Review by Jonathan Berk
Imagine hosting a Thanksgiving Day dinner with your favorite slasher movies. Picture little name cards that read Scream, Halloween, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Friday the 13th. Which would carve the turkey? Well, no matter who you may set a place for at your dinner, Director Eli Roth’s new film Thanksgiving does exactly that. It serves up plenty of slasher movie references for what will surely be a horror movie fan’s new holiday tradition.
The film begins with every introvert's nightmare: an angry mob outside a department store waiting for Black Friday sales. A tragedy ensues, and a year later a Thanksgiving-inspired killer terrorizes Plymouth, Massachusetts. A few residents are murdered, and it doesn’t take long for it to become clear there is a larger holiday-themed connection.
Roth completely nails the tone of this film. It never sets out to “scare” the audience. That this is necessary is a misconception of the horror genre — as we tend to forget that what scares us is very subjective. Instead, he looks to shock us with inventive kills and some gruesome effects that may make even the most veteran horror viewer squirm a little. Of course, if violence and gore scare you, by all means prepare to be freaked out. However, it seems like the reaction Roth is going for is shock followed by laughs, and he succeeds in eliciting that reaction time and time again.
Like many slashers, the film centers around a group of high school students. Nell Verlaque plays Jessica, whose father owns the department store at the start of the film. It was her friends sneaking in the back to get a head start on the deals that really set the crowd off. That initial burst of horror at the top of the film establishes early what to expect, and despite some choppy editing, manages to introduce the bulk of our characters.
The killer's design in the film works with a simple plastic mask and pilgrim-style outfit. At the heart of the story is a whodunnit all centered around familiar slasher movie cliches and references. The opening of the film is a POV reminiscent of Halloween’s opening sequence. The group of friends and their attempt to figure out who the killer is feels like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. There are tons of other blatant homages to the films Roth has confessed love for in some medium or another, that fans will likely gobble up like a plateful of candied yams.
Thanksgiving fills a void of what to watch between Halloween and Christmas movies that have long needed filling. This holiday homage to slashers delivers a veritable cornucopia of kills and characters horror enthusiasts would surely rather host than those obnoxious relatives. Roth’s love of the genre comes across, and this may be the best full movie to come from the joke trailers between Death Proof and Planet Terror.
Thanksgiving will be heading to theaters on November 17.
[DOC NYC 2023] DAVID HOLMES: THE BOY WHO LIVED -- A Hopeful, Moving Documentary About Life After Adversity
Review by Sean Boelman
There are few franchises with as much of a lasting impact on the world as the Harry Potter series, but for some people, that impact is extremely personal. David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived tells the story of a former stuntman with a personal, tragic connection to the franchise, but in a way that does not feel exploitative or pandering whatsoever.
David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived tells the story of David Holmes, who got the job of his dreams when he was selected to be Daniel Radcliffe’s lead stunt double in the Harry Potter franchise, only for his world to come crashing down around him when he suffered a traumatic spinal injury. The film is refreshingly uncynical, feeling little need to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.
It is also surprising how non-promotional this documentary is considering that it is executive produced by Radcliffe himself and distributed by a subsidiary of the studio behind the Harry Potter movies. Although there are many points at which Holmes remembers his experiences on set fondly, it always feels authentic and never like it’s crassly taking advantage of Holmes’s trauma.
The most compelling aspect of the story is the friendship that has formed between Radcliffe and Holmes. It’s interesting to see how the friendship formed as Radcliffe idolized the older gymnast-turned-stuntman Holmes, and now how they remain in touch even after Radcliffe has become a megastar.
Of course, fans who are looking to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Harry Potter are going to be satisfied, as the first half of the film does focus on Holmes’s career before his injury. Even for those who are not fans of the Wizarding World, the documentary offers some fascinating insight into the life and work of stunt people.
Still, it is the second half of the documentary that is likely to leave the most lingering impact on the viewer. It is a story of triumph over adversity; of the hopefulness that Holmes showed despite his life changing fundamentally because of this tragic accident. The emphasis on the work Holmes has done, with the help of Radcliffe, to advocate for greater awareness around these injuries and improving the experience of survivors.
