Review by Sean Boelman
Co-written and directed by Tom Dolby, The Artist’s Wife is the type of star-driven, adult-oriented drama that just screams “awards bait”. Yet despite the film’s frequent attempts at pandering, the movie still works thanks to the power of its lead performances by Lena Olin and Bruce Dern.
The film tells the story of the wife of an acclaimed artist as she begins to doubt herself and her relationship when her husband begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Although the topics of aging and dementia are nothing new to the older-leaning genre, this movie brings a unique perspective to it, and as a result, it works surprisingly well.
As the title would suggest, rather than focusing on the artist who is experiencing Alzheimer’s, this film is more about his wife, who serves as his companion and caretaker. It is rare that a movie so accurately captures the emotions of what it feels like to slowly be losing a loved one, but the script by Dolby, Nicole Brendig, and Abdi Nazemian easily accomplishes this.
The film admittedly is a bit excessive in regards to how it portrays Alzheimer’s disease itself (the scenes that deal with the character’s episodes are disappointingly rooted in stereotypes about the disease), sometimes to the point of feeling insincere. A lot of the scenes that are supposed to be resonant instead end up feeling like they are simply trying to be tear-jerking.
The scenes that are actually most effective are those that explore the relationship between the two leads. When the movie is addressing the tension that exists between the characters resulting from the diagnosis, it feels honest and heartfelt. Most viewers will already sympathize with the characters, so anything else is overkill.
That said, Olin and Dern are able to take these uneven characters and turn them into something more human. Dern’s performance is very focused on one thing, and he does a good job of it, but it is Olin who steals the spotlight with her more nuanced turn. There’s a lot of subtlety in the script and Olin is thankfully able to pick up on it and accentuate it.
On a technical level, Dolby’s film is mostly solid, if about as safe as everything else in the execution. The cinematography is upscale and elegant, but given the fact that the movie is supposedly rooted in art, it would have been nice to see Dolby do something a bit more ambitious with the visuals. As is, this script would have been just as good (if not better) performed on stage than in front of the camera.
The script of The Artist’s Wife had some interesting ideas, but needed some additional work. However, great performances elevate what could have otherwise been a disappointment into a mostly likable watch.
The Artist’s Wife hits theaters and VOD on September 25.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are movies that are awkwardly funny, and then there are movies that are so awkward that they become uncomfortable, making watching the film feel like a voyeuristic experience, and that is definitely the case with Miranda July’s dark comedy Kajillionaire. Unmistakably and sometimes off-puttingly quirky, July’s movie is both hard-to-watch and unexpectedly rewarding.
The film follows a woman living with her con-artist family as their unorthodox style of life is threatened by the arrival of an outsider who threatens to change the way they do things. It’s part dysfunctional family comedy, part heist movie, and part existential crisis drama, and while these things don’t always mesh together seamlessly, it’s a movie that never ceases to perplex with its very unusual blend of tones and genres.
It’s definitely a messy script, but a lot of its charm lies in its chaos. Much like the film’s characters, the story isn’t meant to be tidy and neat. Rather, it challenges the viewer’s understanding and expectations of the narrative by presenting characters that defy traditional standards of approachability yet still somehow feel sympathetic.
July’s approach to her characters is also very unusual. While definitely not mocking, it’s also not coming from a place of complete altruism either. The movie seems to have a fascination with their way of life, not in a way that wants to learn about it, but in a way that wants to observe it from a distance. The audience is meant to pity these characters, not accept them, which almost feels a bit exploitative.
Yet for a film that is so unabashedly weird, the messaging is extremely direct. The themes and motifs throughout the movie are presented in a way that isn’t subtle whatsoever. The finale is particularly unambiguous, with expositional dialogue telling the audience what they should take away from the final act.
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance is definitely multi-layered, and there are some things that work really well about it and others that don’t. There is a lot of emotion in her performance, but the accent she uses is distracting to a point that it almost becomes hard to buy into it. On the other hand, Richard Jenkins, Gina Rodriguez, and Debra Winger are more consistently impressive.
Visually, the film feels adequately grimey, given the down-and-dirty feel of the script, but there’s also a lot of energy and enthusiasm there. It does a great job of feeling gross even though it doesn’t depict anything particularly disgusting (apart from an oozing wall that will shake some viewers to their core).
It’s hard to describe exactly why Kajillionaire works, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is still very charming in an unexpected way. For better or worse, Miranda July has made one of the most intriguing and confounding movies of the year.
