Review by Sean Boelman
Often, it’s the thrillers with the simplest premises that are most effective, and for the most part, that is the case with Alex McAulay’s Don’t Tell a Soul. And even though the script does lose some of its steam when it tries to go beyond the basics of the formula, strong performances keep the movie seriously suspenseful.
The film follows two teenagers who, while trying to steal money to help with their terminally ill mother, strand a security guard at the bottom of a well and are presented with an unexpected ethical challenge. It’s a unique twist on a story we have seen time and time again, but McAulay’s directorial style is strong enough to compensate for its bits of genericism.
Much of the first half is largely dialogue-driven, and this is definitely the most compelling portion. When the movie tries to turn into something a bit more action-oriented, it requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief from the audience. And with such a short runtime, the film tries to do a bit too much with too little time.
Admittedly, the movie is a bit heavy-handed with its themes, particularly when it comes to the final act. The script tries to tie in an element of family drama, but it doesn’t work particularly well. And while a lot of the story is about moral ambiguity, it ends up leaning the wrong way by the time the third act comes around.
The dynamic between the two protagonists, who are brothers, is rather shallow. It’s the trope of older brother antagonizing younger brother, and the emotional arc is really contrived as a result. The antagonist is a much more interesting character, although the arc he has is a lot more problematic.
On a technical level, the film is quite strong. McAulay brings a very cold visual style, and it works, creating a very immersive atmosphere. The production design for much of the movie is very simple, but the filmmakers do a good job of making the viewer feel an increasing sense of entrapment as the story goes on.
That said, the single strongest aspect of the film is its performances. The three leads — Jack Dylan Grazer, Fionn Whitehead, and Rainn Wilson — all give strong turns. They have excellent chemistry together, especially Grazer and Wilson, selling even the most ludicrous of the movie’s moments.
Don’t Tell a Soul is a refreshing thriller offering some solid entertainment with a lean runtime. It can be a bit frustrating at times when it tries to be something more than it is, but when it sticks to the basics, it’s surprisingly good.
Don’t Tell a Soul hits VOD on January 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the shocking memoir Guantanamo Diary, Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a generic but surprisingly riveting legal thriller. Well-executed and well-acted, Macdonald’s film overcomes the formula to become a legitimately interesting late-breaking contender in this awards season.
The movie tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and held without charges or a trial after being accused of being a recruiter for Al Qaeda. And while writers M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani settle for their film hitting the familiar beats, there are enough powerful moments to make it work.
That said, the movie does struggle to find its focus. The story cuts between the story of the protagonist, his defense lawyers, and the prosecutor who grows a conscience while trying his case. That third story, in particular, isn’t entirely necessary, especially since the same emotional arc is covered by a supporting character in the defense portion.
Those moments in the film which are most riveting feature the protagonist recounting the treatment he received from his American captors. Director Kevin Macdonald takes a surprisingly artistic approach to these sequences, showing the horror of the situation in a way that is both emotionally affecting and thought-provoking.
Macdonald’s style is a lot more ambitious than most “awards bait” fare. The movie switches between aspect ratios to differentiate the timelines, but widely goes with the smaller ratio during the prison sequences to simulate a feeling of enclosure. No matter how straightforward the script may be, it is made effective by unique execution.
Additionally, especially for a film set a decade ago, the politics of the script are still unexpectedly resonant. There is a lot to be said in this story about justice and standing up for what is right. Even though some of the methods that the movie uses to get to its message are the traditional and easy ones, the film still feels authentic in its overall approach.
The strongest aspect of the movie is arguably its performances. Tamir Rahim’s leading turn is pretty extraordinary, bringing a very humane quality to the character. Jodie Foster is as great as usual as his defense lawyer, commanding the screen in every scene she is in. In supporting roles, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, and Shailene Woodley give performances that are a bit distracting.
The Mauritanian succumbs to a few of the genre’s worst tendencies, but what allows it to stand out is director Kevin Macdonald’s touch. More often than not, the risks that the film takes pay off in droves.
The Mauritanian hits theaters on February 19.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are plenty of movies about theme parks gone wrong after they tempt fate, but Simon West’s goofy B-movie Skyfire blends that basic premise with the disaster movie genre. While the result may not be massively memorable, there are more than enough entertaining moments to keep it from going up in flames.
