Review by Sean Boelman
A follow-up to his divisive story about the French heroine’s childhood, Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc isn’t a musical unlike its predecessor, but it still takes a very unorthodox approach to this well-known story. While Dumont’s vision of history may not be agreeable, it’s certainly idiosyncratic and one to be heard.
The film follows the eponymous French heroine as she leads the French army against the King of England believing that she is God’s chosen one, only to be put on trial for heresy. It’s a tragic story that nearly everyone knows, and it has been committed to film more than once before, but Dumont really doubles down on the existential elements of the character’s arc.
There’s an obvious connection to be had to the story if one already has familiarity with the historical events. Dumont’s movie is somewhat reliant on viewers appreciating Joan of Arc’s plight and sympathizing with her struggle, although the middle portion of the film will have a lot of impact regardless.
Lise Leplat Prudhomme reprises her role (she played the younger version of Joan of Arc in Dumont’s Jeannette), and she does a great job. The amount of emotion she brings to the character, particularly during the climactic trial, will draw viewers into the character even if they are unconvinced to that point.
The pacing of the film is certainly very unorthodox. Dumont jumps through time, showing the audience only the most impactful elements of her life rather than providing a completely comprehensive biography. Even at over two hours and fifteen minutes long, there’s a lot that Dumont omitted, and yet, it feels like he communicates his message.
Above everything else, the movie is about standing up for what one believes. This is a message that is universal and just as resonant now as it was in the 1400s. There’s a reason why Joan of Arc’s story has become such an iconic and important part of history, and Dumont manages to highlight that perfectly.
On a technical level, the film is absolutely beautiful. While it isn’t a full-out musical like its predecessor, the sound design and soundtrack play a large role in the style. The cinematography and production design are also excellent, giving the movie a very sleek but still periodized feel.
Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a highly unique period piece. It’s an undeniably unusual yet effective telling of a story that pretty much everyone knows.
Joan of Arc is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Co-written and directed by Asian-American filmmaker Sasie Sealy, Lucky Grandma is a new crime comedy with plenty of laughs. Thanks to a strong lead performance and a solid script, this is an entertaining indie comedy that may have gone under the radar if not for audiences needing something to watch.
The film follows an elderly woman who, following an optimistic reading from a fortune teller, has a wild day at the casino and finds herself stuck in the middle of a war between the two most powerful gangs in Chinatown. It’s a ridiculous premise, but it’s done subtly enough to be funny while still feeling grounded in some sort of reality.
One of the film’s biggest successes is that it balances the comedy with the more suspenseful elements of the story quite well. Even though the stakes are never insanely high, this isn’t quite the “sweet granny” movie that the title implies it might be. There’s an undeniable and enjoyable bite and edge to this movie.
Of course, the eponymous character is quite lovable, a fitting protagonist for a charming film. At times, the character’s arc leans a bit into cliches about the elderly, but there’s an obvious tongue-in-cheek nature to the way in which Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng handle these elements of the movie.
On the other hand, the antagonistic characters of the film feel entirely underwritten. More often than not, they come across as over-the-top caricatures of gangsters. Admittedly, they’re still a ton of fun to watch, but it draws the viewer out of what is otherwise a surprisingly effective and emotional storyline.
Tsai Chin is absolutely wonderful in her leading role and is the clear highlight of the movie. She is subtly hilarious, giving a performance that has a lot of deadpan qualities about it. There aren’t any obvious standouts in the supporting cast, but everyone does a solid job of serving as a scene partner for Chin, who absolutely commands the spotlight.
On a technical level, the film is very good. This is Sealy’s directorial debut, but the movie is beyond competent and feels very stylized. The cinematography and production design have a very neo-noir flavor to them that creates an interesting effect when paired with the witty and comedic dialogue of the script.
Lucky Grandma has a couple areas that could have used improvement, but as Sasie Sealy’s feature debut, it shows she has a lot of talent. It’s a perfectly amusing movie, and a quick one at that, making it worth your time and support.
Lucky Grandma is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Although it almost doesn’t work because it treats the audience like they’re in the blind even when they aren’t, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is an expectedly fun rock doc. Thanks to the charm of the eponymous indie pop/punk musician, it will be an entertaining watch even for those who aren’t already fans.
