriend is also a rather interesting subject, and its painful yet engaging to see her journey.
This movie tackles the concept of family. It contrasts the traditional family unit with the drug “family” that the girlfriend joins. It’s an idea that is intriguing, but the way it plays out feels like it could have been done a little better. We get to see both examples of family, but its execution could have been more effective.
The main problem with this movie is how much it deviates from its central story. There are a couple of side stories about drug addiction that prove to be interesting in their own ways, but it feels like more of a distraction. There are times where the main story seems rushed in order to make time for the other subjects. The film’s strongest aspect is its main story, but it loses its stride when it puts its attention elsewhere.
Regardless, the film’s shock value typically makes up for its shortcomings. Oswald has told a story that feels very necessary, and it’s a subject that doesn’t typically get this kind of unembellished treatment. It may feel slow at times, and it may not recognize its strongest attribute, but it’s an affecting saga nonetheless.
Higher Love is a promising debut for Oswald, and it’s one that may resonate deeply with many viewers. It can sometimes jump around a little too much, but it still does a great job in conveying its themes and messages.
Higher Love is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Dan Wayne, Big Fur is a new documentary film dealing with the little-known world of competitive taxidermy. Thanks to its extremely compelling and charming subject, and the unusual field in which he practices, this documentary is both very entertaining and surprisingly informative.
The movie follows Ken Walker, one of the world’s most successful taxidermists, as he sets out to make a life-sized recreation of Bigfoot based on an infamous sighting captured on film in 1967. Arguably the main reason for this movie’s success is the fact that it is so unexpected. When one thinks of taxidermy, the immediate first thought would likely be something about stuffed dead animals.
However, as Walker explains, there is much more to the art of taxidermy than that. Over the course of the film, audiences will come to admire Walker and his craft, as the level of detail and effort that is put into creating these realistic recreations of nature is immense and impressive. Herein lies Walker’s (and by extension, the movie’s) main message — there is beauty all over the place, one just has to learn how to see it.
Because of how wacky the story is, the film will have no problem keeping the viewer’s attention. Although the existence of Bigfoot is something that is widely disputed, there is no denying the absurdity of the discussion that surrounds it, and Wayne effectively plays into this for humor. Yes, the movie does go a bit too over-the-top at times, but it is still enjoyable.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in this film is that it takes a sharp turn in the final act with the introduction of a romantic subplot. Although this does add some to the subject’s arc as a character, it doesn’t have as much impact on the main storyline as Wayne seems to think it does. Ultimately, viewers will be watching this movie to see a taxidermist build Bigfoot, not to see an artist fall in love.
Wayne does some very interesting things with the cinematic form, the chief of which is an excellent sound design. Rather than using simple montages of Walker building in his workshop, Wayne allows these shots to linger, composer Brad Cox then using the sound from Walker’s tools as the foundation for the musical score. It’s an ingenious method that gives the film a very natural rhythm.
Visually, Wayne also brings an interesting style to the table. Although there are a few low-budget documentary quirks, such as cheesy graphics, other portions of the movie are pretty creative. For example, there is a brief claymation sequence as Walker talks about how he turned towards taxidermy. Things like this give the film enough visual variety for it to be mostly aesthetically-appealing.
Big Fur does have some things that don’t quite work about it, but for the most part, it’s a fascinating look at an unorthodox artform. Granted, the premise may be off-putting to some, particularly animal lovers, but otherwise, it is a solid crowd-pleaser.
Big Fur debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Sean Boelman
Zombi Child, written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a new French fantasy-horror film rooted in the tradition of voodoo. Offering an interesting portrait of cultural identity under the guise of a relatively conventional coming-of-age tale, Bonello’s movie is a bit too muddled to be a home run, but mostly works nonetheless.
The film features two storylines: one about a man who is brought back from the dead for labor on a Haitians sugar plantation, and the other about a young Haitian girl trying to fit in with her peers at a French school. Ultimately, the movie’s biggest issue is that it attempts to jump between these storylines too frequently, and while they are both compelling on their own, Bonello doesn’t tie them together in a satisfying way.
The jumps between these two segments are frequently jarring, as they come at inconvenient times. Thankfully, the narrative structure in the film is made very clear in the beginning of the movie, and as a result, it is mostly easy to follow. Still, Bonello is asking a lot of the audience to sit through such frequently changing perspectives, and disappointingly, he isn’t entirely able to pull it off.
