Review by Dan Skip Allen
Justin Simien is a young director who put out his first film, Dear White People, in 2014. That film was about a culture war between college students. It had a great message about racial identity and is also about paving a road for yourself without help from family or anybody else for that matter. Bad Hair is quite a different film than that for many reasons.
A young woman (Elle Lorraine) who is struggling to find her way in the cutthroat world of music television decides to get a new hairdo to change her image. She later comes to find out that her hair might have a mind of its own. Part '80s period piece and part horror movie, Bad Hair is something new that hasn't been done before. It's a satire on urban life in America. We've all had bad hair days, but this film takes it to the next level.
Simien has gathered a nice group of character actors, newbies, and musicians for this film. Lena Waithe plays a TV show host, and employees at the station include Vanessa Williams, Kelly Rowland, and Jay Pharoah. They do a superb job supporting the star of the film. Elle Lorraine is a newer actress on the scene. She's had roles in Issa Rae's HBO show Insecure and Simien's previous film Dear White People. She is fantastic in Bad Hair. She makes this role her own.
Based on the urban legend of the Moss-haired Girl, Bad Hair has a tongue-in-cheek look at women who have to have the right look. Hairstyles can help a woman — or a man, for that matter — develop a personality or identity. Different hair for different occasions can be hard to come by. Not if you have a hairstylist who knows what you want and need. Sometimes your hair has a life all of its own. It can get out of control, literally. Simien captures the nature of how important women's hair can be for their overall appearance and style.
2020 hasn't had a lot of great horror films, but Bad Hair is one of them. It plays on the urban legend and the look of a woman trying to make an impression on society. Getting yourself noticed by the right people can be impossible at times. The right hairdo can make or break a woman's career. This film goes the extra length, no pun intended, to show how valuable or dangerous it can be. This was a film poking fun at the people it's about and the time it takes place. The music of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Aritha Franklin are all on the soundtrack for a reason. That's the vibe this film was going for: a hip hop vibe mixed with '80s pop music. Throw in some horror and you have a fun film.
Bad Hair is now streaming on Hulu.
Review by Sean Boelman
Tara Miele’s romantic fantasy flick Wander Darkly has an intriguing premise and a phenomenal cast, but her vision lacks the cohesiveness and coherence to connect. Admirably inspired but not making a whole lot of sense due to an overly convoluted structure, this feels like a giant missed opportunity.
The film follows a couple of new parents who, following a traumatic accident, recount their relationship and relive their love. In what feels like a more pretentious and less charming version of Ghost, Miele obviously thinks she is delivering something insightful and profound when it’s actually just super vague.
Thankfully, the episodic nature of the narrative creates a false sense of movement and rhythm. But had these moments been presented in chronological order, they would have made up a conventional and frankly boring romantic drama. Some of the moments work well on an individual level, but don’t add up in the long run.
There’s something to be said here about the anxiety of being a new parent, but those intriguing themes are buried beneath layers of over-sentimental romance. And while the loss of a loved one is undeniably a heartbreaking experience that makes it an easy target for sappy movies like this, it is in stark contrast to the otherwise creative setup.
Another one of the movie’s major shortcomings is that the character development is extremely lackluster. The point of the film is that there are highs and lows in any relationship, but those less than savory moments make it difficult to support this relationship, even if the love between them is obvious.
The two lead actors in the movie are both very good, but they can only do so much with weak material, and so at times, their performances can feel forced at times. This is particularly the case with Diego Luna, who has the less meaty of the two roles. Sienna Miller has more than a few moments in which she shows the potential of what the film could have been.
Visually, Miele clearly has a lot of talent, but this particular movie is too inconsistent to land. There are portions of the film that are meant to be dark and gritty and others that are surreal and beautiful, and Miele does not succeed in creating this dichotomy. Instead, it feels like two extremes that the movie cuts back and forth between, and it’s disorienting.
Wander Darkly should have been a compelling and challenging fantasy drama, but it turns out to be a mostly joyless romance that squanders the creativity of its cast and crew. Miele’s voice comes through, and it’s an exciting one, but this was not the film to showcase it.
Wander Darkly screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
With a cast full of comedic powerhouses like this, Nicol Paone’s festive comedy Friendsgiving should be an absolute riot. Yet despite seemingly having everything working in its favor, a painfully unfunny script wastes a charming premise and the talent of its ensemble, causing it to become one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
The film follows a woman who, having recently separated from her husband, decides to throw a Thanksgiving party along with her single friend, resulting in comedic hijinks. This premise is very simple in nature, but that is because the focus is less on the story and more on pairing up these comedians to share scenes together.
