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 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 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.
Review by Sean Boelman
The directorial debut of filmmaker Kat Alioshin, Animation Outlaws is a new documentary made for anyone who is a fan of animated films. Featuring interviews with numerous recognizable figures within the field of animation, this is an entertaining and creatively-told documentary that effectively pays loving homage to its subjects.
The movie tells the story of Spike Decker and Mike Gribble, two friends who came together to start Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation, a roadshow that honored the best in animated filmmaking before the internet made the medium more widely accessible. Ultimately, Alioshin tells this story in a way that, while narratively straightforward, serves as a compelling underdog story.
Over the course of the film, Alioshin traces the life of Decker and Gribble’s tours and explores the impact they had on both the artists whose work was showcased there and the people who were in the audience at the roadshows. Even though this story is very entertaining, there is ultimately too much to be told in such a short period of time. At less than an hour and fifteen minutes long, the movie certainly could have spared to be a bit longer.
That said, Alioshin does an excellent job of presenting the subjects in a way that will be intensely sympathetic to the audience. In many ways, the film is at its best when it is an ode to Decker and Gribble. At times, it does start to feel like some of the interviews are leaning a bit too heavily on the nostalgia of the situation, but for the most part, it is a sweet and loving tribute.
However, undeniably Alioshin’s greatest success with the movie was in assembling a large group of Festival of Animation alumni to serve as subjects for interviews. Among the interviewees featured in the film are such prominent animators as Pete Docter (Inside Out), Seth Green (Robot Chicken), and Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit). The fact that so many of the interviewees are well-respected lends the movie an even greater sense of legitimacy.
Although the film is admittedly very heavy on talking-head interviews, Alioshin shoots them in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining. Instead of placing them against a solid background as is standard, Alioshin shows animated shorts behind the person who is talking, and surprisingly enough, this isn’t particularly distracting.
The documentary also contains original animated sequences that tell the story of Decker and Gribble as they work to organize and promote their shows. Set to a voiceover by Decker (Gribble unfortunately passed away in 1994), these scenes emphasize the friendship between the two central figures, and as a result, are very heartwarming and fun.
With Animation Outlaws, director Kat Alioshin takes a familiar documentary style and turns it on its head, delivering a tribute that is meaningful and entertaining. This is a crowd-pleasing documentary in every sense of the word.
Animation Outlaws is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Sean Boelman
Inspired by (but not entirely based on) the folk tale of the same name, John Henry is a new crime drama film starring Terry Crews. Because of an enjoyable performance from Crews and a script that is surprisingly thoughtful, this manages to be one of the more ambitious directorial debuts in recent memory.
The movie tells the story of a former gang member who is forced to confront his past when a young girl on the run shows up needing his help. Ultimately, the film is rather predictable, particularly if one is familiar with the namesake of the movie, although the way in which co-writers Will Forbes and Doug Skinner transposed this well-known story to the modern day is quite intriguing.
What makes Forbes and Skinner’s approach to this story so interesting is that they treat it almost like a superhero story. This makes quite a bit of sense as John Henry is a folk hero — a superhero of the people, whose story is passed down through oral histories and songs — and the result is arguably the most ambitious and satisfying low-fi superhero movie since Kick-Ass.
Not everything about Forbes and Skinner’s script is a total home run — there are some significant pacing issues throughout. The first act moves very slowly, and the second and third acts feel entirely rushed. This is particularly the case in the climactic final battle, which occupies far less of the runtime than it likely should.
The film also needed some stronger character development. Apart from the eponymous protagonist, the characters in the movie are all relatively flat. Although there are some interesting side characters, such as the protagonist’s comedic relief father, many of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped. Especially troublesome is the lack of development for the damsel-in-distress around whom the film’s plot revolves.
That said, the actors take what they are given with the script and run with it. This role seems like it was written specifically for Crews, as he is an absolutely perfect match for the character. Any action movie that allows Crews to smash some heads in is welcome, but he seems like he is having a particularly fun time with this movie. Ludacris also gives a memorable turn as the antagonist of the film, though Crews frequently steals the scene.
On a technical level, the movie is a bit rough around the edges, but that can be expected of a B-movie action flick like this. What is so admirable about this film is its ambition. Forbes, who also serves as director, obviously had a clear vision of what he wanted this movie to be, and it comes across. Stylish and accented by a hip hop soundtrack, this is the sleek starring vehicle that Crews needed at this point in his career.
John Henry is certainly quite flawed, but thanks to the talent both in front of and behind the camera, it is surprisingly fun to watch. Though the title may mislead some, this film captures the essence of the folk tale shockingly well.
John Henry hits theaters and VOD on January 24.