Because the film is being released by HBO, the filmmakers had access to a large library of behind-the-scenes footage from the production of the Harry Potter movies. This, combined with talking head interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage of Holmes and Radcliffe’s advocacy work allows this story to be told in a straightforward, yet consistently powerful way.
Despite the hesitancy with which one would be reasonable to approach this documentary, considering that it is being distributed by the creators of a franchise it is somewhat critical of, David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived manages to be a surprisingly no-holds-barred, moving film. What could have been a fluff piece is instead a touching, hopeful, essential movie that serves as a reminder of the power of resilience.
David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Cole Groth
As the holiday season gears up, it’s time for Hallmark to bombard us with dozens of cheap, schlocky Christmas rom-coms. The market is so oversaturated by them that when a genuinely good one comes out, it’s a shock. This year, Amazon’s Freevee looks to enter the market with their rom-com, EXMas, starring Robbie Amell and Leighton Meester. This is a good watch with some genuinely great laughs and a satisfying story.
EXMas tells the story of Graham (Amell), an overworked gaming developer, whose ex-fiancee, Ali (Meester), is celebrating Christmas with his family. Her oddball parents, Dennis (Michael Hitchcock) and Jeannie (Kathryn Greenwood), alongside siblings Mindy (Veronika Slowikowska) and Elliot (Steven Huy), have taken in Ali as one of their family members, much to Graham’s dismay. In an effort to get Ali out of his life, Graham tries to get her to be hated by his family. Will the two make up and find solace in each other? Probably. That’s for you to find out.
The script, while unabashedly generic, is hilarious. The dynamic between Graham and his sister, Mindy, stands out as the funniest pairing of the group. Most other family members are underwritten, standing in as very generic family members. So many of these Christmas rom-coms stray away from inappropriate humor. While this is still a family-friendly time, some sharp gags put this above the crowd. Graham and Ali have a great dynamic, although it’s sometimes hard to picture them as a romantic couple. The chemistry just isn’t there for most of the movie.
As a holiday rom-com, there’s not much to talk about from a technical perspective. All of these movies struggle because they feel mostly the same, with the stars and script being the stars of the show. The cinematography, editing, music, etc., are all decent. Nothing stands out from a cinematic perspective, but it’s all done well enough to be at least not distracting. Simply put, you should know that you won’t get anything more than simple laughs and basic romance out of this.
Robbie Amell stands out as the star of the show here. He’s effortlessly funny and has plenty of charm. Leighton Meester is pretty good, too, but she doesn’t fit the role of the love interest nearly as well as Amell. Veronika Slowikowska is another star, too. Known mostly for her Instagram page (@veronika_iscool), Slowikowska does a great job of being Graham’s funny and kind sister. The rest of the family and some additional players performed pretty well.
If you’re looking for something nice, breezy, and cheerful to kick off a holiday binge, EXMas would be a good option. It won’t stand out among the true holiday classics, but it’ll definitely be better than most of the Hallmark slop shoveled out every year. It’s a simple watch buoyed by fun performances and a funny screenplay.
EXMas releases on Freevee on November 17.
Review by Joseph Fayed
Claudia Alta Johnson, better known as "Lady Bird," was First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969. These years are explored in Dawn Porter's new documentary The Lady Bird Diaries. Told firsthand by Lady Bird herself, the documentary is very poignant at times, but falls far from being groundbreaking in any way.
Lady Bird Johnson recorded over 100 hours worth of audio passages while she was First Lady. Many of these recordings have not been made public until now. Combined with archive footage and photographs, the documentary pulls back the curtain on the woman caught in the midst of one of the most tumultuous eras in American history.
This intimate approach should be attempted by more documentaries, especially those where the subjects are deceased. The lack of talking heads featured grips you in because it feels you have access to Lady Bird reading her own diary or something similar. Lady Bird herself kept a well crafted image throughout her life, and that remains true in her speech. There is no mic drop moment spoken by her, yet she doesn't shy away from sharing her emotions she — and many other women — are often told to refrain from showcasing.