However, at a certain point, this formula of mixing-and-matching the characters to create new situations starts to feel old, especially since many of the jokes don’t land. There are only a few recurring gags, but much of the humor takes the form of one-offs that are more misses than hits. So much of the humor is stuff that has been done before, and more efficiently.
Ensemble comedy almost always comes at the expense of character development, but this is even more of a problem than usual here. There are two characters that get a majority of the movie’s substance. All of the rest are little more than archetypes that exist to put the two leads in increasingly awkward positions.
Additionally, the film’s attempts at having an emotional impact are entirely insufficient. The ending tries to wrap up all of the arcs into a nice little bow, but it feels forced and unearned. Paone tries to ground her story in an exploration of motherhood and sexuality, but it feels like an afterthought in a movie overfilled with crude humor.
The cast tries to do their best with the material, and they are obviously having fun with what was probably a very buoyant shoot, but it doesn’t translate into laughs. The big standout here is Kat Dennings, who shows that she has the clear potential to lead a great comedy if she is given the chance, getting the film’s few mild chuckles. The higher-profile actors like Malin Åkerman, Chelsea Peretti, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho, among others, are mostly underused.
And on a technical level, the movie is very lackluster. One doesn’t expect the highest standards in production values from mainstream comedies like this, but there are some things that Paone could have done better. The visual and physical gags are shot in a way that is underwhelming. And even though the film is set at a Thanksgiving dinner, there aren’t any tantalizing food shots.
On paper, Friendsgiving has all the makings of a great holiday comedy, but it simply doesn’t come together. But since the actors seem to have enjoyed working together, maybe there will be another chance for them to share the screen again, hopefully in a better-written project.
Friendsgiving hits VOD on October 23.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Several films have been made from the children's books of Roald Dahl over the years, and most of them are very good adaptations. Among them are Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton's version Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox from Wes Anderson, Matilda, and The Witches from screenwriters Nicolas Roeg and Alan Scott and producer Jim Henson. Angelica Huston gave a great performance as the Grand High Witch in the original version of The Witches, as evil as evil can be, but Anne Hathaway ups the ante in the 2020 remake. The Witches was a cult classic for '80s and '90s children. This new version gives kids of this generation a fresh and entertaining version of this story.
Charlie (Jahzir Bruno) is a child who has gone through a family tragedy, forcing him to go live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). Trying to help him out and give him a new outlook, she feeds him, shares music with him, and gives him a companion in the form of a mouse to hang out with. They eventually take a vacation to the shores of Alabama. The problem is they run afoul of a witches convention. The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has evil sinister plans for all the children in the world. Charlie, his grandmother, Daisy the mouse, and his new friend Bruno are tasked with stopping her nefarious plans.
Robert Zemeckis has directed his fair share of family films, the Back to the Future trilogy, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol among them. The Witches is another family film he can add to his filmography. Zemeckis is no stranger to visual effects spectacles. He has used motion captures a few times in his films, he has blended animation and live-action, and he has used green screen effects to manipulate the heights of the World Trade Center towers. In The Witches, he uses all the tricks of the trade he has learned over his forty-year career and more to bring this film to life, like CGI, visual effects, camera manipulation, miniatures, and enlarging of props. The camera tricks are numerous to achieve everything he needs in his shots. All of this helps make this a better version of this story.
As far as reboots go, The Witches is one of the best of recent memory. In recent years, most haven't done much new stylistically. The Witches brings a whole new vision and style to HBO Max. Along with all the technical tricks of the trade Zemeckis uses, the cinematography, costume design, and set production are all first-rate. This film definitely could have been a wonderful theater experience for many families around the world. It's the best family film of the year.
The Witches is a pleasant surprise all the way around. A great turn from Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer brings her usual quality to the film. The kids are serviceable as well. Zemeckis brought it though. He really pulled all the tricks out of the bag and gave everyone a treat to behold. This is a fantastic family film for a new generation of parents and kids alike. Everybody involved should be proud of this new updated version of The Witches.
The Witches is now streaming on HBO Max.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Radium Girls had its premiere in 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It has since played numerous festivals before having its theatrical release delayed due to COVID-19. This film is directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler. While the real-life story had a significant effect on workplace safety, the film isn’t much more than a standard albeit ample courtroom drama.