The film follows a group of people who must try to escape with their lives from a theme park built around an active volcano after a sudden and deadly eruption. It’s basically Jurassic Park, but the characters’ sins are against Mother Nature, not evolution. And since this is just common sense at that point, the end result is even more ridiculous.
Like every thriller about playing God, there is a clear moral lesson that the audience is supposed to learn, and the movie uses the cheapest emotional beats to teach it. However, the film will stand out (in a bad way) for timing some of these beats comedically poorly, frequently drawing the viewer out of the action.
Wei Bu and Sidney King’s script moves along at quite the breakneck pace, which will allow general audiences looking for a mindless popcorn flick to stay interested, but also minimize any potential emotional impact it may have had. Viewers will likely never be bored, but it’s also unlikely that they will ever care much about the outcome of the story.
The character development in the movie is about as shallow can be expected from a largely soulless genre picture like this. All of the arcs in the film feel like they are born out of narrative necessity rather than genuine emotion, especially those of the white characters, which feel like a threadbare attempt to make this movie appeal to a more diverse audience.
Director Simon West was able to assemble a pretty strong international cast, but unfortunately, they aren’t given much to do that utilizes their range. Hannah Quinlivan and Xueqi Wang carry the film to the best of their abilities, but their parts are so shallow that they don’t amount to much. In his supporting role, Jason Isaacs is fun to watch but curiously exaggerated.
The production qualities of the movie are quite high, elevating this from B-movie territory into mid-level spectacle-driven action fare. The special effects are the star of the show, making this otherwise mostly minor player stand up against the blockbusters that one would normally see in the multiplex.
Skyfire isn’t a movie that is meant to be taken seriously, but as mindless entertainment, it covers all of the necessary bases. It’s largely forgettable material, though that escapism may just be exactly what some audiences are looking for right now.
Skyfire hits VOD on January 12.
Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, the most terrifying films of the year aren’t horror movies, but those which are stark and shocking depict the harsh reality in which we live. Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut Identifying Features is just that: an unflinchingly personal movie that challenges audiences with its nuanced approach to difficult subject matter.
The film follows a mother who travels across Mexico searching for her son that the authorities claim died while trying to cross the border into the United States. It’s a truly heartbreaking story, but the script (co-written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero) doesn’t go for low-hanging fruit, instead blending meditative drama and slow-burn thriller to achieve its emotional effect.
Something else that really stands out about the movie is that it isn’t didactic. Of course, Valadez has a stance on the issues surrounding the immigration crisis, as one would expect of any film about the topic, but she seems more interested in having the audience come to it on their own. Rather than telling the audience what to think, she shows them the reality in a way that only leaves one option.
It’s very easy to connect to the protagonist because Valadez and Rondero write her in a way that is immediately compelling. The arc of the character is really interesting because it blends so many different emotions that we are used to seeing on screen, but rarely together. The result is often staggering in its weight.
The most impressive thing about the movie is the leading performance from Mercedes Hernández. Her performance is quiet, and she doesn’t even have much dialogue for significant portions of the film, but it’s one of the most powerful turns of the year nevertheless. The amount of emotion she is able to get out of even the smallest of moments is truly impressive.
Additionally, the movie is quite beautiful in a visual sense. The aesthetics are just as restrained as the script, but despite not being too flashy, it still manages to have some great moments. Even though most of the scenery in the background is rather desolate, Valadez contrasts it with the suffering the protagonist is experiencing to create an interesting effect.
That said, the film does make one significant misstep, and that is including a subplot involving another immigrant returning home to Mexico. The way in which this ties into the overall narrative is mostly effective, but there had to have been a better method of doing the same thing while further developing the lead’s emotional arc.
Identifying Features is a wonderfully nuanced movie that feels like the type that will sadly go under-the-radar. However, the powerful story and phenomenal lead performance will allow this to stick in the mind of those viewers that do seek it out.
