Review by Sean Boelman
Often, it’s the thrillers with the simplest premises that are most effective, and for the most part, that is the case with Alex McAulay’s Don’t Tell a Soul. And even though the script does lose some of its steam when it tries to go beyond the basics of the formula, strong performances keep the movie seriously suspenseful.
The film follows two teenagers who, while trying to steal money to help with their terminally ill mother, strand a security guard at the bottom of a well and are presented with an unexpected ethical challenge. It’s a unique twist on a story we have seen time and time again, but McAulay’s directorial style is strong enough to compensate for its bits of genericism.
Much of the first half is largely dialogue-driven, and this is definitely the most compelling portion. When the movie tries to turn into something a bit more action-oriented, it requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief from the audience. And with such a short runtime, the film tries to do a bit too much with too little time.
Admittedly, the movie is a bit heavy-handed with its themes, particularly when it comes to the final act. The script tries to tie in an element of family drama, but it doesn’t work particularly well. And while a lot of the story is about moral ambiguity, it ends up leaning the wrong way by the time the third act comes around.
The dynamic between the two protagonists, who are brothers, is rather shallow. It’s the trope of older brother antagonizing younger brother, and the emotional arc is really contrived as a result. The antagonist is a much more interesting character, although the arc he has is a lot more problematic.
On a technical level, the film is quite strong. McAulay brings a very cold visual style, and it works, creating a very immersive atmosphere. The production design for much of the movie is very simple, but the filmmakers do a good job of making the viewer feel an increasing sense of entrapment as the story goes on.
That said, the single strongest aspect of the film is its performances. The three leads — Jack Dylan Grazer, Fionn Whitehead, and Rainn Wilson — all give strong turns. They have excellent chemistry together, especially Grazer and Wilson, selling even the most ludicrous of the movie’s moments.
Don’t Tell a Soul is a refreshing thriller offering some solid entertainment with a lean runtime. It can be a bit frustrating at times when it tries to be something more than it is, but when it sticks to the basics, it’s surprisingly good.
Don’t Tell a Soul hits VOD on January 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
Although the romantic drama genre isn’t known for consistent quality, it is usually pretty obvious from the get go what the intention of any given one is. Renji Philips’s The Wake of Light is the rare case in which that isn’t so obvious, and not in a good way, resulting in the entire affair feeling like a muddled mess.
The film is about a young woman who spends her days caring for her aging father and selling water bottled from their family’s well as she meets a charming traveller who asks her to join him on his journey. For the most part, it’s a relatively straightforward story, but weird flourishes such as the well subplot make it feel like a Hallmark movie that somehow got a full release.
At under an hour and twenty minutes in length, the movie isn’t obtrusive in any way — but by the time the credits roll, one is left wondering what content there was of substance. It’s an enormously slight film, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when the movie seemingly lacks any sense of purpose, the result feels rather pointless.
There is a point in the film at which the message is spelled out for the audience, and canny viewers will pick up on how this is surprisingly toxic. The movie suggests that for one person to achieve happiness, another must sacrifice their own, and while this may be meant well, it is quite muddled in execution.
The character development in the film is also really shallow. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that there is little to no investment in the central relationship despite it being a romance. There are times at which viewers will be unable to tell whether or not the characters are romantically interested in each other or simply mere acquaintances.
That said, the two leads have surprisingly good chemistry together. Matt Bush and Rome Brooks would probably do a great job sharing the screen together in a more effectively-written romantic comedy. That said, since the characters are so poorly-written, their performances can’t go very far.
Visually, the movie is admittedly more ambitious than most entries in the genre, but it’s still not especially memorable. There is a problem with oversaturation, but there are also some good shots that take advantage of the film’s setting. For the most part, it’s competent, but never does it go above and beyond.
The Wake of Light isn’t particularly original, nor is it exceptionally bad in a way as to make it worth watching in that regard. It’s the type of movie that will be forgotten just as quickly as it came in a year overpacked with content.
The Wake of Light hits VOD on January 15.
Review by Adam Donato
The Delivered is written and directed by Thomas Clay, who has not directed a feature since 2008’s Soi Cowboy. It stars Maxine Peake and Charles Dance as they play an older couple, Fanny and John, living on a remote farm in England with their young boy, Arthur. One day, they discover a young, naked couple infiltrating their home and stealing their clothes. Fanny and John decide to help the young couple in need until chaos ensues. This dramatic thriller dives into history to explore themes about religion and gender roles.
