Review by Sean Boelman
Marcus Lenz’s Rival is one of those movies that is so unabashedly bizarre that one will finish the movie not knowing how they should feel. Fumbling some of its weightier themes but providing an intriguing watch nevertheless, this film is probably going to be divisive if only because viewers will be torn on its content.
The movie follows a young boy who relocates to Germany to live with his illegally-working mother and the older man with whom she has taken up, only for things to change for him when she falls ill. The story doesn’t follow the usual beats, but also doesn’t feel entirely unpredictable, settling in an effectively discomforting middle ground of anticipation.
Admittedly, it does take a while for the film’s conflict to get moving, but Lenz manages to keep the pacing up nevertheless. The movie is made so nerve-wracking by the fact that the viewer expects something to happen and will continue to think that the moment is coming, only for things to proceed as normal… until they don’t.
At its core, this is a family drama about a child experiencing jealousy over his mother’s divided attention. And then there’s also the buddy comedy bonding element that happens between the protagonist and his new companion. Still, Lenz shoots the film like a thriller, focusing on the innate tension and suspense in the interactions.
One of the most intriguing things about the movie is that the character development is so unorthodox. Quite frankly, the protagonist comes across as a brat. However, even if the audience can’t identify with his sentiments towards the adorable old man who becomes his eponymous opponent, he’s entirely sympathetic nevertheless.
Young actor Yelizar Nazarenko does an excellent job of carrying the film. Unlike a lot of movies led by children, this role is particularly ambiguous, requiring much more nuanced emotions rather than the big, flashy shows of passion, and Nazarenko pulls it off gracefully. Supporting actor Udo Samel is also great.
That said, Lenz misses a huge opportunity in not going into enough depth about the theme of migrant workers in Europe. This had all the elements to be a hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary about important issues, and instead, it’s a relatively small-scale genre picture. Perhaps this was his intent, but it also implies a lack of awareness.
For better or worse, Rival is definitively not the film that it sounds like on paper. It’s something darker, more challenging, and perhaps less insightful than what is promised, but it’s definitely not like anything else out this year.
Rival screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
The origins of electronic music are particularly fascinating because it is unlike anything else. Lisa Rovner’s documentary Sisters with Transistors may be a bit conventional in how it tells these extraordinary women’s stories, but the subjects are more than interesting enough themselves to make for a fascinating film.
In the movie, Rovner tells the story of some of the pioneering women of the electronic music genre and explores how they used unique and innovative methods to create their distinctive sound. The film is at its best when it shows the musicians at work, making music in ways that don’t seem like they should be possible.
Understandably, not everyone is going to enjoy this movie because electronic music is a bit of an acquired taste. However, one can’t help but be in awe of the raw creativity that this art represents. To think of creating music with technology that is new in its own right is absolutely exceptional.
Perhaps Rovner’s biggest mistake is that she takes a historical approach to the film, trying to comprehensively tell the story of as many of the founders of the style as possible. Arguably, the moive would have been much more effective had it focused less on their individual contributions and more on the growth of the medium as a whole.
That said, Rovner does an excellent job of making the audience appreciate the impact this group of musicians had not only on electronic music, but the industry as a whole. One of the more intriguing things about the film is the way in which it looks at its subjects not just as artists, but also as inventors creating new technology for their art.
Obviously, the main angle taken by Rovner explores the role of these women as the main driving force in the creation of an entire genre of music in a field that was then-dominated by men. It’s an empowering story, but it also doesn’t reduce them to being simply female musicians, making a case for their importance regardless of their gender.
Most of the movie is composed of archive footage accompanied by narration. Ultimately, the film probably would have worked better without the narration, because to this point, there hasn’t been enough of an opportunity to see artists like these in their element. The editing is very good, though, lending the movie a very natural rhythm.
One will be left wishing that Sisters with Transistors was as avant garde as the music of the people whose lives it depicts, but the story is interesting regardless. Especially for those who don’t know about the invention of electronic music, this is absolutely a must-see.
