Review by Camden Ferrell
Copshop is director Joe Carnahan’s first feature film in roughly seven years. He co-wrote the script along with Kurt McLeod, the latter of which is debuting as a feature writer. The movie can often succeed as a detail-oriented homage to grindhouse films, but it ultimately falls flat due to odd pacing and a convoluted story.
Teddy is a con artist trying to hide out after his latest scheme. His plan: get arrested and detained at a small-town police station. However, the assassin who’s pursuing him, Bob, decides to get detained at that same police station. They both bide their time in neighboring cells while Valerie, a rookie cop, attempts to deal with the chaos to come. This is a fun premise that has a lot of promise for smart dialogue, violence, and tension.
While the writing starts out decently strong, featuring some fast-paced exposition, it can often fall into cliches. These moments make the movie feel cheap, almost like an imitation of similar movies in the genre. From here, the pacing slows down, and a lot of the tension that the premise warrants is slowly squandered.
The movie features a fairly strong cast, consisting of actors like Frank Grillo and Gerard Butler who play Teddy and Bob respectively. They both fit into their roles snugly and have mostly decent chemistry together. However, Alexis Louder, who plays Valerie, is the highlight of the film. While it’s not perfect, she does a great job of taking on this role and interacting with her co-stars. This is one of her first prominent film roles, and I look forward to what she does in the future.
As mentioned before, there are a few twists in the narrative that are fun, but they end up making the narrative unnecessarily convoluted. It’s hard to truly enjoy all the action, chaos, violence, and blood when the motivations and relationships are muddled by a script that doesn’t care to flesh everything out properly. Despite its flaws, this movie does benefit from its camerawork from cinematographer Juanmi Azpiroz. It has a retro-feel that pairs very well with the overall aesthetic of the film. Even though it’s messy under the surface, it film works very well on a superficial and visual level.
Copshop has some fun action and grindhouse vibes, but the script doesn’t take full advantage of its premise. It has a strong performance from Louder, but it’s yet another mid-tier action film from writer and director Joe Carnahan.
Copshop is in theaters September 17.
Reviewed by Adam Donato
Nic Cage is a genre all to himself. His newest film is directed by Sion Sono, who is most known for the four-hour love triangle called Love Exposure. Their new film is about a thief who is tasked with rescuing a young woman for his freedom. The young woman is played by the mid-2010s phenom, Sofia Boutella. After debuting at Sundance 2021, does Prisoners of the Ghostland live up to the Nic Cage standard enough to find relevance?
This movie is the quintessential Nicolas Cage picture. He plays a badass who is either silent or yelling. There is little in between. This Japanese western is your typical story about a renegade who covers up his heart of gold with his badass facade. Cage plays this character perfectly. He’s insanely hilarious when you want him to be and the rest of the time he’s obnoxiously cool. It might as well be Mad Max on crack, which is funny because Mad Max is already insane.
The supporting cast is headlined by Boutella, but Bill Moseley steals the show. He plays The Governor, who has a thick accent and is dressed up in an all-white suit with the matching hat. This character is the villain and watching him be extra is especially great because his scenes with Cage are always the ones where Cage is soft-spoken so the two characters contrast really well. Boutella is there and does fine. It’s funny watching her now remembering how big she was not too long ago and wondering what happened (The Mummy, the answer is The Mummy). It’s hard to identify any other standouts in the movie because everybody was equally insane, except for Narisa Suzuki, who was especially enjoyable to watch.
One of the crowning achievements of the movie is how visually pleasing it is. There are some sets that definitely stand out and add to the world itself. There’s a giant clock in Ghostland that requires a bunch of men to hold back its giant hands. This is done because if the clock continues to tick then it will explode. The opening shows Cage and his accomplice robbing a bank. The bank is pristinely white and the colors within are very vibrant. This set piece contrasts very well with the rest of the dystopian world the characters trudge through the rest of the movie.
Fans of Nicolas Cage watch his movies to be entertained and Prisoners of the Ghostland definitely does the trick. While the story is not art, the movie more than makes up for it with its insanity. What a fantastic year for Cage. Would definitely recommend doing a double feature with this and Willy’s Wonderland. If you can catch a theatrical release, the audience reaction alone would be worth the price of admission. Look at the poster and you’ll get exactly what you pay for.
