Review by Sean Boelman
The Japanese thriller #Manhole debuted at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival before making a stop at this year’s Fantasia. The film is at its best when it sticks to the basics, taking advantage of its simple, chilling premise, but is held back by a third act that will throw viewers off with its somewhat outlandish ending.
In what might be the most literal premise one can think of, the movie follows a man who struggles to survive after falling into a manhole. Over the course of the runtime, the protagonist faces lots of obstacles that present threats other than mere starvation. Although the character does some less-than-savory things in a desperate attempt to find help, viewers will understand because of his situation.
Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri shoots the film in a way that is undeniably tense. There are some really interesting sequences — including one in which the manhole slowly fills from the bottom — that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. Kumakiri does a great job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety through the cinematography and the soundtrack, which features some weird but effective choices.
For those who are wondering, as any reasonable viewer would, why there is a hashtag in the movie’s title, it’s not just in the hopes that the film will go trending on social media. The second act of the movie — its most interesting portion by far — offers an intriguing exploration (perhaps even an indictment) of the online culture that causes stories like this to be heavily sensationalized.
For the first hour or so of the film, it seems like #Manhole is just going to be the man trying to escape from the manhole, and this would have made for a pretty compelling movie in its own right. There have been plenty of one-note thrillers that have been effective, but this film fumbles its attempts to be something more.
Unfortunately, the film goes into much more out-there territory in the final third, changing it from a high-concept survival thriller into a much more convoluted mystery. It’s almost as if writer Michitaka Okada didn’t believe there was enough substance there to sustain a feature runtime. The level of suspension of disbelief that Okada asks of the audience is simply a bit too much.
#Manhole also struggles with its character development. It’s clear that the film wants to subvert the audience’s expectations, but as is the case with almost everything else in the movie, the characterization is taken to such an extreme that it will cause the viewer to become disillusioned with the story.
Admittedly, #Manhole goes off the rails so much in its final act that it almost ruins what was a very solid thriller that came before. Still, even if the script takes a massive swing and a miss, there’s no denying that the film is a tense, enjoyable thriller despite going too wacky for its own good.
#Manhole screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.
Review by Daniel Lima
For the past decade, Kensuke Sonomura has made a name for himself as one of the best action choreographers today. Working in television, video games, and film, he has a penchant for delivering wildly creative set pieces, utilizing a diverse array of styles to build action scenes that actually tell a story. While his first directorial effort Hydra was an indie drama that happened to have a couple good fights, Bad City is a throwback to classic Japanese genre cinema, and stands among the year’s best action movies.
Set in the fictional Kaiko City, a den of crime and corruption, the film follows the efforts of a hand-picked team of special investigators as they attempt to take down the local kingpin. Their efforts run afoul of the Yakuza, a Korean gang that has entrenched itself in the city, and the government officials on their payroll. It’s a volatile situation — one that provides ample opportunity for some jaw-dropping, blistering brawls.
This film is in conversation with the V-cinema of the 1990s. At the time when the Japanese theatrical market was cratering, studios took notice of the home video market, and began producing films catering to the interest of video store customers. In contrast to the stately historical dramas and crime epics that were failing at the box office, these films boasted runtimes rarely above an hour, and were packed to the brim with gore and violence. Careers were built on the back of these horror and action films, including those of Bad City star Hitoshi Ozawa.
Perhaps best known today for his role in the Yakuza video game series, Ozawa was known for playing bruisers and thugs in a number of B-movies through the decades. Here, he plays a hard-boiled cop, released on parole for a murder conviction to lead up the investigative task force. Even in his sixties, he exudes a commanding, threatening air, and gives a magnetic performance. The rest of the ensemble is commendable, particularly Akane Sakanoue as a green detective, but it’s his presence that makes the most impact. That he manages to be just as forceful through the tremendous action scenes — with no stunt doubles at that — is even more impressive.
