Review by Sean Boelman
Beast is the type of movie where, if you go in knowing exactly what you will get out of the experience, you’re unlikely to come out feeling dissatisfied. It’s hardly a particularly intelligent film, but as a ninety-minute thriller about Idris Elba punching a lion, there’s not much more you could ask from it.
The movie follows a father and his two teenage daughters as they get stranded in the African savanna when they are attacked by a massive lion hellbent on protecting its territory. The story is not too dissimilar from the killer animal movies that peaked in popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s that had a star facing off against an unnaturally powerful force of nature.
Admittedly, the film is entirely predictable. You know exactly where the story is heading. And yet, with a runtime that is just short ninety minutes before credits, the action is more than steady enough to keep viewers interested despite the fact that they will know the eventual ending of the movie.
Writer Ryan Engle attempts to infuse the movie with some meaning in the form of an environmentalist, anti-poacher message, but it largely feels shallow. Apart from setting up one of the coolest and most thrilling action sequences in the film, the poacher angle doesn’t do much of anything except lend itself to some bad dialogue.
The movie also forces an emotional backstory with a tear-jerking tale of the protagonist’s wife having died of cancer, leaving him a single father with two grieving and distant daughters. Ultimately, it ends up feeling a bit tacky given that the focus is on the action and there isn’t enough time to fully flesh this storyline out.
Idris Elba is a very versatile actor, as he is able to handle both more dramatic material and be a badass action star. Even though the one-liners he is being asked to deliver in this film are not particularly impressive in nature, Elba nonetheless exudes a charm and charisma that easily carries the movie. Sharlto Copley is also memorable and fun in his supporting role.
The CGI for the lion isn’t always the best, but the budget for this film is also surprisingly modest considering its reliance on the animated creature in the storyline. That said, it’s never laughably bad, and rarely ever distracts from the suspense, which is well-crafted by director Baltasar Kormákur.
Beast is about as lean of a survival thriller as there can be. Although the movie’s attempts at adding substance consistently fall flat, that is unlikely to be what audiences are buying a ticket to see, and it delivers on its promise of big cat action.
Beast hits theaters on August 19.
Review by Sean Boelman
From the creator of everyone’s (least) favorite hate watch, 13 Reasons Why, comes Echoes, a new mystery-thriller that is almost as baffling as the infamous teen drama. With a ludicrous story that somehow manages to be both deathly boring and one of the most confusing things you will ever see in your life, this is just an altogether unpleasant watch.
The show follows two identical twins harboring a dark secret — they have been switching lives with each other since their youth — when their lives are torn apart when one of them goes missing. It’s a premise that’s crazy enough to be intriguing, if only the writers had crafted a compelling mystery to build on it.
It can be extremely hard to keep up with what is happening in this series, and it’s largely due to poor writing. Characters that are identical twins (and played by the same actor) can be tricky to work with, but this show just absolutely fumbles the ball. More often than not, you can’t tell who’s who, and not in an intriguing way.
The only real differences between the characters are that one has a Southern accent and one doesn’t. But sometimes the one that doesn’t have the accent is faking the accent, and vice versa. And apparently one wears their hair to the left and the other to the right, culminating in one of the most ridiculous scenes in cinematic history in which a character parts their hair the other way to prove that she is the other twin. It genuinely makes no sense.
When you add in the fact that the series is told with a nonlinear storyline, with lots of flashbacks to things that happened in the past and may or may not be called back to in subsequent episodes, what you have is an indecipherable mess. And worse yet, the story that is needlessly convoluted isn’t all that interesting in the first place.
It’s a shame, because Michelle Monaghan is a talented actress who deserves much better than this. Dual roles of this sort are often a shoo-in for awards consideration given the amount of work it takes to pull off two characters believably, but the writing doesn’t give her any room to do anything that even remotely resembles believable.
Visually, the series is about as gray as they come. A lot of other successful mystery series, like Mare of Eastown, have some sort of visual style to them, but Echoes is just muted. It certainly doesn’t help create any energy, which could have been a lifesaver given that the writing is in such desperate need of a kick.
Echoes is, simply put, not worth your time. For the first six episodes, you’ll probably be bored and confused out of your mind, only for the seventh episode to conclude with a preposterous finale that will leave you wondering why you even wasted your time on it in the first place.
Echoes streams on Netflix beginning August 19. All seven episodes reviewed.