Identifying Features is now streaming in a virtual sneak preview run. Tickets can be purchased here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Positioned as one of the flagship series for last year’s launch of the Apple TV+ streaming service, the anachronistic historical comedy Dickinson captured viewers’ attention with its unabashedly vivacious nature. And the show seems to have found its footing even more heading into its second season, a funnier, more mature expansion of the characters.
The new season of the series follows then-unknown poet Emily Dickinson as her desire to express herself puts her at odds with her high-society family. This certainly wasn’t the first project to juxtapose a period piece with modern-day aesthetic influences, and the creators seem to have embraced the fact that their perception of novelty is false, allowing them to make something more out of it.
The first season played out like an entertaining fanfiction thanks to its focus on Dickinson’s personal life, and while some of this soapiness is definitely still present, this season also seems to have a lot more to say. More emphasis is put on Dickinson’s role as a female poet in a male-dominated role as opposed to a young girl going against the wishes of her father.
The characterization here is mostly a continuation of what was established in season one. There really aren’t that many new characters introduced, and those few aren’t particularly memorable. The new love interest this season is far less interesting than those that were involved in the first.
It also feels like Hailee Steinfeld has really come into the character in an interesting way. Last season, it felt like she was playing the character very similarly to a lot of the other teen roles she has done in the past, but this version of the character is a lot more nuanced. The supporting cast is also strong, especially Adrian Enscoe and Jane Krakowski.
In the first season, a lot of the humor of the series came from the anachronisms, but there is only so much comedy that can be milked out of seeing historical figures acting wild. The writers seem to have recognized this, as there is a much larger focus on wittiness and satire in the dialogue rather than the raunchiness that was most of the first season.
On a technical level, the series is pretty exceptional. The directors who helmed this set of episodes did a great job of contrasting an intense level of period detail in the costuming and settings with the modern flair of the soundtrack and humor. It’s an ambitious goal, and it consistently delivers unlike the first season, which had a few uneven moments.
The first season of Dickinson suggested that it would be a good series, and this second season shows that it can be a great one. This may not be the first anachronistic historical comedy, but it’s one of the most enjoyable and successful.
Dickinson streams on Apple TV+ beginning January 8 with new episodes released subsequent Fridays. All ten episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
Anyone who lives in Florida knows that the people who live in the state can sometimes be a little bit… quirky, to put it lightly. Lance Oppenheim’s feature debut Some Kind of Heaven, produced by Darren Aronofsky, documents one such unusual community in a way that is both hilarious and insightful.
In the film, Oppenheim follows some of the residents of The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, as they go about their daily routines and get into sometimes humorous antics. Those who aren’t local to the area will likely find themselves intrigued by the almost mythical status endowed to the community, but those with firsthand knowledge will be interested in how Oppenheim peers through the façade.
The movie plays out in a way that seems almost like a commercial, the interviewees giving their sales pitches as to why living in The Villages has made their retirement into something idyllic. However, it is clear that Oppenheim is one hell of a director, because he is able to show the stark reality of how this life is not what it seems.
That said, Oppenheim is by no means direct about his messaging, perhaps because it would have been difficult to get access to the subjects had he been upfront with some of his criticism. The residents of The Villages apparently see this as the best that retired life can get, but this is also one of the wealthiest retirement communities in Florida, hence why some of the claims being made in the interviews aren’t entirely true.
Oppenheim focuses on a few different residents of The Villages, and they all add their own bit to the story. Perhaps the most interesting is the outsider character, a drifter hoping to find his way into the “Villages” lifestyle by finding love with one of the pre-existing residents. This makes for a funny and unconventional real-life romantic comedy.
Some of the other stories depicted in the film are even more out-there. The one that is most bizarre follows one of the residents as he begins to experiment with psychedelic drugs, ultimately causing him to brush up with the law. For those interested in stories of crazy old people, this movie is sure to be satisfying.
There is also a really unique visual style to the film. The cinematography is wonderful, with a dreamlike glow to it that reinforces the motif of this false paradise in which these people have decided to live the end of their lives. The score by Ali Balouzian is also excellent, having an almost hypnotic feel to it.
Some Kind of Heaven treads the fine line between earnestly and uncomfortably funny quite well. Lance Oppenheim is an exciting new voice in documentary filmmaking and managed to tell this story in a way that is surprisingly cinematic.