Sonomura’s choreography has always been precise and technical, almost clinically so, often combining striking with grappling and weapons work in incredibly complex displays of what the human body can do. Bad City is no different, but befitting the gritty crime story that the film is, the action maintains the feel of a street brawl. The action is clear, and the space the action takes place in is always established before the fists start flying, but Sonomura adopts a more obvious handheld style to lend the fights more immediacy. Just about every fight is a chaotic and frantic affair with a dozen participants, with the protagonists forced to adapt to and control an ever-changing battlefield.
The choreography reflects this, with characters focused on gaining leverage over their opponents, taking them on one at a time, taking them out as quickly and efficiently as possible. The result is almost too beautiful to put into words, with bodies contorting themselves into increasingly complex configurations, as everyone lets loose dangerous-looking power blows. As brutal as it looks, it remains every bit as fluid and dynamic as any of Sonomura's previous work. That it maintains this level of complexity while still incorporating beats within the action, moments in which the momentum of a fight shifts and a narrative is conveyed through physical movement, is simply sublime. It’s exhilarating to watch, with a climax in contention for the best action set piece of the year.
If there’s one great failing of the film, however, it’s that it doesn’t take enough inspiration from its influences. Where classic V-cinema was practically defined by short runtimes that favored genre thrills above all else, the drama of this film is almost as complex as the action choreography, with numerous players, motives, and machinations all competing for the audience’s attention. Sonomura proves to have the same command of rhythm and visual language in staging these scenes that he does in the fights, so none of it is taxing to sit through. Much of this, however, feels superfluous to the actual meat of the story, with too much time spent fleshing out characters who never even interact with the bulk of the cast. One can easily imagine a more streamlined version of this movie that excises this fluff, and that version could have been an all-time action classic.
As it stands, Bad City is still a solid entry into the modern action canon, with a level of ingenuity that far surpasses the expensive blockbusters of today. A more concise narrative would have been appreciated, but when action filmmaking craft is operating at this level, it’s hard to be too bothered. Whatever Kensuke Sonomura does next, one can only hope that he delivers something as exciting as this.
Bad City releases on VOD August 1.
Review by Daniel Lima
It’s always disappointing to see a fantastic premise squandered. Based on a children’s book, The Furry Fortune had amazing potential as an odd, light-hearted, high-concept family film. That potential goes unrealized. Even by the standards of low-budget family entertainment, this is one of the shoddiest, laziest attempts at a comedy I’ve had the furry misfortune of watching.
A young brother and sister discover that the family dog has suddenly begun to shed money when it is happy. As the down-on-their-luck family begins to enjoy this infinite money exploit, they draw the ire of their new neighbors, a jerk IRS agent and his jerk son. As wondrous as the canine’s ability is, however, it might prove that his greatest superpower is how he brings the family together.
This is a crowdfunded family-friendly indie, and its meager budget certainly shows. A low budget is not an inherently bad thing, but the days of an ultra low-budget movie like Manos: The Hands of Fate — when the restrictions of shooting on film required a certain amount of forethought and consideration simply to capture an image — have since passed. In the age where the raw capture of a digital sensor is considered good enough, a film like The Furry Fortune seemingly cannot afford simple film craft like framing, blocking, and lighting.
There is no visual ingenuity beyond keeping people in frame and in focus, no attempt to communicate a story visually, much less attempt visual comedy. The blandness calls attention to the awful production design, which makes the supposedly beleaguered but lived-in family home look like the two-day studio rental space it probably is. The result is a film with the misé-en-scene of an early morning infomercial.
Worse still is the editing. This is an alleged comedy, and so the camera often lingers a beat or two longer on every joke than it ought to, almost as if to give the audience time to laugh. This approach actively undermines the jokes, giving them nothing but dead air to die on, rather than establishing a defined and deliberate rhythm that would accentuate all the zingers. All that empty space leads to the film — only eighty-six minutes including credits — feeling crushingly, agonizingly long.