Review by Camden Ferrell
After a year that has already included five different MCU projects, we are now getting the long-awaited series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Created by Emmy-winning writer Jessica Gao (Rick & Morty), this show adapts the iconic character of Jennifer Walters. This is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is loads of fun, and its shortcomings are more than compensated by Tatiana Maslany’s great leading performance.
Jennifer Walters is a young and intelligent lawyer who commands the courtroom with ease. She is the cousin of Bruce Banner and after an incident, she finds herself infected with his blood to also become a Hulk. From here, she must navigate her world with these powers and deal with the consequences that come because of it. This is a classic character who deserves a great adaptation, and this series sets up the character very well.
One of the most important aspects of She-Hulk is her humor, and the show establishes that tone from its first moments. The writing is one of the funnier things we’ve seen Marvel do lately, and it is very nonchalant about everything which makes it even more enjoyable. There are some exchanges and scenes with jokes that don’t always land, but it works well for the most part.
Tatiana Maslany leads the show as Jennifer, and this is one of the finest castings we’ve seen in this universe thus far. She embodies this role perfectly and has all the charisma that this character needs. She’s funny, and her comedic timing and chemistry is quite great. The supporting cast pales in comparison to her, but they each are entertaining in their own ways.
The show has lots of familiar faces, but She-Hulk doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. It’s a great way to reward fans without cheapening the final product. I also liked how it ditches the overarching structure of previous MCU shows in favor of an episodic comedy that is concise and fun to watch and forgoes and filler material.
One of the glaring problems with the show though is its special effects. Like previous MCU projects, the CGI can be awful and an eye sore, and this is no exception. There are several moments that look goofy and can really take you out of the experience. However, Maslany is so great in this, that these cosmetic mistakes become almost forgivable.
While it isn’t the most groundbreaking or original series, it is a nice change of pace for this franchise. The 4th wall breaks are fun and feel like they’re genuinely trying to do something different in this universe, and it works quite well. It’s not perfect, but it does the character justice.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a fun legal comedy that MCU fans will enjoy upon release. There are great callbacks and cameos, but at its core, the show is about Jennifer Walters and who she is as a person and now as a hero.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law premieres its first episode on Disney+ August 18 with subsequent episodes every Thursday. Four of the nine episodes are reviewed.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Look Both Ways is a new romantic comedy-drama from Netflix. It is directed by Wanuri Kahiu whose most recent movie, Rafiki, premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Even though the movie has some fairly big names attached to it, it doubles down on the least interesting aspects of the two storylines while ignoring what could have made it a compelling film.
Natalie is an aspiring animator who is ready to embark on the next phase of her life. On the day before her college graduation, she finds herself in the midst of a pregnancy scare. This movie follows the parallel realities that diverge from that moment: one where she is pregnant and remains in her hometown and one where she is not pregnant and embarks for Los Angeles to follow her dreams.
The parallel storylines is an interesting storytelling device that could have made for some really interesting juxtaposition and thematic exploration, but it is never used to its fullest extent. For the first act of the movie, it doesn’t fully trust the viewer to follow what is happening, and this hinders the quality of its narrative. In addition to this, the diverging storylines feel too similar and repetitive to justify its use in telling Natalie’s story.
Lili Reinhart leads the movie as Natalie, and while she didn’t phone in her performance, there really isn’t a lot to enjoy or admire. It’s a bland performance that’s not bad but as far from memorable as can be. Her supporting cast with names like Danny Ramirez, Luke Wilson, and Andrea Savage also leave a lot to be desired.
The main problem with the movie is it misunderstands what’s interesting about its story. The pregnancy storyline had much more conflict and drama that was totally mishandled and glossed over, and the other storyline lacked anything to make it interesting to watch. It doesn’t give the audience time to process to consequences of each storyline because its too concerned with fitting two movies into the length of one.
Look Both Ways is an uninteresting movie that tries to use its somewhat unique narrative structure to its benefit but ultimately fails. It is a bland story that doesn’t give the interesting parts of its script the time of day and completely misuses a usually talented ensemble.
Look Both Ways is on Netflix August 17.