Arguably the most frustrating thing about the narrative structure is that it wrecks the character development. Both of the storylines feature a protagonist with a compelling arc, but the narrative always seems to shift perspectives just as one starts to become very involving. The result feels anticlimactic and frustrating.
That said, the actors do a very good job in their roles and are able to bring out some of the emotion in the script that otherwise would have been buried by the structure of the film. Louise Labeque is particularly impressive as the troubled teen trying to fit into a world in which she seemingly does not belong.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in the script, but more often than not, it feels like Bonello threw everything he could on the page in the hope that something would stick. Some, such as the movie’s discussion of fascination with the ‘other’, are quite thought-provoking, but other themes, like the film’s statement about exploitation of labor, are relegated to the back burner.
It is on a technical level that Bonello’s film is most accomplished. Bonello brings a very unique visual style to the movie, and it is admirably atmospheric. Although the film is visibly more focused on the drama portions, Bonello does a solid job of building the sense of dread to go along with those spookier sections.
The intentions of Zombi Child are clearly on display, and while Bertrand Bonello’s movie is still very interesting, it feels a bit too messy and disorganized to fully resonate. Nevertheless, it is nice to see an important part of an underrepresented culture depicted on screen.
Zombi Child is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
An experimental autobiographical documentary from filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Film About a Father Who is an exploration of the meaning of family. Although Sachs has some very interesting things to say, and her personal lens shines through, these ideas don’t quite come together into a seamless whole.
In the film, Sachs uses thirty-five years of footage shot across a variety of mediums and situations detailing the life of her father, a businessman from Park City, Utah, and his relationship with his family. Like any memoir, this movie is heavily dependent on the audience connecting with the film’s subject for the narrative to work, and because of Sachs’s obvious passion for the story she is telling, the movie is mostly effective.
The most interesting thing about this film is the morally ambiguous way in which the filmmaker presents her father. Similar to any parent-child relationship, there are plenty of ups and downs, and Sachs does a good job of representing these realistically. Over the course of the movie, viewers will see Sachs as her opinion of her father shifts based on his actions in the moment.
Ultimately, the film does feel like it starts to lose a bit of steam in the middle, but that is because of the extremely unorthodox narrative structure of the movie. While there is an arc in the film, it isn’t made particularly clear until the end, at which point everything will fall into place and the audience will see the end to which Sachs was building.
The main idea that Sachs explores in her film is the obligation that a person has to their family. On one hand, this serves as a document as to who her father was, but the movie is even more effective when it is a complex examination of the role that her father played in her life. The other portions of the film are compelling, but feel a bit more commonplace.
Often it seems like Sachs intended the movie to be a much more emotional experience than it actually is. It is evident that making this film was an important part of Sachs’s own growth, as it allows her to put her feelings to words, but those emotions do not extend to the audience as they likely should.
Unfortunately, this is caused by something that is also one of Sachs’s biggest strengths: her visual style. Sachs has an undeniable command of the craft, and she obviously knows how to tell a story in a visually impressive way. However, the fact that this film feels so aesthetically-driven distracts from some of the humanity that it contains.
Lynne Sachs’s newest documentary Film About a Father Who has some very interesting parts, but it likely could have benefitted from another pass. Still, Sachs’s talent makes this a documentary worth seeing.
Film About a Father Who debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Camden Ferrell
The Turning is a new horror movie that is a modern adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This is a movie with rich source material that ultimately wastes its potential. It constantly squanders the abilities of its cast on an uninspired film that is devoid of any scares.
This movie follows a newly appointed nanny as she cares for two orphaned children. However, she soon learns the kids and the house are not what they seem, and that they pose a sinister threat to herself. This is a premise that is really interesting and ripe for horror even if it feels very familiar.
The main problem with this movie is how bland it feels from start to finish. The script is full of cliché dialogue that doesn’t develop its characters and is too focused on unnecessary and unimaginative exposition. Every character feels thin, plot points are hastily assembled, and there is an obvious lack of originality in the way it tells its story.
One of the few arguably redeeming aspects of this movie is its performances. This movie is led by the typically stellar Mackenzie Davis (Tully). Even though she had really weak material, she definitely gives this role her full effort, and it makes the movie more engaging than it would have been otherwise. Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) continues to prove she is a talented young actress who has a maturity beyond her years. Again, her material is weak, but she makes the creepily cute little girl character work fairly well. Finn Wolfhard (It) plays the second orphan, but his performance is incredibly forgettable, and I felt it didn’t really add anything to the final product.
