Review by Sean Boelman
What is defined as low-budget filmmaking has changed over the years, but there are still a few filmmakers who are working on a very small scale with a cast and crew made up of their friends to create truly no-budget pictures. Mickey Reece is one such director, and his newest feature, Country Gold, offers more of what he has come to be known for.
The movie follows an up-and-coming country musician who gets the opportunity of a lifetime to meet his idol, now a washed-up former superstar who has decided to have himself cryogenically frozen. Like the rest of Reece’s films, it’s a pretty wild premise but the movie itself is rather tame, being mostly a series of conversations with some weird imagery thrown in there.
If you’ve never seen one of his movies, this is definitely not the place to start. His films are very quirky, almost to the point of feeling random. Reece is one of the last remaining truly independent filmmakers, and the result is that he can do pretty much whatever he wants with his movies, for better or worse. So this film, in particular, feels really unrestrained, albeit admirably so.
There are some interesting themes in the movie about fame and legacy, and while these are hardly original thoughts, the way that Reece explores them is undeniably idiosyncratic. Although it’s not a particularly scary movie by any means, it’s hypnotic in an almost Lynchian way, creating a very uneasy feeling.
The biggest strength of the film is its characters. Reece starts with the archetypes but builds them out in a complex and nuanced way. For much of the movie, the characters exist in a morally gray area — which works well given that the film is in black-and-white — and yet, the audience never feels overly distant from them.
And yet, Reece’s own performance in the leading role gets in the way of some of its success. He’s mildly annoying, and while the character isn’t supposed to be the most charming guy in the world, having someone else in the role likely would have been better. On the other hand, Ben Hall absolutely rules as the grizzled, aging star of yesteryear.
The black-and-white cinematography is arguably more for budgetary reasons than anything else — it’s much easier to periodize a movie set in the past in black-and-white than color — but Reece creates an interesting atmosphere using it. There are some effects that are less than stellar, but given the low budget, it’s understandable why.
Mickey Reece’s films are certainly an acquired taste, but for those who are a fan of his zany, DIY style, Country Gold is sure to be a treat. Even if its ideas don’t all come together, the fact that it even exists is almost a miracle in and of itself.
Country Gold screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the most anticipated films of the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival was Shin Ultraman, a new take on the Japanese pop culture behemoth from the creators of Shin Godzilla. It’s a movie made by fans for fans, but it can also be a wonderful introduction to the property for the uninitiated.
The film follows a task force of individuals who have been assembled to defend against kaiju attacks as a mysterious silver giant appears and begins to fight the monsters. As a reboot of the Ultraman property, it’s a solid beginning, introducing new audiences to the iconic extraterrestrial superhero while being a fun kaiju movie at the same time.
Like Shin Godzilla, the thing that makes Shin Ultraman stand out is that it is a much more grounded take on the property. Of course, there is still the high-octane kaiju action for which the series has come to be known, but it is through the lens of a procedural drama. As much of the movie takes place in a war room as it does in the field, and it’s an interesting approach.
Although the film doesn’t skewer bureaucracy as strongly as its reptilian cousin, Shin Ultraman still has some interesting things to say about the inefficiencies of government. But the more resonant message here is the optimistic one, showing that, beneath all of the corruption and destruction we are causing, there is still a reason to love humanity.
Admittedly, the character development in the movie does struggle a bit. Ultimately, the film can’t decide whether the audience cares more about the humans or the Ultras, so it tries to give us some of both, and ends up satisfying us with neither. Still, it effectively brings the audience back into the world of Ultraman.
One of the most surprising things about the movie is that Drive My Car actor Hidetoshi Nishijima has a pretty prominent supporting role, and he does a dang good job. He is a highlight in the film playing the leader of the human team, with a performance that doesn’t overbear the main heroes but is memorable in its own right.
Obviously, Ultraman is known for its cheesy practical effects, and while this one modernizes the effects by using CGI, it still manages to capture the wonderfully campy tone that made everyone love the series in the first place. It’s epic in scope but not meant to be taken too seriously, and that’s perfect for what this is.
Shin Ultraman is exactly what anyone would hope for — a fun and subtly smart action flick. The way that writer Hideaki Anno and director Shinji Higuchi blend small and large scale stories like this will never cease to be amazing.
Shin Ultraman screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
Review by Camden Ferrell
My Donkey, My Lover, & I is a French comedy-drama movie that was an official selection at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival. The film is loosely inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. This is a film that is relentlessly charming and easy-going thanks to a strong script and a fantastic leading performance from Laure Calamy.
