Review by Sean Boelman
Paul Verhoeven is inarguably one of the wildest filmmakers working today, with a filmography spanning from Showgirls to Starship Troopers. His newest movie, Benedetta, might sound like a regular old period drama on paper, but Verhoeven’s iconoclastic style shines through in a truly glorious manner.
The film follows a nun who begins suffering from religious and erotic visions which lead her into forming a sensuous relationship with one of her companions. The thing about Verhoeven’s movies is that their premise can often be boiled down into a few simple words, but end up feeling expansive and complex.
Like many of Verhoeven’s other films, the biggest thing that this has working in its favor is its sheer audacity. The movie has inspired protests throughout its festival run from religious groups attacking its supposed “blasphemy”, and while the reaction is overblown, it’s easy to understand why they are reacting this way. There is a lot of imagery that is incendiary… and quite hilarious.
Those expecting there to be a great deal of subtlety in the film’s exploration of its themes definitely aren’t familiar with Verhoeven and his work. He has never been particularly quiet in his movies about his frustrations with organized religion, and this one in particular really brings that to the forefront.
If there is something that is missing from the film it is character development. The romance at the center of the movie goes a long way in making things feel more grounded, especially during the more fantastical moments, but it doesn’t do a whole lot in making the character more compelling.
Virginie Efira does a solid job in her leading role. This is definitely the type of film that is very exaggerated in nature, and her performance is hammy enough to work in the role. Even more impressive, though, is Charlotte Rampling, who steals the show every single time she is on screen.
On a technical level, the movie is definitely very ambitious, and it pays off more often than it doesn’t. Even in some of the scenes that aren’t as visually polished, the amount of energy that Verhoeven puts into it is pretty admirable. The mix of the production design and spectacular fantasy works quite well.
Benedetta might not be a great film, but it’s a load of fun to watch in all of its insanity. It’s not for the easily offended, although it’s hard not to at least respect the gusto that Verhoeven showed in even attempting to make this, much less pull it off.
Benedetta is now in theaters and hits VOD on December 17.
Review by Sean Boelman
Jeffrey Epstein has become the ultimate running punchline for every joke, and Dasha Nekrasova has made the ultimate gag with her feature debut The Scary of Sixty-First. Having no shortage of style to spare, this may not be a good film, but it’s a fun time to watch in all of its unabashed wackiness.
The movie follows two roommates whose lives are changed forever when they move into a new apartment harboring a dark secret. For much of the first half, this is pretty standard haunted house fare with a retro-inspired feel, but once it goes off the deep end in revealing its hand, that’s when it starts to feel unique, for better or worse.
One of the most frustrating things about the film is that it seems content with just being “that Jeffrey Epstein horror movie”. And don’t be fooled — it absolutely delivers on the insanity of that premise — but it would have been nice to see them do something interesting or worthwhile with it rather than just an exercise in style over substance.
The movie also struggles to settle on a good tone. It’s always unclear as to whether we are meant to be taking this seriously or if we should be laughing at it. The latter seems more likely to be the case, but that then poses the question of why we should be laughing at the situation of people who were real-life victims of abuse.
There is also the issue of character development in the film. Neither of the main duo is particularly likable. We are just thrown into this friendship and expected to believe that it has been around for years without being able to see why it worked the way it does. So when it starts to fall apart, it’s no wonder, because we never saw what was holding it together.
The acting in the movie isn’t very good either, but it does fit the vibe which the film is clearly emulating. This is meant to feel like a trashy horror flick from decades ago, and that it does, although the decisively modern twist of it being a Jeffrey Epstein ghost story creates a massive disparity that is pretty hard to overcome.
That said, the movie is enormously successful on a visual level. Nekrasova shows a lot of potential as a new director, and while her style largely consists of homages in this outing, her understanding of how to recreate this mood bodes well for her future. And the effects in the film hit that right balance between campy and unsettling to create that mood.