Review by Adam Donato
Coming to theaters at the end of this summer is one of the best documentaries of the year. With a litany of awards nominations and wins this year already, it will be exciting to see what kind of splash The Territory will make at the box office. Alex Pritz had co-directed a few documentary shorts, but this is his first feature length documentary solely directed by him. The film follows an Indigenous group of people living in the Amazon rainforest as they try to protect their land from an association of Brazilian farmers who seek deforestation. Will this important story make waves at the box office this weekend and through its expansion?
The first thing to mention about this documentary is the visuals. It amplifies the pro-environmental message immensely to see the beauty of the land they call home, especially when it shows the contrast to the land that had been burnt down and cleared out. It's no surprise here that National Geographic would have the technical aspects of their documentary all buttoned up.
Not only does this documentary invoke sympathy for the land, but for the Indigenous people as well. The Territory mostly follows an environmental activist who has dedicated her life to protecting the land and its people. There’s also a lot of time dedicated to the new leader of the group elected by the elders. Listening to the perspective of the youths is heartbreaking as it has been made clear this has been a longstanding issue. The elders speak about how in the past they pursued war with invaders, but now are different times. The ability to experience their struggle first hand justifies this story being brought to light. The more people that become aware of this problem, it will hopefully open some eyes.
Another person who is given the spotlight is the leader of the association of Brazilian farmers. The Territory does a good job of making its point and taking a side, but doesn’t shy away from showing the antagonist’s perspective. By the end of the story, it’s easy to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s selfish and destructive, but in a cruel world, they’re just trying to survive. That’s another example of how heart-wrenching this story is. So many people are being negatively impacted in the documentary, not to mention the worldwide consequences of deforestation.
The Territory is a story about empathy and values. This true story is overwhelmingly important and depressing. Don’t let that downer description dissuade you from checking this one out, as it showcases the power of the human spirit in a way that almost restores faith in humanity. Be sure to check this one out in theaters and expect to hear this movie continued to be in the awards season conversation.
The Territory hits theaters on August 19.
Review by Sean Boelman
Aik Karapetian’s Squeal starts out as if it is going to be some sort of “wrong place, wrong time” horror movie, and while it has some elements of that, there is something much more bizarre and intriguing going on in Karapetian’s head. The result is a bizarre dark comedy that’s fascinating, even when not everything comes together.
The film follows a traveler who, after accidentally hitting a pig while driving on the road in Eastern Europe, finds himself captured and enslaved by a pig farmer. With some definite tones of Jeunet in terms of how it combines whimsy with darkness, the unique tone of this movie is what makes it work so well.
Granted, the film does feel like Karapetian and co-writer Aleksandr Rodionov had a cool concept in mind and built a script around it. For the most part, it works, but you can tell which scenes are more developed and which are the connective tissue being used as filler. However, the good scenes are extremely memorable and are able to carry the movie.
It is clear that Karapetian is trying to draw a parallel between the protagonist and the pigs on the farm, and the rich history of symbolism of the creature gives him a lot to work with. However, the purposeful ambiguity sometimes goes a bit too far and comes off as unclear, as this film seems to be saying a lot without taking much of a firm stance on anything.
The protagonist isn’t all too heroic of a character, but that works well within the context of the movie. Obviously, we are generally rooting for him over the farmers that have enslaved him, but he’s also not the low-hanging fruit that the hero of the proletariat rising up against the institution. The delineations here are much less clear-cut.
Kevin Janssens performance as the protagonist definitely stands out. For one, it is a very physical role that requires him to get very down and dirty. And yet, throughout the entire ordeal, he has to maintain his dignity and strength to communicate this character’s fundamental perseverance, and he does so quite successfully.
The film also thrives from a stylistic standpoint. Karapetian opts for a dark fairytale vibe — something that is not too uncommon in European art cinema — and just makes everything feel about ten times grimier. It’s the type of movie that feels very gross and disgusting despite not being particularly graphic in nature, and it works.
Squeal doesn’t pull off everything it sets out to do, but the things it does achieve are pretty impressive. Even if Karapetian’s dark fable leaves more questions than it answers, it’s an interesting watch nonetheless.
Squeal hits theaters and VOD on August 19.
Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, independent filmmakers are able to get a big enough star attached to their project in a cameo role to boost its profile despite it being otherwise unnoteworthy. That is the case with Dominique Braun and Terrence Martin’s Get Away If You Can, a baffling attempt at profundity that often feels needlessly confusing.
The movie follows a couple with a broken marriage as they set out on a journey to rekindle their relationship by sailing across the open sea, only for further disillusionment to brew when one refuses to explore a mysterious island. If that seems like a random combination of words that doesn’t make much sense — it doesn’t work much better in execution.