Prisoners of the Ghostland hits theaters and VOD on September 17.
Review by Sean Boelman
Documentarian Mark Cousins is known for making films that explore the cinematic medium, but his newest movie, The Story of Looking, takes it a step further. Intensely personal to a fault, this meditation on the meaning of sight is often very profound even if Cousins’s method of presentation isn’t always the most engaging.
In the film, Cousins uses his own experience of preparing for a surgery to correct his vision as a way to explore the role that vision and images have in cultures around the world. The way in which Cousins took an event specific to his life and used it to comment on a universal experience is ingenious, and makes for a powerful argument.
Clocking in at an hour and thirty minutes, Cousins’s thesis is definitely very big for such a short runtime. There are a lot of truly amazing tidbits throughout the movie, but many will leave the viewer intrigued rather than satisfied. It’s almost as if Cousins intended this to be less of a comprehensive study of these ideas and more of a wide-spanning survey.
Cousins does a good enough job of connecting us to his story. A large part of the film is him voicing his anxieties, many of which the audience will be able to relate to. And even though there is no real element of suspense involved, the movie taps into a feeling of overwhelming existential dread.
However, even beyond the story of Cousins coping with potentially losing his sight, the film explores how images are fundamental to culture throughout the ages. Of course, there’s a significant portion of the documentary devoted to the moving image, as cinema is a passion of Cousins, although these ideas have been discussed before.
There is something to be said about the awe-inspiring nature of human communication. The most thought-provoking portions of the movie explore the relationship between sight, experience, and imagery. It’s a cycle that is fundamental to how we see the world, both literally and metaphorically, and it is definitely very fascinating.
If the film does have one significant shortcoming, it is the way in which Cousins presents it. There is some archive footage used, but there are long stretches of the movie that are nothing more than Cousins talking to the camera while laying in bed. Although the things he has to say are interesting, it definitely becomes tiresome
The Story of Looking is a characteristically insightful film from Mark Cousins, even if it will struggle to keep the viewer’s interest. Had there been a bit more style to the storytelling, this would have been one of the best documentaries of the year.
The Story of Looking screened at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
Gábor Fabricius’s directorial debut Erasing Frank may be set in Europe during the Cold War, but its message rings true more than one would expect. A harrowing and effective, if largely one-note film, the way in which Fabricius discusses these important issues makes the movie one that won’t soon be forgotten.
The film tells the story of a young kid who, after his music is banned for being too politically-charged, is committed to a psychiatric ward. The movie hits a lot of familiar beats when it comes to stories about oppression, but what allows it to be notable is the fact that it is so upfront with everything it has to say.
Admittedly, despite the film clocking in at only an hour and forty minutes, it does run a bit on the long side. The eponymous rebel’s story is definitely very compelling, but the way in which it is presented is a bit repetitive and hard to get through. There is a lot of brutal torture and mistreatment, and it becomes exhausting after a while.
That said, no matter how difficult it may be to watch, what Fabricius has to say about censorship is absolutely essential to be heard. The voices of activists are still being brutally and viciously silenced around the world when they speak up, and it is something that needs to stop. Part of what is so horrifying about the movie is that these things could still believably occur today.
The character development in the film isn’t as detailed as one would hope. Although the protagonist is entirely compelling and immediately gets the audience’s sympathy, it’s clear that he is meant as a stand-in for the greater experience he is representing. It’s a story that has been told before, and not enough is done to help him stand out as a character.
That said, lead actor Benjamin Fuchs gives a performance that is extremely impressive. The range that was required of Fuchs in this role is absurd, as it is both physically and emotionally demanding. And despite this being his first turn as an actor, he manages to sell every bit of emotion on the screen.
Something else that stands out about the movie is the gorgeous look. Fabricius shoots the film in crisp black-and-white, and it works to both give the movie an old-timey feel. However, perhaps more impressive is the way in which he contrasts the elegance of the cinematography with the harshness of what is being depicted.
Erasing Frank may be a straightforward film, but it accomplishes the goal it sets out to do with ease. It’s a horrifying portrait of censorship and persecution, owing its success to the work of director Gábor Fabricius and actor Benjamin Fuchs.