The focus of the story is Fanny coming into her own as a woman. It’s clear from the start that she is dissatisfied with her life. She loves her son, but her relationship with John is less than ideal. This plotline is the most well-executed and compelling part of the movie. Peake has the best performance in the movie as she is given the biggest opportunity to shine. Her character is one that seems forced into submission, so her quiet manner gives her ample opportunity to visually express her feelings, rather than through dialogue. As she is put to the test, one can’t help but root for her and her innate goodheartedness.
Other than that, the movie is extremely below standard. It’s one big, long hostage situation that changes hands so much, you’ll be begging the characters just to kill each other when they get the upper hand. The action isn’t even exciting as every character is just so physically depleted throughout the entire movie. Also, get ready for some extended Biblical monologues. If someone watches this and takes away a whole lot of deep meaning from all the speeches concerning the moralities within a faith, that’s fine. Not to knock religion, but for the average viewer, it would be very difficult to follow the insane trains of thought the characters go down as they debate the role of sex within their faith.
Speaking of sex, wow this movie gets really weird very fast. Not to be crude, but there is an extended cuckolding sequence in the movie and it is wildly obnoxious and goes nowhere. It’s built up for a while as the implications of Fanny’s dissatisfaction of her life with John arise, but it ends out of nowhere and it’s seldom dealt with for the rest of the movie. All that being said, if that’s your kink, The Delivered delivers!
It’s a wonder how or why someone who is as notable as Charles Dance is in this movie. He does a really good job at playing a similar role to his usual type. The movie looks very low budget though, which works to its advantage. Since the set is an old timey farm, it seems like the entire budget was spent on the wardrobe and, of course, Charles Dance. As one can see from the poster, the characters dress like what a child would think the pilgrims dressed like on Thanksgiving.
This movie masquerades as this deep religious tale when in reality it’s boring and crude. There seems to be more prioritization of shock factor than actual concrete storytelling. An opening quote precedes the film and without it, there would be no recognition of what any of the themes are whatsoever. It’s about sex and religion? So, if one is into that, don’t check out The Delivered because there are much better movies that pursue the same goals that execute these ideas much more efficiently.
The Delivered hits VOD on January 15.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
The year 2020 has had quite a few great movies come out. Netflix has quite a few awards contenders on their slate. Films like The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom have given them quite a nice output in the last few months.
The Dig is about a woman who has mounds in her back pasture and wants to know if there is anything hidden in them. She hires a local excavator to dig them up to see if anything is in them. She gets more than she bargains for when the country's historical society gets involved in the dig. This film has great historical relevance because of its subject matter.
Carey Mulligan has done some interesting roles in her career. Most recently, she is getting a lot of critical acclaim for her performance in Promising Young Woman. In The Dig, she plays Edith Pretty. Edith is a good mother and a good woman. This a vastly different role than her other roles. It is more subtle, but also effective in getting out her story. She has to deal with the enormity of the situation. It's not easy on her. Mulligan expresses her emotions very calmly.
Ralph Fiennes has played everything from Nazi war criminals in Schindler's List to Lord Voldermort in the Harry Potter films. In The Dig, he plays Basil Brown, an excavator who is tasked with digging up some mounds in Ms. Pretty's back pasture. Some of his roles are over the top and extraordinary in their nature others are not so much. His role in The Dig is very much subtle and more down to earth. His character has a passion for his work and is developing a friendship with his employer Ms. Pretty and her son.
Simon Stone isn't known to American audiences as a prolific director. The Dig will put him on the map as a filmmaker to watch in the future. This film has a heart to it that many films don't have. It deals with rare subject matter, but finds a way to make those watching it care about the characters and the story within it. Period pieces such as this have to be engaging and interesting. This film is both.
It's a good thing Netflix has gotten on board with this slice-of-life film with great historical value. Simon Stone has made a film that is educational as well as entertaining. It has fantastic cinematography, solid acting, and a terrific story that will keep audiences engaged throughout. It's always great when these types of films come out. Most people probably haven't heard of this true story, but they should.
The Dig streams on Netflix beginning January 29.
Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the shocking memoir Guantanamo Diary, Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a generic but surprisingly riveting legal thriller. Well-executed and well-acted, Macdonald’s film overcomes the formula to become a legitimately interesting late-breaking contender in this awards season.
