Review by Camden Ferrell
Last year, when most productions halted due to COVID-19, Sam Levinson (Euphoria) wrote a feature length script in the matter of six days. This would soon become the first movie to be written and made secretly during the pandemic. The final product, Malcolm & Marie, is an expertly written and acted drama that is equal parts poignant and visceral.
Malcolm is a filmmaker who returns home with his girlfriend, Marie, after the premiere of his most recent movie. While they await to hear the critical response to his film, revelations are made that lead to an intense examination of their relationship and its flaws. It’s a minimalistic premise for obvious reasons, but it works effectively in telling a story about the relationship and the turmoil between two people.
Levinson’s script is one of the most impressive dialogue-driven scripts in years. It is almost exclusively conversational dialogue that never feels bland or repetitive. In addition to his recent work on Euphoria, this further establishes Levinson as a singular talent that has an intelligent and unique perspective. The movie is full of great interactions and observations, and the dialogue feels very dramatic and raw while also maintaining its realism.
The most commendable aspect of the film is its performances. John David Washington and Zendaya co-star as Malcolm and Marie, respectively. Washington excels as a vibrant and somewhat self-obsessed director as he monologues about his role and beliefs as an artist and as a professional. Zendaya is astonishingly impressive as she also monologues about her own personal traumas and her role in her relationship. Their chemistry is undeniable, and they both deliver awe-inspiring performances that warrant significant awards consideration.
The cinematography by Marcell Rév (Euphoria) is simple yet dazzling in how it intimately frames its subjects in its single location. The motion of the camera and the composition of its shot adds a layer of kinetic energy that infuses life into the already lively performances. It elevates the film and contributes to the superficial beauty of it.
The movie is a masterclass in how to maintain audience interest when action is almost nonexistent. Levinson blocks his actors and executes his scenes in a way that firmly maintains pace, tension, and audience engagement. It’s a testament to his abilities as a writer and director as well as the abilities of his cast.
Aside from how it examines the dynamics of its titular couple, the movie is also a poignant exploration of filmmaking as an artform and artistry. It doesn’t shy away from discussing how Malcolm’s race affects the perception of his work as well as how Malcolm himself reacts to said perception. It tackles timely subjects about race and filmmaking that are extremely topical and fantastically delivered by Washington.
Malcolm & Marie is a triumph of filmmaking, and it is a showcase for the immense talent of its cast and crew. This is a film that is nearly perfect from start to finish, and it doesn’t lose any steam throughout its runtime. A delightful surprise at the start of the new year, this is an engaging and emotional film that is not to be missed.
Malcolm & Marie is streaming on Netflix February 5.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Pregnancy is not an uncommon topic for a film, so when a movie comes along that finds a new way to present the story, it’s notable. Director Curtis Vowell’s newest film, Baby Done, is such a film. It hits most of the same narrative beats as similar movies, but it benefits greatly from its acting and fresh perspective.
Zoe and Tim are a happily unconventional couple who work as arborists for a living. However, Zoe learns that she is pregnant, an event that sets her on a journey to hastily live her life before becoming a mother. While Zoe is rushing to achieve her goals and put off preparing for motherhood, Tim quickly embraces the prospect of fatherhood. What really stands out about this premise is Zoe’s apprehension to pregnancy as a means to comment on how this milestone affects different women.
Sophie Henderson’s first feature-length script is delightful and charming. It’s funny and quirky without trying too hard. It doesn’t overwork itself for brief one-liners, but it revels in the chemistry of its characters and their comical interactions. It is definitely formulaic, but it embraces this aspect in order to create a palatable and unobjectionable screenplay that is crowd-pleasing.
One of the most entertaining parts of this film is its energetic performances. Rose Matafeo leads the film as Zoe, and she puts her talent on full display. It’s obvious that she has real star potential after seeing her performance in this film. She embraces the character effortlessly and convincingly takes on this role and carries the audience through this character’s journey of pregnancy. Matthew Lewis co-stars as Tim, and he has a charismatic screen presence and excellent chemistry with Matafeo.
The perspective that Henderson’s script provides is a unique one, and it helps elevate the film ahead of others in the same genre. Rather than using the trite archetypes of the overenthusiastic woman and the bumbling father, this movie takes a more realistic and underseen approach. This movie is about a woman who views being pregnant as an obstacle to self-fulfillment and adopts a cavalier attitude to the pregnancy while her partner is astutely preparing for her birth.