The Scary of Sixty-First is definitely a bizarre movie, but that is absolutely part of what makes it so watchable. It’s a recreation of a particular style, albeit with a modern twist, and with a premise that one just has to see to believe.
The Scary of Sixty-First is now in theaters and hits VOD on December 24.
Review by Sean Boelman
Its title quite obviously a pun on the famous play by Arthur Miller, the new comedy Death of a Telemarketer is unlikely to have as much of a lasting impact on the literary world as its namesake. However, thanks to a fully-committed cast, it manages to be a passable watch even if it isn’t all that funny.
The film follows a telemarketer who, desperate to pay off a debt, crosses some boundaries and finds himself at the mercy of one of the people who he tried to scam. It’s a concept that is certainly intriguing, but a solid premise alone is not enough to make an entire movie work, and that is where Khaled Ridgeway’s film struggles.
After the first twenty minutes of the movie set up the conflict and the audience gets thrown into the action, it becomes clear midway through the second act that Ridgeway is working on little more than a strong idea. He has this story that seems like untapped comedic gold, but simply doesn’t know what to do with it, resulting in a film that feels like a bunch of filler.
It’s hard not to immediately think of another, much better telemarketing movie: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Much like Ridgeway, Riley was working with a creative and ingenious premise, but what made that film stand out was that he transformed it into something more with a political message. Ridgeway’s movie doesn’t seem to say much of anything, other than the fact that we don’t know what’s going on in the life of the person on the other end of the phone.
The characters in the film are all heavily archetypal. There’s the arrogant overachiever who finds himself threatened by a naturally talented newcomer (who is an underdeveloped secondary antagonist himself). And the villain is an exaggeratedly angry fella whose meanness can be traced back to a wrong that was committed against him by someone not too dissimilar to the protagonist.
Much of this movie’s success hinges on the talent of the cast. Lamorne Morris is a ton of fun to watch in pretty much everything he is in, and he eats it up here. He’s great in this quick-witted, fast-talking salesman role. And while Jackie Earle Haley isn’t doing the best of what he can do here, it’s still an enjoyable performance.
There’s not a ton of flashiness in the film’s style due to the fact that it is predominantly set in a single location. But what Ridgeway fails to do is use this confined setting to his advantage. Although it’s clear that he definitely chose to go more of the dark comedy route, this could have been an effective farcical thriller had he instead focused more on building suspense and claustrophobia.
Death of a Telemarketer doesn’t earn the right to give itself a name based on one of the all-time greatest works of literature. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie — in fact, it’s a decently fun hour and a half, if only because of the talented cast.
Death of a Telemarketer is now on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
Adapting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series into films was always going to be a difficult task, as the perpetual middle school misadventures of Greg Heffley would be hindered by the actors aging out of their roles, but this new Disney+ adaptation avoids that by utilizing the animated medium. And while it does have some shortcomings, the charming nature of the source material shines through.
The movie follows an imaginative kid who struggles to fit in with his peers during the first year of middle school. The film follows the story of the first book in the series, although it only hits on the main beats of the arc, cutting out a lot of the subplots. But it was these small one-off jokes which were omitted from the adaptation that won most of the young fans over.
One of the most frustrating things about this adaptation is that it doesn’t seem to understand its protagonist. The books were about a selfish kid learning to care for the other people in his life who were important to him, but in this movie, he’s a genuinely terrible person. There are so few redeeming qualities to the character in this film that he becomes unlikable.
The filmmakers made the interesting choice of making this adaptation under an hour in length. On one hand, since the movie is so short, the laughs come very consistently, but it also ends up being quite rushed. This feels more like the pilot to a television series than a cohesive feature film, and ultimately, it would be pretty well-suited to a feature format.
That said, there is still a very positive message in the movie about the power of friendship. Young kids, in particular, should definitely be reminded of why it is important to be kind. That said, given the abbreviated nature of the story, there’s not a whole lot of room in the film for these themes to be explored in depth.
