EDUCATION -- McQueen Does It Again
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Filmmaker Steve McQueen created his Small Axe anthology to tell the story of the West Indies community in London and feature many rising and established stars in the film industry, including John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, and Kenyah Sandy, who plays the lead in the final installment, Education.
Kingsley lives with his family in London. His parents are workaholics, so they don't realize the help he needs. They send him to a different school that focuses on slow or disabled children. A woman comes along to prove these children have more to offer than previously thought. They just aren't getting the proper education because of their West Indian heritage.
As someone who has a learning disability, I can say that people who can't read, write, or do math are considered "special" in the education system in America. They have classes in every school in every town and state in America. This wasn't always the case, especially in other countries. These kids are thought of as an afterthought of civilization.
Thankfully, some people are looking out for Kingsley and these other children. They are like guardian angels for them. These children deserve the proper education and time it takes to teach them properly. If that takes one, two, three, or more years, just because kids have slow learning skills doesn't mean they won't turn out to be something in society.
As the previous films in the Small Axe series have discussed, Education shows the lack of compassion and empathy for the West Indian community. The English don't want to help these people. More often than not, they think of them as criminals and miscreants. They are considered dregs of society in the eyes of the English authority. This is of course wrong.
Children deserve all the benefits that law and country and state can give them. They shouldn't be caught up in political ideals by those that don't like them. This film shows that there are people who care about children and want to help them. Teachers and educators take an oath to do the best they can to help children unlike in this film.
This film points the finger at the education system in England and how biased it was to underprivileged families. McQueen once again points his camera to very relevant topics in England during the '70s and '80s. This series was great because it touched on many topics still problematic today in the United States as well as in England. That's what makes Small Axe such a great series.
Education, along with all entries in the Small Axe anthology, is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Review by Sean Boelman
Deon Taylor’s schlocky thrillers are probably the most unlikely contenders to have ever received an unironic awards campaign (despite often being panned by critics), but they are fun for what they are. His latest, the unabashed homage (or maybe rip-off) Fatale, may not be very good, but it has a certain popcorn movie charm nevertheless.
The film tells the story of a married man who, after a one-night stand, finds himself to be a part of a police officer’s investigation that threatens to derail his entire life. Down to the title, it’s clear that this movie is basically a rehash of Fatal Attraction, but the issue is that erotic thrillers like this just don’t play as well as they did in 1987.
David Loughery (who also collaborated with Taylor on the much less entertaining The Intruder) penned the script, and his biggest mistakes are in the characterization. On one hand, he tries to make the femme fatale into a more compelling character with a subplot, which is emotionally confusing, and on the other, he further demonizes the protagonist.
Perhaps the most aggravating thing about this film is that it tries to be something more, but it struggles to do so. The opportunity was right there for this to focus on the injustices of the police and justice system to people of color, but instead, these ideas are largely relegated to an outro speech as the credits begin to roll.
Still, there is something entertaining about watching this game of cat-and-mouse. The first thirty minutes take a bit of time to get moving, spending a bit too long on the steamy romance side of the erotic thriller, but once the criminal elements come into play, it’s much more fun, even if it is entirely predictable.
The performances are inarguably the best part of this movie. Even though Michael Ealy and Hillary Swank have next to no chemistry together, they each give strong individual turns. Swank is so off-the-walls in her performance that it’s not really clear exactly what she was trying to do, but it’s enjoyable to watch how wacky she gets.
Taylor’s directorial style here, even more so than usual, screams that he desperately wants to be cool. From the outright painful hip-hop needle drops to the shiny cars that get extended close-ups, Taylor wants the audience to know that these people are rich and attractive. It’s a shame, because there are some legitimately decent suspense-building tactics that are undermined by these attempts to be stylish.
Fatale certainly isn’t a particularly original film, but as mindless pulp, it mostly delivers. It’s worth watching if only for the opportunity to get to see an out-of-the-box performance from Hillary Swank.
Fatale is now playing in theaters.
