Review by Sean Boelman
Though a torture porn film about the MAGA generation may not sound like what we need at the moment, Teddy Grennan has delivered one anyway, and it’s a consistently brutal (and frequently gnarly) watch. With moments that are thrilling and disgusting, often at the same time, Ravage isn’t an easy movie to stomach but it will definitely satisfy genre fans.
The film follows a nature photographer who, after turning her camera onto something that she wasn’t supposed to see, finds herself trying to escape a band of savage bumpkins in a disturbing game of cat-and-mouse. And while this cat-and-mouse setup is pretty simple (and a political message is nothing new to the genre), Grennan does it in such a lean and punchy way that it works quite well.
There admittedly isn’t a whole lot of subtlety to what Grennan has to say, but this genre isn’t known for having great nuance. With the antagonist uttering lines such as “I am preserving a way of life!” or “I am fighting for what I believe in!” it’s not particularly difficult to figure out exactly who he is targeting.
At right around an hour and twenty minutes, the movie moves very quickly and is basically one torture sequence after another. Of course, there are some of these moments that are more effective than others, but a majority of them have some form of guttural impact. That said, towards the end of the film, the narrative structure starts to fall apart and the movie closes with a whimper.
The character development in the film is also somewhat lacking. Granted, it’s easy to sympathize with the protagonist if only because of her situation, but there’s not a whole lot of backstory to be found here. Even the mythology surrounding the antagonists is left mostly unexplored.
There are some really solid performances in the movie, particularly from the film’s villains. Robert Longstreet is phenomenally menacing in his performance as the lead antagonist. Bruce Dern also has a devilish bit part. Still, Annabelle Dexter-Jones’s leading turn can’t be discounted, as she brings a lot of emotion to the table.
Grennan’s style is definitely very rough around the edges, but there are some interesting things happening in the movie in terms of creative torture methods. There’s one moment at the end of the film that will almost certainly be burned into viewers’ minds because of how disturbing and messed up it is.
Ravage offers a satisfying amount of carnage for a torture porn movie. Despite being pretty rough around the edges, the performances are good enough and there is sufficient creativity (and depravity) to make this worth a watch.
Ravage is now playing in select theaters and hits VOD on August 21.
Review by Sean Boelman
It’s not often that filmmakers make an old-school monster movie anymore, but Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko did just that with his new sci-fi horror flick Sputnik. Like Alien by way of The Wolfman, Abramenko’s movie may be a bit busy, but it’s entertaining and packed with interesting ideas.
The film follows a scientist who is tasked with studying a Russian cosmonaut, the sole survivor of a classified incident that occurred in space, and the mysterious parasite who uses his body as a host. With this simple but effective premise, writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev set up some effective thrills along with a discussion of the ethics of the movie’s politics.
Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film does run a bit long, with the second act being the problem section. The first act is filled with intrigue as Abramenko builds this world, and the finale is enjoyably action-packed, but the middle of the movie struggles to either add more to the mythology or deliver the high-intensity scares.
That said, a big part of what makes the film work well is that the audience will legitimately care about the characters. The protagonist has an interesting arc involving her fighting internally between her duty to science, her duty to her country, and what she feels is ethically right in the situation.
However, the more compelling of the storylines involves the cosmonaut character as he explores what it means to be a hero. Some of the dialogue in reference to this theme isn’t particularly subtle, but the on-the-nose nature of the movie plays well with the retro ‘80s sci-fi feel for which the film is obviously going.
The acting in the movie is also quite strong. Oskana Akinshina and Pyotor Fyodorov both give performances that offer the film a strong emotional foundation. The true highlight of the movie, though, is Fedor Bondarchuk, who gives an over-the-top but very fitting performance as the military leader.
Additionally, the film is much better visually than one would expect given its independent nature. The production design does an excellent job of periodizing the movie into the Cold War era. Perhaps more impressive though is the fact that the CGI is excellent despite the film not having a Hollywood budget.
Sputnik is a fun and well-made sci-fi horror flick. While it does have a few issues, and it may be a tad overlong, there are plenty of great moments to make this an absolute must-see for fans of the genre.
Sputnik hits theaters and VOD on August 20.