The film also contains some poignant themes about how motherhood affects the general perception of women in society. Zoe does not want to be reduced to her role as a mother, and she fears she will become just another mother that has no individuality of their own. This approach may not be novel, but it is interesting and rather meaningful to the film’s themes.
Even though the movie does have a new perspective on this genre, it can also feel derivative at times throughout. This can lead to the narrative feeling too safe and conventional, and it seems almost antithetical to the great approach to its story.
Baby Done may not be revolutionary, but it is undeniably sweet and adorable. This will surely be pleasing for all audiences, and its brief runtime make this a movie that’s worth checking out. It features some enjoyable acting and a heartwarming message.
Baby Done is available on VOD January 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
The Israel-Palestine conflict has remained a hot button issue for over half a decade at this point, hence why there have been so many documentaries about the topic. Dror Moreh’s The Human Factor tries to offer an interesting new perspective on the heart of this issue, but is so frustratingly indecisive that its good intentions are lost.
The film explores the role that the United States had in the fight to secure peace in the Middle East with an emphasis on the American mediators’ perspective. It’s a frighteningly Americentric approach to a problem that is much bigger than the land dispute that so many of these negotiators seem to think it was and is.
Although the United States’ interventionist policies have been widely debated throughout history, Moreh seems to have no interest in exploring these warring viewpoints. Instead, the movie compares the presence of American mediators to that of a lawyer, a necessary component of a negotiation which they are barely qualified to resolve.
Moreh’s film does say some interesting things about the fallacy that is neutrality in politics. Media coverage of summits such as these typically suggests an idyllic and open discussion, but the interviews in the movie offer a peek behind the curtain at the truth of these meetings. However, Moreh could have tied these ideas into his main thesis more effectively.
On that note, there is definitely a clear political stance taken by the film on the conflict, but that is perhaps not the most problematic thing about the movie’s approach. The overall message of the film seems to be that there is no such thing as a true compromise and that everything in politics is a lie, which seems to be a toxic perspective to be perpetuating.
That said, the movie does an excellent job of making the audience respect the major players in the negotiation. Even though the film doesn’t always paint them in the most positive light, Moreh evaluates the merits of each of the leaders’ strategies in a way that is well-argued, detailed, and surprisingly fascinating.
Moreh’s movie is also very flashy in a stylistic sense, and it helps the film move along despite its challenges. Since many of these conversations occurred behind closed doors, the story is mostly relayed second-hand with archive photos making up a majority of the visual materials. Still, Moreh is able to cut these interviews in a way that has a particular energy to it.
The Human Factor is certainly a solidly-crafted documentary, but its politics are distractingly inconsistent. For a movie about people trying to find peace, Moreh seems to have shockingly little faith in the process of negotiation.
The Human Factor hits theaters on January 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Lili Horvát’s film Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is just about as ambiguous and cumbersome as its bafflingly long title. Yet despite some narrative inconsistencies, strong character development and a hypnotic style allow this to be an interesting, if somewhat unfulfilling drama.
The film follows a doctor who upends after she falls in love with a man, only for him to claim that they have never met before when they reunite. For better or worse, it’s not a typical romance, but it does struggle to nail down its tone early on. Hints of psychological thriller shine though at multiple moments but are never present enough to build much suspense.
This is one of those dramas that meanders in a way in which it would be easy to say nothing happens, but there really are a lot of events that happen. The issue is that Horvát’s script struggles to tie together all of these elements together into something consistently compelling, the end result ultimately feeling a bit random.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the film is that it fails to adequately explore the psychological aspect of the story. For much of the first act, the film tries to position itself as a mystery, but this feels unnecessary. The script is much more interesting when the character is struggling to cope with her world than when she is questioning her sanity.
That said, the film is interesting as a character study of a woman whose world is collapsing around her. Unlike other films about romantic obsession, the film’s unsettling feeling comes not from the anticipation of not knowing what is coming next, but the anxiety of knowing where this self-destructive behavior is heading.
This film is very much a showcase for lead actress Natasa Stork, and she does an excellent job. It’s a dialogue-heavy film, and since many of the scenes feel so mundane, Stork is left to find the emotion implicit in the script. She gives a performance that is subdued yet haunting, probably the main reason that the film is so absorbing.
