Review by Sean Boelman
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some productions implemented strict isolation and testing procedures to protect their cast and crew, and others found a way to film remotely. Life Upside Down is an example of the latter — coming out well after the ease of restrictions on production — and not a very impressive one at that.
The movie follows a group of interconnected couples as they are each stuck at home during the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, uprooting their high-society lives. It’s the same type of pretentious rich people romantic comedy we have seen dozens of times before, except this time, it’s against the backdrop of the pandemic.
The idea of a COVID-era affair happening through screens is intriguing in concept, but in execution, it’s frustratingly uncinematic. Ultimately, a socially-distanced affair doesn’t feel too much different from texting someone other than one’s own partner. As a result, the only thing about this film that promises to offer any real insight feels frustratingly shallow.
Many viewers may be put off by the characters who, quite frankly, are pompous assholes. However, it’s clear that Miniucchi wanted to use this as part of her message — even the richest among us were affected by the devastation of the pandemic. Is it effective? Not particularly. It’s hard to care too much about someone living in a mansion as they lose their jobs and have to “hold on to their cash.” Still, one can’t fault the movie for lack of trying.
Miniucchi was able to assemble an A-list ensemble for the film, likely because they were all sitting at home with little else to do in their time. Bob Odenkirk, Radha Mitchell, and Danny Huston all do their best in their roles and infuse the movie with something that at least resembles humanity, but they shouldn’t have to be straining so hard when the film is attempting to capture such a communal experience.
Given that the film has such a talented ensemble, it really should be a lot funnier than it is. It’s not so much that the jokes are unfunny as it is that there aren’t many jokes to be found in the script. Instead, what we get is a bunch of rich people complaining and going “woe is me,” which grows rather tedious after a while.
Of course, as is the case with many movies that were shot remotely, the cinematography is very obviously poor-quality and DIY. You have to cut the film some slack given that it was shot in a time with such limited resources, but one has to wonder why a movie with such simplistic coverage took this long to reach audiences.
Ultimately, it feels like Life Upside Down came out a year or two too late. Back then, more people might have enjoyed this as a guerilla-style showcase for some of the industry’s most talented actors. But at this point, it feels too shallow to force us to recall a time of our lives which is still too fresh in our memories.
Life Upside Down is now on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
History buffs are constantly on the lookout for new accounts of WWII, and Jean-Cristophe Klotz’s documentary Filmmakers for the Prosecution offers an interesting perspective of the war. Although less-than-stellar execution prevents the film from being as riveting as it should be, the story is interesting enough to speak for itself.
The documentary tells the story of two researchers who, under the instruction of filmmaker John Ford, must gather visual evidence of the Nazi war crimes to be used in the Nuremberg Trials. This is an amazing true story that would make for a thrilling biopic, but for now, we get to see it in behind-the-scenes documentary form.
Clocking in at under an hour in total runtime, it’s nice to see a documentary that knows how much of a story there is to tell and doesn’t try to milk it out with repetition. Of course, the brief nature means that the movie’s life is predominantly as an educational title or as a bonus feature on a home video release of the restoration of Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today, but it’s less damning had they tried to create a longer film out of material that simply isn’t there.
However, the movie is almost undermined by narration and voiceover work that is quite monotonous. This is not the type of documentary that needs to use an A-list celebrity as its narrator to be effective, but the narrator (as well as those reading the written archive materials) are so uninspired that they could almost lull you to sleep.
Still, there are some really fascinating elements to this story, and it’s exciting to see them unfold. For example, one portion of the documentary explores how the filmmakers were effectively racing against the clock to discover this footage before it was destroyed by the Nazis. Although the film fails to ask some of the obvious questions about censorship and preservation, it’s fascinating to think about nonetheless.
The main reason to recommend this movie is its extensive and impressive use of archive footage. Admittedly, much of the footage used in the documentary is the likes of which has been studied in history classes for decades, such as the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. However, the portions that really shine are those unearthed by the Schulbergs during the completion of the “lost film.”