Antoinette is a primary school teacher who is excited to go on vacation with the married man with whom she is having an affair. However, the plans fall apart when his wife makes surprise plans for their family to go to a mountainous park for a hiking trip. Antoinette impulsively follows the family on their trip where she is out of her element and must make new friends with other travelers and learn to get along with her donkey hiking companion. This is a cute premise for a movie that offers up plenty of opportunity for its protagonist to soul-search and get into funny predicaments.
This movie was written and directed by Caroline Vignal, and her script is quaint yet enjoyable. It’s not grandiose in spectacle or drama, and it’s best that it’s not. It’s sweet and simple and is able to maintain attention without losing touch with what makes it charismatic in the first place. There are some great interactions between characters, and its story feels very natural and unforced, and it allows this piece to feel authentic more than anything.
A lot of the charm and appeal from this movie can also be attributed to its leading performance. Laure Calamy leads the film as Antoinette, and she is able to work really well with all of the film’s elements. She has great chemistry with the ensemble of offbeat characters, and she also has great chemistry with her donkey, and she can carry a solo scene as well. It’s not groundbreaking or astonishing, but it’s great for what it is, and she may be the secret ingredient for why this movie works so well.
Even if it doesn’t try and go above and beyond in the realm of film, one can’t help but be absolutely charmed by the sincerity and wholesome things happening on screen. It’s emotional, silly, and not demanding on the viewer. There are some great messages and themes that many people will relate to, and it has such a harmless story and intent that it’s hard to feel anything but joy towards. It is also a relatively short movie that ends before it can ever overstay its welcome.
My Donkey, My Lover, & I is a fun French comedy-drama that will appeal to many demographics of people thanks to its universal ideas and delightful leading performance. There’s physical humor, verbal humor, and plenty of personal exploration that might speak to a large number of viewers. While there’s nothing I can commend as being utterly amazing, I have nothing negative to say about such a cute and adorable movie.
My Donkey, My Lover, & I is in theaters July 22.
[Fantasia 2022] THE HARBINGER -- An Eerie COVID Horror Film That Doesn't Amount to Much
Review by Sean Boelman
In the past two years, many filmmakers have tried to make movies about our experience in the COVID-19 pandemic, but few have managed to do so in a way that is both effective and entertaining. Horror filmmaker Andy Mitton does not join those ranks, as his film, The Harbinger, has a decent atmosphere but not the script to take advantage of it.
The movie follows a woman who breaks her family’s quarantine bubble to take care of a longtime friend having a mental breakdown, only to discover that the nightmares her friend is suffering from might be contagious. As a concept, it could have gone off the rails really quickly and become insensitive, but Mitton largely manages to avoid that.
There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout the film, and Mitton does make the most out of the claustrophobic COVID quarantine environment in which the movie is set. However, many of the scares recycle familiar imagery, like evil forces clad in the garb of a plague doctor or creepy kids with dead eyes, but it’s only all mildly creepy.
Some of the themes that Mitton explores regarding the idea of memory are intriguing, but none of it is stuff that hasn’t been done before more effectively. Indeed, the film ends up feeling reminiscent of better movies like She Dies Tomorrow and A Nightmare on Elm Street that work with similar concepts but do more with them.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the movie is that, especially for a COVID film, the characters are frustratingly vague. These are experiences and anxieties that all of us have lived through and are fresh in our minds. It is a premise that should be immediately empathetic, and yet audiences will come out of the movie feeling largely cold.
Part of the issue is that the performances all feel rather stilted. The dialogue is written in a very direct way, and the actors deliver it in a way that is even more so. Had the film leaned even further into the supernatural aspect of things, it could have possibly worked, but in its current, semi-ambiguous state, everything feels rather unnatural.
Mitton does create an atmosphere that gives the movie tension even when the rest of the film comes up short. You can tell that this is meant to be a psychological slow burn, but then there are the very overt supernatural elements spread throughout, and it doesn’t quite strike the right balance between them to be entirely believable.
The Harbinger tries to tap into a communal anxiety, but it really fails to do anything that is particularly scary. It’s not a bad film by any means — it just lacks the character development and consistency to make it interesting beyond its eeriness.