Sisters with Transistors screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
A lot of travelogues don’t have a ton of depth and substance, many often having a weaker narrative that offers some interesting observations, solid performances, and beautiful sights. That is the case with Zeina Durra’s Luxor, a quaint but relaxing Egypt-set romance that benefits from two strong central performances.
The film tells the story of a British aid worker who, while on vacation in Luxor, encounters a former lover, and together they reflect on the past. It’s a simple set-up that predominantly features this couple as they explore the city, wandering around and having conversations about the movie’s themes.
Admittedly, when the film is trying to say something profound, it doesn’t do so in a way that is particularly subtle. A handful of scenes are simply straightforward discussions about various ideas. The love interest character is even an archaeologist, which directly ties into the motif of the past.
At under ninety minutes in length, the movie definitely has brevity on its side. Even if it frequently feels like there isn’t a whole lot happening, watching a straightforward romance set against the backdrop of this ancient Egyptian city isn’t a bad way to spend an hour and a half. And there are a handful of legitimately funny moments as well.
There definitely could have been a bit more in terms of character development, but Durra’s approach is admirable. The filmmaker attempts to remove as much fluff as possible from the equation, with basically all of the characterization being delivered through dialogue, and even then, it’s pretty minimalistic.
Still, the performances of the two leads are what make the film so charming. Andrea Riseborough takes what is essentially an outline of a character and fills it in with her use of emotion and mannerisms. And while Karim Saleh’s turn isn’t nearly as nuanced, his chemistry with Riseborough is excellent.
Visually, there are a lot of really great things going on here. Ultimately, much of this movie’s appeal is going to be in watching these people wander through the beautiful landscapes. And cinematographer Zelmira Gainza does an excellent job of capturing them in a way that is consistently aesthetically-appealing.
Luxor is a cute and insubstantial romantic travelogue set in a gorgeous ancient city. Even though it doesn’t have a particularly strong narrative, the film is worth watching if only to make viewers nostalgic for the days that vacation like this would have been possible.
Luxor screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Some documentaries have a story that is undeniably powerful and angering, but are unable to present it in a way that is as engaging as it should be. Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner falls into that trap, containing a very important message told through storytelling that is too uneven to be fully impactful.
The film tells the story of the standoff between the Black liberation activist group MOVE and the Philadelphia Police Department, which resulted in the death of a police officer and the long-term incarceration of nine of the group’s members. It’s clear from the beginning that there’s a lot more to this story than either perspective can tell on their own, and this documentary attempts to provide as complete of a picture as possible.
Unfortunately, Oliver isn’t only concerned with getting out the truth about these events that occurred in 1978 yet still feel eerily timely today. Instead, a majority of the movie is spent with the son of two of the arrested group members who has devoted most of his life to getting his parents out of jail and absolved of their accusations.
Although his story is definitely compelling, there’s no denying that the story of the MOVE activists themselves is much more intriguing. There have been plenty of documentaries in the last decade about exonerating wrongfully-convicted inmates, and by focusing on this aspect of the story, Oliver’s film feels a lot less unique and original.
It’s clear that the movie is meant to be a critique of the justice system, but Oliver goes about it the wrong way. Rather than targeting the portion of the system that put these people in prison, the film should be criticizing that portion which put them in that situation in the first place. The things that the police were doing that led to their arrest are completely unacceptable.
Still, the movie has quite an emotional impact regardless of its narrative shortcomings. When combined with ongoing frustrations with the atrocities being committed today by the police, this film makes it infinitely clear that these are not isolated incidents. It’s a systemic problem in a broken system that urgently needs to be repaired.
Oliver’s directing style is a lot more conventional than this story deserves. Although the blend of interviews, archive materials, and fly-on-the-wall footage following the subject as he goes about getting his parents released from prison gets the story told, the way in which it is paced is pretty ineffective.
40 Years a Prisoner tells an important and surprisingly timely story, but it could have done so in a way that was more riveting. Still, it’s worth watching if only to continue the discussion of how these issues have remained a constant over the years.
40 Years a Prisoner screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Jeanette Nordahl’s Wildand is the latest in the trend of gritty family crime dramas that were rejuvenated a decade ago by David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. Unfortunately far too derivative of the films that came before, Nordahl’s direction here is interesting, but Ingeborg Topsøe’s script is largely lacking in excitement.