It doesn’t help that precious little actually happens. Rather than focus on the magic dog that sheds money himself, The Furry Fortune is structured around the hijinks that the magic dog inspires, which boils down to montages where the family buys stuff, hides money, and the neighbors investigate the family. For a movie about a dog that sheds money, the film is studiously unimaginative in teasing out that scenario, which makes it feel like even more of a slog.
As poor as all the fundamental craft elements are, if the film actually managed to land a joke here and there, that wouldn’t be an issue. Sadly, even by the low standards of direct-to-video family entertainment, this is a pointedly laughless affair. Almost every line is an attempt at a joke, be it classic setup-punchline, pop culture reference, or just outsized delivery. Each is a resounding dud: the traditional jokes are the kind of tired, hack material you’d expect from a parody of family entertainment (one cutting jibe is “pineapple doesn’t go on pizza!”), the references are out of place and remind you of better ways you could spend your time, and the hammy performances quickly become irritating. Comedy is subjective, but it’s hard to imagine someone writing this and being satisfied, much less seeing it through to completion as-is.
As torturous as sitting through this film was, there have been theatrically released studio comedies this year, with many times the resources of an indie like this, that are just as devoid of film craft and comic sensibility. It costs nothing, however, to write a good joke, or maintain a tight edit, or at least put the cute dog front and center. Instead, The Furry Fortune settles for putting in the least amount of effort at every turn, and the result is a plodding, uninspired, embarrassing attempt at family fun. The only possible audience for something like this is parents who need something for their kids to watch, and who also hate their kids.
The Furry Fortune is available on VOD beginning August 1st.
WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKERS DYNASTY (Season 2) -- Season Two Doesn't Hold Back The Dirt on the Lakers Players, Management, or Owners' Past
Review by Dan Skip Allen
The second season of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty focuses on more of the leaner years for the Lakers during this time in their storied history. The years, 1980 & 1982, of winning the NBA Championship were over, and constant problems were on the horizon for the purple and gold-clad team from Los Angeles.
The Lakers were on a high after their two championship seasons, but things started to unravel for them. Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) was alienating the team with his crazy offense. It didn't allow Magic (Quincy Isaiah) to shine the way he was used to. A problem with a leg injury caused issues with him and his teammates. Combined with a huge salary increase from his father figure and Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), you have the makings of a tumultuous time for the Showtime Lakers. This wasn't an easy time to be the daughter of Jerry Buss, either, as Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) frequently found out.
Season 2 of Winning Time is a bit more disjointed than season one was. Showtime was in full swing in season 1, but it had some cracks that didn't have time to heal in season 2. The writing is solid, but when the truth is out there, it's hard to change much from that original story. These Lakers and the owner were everywhere at this time. They were on television, in magazines, and in newspapers. They couldn't get out of the limelight for one minute to breathe. That was a problem. The partying and high life caught up to them. The writing captured all the dirty laundry in full effect.
There was a parallel storyline going on in season 2 that I was glad to see: the story of the rivalry between Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) and Jerry Buss, as well as Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) and Magic Johnson. The Celtics and Lakers rivalry made the NBA what it became in the ‘80s, and it's because of these men. They all had huge egos, and they wanted to win and make the others lose and be pissed off for another year while they stewed in their juices. One episode in particular, "The Second Coming," focused on Larry Bird almost the entire time. It showed how badly he, Auerbach, and the Boston Celtics wanted to win. Patrick Small is still amazing as Bird as well.
There are a few techniques that the showrunners used, similar to season one, that make the show different from other shows. They use archival footage of famous games inter-spliced with footage they shot on a recreation of the actual courts these teams played on. This showed viewers how these events happened in the real-world scenario. Also, not as much in season 2 as in season 1, but still occasionally, there was some breaking of the fourth wall. This is mostly by Isiah's character of Magic Johnson, and a few times with Brody's character of Pat Reilly to give viewers a little information where it is needed.
The film grain is also a key to make this show look like it takes place during this time. Various film reel tricks of fast-forwarding or going back in time in flashbacks helped show the motivations of the characters in the series. I guess it looked like an old camera reel, with skips and the sides showing. Information was also put on screen, like years and dates, but one funny thing was the line "this actually happened" to show how some of the events were filmed in real-time. This show uses many tricks to tell its story, and I enjoyed all of them.