Kajillionaire opens in theaters on September 25.
Review by Sean Boelman
Like a blend of a Disney princess movie and a superhero flick, Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is exactly the type of action-packed entertainment that Millennials and early Gen Zers would have loved to see when they were growing up. And while its production qualities and world-building were likely more fit for a series than a feature-length film, it’s still an enormously entertaining watch.
The movie follows a teenage princess who discovers that she has superpowers gifted to her by a gene exclusive to second-born children of royal bloodlines as she is recruited into a training program designed to prepare her to protect her kingdom and the world. More than anything, this feels like the first half of an origin story, the training portions being extremely satisfying but the villain seeming like little more than a tease of what is to come.
Of course, given the fact that the film is primarily aimed at pre-teen audiences, one can expect it to be very hyperactive. And it will have no difficulty in keeping the attention of younger viewers, as there is enough low-octane action to keep it entertaining, even if the fight sequences don’t quite take advantage of the unique superpowers.
A good deal of the runtime is spent building the connection between the members of the group, and it works quite well. While the characters are all rather archetypal, they go into building that team dynamic that is what will allow the property to have such longevity (especially since the actors’ aging will be such an obstacle for its franchise potential).
Much like most other Disney Princess movies, this has a great message, encouraging young people to make their own way despite what expectations may be placed on them by their family or the world. And even though Sam may not be the most memorable heroine, the eponymous group works well as a unit, and each character will have their own fans.
Peyton Elizabeth Lee is charming in her leading role, although she carries over some of the delivery from television, which has a very different rhythm. That said, her chemistry with her young co-stars creates a very believable dynamic. And the two adult stars, Elodie Yung and Skylar Astin, are both fun to watch even if their roles don’t give them much of a chance to stand out.
Visually, the film is a bit lacking, but one wouldn’t expect this to have the same budget as a movie produced to be shown in theaters. The CGI is excessive and cheap-looking, and the action sequences are pretty repetitive and unoriginal. That said, the costume design is truly a standout and a mere taste of the potential this has should it be afforded more money.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is a fun pre-teen superhero flick that’s better than the average Disney Channel movie. It will certainly leave audiences wanting to see more of these characters and this world, making it one of the more exciting Disney+ offerings yet.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals streams on Disney+ beginning September 25.
Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman is best-known for his work in political documentaries, so it may have come as a surprise to many when his newest film was revealed to be about reggaeton superstar J Balvin. But The Boy from Medellín is not a traditional music documentary even though it is about a musician — it’s a perfect depiction of the Latino experience.
The movie follows J Balvin as he prepares for a massive concert in his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, all the while feeling challenged by the political turmoil that divides his country. Balvin’s story is an interesting one, and while the film feels a little busy trying to juggle all of these different elements in his life, it captures the unexpected complexity of his life.
For Latinos, it will be easy to understand Balvin’s struggle. With all of the struggles that Latinos around the world are facing, those who live in privilege begin to question whether or not they are doing enough to support their people. And on top of that, Balvin struggles with trying to be “mainstream” while not abandoning his roots and his culture.
Heineman takes great care to present Balvin as an empathetic subject, and while he definitely isn’t perfect, he’s far from the divo personality that one would expect. Portions of the movie that explore the great lengths that Balvin goes to in order to show his appreciation for his fans offer some genuinely funny and endearing moments.
But first and foremost, this is a film about someone trying to understand how to use their voice in a constructive way. Balvin already knows what he wants to say, and he has the platform to do it — he just isn’t sure how he wants to go about it. It is truly sad to see someone want to help but be stuck in an industry that so desperately wants them to keep their head down.
Heineman builds his movie around Balvin’s homecoming concert, and so the film is really focused on mounting up suspense to this point. And while the stakes aren’t high in a traditional sense, it is clear that these things matter to Balvin, so it is extremely easy to get invested in the story and buy into its emotion.
Of course, the movie is also a ton of fun to watch. Taking a fly-on-the-wall approach before the concert finale, it features plenty of great reggaeton music which provides an excellent accompaniment to the film. It is the personal access that Heineman gets to Balvin’s daily life that makes this movie stand out, though.
The Boy from Medellín is shockingly great, subverting a lot of expectations that people would have of the music documentary. And while it is most likely to connect with Latinos and fans of Balvin’s music, it’s definitely well-made enough to be charming for everyone.
The Boy from Medellín screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.