Otherwise, the movie very much has a public broadcasting or educational video feel to its entire production. The editing, while competent, is very basic, as is the framing of the modern-day interviews. As a result, the value of this film is not so much for entertainment, but for educational purposes.
Filmmakers for the Prosecution will likely have a long life as a movie used by high school history teachers to explore the documentation that existed of WWII. While hardcore history buffs and cinephiles will certainly find something of interest here, general audiences will likely feel rather ambivalent towards it.
Filmmakers for the Prosecution is now playing in theaters.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Pamela, a love story documents the life and family of world-famous model and actress Pamela Anderson. She had a rough upbringing. Her father was an alcoholic. He was abusive to her mother, and they left him several times. This adversely affected her. She also had a couple of abusive sexual encounters with a babysitter. Still, she persevered and chose to go out in the world and explore and see what it had for her outside her small-town community in Canada. Little did she know what her life would entail.
Pamela Anderson was just your average small-town girl in Canada when she was seen on the jumbotron of a Canadian football game. She was wearing a Labatt Blue shirt which sparked them to put her in ads and a calendar and become a Labatt Blue Girl. Then she got a call to be in Playboy from Marilyn Grabowski, and the rest is history. She became one of the biggest sex symbols in the history of Hollywood.
The film goes year by year, going through her life starting in 1989, using archival footage mostly captured by camcorders of Pam and Tommy's. The videotapes are the best tool to see how her whirlwind courtship with Tommy Lee started in Cancun, Mexico and how their life was torn apart when one of these tapes was stolen and sold to various publications and spurned the internet age of sex videos. This story was already made into a series on Hulu starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan as Pam & Tommy, but seeing it in documentary form is still fascinating.
Also, the film has a female narrator dictating Pamela's Diaries, which she wrote on dozens of legal pads. She wrote about everything that happened in her life, the good and the bad. It helped contextualize all the drama that happened to Pam & Tommy back then and how their relationship unraveled. The kids, Branden and Dylan, came into the picture at this point in her life.
The film also has Pamela in the modern time, talking about living at home in Canada in her little town of Ladysmith, British Columbia, and her parents. She talks about her many boyfriends before and after Tommy Lee, giving birth to her sons Brandan and Dylan, her activism, and doing the Broadway play Chicago playing the iconic Roxie Hart.
Ryan White, the filmmaker, used the talking heads of Pam and her two sons as a reference between all the other aspects of the film. The film effectively showed Pam's personal life at home and in the public eye, her work life filming Baywatch and Barbwire, and all the controversies that come along with the entertainment side of her life. This was a very candid look at this woman and her family, who has suffered a lot.
Documentaries are a good form of film because they can get to the heart of their subject matter, and Pamela, a love story does that impeccably well. Anderson is very candid in her opinions and how she puts all her dirty laundry out there for everyone to see. This was a terrific film about this woman who is more than just a sex symbol. This is a must-see documentary.
Pamela, a love story streams on Netflix beginning January 31.
Review by Camden Ferrell
In 2016, the world was introduced to Rock Dog. A children’s animated movie that opened to less than positive acclaim and a disappointing box office run against its $60 million budget. But against all odds, nearly seven years later, the third installment in the franchise Rock Dog 3: Battle the Beat is being released. Much like the first sequel, this is a cheap-looking children’s film that does absolutely little to engage the audience or distract it from all of its flaws.
Bodi, the titular dog, is back from touring, and he finds himself enjoying life and ignoring an offer to be a judge on a music competition show that is very much like The Voice. However, when a girl-group called K-9 admits they haven’t heard of Angus Scattergood (remember that character?), Bodi decides to join the show. Believing it is his responsibility to educate people about his favorite musician, Bodi goes through all of the trials and tribulations associated with reality television and trying to work with musicians different from himself.
If you’ve seen the other movies, you know what to expect from the writing of this one. It’s as basic as can be, and it does the bare minimum to speak to its presumably very young demographic. Written for an audience, that isn’t as privy to narrative shortcomings, this movie lacks subtlety or compelling characters or situations. There’s a subplot of a character trying to start this world’s equivalent of a race war after hate criming a wolf in the film’s opening moments, and that storyline comes and goes as it pleases.