With a show and cast as vast as this, you have to talk about some of the bigger names that played a big part in these events. Jason Clarke is Jerry West, Solomon Hughes is Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Spencer Garrett plays the legendary announcer of the Lakers, Chick Hearn. This cast is vast, and everybody pulled their weight and were given their moments to shine.
The series used a lot of music in the credits and opening sequences to elicit a response from viewers, such as songs by The Who and Willie Nelson. A rap song in the credits produced by Nicholas Britell and sung by Robert Gaspar was powerful. They did the opening credits song in the first season as well. The music plays into all the emotions characters are feeling, and all the songs work on their own for the show.
What I was glad of while watching season 2 of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty was that Adam McKay and the showrunners didn't sugarcoat anything regarding all the bad stuff that happened to various characters in this era. This is what makes this show work so well. It doesn't hold back all the dirty stuff in these people's lives. Season 2 isn't as glamorous as season 1, but it has much more drama on and off the court. The cast brings everything they have in their power to show how bad it was during this time in the Lakers’ history. Add in a rivalry that will forever be remembered in annals of time, with Larry Bird, Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics — which I loved — and you have another solid season of this series. It’s not quite as good as season 1, but still very good.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty debuts on HBO on August 6 at 9pm ET/PT. All seven episodes reviewed.
Review by Cole Groth
Netflix’s latest animation, The Monkey King, is frankly pretty forgettable. From the opening frame, any expectations I had going into it were smoothed out, as the cheap-looking animation is immediately present. A by-the-numbers fantasy story keeps this from feeling like anything special, but it’s at least fun enough while watching to leave a positive, if faint, impression.
With an all-star Asian cast featuring the voices of Jimmy O. Yang, Bowen Yang, Jo Kay, BD Wong, and Stephanie Hsu, The Monkey King tells the story of a super-powered monkey trying to climb his way up to status as an Immortal. Unfortunately for him, an evil water dragon seeks to thwart his quest, forcing the monkey to overcome his weaknesses on an epic adventure. Clearly, this plot isn’t anything special. If you’ve seen one of these fantasy/adventure movies, you’ll be well aware of all the beats here. Thankfully, like those movies, this one is satisfying. It’s hard to not have fun as the story progresses, and it’s clear that this will succeed with families.
The Monkey King’s biggest weakness is easily its animation. There’s something unsettling about the smooth skin of every character and the intense elasticity of their animations. There’s a sequence where the animation shifts from 3D to 2D, and it almost feels like it shouldn’t have been included because it shows what we could’ve gotten: style. The studio behind this, Pearl Studio, is responsible for a string of well-received animated movies, including Kung Fu Panda 3, Abominable, and Over the Moon. Still, this lacks any defined vision and will struggle to stand out among other outsourced animated films.
Looking past the technical elements, there are tons of hilarious moments that children will enjoy. Jimmy O. Yang and Bowen Yang bring a lot to their performances and use their comedic talents to give their characters life. Jolie Jiang-Rappaport’s performance as Lin is pretty remarkable as a debut voice-acting performance as well. Her character of Lin gives a lot of necessary balance to a story that would otherwise feel completely one note. The script is pretty funny, and it all moves at a fast enough pace to keep this from feeling like a slog.
Netflix has to shovel content out to the masses, and with their style being more focused on quantity over quality, stuff like The Monkey King ends up rising to the top. That’s not a great thing. Films like these are missing a spark and beg to have a true purpose. This has the workings of a decent movie, bar the cheap animation, but it doesn’t feel like it has any central vision, moving along at a series of pre-defined beats without a true reason to exist.
For each serious criticism I have for The Monkey King, there are a few minor positives. While the individual pieces that make this up are a mixed bag on their own, this is certainly good more often than it’s bad. At worst, it’s inoffensive, poorly-animated, and quick. At best, it’s a fun time with good jokes, solid voice acting, and a great pace. This won’t stand out as the best of the year, but if Netflix needs to churn out dozens of films a year, at least films like these aren’t awful.