S2E8: "Chapter 16: The Rescue"
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Well, it has all come down to this. The season has been one of stand-alone episodes each featuring some new characters and some old characters from season one. Din Djarin's mission at the end of Season One was to get the child, known now as Grogu, to the Jedi Knights. The entire season has culminated in this final standoff with Moff Gideon and his dark troopers. And that's what showrunner Jon Favreau and director Peyton Reed have given us: a glorious final episode to Season Two of The Mandalorian.
With the help of Boba Fett, Cara Dune, and some others, Din Djarin makes his attempt to rescue Grogu, as the title of the episode suggests. A shadow play where everybody goes looking for Gideon and Djarin breaks off and goes looking for Grogu is basically what the episode consists of. A lot of blaster fire and stand-offs transpire after this.
It was going to be hard to live up to the hype of season one of the show, but Peyton Reed and company did just that with this final episode and the previous seven. Even though this season was designed differently from season one, it had a lot of jaw-dropping moments. This episode had the biggest, which culminated in a satisfying conclusion to Season Two. This season was fantastic in so many ways!
The action, set design, writing, and overall direction of the show and season were terrific. Favreau, Disney, and Lucasfilm should be proud of what they have accomplished with this show, the first live-action series, which is incredible. The fan excitement was at a fervor for some good star wars material and this show and season were an answer for that. "The Rescue "was the perfect episode to end the season.
The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+.
Review by Sean Boelman
It isn’t usually a good thing when a film makes one angry, but that isn’t the case with activist/artist/filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s magnificent documentary Cockroach. Upsetting in an eye-opening way, this movie is more deserving of the description of “essential viewing” than any other this year.
In the film, Weiwei takes a look at the protests that occurred in Hong Kong in 2019 and the circumstances that led the people to take to the streets. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that this story didn’t receive as much global news coverage as it deserved, as much of the information and footage presented here is going to be startling and unexpected to viewers.
Weiwei leaves no other option for the audience other than to feel disgust at what they are seeing. Footage of brutal attacks by the police against the protesters makes up a majority of the movie’s content, and it is truly disturbing. It’s undeniably hard to watch as these people fighting for freedom are quite literally beaten to near death.
The average viewer may find themselves put off by the idea of watching an hour and a half of material on such a grim subject, but it is important to realize that this is the unfortunate truth of our world. The repetition of similar incidents reinforces the idea of how widespread this violence actually is.
Even though this film specifically relates to the turmoil that happened in Hong Kong, its message still rings true across the globe. It is hard not to have a contempt towards a government that describes protesters hoping to peacefully stand up for their rights as “rioters” as justification to use extreme force.
That said, Weiwei approaches these activists as more than victims. He emphasizes not only the atrocities committed against them, but the amazing things that they are doing to help other people in the community. Interviews with artists that are using their talents to support the cause make the movie even more emotionally moving.
And while a majority of the film is made up of footage from the front lines, that doesn’t mean that Weiwei took a simple point-and-shoot approach. Instead, he has created an immersive experience that is really unnerving. The sound design is one of the best of the year, brilliantly creating tension and supplementing the footage.
Cockroach is one of the best documentaries of 2020. Ai Weiwei has managed to tackle one of the most important and difficult issues facing the world today in a way that is angering and thought-provoking in a way that is absolutely necessary.
Cockroach streams on Alamo on Demand beginning December 18. Tickets can be purchased here.
Review by Sean Boelman
If anyone ever wondered what the most unlikely candidate to start a decade-long trilogy was, the answer is probably the glorified visual effects demo reel Skyline. Another diverting but mediocre sci-fi flick borrowing from better films in the genre, Skylines is made for a seemingly non-existent fanbase that probably wouldn’t even welcome it with open arms.
Picking up years after the events of the first two movies, the film is set in a world where humans are living in harmony with the human-alien hybrids that threatened to take over until a virus threatens to revert the hybrids to their murderous instincts and a human hero must lead a band of mercenaries to the aliens’ home planet to find the cure. It’s a really convoluted plot that is little more than an excuse for a couple of cool action sequences.