The movie follows a young woman who, after the tragic death of her mother, moves in with her aunt and gets drawn into the dark world in which the family business functions. It’s an extremely basic setup that falls back on the age-old genre trope of having an outsider join in the criminal underworld and bring a new perspective to the goings-on.
Since all of the beats in the story are so familiar, the film suffers from an overwhelming feeling of predictability. For much of the movie, there’s not really any excitement because viewers will think “been there, done that” with how bland the story is. There are a few solid moments, particularly in the third act, but they are too few and far between to sustain tension.
The other major issue with the film is that it feels frustratingly hollow. The typical message of defining one’s own future seems to be the main point here, but this has been done so many times in the genre before, and much more authentically. Nordahl’s movie is so cold and distant that it’s hard to connect with the material.
As is the case with much of the rest of the script, the character development in the film is pretty shallow. Although some of the characters work decently on an individual level, the family dynamic isn’t developed in as meaningful of a way as it should be. It too often feels like melodrama rather than earnest family drama.
Sandra Guldberg Kampp shows a great deal of potential in the leading role. She is able to take a character that is undeniably generic and make something moderately intriguing out of it by adding a sense of mystique. The supporting cast is given even less material to work with, and as a result, they struggle even more.
On a visual level, Nordahl is able to infuse the movie with a very dark style. The cinematography by David Gallego creates an atmosphere that almost makes up for the lack of suspense in the script. And the world-building that feels so generic on the page is made substantial by Nordahl’s approach.
In her feature debut Wildland, Jeanette Nordahl shows a lot of potential as a filmmaker. That said, the script is far too lackluster for her talents, restraining her vision into a box that is overly restrictive and conventional.
Wildland screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Yael Bridge’s documentary The Big Scary “S” Word is sure to be controversial because of its divisive political statements that it unflinchingly stands by. However, regardless of what one thinks of what the film has to say, it’s undeniable that it doesn’t say them in an effective way, with flimsy argumentation throughout.
In the movie, Bridge explores the ideology of socialism, from its origins to the way in which politicians are trying to enact it in America today. As the playful title suggests, the goal of the film is to debunk some of the myths that the public believes about socialism, and Bridge succeeds to an extent, but comes up short in other regards.
When an invalid argument is presented supporting capitalism, the movie presents a valid argument to disprove that point. However, when a valid argument is presented as to one of socialism’s shortcomings, the film often changes the topic, introducing a valid (but unrelated) argument as to why capitalism does work. This lack of a back-and-forth shows Bridge’s inability to support her message.
It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working, and Bridge’s intent is to propose socialism as a viable alternative. But by failing to disprove the valid arguments against socialism, her proposal isn’t as developed as it needed to be. And at under ninety minutes in length, there was plenty of time for her to present more evidence.
If the movie does excel in one thing, it is that it makes current American politicians look like ignorant jerks. Even if you can’t get behind some of the more radical activists and politicians that the film follows, there is no denying that the people on the opposite end of the spectrum are just as bad if not worse in what they are doing.
Bridge misses a giant opportunity by not focusing more on one specific subject. The portion of the movie that follows Virginia Delegate Lee J. Carter is compelling, but perhaps because he’s not a politician on a national scale, it’s very brief. And those interviews with everyday working-class Americans don’t have the benefit of expert commentary on their side.
As a whole, Bridge’s film is a bit all over the place. In trying to tackle such a big topic like socialism, she isn’t able to settle on a specific approach. There are a lot of different moving parts in play, and it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Although it doesn’t quite reach the level of propaganda, it’s definitely an excessive info dump.
The success of The Big Scary “S” Word will partially depend on the way in which the viewer leans politically, but anyone who is informed will be able to see some of its holes. This is a discussion that needs to be had, but this is not the way to do it.
The Big Scary “S” Word screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Celebrities are more often in the news for the wrong reasons rather than the good ones, so it’s almost always nice to see when a high-profile figure uses their status for a good cause. Don Hardy’s Citizen Penn is the exception to that rule, as its white savior story is about as problematic as they come.