Review by Sean Boelman
Too often the conversation around animated cinema is dominated by the major studios like Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, but the work by smaller independent companies can be just as good, if not better. The newest film from Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells), the animal adventure Wolfwalkers, is a magnificent and magical movie overflowing with creativity and authenticity.
The film tells the story of a young girl, the daughter of a wolf hunter, as she becomes friends with the half-human/half-wolf daughter of the leader of a pack being targeted by her village. A werewolf story made for a younger audience, the movie does hit a lot of familiar beats, but packs an emotional punch in a way that feels entirely natural.
Of course, there is a clear environmentalist message here about protecting wildlife and the reckless disregard which society shows towards the natural world, and while this is obviously well-intentioned, it feels like too little too late. And the film’s themes about family are absolutely heartwarming and sure to affect even the most stolid of viewers.
The movie finds a good balance between the action, sentimental elements of the storyline, and the buddy comedy elements that unite the characters. It’s a cute and enjoyable film all-around, with enough lighthearted fun to allow it to keep the attention of younger viewers but plenty of substance to interest their adult companions.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the movie is the way in which the screenplay forms a really interesting duality between the two protagonists. By forming a bond between the “civilized” and the “savage”, the writers show how it is not what divides us that we need to focus on, but rather what brings us together.
Sean Bean is the most recognizable name in the voice cast, and he voices his character with an unexpected level of nuance and compassion. The true standouts, though, are Honor Kneafsy and Eva Whittaker, both of whom give lovely turns and fit really well together in the central friendship.
Stylistically, the film is very unique because it doesn’t feel enormously polished like its mainstream contemporaries. The amount of love put into every frame is evident because of the very personal approach to animation. And the level of detail to which the filmmakers went in preserving the Irish mythology which inspired the movie is amazing.
Wolfwalkers is an absolutely gorgeous animated film. And even though it’s story is admittedly a tad on the conventional side, it’s wonderful nevertheless because of the very humanistic approach it takes to the story.
Wolfwalkers screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.
Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Errol Morris is known for his sensational documentaries dealing with shocking crime stories, and Sonia Kennebeck follows in that tradition with her new film Enemies of the State, which is produced by Morris himself. Interesting but feeling oddly detached, this is another example of a documentary whose flashiness distracts from the power of the central story.
The movie tells the story of an American family, filled with retired military servicemen, as they become targeted by the government because of the suspicious activities of their hacker son. And while the story is one that is definitely compelling at its core, the people telling it are almost too close to it, resulting in the film feeling like a bunch of paranoia and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing that this movie has to offer is a deconstruction of the ideals of patriotism and loyalty. Prior to the events being discussed, this family was about as gung ho and jingoistic as could be. And if the government can turn against even its most unflinchingly faithful citizens, how are we supposed to feel as average Amercians?
But the film really suffers from the fact that it doesn’t seem to understand the implications of its story. Comparisons are made to some more well-known whistleblowers’ cases as to communicate the scale of this buried incident, but the movie takes it from a more personal angle rather than exploring the greater consequences, and it doesn’t work as well as one would hope.
Obviously, there are issues with the safety and security of the subjects, and so Kennebeck relies heavily on reenactments to build her narrative. What makes these reenactments stand out, though, are that they are set to actual recordings and archive materials, the actors lip syncing to the actual subjects’ words.
And while there are some interviews with experts and people who knew the family, in addition to some of the family themselves, it is the dramatic elements that make this film so entertaining. But with this infotainment approach, it loses some of the depth and substance of the more journalistic aspects of the story.
Additionally, the movie feels a bit overlong. There are a lot of unexpected things happening in the narrative, but Kennebeck milks everything she possibly can out of every little bit of conflict. Even moments that have little real significance are blown out of proportion, and as a result, the film can feel rather artificial at times.
Enemies of the State is a solidly-made documentary, and fans of true crime documentaries will almost certainly be satisfied, but the filmmaker does a disservice to the power of the story. There are plenty of good things here, just not enough to make it memorable.
Enemies of the State screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Kiss the Ground is a documentary from directors Josh Tickell and Rebecca Tickell. Narrated by Woody Harrelson and featuring other celebrities and activists, this is a documentary that overcomes its lulls with a powerful message that may very well save our planet and humanity.
This documentary highlights one of the leading viable solutions to Earth’s climate change. The movie talks about the many ways in which regenerating soil is possible but also beneficial and essential to preserving our planet. This is a very serious issue that is posing a dire threat to all of humanity, and it’s a great foundation on which to convey the film’s message.