One of the most off-putting things about this movie is that it feels like a mash-up of other sci-fi storylines. It starts out as a Terminator-like action flick before turning into a Prometheus for a franchise no one cares about and finally ending with the finale of Aliens. In a way, it’s almost entertaining to watch how unoriginal the story is.
The film also doesn’t settle on an action style. There are sci-fi action sequences with laser guns, martial arts fights, and even a couple of scenes towards the end that are reminiscent of superhero movies. The choreography of some of the individual scenes is actually quite good, but it isn’t enough to justify the tedium of its prolonged runtime.
It’s almost ironic that this series started as a showcase for one of the best visual effects companies because now it has turned into a cheap B-movie franchise. In the first movie, the effects were used to effectively create some genuine suspense, but here, they feel really unoriginal and out-of-date.
Also frustrating is the fact that the film feels the need to hold the audience’s hand. The first ten minutes are basically a recap meant to reorient the audience into the series and explain the mythology. What the filmmakers fail to realize is that no one watching this movie cares about the story, they want to see aliens and fighting, so this introduction just tacks on extra time.
Then there is a subplot about what is happening on Earth parallel to the main storyline about the expedition to the alien planet. This is clearly intended to establish a ticking clock, apparently to create a sense of urgency, but by cutting away from the main storyline for five minutes at a time, the momentum is just ruined.
Out of about an hour and forty minutes of substantial material (and ten minutes of a gag reel and credits), there’s maybe thirty minutes of stuff worth watching in Skylines. How this series made it to three films is baffling, but thankfully, it is apparently wrapped-up.
Skylines hits theaters and VOD on December 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Jane Austen’s work has continued to delight readers for centuries because of how timeless her themes are, and Modern Persuasion is not the first attempt to transpose her stories to today. And while the filmmakers got the spirit right, they struggle to capture the whimsical humor that defines the author’s work.
The movie follows a career-focused woman in New York City who finds her romantic and professional lives upended when a former boyfriend hires her company. Those who are familiar with Austen’s original novel will know the beats of this story, and for the most part, this modernized film sticks to them very closely.
However, even though Persuasion is one of Austen’s shorter novels, condensing it into a ninety-minute comedy doesn’t exactly work. It gives the writers no room to allow the characters to breathe, and as a result, it ends up feeling very shallow. The subplots which were such an integral part of Austen’s characterization are barely explored.
It doesn’t take much to read into the message of Austen’s works, but this movie spells it right out for the audience. It’s not subtle in any way, and whereas Austen would use dry humor and sarcasm to get her point across, this script is apparently satisfied with a handful of painfully unfunny jokes and awkward encounters.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing, though, is that the audience won’t really care about the protagonist. The character’s arc is built around the conflict she feels between being drawn to her work and finding true love, but everything that makes Anne Elliot special in Persuasion is missing or an afterthought in this equation.
Of course, the romance could have been a lot more compelling had there been more chemistry between the two stars. Alicia Witt is charming on her own, but Shane McRae’s performance is about as wooden as they come. And when they share the screen together, no one would ever believe that they actually would make a solid couple.
It’s clear that the filmmakers are working with a limited budget here, and giving the movie a modern setting allows them to tell this story without extravagant spending on the production design. However, that doesn’t excuse a style that looks sterilized and overly saturated, with little to no energy on display in the execution.
Modern Persuasion isn’t quite bad enough to have Jane Austen rolling in her grave, but it’s not interesting enough to be worth the time. It likely would have been better off had it not tried to have this connection and instead recycled the beats under a different title.
Modern Persuasion hits VOD on December 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
For much of its runtime, Hunter Hunter is a suspenseful but generic psychological thriller, but it sticks the landing in a way that audiences won’t soon forget. Impressive in its style more so than its substance, this is the type of brutally fun thriller that will make waves among the midnight crowd.
The film follows a family whose tranquil life as fur trappers is threatened when they begin to suspect they are being hunted by a vicious rogue wolf. At first, it seems as if this is going to be a man versus wild type of movie, but as the story progresses and the paranoia begins to set in, it becomes clear that there is more to it than that.