The film follows Kate Nash as she tries to reinvent her public persona after her debut album goes very well but she feels called creatively to take a different path. For the most part, the film sticks pretty closely to standard rock doc conventions, a structure which is admittedly a tad underwhelming given how Nash’s story is all about breaking the mold.
That said, the film does a very good job of delivering its message about being oneself and not conforming to unfair expectations from an unappreciative public. It’s a subtly empowering tale of how people (especially women) face adversity in the industry every day and yet persevere to find success despite the naysayers.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with the film is that it doesn’t take into account those who are already familiar with Nash’s career. The film was shot over several years, which is obvious because a large portion of it occurs before Nash got her breakout role on the Netflix series GLOW. Since the target audience will already know how she will get back on her feet, some of the emotional impact is diminished.
Regardless, the film does a very good job of making Nash’s story compelling. Apart from a few parts that feel slightly overdramatized (such as one exposing Nash’s financial exploitation by a former manager), it’s a very inspiring story of how one person can pursue their dreams while making a visible difference on the people that surround them.
As one would expect, Nash’s music plays a big role in the film, and it’s incorporated quite well. The film features both performance footage and up-close-and-personal insight into her songwriting process as she collaborates with others to realize her vision of her sound. The film also uses on-screen text to represent the lyrics, and while this is a common gimmick, it definitely works here.
Like most other rock documentaries, this benefits from the filmmaker having unparalleled access to the subject. The crew follows Nash on tour and through her personal life, with a majority of the film taking the form of fly-on-the-wall footage. There are a few ambitious swings-and-misses, but the film is at its best when it takes this simple but approachable format.
Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is a fun music documentary. While it may not be the most revelatory or revolutionary film of the genre, it offers plenty for fans and casual moviegoers alike, and at less than an hour and a half in length, what’s not to love?
Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is now streaming exclusively On Alamo on Demand here.
Review by Sean Boelman
A biography of one of the most unconventional figures in culinary history, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is a must-watch for any foodie cinephiles. A compelling and entertaining documentary thanks to the charming personality of its subject, this film may not break any new ground, but it’s satisfying nevertheless.
The movie tells the story of British chef Diana Kennedy who, at the age of ninety-seven, still presides as one of the foremost experts on Mexican cuisine. Although most who are fans of cooking will already know Kennedy’s name, some audiences may be surprised to learn that a British woman is one of the best chefs of the style.
Yet this unexpected story plays out in an almost underdog-like way in that it shows that anyone can do anything if they set their minds to it. Although there’s obviously an element of natural talent and aptitude involved in Kennedy’s story, the film focuses on how she became a better chef by learning from the people of the culture she studied.
Above anything else, audiences can learn from the movie the importance of being a citizen of the world. Like many celebrity chefs, Kennedy couldn’t have gotten to where she is without being open-minded to new experiences, and she also faced the challenge of her cooking being based on a tradition that is not her own.
The film does a very good job of building Kennedy into a compassionate subject. It’s absolutely wonderful that she is telling her story through her own eyes and with her own words, giving the movie a much more personal feel than most biographical documentaries of this sort.
Of course, the film features plenty of absolutely scrumptious food shots. Even though Kennedy may not have published a book since 2016, she still very much has it, as is obvious in the scenes of the movie in which she is shown in action. Perhaps the single best part of the film features Kennedy as she prepares a traditional guacamole, with some energetic commentary thrown in.
On a technical level, the movie is very solid, even if it doesn’t deviate much from expectations. Director Elizabeth Carroll tells the story in a straightforward but effective way, letting Kennedy be the focal point of the narrative. There are some interviews and archive footage throughout, but Carroll recognizes that her film’s biggest strength is how lovable Kennedy is, and she takes full advantage of that.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is a delectable little documentary. While it can feel a bit slight at times, at a mere eighty-two minutes in length, it’s a ridiculously entertaining and certainly worthwhile watch.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Starring Craig Fairbrass, Villain is a new crime drama with precious little to excite audiences. Starting off with a bang but failing to keep up that momentum, this isn’t a poorly-made film, although it certainly could have benefitted from having a bit more action to make the story feel more cinematic.