There aren’t any recognizable names in the voice cast, but the actors do a good job of bringing many of these characters to life. The way in which they embody these people is somewhat uncanny at times. This is especially the case when it comes to the side characters, like Fregley and Rowley.
The animation of the film feels like a 3D animated version of the illustrations from the books, and that is perfectly fitting for what this is. The playful nature of the books was really a highlight, and the movie’s visual style is full of brightness and color in a way that gives it the energy it needs to win audiences over.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an enjoyable enough adaptation, and while the popularity of this title has waned in the years since the books’ initial release, it will definitely be a delight for kids to watch. It’s very short, but that’s both a blessing and a limitation.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is now streaming on Disney+.
[DOC NYC 2021] THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN -- A Glimpse Behind the Curtain of One of the Greatest Entertainers of All Time
Review by Sean Boelman
Charlie Chaplin is without a doubt one of the greatest entertainers to have ever lived, and so his career has been chronicled many times in documentary form. However, Peter Middleton and James Spinney do the seemingly impossible with The Real Charlie Chaplin, creating something legitimately unique.
The movie tells the story of the legendary comedic actor Charlie Chaplin, peeling back the curtain to reveal the truth avout who he actually was. The thing that makes Chaplin so special is that he was around for one of the biggest changes Hollywood has ever made — the transition from silent to sound film — and he was one of the rare people to be able to make that jump successfully. And as such, his story serves as an interesting case study into this period of change.
Middleton and Spinney make the wise decision of not telling his story purely chronologically, thus avoiding the pitfalls of a traditional biography. Although the movie explores his life in rough order, the emphasis here is more on themes and ideas, giving the filmmakers the freedom to move around a bit if there is a purpose to it.
The film does a very good job of exploring many of its themes, chief among them what it means to live in the spotlight. Middleton and Spinney dissect the public image of Chaplin in a very interesting way, and relate it to his very different private life. It’s this duality that is the focus of the movie.
One of the main benefits of this approach is that it really humanizes Chaplin. The documentary discusses how cinephiles often see Chaplin more as his famous characters than the person he was, but challenges the audience to see beyond the slapstick comedy to relate to him as a flawed individual.
The parts of the film which detail some of the more difficult portions of Chaplin’s life and career definitely have a significant emotional impact. It’s eye-opening to see a figure that is so universally beloved have such a tumultuous life behind the scenes, really putting it into perspective what we should value in life.
For the most part, Middleton and Spinney build their movie up of archive footage and footage taken from Chaplin’s extensive filmography. It’s great to see some of this preserved footage, as it’s a great reminder as to why the world fell in love with Chaplin in the first place. There is also a narration, and while it isn’t bad, it is perhaps a tad unnecessary as the footage often speaks for itself.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is a must-see documentary for all cinephiles because of the intimate insight it offers into one of the greatest movie stars who ever lived. There have been plenty of biographies about Chaplin, but this one stands out above the rest.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC film festival, which runs November 10-28.
Review by Sean Boelman
The past decades have seen a surge in the quality of Latin American genre cinema, and the Chilean thriller A Place Called Dignity is the latest in a line of impressive outings. Playing out almost like a Latino take on a Yorgos Lanthimos film, sharp dialogue and unique character work allows this to be quite the unique movie.
The film follows a young boy who receives a scholarship to attend a mysterious and secluded private school, where he soon discovers the institution’s unorthodox and dangerous practices. It’s definitely a story we have seen before — a neophyte is inducted into a shadowy organization whose ways are outdated and everything comes crumbling down — but Matías Rojas Valencia’s style is what allows it to stand out.
Valencia’s movie manages to feel both entirely compelling and somewhat overstuffed. There are a few subplots going on in the film in addition to the main storyline, and while they are all interesting, they feel too underdeveloped to make much of a difference. This time would have been much better utilized developing the main story deeper.