The movie follows actor/filmmaker/philanthropist Sean Penn as he, his charitable organization, and a group of aid workers from around the world set out to help in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. There’s definitely an inspiring element to this story about doing the right thing, but there are other significant problems with this film.
Audiences should already respect Penn for his work as an actor and a filmmaker, so Hardy only gives a brief introduction summarizing the highlights of his Hollywood career. Instead, much of his focus is on making Penn look humble, and to an extent he succeeds, but there are some portions in which he definitely feels self-righteous.
Much of the movie focuses on Penn wanting to operate in the shadows. Yes, it’s his financial resources and high-profile that are allowing this relief effort to succeed, but he gives a majority of the credit to the volunteers who are the ones making the bigger difference. There’s something to be said here about the world’s focus on celebrities rather than the legitimate issues, but Hardy himself falls victim to that trend.
And that isn’t even taking into consideration the ethical concerns associated with what Penn is doing. In interviews, Penn admits to having taken thousands of dollars of medical supplies his organization needed from a university hospital and working with telephone companies to trace users’ whereabouts to understand cholera outbreaks. While these actions were well-intentioned, they also aren’t things that need to be glorified.
Additionally, the way in which Hardy tells the story is problematic. Penn admits that he didn’t allow a lot of recording while on his relief mission because he wanted to keep the attention on the needs of the people he was helping, which is good. But this also results in heavy editing, with footage cut to Penn’s after-the-fact interview, these efforts playing out like an action movie.
Perhaps even more frustrating, though, is the fact that Hardy doesn’t seem to care about the Haitian people all that much. Obviously, there are restrictions with what he is able to do with the limited amount of footage available, but the discussion of this crisis is almost always in relation to what Penn did to remedy it, not the impact it had on its victims.
Citizen Penn is obviously made with the best of intentions, but they don’t pay off in a way that is constructive. If Penn wanted to keep his philanthropic efforts low-profile, he shouldn’t have let this film be made.
Citizen Penn screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Justin Simien is a young director who put out his first film, Dear White People, in 2014. That film was about a culture war between college students. It had a great message about racial identity and is also about paving a road for yourself without help from family or anybody else for that matter. Bad Hair is quite a different film than that for many reasons.
A young woman (Elle Lorraine) who is struggling to find her way in the cutthroat world of music television decides to get a new hairdo to change her image. She later comes to find out that her hair might have a mind of its own. Part '80s period piece and part horror movie, Bad Hair is something new that hasn't been done before. It's a satire on urban life in America. We've all had bad hair days, but this film takes it to the next level.
Simien has gathered a nice group of character actors, newbies, and musicians for this film. Lena Waithe plays a TV show host, and employees at the station include Vanessa Williams, Kelly Rowland, and Jay Pharoah. They do a superb job supporting the star of the film. Elle Lorraine is a newer actress on the scene. She's had roles in Issa Rae's HBO show Insecure and Simien's previous film Dear White People. She is fantastic in Bad Hair. She makes this role her own.
Based on the urban legend of the Moss-haired Girl, Bad Hair has a tongue-in-cheek look at women who have to have the right look. Hairstyles can help a woman — or a man, for that matter — develop a personality or identity. Different hair for different occasions can be hard to come by. Not if you have a hairstylist who knows what you want and need. Sometimes your hair has a life all of its own. It can get out of control, literally. Simien captures the nature of how important women's hair can be for their overall appearance and style.
2020 hasn't had a lot of great horror films, but Bad Hair is one of them. It plays on the urban legend and the look of a woman trying to make an impression on society. Getting yourself noticed by the right people can be impossible at times. The right hairdo can make or break a woman's career. This film goes the extra length, no pun intended, to show how valuable or dangerous it can be. This was a film poking fun at the people it's about and the time it takes place. The music of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Aritha Franklin are all on the soundtrack for a reason. That's the vibe this film was going for: a hip hop vibe mixed with '80s pop music. Throw in some horror and you have a fun film.
Bad Hair is now streaming on Hulu.