Erasing Frank screened at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are definitely some films that are made primarily to convey a message, and that is the case with Joaquin del Paso’s The Hole in the Fence. It’s a movie that is mostly well-made and has a strong argument, but would be much more effective had it not been so similar to other Latin American films as of late.
The movie tells the story of a group of boys attending a secluded summer camp where they are being indoctrinated religiously and morally to become the next Mexican “elite”. The script largely exists in service of the commentary, pretty much everything happening just to make a point about Mexican society.
At its core, the film is about the stratification of Mexican society and how this division is threatening to tear the country apart. There have been a handful of movies to come out to explore this theme recently, and they have largely been divisive due to how aggressively political they are. This will be no exception.
This is a slow-burn thriller in that much of the first hour is spent immersing the viewer in this unsettling world before everything turns wild in the final act. The shocking violence that occurs towards the end of the film is very effective in making the audience feel a sense of disgust towards these people and what they represent.
If there is something missing from the movie, it is more detailed character development. The film takes the very safe approach of giving us a protagonist who is an outsider to the organization, not quite fitting in with the worst of the bunch due to his moral qualms. And he is the least archetypal of the characters, as everyone else is written to the lowest common denominator.
For the most part, a majority of the young cast is very good. There is definitely a very exaggerated personality to many of the characters, but the actors pull it off in a way that is believable and creates a strong dynamic. The adult actors go a bit more off the deep end with their performances, but they are effective for what they are.
The movie also has a very effective visual style to it. The cinematography in the film is excellent, taking advantage of the remote Mexican countryside setting to make everything feel distant and almost otherworldly. This helps to create the immersive atmosphere that draws us into this world, and in turn, the message.
The Hole in the Fence is certainly an interesting movie, and will have quite an emotional impact on viewers. That said, even though the film meets its goals, it doesn’t have the same level of effectiveness as some other movies on the same topic.
The Hole in the Fence screened at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
Mélanie Laurent has a very impressive filmography as an actress, but her track record behind the camera is less consistent. Her newest directorial effort, The Mad Women’s Ball, shows a lot of potential, but is far too dull and soft with its themes to be particularly memorable, much less have an impact.
Based on a novel by Victoria Mas, the film tells the story of a woman who is wrongly institutionalized as she partners up with one of the nurses to help her escape. On paper, it has what it takes to be an inspiring and political tale, but instead, what we get is a toothless period piece that comes across more as a vanity project than anything else.
The pacing of the film is definitely an issue. It takes quite a while for the protagonist to even reach the mental hospital, and while this is meant to provide characterization and context for the themes, this is later reinforced by exposition in later acts. There definitely could have been some time shaved off of the runtime, especially in the first act.
There is something to be said in the film about how society in the 19th century took advantage of women and threw them to the curb when they did anything that ran counter to the patriarchal ideals, but the film is too weak-handed when it comes to this. Perhaps in a failed attempt at subtlety, the film doesn’t resonate in this regard.
The character arcs in the film are well-developed, if entirely conventional and by-the-book. The protagonist’s journey is entirely predictable and contains no surprises. Her savior’s storyline is even more frustrating, as it is a very basic and ham-fisted message about empathy. Although we sympathize with the characters for their plight, there needed to be more depth to make it compelling.
Neither of the lead performances here are bad. Lou de Lâage’s performance isn’t especially nuanced, as she is clearly struggling to live up to the image of other actors who have done similar roles in the past. And Laurent clearly cast herself in the prominent supporting role hoping that it would be favorable to her, although it does not pay off.
From a technical standpoint, the film is fine, if nothing exceptional. The production design in regards to the periodization is mostly very average, doing a good enough job of recreating the period but never feeling impressively gorgeous. And as for the shooting style, it’s very bland, which doesn’t help with the boring script.
The Mad Women’s Ball has all of the elements in place to be something intriguing, but it never delivers. Ultimately, viewers will have seen plenty of movies like this before that do the same thing better, and they will soon forget this one.
The Mad Women’s Ball is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Nadav Lapid’s previous film Synonyms was a vital and political film about issues of identity, making it one of the finest films of that year. His newest work, Ahed’s Knee, is certainly a lot messier, but with that also comes an increase in the anger and topicality, benefitting from the passion with which Lapid explores these themes.