The film’s biggest success is undeniably on a visual level, as Róbert Maly’s quietly gorgeous cinematography draws the viewer into the mind of the protagonist. It’s not a particularly extravagant film, but the style gives it a somewhat clinical feel, matching the disillusionment of the protagonist.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time definitely gets points for being something different, but it’s one-note narrative will prevent it from connecting with most audiences. It’s unlikely to be a major player as Hungary’s submission for Best International Feature.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time streams in virtual cinemas beginning January 22. Tickets can be purchased here.
Review by Adam Donato
After over a decade of acting, Cameron Van Hoy sits in the director’s chair for his debut film, Flinch. When a hitman has a witness to his last hit, he kidnaps her and starts to fall for her. Daniel Zovatto, who has small roles in the film It Follows and plays one of the leads in Penny Dreadful, stars as said hitman. Star of I Am Woman, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, plays the assistant turned unfortunate captive. Is this love story of Stockholm Syndrome closer to the romance of Beauty and the Beast or the creepiness of Passengers?
It’s extremely fair to cast judgment upon a forced romance. A story is nothing without conflict, therefore in romance movies, there needs to be some kind of obstacle for the main couple to overcome. The standard romantic comedy expresses this through miscommunications and convenience. Flinch is definitely not a romantic comedy. Being a dark crime thriller about a criminal who meets the romantic interest via being on opposite sides of a crime, things get dicey. For most, any romance that comes across at all as non-consensual is creepy, like Passengers. Those same people watch Beauty and the Beast and think it’s cute how the Beast threatens the captive Belle but is evil due to circumstance. It all comes down to how much the audience likes and cares for the oppressor in the situation. In this movie’s case, Van Hoy toes that line very well.
The style of the movie is reminiscent of a Nicolas Winding Refn film: a story about a seldom spoken anti-hero filled with neon lights and excessive violence. The plot is very simple, which allows time to develop Zovatto’s character of Joe Doyle. His arc throughout the movie borders on terrible until it’s pulled through in the end. It’s very enjoyable to see his relationship with Mia grow as we see what his relationship with his mother is. There’s an argument that this movie has a lot to say about the concept of how a man treats his mother is how he will treat his significant other. Tragic, yet disgusting, Joe Doyle is a sympathetic character.
The film is not without its faults. As much as a homage as it would like to masquerade as, it does come across as derivative. The second act falters in comparison to how solid the first act is and how great the third act becomes. Famous stand-up comedian Tom Segura plays the initial hit at the beginning of the film and is the most notable star attached to the film. His name is on the poster, despite being a minute part of the film. The title of the film and the entire concept of the girl not flinching overplays its hand. The audience understands the point, but the movie shoves it down their throats.
It’s honestly a shame to see this movie not get a big theatrical release. While it may start out as a pretty standard film, it gradually picks up as it goes along. It will be interesting to see where Cameron Van Hoy goes from here. His style is reminiscent, but a second feature would really give critics a chance to see his own voice in comparison. Sometimes coming across as standard, Flinch is surprisingly competent and wraps everything up in a nice little bow. Definitely check out Flinch if it ever comes up on your radar.
Flinch hits VOD on January 21.
Review by Sean Boelman
Every year, there is at least one submission for Best International Film that is definitely too weird to be recognized, but its ambition and originality deserve attention nevertheless. Ukraine’s entry, Atlantis, fits that bill this year, offering an intriguing and visually striking look at dystopia that is sure to be divisive.
The movie takes place in a post-war Ukraine in 2025 and follows a former soldier with PTSD who tries to reconnect with society as he exhumes war corpses. In terms of near-future dystopias, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, dealing largely in mundanities and repetitiveness, but filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych’s gentle hand is what really guides it into success.
Apart from a few big scenes, the movie is mostly very quiet, emphasizing the emotion of the smaller beats. The film starts with one of those more exaggerated moments, hooking the viewer into this uncanny world, before showing that it is not the more visible things that are most disturbing, but the intangible ones.
Admittedly, the script does try to bite off a bit more than it can chew in a thematic sense. Vasyanovych’s targets include war and capitalism, and while the points he makes are all interesting, trying to say everything all at once forces him to abandon subtlety at times, using some of the more tried-and-true metaphors.
That said, Vasyanovych is by no means forceful with his movie. The character development is very deliberate in a way that is really humanizing. When dealing with a topic as tricky as PTSD, it is easy to get swept away in the melodrama of the situation, but Vasyanovych does a great job with this main arc.