Review by Sean Boelman
Tara Miele’s romantic fantasy flick Wander Darkly has an intriguing premise and a phenomenal cast, but her vision lacks the cohesiveness and coherence to connect. Admirably inspired but not making a whole lot of sense due to an overly convoluted structure, this feels like a giant missed opportunity.
The film follows a couple of new parents who, following a traumatic accident, recount their relationship and relive their love. In what feels like a more pretentious and less charming version of Ghost, Miele obviously thinks she is delivering something insightful and profound when it’s actually just super vague.
Thankfully, the episodic nature of the narrative creates a false sense of movement and rhythm. But had these moments been presented in chronological order, they would have made up a conventional and frankly boring romantic drama. Some of the moments work well on an individual level, but don’t add up in the long run.
There’s something to be said here about the anxiety of being a new parent, but those intriguing themes are buried beneath layers of over-sentimental romance. And while the loss of a loved one is undeniably a heartbreaking experience that makes it an easy target for sappy movies like this, it is in stark contrast to the otherwise creative setup.
Another one of the movie’s major shortcomings is that the character development is extremely lackluster. The point of the film is that there are highs and lows in any relationship, but those less than savory moments make it difficult to support this relationship, even if the love between them is obvious.
The two lead actors in the movie are both very good, but they can only do so much with weak material, and so at times, their performances can feel forced at times. This is particularly the case with Diego Luna, who has the less meaty of the two roles. Sienna Miller has more than a few moments in which she shows the potential of what the film could have been.
Visually, Miele clearly has a lot of talent, but this particular movie is too inconsistent to land. There are portions of the film that are meant to be dark and gritty and others that are surreal and beautiful, and Miele does not succeed in creating this dichotomy. Instead, it feels like two extremes that the movie cuts back and forth between, and it’s disorienting.
Wander Darkly should have been a compelling and challenging fantasy drama, but it turns out to be a mostly joyless romance that squanders the creativity of its cast and crew. Miele’s voice comes through, and it’s an exciting one, but this was not the film to showcase it.
Wander Darkly screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
With a cast full of comedic powerhouses like this, Nicol Paone’s festive comedy Friendsgiving should be an absolute riot. Yet despite seemingly having everything working in its favor, a painfully unfunny script wastes a charming premise and the talent of its ensemble, causing it to become one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
The film follows a woman who, having recently separated from her husband, decides to throw a Thanksgiving party along with her single friend, resulting in comedic hijinks. This premise is very simple in nature, but that is because the focus is less on the story and more on pairing up these comedians to share scenes together.
However, at a certain point, this formula of mixing-and-matching the characters to create new situations starts to feel old, especially since many of the jokes don’t land. There are only a few recurring gags, but much of the humor takes the form of one-offs that are more misses than hits. So much of the humor is stuff that has been done before, and more efficiently.
Ensemble comedy almost always comes at the expense of character development, but this is even more of a problem than usual here. There are two characters that get a majority of the movie’s substance. All of the rest are little more than archetypes that exist to put the two leads in increasingly awkward positions.
Additionally, the film’s attempts at having an emotional impact are entirely insufficient. The ending tries to wrap up all of the arcs into a nice little bow, but it feels forced and unearned. Paone tries to ground her story in an exploration of motherhood and sexuality, but it feels like an afterthought in a movie overfilled with crude humor.
The cast tries to do their best with the material, and they are obviously having fun with what was probably a very buoyant shoot, but it doesn’t translate into laughs. The big standout here is Kat Dennings, who shows that she has the clear potential to lead a great comedy if she is given the chance, getting the film’s few mild chuckles. The higher-profile actors like Malin Åkerman, Chelsea Peretti, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho, among others, are mostly underused.
And on a technical level, the movie is very lackluster. One doesn’t expect the highest standards in production values from mainstream comedies like this, but there are some things that Paone could have done better. The visual and physical gags are shot in a way that is underwhelming. And even though the film is set at a Thanksgiving dinner, there aren’t any tantalizing food shots.
On paper, Friendsgiving has all the makings of a great holiday comedy, but it simply doesn’t come together. But since the actors seem to have enjoyed working together, maybe there will be another chance for them to share the screen again, hopefully in a better-written project.
Friendsgiving hits VOD on October 23.