In a way, this is a slow burn, but not a traditional one. The first hour or so is very tense due to the audience, along with the characters, not knowing what is really happening. Normally, one would expect the suspense to ease off as soon as things start to fall into place, but Shawn Linden ups the ante, delivering one of the most impressive finales of the year.
The movie’s one significant shortcoming is that the character development is relatively thin. The protagonist is compelling as a mother trying to protect her family, but there are very few times in which she breaks outside of the desperate mother archetype. Camille Sullivan gives a fine performance in the role.
Devon Sawa has the main supporting turn as the father of the family who sets out to find the wolf and kill it before it can do any more damage. Sawa is as fun to watch as ever, giving a performance that is enjoyably brooding, but the character unfortunately doesn’t take him to any particularly interesting places.
There is also a subplot involving some local cops, and that is basically a non-starter. While Linden’s intentions with this storyline are obvious, and it ties in nicely to the ending, it isn’t entirely necessary and often feels like filler. Without this portion of the film, the story still could have felt complete.
It is definitely on a technical level that the movie is most impressive. Linden shoots the film in a way that is dark and atmospheric. Even though there are only a few moments of brutality, they are absolutely shocking and used in a way that is completely effective. The soundtrack also does a wonderful job of setting the mood.
Hunter Hunter starts out as a very simple movie but delivers in unexpected ways. Shawn Linden’s film is one of the most surprising genre flicks of the year, a can’t-miss for those looking for a thrilling watch.
Hunter Hunter hits theaters and VOD on December 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
There is no denying that the fight for human rights is one of the most pressing issues that the world is currently facing. Filmmaker Jeff Kaufman’s documentary Nasrin attempts to call attention to this fight through a portrait of a courageous activist, and while it is powerful and moving, it feels a bit too similar to other biographies that have come before.
The movie tells the story of lawyer and civil rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has become one of the leading figures in the women’s rights movement in Iran, risking her life and freedom to stand up for the cause. The fact that this film was able to be made despite its unabashedly political content is a miracle in and of itself, but this story demands to be heard by as wide of an audience as possible.
If audiences leave the movie with one thing, it should be a profound respect for the bravery that Sotoudeh has shown in the face of opposition and pushback. Kaufman shows some of the threats that Sotoudeh has to live with, and they are absolutely terrifying, making the resilience that she has all the more impressive.
However, no matter how difficult it may be, Sotoudeh perseveres and fights for what she believes and values. There is no denying that she is a magnificent person who has shown a seemingly superhuman level of emotional strength, but the film emphasizes the difference that one person can make with dedication and empathy.
This isn’t a very long movie, clocking in right at ninety minutes, but Kaufman tells Sotoudeh’s story in a way that feels very complete. Admittedly, the film won’t hit as hard emotionally if one has seen other documentaries about activists dealing with similar situations, but that doesn’t reduce the importance of the message.
The movie features narration from Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Colman, and while her voice is very passionate and emotional when reading Sotoudeh’s story, this aspect is almost unnecessary. At times, it feels like an attempt to imbue the film with star power, almost undermining the fact that Sotoudeh should be compelling enough on her own.
Kaufman assembles his movie from anonymous sources filming in Iran, their identities left unrevealed as to protect them from potential retaliation. This very frenetic approach is fitting, further emphasizing the urgency of the situation. It’s not always the most glamorous documentary, but the fight for women’s rights frequently isn’t pretty.
Nasrin may fall back on documentary conventions a bit too often, but the story is more than strong enough to make it an urgent watch. It is sure to be an eye-opening experience even for those who are already well-informed.
Nasrin screens in virtual theaters beginning December 18. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
When a film takes place in a picturesque location and features a starry cast and a script that isn’t particularly substantial, one has to wonder if the movie is little more than an excuse for the actors to take a paid vacation. Even though that certainly seems to be the case with Sister of the Groom, it’s still pretty charming in a lighthearted way.