The Monkey King releases on Netflix on August 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Grame Arnfield’s experimental video essay documentary Home Invasion debuted at this year’s Berlinale, and is now playing at Fantasia, hoping to unsettle adventurous festival-goers. Although the film starts extremely well, it quickly loses its steam when it diverts its focus from the reason many viewers were likely drawn to its premise.
Home Invasion explores the history and meaning of the doorbell, from its invention through labor movements, cinema history, and the modern online world. The movie is billed as part experimental horror film and part video essay, and while that description is accurate, it would have been much more effective if those two genres didn’t feel like such disparate parts within the movie.
The entire film is shot with a distorted iris effect, as though we are watching through a peephole or doorbell camera. Of course, much of the footage is actual doorbell cam footage — but this effect is also applied to the archive materials and the on-screen captions used in lieu of narration. It’s a stylistic approach that makes sense considering the subject matter, but may be off-putting to some. (It is also worth noting that there are some grammatical errors in the text, which reduces some of the movie’s effectiveness.)
The first third of the film is absolutely fascinating. We begin with a discussion of the invention of the first doorbell camera, before transitioning into the more modern versions that we know as Ring doorbells — as the company has such a near-monopoly on the market. Here, Arnfield asks some interesting questions about whether Ring is a hardware company or a surveillance company that watches over the world constantly like Big Brother.
For the first thirty minutes, the movie is wholly unsettling. It’s the type of minimalistic, dread-inducing film that had the potential to be this year’s Skinamarink. The score is grating (in a good way), and the ominous use of the Ring tone will send shivers down your spine. Even when the footage being presented is something innocuous, or even funny or cute, we begin to feel a voyeuristic sort of anxiety.
Unfortunately, Arnfield is unable to keep up this momentum. The middle third of the movie turns into a cinema history essay of sorts, where Arnfield explores the history of the home invasion genre in film, before the final third begins to tell the story of the Luddites using drawings. Although the thematic connection between the three sections is evident, Arnfield does not do a good enough job of weaving them together narratively.
The movie does offer an often interesting examination of the role that fear-mongering plays in our society; however, its discussion of the goods and evils of technology is much less compelling. Especially considering the fact that the film was almost entirely made within software. Eventually, the movie starts to feel like a rant more than a video essay.
Home Invasion is an intriguing video essay that will certainly make you think, but it’s not an entirely rewarding or satisfying cinematic experience. Had the film been able to keep up the undeniably eerie momentum of the first third throughout its entire runtime, it would have been great. As is, it’s a bit underwhelming.
Home Invasion screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.
[Fantasia 2023] RIVER -- A Charming Time Loop Comedy From the Team Behind BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES
Review by Sean Boelman
Director Junta Yamaguchi and writer Makoto Ueda’s first film Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes took Fantasia by storm when it played there in 2021, and now their second team up, River, brings them back to the festival two years later. While not as strong as the duo’s first effort, River is still a crowd-pleasing sci-fi comedy.
The movie follows the visitors and staff of a riverside inn as they find themselves stuck in a time loop, where everyone resets to their initial positions every two minutes, but keeps their memories. Like Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, River is a charming little high concept sci-fi despite its occasional contrivances and conveniences.
For the first third of the film, it can be a bit grating as it’s stuck firmly in “we have to tell everyone what is happening” mode. Admittedly, this is where the movie’s commitment to some semblance of reality drags it down. Ueda clearly wants this to feel like what people would do if time machines did exist, and while explaining it a million times to different people is probably what would happen, that doesn’t mean it's particularly cinematic.
Thankfully, the film eventually runs out of characters for exposition to be delivered to, and this is where the movie gets really charming and interesting. It’s interesting to see how the different characters begin to react to their circumstances. Some put their heads together to find a solution, others embrace it and try to live in the moment, and one even gets extremely nihilistic.