The movie follows a recently released ex-convict as he is drawn back into a life of crime when he discovers that his brother owes a large debt to some ruthless mobsters, and he must find a way to pay it back, legal or not. The script by Greg Hall and George Russo is very bland and generic, adding very little to a worn out revenge genre.
However, since the film is so by-the-book, the movie feels very stagnant. There is some conflict throughout, but not enough to make the film interesting. One of the problems here is that the movie fails to adequately establish stakes. Even though the characters repeatedly discuss how this is a matter of life and death, it fails to prove it in an impactful way.
The reason why it is so disappointing that the film is so unoriginal is that the opening sequence is legitimately pretty great. However, this extremely high-intensity scene sets a precedent that the rest of the movie simply can’t meet, and as a result, audiences are certainly going to be bored by what the real plot has to offer.
Furthermore, the character development in the film doesn’t have much emotional impact at all. There are some beats of the movie that are made expressly for the purpose of eliciting a response from the audience, and while one or two of them work, a majority of them feel manipulative and unnatural.
Fairbrass does a good enough job in his leading role, but he isn’t given enough material to work with to be particularly memorable. It’s a role that he seems very well-fit for, if only there had been more substance to what he had to do. The supporting cast as a whole is very monotonous and unspectacular.
The film isn’t bad on a technical level, but as expected, there’s nothing particularly phenomenal about it either. This is where the lack of exciting action in the movie really hurts it. Although it’s obvious that the film wants to be gritty and real, director Philip Barantini doesn’t bring enough style to it for it to be effective.
More often than not, Villain falls flat. Unfortunately, the cast and crew just don’t have the ability to overcome a generic script that is almost completely devoid of thrills or any other interesting flourishes.
Villain hits VOD on May 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
After his unfairly maligned (and actually quite fun) debut Terminal, director Vaughn Stein’s newest film Inheritance largely lacks the inspiration that put him on the map (for better or worse). Unfortunately, the script by first-timer Matthew Kennedy is so bland that it is hard to enjoy its occasionally strong elements.
The movie follows an up-and-coming district attorney whose father dies unexpectedly, leaving her an unexpected and shocking inheritance that threatens to undermine the power and wealth of the family. It’s an intriguing premise that isn’t fully taken advantage of, with twists and turns that are frustratingly predictable.
A big part of the issue here is that the film is simply too long. At over an hour and fifty minutes in length, the movie truly struggles to keep the audience’s attention for the entirety of its runtime. The middle section is particularly slow, composed of conversations between the two characters with some flashbacks, many of which could have been cut out.
That said, perhaps more damning is that the film is almost entirely exposition. It’s a giant info dump that leaves little to the viewer to discern, force-feeding them anything of depth that the movie has in regards to its themes. A bit of subtlety could have elevated this film above the plethora of other thrillers with similar premises.
The character development is also very lackluster. There are two lead characters, and neither of them has a particularly compelling arc. The protagonist’s arc is supposed to lean into the moral ambiguity of the situation, but instead, it plays off as indecisiveness. The co-lead is very generic and archetypal.
Lily Collins isn’t particularly impressive in the lead role. Sadly, she simply isn’t believable as the character. For the most part, her role is lacking in emotion, but when she does go for it, it is very over-the-top. Simon Pegg gives a performance that is at least moderately entertaining, although it’s not particularly fitting given the otherwise serious nature of the movie.
The film falls flat on a technical level too. It’s certainly disappointing that, given the highly stylish thriller that his debut was, Stein didn’t do more to give this one a bit of flair. Even the portions of the movie that are set in a confined location don’t work well at all, lacking a sense of visual geography.
Inheritance is a very disappointing and ultimately quite boring thriller. There are a few solid moments throughout, and Simon Pegg gives it his all, but those aren’t enough to make this dull script worth your time.
Inheritance hits VOD on May 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
The fourth (and supposedly final) entry into Michael Winterbottom’s travelogue series starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, The Trip to Greece may be the best one. Letting the food take a backseat to the character development and hilarious interactions, this film proves that Winterbottom, Coogan, and Brydon are still some of the most able comedians working today.
For those who are familiar with the series, the premise of this film will be no surprise. Comedians and friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a culinary tour of Greece, along the way having several conversations that are either insightful or comedic, and sometimes both. It’s a simple set-up, but even though there have been four of these, the premise has not worn itself thin.
