Review by Camden Ferrell
King Richard marks the first leading role for Will Smith since early 2020. This movie had its premiere this year at the Telluride Film Festival. It is the newest film from director Reinaldo Marcus Green, his first since last year’s Joe Bell. This movie is a reliable awards contender, telling a crowd-pleasing true story, anchored by an incredible performance from Smith.
Serena and Venus Williams have become some of the biggest icons of modern sports in their career. This movie follows the life and efforts of their father, Richard Williams. In this movie, we see Richard as he, against all odds, tries to coach his daughters at tennis and elevate them to their legendary status. These athletes have a very interesting story that deserves the big screen treatment, and I think it’s a story that audiences everywhere will enjoy.
Written by Zach Baylin, the script for this movie is very strong from start to finish. The story is told in a compelling way, and it gives the audience a reason to root for its protagonists. It often emulates other sports biopics in its execution of certain plot beats, but it doesn’t hinder the experience of the film. While the choice to focus on Richard as the main character can feel questionable once or twice, the writing is strong enough to overlook any potential issues. It’s an impressive feature writing debut for Baylin that suggests good things to come from his future.
Leading this performance is the always talented Will Smith. He is without a doubt the highlight of this film. He has full command over this role, and he unsurprisingly steals nearly every scene of the movie. He tackles the drama and comedy equally well, and he has great chemistry with his co-stars. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton play Venus and Serena respectively. They both perform very well for such young actors, and they display their talents throughout this movie as well. One of the big surprises of the film is the performance of John Bernthal, who plays tennis coach Rick Macci. He works very well with Smith and has a charming and hilarious screen presence.
One of the film’s flaws is also one of its biggest virtues. It feels very safe artistically speaking, and it refuses to stray from the tried and tested biopic formula. The film often feels like it could be better than it is, but the underdog story is just so enjoyable that it’s easy to overlook these problems. Fans of sports dramas will love the tennis matches, and even general audiences will enjoy this story and themes of perseverance.
Robert Elswit serves as the film’s cinematographer. While it’s not his best work, he has a unique way of shooting this film which makes it stand apart every so slightly from other films in this genre. This, along with the execution and direction of the film make this an engaging film from start to finish. I especially found the film’s final act riveting and thought it was a satisfying payoff for viewers.
The film can be a little daunting with its 138-minute runtime, but it’s paced very well. While some moments can drag, the film moves with a purpose for the most part. This is bound to be a major awards contender next year. It definitely feels like Oscar-bait, but it’s a crowd-pleasing sports drama that is hard to dislike.
King Richard shows Will Smith commanding the screen with his best performance in years. It’s an engaging and true underdog story that will inspire audiences everywhere. Despite its PG-13 rating, I think this is a great film for families to watch together this weekend.
King Richard is in theaters November 19.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
With the popularity of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films over the past couple of decades also came the deluge of fantasy and young adult book series to be adapted into films or television shows. The latest of these is from Amazon Studios, Sony Television, and showrunner Rafe Judkins. It is based on the best-selling, world-renowned series from writer Robert Jordan called The Wheel of Time.
This series deals with similar themes as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films combined. It has a story of a powerful sorceress Moiraine (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) a member of a sect of women known as the Aes Sedai who seeks out young men and women who might be the savior of the world known as the reincarnation of the dragon. She rescues five young men and women from a small village when it is attacked by ghastly beasts known as Trollocs led by a demon horse rider with no eyes, Myrddraal. They are also seeking the five.
The show is full of unknown actors and actresses playing all of the young men and women, other than Pike that is. They all have their own character arcs within the show. Along the way, all the main characters run across various other characters, some good and some bad. The show is filled with questionable people with motives all their own. The show deals with all these character arcs separately and as it progresses we learn about each of them one by one. It doesn't rush into anything too soon even though the show is only eight episodes long.