Andriy Rymaruk’s nuanced lead performance also helps the film to connect. Although there are a few good supporting turns, this is mostly his show, and the best moments are those which are meditative, allowing his expressions to do the talking. It’s shocking that this is Rymaruk’s first debut, because his performance feels more like one that would come from a more seasoned performer.
The movie is perhaps strongest on a visual level. Vasyanovych does some really interesting things with the cinematography, such as shooting certain sequences in infrared, and they pay off. However, down to the way in which he uses the desolate landscape, Vasyanovych has created a truly atmospheric film.
Atlantis will certainly put some viewers off with its somewhat abstract and purposefully monotonous nature, but the artistry on display here is obvious. This is definitely one of the more distinctive Oscar submissions in play this year.’
Atlantis streams in virtual cinemas beginning January 22. Tickets can be purchased here.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Sports movies can be hit or miss. Sometimes they have just enough melodrama to make them work, but sometimes they have too much schmaltz. The particularly goes for fighting/boxing movies. They need some melodrama, but they need to stay away from the sentimentality. The problem with Born a Champion is it doesn't have enough good melodrama and it has too much schmaltz to be an effective sport or fighting/boxing movie. This isn't a good sign.
Sean Patrick Flannery plays a former marine who's a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor. He's there for a fighting tournament. On the trip to Saudi Arabia, he meets a model (Katrina Bowden). They strike up a friendship that eventually leads to marriage. They end up living a happy life until something draws the man back into the world of fighting. The film is narrated by his best friend (Maurice Compte) who he's known for a while.
Sports movies need to be inspiring, and Born a Champion isn't. It has a somewhat inspiring story but lacks the execution it needs to lure the audience in. Written and directed by Alex Ranarievelo and co-written by Flannery, the film is way too long and takes forever to get to its main plot thread. It veers off when it should have been a quick return. Some of the second hour could have been cut to make the film tighter in length.
This was obviously a passion project for Flannery. He probably should have gotten some advice on casting himself in the film or not. The cast as a whole just wasn't very good. They all came across as not being very good. They weren't strong enough in their roles. A small role from Dennis Quaid didn't even help this film out, though he was the best thing in the film. Maybe a more professional director could have gotten better actors for these roles. It sank with Flannery at the helm.
The fighting choreography was good, but I've seen better. The acting was wooden and the story was way too drawn out. This film was, at best, like a bad version of Rocky. Stallone did everything much better than Flannery did. It's sad because Born a Champion had some potential. I have seen so many more films in this genre. They were all executed so much better than this film was. The January release date was a dead giveaway this film wasn't going to be good.
Born a Champion hits theaters and VOD on January 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Crowd-pleasing dramas are a dime a dozen, and so they often come and go without making much of a splash. The cancer drama Our Friend may not be the most spectacular film, but it will avoid that anonymity thanks to good central performances and a gentle hand from both the writer and the director.
The movie follows a couple who, facing a life-changing tragedy, are supported by their friend who moves in to take care of their family. Based on an Esquire article, the film hits a lot of the familiar beats of the cancer melodrama, but it does so in a way that is unexpectedly warm and tender, bringing a much needed hopefulness to a typically bleak genre.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest issue is that it is structured so inconsistently. Although the film never feels incoherent, it cuts between timelines in a way that isn’t necessary. The storyline about the three main characters becoming friends is sweet enough, but it doesn’t add a whole lot beyond some basic character development and makes the runtime feel a bit bloated.
The movie does a great job of exploring the central relationships, but there was also more room for it to grow. Apart from one or two scenes, the film doesn’t really do anything with the characters of the children. There are also some other supporting characters that aren’t fleshed out at all.
One of the strongest aspects of the movie are the performances from Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson. Segel, in particular, is excellent, giving a turn full of humanity and subtlety that plays into his typically friendly type. Johnson is also very good, although her role is a bit more straightforward than Segel’s.
Admittedly, the film doesn’t have anything particularly new to say. The emphasis is on finding hope and love in the midst of tragedy. There is a lot of false profundity in the script, in which it seems like Brad Ingelsby thinks he’s saying something meaningful but is really just exercising empty poeticism.
The movie is mostly strong on a technical level. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s directorial style may be straightforward, but it isn’t as sentimental as her previous narrative film or one would expect of the genre. Cowperthwaite allows the performances to take the spotlight, and as a result, it resonates.