Like the second movie, this one also lacks the Oscar-winning voice cast of the original. Still led by Graham Hamilton as Bodi and Eddie Izzard as Scattergood, this voice cast is doing the best they can with the material. Not to say that their performances are good, but mostly that it could have been much worse in theory. Regardless, they fail to add anything of value to the movie and perform sufficiently enough to earn their paycheck.
The animation may be decent for straight to DVD films, but it’s still stiff and expressionless and doesn’t match the vocal performances very well. There are several moments where dialogue doesn’t line up, and it can take the viewer out of the overall experience. Despite how negatively I received this movie, extremely young children might find themselves learning valuable lessons from this movie. Bodi suffers a crisis of musical faith as he clashes with modern music and must come to terms with his own musical mortality. He quickly learns that he must adapt to modern culture and times or become a relic of a bygone era. In addition, it also tackles the toxic nature of modern television media and the personal struggles Bodi has as he engages in the hostile behavior he originally loathed.
If you liked the previous films, Rock Dog 3: Battle the Beat will be something else you will enjoy. All other viewers need not apply. Arguably the best Rock Dog film, this is still a mess of a movie that furthers the mystery of the longevity of this franchise.
Rock Dog 3: Battle the Beat now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and on VOD January 4.
Review by Sean Boelman
Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont’s first film, Girl, received several awards but was somewhat controversial due to its approach to its LGBTQIA+ themes. These themes take the backseat in his second movie, Close, a powerful and affecting melodrama that will leave very few viewers with a dry eye.
The film follows two thirteen-year-old boys whose close friendship suddenly falls apart when they begin to face bullying and peer pressure. This is a movie whose success fundamentally hinges on one pivotal moment, but it is staggeringly well-executed in a way that is thoroughly powerful.
People like to describe many films as devastating, but one would be hard pressed to find a movie as downright soul-crushing as Close. The argument could be made that the film is emotionally manipulative and aims for low-hanging fruit, but there is one moment that is so undeniably distressing that it will almost certainly leave viewers distraught.
Admittedly, the way in which the movie explores its queer themes leaves something to be desired. While it poses some fascinating questions about heteronormativity, it isn’t doesn’t really interrogate its supporting characters as deeply as it should. Although these themes aren’t necessarily the central aspect of the story, it’s frustrating to see them as an afterthought.
That being said, Dhont and his co-writer Angelo Tijssens’s character work for the protagonist is absolutely masterful. He does some things that are frustrating and unlikable, but the film manages to present them in a way that never puts you against him. It’s a very nuanced, introspective approach to this story that easily could have veered into melodrama.
Young actor Eden Dambrine does an extraordinary job in his leading role. This is his first performance ever, yet he brings so much emotion and tenderness to the character that it is awe-inspiring. Gustave de Waele is also very solid, but Dambrine is so fantastic that he acts circles around de Waele.
The movie is also extraordinarily well-shot. Although the script is strong enough to speak for itself, beautiful cinematography by Frank van den Eeden and a lovely score by Valentin Hadjadj make it even more heartbreaking, and keep it from leaning too heavily into its occasionally histrionic leanings.
Lukas Dhont has managed to capture lightning in a bottle with his second feature, Close. Despite the several opportunities it had to go wrong, the tenderly-written script and strong execution allow it to be quite affecting.
Close hits theaters on January 27.
January is not typically a month where newly released horror films are well-received. Released at the beginning of the year before awards season, they are usually swept under the rug and easily forgotten about until the next box office hit comes around. While this January has had two notable exceptions in M3GAN and Missing, Blood ends the month with a family horror that is neither scary nor very interesting.
The film follows mother and nurse Jess (Michelle Monaghan), who moves to a farmhouse following her divorce from her husband (Skeet Ulrich), with whom she shares joint custody of their two children. After a tragic accident involving their dog, Owen, the son, begins developing a dependency on drinking blood. Jess goes to extreme lengths to help treat her son while endangering herself and others in the process.