As always, the humor of the film banks on the chemistry between Coogan and Brydon, and their individual talents. Both are finally becoming more known to American audiences than they were when the first film was released a decade ago, but here, they aren’t relying on their usual tricks. There’s even a joke in the film about one of them falling back on their safe character when they can’t think of anything else in the moment.
The ideas of fame and mortality have always been at the center of these films, but these topics are even more prevalent now. A significant portion of the film addresses Coogan’s acclaimed performance as Stan Laurel in the biopic Stan & Ollie, which the fictionalized version of himself believes to have elevated him to “actor” status over comedian (as if Philomena hadn’t already done that).
But what is so endearing here is the level of emotion that Coogan is able to shine through. Beneath the cocky facade and bits, it’s clear that the character — and perhaps the actor himself — fears that he has peaked. The previous two films have talked about how Coogan wanted to recapture the glory of Philomena, and now that he’s gotten that chance, he worries that he might not be able to hold onto it.
On the other hand, Brydon’s emotional arc was pretty well wrapped-up in the other three films. Here, he exists mostly as a second half to bounce lines off of Coogan and as a comedic performer. And he’s as funny as ever here, whether he’s trying to out-compete Coogan in impressions, or simply singing “Grease” in Greece, capturing the irony of the moment.
With the lessened focus on food here, the cinematography isn’t as spectacular as usual, but the food shots (when there) are gorgeous, as are some of the shots of the scenery. This airs in the U.K. as a miniseries, so it’s likely that some of this content was cut from the feature film version in favor of the deeper character-driven material.
The Trip to Greece delivers exactly what fans of the series are hoping for in droves. While it is sad that we likely won’t get to see Coogan and Brydon sampling flavors of a country again, Winterbottom completed his story with the most poignant chapter yet.
The Trip to Greece hits VOD on May 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Benjamin Ree’s new film The Painter and the Thief documents what is one of the most bizarre and intriguing true stories to grace the screen in quite a while. Thanks to its stranger-than-fiction narrative and some absolutely gorgeous visuals, this is a captivating documentary that demands to be seen.
The movie follows an artist whose valuable paintings are stolen from her as she forms an unlikely friendship with the thief who took them, allowing them both to gain new insight about the world. It sounds like something like this could never happen in real life, and yet it did, and the result is a fascinating work of nonfiction that challenges.
As one would expect, the film is about second chances and how people can redeem themselves for mistakes they have made in the past. There’s not a whole lot of subtlety in the messaging, but the conversations that the two subjects have about morality and their past bad decisions are plenty thought-provoking for the movie to be effective.
The relationship that forms between the two subjects is obviously very unorthodox, and the portion of the film that is spent exploring their friendship is pretty brilliant. When the two are allowed to share the screen, audiences’ attention will undeniably be locked on the movie as they wait to see how things will play out.
Unfortunately (due to no fault of the filmmaker), the story goes off the rails in the second half when one of the subjects experiences a life-changing accident. However, Ree could have utilized this change in a way as to reinforce his themes about rebirth, and this is largely left underdeveloped.
Visually, the film is just as beautiful as one would expect from a movie that features a painter as its main subject. The work of artist Barbora Kysilkova is featured prominently throughout the film, and Ree uses her style as a frame of reference for the very brutal and realistic way in which he shoots the documentary.
Ree doesn’t insert himself into the narrative, instead allowing Kysilkova to be the star of the movie and driving the story along. Rather than interviewing them, Ree allows Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland to have conversations of their own, capturing them in a fly-on-the-wall fashion, lending the film a very naturalistic feel.
The Painter and the Thief is a truly unique and amazing documentary. Although it may not sound like the most cinematic story on paper, it is one of the most unexpectedly compelling things to come out in a while.
The Painter and the Thief hits Hulu, VOD, and virtual cinemas on May 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
The newest film from British director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty), Military Wives is a new semi-musical melodrama. And while it may not subvert any expectations, it’s a sweet and uplifting movie that is unlikely to leave any but the coldest hearts unmoved, and may even leave some viewers without a dry eye.