Climate change is presented in such a way that it allows the viewers to truly understand how dangerous it is. The movie isn’t afraid to use numbers and statistics to show the audience how urgent this situation is. It’s organized very well by introducing the problem and its effects on the world and following that with its proposed solution. It’s a simple format, but it’s executed effectively, and it makes a very solid argument built on strong rhetoric.
The movie features a wide variety of activists, scientists, and farmers who can testify firsthand about how serious our situation is. They are very reliable sources who provide numbers, anecdotes, and evidence supporting the film’s argument for soil regeneration. They may not be the most captivating subjects, but they are undeniably informed, and they strengthen the logical arguments of the film.
There is a sense of hopelessness present throughout the film. The current state of our planet is worrying, and it’s a scary threat that seems unsurmountable. However, Tickell and Tickell understand this and are able to quell those fears with hard evidence that show that soil regeneration is a viable solution that is entirely possible if we all work together to save the Earth. While the film does highlight the politics that impede such grandiose agricultural change, there is still a small glimmer of hope at the end of this film.
Rhetoric aside, this is a highly informative film that serve as a fantastic lesson in climate change and agriculture. It teaches you about the history of the detrimental practices that have led us to where we are today, and it also provides lots of information into the machinations of soil, agriculture, and the carbon cycle. It’s a great lesson for viewers of all ages. Even if it isn’t the most entertaining lesson, it is a beneficial learning experience nonetheless.
The film’s major flaw comes from its inconsistent tone and pacing. The first half of this film is fast-paced and riveting, but in its final half, even though there is a sense of urgency, the pace shifts abruptly, and its arguments aren’t nearly as strong. The final becomes more anecdotal from the perspective of farmers, and it doesn’t do as much to argue the film’s point as the first half. Regardless, the film has a great call to action that will hopefully inspire many to learn more about climate change and the many ways in which to combat it.
Kiss the Ground is an effective and well-argued documentary that should be an essential watch for all global citizens. It may not be consistently fascinating, but it contains information that could be vital for saving our planet. Earth is headed for climate chaos, but this movie shows us that our savior could be the very ground we inhabit.
Kiss the Ground is available on Netflix September 22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Rainn Wilson as Michael, Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily, and Anson Boon as Jonathan. Blackbird arrives in theaters and on demand on September 18, 2020 from Screen Media. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media.
Many American remakes of European films end up falling flat, lacking the substance that made the original so noteworthy in the first place and instead simply serving as a showcase for its talented English-language cast. And while that certainly seems to be the case with Roger Michell’s Blackbird, a shallow remake of the Danish movie Silent Heart, the excellent cast at least makes the film enjoyable.
The movie follows a terminally ill mother who assembles her family for one last weekend together before she commits a plan assisted suicide. There are really two main moving parts here — the cancer drama and the dysfunctional family dramedy — and thankfully writer Christian Torpe (who also scripted the Danish version) emphasizes the latter, which is the more compelling portion.
A lot of the conflict is quite obvious, often to the point of feeling cheesy and melodramatic. It requires some suspension of disbelief to accept that the first thought of some of these family members would be to air their grievances with their mother before her death, which leads to a majority of the plot feeling forced and artificial.
The film doesn’t do a whole lot to address the debate about the ethicality of assisted suicide. Apart from one subplot involving one of the characters trying to foil her mother’s plans, there’s only a handful of conversations in which they even address the gigantic elephant in the room. And it’s definitely embarrassing when a young adult romance handles the subject matter better than a serious and mature drama such as this.
Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Rainn Wilson as Michael, Kate Winslet as Jennifer, Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, and Anson Boon as Jonathan. Blackbird arrives in theaters and on demand on September 18, 2020 from Screen Media. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media.
Additionally, there are too many other subplots happening in the story. The best moments are those in which the entire family gathers together and functions as a unit. This should be a movie about the importance of family and how that bond stays strong even when tested by adversity. Instead, the film feels the need to go into the personal life of each and every character.
That said, the acting is a definite highlight. Susan Sarandon gives a nuanced and empathetic turn as the dying matriarch. Mia Wasikowska and Kate Winslet are each great in their own ways as her daughters. And Sam Neill, Bex-Taylor Klaus, and Rainn Wilson are solid, but underused as the partners to their respective counterparts.
The movie is very straightforward but competent in its execution as well. Perhaps the biggest aspect that stands out is its production design, as the film is set primarily within the confines of a single home which is decorated quite nicely, but Michell seems to be taking a very character-centric approach here, playing to his obvious strengths.