Bessie and Jo are young women in the 1920’s who work in an American Radium factory where they paint watch dials. Their sister, who previously worked there, died from supposed syphilis. After Jo becomes ill, these girls advocate for safer working conditions and take American Radium to court. This true story is interesting and reveals a lot of the poor conditions at the time, and it had a lot of potential to be a galvanizing film.
The script by Mohler and Brittany Shaw is mostly decent, but a lot of the courtroom scenes feel lackluster and utilizes common tropes of the genre. There are some emotional and tender moments throughout, but it is usually met with some tepid and uninspired scenes that can inflate the runtime a little too much.
The acting in this film is very apt. Joey King (The Act, The Kissing Booth) gives a very commendable leading performance as Bessie. It is a very strong performance in spite of the material, and she is able to convey a wide range of emotions more so than anyone else in the film. Abby Quinn also gives a pretty decent performance as her sister, Jo. While most of the cast is suitable and adequate in their roles, none of them prove to be particularly memorable.
The film’s main faults come in the first half. There is a lot of meandering through its first act until it gets to the film’s inciting incident. There are characters who are given too much screen time, and there are others who aren’t given nearly enough. It comes off as unbalanced, but luckily the film finds somewhat sure footing as the actual trial and deposition starts.
The execution and blocking of the scenes are once again well-done but not particularly impressive. It’s a well-made movie, and while it suffers from its lukewarm treatment, it is still very competent. The cinematography is decent and composed well, and the score is appropriate for the period. There are a lot of parts that work well individually, but it comes off as messy when compiled.
Despite its flaws, this is a movie that tells a story about how young women took on a major corporation in order to secure better working conditions. It’s a testament to the spirit of the worker as well as an empowering story of young women in a period in which they were overlooked. It’s a film that could have been very timely but didn’t necessarily have a strong call to action for modern audiences.
Radium Girls doesn’t do sufficient justice to the real-life subjects, but it is still a mildly effective drama. It features a great leading performance from King and some strong themes, but it ultimately falls flat due to its pacing and script.
Radium Girls will be available in select theaters and virtual cinemas 10/23. Participating theaters can be found here.
[AFI 2020] MY PSYCHEDELIC LOVE STORY -- Another Stylish Stranger-Than-Fiction Documentary by Errol Morris
Review by Sean Boelman
Forty-two years after his debut, documentarian Errol Morris still manages to be one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working in the field. And while his latest, My Psychedelic Love Story, is comparatively quaint to his more powerful early films, it’s still a fascinating story told in Morris’s signature slick fashion.
In the movie, Morris interviews Joanna Harcourt-Smith, former lover of psychedelic drug advocate (and later CIA informant) Timothy Leary, as she recounts her passionate romance with him and how she accompanied him during some of the most dangerous years of his life. And even though the title implies that this is just going to be a movie about a couple of hippies, fans of Morris will know that isn’t the case.
Morris follows a similar structure here to his normal formula. Everything starts out pleasantly, the subjects just minding their own business, and then the government gets involved and everything goes to hell. As such, the second half of the film is undeniably more exciting, if only because the story gets crazier at that point.
As expected, the movie is stylistically brilliant. Morris uses Harcourt-Smith’s interview as the meat of his material and uses archive materials, graphics, and B-roll with her narration to supplement it. Something of note is that this film is much lighter in re-enactments than expected, but that is likely because the story already speaks for itself.
However, the shortcoming to Morris’s approach with this particular movie is that it causes him to neglect his strongest asset: Harcourt-Smith. She’s a very compelling subject who has lived quite an eventful life, so Morris has the wisdom to allow her to speak freely on her own. But in framing the story around Leary, some of the personal connection is lost.
That isn’t to say that the film isn’t still interesting — these events make for a fabulous documentary. But Morris’s sensational approach isn’t as fitting for something that is at a much smaller-scale than some of the weightier issues he has tackled in the past. And as a result, the movie feels a bit hollow at times.
There is something to be said about the criminalization of drug use and whether or not it is worth the time and money of the justice system to police these crimes. It’s a hot-button issue today (although there are a few more pressing matters on the plate right now), yet Morris doesn’t do enough to tie Harcourt-Smith and Leary’s story to the modern day discussion.