Review by Sean Boelman
Eugene Kotlyarenko’s new horror-comedy Spree seems as if it was designed to inflame and provoke, taking on current issues in a way that is edgy and tongue-in-cheek. Thanks to a witty script and an enjoyable performance from star Joe Keery (Stranger Things), this is a fun yet insightful thriller.
The film follows a rideshare driver and self-proclaimed influencer who hatches a plan to go viral by setting out on a night-long killing spree while driving. And while there have been a fair share of movies to come out recently that try to capitalize on viral culture, this works better than others because it recognizes the absurdity of its setup.
There is a clear sense of narrative momentum to the film, Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh’s script finding an impeccable balance between its dark humor and its attempts to shock the audience. At times the movie does go a bit too far, even to the point of feeling exploitative, but it works more often than it misses.
Unfortunately, the same people who found last year’s Joker to be inspirational will completely miss the point here. The protagonist, while charming, is not meant to be a likable or relatable character. Instead, he is an exaggerated manifestation of the materialism of online society and the toxic masculinity that has come to dominate that group.
Keery’s performance is frequently hilarious, and he’s honestly the thing that holds the whole affair together. Even in moments where there’s nothing particularly cinematic going on, he is completely committed to his performance and gives it his all. It’s over-the-top and schlocky, but endlessly fun to watch.
The film also features some strong performances from people that Keery’s character comes across over the course of his rampage. Sasheer Zamata is probably the biggest standout, giving a surprising and grounded performance. Other highlights include David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, and Linas Phillips.
Visually, the movie does a lot with simulated screens, giving it a very dynamic and kinetic feel, but it does become a bit disorienting at times. Still, it’s understandable why Kotylarenko went for this technology-based style, as it plays such an integral role in the plot, but that does hold it back from being as cinematic as it could be.
Spree is an entertaining and thought-provoking satire of the digital world. Not everyone is going to be a fan of this admittedly very aggressive dark humor and commentary, but it’s a great flick for the midnight crowd.
Spree hits theaters and VOD on August 14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Every once in a while, it’s nice to sit down with a nice popcorn movie that’s mindless and not especially challenging. The Silencing, a new thriller starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, fits that bill to a tee, with a script that’s admittedly generic but has just enough life and excitement in it to be entertaining.
The film tells the story of a reclusive hunter who, years after his daughter was kidnapped and presumed missing, finds himself racing against the clock to find a serial killer whose recent string of brutal killings may be tied to his daughter’s case. Part revenge thriller and part crime mystery, it’s an entertaining if standard B-movie elevated by a strong cast and solid direction.
One of the issues with the movie is that Micha Ranum’s script is quite indecisive. It’s not uncommon for there to be twists in a film like this, but the script keeps changing its mind and reverses its decisions more than once. After a while, it benefits the viewer to stop caring about the story and just watch the movie for its action.
The character development in the film is also rather subpar. The protagonist’s arc is very generic, hinging almost entirely on his long-held grief over his daughter. On the other hand, the co-lead, a sheriff who has her own reasons for catching the killer, is rather inexplicable as a character and may not resonate with the audience.
A central theme to the movie is guilt and responsibility, and while this ties the different narrative threads together, it’s the same thing that has been seen over and over again. The trope of having a mourning father turn into a vigilante is well-worn at this point, and Ranum doesn’t do enough to make his film stand out in another way.
Still, the movie features some really strong performances that make it worth a watch. Coster-Waldau does more than just sulk in his leading role, giving the film a much-needed emotional core. Annabelle Wallis is a little less subtle with her performance, although her delivery fits the pulpy nature of the movie rather well.
There are also some things that impress on a visual level. Director Robin Pront does a great job of building the film’s atmosphere, particularly when it comes to the more suspense-driven “hunting” scenes. The use of gore and violence is minimal, but when it’s there, it has quite the impact.
The Silencing isn’t a great movie, but it’s well-made enough to meet the bare minimum of expectations. For an hour and a half, it’s not a bad choice for viewers looking for some thrills that don’t require much from them in return.
The Silencing hits theaters and VOD on August 14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Despite a plot that is enormously convoluted for no good reason, Paula van der Oest’s new thriller The Bay of Silence still manages to feel miraculously stagnant. Completely unmemorable but passable thanks to its talented cast, this film is missing a quality that is fundamental to every good mystery: a sense of intrigue.