Inspired by the phenomenon of military wives’ choirs that sprung up on military bases across the world, the film follows a group of women who get together to form a singing group in an attempt to take their minds off of the danger their husbands are facing. It’s an interesting story with implications larger than what it lets on, even if they aren’t fully explored.
One of the most frustrating things in the movie is that it doesn’t address the giant elephant in the room: the war. Although a few clever lines speak to the issue (one of the wives talks about not having married into the war), this topic is largely left alone. While the film works fine as a cutesy tale of the homefront, one can’t help but feel like it could have been more.
The two lead characters are both very compelling, but unfortunately, there is a lack of interesting supporting players. Only one of the other wives is given a compelling arc, and much of the emotion that viewers will feel towards her arc is earned through tear-jerking. It would have been nice had the script by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard spent more time developing the dynamic between the wives.
The actors all do a very solid job in their roles. Kirstin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan play the two leads, and they have an interesting dichotomy between them. Thomas works well as the emotional center of the movie with Horgan as the more lighthearted relief, allowing the film as a whole to have a rather nice feel to it.
At a bit under two hours in length, the film does run a bit long, but that is because it takes a while for them to get to the point of actually forming the wives’ choir. Once the choir is formed, it becomes an entertaining, if predictable underdog story that breezes by relatively quickly. There’s just some excessive exposition tacked onto the beginning.
The performances themselves are certainly uneven, and even though this fits the story of the movie, it can be very frustrating. For a majority of the first half of the film, the songs are mediocre covers sung poorly, but once the group finds their groove, it becomes legitimately pleasant. The original song, “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, may even be deserving of awards recognition when all is said and done.
Military Wives may not be a great movie, but it’s entertaining and heartwarming enough to be worth a watch. Some may think it’s sentimental drabble, yet there is an undeniable and infectious charm about it that will earn it a lot of love.
Military Wives hits Hulu, VOD, and virtual cinemas on May 22.
Review by Sarah Williams
Perhaps the biggest sell of The Wolf House is its radically unhinged animation. It jumps between 2D, 3D, stop-motion, and anything in between as it scraps to follow its story. Rather than feeling messy and tacked together, the end result is a memory book of fairytale horror and reality. It works because the 2D interacts with the 3D, styles melding on screen at the same time to an effect of collaboration of multiple artists coming together to tell a story like it's being retold around a campfire by a group that knows it well.
There is no respite from the horror of this nation, this trapped place in which there has never been a way to flee, and it's a cold reflection of reality. It is the story of a young girl, from Chile's Colonia Dignidad, a German madman, a child predator fanatical with misplaced religious devotion. He has turned this land into a military dictatorship in service of Augusto Pinochet, and she is in danger after coming into trouble for losing three pigs. This last part sounds like the setup to a children's story, some fairytale book read before bedtime. And maybe it does seem to be so from here, as we have three pigs, and we have a house — the wolf house in the woods that our young heroine shelters in, but the broken fairytales of reality are far darker than anything in fiction.
The text grows richer knowing the history of Chile and the events that may parallel the story, but much of that imbued history lesson can be learned from watching it all play out. Would the film play better with the context? Yes, but the learning experience, even though shallower, still plays well for an audience not raised with this knowledge. It's colonial trauma projected onto the life of one young girl, and her youth is only clearer when her story is told through a classic children's tale, and we see the contrast between the typical sheltered childhood, and the fear in her life. The stop motion models are painted, cracking and messy, like a child's experiment come to life. The cobbled together style is eerie, with animation so focused on perfection it's unsettling to see the cracks in these models.
It's not the only recent animated film to tackle raw societal struggles through stop-motion in a powerful manner. Emma De Swaef's This Magnificent Cake! is a soft felt recreation of the horrors of Belgium's imperialist acts. It covers the pain of colonialism in this soft fabric so it's more easily digestible before the subject matter is broken down, while The Wolf House bares the messy underbelly of power struggle early on. This melding of animation is often dark and clashing, the power dynamic clear even within the medium. An exploration of trauma through the myths of childhood, perhaps The Wolf House makes the much needed statement that America has fallen behind on that animation is a medium, not a genre, and the surreality of the tools used to make a film do not have to make it any less raw.
The Wolf House is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.