The five are separated after leaving Moiraine and her servant/bodyguard Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney). They end up in a dark enchanted city and this separates them into three groups. They all end up going on three separate adventures. A couple of them meet a group of gypsies known as the Tinkers, a band of nomads traveling around from place to place. Three others seek the help of the Aes Sedai, while two others run afoul of a dangerous barkeep and a strange singer Thom Merrillin (Alexandre Willaume) who travels with them, all while keeping their distance from another group known as the White Coats.
The show has some good production value as well as decent visual effects. The show's cinematography is quite breathtaking as well. The show was filmed in Eastern Europe in places like Prague, Slovenia, and Dubrovnik. These are areas not previously seen on television in this form of fantasy show. The dampness of the weather and fall and winter seasons played right into the overall setting of the show. The costumes by Isis Mussenden and hairstyles are pretty amazing as well. It's always nice to see how these shows dress and prepare their actors and actresses for a show such as this.
The show is based on a popular book series of the same name, so it's no secret that it focuses on a sect of women, and women, in general, are at the forefront of all the main story arcs and key aspects of the show. Jordan wanted to show women in positions of power in the series from the get-go. In the era of the MeToo movement, it was a good idea to have this series made into a television show for the world to see. It also has plenty of Asians, Black, and other races besides white in key roles of the show. This just shows how Hollywood has progressed in the regard of casting decisions on its films and television projects.
There are some films and shows similar to this one I've seen before with a similar feel to this one. Not having read the book series, I can't judge the show based on how good the books are or aren't. The show doesn't stand out as anything too great or not so great either. It's an interesting show with intriguing character arcs. The set production, production value, and cinematography are all fine. The cast is also strong as well, with Pike as the standout in a cast of relative unknowns. Season 2 is on its way so maybe it'll be bigger and on a grander scale. Until then we'll have to be happy with what we've gotten in Season 1 on Amazon Prime on November 19th.
The Wheel of Time streams on Amazon Prime beginning November 19. All eight episodes reviewed.
Review by Camden Ferrell
After their last film, Zootopia, won an Academy Award, directing duo and Disney veterans, Jared Bush and Byron Howard are back with another outing for Disney. Encanto is their newest feature, and they are joined by co-writer and co-director Charise Castro Smith. This is another adorable and enjoyable Disney film, one that is elevated significantly by one of their best soundtracks in decades.
This family fantasy film focuses on the Madrigals, a Colombian family who have been blessed by the magic of the Encanto. They live in a magical house in a booming town, and each of the Madrigals have been given a unique and magical gift. However, Mirabel is the only child in the family who is not given a magical power. From there, we see her deal with the frustrations of being ordinary in an extraordinary family. It’s a fun and unique premise that audiences of all ages will enjoy.
The screenplay from Smith and Bush is slightly better than the average script from Disney. While it’s not subtle in its humor, interactions, and themes due to their target audience, it doesn’t ever feel boring. It lays down a strong narrative foundation on which the animation can be built into something truly enjoyable. The jokes are relatively strong, and it definitely feels like theirs a conscious effort to connect to the adults in the audience. Sometimes the writing can come up a little short and some of the humor doesn’t always land properly, but it’s admirable writing for a family film.
The voice acting in this movie ranges from adequately forgettable to strong. The film is led by Stephanie Beatriz who plays Mirabel. Her typical charm doesn’t always shine through in her voice acting, but it’s still the strongest performance in the movie. She has a decent screen presence, and she also has strong command over her singing throughout. The other highlight from the cast is Maria Cecilia Botero who plays Abuela Alma. She is consistently strong throughout the film as well. The rest of the cast is decent, but no one else really stood out to me as exceptional in their role.
Without a doubt, the defining aspect of this movie is its music. Composed by musical-theater icon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is one of Disney’s best soundtracks in decades. Miranda’s style and influences are evident almost immediately, and these songs feel wholly unique within Disney’s repertoire. While not his best work in his career, this is his best work for a feature film, and it is full of catchy songs that might help him complete his long-awaited EGOT.