When stripped down to its barest aspects, this is effectively a pretty straightforward melodrama. And yet there is a nonlinear structure, cutting back and forth between the couple’s constant bickering in the present and advice they had received in the past from various parties, that makes the story much more convoluted than it needs to be.
If your idea of fun is watching a bickering couple yell at each other for an hour and twenty minutes, you might find some enjoyment here, but a majority of audiences will find this generally unpleasant. It isn’t even an argumentative film in a stressful way — it’s just dull and uninteresting, and gives the audience no characters to particularly like.
The biggest name in the movie is Ed Harris, who gets a few scenes as a bigoted jerk who gives terrible advice to the main couple. It’s a role that is entirely unnecessary and bafflingly bad. Riley Smith has even fewer scenes, but at least the purpose of his character isn’t to offend. The filmmakers play the main two roles themselves and do a terrible job at it.
The movie also manages to give off extremely mixed messaging, making it difficult for any audience to really take away anything from it. Everything that is being depicted on screen is extremely toxic, and yet, there is nothing here that really condemns the behaviors of anyone, leaving a problematic taste in viewers’ mouths.
In a way, the film is an exercise in style-over-substance, but that is particularly inexcusable when the style isn’t even that good. There are a couple interesting camera shots, but more often than not, they feel out of place, such as a choreographed sex scene that feels more like it should be in a music video than a feature film. The music is also often laughably mismatched to the movie.
Get Away If You Can is one of those films that you can tell was a passion project for the filmmakers, but it just did not pan out. I’m sure they are happy that they got to make a movie with a couple of big stars, but the end product is very hard to watch.
Get Away If You Can hits theaters and VOD on August 19.
Review by Paris Jade
A man with a mental disability is accused of murdering his sister and goes on a journey to find out the truth and clear his name in Delia's Gone. Despite a great performance by Stephan James and supported by a cast of none other than Marisa Tomei and Paul Walter Hauser, Delia's Gone was surprisingly underwhelming nonetheless.
The film's main shortcoming is its plot, which is just alright. It's sometimes a bit frustrating as you watch Louis (Stephan James) struggle to find his sister's killer. The beginning is a bit slow, and for the first fifteen minutes, you don't really have to pay attention to anything happening until his sister is dead. After that, the film picks up, and you're thrown into a complete mess. There are people after Louis the entire time, and no one seems to answer his questions. Yes, it is trying to build suspense and give it a sense of mystery; however, you know what's going on, and as you have to sit there and watch Louis try and put the pieces together and question people, you can't help but yell at your screen and tell him exactly what happened to his sister. I'm not sure if the writers intended it to be that obvious, but it makes the experience a little less enjoyable. You also get incredibly frustrated with Tomei and Hauser's characters, the people after him. They are the officers of the small town tracking down Louis to ensure he doesn't do anything wrong. You just want them to leave him alone because they continue to make things worse. That, however, is most definitely on purpose. It just adds to the already annoying scenario.
Even though the plot is just okay, I will give credit where it is due and praise Stephan James for his performance of Louis. He disappeared into the role and did a great job. Everyone should be on the lookout for what he does next. There were a lot of cinematic moments that felt absolutely right and somehow made you feel good during such a frustrating film. Delia's Gone isn't a must-watch movie. I can't picture anyone dying to see this. However, if you're into mysteries and might have already seen all the really good ones, give this a gander and take your chances. It won't be your favorite, and you might get a little frustrated, but it's not a bad movie.
See Delia’s Gone in theaters on August 19th and VOD on September 9th.
Review by Cole Groth
Syndrome K is a documentary about a doctor who created a fake disease, Syndrome K, to save hundreds of Roman Jews from being exterminated during the Holocaust. This harrowing story of heroism stands out to me as one of the most fascinating stories shown in the past year, and this documentary sheds important light on past heroes. It's rather unfortunate that some bafflingly amateur production decisions distract from the seriousness of both the topic at hand and the film as a whole.