The movie follows a man who, after his wife goes missing along with their children, sets out on a search across Europe to look for her, soon discovering that the truth is not something he wanted to find. Based on the book by Lisa St Aubin de Terán, the source material is pretty short to begin with, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that the film still feels incomplete.
The biggest mistake made by writer Caroline Goodall was taking too much time to get to the action. By the time the part of the movie that is actually thrilling starts to kick in, it starts to feel rushed as it scrambles to wrap up the story, albeit with enough loose ends to leave the viewer thinking. Only in this case, those loose ends lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction.
Part of the issue with the film is that the characters aren’t particularly compelling. Even though much of the first thirty minutes are spent establishing their personalities, they ultimately have minimal arcs. Any changes that the characters demonstrate come suddenly and abruptly in the form of a predictable twist.
Like so many moody neo-noirs like this, the movie explores the theme of trust. It’s material that has been done before, and in a much more cinematic way. For the most part, the script is a bunch of ideas floating around that go nowhere or aren’t explored in much depth. Had Goodall focused on a few of these and developed them more, the film easily could have been a solid mystery.
The movie also looks pretty bland and unimpressive. Apart from some nice scenery in the background, van der Oest’s style is too grey and muted to be particularly enjoyable. Granted, it is typical of the genre for the visuals to feel cold, but this takes it to the extreme in a way that is altogether unpleasant.
That said, the actors do their best to bring some element of emotion out of the script, even if they don’t always succeed. Claes Band is an amazing actor, and his performance is one of the few things about the film that is legitimately believable. Olga Kurylenko is solid in her role, but isn’t given a whole lot to do. And the phenomenal Brian Cox is completely underused.
The Bay of Silence isn’t unwatchable, but it is pretty unexceptional. Another crime thriller with photogenic stars and not much else to offer beyond a needlessly complicated plot, this needed to be either more schlocky or far more inspired to be interesting.
The Bay of Silence hits VOD on August 14.
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the magical things about archival war documentaries is that they have the ability to make the viewer feel as if they are in the moment so that they can experience the horrors of war secondhand. Erik Nelson’s new documentary Apocalypse ‘45 is a powerful watch, even if it drags a bit, thanks to the filmmaker’s brilliant construction of available materials.
Being released near the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-J Day, which marked the United States’ victory against Japan during WWII, the movie offers a firsthand account of the war from those who fought in it. Even though there are plenty of documentaries about WWII, the thing about Nelson’s film that stands out the most is that it explores the Pacific Front as opposed to the much more well-known Western Front.
The movie’s emotional impact admittedly pales in comparison to other recent archive-based war documentaries, perhaps because the presentation is a tad monotonous in nature, but it’s still a treat to see footage that is so raw and up close, especially given the fact that documentaries frequently reuse many of the same iconic images and clips.
Nelson’s footage, on the other hand, feels quite different from what we have seen before. Of course, it’s television-friendly material, so the more gnarly side of the war isn’t depicted here, but Nelson still does an excellent job of making the audience recognize the terror these people were experiencing.
At an hour and forty five minutes, the movie’s a lot to handle, especially given how dark and bleak some of the narrative can be at times, but amateur historians and documentary-lovers will be enthralled with this informational and insightful glimpse into an oft-overlooked portion of WWII.
If there is one thing about the film that should have been improved, it is the way in which it explored its subjects. For the movie, Nelson interviewed many retired soldiers, using their stories in their own words as a voiceover for the archive materials he is presenting. It’s definitely nice to hear them now, as it won’t be too long before those first hand stories are no longer available from the source.
Nelson’s purpose with the film seems to be to reinforce the idea that these people were the “greatest generation”, and while some of the more humble subjects may disagree with that assessment, he makes a good case for it. The key to his success is that he clearly values sacrifice as opposed to the traditional value of jingoism.
Apocalypse ‘45 is a bit overlong, but thanks to its wonderful use of archive footage, it ends up being a pretty great movie. Filmmaker Erik Nelson clearly knows how to make a documentary that’s cinematic.
Apocalypse ‘45 streams online in partnership with indie theaters beginning August 14. A list of participating locations can be found here. It then airs on Discovery Channel on September 5.