Like a lot of other Disney movies, the animation is really beautiful throughout. There’s such a keen attention to detail present, and it allows you to feel immersed in the movie and the world it’s creating. In addition, the physical comedy is aided by the consistently creative animation. The characters interact with their environment in a way that doesn’t get boring or monotonous.
At its core, this is another movie about family and what makes us special. It’s not new territory for family films, but it’s a tried and tested formula that works yet again for this movie. It’s not too long and doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has a lot going on that both kids and adults will enjoy.
Encanto is another strong entry for the House of Mouse, and it’s an absolute triumph for the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s a celebration of family and Latino culture that will please audiences everywhere this Thanksgiving.
Encanto is in theaters November 24.
Review by Sean Boelman
Cowboy Bebop is one of the most acclaimed anime series of all time, so the new live-action version of the series is understandably highly anticipated by fans. Although it would be impossible to live up to the quality of the original show, this is pretty great for what it is, a ton of stylish, sci-fi fun.
The series follows a group of space-bound bounty hunters who travel the galaxy hunting down dangerous criminals, as they find themselves up against larger-than-life threats. It’s a fun romp that throws us straight into this world, allowing the audience to immediately get caught up in the misadventures of Spike and the crew.
Part of what makes this show so much fun to watch is that each episode is a relatively stand-alone adventure, although they also each build towards the overall season arc. And although the Netflix release is typically conducive to binge streaming, the format of the show also allows viewers to take it at their own pace.
The main trio of the show is obviously very likable, and it is their dynamic that really drives the show. Those who are fans of the anime will already be familiar with this dysfunctional family of sorts, but the show does a great job of exploring their relationship after the first few episodes. And of course, the gallery of villains they face over the course of the season is definitely memorable.
John Cho is very charming in the lead role, but there’s not a whole lot of nuance to what he is doing. He pulls off the cocky side of the character quite well, but when the role calls for a bit more vulnerability, he doesn’t go far enough. The other highlight in the cast is Alex Hassell, who is amazingly villainous as Vicious.
The action sequences in the series do vary quite widely in quality. There are a few that are simple standoffs, and then there are others which are much more inspired. One episode, which features the heroes fighting a group of eco-terrorists, has one of the most wacky and creative sequences in any show this year.
There is definitely a goofy quality to a lot of the show’s execution, but it is fitting given the fact that the show is trying to faithfully emulate the highly-stylized anime. Some of the CGI isn’t the best, but what the show does to create this unique, futuristic world in which it is set is generally quite effective. And the opening sequence is on-point, which is a small detail, but shows just how much care was put into this.
Cowboy Bebop is exactly as much fun as fans of the original anime were hoping it would be. It may not be groundbreaking or revolutionary in any way, but as an homage to something so iconic, it delivers.
Cowboy Bebop streams on Netflix beginning November 19.
Based on a novel by Jennifer Clement, the Mexican submission for Best International Feature, Prayers for the Stolen, is sure to be one of the prime contenders for the awards. Effectively harrowing, even if its unique pacing may be off-putting to some, this is a nuanced and compelling coming-of-age story, the likes of which we don’t often see.
The film is set in a community stricken by war where young girls live under the daily threat of being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking. The central storyline of the movie is a coming-of-age arc, but it’s anything but standard, as writer-director Tatiana Huezo shows a very different perspective of what it means to grow up.
Obviously, this film offers a lot of social commentary in regards to the issue of human trafficking in Latin America, but what makes this stand out is that it as concerned with the characters as it is with what it has to say. It’s hard for a movie dealing with this issue to feel harrowing without being excessive, but this pulls it off quite well.
The way in which the film is paced is certainly very unique. It’s a ticking time bomb of a movie, and we know that it is going to explode, but when it does, it’s still soul-crushing. Huezo brilliantly builds suspense, alternating between moments of unadulterated childhood joy and the bleakness of this society dealing with human trafficking.