The character development in the movie is certainly a bit on the typical side, but Valencia does a good job of making the protagonist compelling. The antagonists are definitely very exaggerated, but their over-the-top nature does a great job of creating a very menacing feeling over the course of the film.
Something that is frustrating about the movie is that it doesn’t have much to say that is particularly unique. The film covers the same themes of assimilation and individuality that so many other movies like this have. Even the more culturally specific aspects of the film feel somewhat underwhelming.
In terms of the cast, there really aren’t any standouts, but they function well as a cohesive unit. The dialogue of the movie is purposefully deadpan, and so it makes sense that a lot of the performances would be on the colder side, except of course the protagonist, who serves as the audience’s only real point of entry into the story.
There are some really interesting things happening in Valencia’s style that allow this film to be as memorable as it is. In some of the more comedic scenes, there is a particular visual vocabulary which creates the right feeling of awkward humor. And the compositions throughout the entire movie are effectively sterile, building the tone well.
A Place Called Dignity is definitely a unique specimen of a film, and while it does have too many moving parts for all of them to work, it’s still an interesting watch. Matías Rojas Valencia’s sophomore feature makes it clear that he is a talent to look out for.
A Place Called Dignity screened at the 2021 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
Laura Wandel’s taut directorial debut Playground was selected as the Belgian submission for the Academy Award for Best International Film, and it is understandable why. Although the film is undeniably quite simple, there’s a certain power and relatability to be found in this morality study.
The movie follows a girl in primary school who finds herself torn between her allegiances when she witnesses her older brother be the victim of severe bullying. It’s the type of tragic story that we see happen way too often, and the fact that Wandel is calling attention to it is certainly very admirable.
Clocking in at a mere seventy-two minutes, Wandel gets done what is necessary and then wraps everything up. She gets us invested in the story early on and keeps the tension and anxiety high. Even in the more mundane moments, Wandel manages to capture the fears one has in childhood quite well.
Yet Wandel doesn’t take the easy way out when it comes to discussing her themes. It’s easy to point a finger at the bully and say that what they are doing is wrong, and that’s because it is. But the film really explores the larger impact that bullying has, particularly on people other than the victim, which is something that isn’t often discussed.
The character development is admittedly one of the weaker aspects of the movie. The protagonists are stand-ins for the average child, not given much of an individualistic personality of their own. And the brother/sister dynamic which is meant to be the emotional crux of the conflict feels somewhat underwritten.
That said, the acting in the film is definitely something special. Both young actors who play the leads bring an extraordinary amount of emotion to the table, likely because the story is so impactful and relatable. Maya Vanderbeque, in particular, commands the screen in a way that someone her age should not be able to.
Wandel aims for a gritty style here, and it definitely pays off. The scenes of bullying play out in a way that makes them feel just as harrowing as watching an act of brutal violence, and that really helps get the main point across. Wandel is clearly trying to make her movie have the most guttural impact possible, and it works.
Playground is a very effective film, accomplishing exactly what filmmaker Laura Wandel sets out to do. It may not be particularly ground-breaking, but it explores its difficult themes with an uncommon level of empathy.
Playground screened at the 2021 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the rare American filmmakers who is both a critical darling and an audience favorite. And his newest film, the coming-of-age comedy Licorice Pizza, is his most accessible movie in years, a hilarious and heartfelt ode to the Los Angeles of the 1970s which benefits from his unique voice.
The film follows a teenage boy who is a former child actor and currently a failed young entrepreneur as he befriends and forms a unique connection with an adult woman. It’s definitely a movie that deals more in vibes than plot, but the atmosphere that Anderson builds is so infectiously fun that the movie is endlessly charming.
Anderson weaves through the different pieces of his story in a way that is somehow both relaxed and full of life. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, and while there are a few scenes that will stand out to viewers more than others, these scenes are nicely distributed over the entire runtime to keep the audience interested.