It’s clear that this is a movie that was bogged down significantly by its content restrictions. Its PG-13 rating seems like a good idea for business reasons, but it feels far too safe as a result. It isn’t graphic, shocking, or scary, and it feels like a film that was tailor made for a mild tween audience.
There is an obvious attempt at trying to create a tense atmosphere, but it always falls flat. The soundscape isn’t eerie, the visuals aren’t frightening, and the execution is just really poor. Its jump scares aren’t effective, and there are moments that become laughably bad as the movie progresses.
The movie also lacks a cohesive narrative. While it’s admittedly refreshing to see it take such creative risks with its structure and storytelling, the execution is completely off, and it doesn’t work the way it should have. It’ll leave many audience members dissatisfied, confused, and ultimately cheated. Again, it’s somewhat daring, but it was probably a better idea on paper.
The Turning is a dull attempt at horror that feels painfully monotonous throughout. It recycles horror tropes and dialogue that are ineffective in telling its story or delivering thrills. Even if it may seem like a great movie to see with friends, it is not worth checking out in theaters this weekend.
The Turning is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the most bizarre (but also one of the most intriguing) films to be a part of the lineup of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the fantasy-romance Jumbo is the ambitious feature debut of writer-director Zoé Wittock. Unabashedly and unforgettably weird, this movie truly is one hell of a ride.
Inspired by a true story, the film follows a young amusement park worker as she falls in love with the park’s new attraction — a tilt-a-whirl ride. Wittock takes this creative premise and runs with it, creating a surreal romantic comedy that is alternatingly hilarious and heartfelt. Even though the movie’s message is nothing revolutionary, Wittock’s film is so entertaining and compelling that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Unlike most movies with similarly ambitious premises, Jumbo has a very clear identity thanks to Wittock’s skilled juggling of the script’s multiple tones. While there is an absurdity to the film’s conflict, Wittock handles it in a way that is humorous but not ridiculous, making the movie feel surprisingly earnest.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is its nuanced character development. Despite the fact that the plot is not something that will be directly empathetic to most viewers, Wittock does an excellent job of highlighting the emotion in the character’s arc and grounding an otherwise fantastical story.
The lead actress of the movie, Noémie Merlant, does a phenomenal job in the lead role. Having burst into the global spotlight with last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Merlant has established herself as a tremendous talent to watch. She brings so much emotion and humanity to her character in a way that elevates the role from being quirky to being quite charming.
Wittock also does an excellent job of building a very clear atmosphere for the film. Much of the movie is shot in a dreamlike way to transport the viewer into the fantasies of the protagonist. Wittock’s whimsical visual style goes a long way in making the film a lot more immersive and effective.
On a technical level, Wittock’s movie is very accomplished, largely thanks to excellent cinematography from Thomas Buelens. The use of color in the film is brilliant, the carnival lights illuminating scenes in a way that successfully conveys mood. There is also something nostalgic and aesthetically appealing about this color scheme that helps it stand out.
With Jumbo, filmmaker Zoé Wittock takes a wonderfully peculiar premise and infuses it with offbeat humor and a stunning visual style to deliver a captivating romantic fantasy. Visions like Wittock’s are what the movie industry so desperately needs right now.
Jumbo debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 23 through February 2 in Park City, UT.
Review by Sean Boelman
Hoping to cash in on the nostalgia that many people hold for the golden days of commercialism, the new documentary Jasper Mall uses the eponymous shopping center as a symbol for the greater issues faced by the American economy. Using a simple but effective fly-on-the-wall approach, filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb have delivered a portrait of commercialism that is both timely and compelling.
The movie explores a year in the life of the Jasper Mall in Jasper, Alabama as the store owners try to make a living and the mall manager desperately tries to keep the doors open. For anyone who grew up going to their local mall, this story is undoubtedly going to strike an emotional chord as they reminisce about the days in which these behemoths were the dominant form of commercialism.
On the surface, it seems like the death of the mall is a topic that isn’t particularly important, but there is more to this story than online shopping pushing brick-and-mortar retailers out of business. The film focuses heavily on the human element of these events — the people who depend on the mall for income and are struggling to stay afloat.