That said, this slower pacing can also work against the film at times. There are long stretches of the movie in which we are just watching the mundanities of life in this village, and then something devastating happens. Although there is a poignancy to these more restrained moments, the repetitiveness may exhaust some viewers.
The two young actresses who play the lead character are both superb. Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño play the younger and adolescent versions of the character, respectively, and they both embody the role brilliantly. They capture the emotional vulnerability of the character excellently.
This is Huezo’s first narrative feature as a director, and her foundations in documentary filmmaking are clear. The cinematography by Dariela Ludlow does a great job of capturing the harshness of the situation, both in reality and from the youthful, hopeful perspective of the protagonist.
Prayers for the Stolen isn’t a perfect film, but it does what it does very well. Although there are definitely a few sequences that could have spared to be tightened significantly, few audience members will be left unmoved.
Prayers for the Stolen is screening at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
There has been an abundance of movie musicals in 2021, and it is refreshing to see this (generally) peppy trend given what we have been going through for nearly two years now. And although tick, tick… BOOM! deals with some rather dark subject matter compared to the rest of them, its mostly uplifting nature is quite infectious.
Based on Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical off-Broadway musical, the film follows a promising theatre composer who struggles to break onto the scene despite his brilliance. In terms of the story itself, it’s something that musical theatre fans are more likely to care about, as they will already be familiar with the greater context of the movie. But general audiences will still empathize with the core arc of pursuing one’s dreams.
Larson is known for his innovative style of songwriting, and that is certainly the case here. There are some songs that feel more like classic showtunes, and others that are something more unorthodox. But only “Boho Days” (which wasn’t even in the original stage version of the show) will be an earworm, and the lack of an original song is both surprising and disappointing.
Obviously, the message that the film has about perseverance and never giving up on one’s aspirations is extremely inspiring. And the ending of this story, with which those aware of Larson’s career will be familiar, only makes it ring even more true. There are also some subplots in the movie, including one about the AIDS crisis, that feel underdeveloped.
On paper, it seems like this could very easily turn into a “woe is me” type of autobiography, but the whole affair is surprisingly humble. The film is the directorial debut of the extremely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it is clear that it was made by a theatre lover for other theatre lovers. His tremendous respect for Larson is a big part of what makes the movie work as well as it does.
Andrew Garfield’s performance in the leading role is nothing short of extraordinary. In regards to the musical portions of his role, he pulls them off extremely well, as he has an unexpectedly lovely singing voice. But even more impressive is how perfectly he pulls off the dramatic sections, especially the more emotionally intense scenes like those involving Larson’s best friend/roommate (played by Robin de Jesus).
Visually, the film does struggle a bit with finding the right balance between realism and fantasy. Even in the more grounded scenes, there is an air of surrealism that doesn’t ever quite go away. And the only scene that truly leans into all-out fantasy is the musical number “Sunday”, which is one of the highlights of the movie.
The core audience for which tick, tick… BOOM! was made will absolutely eat it up, but there’s also plenty that general audiences will love. It’s not a perfect film by any means, although Lin-Manuel Miranda shows a lot of promise as a director.
tick, tick… BOOM! screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Documentarian Robert Greene has made several documentaries that have dealt with the intersection between artistic expression and societal issues. Procession has the potential to be something extraordinarily profound, but ends up aiming a bit too high to be able to juggle everything.
The film follows a group of survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests who come to turns with their trauma by creating short films. There have been plenty of movies to explore the idea of self-expression as a means of understanding oneself, but Greene’s approach here is extremely sympathetic and understanding.
In term of dealing with the very serious issue of sexual abuse within the church system, the film handles it very subtly. Although this is an issue that is much more widespread than one would like, Greene doesn’t treat these people merely like pieces in a puzzle, but rather, the individuals with unique traumas that they are.