Despite the plot having a lot at stake for Jess and her son, the film is not very suspenseful. Jess is almost immediately introduced as a mother who has grown apart from her kids. Jess and her ex-husband trade insults with each other whenever they interact. Her addiction struggles are also revealed early, setting this up to be important to her character arc. Yet, ultimately her struggles are largely sidelined in favor of her son. The problem is her son is mostly uninteresting. His newfound craving for blood mostly has him moaning for more of it. The obvious conflict of how he can control his urges is mainly left unanswered.
At surface level, this film has similarities to Let the Right One In or its American remake Let Me In. Both deal with a young vampire-esque child and those around them, trying to protect the child from harmful outside forces. You feel a sense of loneliness coming from the characters in those films, but in Blood, we don't get to learn how Owen copes independently of either of his parents. His thoughts are made known to us by a protagonist who is meant to be distant from her own kids.
The gore scenes are also few and far between. I was more focused on the bad use of special effects to turn a character's eyes into a different color than any actual killing going on. There were no thrills in this, it was clear the script was watered down to focus more on the family elements of the film, but even those were poorly written beyond the first 30 minutes. In Blood, we are introduced to a family, and over 90 minutes later, all I can take away is now they have a blood-sucking child living under their roof.
Blood hits theaters on January 27 and VOD on January 31.
Review by Cole Groth
You might be disappointed if you’re looking for sophisticated cinema in Jennifer Lopez’s Shotgun Wedding, a romantic action-comedy starring her and Josh Duhamel. Instead, you’ll find a lovably goofy film that’s equally thrilling, funny, and romantic. Lopez has carved out a delightful spot as a rom-com starrer in the last few years, and if you’re a fan of schmutzy fun like Marry Me with a blast of action, this will be well worth your while.
Shotgun Wedding kicks off like any other wedding comedy. On a picturesque island, fiancées Darcy (Lopez) and Tom (Duhamel) gather for their ultimate destination wedding. Coupled with their opinionated families, there’s plenty of drama between various members on the bride and groom’s side. Darcy has second thoughts about getting married, but she’s got bigger problems at hand: terrorists have taken the wedding hostage and will kill various wedding members until they receive an enormous ransom. Sounds about as fun as most weddings, right?
Originally starring Armie Hammer, it was a great turn that Josh Duhamel replaced him because he brings an excellent emotional element to his role. Tom is seriously in love with Darcy, and it’s nice to see a man in a romantic comedy who cherishes the woman he loves. On the other hand, Darcy is somewhat indifferent to the whole marriage situation and brings some needed friction to their relationship.
While the script, written by Mark Hammer, is somewhat formulaic and straightforward, it does an excellent job of taking the rom-com formula and adding a fiery flare. Shotgun Wedding sticks to its R-rating, which means that plenty of the dialogue has as much fire as the action, which is done very well. Several twists and turns are unexpected and stop this from feeling entirely derivative.
Rounding out the cast of family members is hilarious, including Jennifer Coolidge, Lenny Kravitz, Sônia Braga, Cheech Marin, and D’Arcy Carden, amongst others. Each actor brings their own and enhances the hilarious script with their flares. Coolidge, most of all, stands out as a consistently funny force, and it’s getting increasingly frustrating that she doesn’t have a starring role in a romantic comedy at this point. She delivers the most laughs out of the rest of the cast and makes it radiates positive energy that stops the hostage side plot from ever growing stale. It seems that the actors had a lot of fun filming this, and it shows in each scene.
At a brisk 100 minutes, it’s hard to dislike this. Each act moves along pleasantly, but you can’t help but think that director Jason Moore could’ve leaned into the situation a little more. The third act falls too heavily into action-comedy clichés when it had a real opportunity for a grittier ending. Tom and Darcy are troopers and grow throughout the movie to become real warriors, and it could’ve been much fun if we followed them as they sought revenge for their wedding being ruined.