One complaint is that it felt like there were noticeable gaps in the timeline Lady Bird was in the White House. While still covering crucial events, the years of 1964-67 are placed on the back burner, while the beginning and end of LBJ's presidency are highlighted. There still is enough to cover in 110 minutes, notably the Vietnam War, which decreased LBJ's popularity in the polls significantly. The most interesting parts of the film were hearing what Lady Bird thought of war protestors. Here, she is no longer in her husband's shadow, but in the spotlight when asked about Vietnam. She and her husband met great resistance during this period, such as when Eartha Kitt famously questioned the two at a White House luncheon. Ultimately, Porter expresses through the recordings that being vocal is the best way to fight for what you believe is right. Lady Bird, however, was pressured to do the opposite in her position.
The Lady Bird Diaries captures textbook history on the era of the Johnsons, and how they went from heavily favored to the masses turning on them. There's no new intel presented on why they lost a second term. What we do get is a closer look at someone who wasn't expected to address the nation every day, but was expected to be as polished and prepared as any politician. While she didn't have the same powers her husband had, Lady Bird had her own moral convictions, which she stood by through it all.
The Lady Bird Diaries is now streaming on Hulu.
[DOC NYC 2023] A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE -- A Documentary Showing What a Disaster the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL Truly Was
Review by Dan Skip Allen
To say I'm a big Star Wars fan would be underselling it. With that comes the fact that I have seen all the films and television shows multiple times. I just want to see Star Wars when I have the time. When I was a kid, I got to see a Star Wars Holiday Special that wasn't as good as the movies I've come to love. In fact, it wasn't very good at all. A Disturbance in the Force shows all the problems of this Star Wars variety show.
Back in the day, I was just glad to see Star Wars on television, but as the years have gone by, I realized it was like a lot of shows and specials back then. It was campy and corny. I can see now why George Lucas and other members of the cast have basically disowned the Holiday Special. With this documentary, there is a story people don't know about with this special: what happened behind the scenes.
There was a lot of drama and financial problems surrounding this special from the perspective of the producers, directors and actors in the special and the studio heads involved. 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios, owned by Disney), wanted to keep Star Wars in the public consciousness. They had appeared on the Donnie and Marie Show to less than terrific results, commercials, and other skits on variety shows like The Bob Hope Show. The Holiday Special was the bottom of the barrel, though. And I'm not the only one that says this. A Disturbance in the Force is littered with dozens of celebrities saying the same thing.
This documentary, like many others, has talking heads to explain why this Holiday Special was so bad. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Kyle Newman, comedians like Gilbert Gottfried, Paul Scheer, Bobcat Goldthwait and Taran Killam, musicians such as Weird “Al” Yankovic and Donnie Osmond, and quite a few people involved in making this Holiday Special contribute their opinions to A Disturbance in the Force. The talking heads are numerous — more than I could have ever imagined.
The film has some technical aspects that make it not as normal as so many other documentaries. Two in particular are archival footage showing the creative process behind making the variety show, and cassette recordings from Ken and Mitzie Welch, David Aconda and others, which were very effective in getting the opposite side of this story. This isn't a one-sided story, and that's what's good about the film — it captures both sides.
I loved the background footage and concept art from Ralph McQuarrie, though. Actors like Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Corman and others who were on the special showed they had an investment in it from the beginning. Musicians like Jefferson Starship, Pete Seers and Diane Carroll performed and had no idea where their performance would fit in the special. Even costume designer Bob Mackie was fully invested in the special, but had no idea what he was involved in. He created a lot of costumes for this variety show.