This is obviously a very angry movie, particularly when it is exploring the injustices that these victims have faced and the way that the church has covered up a lot of these instances. But the feeling that dominates here is sadness, as Greene really dials in on the soul-crushing aspects of these stories.
That said, one can’t help but feel like the film tries to juggle too many perspectives. Although all six of the men have very powerful stories of recovering from their abuse, telling all of these stories together will inevitably result in audiences seeing the similarities between them, rather than the way in which their healing process is special.
It’s definitely interesting to see how these people used their art in such a constructive way, but we don’t necessarily get to see as much of it as could have been used. There seems to be just a few minutes of footage that was produced, resulting in some of it being repeated. There’s probably a reason for this, but it still feels like something is missing.
There are definitely a lot of amazing things going on in the movie behind the camera. It’s nice to see a film approaching this issue from a perspective that is less journalistic and more humanistic. As a result, Greene shoots the movie in a way that takes care to be warm and welcoming, but still can have an edge to it when necessary.
Procession is a really captivating film, and it handles its material quite sensitively. It isn’t quite as devastating as expected, but it is effective in creating a somber feeling overall and offers some profound observations.
Procession screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Rocky IV came out in the heart of the Cold War when the United States and Russia were bitter enemies of one another. Photos of huge military armaments surfaced around the world. This was meant to be the picture of strength and power these countries have. Say what you will about the power of patriotism, it worked in this case. Rocky IV was a huge hit.
Sylvester Stallone came back for this film as actor and director and he didn't miss a beat. This was another great installment of this storied franchise. He always seems to find a way to make Rocky the underdog even when he's the champ. Along with himself returning he brought in Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago and Brigitte Nielsen as his wife. They both looked and sounded the part of Russians in the film. They were perfectly cast in these roles.
The boxing in the Rocky films has always been more for show than actual mechanical boxing, even though there are great montages of training scenes with inspirational songs such as "Hearts on Fire" and so forth. The fight scenes are more for dramatic license in the film, but they are very effective in getting the audience into the film. Whether it is the beginning as Rocky beats Clubber Lang or the middle when Apollo dies at the hands of Ivan Drago or when Rocky beats Drago to overcome huge odds at the end of the film.
A part of the Rocky films that to me and many others is so great is the one-liners that people quote from the films. In this case, there are a few great quotes, such as when Adrian (Talia Shire) says to Rocky when he has announced he's fighting Drago, "You can't win". This rings so powerfully in the viewer's eyes. We are genuinely concerned for Rocky. Another great quote comes from Drago, 'I will break you,' before the fight and Rocky during and after the fight, 'I see three of him Paulie," "Hit the one in the middle," and "If I can change and you can change, then everyone can change." That was a truly inspirational line in the film.
Rocky had always been an allegory for the people of America and how we have overcome so much in our lives and the country as a whole has overcome so much. This film is the perfect example of that. It mirrors true life perfectly. Stallone knew what he was doing when he put this film into motion. He knew he had the people on the palm of his hand with this film. The original runtime was 1 hr 31 minutes and this new version of the film is 1 hour 34 minutes. It basically adds more to the montage scenes and gives the audience a few more minutes to hear "Eye of the Tiger" at the end of the film. Which never gets old in my opinion.
Rocky IV is a spectacle no matter how you look at it. From James Brown singing "Coming to America" before the Apollo Drago exhibition fight to the scenes of the Russians in the crowd in Moscow at the Rocky vs Drago fight cheering for Rocky, it is not meant to be very subtle. This film is in your face from the very beginning and it's great for that. Whether people like it or not, they can't deny the fact this film worked on all levels from the production value to the acting and the music. It was a perfect storm that resulted in one of the all-time great sports films in a great franchise. I will always love Rocky IV no matter what anyone says. Even if it's a little dated.
Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago hits VOD on November 12.