The film follows a woman on the cusp of turning forty who makes it her mission to undermine her brother’s wedding to a young French woman, causing their personalities to clash. This wedding crasher premise has been done many times before, but filmmaker Amy Miller Gross wisely tries to mostly avoid physical comedy, instead focusing on the protagonist’s arc.
Much of the movie feels like a series of scenes that are loosely woven together rather than a more unified narrative. There are a lot of funny and endearing moments, but the frame by which it is bound isn’t super satisfying. As a result, even though it is mostly harmless and jovial, the film also ends up feeling largely forgettable.
Where the movie does succeed is in giving the protagonist a solid arc. Granted, the idea of using someone else’s wedding as an opportunity for personal growth is undeniably selfish and admittedly a bit off-putting. Yet despite this, Gross’s approach to the character feels very earnest and makes the story surprisingly resonant.
However, there is a fundamental issue with the film and it is that it does not seem to address the toxicity. In wedding movies with a lot of physical comedy, there is usually a point at which the protagonist becomes embarrassed over their actions. That moment has a much weaker presence here, and as a result, the character’s growth isn’t as strong.
The film does feature a pretty excellent cast, even if not all of them are fully utilized. Alicia Silverstone makes for a funny and charismatic lead, and it’s nice to see her in the lead again after having done a few years in supporting roles. The late Mark Blum has some great moments, as do Tom Everett Scott and Jake Hoffman, but one will wish to have seen more of them.
As is the case with a lot of these destination wedding movies, this is gorgeous to look at. Gross knows that she is shooting pretty people in pretty places, and so it doesn’t take much to make it aesthetically pleasing. And now that travel has been restricted, it’s a solid bit of escapism to see these lovely settings.
Sister of the Groom isn’t anything special, but it looks good and has enough laughs and heart to be worth a watch. It’s a solid distraction for ninety minutes before moving on to the next movie that is sure to be more noteworthy.
Sister of the Groom hits theaters and VOD on December 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
The track record of video game movies is mixed at best, but the Resident Evil franchise managed to be an enjoyable guilty pleasure despite its flaws. Filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson reunites with wife and star Milla Jovovich for Monster Hunter, and while there is a fun movie in here, it gets too caught up in trying to start a franchise to truly work.
Based on the video game by Capcom, the film follows a military squadron who get mysteriously transported to another world where they find themselves fighting for survival against giant monsters. It’s ridiculous — mostly just a bunch of big guns shooting at even bigger monsters — but the unabashed energy it has is admittedly quite charming.
The first hour or so, featuring the soldiers fighting against their otherworldly foes, is a ton of fun to watch. Blending horror and action in a way that is consistently entertaining and with a breakneck pace that basically forces the movie to be unpredictable, this is exactly what audiences will be coming to the movie to see.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this film is that it is almost better without world-building. The movie is at its best when the audience is right along with the characters, disoriented in this world. However, when the backstory is introduced, it becomes clear that Anderson is more concerned with setting up a sequel than delivering a great standalone film.
That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have some legitimately enjoyable moments. In fact, the entire first act is absolutely off-the-walls and features some imagery that is so disturbing, one wonders how this ever got a PG-13 rating. But when the nonstop action begins to slow down, it will lose the audience’s interest.
One of the more disappointing things about the film is that it fails to take advantage of the resources at its disposal. Martial artist Tony Jaa has a prominent supporting role, but apart from a handful of shots that feel like an afterthought, his skills aren’t really used. The movie definitely could have been even more fun with some more physical combat.
Still, one thing is made abundantly clear by this, and that is the fact that Milla Jovovich is still an action star with the ability to carry a film on her own. Some of the best scenes are those in which she is fighting the monsters one-on-one. Even if her delivery of the dialogue isn’t the best, she is great in the action sequences.
Monster Hunter is half of a good movie, the other half sadly feeling more like a cash-grab than anything else. Still, even if the attempts to start a franchise will be futile, there’s enough creature action here to make it a solid popcorn movie.
Monster Hunter opens in theaters on December 18.