The Harbinger screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
Jordan Peele is one of the few remaining “event filmmakers” in that his name alone is enough to make any project he directs a draw. His third feature, Nope, is his biggest-budget so far, and those worrying that he would lose his sensibilities need not fear, because this is the smartest and scariest horror movie since The Thing.
Like Peele’s other films, it is nearly impossible to describe what Nope is about without spoiling the experience in some way. It’s the type of movie that is best experienced blind with as little of a preconceived notion of what it should be as possible. But it is, without a doubt, Peele’s most ambitious film yet, and it works.
Admittedly, the first act is extremely slow to start. At that point, it feels mostly like an homage to other classic sci-fi movies, and while there are some interesting ideas there, it’s not until the second act that everything begins to fall into place. There is one moment in particular in which everything basically clicks, and after that point, it is thoroughly captivating.
This is also Peele’s most thematically dense script yet. The metaphors in Get Out and Us were quite obvious, but Nope is much more nuanced and rich with its symbolism. Many viewers will likely leave the theater not quite understanding what they have just seen, but the message he has to say here is perhaps his most intriguing yet.
The character development also significantly contributes to the film’s success. Peele goes all-in on the central brother-sister relationship, and it provides a strong emotional core for the story to build off of. And surprisingly, the sidekick characters don’t feel like mere throwaways to serve as comedic relief.
Much of the praise for the cast is going to go to Keke Palmer, and while she is certainly very good in her role, the standouts are two other players in the cast. Daniel Kaluuya proves once again that he is one of the most gifted actors working today with a performance that is stolid on the surface but with a subtle vulnerability that makes it powerful. Steven Yeun is a scene-stealer as a former child star experiencing a great deal of trauma.
Peele has created what is arguably the most cinematic horror movie in years. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is fantastic, imbuing the film with a distinct Western flare. The CGI is integrated seamlessly and beautifully, with a design that is terrifyingly simplistic. Michael Abel’s score creates some wonderful tension as well.
After only three films, Jordan Peele has affirmed that he is probably the single most exciting filmmaker working in the horror genre today. Decades from now, people are going to look back at his movies, especially Nope, and hold them in the same regard as the classics.
Nope hits theaters on July 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
There have been plenty of films that have tried to capture the social media age, and many have failed to do so effectively. Quinn Shepherd’s Not Okay is the latest in the line of movies trying to put their finger on the zeitgeist, and while it takes some very big swings, almost all of them are misses.
The film follows a young woman whose little white lie of lying about being on a trip turns into a ridiculous charade when she decides to fake being the victim of a terrorist attack. It’s an undeniably crazy premise, but one that had the potential to go either horribly wrong or be absolutely brilliant.
Interestingly enough, the movie manages to avoid both of these extremes, but still has some pretty significant highs and lows. For much of the hour and forty minute runtime, it’s just straight cringe comedy as we watch the character embarrass herself repeatedly. And after a bit, it simply isn’t funny anymore.
Of course, there is nothing even remotely resembling subtlety in the film’s themes. The final act even goes so far as bashing the audience over the head with the message in a monologue. One would be lying if they didn’t admit that the final scene is at least a little bit effective, but it still feels distrusting of the audience nevertheless.
Indeed, it’s as if Shephard worried that the character she had created would be a little too likable, and those fears are warranted. Although the character never outright approaches likability, she does toy the line of sympathy thanks to some extremely mixed messaging throughout the movie. And the moral ambiguity route simply does not feel justified here.
Zoey Deutch gives it her all in her performance, and for what it’s worth, she does a solid job. She manages to be both annoying and charming, which is exactly what was needed for this role to work. And while the supporting cast is largely underutilized, Dylan O’Brien is funny in a one-note turn and Mia Isaac is much better here than in her other streaming film this month.
What the movie is really missing is a sense of style. Everything feels like a pretty standard studio comedy, and there’s no real zing to it. Giving it more of a modern flair could have helped bring more energy to the table, but it seems as if Shephard was too obsessed with the script to take the bold creative swings stylistically.
Not Okay isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it also feels somewhat misguided in its approach to its premise. Kudos to Quinn Shephard for trying to make something as complex as this, even if it didn’t always pay off.
Not Okay streams on Hulu beginning July 29.
[Fantasia 2022] WE MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD -- A Fascinating Riff on Familiar Concepts and Themes
Review by Sean Boelman
Some of the most exciting voices in genre filmmaking are the new ones, and that is the case with We Might As Well Be Dead co-writer/director Natalia Sinelnikova. Her dystopian thriller is filled to the brim with so many interesting ideas that, even when it isn’t a home run, it’s an entirely fascinating watch.
