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.
[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.
BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM: DELIVERY OF PRODIGIOUS BRIBE TO AMERICAN REGIME FOR MAKE BENEFIT ONCE GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN -- A Hilarious Return to Form for Sacha Baron Cohen
Review by Sean Boelman
Shot in secrecy during the pandemic, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan features Sacha Baron Cohen returning to his most iconic character to provide even more commentary on the current state of American affairs. And while the stunts aren’t nearly as funny this time around, the script has so much wit and heart that fans will be laughing hard regardless.
The film follows Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev as he returns to the United States on a special mission, having been disgraced after his last cinematic outing brought shame to his home country and hoping to correct his wrong. Compared to his quest to find moviestar Pamela Anderson in the first movie, the story here is much more complex, but it still largely serves as a frame for the comedic moments.
As always, the film features Cohen in character as Borat interacting with real people. However, due to the success of the first movie, his antics have become more well-known, and as a result, his disguises become much more elaborate. This results in plenty of hilarious and ridiculous stunts, even if they aren’t quite as charming as the fish-out-of-water comedy that made the first one so beloved.
The film’s non-prank attempts at humor can be hit or miss. Thankfully, unlike a lot of other comedy sequels coming out long after their predecessors, the movie doesn’t get caught up in repeating the iconic original gags. But sadly, there just aren’t as many quotable one-liners here, even though the film is still very funny.
That said, the movie has even more of a political edge now. Cohen splits his targets between the Trump administration and the American public’s response to the COVID pandemic, and both are very funny. The latter allows Cohen to go all-in on the goofy and ignorant factor with his character, and the former delivers some truly punchy satire and even a big moment that will probably make the news.
It’s obviously great to get to see Cohen returning to his roots. His show Who is America? which takes a similarly political approach to his comedy, was divisive, only lasting one season, and his last few films before that, while funny, took a more conventional narrative approach. He is definitely at his best when working within the confines of an overall arc, but with the ability to do some absurd improvisation, and this is exactly what he needed to recapture that magic.
One of the most notable additions to this movie is the introduction of the character of Borat’s daughter. Although it isn’t quite a home run, it adds a lot more of a human element to the story in addition to Borat’s lovable nature. The attempts to poke fun at misogyny aren’t as effective as they could be, though, as they aren’t quite hard enough on the sexism that still exists in America.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the rare distanced comedy sequel that actually lives up to its predecessor. And while each film has their own strengths and weaknesses, they are both refreshingly insightful and very very funny.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan streams on Amazon Prime beginning October 23.
Review by Sean Boelman
Hollywood pumps out plenty of feel-good dramedies, but what sets out the good ones from those that will fall into obscurity is a great performance. Paul Bettany fulfills that requirement in the LGBTQ+ road movie Uncle Frank, turning a pretty straightforward story into something endearing and charming.
The film follows a man and his niece who take a road trip to the family patriarch’s funeral joined by his lover, even though the rest of his family doesn’t know about his sexuality. Blending common tropes from both road trip and coming out movies, Alan Ball’s script is about as sentimental and cheesy as one can expect.
At about ninety-five minutes in length, there’s plenty of room to spare for this movie to go in more depth on some of its ideas, which is why it’s somewhat disappointing that it is so conventional. There are a few subplots that show the promise of delivering something legitimately challenging to the audience, only for its punches to be largely pulled by the time the resolution is met.
Furthermore, the film almost feels as if it came out about a decade too late. While there are definitely some people who need to learn compassion, the people who still need to hear that message are unlikely to watch something like this in the first place. Everyone else has moved past the need for shallowly uplifting stories about educating homophobes.
That said, the eponymous character is very sympathetic and likable, even if his arc is mostly predictable. There is a subplot in the movie involving him coming to terms with his sexuality in his adolescence, and this is arguably the most interesting and emotional portion of the film, but this portion is left underdeveloped in favor of more broad comedy and melodrama.
Bettany delivers what is likely a career-best turn as the eponymous character, and if it weren’t for such a competitive crop, he would be in conversation among the best performances of the year. He is able to bring so much emotion and humanity despite the relative stagnancy of the script.
Visually, the movie is solid but safe in an awards-bait type of way. Though the production design and costuming are both strong, periodizing the film nicely, there are a lot of other technical elements that are somewhat lacking. Some of the movie is oversaturated, giving it a weird glow, and the score is frequently overbearing.
Uncle Frank is a charming and very funny film bolstered by a phenomenal lead performance. In terms of conventional and mostly sanitized LGBTQ+ stories, it’s plenty charming enough to be worth a watch.
Uncle Frank screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.
Review by Sean Boelman
Matt Yoka’s exciting new documentary Whirlybird benefits not only from an interesting story, but also the wealth of other fascinating stories to which it is tied. Playing out like a real-life version of Nightcrawler, this is a wonderful exploration of the public’s relationship with the news, both in the past and now.
The film follows a couple of freelance reporters who revolutionized the field by being among the first to practice helicopter news gathering, being on the front lines in such famous stories as the L.A. riots and the white Bronco chase. The appeal of this to the journalistically-minded is obvious, but the general public will find interest in reliving these iconic moments.
One of the most intriguing ideas that Yoka explores is the origin of breaking news. Until the innovations made by the subjects, the information that the public received was significantly limited by the speed with which reporters could get to the scene. By taking to the air, news would be changed forever.
However, this would soon increase the demand for sensational content. The argument made by Yoka is that the public has a sort of infatuation with the idea of crime and excitement, taking pleasure in the action of this type of footage. And with the introduction of helicopters, news became less and less a source of information and more a form of entertainment.
Almost ironically, Yoka’s documentary falls victim to the same trend. Rather than being an informative biography about some of the pioneers of broadcast journalism, it ends up becoming a flashy documentary about the excitement in their careers. It’s definitely interesting, and occasionally thought-provoking, but clearly works best as infotainment.
Obviously, a great deal of the movie is composed of archive footage shot by the two subjects. And although the perspective it offers has likely been seen by many viewers, it still manages to have much of the same impact nevertheless. The images of the Rodney King attacks and the L.A. riots are particularly horrifying.
One of the areas in which the film could have used some more development is in the exploration of its subject’s personal lives. One of the subjects would later come out as transgender, and in a few segments, she discusses how her experiences led to her understanding her identity, but this feels like an afterthought to Yoka.
Whirlybird is an entertaining documentary thanks to its cinematic and sensationalized approach to its story. For the entirety of the hour-and-forty-three minute runtime, viewers will have their eyes locked on the screen.
Whirlybird screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.