As a huge fan of Star Wars as a kid, and still today, I am sad to say this Star Wars Holiday Special — which was a glorified variety special — was just doomed from the beginning. It had bad production value, campy acting, and bad songs. The worst part is that the doc shows it tarnished the legacy of Star Wars as a whole at that time in the history of the franchise. Even George Lucas didn't want anything to do with it. The actors involved, including Harrison Ford, still to this day won't talk about it. The people behind it, like Bruce Vilanch and many others, were very candid about how it wasn't very good, but it was work they did, but acknowledge the past. Historians like Steve Sansweet even had nothing to say about it. He's a big toy collector guy, and Star Wars know it all. Even people like Jon Favreau and Seth Green, who have made Star Wars projects today, are interviewed with trepidations regarding the Star Wars Holiday Special. Some things just don't work out, and this was one of them. It's more of a joke than a legitimate Star Wars project. A Disturbance in the Force shows that. The director does a good job showing why it wasn't good and why a lot of people didn't like it.
A Disturbance in the Force is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Biographical documentaries at festivals tend to be hit or miss — with the most fascinating often being the subjects you already know about. Even though Uncropped doesn’t have a household name for its subject, the stories photographer James Hamilton has to share with skilled filmmaker D.W. Young make this a hidden gem to keep an eye out for.
In the documentary, Hamilton offers a chronicle of his career, which allowed him to take pictures across different beats and on film sets across the United States and around the world. Although the documentary is a biography, Hamilton’s life and career are so extraordinary that it stands out.
On its surface, Uncropped may feel like a pretty conventional combination of archive materials — pulled from Hamilton’s extensive library of work — and talking heads. However, the talking heads here feel more conversational than those in your average documentary. Part of it is just that Young tends to interview more than one person at once, allowing a dialogue to form, but even when conducting a solo interview, he asks fantastic, engaging questions.
As is the case with many biographical documentaries, how much the viewer engages with the movie will depend on how interested they are in the subject. However, with a veritable hodgepodge of a resume and portfolio, there’s something for everyone’s interests in Uncropped. And while it is on the longer side — a little over 110 minutes — the sheer amount of stories Hamilton has to tell keeps it moving.
The portion of Uncropped that is likely to gain it the most attention is its exploration of Hamilton’s career as a stills photographer. Working on film sets for filmmakers including George A. Romero and Wes Anderson (the latter of which serves as an executive producer on this documentary), Hamilton effectively revolutionized the art of film stills. For anyone with an interest in cinema, this is sure to be utterly fascinating.
The other side of Hamilton’s career is his bout as a journalist, which is arguably even more storied than his work shooting film stills. Although it may not be the documentary’s primary focus, there is room for questions to be asked about the role journalists and the images they create play in culture and society in the portion exploring his more provocative work.
One of the most impressive things about Young’s approach is that he manages to make the movie feel quite unfussy. Many documentaries set on the art scene tend to feel somewhat pretentious and uptight, but Hamilton’s very low-key personality makes him a much more approachable subject. Yet audiences will still walk away feeling nothing but admiration for the tremendous artist Hamilton is.
Uncropped is a very well-made biographical documentary that is fascinating thanks to its subject’s tremendous career. Whether you’re coming into this looking to learn about cinema or the world of journalism, you’re sure to leave feeling absolutely satisfied.
Uncropped is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
To no one’s surprise, the cinema history documentary Merchant Ivory is likely going to be a must-see for hardcore cinephiles, but is unlikely to resonate outside of that core audience. Filmmaker Stephen Soucy takes advantage of his exceptional access to subject James Ivory, creating a focus that feels somewhat skewed at times.
The documentary tells the story of Merchant Ivory Productions, the film production company formed from the collaboration between producer Ismael Merchant and writer/director James Ivory, who together created some of the most acclaimed independent films in all of history. Fans might recognize some of their films like A Room With a View and Howards End featured throughout the documentary.
Unlike a lot of cinema documentaries, Merchant Ivory isn’t really about behind the scenes drama or gossip. Instead, it’s an ode to one of the most fruitful collaborations in film history. Sure, it does start to feel a bit like a fluff piece at times, but it’s a compelling watch for anyone who is a fan of cinema.
For a film named after such an iconic collaboration, it is somewhat frustrating how one-sided Merchant Ivory can be. It often feels like there is much more of a focus on Ivory than Merchant. Although there are a few reasons that could explain this — it could be that Merchant was a more behind-the-scenes presence compared to Ivory, or maybe it’s that Merchant passed away nearly two decades ago — it’s still not the portrait of a collaboration one might have hoped for.