The film follows the residents of an apartment building, one of the last remnants of civilization in a collapsed future society, as their own community begins to fall apart piece by piece. It’s very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s iconic social commentary High Rise, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing to be compared to.
There is certainly a lot of social commentary to be found in the movie, and it’s admittedly a bit on the messy side. But given that this is not only Sinelnikova’s feature debut, but also a graduation project, it’s pretty dang accomplished for what it is. Some of its unevenness can be chalked up to inexperience.
If there is one thing that could have been done better about the film, it is the character development. Although the central character is compelling and has an interesting arc, the supporting characters all feel shallow and underdeveloped. Some quirky supporting characters could have gone a long way in making the world feel more immersive.
Still, Ioana Iacob’s leading performance is so exquisite that it carries the movie in its own right. She brings a lot of mystery to the role while still feeling entirely approachable. Her character is very much the audience’s lens into this uncanny world, and yet at the same time,
Sinelnikova takes a very interesting approach to the film’s world-building. Many dystopian movies take place on either a massive or minor scale, but this world is something in between. It has all of the claustrophobia of a more intimate dystopia without sacrificing the dread that is inspired by a larger-scale vision of the future.
Sinelnikova’s style certainly owes a lot to other European filmmakers that are working today — if you said that she was a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, it wouldn’t be surprising — but the vision with which she approaches this slightly familiar concept and mood is what heralds her as an exciting new voice in filmmaking.
We Might As Well Be Dead may not have the most original concept, but the way in which it is executed works extraordinarily well. It will be exciting to see what Sinelnikova does next as she is able to rein things in a bit further.
We Might As Well Be Dead screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
[Fantasia 2022] FAST & FEEL LOVE -- The Best Cup Stacking Movie You Will Ever See
Review by Sean Boelman
There are sports movies about pretty much any sport you could think of, including, apparently, speed stacking. Yet while Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Fast & Feel Love promises to be the most absurd sports movie ever made, it’s actually an unexpectedly poignant and heartfelt coming-of-age story.
The film follows a world champion cup stacker who is dumped by his longtime girlfriend in the lead-up to a life-changing tournament, forcing him to learn to take care of himself quickly or lose out on the opportunity of a lifetime. On one hand, the character’s arc feels generic, but the cup stacking twist gives it an entirely new direction that feels extremely creative.
Like many Asian comedies, the movie does run on for about twenty minutes too long. There are some recurring gags and repeated emotional beats that could have been cut to tighten up the narrative a bit. Still, the wholesome, goofy sense of humor is infectious and goes a long way in making the film work.
Beneath all of the sports comedy, there is a genuinely poignant movie here about growing up and growing old. We all like to hold onto the remnants of our youth in one way or another, and it manifests in different ways with each person. The most effective parts of this film are those which explore the protagonist and his love interest coping with growing older.
It is shocking how good the character development in the movie is. After all, who cares about a literal manchild stacking cups, right? But Thamrongrattanarit treats his characters with so much empathy despite their inherent absurdity that one can’t help but feel invested in the film as if it was a genuine underdog story.
Nat Kitcharit’s performance is certainly very charming. He plays a character that is very immature in nature, but he never approaches the role in a way that feels infantile or condescending. In other words, it never feels as if we are laughing at the protagonist, but with him.
There are certainly some portions of the movie that look a bit generic in their attempt to parody or pay homage to the tropes of sports movies, but these can be forgiven because of their purpose. The most impressive part of the film’s execution is how exciting Thamrongrattanarit manages to make the sport of cup stacking look despite the cups… er, cards being stacked against it.
Fast & Feel Love could have been a ridiculous little comedy, but what we got was a movie that is much more poignant and profound. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that the film is about cup stacking — this is something legitimately special.
Fast & Feel Love screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
Review by Sean Boelman
Executive produced by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, Emma Kawada’s directorial debut My Small Land debuted at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival and is now playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival. And while Fantasia is primarily known for featuring genre cinema, this is one of the most extraordinary dramas you will see all year.
The film tells the story of a Kurdish refugee teen living in Japan with a life that is looking up when her family’s asylum status is revoked and her father is arrested for illegal employment. It’s a very powerful slice-of-life movie that benefits from using its intimate story to paint a much bigger picture.