Some Kind of Heaven hits theaters on January 8 and VOD on January 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
In a genre that is so frequently defined by forgettable and repetitive fare, it’s not always a good thing for a film to be memorable. Even though Stars Fell on Alabama is mostly familiar in terms of its story beats, it features a few moments so random that one can’t help but be amused by the unintentional zaniness.
The movie follows a successful Hollywood agent who recruits one of his rising star clients to play his girlfriend when he has to return to his rural Alabama hometown for his high school reunion. It’s an “unlikely” love story like the ones we have seen hundreds of times before, making it entirely predictable.
What is perhaps most disappointing about the film is that it is so shallow. Apart from a concluding monologue that paints out the moral of the story in a painfully direct manner, the movie largely ignores any of the manipulation and dishonesty of the characters’ actions, or even worse, makes a joke out of them.
The character development of the film is also subpar. The backstory that is given to the love interest feels like an afterthought, as her solo storyline makes brief appearances throughout only to disappear for minutes at a time. The protagonist’s arc gets much more screen time but is also far less interesting.
James Maslow and Ciara Hanna have decent enough chemistry together, and they both manage to deliver their lines with some element of energy. They managed to take bland characters and mediocre lines and create something unexpectedly charming out of it thanks to their charisma.
That said, even though the movie is mostly conventional, there are some scenes which hint that there may have been a more tongue-in-cheek intention. Ultimately, the clichés and stereotypes undermine anything sharply satirical that the film might have had to say, causing this to feel like a missed opportunity more often than not.
In other parts, it’s almost impossible to figure out who the movie is really serving. The film features a bizarre and confusing cameo from 2006 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks singing a cover of an All-American Rejects song during a spontaneous square dancing musical number. It gets a laugh, but not in the right way.
Stars Fell on Alabama isn’t a very original romantic comedy, nor is it a very good one, but it will catch viewers off their guard just enough to be worth a watch. It’s basically a Lifetime movie with slightly better production values, so it has a built-in audience who will enjoy it.
Stars Fell on Alabama hits VOD on January 8.
Review by Sean Boelman
Often films can have the best intentions but fail to make their intended impact because of less than impressive execution of their ideas. The drama If Not Now, When? has a good message and a solid ensemble, but the story and script are far too generic to be anything especially worthwhile.
The movie follows four former friends from high school who reunite after one of them faces a crisis all the while dealing with their own tumultuous personal lives, testing the bond between them. This is the type of story that works best when it tries to show the extraordinary in the ordinary, but Tamara Bass’s script treats these events in a way that is too big.
As an ode to friendship, the film works well enough, even if it is something that has been done more effectively in the past. While the representation on screen is very good — ultimately the only thing that makes this movie particularly noteworthy — it doesn’t result to much because the script is so melodramatic.
The pacing of the film is also very problematic. It’s nearly two hours in length, and a lot of it is wasted on filler. In a basic sense, this is an ensemble drama, but Bass tries to give all of the characters their due. Unfortunately, two of the characters are more compelling than the others, and their development is sometimes lessened in favor of the subplots.
Furthermore, the movie fails to establish an interesting dynamic between the four lead characters. Although the relationship is realistic to an extent, it feels like more of a focus was put on them individually as opposed to exploring their friendship, which is a disappointing choice. It’s sad to see something with so much potential turn into something so shallow and unoriginal.
Bass and Megan Good, who also directed the film, have the two meatiest roles, and as such, give the best performances. Megan Holder and Mekia Cox aren’t as memorable with their turns. However, the chemistry between the four actresses is arguably the biggest letdown, as it is average at best, and this is exactly what the movie would have needed to succeed.
On a technical level, the film is less than stellar. It’s obvious that Bass and Good’s experience is mostly in the acting department because the aesthetic elements of the movie feel like the lowest common denominator. It feels like the film is entirely lacking in visual style, with a very straightforward, point-and-shoot approach.
It is pretty clear that If Not Now, When? wants to be greater than the average melodrama, but it struggles to rise above its generic roots. Semi-decent performances and positive representation aside, there isn’t much to recommend this.
If Not Now, When? hits VOD on January 8.