However, in exploring Ivory’s story in tremendous depth, it does get to explore some aspects of his story with which viewers may not be as familiar. In particular, the aspects of the film about Ivory’s sexuality are fascinating. Although there was some discussion of this leading up to his Oscar win for the Call Me By Your Name screenplay, this documentary allows his experience as a gay man to be told from the earlier days of his career.
As one would expect, Soucy tells this story using a lot of great archive materials. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and stills to pull from, and it also seems like the filmmakers had unrestricted access to the Merchant Ivory Productions library. The result is a documentary that is sure to be catnip for cinephiles.
Merchant Ivory also offers lots of great talking heads, with Ivory himself as well as many of his former collaborators. The documentary managed to attract some bonafide A-listers with whom Ivory has worked in the past, including Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant. The only iffy thing about the film’s interviews is that Soucy inserts himself inconsistently. It’s enough to notice, but not enough to become a legitimate device.
Merchant Ivory is arguably more effective as a biography of James Ivory than as a portrait of his collaboration with longtime partner Ismael Merchant, but it’s a strong cinema history doc either way. The film knows its audience and caters to their interests.
Merchant Ivory is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Julia Child is undeniably one of the most iconic figures in the world of professional cooking, and there have been plenty of versions of her story told across film and television. Max’s Julia debuted last year to a positive reception, and the second season is now returning with more delicious behind-the-scenes drama.
The show picks up after season 1, with Child having launched the extremely successful The French Chef, traveling to France to find inspiration for her next season of the show. There’s one thing that season 2 of Julia cannot be faulted for — and that’s a lack of ambition. This season tries to take the show in several exciting new directions, but part of the issue is exactly that: it bites off more than it can chew.
Still, the show manages to carry over many of the things that people loved about the original series. With any show about cooking, viewers expect to see plenty of absolutely scrumptious shots of food, and there’s no shortage of delicious dishes to be found here. And the first half of the season, which takes place partially in France, is particularly beautiful.
As far as the story goes, it follows pretty much the beats one would expect of this arc. Julia is overwhelmed with the fame she receives from her successful first season and finds her allegiances torn between the public broadcast station, the corporate interests, and even those courting her to take her career in a different direction.
However, season 2 of Julia aims much broader and bigger when it comes to its societal themes. With topics from civil rights to birth control, it’s clear that this series wants to have something more to say. The show uses its supporting characters to explore these themes, but this comes at the expense of the trailblazing woman at the center of this story.
That being said, even if they do distract from the main storyline of Child’s character, these supporting characters are certainly compelling. For example, we get to spend a lot more time with Brittany Bradford’s producer Alice this time around, who adds a very human element to the show at several points. We also get a few new additions to the cast, like Isabella Rosselini as one of Child’s main collaborators.
And of course, Sarah Lancashire’s performance in the lead role as the eponymous chef and television personality is fantastic — maybe even better than last season. Now that she has gotten hold of the figure’s mannerisms, she can really start to add new layers of emotion to the character that she wasn’t as freely able to explore in the first batch of episodes.
Season 2 of Julia is not as strong as its first entry because it aims a bit higher than it should have. Still, when you are able to focus in on the elements that made the first season work so well — and are so charming about the show’s subject — it’s moderately enjoyable. Too bad it feels like things were just beginning to ramp up again at the end, as Max is notorious for canceling shows after their second season.
Julia streams on Max beginning November 16 with three episodes, with new episodes dropping subsequent Thursdays. All eight episodes reviewed.
[DOC NYC 2023] THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE -- A Straightforward Chronicle of an Unappreciated Figure in History
Review by Sean Boelman
The Disappearance of Shere Hite debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, and is now receiving a prime awards season release. While the documentary is worth watching for the strength of its material alone, the standard filmmaking approach is not quite as engaging as one would hope.