Review by Sean Boelman
This is apparently the year of the long art house drama, as the unorthodox Georgian romance What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is truly something special. Taking its simple premise and expanding upon it in a way that is ingeniously poignant and almost hypnotic in nature.
The film follows two young people who fall in love after only a pair of chance encounters, only to find that an evil spell has been cast upon them that will keep them from finding each other. Although there is certainly a supernatural element to the movie, it isn’t the focus but more of a means to an end.
It goes without question that the two-and-a-half-hour runtime will certainly try the patience of some viewers, but writer-director Aleksandre Koberidze is very deliberate with his pacing. The first act is quite funny, with its deadpan meet cutes and wandering about, but it is when the film becomes more tragic in the second act that it starts to truly resonate.
There isn’t much subtlety in the movie’s messages on love and romance, with the narration even going so far as to spell it out to the audience. Although it may not be the most thought-provoking of films, there’s still enough going on here to justify the length of the story. Koberidze doesn’t add anything new to the trope of the star-crossed lovers, but it’s a good watch nevertheless.
The character development in the movie is also quite strong. Koberidze does an excellent job of making the audience immediately sympathize with the characters because they quite literally lose everything. This gives us the necessary feeling of hope, which is what drives along the narrative.
It is always a challenge for two actors to play the same role in a single film, but the cast here absolutely pulls it off. Giorgi Bochorishvili and Giorgi Ambroladze and Ani Karseladze and Oliko Barbakadze are great duos, playing alternate versions of each other in an entirely believable way. Bochorishvili and Karseladze, who play the versions of the couple with the most screen time, are truly brilliant.
Koberidze also does an amazing job with the movie from a technical standpoint. The cinematography is excellent, using the camera in plenty of interesting ways like shooting from extreme distance or only from the knees down to create a unique emotional effect. The score by Giorgi Koberidze is also a highlight.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is an extraordinary film, making something complex and innovative out of a simple story. It’s a shame this wasn’t submitted as its country’s representative for Best International Film, because it is one of the year’s best.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Every artist worth a damn will one day get their story told in a biographical documentary, and the late author Kurt Vonnegut is finally getting his chance with this long-gestating film. However, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is more than your average recollection of his life and career thanks to filmmakers Robert B. Weide and Don Argott’s unique approach.
On one hand, the movie does exist to tell the story of Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but beyond that, it is also an exploration of Weide’s story of befriending Vonnegut while trying to make a more standard biography about him. This creates a very interesting exploration of the relationship between art and artist.
The pacing of the film is a tad uneven, as Weide and Argott struggle to maintain the more than two-hour runtime. That said, the structure of the movie is quite fitting. Much like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Weide weaves throughout time, creating parallelisms between different points in Vonnegut’s life and work that are really fascinating.
Of course, the film doesn’t shy away from some of the more political aspects of Vonnegut’s writing. One of the more compelling portions of the movie explores how Vonnegut’s experiences in his youth would come to shape his political beliefs, which would then basically define his style of writing.
The film does an excellent job of making Vonnegut a compelling subject. Although he passed away in 2007, this movie has been in the making for decades, so there is plenty of great footage to offer his personal insight. And his personality is exactly what one would expect from the voice he expresses through his work.
At first, one may be asking why they are supposed to care about Weide’s role in this story, but by the second half of the film, he becomes an important figure. Some of the greatest insight we get into Vonnegut as a person comes not from the praise that is showered upon him by talking head interviewees, but simply seeing the interactions he has with the filmmaker and the influence he had on his life.
Weide and Argott also back up their dynamic storytelling with a nicely kinetic technique. In the many years that this movie has been in production, Weide has been able to amass an extraordinary amount of material, and this makes the film feel comprehensive even though it jumps around and seemingly misses a lot.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time does have some conventional moments, but for the most part, it’s not an average biographical documentary. It’s a great watch, regardless of how familiar you are with its subject’s work.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC film festival, which runs November 10-28.