The movie tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and held without charges or a trial after being accused of being a recruiter for Al Qaeda. And while writers M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani settle for their film hitting the familiar beats, there are enough powerful moments to make it work.
That said, the movie does struggle to find its focus. The story cuts between the story of the protagonist, his defense lawyers, and the prosecutor who grows a conscience while trying his case. That third story, in particular, isn’t entirely necessary, especially since the same emotional arc is covered by a supporting character in the defense portion.
Those moments in the film which are most riveting feature the protagonist recounting the treatment he received from his American captors. Director Kevin Macdonald takes a surprisingly artistic approach to these sequences, showing the horror of the situation in a way that is both emotionally affecting and thought-provoking.
Macdonald’s style is a lot more ambitious than most “awards bait” fare. The movie switches between aspect ratios to differentiate the timelines, but widely goes with the smaller ratio during the prison sequences to simulate a feeling of enclosure. No matter how straightforward the script may be, it is made effective by unique execution.
Additionally, especially for a film set a decade ago, the politics of the script are still unexpectedly resonant. There is a lot to be said in this story about justice and standing up for what is right. Even though some of the methods that the movie uses to get to its message are the traditional and easy ones, the film still feels authentic in its overall approach.
The strongest aspect of the movie is arguably its performances. Tamir Rahim’s leading turn is pretty extraordinary, bringing a very humane quality to the character. Jodie Foster is as great as usual as his defense lawyer, commanding the screen in every scene she is in. In supporting roles, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, and Shailene Woodley give performances that are a bit distracting.
The Mauritanian succumbs to a few of the genre’s worst tendencies, but what allows it to stand out is director Kevin Macdonald’s touch. More often than not, the risks that the film takes pay off in droves.
The Mauritanian hits theaters on February 19.
Review by Adam Donato
January is known as the dumping grounds for new movies, along with the wide releases of Oscar hopefuls. The mercy of a pandemic plagued time is that there’s less January garbage to go around. The recipe for box office “success” seems to be nothing movies with a notable star. There’s an audience for Taken lite, just ask Honest Thief. Enter The Marksman, directed by Trouble With The Curve director Robert Lorenz. Is it quality enough to brave the storm of what is a dystopian theatrical landscape?
The Marksman succeeds as a movie because it prioritizes strengthening the relationship between Liam Neeson and Jacob Perez over gritty action. Neeson is cool and is known as this badass action star, but he’s also almost 70 years old. There’s no good reason, besides nostalgia, that Harrison Ford should return as Indiana Jones. General audiences don’t want an action hero who can break something just by moving. Neeson disproves this theory every year. Maybe it’s some kind of wish fulfillment for soon to be retirees, that maybe they too can still fight like an action hero. Call it movie magic, but there isn’t a soul out there who wouldn’t be threatened by a scorned Liam Neeson.
For a movie called The Marksman, there’s not too much marksmanship in the movie. Neeson is a down on his luck ex-Marine who is obligated to deliver an illegal immigrant child to his family in Chicago, while being chased by members of the Mexican Cartel. This story has fatalities, but it isn’t a bloodbath. Most of the movie is these two unlikely friends getting along, and it basically works. It’s less of an action romp and more of a road trip drama. What makes action hit hard is when the audience cares about the characters in action and The Marksman invests heavily in its leads.
There’s a lot to like about what the movie is trying to say. It’s about compassion and moral obligation. Neeson’s character is obnoxiously down on his luck from the start. His self righteous duty to fulfill the request of the child’s mother would come across as annoying if it wasn’t so admirable. Without spoiling anything, the ending brings these themes to their proper conclusion. What a bold movie, that is less worried about what’s “cool” and more worried about what makes sense for the story that is being told.
Is it Shakespeare? Obviously not. The story is quite generic, but works. There’s nothing special about The Marksman, but it does its job. Set ups are paid off. Character arcs are given precedence over action. The lead is strong and likable. When it comes to January fodder, it stands above as a very solid post-Taken Neeson flick.
The Marksman opens in theaters on January 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are plenty of movies about theme parks gone wrong after they tempt fate, but Simon West’s goofy B-movie Skyfire blends that basic premise with the disaster movie genre. While the result may not be massively memorable, there are more than enough entertaining moments to keep it from going up in flames.