The movie tells the story of famed sex researcher Shere Hite, whose (in)famous book The Hite Report reinvigorated the conversation around female sexuality and pleasure. Although the title refers to the underrecognized nature of Hite’s work, the film really spends a lot of time talking about the impact she had.
Like its subject, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is largely unafraid to pull any punches when it comes to its themes. In addition to discussing sexuality in an incredibly frank way, the documentary offers a blunt (yet entirely essential) skewering of the patriarchal system that threatened to censor the work of this seminal figure.
One of the biggest issues with the documentary is that it is simply too long. Although the story being told is undeniably important, at nearly two hours in length, there’s also not much reason that it needed to be as long as this. The movie goes off on a few tangents that don’t add much to the story.
If the film does one thing well, it’s that it gives the viewer an intense admiration for its subject. However, what the movie fails to do is effectively engage with the controversy she stirred up. Although the intent seems to be to disprove the caricature many critics created of Hite, the more effective way to do so would have been to humanize the character, rather than creating a myth of her in the opposite direction.
Director Nicole Newnham’s (Crip Camp) use of archive footage in the film is very straightforward and conventional. In addition to these materials, Newnham conducts a number of talking head interviews with modern-day sexologists — who, as expected, shower effusive praise on the subject — adding context to the importance of Hite’s story.
The casting of Dakota Johnson as the narrator — speaking the words of Hite — is an inspired choice, especially considering that her role in the Fifty Shades trilogy essentially cemented her status as the modern embodiment of female sexuality. However, while she is a great, audacious choice to be the narrator, the way in which the narration is used is as conventional as the rest of the movie.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is the type of documentary whose success is carried on the merit of its subject more so than its storytelling being anything special. There’s no denying that it’s well-made, but it does feel a bit too conventional to have such an unconventional figure at its center.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
The Marvels is quite an achievement for director Nia DaCosta, the director of the Candyman reboot. She has combined two strong-willed women and a spunky teenager for the first time. This in many people's minds is groundbreaking. For me, it was a good combination based on many hours of investing my time in these characters by watching the films and television shows they were in. I have been looking forward to this team-up. The question is, is it worth your time?
Fans of the MCU got a glimpse of what is going on in this film a year and a half ago, when out of nowhere Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) appeared in Kamala Khan's bedroom, destroying her closet. That was just the beginning, though. The first act of this movie is filled with multiple scenes of Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeaux (Teyonah Parris) switching bodies. It is played with a lot of humor in mind, and it's one of the best sequences of the film.
The family of Kamala Khan, Nick Fury, and even Goose all get involved in the beginning action scene switcheroo, before Carol figures out how to stop it. Once the three ladies are together, they work out the kinks of the switching bodies, but it allows them to each have bonding moments with the others. The strongest parts of the film are the connections that the three ladies have while figuring out what to do going forward. They are trying to stop a woman who wants to rebuild the Kree homeworld at any cost, so there is business at hand.
As with most MCU movies, The Marvels has a lot of pretty cool visual effects. With all the switching, space battles, Flerken action, and so forth, the visuals have to look good. This movie has better-looking visual effects than some of the latest MCU films, and that's a good thing. The various power sets of the three ladies must also look authentic for the three ladies and the main villain, Dar Benn (Zawe Ashton).
Marvel and the MCU have been on a downswing lately. The films haven't connected with the audiences like they did in the first three phases. The 5th phase has been a little better than the 4th phase, but the movies don't interest me as much either. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and now The Marvels, they have gotten back on track with their film properties. Loki Season 2 and Secret Invasion were also pretty good from my perspective. They have gotten back to what made them such a big fan-friendly film series in the past: fun and interesting characters and fascinating storytelling.
The Marvels is a fast-paced and funny sequel to the first Captain Marvel. Nia DaCosta was able to capture a joyous atmosphere while also having a serious villain. The chemistry between the three main characters was off the chain. They showed genuine enthusiasm for working together. It showed in the final product. I was laughing at all the craziness, but also realized it was made in the context of the film. This movie was a blast from beginning to end.
The Marvels hits theaters on November 10.