Review by Sean Boelman
The long-awaited return to the director’s chair for cult favorite filmmaker Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space, adapted from the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, is a mind-bending new sci-fi horror flick. Thanks to some legitimately disturbing imagery and committed performances all-around, this ends up being one of the scariest movies to come out in a while.
The film tells the story of a family whose property is struck by a meteorite, releasing a mysterious aura affecting those who come in contact with it in unusual ways. Like any good Lovecraft tale, the point of this movie is not the story itself, but rather, the eerie atmosphere and the sense of dread it inspires within the viewer. Although this is by no means a traditional horror film, it is arguably scarier than any jump scare would be.
Certainly the strongest aspect of this movie are the terrifying visuals inspired by Lovecraft’s writing and gloriously brought to the screen by Stanley. Although this style of horror likely won’t appeal to everyone, those who are a fan of Lovecraftian horror will find that the nightmarish sights of the film hauntingly creep their way under one’s skin.
On a technical level, the movie is surprisingly accomplished. While there are a few moments in which the film does show itself as a B-movie, Stanley’s command of the craft often allows the movie to feel a lot bigger than it actually is. Even though the film is set almost entirely on a single property, excellent production design, solid CGI, and wonderful cinematography will immerse the viewer totally into the movie.
The only true shortcoming of the film is that it takes a bit too long to get going. Clocking in at around an hour and fifty minutes, this movie is longer than usual for the genre, but for the most part, it earns that runtime. However, in building up to the more disturbing second and third acts, the only mildly creepy beginning delays the audience’s suspense for a bit too long.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that the character development is quite strong. With the movie being adapted from a short story, there wasn’t a particularly big foundation in terms of characterization from the source material, so Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris are able to make the film their own in this way.
Nicolas Cage gives a performance that is admirably bonkers as the patriarch losing control over his family. As one would expect, this movie allows Cage to go all in, and that he does, delivering a turn that is both extremely fun to watch and shockingly nuanced. Other highlights in the cast include Joely Richardson, Julian Hillard, and Tommy Chong, all of whom get their chance to shine.
Color Out of Space delivers exactly what sci-fi fans would hope for out of a Lovecraftian horror flick. This film is virtually guaranteed to gain a cult following because even though it does take a while to get moving, it is truly chilling.
Color Out of Space plays across the country for one night only on January 22 before opening in theaters on January 24.
Review by Sean Boelman
Taking a look at the impact of one of the most horrific tragedies in American history, After Parkland is a new documentary exploring the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. However, despite the wealth of personal stories from which the filmmakers drew, the film underwhelms due to an overbearing attempt to make a political statement.
The movie tells the story of the victims of the shooting, with a focus on the survivors and how they overcome the grief and trauma from what they have experienced. There is a lot of story here, and directors Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi (both of whom come from a background in ABC News) try their best to juggle it all, but unfortunately, they are unable to do so in a way that feels balanced and fully developed.
Out of the hundreds of victims, Lefferman and Taguchi chose a handful to follow over the course of the film, mostly because of their political activism. However, with some of these selections comes the idea that the movie is rehearsed and distanced from the truth. The most authentic and effective moments in the film come not from interviews with the more politically active survivors, but rather, those who are simply trying to make it through life with the weight of their grief hanging over their head.
It becomes obvious very early on that Lefferman and Taguchi are using this movie to make a statement about gun control, and while there is merit to their argument, the way in which they go about supporting it on screen is largely unsuccessful. In one interview, the subject even discusses how Lefferman and Taguchi are pushing him to talk about something other than what he had intended.
On an emotional level, one would think that this film would be immediately resonant because of how heart-breaking the tragedy at its core is, but it isn’t always the home run that one would expect. After a while, the movie’s repeated attempts at tear-jerking start to feel monotonous and end up losing much of their effect. The more affecting moments come when the film is trying to be uplifting, showing how these victims are overcoming the odds to beat their grief.
Clocking in at just over an hour and a half long, the movie simply doesn’t have enough time to explore all of the moving parts of the story with sufficient depth. Lefferman and Taguchi’s approach to the story likely would have lent itself more readily to an extended television special or a miniseries rather than a theatrical documentary like this.
Visually, Lefferman and Taguchi’s documentary is somewhat lackluster, but that can almost be forgiven because of the run-and-gun-like nature of the film. This movie picks up with the victims very soon after the shooting, and as a result, there wasn’t much time for planning. Lefferman and Taguchi do the best they can with the footage they have, but in more cinematic hands, this story could have been far more captivating.
After Parkland is worth watching if only to hear the stories of its subjects, but there will likely be another film down the line that handles this topic more effectively. Still, this movie does have enough going for it that it could be the conversation starter that is needed for these discussions.
After Parkland will be screening nationwide for one night only on February 12. Reserve tickets by February 3 at bit.ly/afterparkland. The film will then stream on Hulu beginning February 19.