The film follows a group of people who must try to escape with their lives from a theme park built around an active volcano after a sudden and deadly eruption. It’s basically Jurassic Park, but the characters’ sins are against Mother Nature, not evolution. And since this is just common sense at that point, the end result is even more ridiculous.
Like every thriller about playing God, there is a clear moral lesson that the audience is supposed to learn, and the movie uses the cheapest emotional beats to teach it. However, the film will stand out (in a bad way) for timing some of these beats comedically poorly, frequently drawing the viewer out of the action.
Wei Bu and Sidney King’s script moves along at quite the breakneck pace, which will allow general audiences looking for a mindless popcorn flick to stay interested, but also minimize any potential emotional impact it may have had. Viewers will likely never be bored, but it’s also unlikely that they will ever care much about the outcome of the story.
The character development in the movie is about as shallow can be expected from a largely soulless genre picture like this. All of the arcs in the film feel like they are born out of narrative necessity rather than genuine emotion, especially those of the white characters, which feel like a threadbare attempt to make this movie appeal to a more diverse audience.
Director Simon West was able to assemble a pretty strong international cast, but unfortunately, they aren’t given much to do that utilizes their range. Hannah Quinlivan and Xueqi Wang carry the film to the best of their abilities, but their parts are so shallow that they don’t amount to much. In his supporting role, Jason Isaacs is fun to watch but curiously exaggerated.
The production qualities of the movie are quite high, elevating this from B-movie territory into mid-level spectacle-driven action fare. The special effects are the star of the show, making this otherwise mostly minor player stand up against the blockbusters that one would normally see in the multiplex.
Skyfire isn’t a movie that is meant to be taken seriously, but as mindless entertainment, it covers all of the necessary bases. It’s largely forgettable material, though that escapism may just be exactly what some audiences are looking for right now.
Skyfire hits VOD on January 12.
Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, the most terrifying films of the year aren’t horror movies, but those which are stark and shocking depict the harsh reality in which we live. Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut Identifying Features is just that: an unflinchingly personal movie that challenges audiences with its nuanced approach to difficult subject matter.
The film follows a mother who travels across Mexico searching for her son that the authorities claim died while trying to cross the border into the United States. It’s a truly heartbreaking story, but the script (co-written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero) doesn’t go for low-hanging fruit, instead blending meditative drama and slow-burn thriller to achieve its emotional effect.
Something else that really stands out about the movie is that it isn’t didactic. Of course, Valadez has a stance on the issues surrounding the immigration crisis, as one would expect of any film about the topic, but she seems more interested in having the audience come to it on their own. Rather than telling the audience what to think, she shows them the reality in a way that only leaves one option.
It’s very easy to connect to the protagonist because Valadez and Rondero write her in a way that is immediately compelling. The arc of the character is really interesting because it blends so many different emotions that we are used to seeing on screen, but rarely together. The result is often staggering in its weight.
The most impressive thing about the movie is the leading performance from Mercedes Hernández. Her performance is quiet, and she doesn’t even have much dialogue for significant portions of the film, but it’s one of the most powerful turns of the year nevertheless. The amount of emotion she is able to get out of even the smallest of moments is truly impressive.
Additionally, the movie is quite beautiful in a visual sense. The aesthetics are just as restrained as the script, but despite not being too flashy, it still manages to have some great moments. Even though most of the scenery in the background is rather desolate, Valadez contrasts it with the suffering the protagonist is experiencing to create an interesting effect.
That said, the film does make one significant misstep, and that is including a subplot involving another immigrant returning home to Mexico. The way in which this ties into the overall narrative is mostly effective, but there had to have been a better method of doing the same thing while further developing the lead’s emotional arc.
Identifying Features is a wonderfully nuanced movie that feels like the type that will sadly go under-the-radar. However, the powerful story and phenomenal lead performance will allow this to stick in the mind of those viewers that do seek it out.
Identifying Features is now streaming in a virtual sneak preview run. Tickets can be purchased here.
Review by Camden Ferrell
The Reason I Jump is a documentary film that had its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival where it won the audience award for World Documentary. This film is directed by Jerry Rothwell and based on the book by Naoki Higashida. While the intentions are noble and it removes a lot of stigma around individuals with autism, the documentary can benefit from a longer runtime and more thorough exploration of its subjects.