The film follows a film director who, shortly after the death of his mother, travels to a small town to present a film at a government-sanctioned screening where he is faced with a moral dilemma when they attempt to censor him. Like Synonyms, it’s a very specific story, but its power comes not from a sense of universality in the themes but the precision with which Lapid discusses them in relation to his unique experience.
There is definitely a lot going on here, as there are multiple storylines moving concurrently. It takes about an hour for the threads to all come together, but when everything starts to click, the ingenuity of Lapid’s storytelling becomes clear. He’s building to an absolutely explosive climax that is a perfect culmination of everything that comes before it.
If the film does struggle with one thing, it is that it could have used a bit more focus. Although there is a point to everything in the film, the fact that the film jumps around from idea to idea so often can be a bit disorienting. The perfect example of this is that the title comes from a minor subplot (albeit one that serves as a metaphor for the greater goings on in the film).
Perhaps the most effective thing about the film is Lapid’s character work. It’s rare to see a protagonist with such a multi-layered arc that still manages to feel entirely developed. And Lapid does a great job of making the character sympathetic despite his occasionally unlikable tendencies. The supporting characters are also nuanced, especially the antagonistic ones which blur the lines of traditional understanding of character.
Avshalom Pollak gives one of the best performances of the year in his leading role. The anger which Lapid has written into the script is only made all the more aggressive by Pollak’s impassioned turn. And his up-and-down chemistry with co-star Nur Fibak is absolutely wonderful, making those portions all the more ambiguous.
Lapid may not have been as experimental with this film as he was with his last, but there is still some excellent filmmaking on display here. The cinematography and soundtrack are both wonderful, creating a mood for the film that is enthralling. And the way in which Lapid uses the desert setting to form a sense of isolation is brilliant.
Ahed’s Knee isn’t quite as good as Nadav Lapid’s previous film, but it’s clear that the filmmaker still has a lot to say and knows how to say it. While the unflinching nature of the film may put off some viewers, it is exactly what makes it work so well.
Ahed’s Knee is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
After chronicling the lives of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West set their eyes on legendary chef Julia Child as their next subject. Although their newest film Julia is probably their most conventional yet, it’s still a crowd-pleasing documentary that will win over the hearts of viewers.
The movie follows Julia Child as she revolutionized the way that Americans approached and understood food and cooking. There have been plenty of documentaries about celebrity chefs (just this year, Morgan Neville released the exceptional Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain), and Cohen and West’s film follows the recipe precisely.
One of the fundamental flaws of documentaries about celebrity chefs is that their stories are already so well-documented. Most people, or at least those who are likely to see this movie, will already be familiar with Child’s rise to success, as they will have witnessed it or at least watched or read some of her work.
The portions of the film which try to explore Child’s personal life are mostly shallow. A lot of the discussion of who Child was as a person is in relation to her personality, which is something that has already been well-documented. It lacks the feeling that the filmmakers are pulling back the curtain on their subject that is necessary when talking about such a well-known individual.
That said, the movie can only increase the amount of respect one has for Child. The work she did was really exceptional in more ways than one and influences us in ways we don’t even realize. It would have been nice to see more of a discussion on her role as a trailblazing woman in a male-dominated field, but the way in which that is touched upon is interesting nevertheless.
The film is mostly composed of modern interviews with Child’s peers and modern chefs who were influenced by her, in addition to a massive amount of archive materials. It’s the archive footage, drawn from Child’s on-air cooking demonstrations, that is most impressive, as her presence will captivate viewers.
Of course, no cooking documentary is complete without some absolutely scrumptious food shots, and this delivers in that regard. A good deal of the footage featuring Child cooking is in black-and-white, so that isn’t as appetizing, but there are plenty of recreations of her dishes shown, making this a movie best not to watch on an empty stomach.
Julia may not be groundbreaking as the person whose life story it is telling, but it’s a satisfying and entertaining documentary for what it is. Those looking for a casual nonfiction watch will definitely want to seek this one out.