Running at just under an hour, this documentary has some serious issues with pacing. It's hard to emphasize just how important it is to research the topic of a documentary before making it, an issue that is revealed very early on in the film. Instead of focusing on the titular disease of the film, director Stephen Edwards gives an in-depth commentary on how the Catholic church handled its relationship with the Nazis, how the Pope wasn't able to do much about intervening in the Holocaust without becoming a target himself, and other reasons why action against the Nazis wasn't a possibility for the Romans. This is frustrating because while it is undeniably interesting, it distracts from the point of the documentary. Instead, we don't get to hear about what Syndrome K is until about halfway through the film, and it almost seems like not enough research was done on the fake disease, which leads to a half-baked and slightly unhelpful documentary.
Syndrome K was a disease created by doctor and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini. The Roman Jews desperately trying to escape the grip of the SS were able to do so by being admitted to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital with a diagnosis of a highly contagious yet extremely fictitious disease. Believing the Jewish race to be inferior and impure, many Nazi officers were hesitant to do their due diligence and follow up on deporting the Jews to concentration camps because they did not want to contract this disease. This summary, provided to me through two paragraphs of an article on the disease, is about as in-depth as the documentary goes. Adriano's son gives most of the commentary on the events from his dad's perspective, but it's simply not enough detail to justify this being a standalone documentary.
Speaking of perspective, the documentary's weakest part, without a doubt, is how the interviewees are dubbed over. Since most of the participants interviewed were Roman Jews themselves, they had to be dubbed in English so the audience could understand. It's almost comical how the people who perform the dubbing speak with these ridiculously thick accents. I had a hard time focusing on the gravity of the situations being described because the only audio being heard sounds like American actors trying their hardest to sound like they're Roman. The late Ray Liotta provides the narration for the other portions of the documentary, but it's not that much better. Some graphics look lame, which contributes to my overall feeling that this is a poorly produced film about an extraordinarily interesting topic.
Fans of unique historical events should check this film out if they haven't heard about the truly fascinating story of Syndrome K. However, if you're a fan of documentaries in general, this one doesn't stick out as anything but an interesting story told poorly. If there was a higher budget and more time to put this together, it could've been a necessary watch for any history fans. Still, I just can't recommend it fully because it isn't quite good enough to hold a candle to the heroes of the Holocaust like Adriano Ossicini.
Syndrome K is now available on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
The 2009 horror/thriller Orphan was generally maligned upon release, but due to a somewhat decent twist, survived over the years and has even been reevaluated in some circles. Thirteen years later, the “fans” can finally see the follow-up they’ve been waiting for in terms of the equally bad prequel, Orphan: First Kill.
Set before the events of the first film, First Kill follows Esther, a thirty-year-old woman with a rare genetic condition that makes her look like a child, as she makes a daring escape from a mental institution by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy American family. It’s a pretty ludicrous story, but then again, so was that of the first Orphan.
Weirdly, the movie really doubles down on the psychosexual aspect here, and it’s enormously uncomfortable (but not in a good way). It’s not that this film is glamorizing it, but it is still a plot device that seemingly goes too far for its own good. It’s definitely disturbing, although making something this off-putting for the sake of creeping out the audience is unwise.
This movie is severely missing a character to whom the audience can become attached. With the original film, there is Vera Farmiga’s character that the audience roots for once the twist is revealed. While one would think that Julia Stiles’s character would be her analog in this movie, it doesn’t work out that way at all, and as a result, the film feels overly cold.
Fuhrman is the highlight of this movie, as she was in the original, and considering that she has aged in the more than a decade since the first film’s release, some impressive trickery had to be done to allow her to play the character again. Her performance is the right balance of wacky and creepy to make this bizarre premise work.
The tension between Fuhrman and Stiles is perhaps even better than that between Fuhrman and Farmiga in the first movie. Individually, Stiles is certainly playing it much too big. She tries to steal the show when this should very firmly be Fuhrman’s starring vehicle. The rest of the supporting cast doesn’t fare so well — especially Matthew Finlan, who is laughably bad in his role.
The first act of the film is Esther’s escape from the mental institution, and while it’s fun enough to watch, it’s also largely forgettable. The second half of the movie, which is effectively a game of cat-and-mouse between Fuhrman and Stiles, is much more entertaining, but it’s also far more far-fetched.
Orphan: First Kill is an attempt to capitalize on the supposed popularity of a horror movie that wasn’t all that good in the first place. Why they felt the need to make this movie over a decade later only to dump it unceremoniously, no one will ever know, but it’s not pleasant to watch.
Orphan: First Kill hits theaters, VOD, and Paramount+ on August 19.