While the journey that the fiancées take isn’t the most original, Shotgun Wedding is perfect for a home movie night. It has something for everybody: star power from J-Lo, hilarious comedy, great action, and satisfying romance. Jason Moore wasn’t trying to make something completely original, but he fully succeeded at making a film that would make all kinds of people happy, and sometimes that’s all that matters as a filmmaker.
Shotgun Wedding streams on Prime Video on January 27.
Review by Sean Boelman
Rian Johnson is one of the hottest names in Hollywood right now, with Glass Onion’s massive release last month on Netflix still having the internet abuzz. Thankfully, those clamoring for more Johnson content need not wait long, as his “inverted detective” series Poker Face is launching on Peacock and will become your next obsession.
The show follows a woman with an incredible ability to determine when someone is lying as she hits the road on the lam, only for trouble to follow close behind, as she uses her skills to solve a series of mysterious murders. Unlike the Knives Out films, which follow a whodunnit structure, Poker Face is a “howcatchem,” which creates suspense in a totally different, yet still effective way.
The great part about this show is how every episode presents a new mystery for the protagonist to solve. As such, we’re essentially brought into a new world with each episode. And the supporting characters we meet — some murderers, others victims, and some bystanders who get caught in the crosshairs — are thoroughly entertaining.
Additionally, the anthology-like structure of the series gives it an opportunity to change its style with each episode. The pilot, directed by Johnson himself, is set in Vegas and is perhaps one of the most exciting hours of television you will ever watch in your life. However, each episode has a murder sequence that is pulled off exceedingly entertainingly.
As the human lie detector, Charlie, Natasha Lyonne gives us what might be one of the greatest television heroines in the history of the medium. Lyonne’s comedic timing is spot-on — though we already knew that — and she balances the wry sarcasm of the character with an approachable and lovable quality necessary for us to get behind someone so flawed.
Of course, being that Poker Face is a project with Rian Johnson as the main creative force behind it, its ensemble is full of recognizable A-list stars. But what is special about this show is that it is so low stakes — these actors have never played these roles before and probably never will again — that they can go all-in on their turns and have the time of their lives. Highlights include Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Tim Meadows, and (recent Oscar-nominee) Hong Chau.
However, perhaps more impressive is that the characters manage to feel so fleshed-out and lived in despite us only having between thirty minutes and an hour to get to know each world being built. And while the insertion of Lyonne’s protagonist often feels convenient, viewers will be interested enough in the parties involved in the murder for it not to feel like a distraction.
Poker Face might be one of the most entertaining and well-crafted shows on the air right now, but considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, that should come as no surprise. Hopefully audiences will love this as much as they do Johnson’s whodunnits so we can get more adventures with our makeshift detective.
Poker Face streams on Peacock beginning January 26. Six out of ten episodes reviewed.
Review by Cole Groth
Fear is frustrating. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. It’s funny because one of the top comments on the YouTube trailer states the opposite, but I can see how it’s easy to think that the plot wasn’t spoiled when there isn’t a plot to begin with. Directed by Deon Taylor, this horror/thriller struggles through a lame first two acts before shifting to an overstimulating gorefest in the last thirty minutes that resembles more of a supercut of other lousy horror films than a film of its own.
Written by Deon Taylor and John Ferry, the premise follows a group of friends who gather at an old and remote hotel during the COVID-19 pandemic for a celebration. After a clichéd night by a fire where each person details their greatest fears, the group learns that a sinister secret is coming for them all. Ugh. It’s so derivative that it sounds like an AI generated the entire script. A creepy old white lady makes everybody uncomfortable, there’s some witchcraft at the hotel, and each group member slowly loses their mind.
Beyond the frustrating premise, the dialogue adds nothing to the dull experience. None of the actors elevate their roles beyond nameless faces that the audience won’t miss when their character inevitably dies.