Our Friend is disorganized and arguably even a bit too long, but it still manages to be significantly better than a majority of the movies in the genre. For the most part, it’s a quiet, empathetic take on well-worn tropes.
Our Friend hits theaters and VOD on January 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
PG: Psycho Goreman is a niche send-up of an already niche genre, but it’s going to earn a lot of love from those who revel in the ridiculousness of sci-fi/horror B-movies. Even though it might have been nice for there to be a bit more originality in the script, it’s a campy and genuinely fun genre picture that provides some wonderful escapism.
The film follows two young siblings who discover a gem that controls an evil monster and force him to do their bidding. It’s basically the demonic offspring of Hellraiser and The Goonies, but with an ample supply of nostalgia, an abundance of carnage, and a surprisingly genuine sense of heart.
Steven Kostanski’s script is at its best when it is letting its characters go wild. The portion of the movie in which the characters are getting into wacky antics with humorously grotesque aftermath is much more interesting than the final act that turns into more of a straightforward action/adventure flick.
This is definitely a comedy, but the sense of humor is a bit hard to nail down. The tone frequently shifts between being dark and demented and goofy and childish, but this is what makes the film feel so playful. There are quite a few great gags that work just based on how odd and creative that they are.
The portion of the movie that does not work very well is the character development. The emotional core of the film is centered around the relationship between the brother and sister, and this is mostly compelling. However, in trying to add in more family drama with their parents, the overall arcs feel underdeveloped.
Additionally, the arc of the eponymous monster is also rather by-the-book. Even though there are a few moments that push the envelope, it mostly plays it safe in a narrative sense. The monster’s redemption arc follows the standard beats, having him grow a heart thanks to the positive influence of the human protagonists.
Visually, the film is an excellent homage to the genre that clearly influenced it so heavily. There is a heavy emphasis on cheesy practical effects, and it pays off in terms of laughs. Perhaps the most impressive part of the movie’s execution is the creature design, which sets the foundation for some fantastic world-building.
PG: Psycho Goreman isn’t quite great enough to gain cult classic status, but it’s more than fun enough to make it worth watching for midnight movie fans. This type of film has a built-in audience, and they will be satisfied.
PG: Psycho Goreman hits theaters and VOD on January 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Often, it’s the thrillers with the simplest premises that are most effective, and for the most part, that is the case with Alex McAulay’s Don’t Tell a Soul. And even though the script does lose some of its steam when it tries to go beyond the basics of the formula, strong performances keep the movie seriously suspenseful.
The film follows two teenagers who, while trying to steal money to help with their terminally ill mother, strand a security guard at the bottom of a well and are presented with an unexpected ethical challenge. It’s a unique twist on a story we have seen time and time again, but McAulay’s directorial style is strong enough to compensate for its bits of genericism.
Much of the first half is largely dialogue-driven, and this is definitely the most compelling portion. When the movie tries to turn into something a bit more action-oriented, it requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief from the audience. And with such a short runtime, the film tries to do a bit too much with too little time.
Admittedly, the movie is a bit heavy-handed with its themes, particularly when it comes to the final act. The script tries to tie in an element of family drama, but it doesn’t work particularly well. And while a lot of the story is about moral ambiguity, it ends up leaning the wrong way by the time the third act comes around.
The dynamic between the two protagonists, who are brothers, is rather shallow. It’s the trope of older brother antagonizing younger brother, and the emotional arc is really contrived as a result. The antagonist is a much more interesting character, although the arc he has is a lot more problematic.
On a technical level, the film is quite strong. McAulay brings a very cold visual style, and it works, creating a very immersive atmosphere. The production design for much of the movie is very simple, but the filmmakers do a good job of making the viewer feel an increasing sense of entrapment as the story goes on.
That said, the single strongest aspect of the film is its performances. The three leads — Jack Dylan Grazer, Fionn Whitehead, and Rainn Wilson — all give strong turns. They have excellent chemistry together, especially Grazer and Wilson, selling even the most ludicrous of the movie’s moments.
Don’t Tell a Soul is a refreshing thriller offering some solid entertainment with a lean runtime. It can be a bit frustrating at times when it tries to be something more than it is, but when it sticks to the basics, it’s surprisingly good.
Don’t Tell a Soul hits VOD on January 15.