Blackbird isn’t an exceptional feat of filmmaking, but thanks to an excellent cast, it manages to overcome a shallow script to be a mostly satisfying drama. It’s another would-be buzzy ensemble piece that isn’t substantial enough to get much attention yet also isn’t dull enough to ignore.
Blackbird is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Camden Ferrell
In today’s new climate, entertaining young children and families has been a big concern for many. This year has offered many family films to satiate this need for entertainment and distraction. The new movie, Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, aims to be the next big movie for families staying at home. Unfortunately, this fairy-tale parody is devoid of character and joy, and it has some potentially harmful moments for young audiences.
In this movie, the story of Snow White gets a modern parody. Snow White steals a pair of red shoes that transform her into a beautiful princess while her stepmother is actively seeking the shoes. All of this happens while seven princes are turned into ugly dwarves and must receive Snow White’s kiss to break the spell. This is a silly premise that should be fairly mindless and entertaining, but the movie doesn’t use this premise to create a fun narrative.
Directed by Sung-ho Kong, this movie lacks the imagination for which these animated adventures are known. It lacks personality, and even the moments of action and humor feel bland and uninspired. There is the occasionally silly moment that may elicit a chuckle, but it would be an exaggeration to say its an enjoyable and energetic film.
The cast, consisting of actors like Chloë Grace Moretz and Sam Claflin, fail to bring life to this muddled mess of a fairy tale. Their performances aren’t objectionably bad, but this movie is another strong case (along with the likes of Scoob!) against casting non-voice acting celebrities for these animated roles. In theory, a highly skilled voice actor could have possibly injected some personality in the movie, but unfortunately, the movie doesn’t benefit much from its cast whatsoever.
One of the more surprising aspects of the movie is how subtly fatphobic it can come off. It initially seems to equate beauty with physical size and figure, and this is an incredibly harmful message to give children. A lot of the struggles of the characters come from their own insecurity about their appearances, and it’s questionable to show these traits as being undesirable. While the movie does briefly course-correct in its final half, it doesn’t excuse its initial implications.
Full of uninspired and meandering moments, this is a movie that won’t do much to entertain young children much less the parents with whom they will probably watch this film. It features a tepid script, bland action, and a mediocre cast that can’t save the film.
Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs is now available on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
Although the new socially-conscious horror film Antebellum is produced by one of the people behind such recent hits as Get Out and Us, it won’t surprise viewers that said producer is white. And while the movie admittedly does look very good, it is disturbing in all the wrong ways because of a fundamentally misguided screenplay.
Much like the aforementioned films, the script is largely dependent on a big reveal for its story to land, but what prevents this movie from achieving the same success is that the twist is entirely unsurprising. Following an author who finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the institutional racism that has been built into the identity of America since its inception, the film may have started with good intentions but turns into something almost unbearably toxic.
Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz build their thesis around comparing the traumas inflicted upon the slaves to the violence being faced by modern Black Americans and other BIPOC in America, which feels belittling to both experiences. Perhaps even worse, though, is that the movie seems to be implying that the situation today could be worse, which is such a hurtful message to be sending, especially at this time.
But even beyond the issues with the film’s content, it’s simply not a well-constructed screenplay. The pacing of the movie is pretty terrible, as it drones on and on depicting misery and brutality with only the most surface-level of justifications. And a nonlinear structure intended to continue the mystery just makes the film feel unnecessarily prolonged.
Still, the second act of the movie, which is one long flashback, is necessary because it provides essential characterization. For much of the first third, we are kept in the blind, not only about what is happening, but also who these people are. It’s obvious that Bush and Renz want this to be tantalizing, emphasizing suspense, but it is instead quite frustrating.
Janelle Monaé is an undeniably talented actress, and her performance is absolutely the highlight of the film. She brings out a surprising amount of nuance in a role that ultimately feels like an exaggerated caricature of BIPOC activists. Everyone else in the cast gives performances that range from mediocre to outright bad, including the usually wonderful Jena Malone, whose turn is laughable.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the movie, though, is that Bush and Renz show some skill behind the camera. The way in which the film is shot shows that they have the potential to make something legitimately unsettling. That said, their apparent fascination with slow motion is something that they definitely need to grow out of, as it is a very annoying tendency.
Antebellum isn’t a poorly-made movie, but its screenplay is undoubtedly among the worst and most offensive of the year. Someone needed to stop the filmmakers early in the process to tell them just how wrong this film is from a screenwriting perspective, but now they will have this major misfire as their debut.
Antebellum is now available on VOD.