My Psychedelic Love Story is another strong outing from Errol Morris, even if the tale didn’t need his exceptional flair to be told. Still, those looking for a stranger-than-fiction true story need not look any further than the master of the genre.
My Psychedelic Love Story screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.
[AFI 2020] THE FATHER -- A Terrifying and Emotional Drama with a Brilliant Turn from Anthony Hopkins
Review by Sean Boelman
Movies adapted from stage plays are typically breeding grounds for phenomenal performances, and Florian Zeller’s The Father brings one of the year’s best from Anthony Hopkins. Simple yet powerful in its storytelling and benefitting from Hopkins’s brilliant presence, this is the type of refined and mature drama that not only will get but deserves the awards attention.
The film follows an aging man who suffers from dementia as he loses his grip on reality when his daughter suggests that they hire a new aide. Although this isn’t a horror movie, it is arguably one of the scariest of the year because of the way in which it captures the anxiety and dread of losing control of oneself and one’s own world.
Zeller’s narrative structure is definitely unique, with segmented interactions coming together to form the story out of order. It’s an intriguing way of telling this tale, emphasizing the protagonist’s disorientation with his environment and the fact that, even though there is a sense of normalcy to some of his moments, life doesn’t make sense to him in the greater scheme of things.
That said, the theatrical-like nature comes at the sacrifice of subtlety. Much of the character development is delivered through expositional dialogue. Frequent talk of another daughter that led to trauma is interesting but is lacking in depth. This could have added a further layer of humanity to the film’s exploration of dementia.
The relationship between the two leads is also somewhat underdeveloped. One of the most intriguing storylines features the character questioning his daughter’s identity because she is not how he remembers her. It’s arguably the most heartbreaking portion of the movie, and yet Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton don’t take full advantage of it.
Hopkins is undeniably the highlight of the film, and the amount of praise he is getting is earned. Although it may not be his most memorable work, what makes it so wonderful is that he effectively blends into his role with subtlety and nuance, as opposed to his most iconic turns, in which his mannerisms really defined the characters.
Some of the other actors also give great performances, including Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots, and Olivia Williams, but this is very much a showcase for Hopkins. Similarly, the execution is uniformly strong, but Hopkins is so astounding that viewers will be wrapped up in every word he says rather than the (also very good) cinematography and editing.
The Father is a great movie, but Anthony Hopkins is able to take it from simply being impressive to being outright exceptional. Hopkins continues to prove that he is one of the most talented actors of all time, especially when he is given material as conducive as this.
The Father screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
On the festival circuit, there are flashy international films that get a lot of attention and become the awards contenders, and those that make a quieter splash but are often even more unique and authentic. Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle falls into the latter category as one of the most unsung indie gems of the year.
The movie follows a young Belizean servant who, after running away from her European captors, takes refuge with a group of Mexican gum workers who begin to experience a series of strange occurrences. Rooted in Latin American mythology, this is a surreal and constantly perplexing mystery that is very thought-provoking about what viewers both see and feel.
Much of the film defies narrative convention, and this is a large part of what will keep viewers on their toes for a majority of the runtime. It feels as if everything is intricately designed to be unsettling but not quite uncomfortable. The movie is never slow, but it also isn’t traditionally-paced, with the main conflict of the film not even being introduced until the second act.
There is a lot to be said in this movie as well. On one level, there is the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” but there’s also something even more interesting happening not too far beneath the surface. The film explores how it is not the colonizers, but the people being “colonized” that are punished by the sins of colonization.
The character development in the movie is also very unorthodox. The film is constantly shifting where the audience's sympathies should lie. Much of the challenge is the fact that the audience doesn’t know what the characters’ motivation are, and although the constantly shifting dynamics may be off-putting to those who are impatient, it will be intriguing to anyone else.
Indira Rubie Andrewin gives a phenomenal performance in her leading role. Much like the material of the movie itself, her turn is subtle and packed with emotion. She brings an alluring and mysterious quality to the character, which helps build the mythological elements of the film. The supporting cast is also solid, but they are there mostly to support Andrewin.
Additionally, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous. The Mexican jungle lends a lush and vibrant environment for the film, but the way in which Olaizola uses it is even more impressive. The focus is largely on creating a feeling of claustrophobia despite the vast and expansive nature of the jungle, and she is able to pull it off.
Tragic Jungle is a thought-provoking and unique movie. Although its unorthodox pacing and characterization may prevent it from going mainstream, its ideas and execution make it an indie worth the shot.