For the most part, the film feels very sweet and wholesome. Although there are a couple moments in which Yamaguchi leans into the darker potential of the premise, even these bits are delivered in a tongue-in-cheek way. There’s a romantic subplot that, while not super prevalent, adds a lot of humanity to the story.
Ueda’s script thrives in its ability to give us an ensemble of characters that feel surprisingly fleshed out for a movie that’s under an hour and a half in length. While they may start out as archetypes, the various “cycles” that we go through in the movie allow the audience to peel back the layers of their personalities in a way that is quite interesting.
Although the film is very low-budget, Yamaguchi manages to make the most of his limitations. The cinematography, while having an extremely digital feel to it, is extremely fluid for its two-minute takes. And perhaps most impressive is his command of blocking and geography, which give the movie a much-needed feeling of motion.
River arguably swings bigger than Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, and while it’s not as effective, it’s certainly charming. The duo of Yamaguchi and Ueda have cemented themselves as two of the most exciting voices working in Japanese independent cinema today, and genre fans will be waiting eagerly to see what they do next.
River screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.
Review by Joseph Fayed
Characters breaking free from the normalcy that plagues them serves as a basis for most indie road trip dramas that earn rave reviews at film festivals these days. Between the beautiful scenery lies an interesting character study. The Unknown Country draws you in through the former, but leaves you disappointed in how the latter was overlooked.
The film follows Tana (Lily Gladstone) is invited to her cousin's wedding. After reconnecting with her family, Tana decides the best way to honor her late grandmother's legacy is to continue traveling and retrace her grandmother's steps. Along the way, she meets a variety of people from different walks of life who define her journey.
A filmmaking technique that worked well in the films favor was the hybrid style narrative approach featuring non-professional actors in supporting roles. They are the backdrop of this film. Every time Tana departs somewhere, we learn their backstory. These moments serve their purpose in explaining their lives in the actual small towns parts of the film were shot in. The catalyst of this film is supposed to be Tana's grandmother's death, but her unorthodox journey takes its focus away from that. The shift in highlighting the people Tana meets along the way gives much more to anticipate than a single course of action like honoring her grandmother.
Lily Gladstone is a bright light with her performance. Her desire to connect with others or reconnect with her family through times of isolation is what elevates her performance. While I appreciate this, there are definitely parts of the film that needed more of her character. The glimpses of humanity we see from this cast are just glimpses. The lack of dialogue Gladstone has in these scenes is upsetting because her on screen presence indicates she wants to engage more with who she encounters, but she instead becomes secondary to them, mainly listening to what they have to say, but rarely chiming in. Each supporting cast member is given their own monologue, so Tana's reduced dialogue seems counterproductive here.
The Unknown Country is part of the new wave of minimalist cinema. These types of films often explore a region overlooked by mainstream media, unless a tragedy of some sort happens. Like every place in the world, there are moments that remind us that the core of humanity still exists. Tana's road trip may not be particularly exciting to watch, but there is interest that makes up for it in the stories the characters she meets have to tell. There's no Frances McDormand using a bucket as a toilet, like in Nomadland, but what those two films do have in common is showing you how to approach living in the moment when what tomorrow holds is uncertain.
The Unknown Country is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
When one thinks of indie filmmaking, sci-fi probably isn’t the first genre that pops to mind, but several filmmakers in recent years have tried their hand at telling sci-fi stories on a shoestring budget. Jared Moshé’s Aporia takes its unique premise and creates a compelling, if flawed film that’s generally more effective as a drama than it is as a dense science fiction tale.
The film follows a widow who, with the help of her late husband’s best friend, realizes that there is a way to bring her husband back using a time machine — only to set off a web of impossible choices. And while one might expect a somewhat standard time travel flick from this premise, Moshé manages to put an interesting spin on the genre’s tropes.
Moshé’s script definitely takes some time to get moving. The first act is a bit rough, as Moshé struggles to set everything up about the characters, premise, and world — falling back on exposition a bit too often for his own good. But after this is all out of the way, viewers will be able to get more invested in the story.