With this, the movie is able to be even more resonant than one would expect. The film works quite well when it shows the plight of these small business owners, but it is even more effective when it is telling the tragic story of the mall manager. His story, even more so than all the others, stands out as particularly heartbreaking against the backdrop of rural America in a failing economy.
The movie jumps between the shop owners and the manager, but Thomason and Whitcomb wisely choose to use the latter as the primary focus of the film. As someone who is personally connected to the story yet also a relative outsider on the economic impact of the mall’s shuttering, he serves as the perfect representative for the audience to understand the filmmaker’s message.
Thomason and Whitcomb do an excellent job of making sure that all of the different parts of the movie come together. From a young customer that frequents the mall to an elderly florist on the verge of retirement, each person has their own story to tell, and the filmmakers curate them in a way as to allow a balanced look at this community.
On a technical level, the film is quite strong. Although Thomason and Whitcomb shoot the movie in a relatively standard fly-on-the-wall style, they do it in a way that is thought-provoking and aesthetically-appealing. Arguably the most impressive thing about the film’s execution is how the filmmakers create such a wide feeling of emptiness and desolation that sets the tone of the movie.
Making a profound social statement with a specific story, Jasper Mall is a captivating and necessary documentary. While some may dismiss this film because of its seemingly low-key subject, this is in reality a not-so-secret discussion of class in America.
Jasper Mall debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 23-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Shoot To Marry is the first documentary in over 15 years from Canadian filmmaker Steve Markle (Camp Hollywood). His newest film is a unique documentary that may have some questionable execution but ultimately proves to be a sweet and heartwarming journey.
This movie follows the director, Steve, as he deals with fallout of a nasty breakup. He decides to use his camera and abilities as a filmmaker to interview a number of unique women with the hopes of finding one he can really connect with. It’s an interesting concept, and it feels like the cinematic equivalent of online dating.
Unfortunately, despite its unique and engaging premise, the execution is mostly questionable. The film is described as a real-life romantic comedy. However, the documentary really tries to force the rom-com aspects of the film, and it doesn’t translate particularly well. While his self-deprecation is actually quite funny at times, his stream of consciousness as he narrates can be a bit uncomfortable. It’s genuine, but it just feels bizarre and mildly demeaning in context of the film.
The film also handles its female interviewees in a less than desirable way. At first, the women are mostly ignored in their interviews, and what they have to say is often overshadowed by the subject’s eagerness to find a romantic connection. It feels like its exploiting the women in a way that could be uncomfortable at times. While this can make sense in context of the subject’s development and arc, it still seems like it’s in poor taste.
The women he interviews are genuinely interesting. It’s great how he was able to interview such a wide variety of women from a firefighter to a dominatrix. He will occasionally showcase the talents and hobbies of the women, and this is where the film excels in being a cute story of a man trying to find love. One of the more interesting sections of the movie comes from a hat maker he meets and the fun they have.
The movie also enters into some really bizarre territory. He expands his boundaries as a person, and this leads him to try different things. He goes to a sex club, hires a professional cuddler, and he goes to a workshop on the art of receiving. I admire his willingness to challenge himself as a person, but there are times where his narration and thoughts about these activities (mostly the sex club) can come off as mildly creepy and off-putting. Regardless, it’s these strange moments that give the film a unique voice.
Despite its many flaws with its execution, it makes up for a lot of it in its final act. It’s heartwarming and satisfying to see him grow in more ways than one, and it can actually be quite resonant. It’s undeniably sweet, and it is the kind of sweetness that is absent from the first part of the film. He mostly redeems the film’s shortcomings in the way he constructs his emotional and heartwarming journey.
Shoot To Marry may sometimes be in poor taste, but it has enough humor and charm to remain engaging. It’s an interesting look into the world of love and dating from a man who is so charmingly awkward at times. While it’s not without flaws, it’ll be interesting to see where Markle goes from here.
Shoot To Marry is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Murmur had its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize. This docufiction serves as the feature length directorial debut of Heather Young. While the movie can burn a bit too slow at times, its minimalist style and execution effectively tell its emotional story.
This movie follows Donna, a woman coming off of a DWI conviction, who participates in community service at an animal shelter. There, she meets and takes home an old dog who is scheduled to be euthanized. As time goes on, we see Donna take in more animals, slowly getting in over her head. This is a premise that works very well due to how simple it is. It’s also a thematically rich story with many layers.