Tragic Jungle screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
John Belushi’s story is arguably one of the most devastating in comedy history, a rags-to-riches tale ending in the saddest way possible, but R.J. Cutler’s Belushi reminds fans to remember him not as a tragic figure, but as a wonderful and troubled person. Part standard bio-doc and part exploration of addiction, this is a documentary that is affecting in all the right ways.
In the film, Cutler tells Belushi’s story, from his childhood as a blue collar kid in Chicago to becoming one of the inaugural cast members of Saturday Night Live before his death at the young age of thirty-three. Much of this information is probably already well-known to Belushi’s fans, but it’s nice to remember his contributions regardless.
Cutler obviously has a great deal of respect and admiration for Belushi, especially when it comes to his contributions to comedy history, but he also doesn’t shy away from the darker side of his story. Belushi’s legacy speaks for itself, so Cutler doesn’t have to waste time trying to convince the viewer why he was so legendary.
The first half of the movie, which focuses on Belushi’s comedy career beginning with the Chicago improv scene and eventually leading to his spot on SNL is mostly conventional biography material. Belushi’s co-stars talk about their experiences working with him, and footage of his performances keeps things interesting by making the audience laugh.
It is when the film starts to discuss Belushi’s struggles with drugs that it begins to be really insightful. Everyone has their own explanation as to how and why Belushi got to the point he did, but the common thread is that he had some unresolved inner demons for which he needed help. And if people can see his story and be moved to find help or show compassion to someone struggling, it would have been a story worth telling.
The tone with which Cutler approaches the documentary is about as expected. There is a blend of nostalgia for the heyday of great comedy and sadness for the talent that was lost too soon, and it will almost certainly pull at viewer’s heartstrings. It’s a crowd-pleasing, sometimes tear-jerking documentary made for fans and general audiences.
That said, Cutler’s storytelling techniques are anything but average. He eliminates the dependence on talking heads, instead using audio interviews from shortly after Belushi’s passing accompanied by archive materials and animation. This allows the movie to feel lively and energetic, making it enjoyable to watch even in its more pedestrian moments.
Belushi is a wonderful tribute to the late comedian, but it works even better as an exploration of the battle that is drug addiction. It goes down a lot easier than it could, but there are still plenty of great moments that make it a worthy watch.
Belushi screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Natalia Meta’s The Intruder starts out with an absolutely riveting opening twenty minutes that set the stage for a fascinating and exciting thriller. Unfortunately, it only goes down from there, treading into more conventional psychological horror territory and loses much of its initial intrigue as a result.
The film follows a young woman who begins to lose her grip on reality after she experiences a brutal trauma. It’s a simple premise, but the opening shot implies that it is going to be anything but straightforward. And while this is true to a certain extent, Meta eventually finds a comfortable rhythm and at that point, it becomes far more predictable.
One of the more obvious problems with the movie is that its suspense is constantly building with no payoffs along the way. It is missing either jump scares or more of an investment in the atmosphere. Yes, the story is mysterious, but for it to really succeed as a horror film, there needs to be more.
Additionally, the movie ends up feeling very shallow because it doesn’t explore its (very common) themes on a particularly deep level. Ambiguity is one thing, but there’s a difference between subtlety and playing coy about ideas that have been explored better in other films. Meta obviously has some interesting things to say, but wasn’t quite able to figure out how to say them.
As expected, a significant majority of the character development comes in the first act. However, even though Meta does a great job of making us care about the protagonist early on, she doesn’t do enough to reinforce that sympathy throughout the rest of the conflict. Also disappointing is the fact that the supporting characters are paper-thin.
Another frustrating thing about the movie is that it shows a lot of really exciting talent that isn’t put to full use. The chief of these is lead actress Erica Rivas, who is obviously a gifted performer. She is able to nail the paranoia aspect of the storyline in a way that is unsettling without being over-the-top.
Meta shows a great deal of potential as well. This is her sophomore feature, and there are so many hints, in both the script and the execution that suggest she is onto something great. The use of music in the film is particularly impressive, the protagonist’s voice serving as an important factor in the story, as the soundtrack is what makes it so haunting.
The Intruder sets itself up for failure by using up all of its best material early on. It’s a movie that seems to think it’s a lot more profound than it is, when in reality, it’s mostly a pretty run-of-the-mill psychological horror flick.
The Intruder screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.