One area in which the film greatly succeeds is giving the audience several characters about whom we are able to genuinely care. While the character motivations are a tad on the generic side — it’s another genre film about grief, as if we didn’t have enough of those — the sincerity with which it approaches these emotions allows the film to resonate nonetheless.
The visuals of the film are clearly lower-budget than most sci-fi films, but director Jared Moshé manages to make the most out of it. The film brings the work of other filmmakers like Moorhead and Benson or Shane Carruth, where it deals with these big concepts but in a way that is extremely character-driven and feels like it could genuinely happen in our world.
As is the case with many lo-fi sci-fi movies, the primary focus of Aporia is firmly on asking big, philosophical questions. And while some of these are thought-provoking, many of them are the same themes that have been explored more effectively in better films — like the ethicality of taking one life to save several. Other questions posed by the film mean well, but are head-scratchingly regressive if you begin to fully dissect them.
As usual, Judy Greer manages to single-handedly elevate the film with an extraordinary performance, despite material that is somewhat uneven. Particularly in the final third of the film, where the emotions she experiences are much more complex and nuanced, she’s absolutely gripping. Surprisingly, no one in the supporting cast — even the exceptional Iranian actor Payman Maadi — is able to ascend beyond the script’s melodramatic leanings.
Aporia gets off to a bit of a rough start, and has a few stumbles along the way, but it’s still mostly charming as a scrappy indie sci-fi movie. Strong performances and a whole-hearted commitment to the film’s emotional core will ensure that audiences are won over by the time the credits roll.
Aporia screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.
Review by Sean Boelman
Gina Gammell and Riley Keough’s directorial debut War Pony debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but went relatively under the radar until earlier this year, when it played at SXSW. War Pony is one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the year so far, exploring its themes in a way that is certainly difficult to watch, but still feels tremendously necessary.
The film follows two Ogala Lakota young men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation — one a teenager trying to set himself back on the straight path, and another a younger boy who keeps finding his way into trouble. Although the movie hits some familiar coming-of-age beats, and leans heavily on tragedy, it never feels like it simply exists for the purpose of pulling on the viewer’s heart-strings.
War Pony is certainly upsetting, but it isn’t because of anything it shows being particularly gratuitous. Instead, it is the fact that we are watching the disturbing and bleak reality of how disadvantaged youth — particularly Native disadvantaged youth — are treated in this nation. It will never not be upsetting to watch kids making bad choices and being mistreated, but the world’s attention must be called to these issues.
In showing these boys’ life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the film explores many of the issues that these youth go through. The most compelling theme is arguably the exploitation of the Native youth by the nearby white community, but there are also some interesting bits about cultural identity and the role of masculinity in Native American communities.
What is most impressive about this movie is how amazingly balanced its character development feels. Usually in films with interconnecting stories like this, there’s one side that feels dominant, and the other feels like an accent. Here, audiences will consistently feel intense emotions about both storylines, and when they come together, it’s quite heartbreaking.
War Pony features what deserves to be two star-making performances from Jojo Baptiese Whiting and Ladainian Crazy Thunder. Interestingly, the two give turns that feel like a perfect complement to one another. While Whiting gives a harsh performance with elements of humanity shining through, Crazy Thunder has much more of a tough facade with a clearer humanistic undercurrent. Both performances are truly devastating.
For this to be the directorial debut of both Gammell and Keough, the movie is stunningly confident from an aesthetic standpoint. The film’s use of juxtaposition is brilliant. There are hip hop songs against tribal chants, beautiful shots of cars weaving through the plains, and images of industrial development against the natural beauty of the land. It has an awe-inspiring, provocative effect.
War Pony is the type of subtly harrowing movie that will stick with you for a long time. You will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable and voyeuristic while watching it, but that’s the mark of an exceptionally challenging and effectively provocative film.
War Pony hits theaters and VOD on July 28.