This movie uses passages from Higashida’s book to highlight five individuals from around the world who have nonspeaking autism. This is a significant topic that isn’t seen enough in media, and these young individuals are fascinating. They are the perfect subjects to create a sense of empathy in viewers and to educate viewers on their unique experiences.
The narration of the book that is dispersed throughout the film is its strongest aspect. Despite being young, Higashida’s insights into his own experiences are beautiful and eloquent, and they do a great job of vividly imparting his experiences onto the viewers. While this mainly provides a framework for the rest of the documentary, it contributes significantly to the film’s quality and the power of its message.
Each of the subjects are remarkable in their own ways, and it’s fantastic to see the movie celebrate and educate viewers on their differences. They are interesting and the movie treats them very tastefully and didactically. The movie sometimes feels unbalanced in the way it tries to juggle all five subjects, but this flaw is often redeemed.
The cinematography is also a highlight of the film. Ruben Woodin Dechamps frames the subjects with humanity and grace, and it elevates the stories being told. It doesn’t shy away from the subjects, and it is an unbiased camera that humanizes individuals with autism who are often overlooked. It carefully crafts its shots in order to teach us about their unique experiences and the various aspects of their daily lives.
Running under ninety minutes, this film often feels like it could have spent more time with its subjects and sharing their experiences. I really enjoyed the way the film employed many senses to share its message, and I believe it could benefit from more of it. However, the film has probably done wonders in progressing the conversation around autism and removing any stigma surrounding it.
Rothwell’s movie is very empathetic, and it’s important that these stories are no longer in the shadows. These individuals warrant attention, and it’s important that as a society, we progress in order to better accommodate and understand their point of view.
The Reason I Jump makes up for its brevity and occasional lulls with an essential and timely message. Hopefully, it opens the doors for similar movies and stories to be told in the future. This is an interesting documentary, and it’s one that will help close the bridge separating society from these fascinating individuals.
The Reason I Jump is available in virtual cinemas January 8. (A list of participating theaters can be found here).
Review by Camden Ferrell
Based on the Aleksandrs Grins’ novel, Blizzard of Souls is the first narrative feature film from director Dzintars Dreibergs. This film is Latvia’s official submission for the Academy Awards this year. Utilizing strong historical context and brilliantly staged battle scenes, this movie is haunting yet hopeful examination of World War I.
Arturs is a young man who enlists in the Army after losing his mother at the hands of German soldiers. With dreams of being a hero in his Latvian battalion, he soon finds out through brutal battles and trench warfare, that war is not what he thought it would be. The horrors of war have been examined excessively through the medium of film, but this is still a very strong foundation on which the movie is built.
Dreibergs and Boriss Frumins’ script is well-written but is not it’s most developed aspect. There is sufficient exposition for novices to this period, but it doesn’t over explain the political intricacies of the war. This works in allowing the emotions of the character’s take center stage. It makes the war a backdrop and allows each character to be a subject that stands alone in the film.
Oto Brantevics’ lead performance is somewhat shaky in its quality, but it is still commendable. It is an intense role that slowly shows the breakdown of one soldier’s morale, and Brantevics mostly does a great job of showing that struggle. There are some scenes where his acting doesn’t land properly, but he typically makes up for these inconsistencies.
The crowning achievement of this film is its battle scenes. In gruesome detail, we see the horrors, anxieties, and consequences of war. The way the scenes are blocked are extremely visceral and immersive. Some sequences elicit genuine fear and heart racing tension. It is easily one of the most thoroughly invigorating presentations of WWI on film.
The cinematography is also extremely gorgeous. Valdis Celmins brilliantly encapsulates moods and emotions in the way he lights and frames his scenes and subjects. Some parts of the movie have an optimistic glow while others are hopelessly bleak. He strikes a balance in this spectrum of emotions that really boost the overall quality of the film.
One of the film’s flaws does come from its length. At around two hours, the pace can sometimes drag in certain scenes, and it feels like the length of the film could have been reduced or reallocated to develop its themes and characters. Regardless, this is a movie that is equal parts hopeless and optimistic and warrants attention from the Academy this coming year.
Blizzard of Souls is a brutal watch that both history buffs and novices will enjoy. It’s an interesting emotional journey of one boy through the brutalities of war. Despite its length, it is very much worth a watch.
Blizzard of Souls is available through virtual cinemas January 8. (A list of locations can be found here).