Andrew “King Bach” Bachelor’s character’s backstory demonstrates the general problems of Fear. His greatest fear stems from a night when police brutalized him. Like each other subplot, this is thrown in there for the shock factor and isn’t developed beyond a jumping-off point for a potential kill later on. Like the other characters, his background could’ve been generated from a focus group of things that people might fear rather than a thought-out story from a talented writer.
What this film lacks in substance, decent writing, pacing, or any other hallmarks of good storytelling, it makes up for in horrific presentation. There aren’t many scares for the first 45 minutes or so, but the last 40 cranks it up in a series of elaborate kill scenes that, while entirely unnecessary, will please horror fans who crave gore. Casual viewers will start yawning by the time they’re on the fifth kill scene in a row because of the repetitiveness of it all.
While I won’t spoil the contents of the ending, I’ll point out that one of the final mistakes, demonstrative of the film’s laziness, is the last title slide. Instead of stating the movie’s title, it takes a twist and says, “DON’T FEAR.” It took me a few minutes to figure out why Deon Taylor would end his film with something that isn’t the title. This was the previous title of the movie, so is this a simple editing error? It’s an awfully big mistake to screw up on the last shot, but it’s easy to conclude that, like the rest of the film, this was a rushed decision without any purpose.
All together, Fear might prove to be an appropriately frightening experience for those who enjoy bizarre amalgamations of gore, slimy monsters, and jumpscares, but anybody looking for more than a surface-level thriller will be disappointed. There’s little substance to be found in this film because the script tries to have so much of it. The complex messaging will have audiences trying to figure out what’s going on, which is a huge mistake because this film is better enjoyed without paying any attention to the plot. Director Deon Taylor has exclusively produced bargain-bin material films throughout his career, and Fear might be the bargain-biniest of them all.
Fear releases in theaters everywhere on January 27th.
Review by Adam Donato
Paramount+ strikes again as they continue to squeeze every last drop out of their franchises as possible. This time, the target is Teen Wolf. The most notable star of the television show, Dylan O’Brien, doesn’t want to return for the straight to streaming sequel? Who cares! One of the series developers, Jeff Davis, and most of the cast are set to return so let’s make some content. Hopefully, this will convince audiences to continue their Paramount+ subscription. Will audiences still care about a continuation to a show that ended over five years ago? Is it good enough to maintain old fans, while maybe garnering some new ones?
Remember Twilight? Those were the days! With a Hunger Games prequel on the horizon, the young adult, science fiction/fantasy mixed with romance crowd is sure to have its fill of nostalgia bait. Teen Wolf: The Movie tries to balance the new and the old in this two hour and twenty minute movie. Crystal Reed returns as Allison Argent, but she is out to kill this time around and has no memory of her former lover, played by Tyler Posey. "Soap opera for teenage girls" is the vibe with this one. New blood is injected into the franchise as Tyler Hoechlin’s character from the show has a teenage son who has yet to materialize his wolf powers. There’s way too much going on and too many characters to juggle. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if any of the characters were interesting in the slightest. The story feels much more like a truncated season of television than an actual movie. That all being said, this review is from the perspective of someone who has not seen the show, so it’s entirely possible these are timeless characters with compelling lore. As for Teen Wolf: The Movie, it just doesn’t stand on its own.
Obviously this movie is based on a television show. Movies usually have much higher budgets than television shows. Making a movie out of a television series is usually met with a jump in special effects, but if that’s the case with Teen Wolf: The Movie, the show must look terrible. The eyes that light up, all the fire surrounding, and any time someone is impaled, it looks terrible. So it’s hard to enjoy this as a dramatic narrative and it’s hard to take it seriously as a fantasy/horror/action flick. These are B-movie ingredients and the intended audience will probably see these elements as a lateral move compared to the show.
People who were teens when Teen Wolf came out have probably aged out of this sort of thing and if the quality is waning as well, then it’s hard to see anyone needing to subscribe to Paramount+ to catch this TV movie. The story and characters are cheesy and lame. Everyone is way too old now. The special effects are dreadful. Hardcore fans of the show can enjoy it, but there's not much going on here.
Teen Wolf: The Movie streams on Paramount+ beginning January 27.