Review by Sean Boelman
The sappy teen romance genre is notoriously mixed in its success, particularly when there is no popular source material from which it has some pre-existing goodwill. Endless fares much the same, squandering its philosophical musings and a decent cast on a script that is all too often conventional.
The film tells the story of two high school lovers who, following a car crash, find themselves separated by the barrier of death but discover a way to connect and communicate with each other. If this premise sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it’s essentially a teen version of Ghost, except a lot less inspired.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the movie is that the pacing is entirely off. It takes way too long for the story to get to the car accident that kills one of the two lovers, and by that point, viewers will already be mostly checked out from the story. There are a few fun moments, particularly when it allows the ghostly protagonist to explore the rules of the film’s world, but these feel like more of an afterthought than a concern.
The main ideas that the movie explores are the idea of guilt and remorse. Without a doubt, the film’s main success is in showing the pain that the characters are experiencing. Even when the story is at its most unbelievable, there is this core sense of humanity radiating throughout the story that allows it to mostly work.
Unfortunately, the movie falls apart because of how difficult it is to buy into the central relationship. Although each of the characters are likable on an individual level, the introduction gives the audience very little reason to support the chemistry between them. It isn’t until after they are separated until the romance aspect starts to click, but the film largely sabotaged itself.
Nicholas Hamilton is charming as the leading man, but he’s certainly no Patrick Swayze. Alexandria Shipp is the better of the two stars, giving a performance that feels authentic and ultimately acting circles around everyone else on screen. Even veteran actress Famke Janssen, who has a brief supporting role, doesn’t give a particularly impressive turn.
There are some interesting things done with the visuals of the movie, particularly in the scenes that blend the supernatural and the real world, but there are a few moments in which it shows its budget. For the most part, the good moments outnumber the bad, but the world-building still falters as a result.
Endless fails to prove a reason for its existence when there are better films in the genre, even with a very similar premise. It’s moderately entertaining for just over an hour and a half, but still, the target audience would be better off discovering Ghost than this.
Endless hits VOD on August 14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Like any concert documentary, one’s appreciation of Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day is amplified if one is a fan of the music it contains. However, the thing that has made Stern’s film so legendary is that, even if one isn’t a fan of jazz, it’s next to impossible not to be impressed by the sheer level of craft on display.
The movie presents the highlights of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which featured performances from some of the biggest names in music at the time, many of whom have gone on to be among the most iconic musicians of all time. Jazz fans will obviously delight in getting to see this pristine performance footage, but the film is also interesting in its own right.
In a way, the movie almost serves as a snapshot of the time in which it takes place. Of course, it pales in comparison in this aspect to the more recent greats of the genre like Michael Wadleigh’s masterpiece Woodstock (which would come eleven years later and seems to owe a lot to Stern), but here, Stern sets the precedent for a zeitgeisty film about an era’s music.
At under an hour and a half long, the movie truly is just the highlights of the festival. On one hand, this makes it a lot more palatable for casual music fans who want to check it out, but it also creates a feeling of something being left on the table. Some of the performances are so brilliant that one won’t want them to stop.
As one would expect, the clear highlight of the film is Louis Armstrong’s performance. Yet Stern puts this pinnacle in an odd position, with performances surrounding it that are good but hardly match Armstrong’s brilliance. As a result, everything that comes afterwards is underwhelming and the movie loses much of its steam.
It also would have been interesting to see more non-performance footage. Prior to Armstrong’s performance, there is a brief bit of an interview in which he tells a story to the audience (and therefore the camera). It’s a magical moment, and perhaps the one that most makes the viewer feel as if they were actually there.
Of course, the restoration here is absolutely magnificent. Stern and crew did a wonderful job of capturing the footage and getting to see it restored in 4K is quite the experience. It’s definitely disappointing that a lot of theaters aren’t open at the moment — getting to see this on the big screen would be amazing — but it’s still beautiful even on a smaller format.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is by all means a seminal music documentary, and this restoration is one not to miss. It’s easy to see how Stern’s approach to these performances shaped the way that the concert doc genre would be for years to come.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day screens in partnership with indie theaters beginning August 12. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Suburban paranoia is a hot topic in thrillers these days, and Kevin Tran’s feature debut The Dark End of the Street (adapted from his own short of the same name) leans into that trend heavily. However, in trying to weave a mosaic between these neighbors whose suspicions of each other continue to rise, Tran fails to create the human connection that would have been central to the film’s success.