Julia is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
It’s pretty clear that Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly wanted Queenpins to cash in on the popularity of such blue-collar crime comedies as Hustlers, but in just copying the formula, they lost sight of the things that could have made it enjoyable. The result is a largely laughless affair despite a talented cast putting in their best efforts.
The film follows a housewife and her best friend as they get wrapped up in an unexpectedly lucrative scheme selling illegitimate coupons. It’s a story that sounds (and is) ridiculous, but the problem is that the movie too often takes itself far too seriously rather than embracing the inherent absurdity of the situation.
There are really two storylines going on here, and they are not created equal. More prominent is that of the two women trying to get rich quickly, and this is the generic portion. There are some compelling aspects to this story, but it is overly familiar. On the other hand, the story of the dysfunctional duo trying to hunt them down is much more enjoyable, but receives less of the focus.
Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn absolutely make this movie as a corporate loss prevention officer and postal inspector investigating the scam. The chemistry they have together is truly wonderful, with a very natural comedic rhythm between them that clearly benefited from a lot of improvisation (especially from Vaughn).
On the other hand, Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s performances are much more forgettable. Although they are completely believable as friends, they don’t do much in terms of making their characters feel unique. Howell-Baptiste gets a few genuinely fun moments, but they aren’t enough to make it feel any less generic.
Additionally, the character development leaves something to be desired. The irony of the protagonist’s husband being an IRS auditor is occasionally joked about, as is the fact that she is a former Olympian, but apart from that, we don’t get much insight into her personal life. And every other character is even less developed.
The film is also quite generic from a technical standpoint. Although there are a few scenes that are fun, the fundamental flaw here is that it seems to be misguided from a directorial standpoint. It’s almost as if Gaudet and Pullapilly wanted the humor to come out of the irony of seeing something so goofy play out with a mostly straight face,
Queenpins is definitely watchable, but it’s a disappointment all-around because of the level of talent that was involved with it. It’s clearly banking on the success of many better movies that came before it, and it pales in comparison to their image.
Queenpins is now in theaters and hits Paramount+ on September 30.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
It's always good to see new filmmakers making films. It's those filmmakers who go on to be the next big filmmakers we as film fans or critics look forward to. Seeing the films from up-and-coming filmmakers can be a surprise or a disappointment. They may still have work to do to get better, but sometimes they may have struck gold right off the gate. Small Engine Repair is in the middle of that range. It's not a bad film by any means, but it doesn't stick the landing. If it did it could have been a very good film.
John Pollono does double duty in this film. He directs and stars in it. Frank (Pollono) and his family live in New Hampshire. He has a daughter (Ciara Bravo, Cherry) and an estranged wife. His main focus in the film is his two buddies Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham). After a bar brawl, they have a falling out. Frank decides to get the gang back together though after three months apart from each other at his small engine repair shop. This is a very fateful decision by him, though.
This film is an interesting one because of the friendship aspect of it. These guys drink together, watch ball games, go to various family functions and act as surrogate fathers for the other guy's kids. This is the epitome of what friends are for: to hang out with each other, pick on one another and tell stories about the past. One such story was about the 1986 World Series. I have a soft spot when it comes to that. Of course, my Red Sox lost in the most tragic way possible. when the ball rolled under Bill Buckner's legs, the Mets won game 6 and later went on to win the World Series in game 7. The curse of the bambino lived on for another sixteen years.
Small Engine Repair has a very interesting premise to it. These three friends are seeking revenge for something that had happened to a loved one of theirs. At its core, it is a simple idea. It gets bogged down with all kinds of crazy dialogue the scriptwriters threw in there that wasn't necessary. Just follow through with this revenge plot. Don't go all holier than thou on me just because it's not the simple thing to do. Go through with the obvious idea and make it work in the end. It's not hard to do that. Pollono does the best he can with what he has to work with, but it could have been better.
The cast in the film was very good — they acted out their parts very soundly. The direction by Pollono was serviceable with what he had to work with. The script is the biggest issue with this film. The screenwriter tried to be too safe with the story when they should just go to the next level. People would have been fine with that. It's the year 2021. We've seen violent revenge films before. This one had a nice twist to it but the screenwriter just wouldn't pull the trigger on it, pun intended.
Small Engine Repair is now in theaters and on VOD.