Young’s script focuses on a lot of visual storytelling. It doesn’t rely on an abundance of exposition or dialogue to convey the subtext of the protagonist’s actions. Whenever the script uses dialogue, it always feels authentic and natural. It’s very reminiscent of what we experience in our daily lives, and this gives the film a more grounded feeling, and it ultimately succeeds in telling its story.
This film is led by newcomer Shan MacDonald. She delivers a powerful and steady performance as Donna. Her performance never feels melodramatic or staged. She succeeds wonderfully in portraying the bleak reality of isolation and addiction all while showing the more humanizing aspects of love and connection. It’s a juggling act that is maintained fairly well from start to finish, and it’s a very impressive debut for MacDonald.
The film’s strongest aspect is its cinematography. Jeffery Wheaton brilliantly uses a static camera throughout to capture the realism of each scene. He frames each shot in such a unique way that is oddly beautiful and effective. It’s a strangely alluring hybrid of bleakness and beauty that is extremely sobering.
This film beautifully tells the story of a woman who feels alienated, and the animals that fill a void in her life. Young beautifully captures the innate connection that we feel with animals, and she portrays it in a way that is highly empathetic. It’s undoubtedly adorable, but it also lends itself to moments of solemnity and bittersweet affliction that will resonate with the audience.
One of the few downsides of this movie is some of the limitations of its minimalism. It’s a short movie, but there are moments that can really drag on, and it sometimes disrupts a steady and natural flow that the film typically has. Regardless, this movie more than makes up for it with its rich themes and practical execution.
Murmur is a deeply human movie that overcomes its pace with a heavy dose of emotion and empathy. It bites off a lot of thematic weight and finds a way to juggle it all within its short runtime. This is a bold and impressive feature film debut for Young, and it suggests a bright and promising future for her.
Murmur is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Sean Boelman
Based on an inspiring true story, The Last Full Measure is a new war drama film showing the tremendous impact that a single person can have on the world and the people around them. While the movie does have a tremendously positive message, and a very talented cast, the script is sadly too convoluted for it to be as good as it should have been.
The film tells the story of a Pentagon staffer who is assigned to investigate a posthumous Medal of Honor request, sending him on a journey to interview the many people whose lives were changed by the heroism of one American soldier. This movie benefits from being less jingoistic than most Vietnam War dramas, part of the film acting as a criticism of the American government’s poor treatment towards its veterans, though writer-director Todd Robinson can’t seem to find the right balance to make the movie strike its intended chord.
Ultimately, the message of the film is that one person can make a huge difference, whether by saving lives or simply listening to a person’s story, and this can lead to a great deal of growth as an individual. However, Robinson does not approach this movie with any element of subtlety, with a well-intentioned but on-the-nose first act and a preachy finale. The result is a film that feels frustratingly artificial.
Arguably the biggest issue with Robinson’s movie is that the script is too disorganized. Within the script is a fascinating story, but Robinson’s overbearing use of flashbacks drags down the film’s stronger elements. These portions of the movie, many of which are redundant as they are later explained via expository dialogue, feel like they are trying to force excitement into the film when the testimony of the characters is already interesting enough.
Since the movie is centered around an investigation, it follows the protagonist as he interviews different people who knew the honoree. From his fellow battalion members to his parents, the protagonist is exposed to different perspectives as to who Pitsenbarger was, but all of them lead to the same conclusion: that he was a hero. In fact, these assertions are so convincing that seeing him in battle is rather pointless and creates an unnecessarily jarring shift in tone.
These people in Pitsenbarger’s life are played by a phenomenal cast of talented actors, and they do a very good job in their roles. Ed Harris, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, and Samuel L. Jackson are among the people who have these smaller supporting roles, and they do a very good job of commanding the audience’s attention. That said, the two Washington bureaucrats played by Sebastian Stan and Bradley Whitford have the most meaty scenes, and Stan and Whitford play them quite well.
On a technical level, the film is relatively straightforward, shot in a way like any other modestly-budgeted military drama. The war sequences are underwhelming at times, as they feel like an afterthought, a majority of the movie’s budget seemingly having been spent on securing A-list actors for the character-driven portion of the story.
There are definitely some very good things happening in The Last Full Measure, but they never come together into a satisfying whole. With some of the flashbacks trimmed out, this film could have been much more lean and effective, but as is, it is a passable drama that will likely offer just enough to satisfy older crowds.
The Last Full Measure opens in theaters on January 24.