Review by Sean Boelman
Deon Taylor’s schlocky thrillers are probably the most unlikely contenders to have ever received an unironic awards campaign (despite often being panned by critics), but they are fun for what they are. His latest, the unabashed homage (or maybe rip-off) Fatale, may not be very good, but it has a certain popcorn movie charm nevertheless.
The film tells the story of a married man who, after a one-night stand, finds himself to be a part of a police officer’s investigation that threatens to derail his entire life. Down to the title, it’s clear that this movie is basically a rehash of Fatal Attraction, but the issue is that erotic thrillers like this just don’t play as well as they did in 1987.
David Loughery (who also collaborated with Taylor on the much less entertaining The Intruder) penned the script, and his biggest mistakes are in the characterization. On one hand, he tries to make the femme fatale into a more compelling character with a subplot, which is emotionally confusing, and on the other, he further demonizes the protagonist.
Perhaps the most aggravating thing about this film is that it tries to be something more, but it struggles to do so. The opportunity was right there for this to focus on the injustices of the police and justice system to people of color, but instead, these ideas are largely relegated to an outro speech as the credits begin to roll.
Still, there is something entertaining about watching this game of cat-and-mouse. The first thirty minutes take a bit of time to get moving, spending a bit too long on the steamy romance side of the erotic thriller, but once the criminal elements come into play, it’s much more fun, even if it is entirely predictable.
The performances are inarguably the best part of this movie. Even though Michael Ealy and Hillary Swank have next to no chemistry together, they each give strong individual turns. Swank is so off-the-walls in her performance that it’s not really clear exactly what she was trying to do, but it’s enjoyable to watch how wacky she gets.
Taylor’s directorial style here, even more so than usual, screams that he desperately wants to be cool. From the outright painful hip-hop needle drops to the shiny cars that get extended close-ups, Taylor wants the audience to know that these people are rich and attractive. It’s a shame, because there are some legitimately decent suspense-building tactics that are undermined by these attempts to be stylish.
Fatale certainly isn’t a particularly original film, but as mindless pulp, it mostly delivers. It’s worth watching if only for the opportunity to get to see an out-of-the-box performance from Hillary Swank.
Fatale is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
It isn’t usually a good thing when a film makes one angry, but that isn’t the case with activist/artist/filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s magnificent documentary Cockroach. Upsetting in an eye-opening way, this movie is more deserving of the description of “essential viewing” than any other this year.
In the film, Weiwei takes a look at the protests that occurred in Hong Kong in 2019 and the circumstances that led the people to take to the streets. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that this story didn’t receive as much global news coverage as it deserved, as much of the information and footage presented here is going to be startling and unexpected to viewers.
Weiwei leaves no other option for the audience other than to feel disgust at what they are seeing. Footage of brutal attacks by the police against the protesters makes up a majority of the movie’s content, and it is truly disturbing. It’s undeniably hard to watch as these people fighting for freedom are quite literally beaten to near death.
The average viewer may find themselves put off by the idea of watching an hour and a half of material on such a grim subject, but it is important to realize that this is the unfortunate truth of our world. The repetition of similar incidents reinforces the idea of how widespread this violence actually is.
Even though this film specifically relates to the turmoil that happened in Hong Kong, its message still rings true across the globe. It is hard not to have a contempt towards a government that describes protesters hoping to peacefully stand up for their rights as “rioters” as justification to use extreme force.
That said, Weiwei approaches these activists as more than victims. He emphasizes not only the atrocities committed against them, but the amazing things that they are doing to help other people in the community. Interviews with artists that are using their talents to support the cause make the movie even more emotionally moving.
And while a majority of the film is made up of footage from the front lines, that doesn’t mean that Weiwei took a simple point-and-shoot approach. Instead, he has created an immersive experience that is really unnerving. The sound design is one of the best of the year, brilliantly creating tension and supplementing the footage.
Cockroach is one of the best documentaries of 2020. Ai Weiwei has managed to tackle one of the most important and difficult issues facing the world today in a way that is angering and thought-provoking in a way that is absolutely necessary.
Cockroach streams on Alamo on Demand beginning December 18. Tickets can be purchased here.