Unlike a lot of films about immigration, this movie does not aim for the jugular. Instead, it quietly creeps under your skin by showing you how the protagonist’s world is slowly falling apart piece by piece. And the fact that she is experiencing this universal coming-of-age while having to deal with these very painful issues at the same time makes it subtly heartbreaking.
The issue of immigration is one that is often thought of from an Americentric standpoint, but Kawawada’s film serves as an important reminder of the fact that this is very much a global problem. It really puts into context the gravity of the situation when you are able to see these intimate stories about real people being affected around the world.
Wisely, Kawawada focuses primarily on the protagonist rather than her entire family unit. The result is a movie that feels much more personal. While her relationships with her father and siblings are an important part of her story, it is just that — her story, the story of an immigrant whose life is being torn apart by an unjust system.
Lina Arashi’s performance in the leading role is simply extraordinary. It’s her first credited screen role and yet she brings an enormous amount of restraint to her character. This role required her to have a very precise balance of maturity and innocence to make the character feel believable, and she absolutely pulls it off.
There is a very warm lighting throughout the film that seems to represent the motif of opportunity. It’s a movie that is shot very beautifully and naturally, and it lends itself to this particular story. The restraint that Kawawada shows in her feature debut is noteworthy and allows it to have an even greater impact.
My Small Land is an accomplished and promising debut from new director Emma Kawada. It tackles a very important global issue from a perspective that feels both meaningful and unique, allowing it to be a standout in terms of films about immigration.
My Small Land screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
It's no secret that George Lucas revolutionized filmmaking with the formation of Industrial Light and Magic in the '70s when he made Star Wars. The surprise is how it caught on so fast with some of his fellow constituents like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and James Cameron. Today ILM is an everyday part of making films.
This six-part documentary has a lot of talking heads. It is a way to explain what happened during the early days of ILM and how the company changed over the years. George Lucas relied on friends and fellow industry members to start this fledgling company. Members like John Dykstra, Phil Tippett, Joe Johnston, and Dennis Murren are affectionately called The Gang of Outsiders. These men would be the backbone of a visual effects company that changed the industry as we know it.
These men and eventually some women — Jean Bolte, Ellen Poon, and others — helped the Star Wars films become some of the best regarding visual effects, puppetry, miniatures, and clay modeling. This is a far cry from the days of American Zoetrope. The company Lucas formed with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
As a kid, I watched films like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. These films benefited the most from the men and women of ILM. Mixing different visual styles helped make these films new, original, and innovative. What ILM was doing was groundbreaking at the time. They even won Academy Awards in a new category in the early 80s.
Men like John Knoll, Steve "Spaz" Williams, and Mark Dippe brought a new aspect to ILM. They started implementing computers into the effects work they were doing. Led by Jim Morris, this new part of ILM changed this for the better. Scenes in films like Willow where a woman changes shape from various birds and mammals and later The Abyss and T2 created this new digital compositing which made water come to life and the shape-shifting T-1000, played by Robert Patrick.
Computers we're now the way of the future. ILM had a Pixar division that worked on films that needed this kind of work. And other equipment, such as a Three Dimensional Projector, helped bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park. However, this caused problems for people on the more physical side of ILM, such as the modeling and miniatures & sculpting departments. This wasn't the first time men and women were let go at ILM, but it would be the last.
New projectors in theaters were now a realistic part of how these new digital visual effects were implemented in theaters. This made the viewing experience much better for people going to the cinema. Lucas finally had the technology to do his much-talked-about prequels. The films warrant critical successes, but the visual effects were very popular. The various scenes melded all kinds of technology that ILM created. Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), and other filmmakers made these innovations a part of everyday filmmaking.
When it comes to filmmaking, ILM has changed the way we as viewers think about and experience films in and out of theaters. George Lucas had a dream of making films he wanted to watch and see. Film people could be amazed by, and Star Wars started that out. ILM literally brought the light and the magic to film and how they are made. His friends and, eventually, colleagues would take this company and run with it, even forming an offshoot of it called Pixar, which was sold for 57 million dollars. We all know what happened next with Pixar.
Say whatever you want about George Lucas as a filmmaker, but what he created with ILM and how Lawrence Kasden, a frequent collaborator of Lucas's, depicted this story is pretty damn good. The talking heads worked well in the film, but adding all the various archival footage and CGI effects helped make ILM what it is today. This is the real legacy that Lucas will leave behind as a filmmaker and creator.
Light & Magic debuts on Disney+ on July 27. All six episodes reviewed.