Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the novel by Mark Burnell, The Rhythm Section hopes to be an action-packed starring vehicle for its lead actress Blake Lively (A Simple Favor). However, despite the efforts of its talented cast, Burnell’s script and Reed Morano’s direction is simply too bland for the movie to live up to its full potential.
The film follows a young woman as she trains to seek revenge against those who plotted a plane crash that resulted in the death of her family. In many ways, this is a very run-of-the-mill revenge thriller, albeit with a somewhat more realistic edge. Unlike pretty much every movie in the genre, the protagonist of this film struggles for the entire narrative rather than becoming an action hero after the first training montage.
However, with this comes a whole slew of other issues, the chief of which is poor pacing. The whole point of the movie is that the protagonist is woefully unfit to be doing this, and many of the action sequences feature her failing in an embarrassing way. Yet since the film is not comedic in any way, it plays out like a series of awkward and lame action sequences.
The bleak tone of the movie is also frequently overbearing. Although there are some sequences that shine, one can’t help but feel like this film should have been a whole lot more fun, particularly from the producers that make the 007 series. Instead, the script moves along at a pace that would generously be described as glacial and the action sequences are spread few and far between.
Director Reed Morano attempts to bring a stylish edge to the movie, and while some parts of her vision shine through, such as the excellent soundtrack (when used to its full extent), others are so overwhelmingly dark that they become unpleasant. One can only take so much shaky cam shot in grey tones before becoming entirely desensitized to the film’s visuals.
Additionally, the character development in the movie is somewhat underwhelming. Very little is done to develop the protagonist apart from her generic backstory involving her family’s death. And since the film is set in the espionage underworld of mysterious figures, none of the supporting characters are fleshed out either.
It really is a shame that the script is so weak, because the cast that was assembled for the movie is absolutely great. In the few good action sequences that the film contains, Lively proves that she is able to be an action star. She is able to command the screen and surprisingly infuses some life into the uninspired choreography. Her chemistry with supporting actors Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown is also very good.
As a whole, The Rhythm Section is a massive disappointment. Even though it had one of the most intriguing trailers of any release for this year, and it seemed like it should have been a hit on paper, it’s really just another January thriller hoping to draw butts to seats instead of the Big Game.
The Rhythm Section opens in theaters on January 31.
Review by Sean Boelman
The debut of writer-director Merwai Gerima, Residue is an ambitious new film about trust and community. Even though Gerima’s perspective is undeniably a very refreshing one, the script is frustratingly messy and the style distractingly unpolished, preventing the movie from having the impact that it probably should.
The film tells the story of a young screenwriter who, after returning to his hometown seeking inspiration for a script about his childhood, finds that both the place and the people have changed drastically. Yet while Gerima’s script offers plenty of intriguing insight, the narrative structure is a bit too askew for the movie to be particularly compelling.
Much of the film takes the form of a series of conversations that the protagonist has with various individuals from his past. After a while, this structure begins to feel repetitive as the protagonist’s search for his childhood friend begins to yield the same results over and over again. By the time that excitement begins to occur, it is too little too late to invest the audience into the story.
That isn’t to say that Gerima doesn’t say something on his mind with his movie — the frustration comes with the fact that there isn’t anything of much substance to tie the film’s themes together. What Gerima says about communities and the way they tend to treat outsiders is truly fascinating, but it is unlikely that this will resonate will all viewers.
Part of the reason why the movie doesn’t work is that the character development is unfortunately lackluster. With a protagonist that is so dominant in every interaction in the film, it is disappointing that he isn’t made to be more compelling. Had Gerima spent more time exploring the protagonist’s emotions, both the character and the movie as a whole would have been more interesting.
That said, despite the flaws in the way the script is written, lead actor Obina Nwachukwu is at least able to make the character feel realistic. There is obviously a great deal of emotion in the role, and Nwachuku is able to express it in a way that is completely honest and believable. This is especially impressive given that many of the supporting players are so insignificant.
Gerima also brings a very idiosyncratic style to the film, and while it doesn’t always work, it shows that he has a lot of talent and potential. Some issues, such as poor sound mixing hiding the dialogue, are simple technical fixes, and others, like sometimes off-putting editing and cinematography, are the symptoms of overindulgence. However, hopefully he will be able to overcome some of these tendencies in future efforts.
Having a lot to say without a complete grasp of how he wants to say it, Merwai Gerima’s directorial debut Residue is underwhelming in its own right, but promises more to come from its ambitious helmer. If he is able to learn from his mistakes, Gerima’s next movie will be one to watch.
Residue debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Lillian premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. This drama is directed by Austrian director Andreas Horvath. This film tells a wildly ambitious and meditative story, but it can often be too slow-moving for its own good.
This movie is a modern-day adaptation of the remarkable true story of Lillian Alling. Alling was an immigrant in the U.S. who attempts to travel back to her home country on foot from New York to Russia. In this movie, the protagonist attempts the same journey after she can’t find work as an adult film star. This is a really intriguing premise, and its one that is enigmatic, and that’s what makes it succeed on a thematic front.
Horvath’s minimalist script focuses mostly on the actions and motivations of the main character. He communicates her emotions in a creative way due to the narrative restrictions of the film. It’s an overly simple story that should not have worked at all, but Horvath somehow makes it something worth watching for the spectacle.
In her first leading role, Patrycja Planik delivers an astounding performance. She is the driving force behind this movie, and it’s highly engaging. What is so impressive about her performance is that she doesn’t say a single word in the entire movie. It’s a performance that fully relies on her actions, expressions, and interactions with other characters. It’s remarkable how she can carry this film without speaking, and it is a perfect showcase for Planik’s talents.
It’s quite astonishing how well the film utilizes the landscapes and terrains of the country. It portrays the grandiose and overwhelming sensation of nature that makes us appreciate it more. However, Horvath knows how to manipulate the camera to make certain aspects of nature evoke specific emotions, and it’s quite interesting to sense the contrasting aspects. Ultimately, this film is partly about nature, the American frontier and all of its beautiful yet intimidating glory.
This movie also illustrates the struggles and loneliness that may be a product of this country. Some sections of the movie drag on a long time to truly illustrate just how isolated we can feel at times. It’s fairly self-indulgent and off-putting, but it isn’t entirely in vain. The movie will balance this feeling out with the numerous interactions the protagonist has with people as she goes from state to state.
Unfortunately, this film feels very flawed at times. It seems to use Planik’s performance as a crutch more times than not. She has a captivating screen presence, but it sometimes feels like its masking self-aggrandizing execution. Many scenes needlessly drag on too long, and it really tests your patience at times. While as a whole, it has a lot to say, there are many sections in this movie that feel rather empty.
Horvath’s newest film is a thematic triumph even if it doesn’t always maintain interest. It says a lot about humanity, nature, and the spirit of one determined woman, but its execution isn’t always the best. This is a daring film with a phenomenal lead performance, and it may be worth checking out for its ambition.
Lillian is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT.
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 debuted 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.