The movie takes place on a suburban street, moving through the different residences as suspicion of a pet killer starts to take hold of the community. It’s a basic set-up, but for the most part, it lives in the shadow of other great examples of this story done better (think “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”).
Tran doesn’t explore many particularly new ideas in his film, nor is the dialogue particularly subtle or original (phrases to some extent of “Who could it be?” are repeated what starts to feel like endlessly), but much of the movie’s charm lies in its simplicity. It’s a bare-bones thriller, and an intriguing one at that.
One of the best things about the film is the way in which Tran builds suspense. Although the movie isn’t exactly a mystery, it leaves the audience questioning things in a similar way. As a result, the viewer buys into the feelings of suspicion and anxiety that the characters experience over the course of the seventy minute film.
Still, because there are so many characters, it is difficult to form an attachment to any one of them. Tran is clearly going for a level of realism, but the faux natural and often overly philosophical ramblings in which the characters are participating don’t always work, especially when they come out of younger mouths.
The movie does feature some interesting performances, but again, they are so short in nature that they don’t have much room to stand out. In more than a few moments, the delivery comes across as wooden, but that could be just as much due to the stilted dialogue as the actors’ performances.
Tran’s film is clearly micro-budget, but he makes the most out of what he has at his disposal. The cinematography and production design both do a good job of making the suburban setting feel encroaching. The score is also surprisingly excellent, creating an atmosphere even in situations where the tension is minimal.
The Dark End of the Street is a promising debut for filmmaker Kevin Tran, even if it is a bit too insubstantial to stick in one’s mind. At seventy minutes, it’s not much of a time commitment, but it will leave some viewers unsatisfied.
The Dark End of the Street hits VOD on August 11.
Review by Sean Boelman
Some of the best documentaries are those that uplift and inspire, particularly when they feature kids who are doing some amazing things against the odds. Michiel Thomas’s That’s Wild is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word, telling its moving story in a beautiful and compelling way.
The film follows a youth organization based in Atlanta whose goal is to take troubled kids and instill in them a love for the outdoors, culminating in a trip to Colorado to climb four difficult passes. Thomas hit the cinematic jackpot with this story, as it blends elements of the underdog story and the man versus nature arc, both of which are typically riveting on screen.
For the first part of the movie, Thomas offers an introduction to the Wilderness Works program, the people that run it, and more importantly, the kids who participate in it. Thomas focuses on three of the participants in particular, documenting their growth both within and outside of the program, and the glimpse the viewer gets into their personal lives is affecting.
The portion of the film about the program’s founder Bill Mickler isn’t quite as well-developed, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Thomas does a good job of establishing Mickler’s importance as a mentor and role model to these kids, but doesn’t go into enough detail about his motivations. One interview even goes so far as to defend against the perception of Mickler as a “white savior”, something which is never otherwise implied by the movie but may stick in viewers minds after having been mentioned.
There is then a shift in the narrative heading into the final thirty minutes as the subjects embark on their main trip through the Colorado mountains. The trials that the group face are shot in a way that is consistently exciting, but the quieter moments in which the kids are bonding arguably have an even greater emotional impact. Still, since their nearly week-long journey is condensed into a little over a half an hour, the film feels rushed.
As is the case with many movies that explore overcoming challenges, the main message here is one of perseverance and dedication. However, the more resonant angle to this story is that of community. Only by banding together were these kids able to conquer their fears and experience the world in a new light.
Of course, the film features some amazing cinematography. Thomas also shot the movie himself as he accompanied the Wilderness Works crew on their journey, and his film does an excellent job at eliciting a feeling of awe for the beauty of the natural world, just as Mickler hopes to do for these kids with his organization.
That’s Wild is an excellent documentary supporting a wonderful cause, yet it manages to be thoroughly entertaining at the same time. Although it may be a bit too short, it works very well thanks to the charm of its subjects.
That’s Wild premiered as a part of the Florida Film Festival, which runs August 7-20 at the Enzian Theater in Orlando, FL.