Although this definitely isn’t one of Anderson’s more important films in terms of themes, that doesn’t make it any less profound. Anderson offers some poetic observations about youth and growing up. He takes this very common arc and makes it into something refreshing by writing characters that are remarkably empathetic.
A big part of what makes this movie work so well is that the characters are very complex. Even though the two leads both frequently make frustrating decisions, it’s their flaws that makes them so endearing. And the film is also filled to the brim with bit parts based on or inspired by real Hollywood figures from the past.
Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (a frequent collaborator of Anderson), does an exceptional job in his leading role, bringing a lot of charm to the character. Alana Haim is great opposite him, commanding the screen and sometimes even stealing his thunder. And Bradley Cooper has an extremely memorable cameo resulting in one of the funniest scenes in any movie this year.
Anderson is one of the few filmmakers working today that still has an affinity for shooting on celluloid, and it really pays off in immersing the viewer in the world that he is setting up. It’s a gorgeous, nostalgic-looking film that radiates a visual warmth. And a soundtrack filled with some great songs from the ‘70s rounds it out quite well.
Licorice Pizza is probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s best and most consistent movie since Magnolia. It strikes the right balance between poignancy and hilariousness to make it both meaningful and a crowd-pleaser.
Licorice Pizza hits theaters on November 26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has picked up numerous accolades on the festival circuit on the way to being selected as Japan’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. A contemplative, poetic masterpiece, this is one of the brightest spots in the filmmaker’s already accomplished career.
The film follows a stage director still grieving the death of his wife as he bonds with a chauffeur while putting on a performance of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The movie is based on a short story by the legendary author Haruki Murakami, and in their script Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe manage to expand the material while preserving the author’s voice.
Creating a three-hour film out of a short story is an interesting prospect, but Hamguchi’s movie is more of an expansion of Murakami’s work than a direct adaptation of it. And while it is a very talky, measured three hours, the things it has to say are consistently profound and the way they are said allows it to be absorbing.
And the film definitely justifies its extended runtime with the sheer amount of things it has to say. Having this time allows Hamaguchi to explore his main themes with plenty of depth while also leaving enough time to explore other topics. Depending on their background, different aspects of the movie will resonate with the viewer, which is part of what makes it so special.
The protagonist of the film is an exceptionally nuanced character. The first act of the movie sets him up to be a very specific type of character, only for the rest of the film to break down these preconceptions and expose his vulnerability. But what is even more impressive is that the movie features multiple supporting characters that feel fully fleshed-out.
Hidetoshi Nishijima gives an exceptional performance in the leading role, bringing so much empathy and nuance to the character. It’s the type of turn that isn’t good because it’s flashy, but rather because of its quiet power. And despite a relatively small amount of screen time, Reika Kirishima will leave quite a lasting impact on the viewer.
It will come as no surprise to fans of Hamaguchi’s work that this is an extraordinarily crafted film. The cinematography is exquisite, with strikingly elegant compositions. Although this is definitely an actor’s movie, which is fitting given the content of the story, that doesn’t mean that the filmmaker is any less diligent with the technical aspects.
Drive My Car is an exceptional feat, taking its unlikely origins and making a magnificent three-hour poem out of it. Although some may not pick up on all of its nuances, there is plenty of greatness here that would make it hard not to admire.
Drive My Car is now in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
The crazy thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it was essentially kickstarted by a series of unexpectedly successful comic book movies featuring B-list superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. It’s only fitting that this new phase of the series, dominated by Disney+, is led by some of the more obscure properties, although Hawkeye may be pushing the limit a bit too far.
The series follows Clint Barton as he takes a young, skilled archer under his wing when his dark past begins to catch up with him and finds her in the crossfire. Many wondered how they were going to pull off an entire show based off of the Avenger who is generally considered to be the lamest, and the first two episodes don’t make it clear that they did.
There is something to be said in the series about accountability for one’s past actions, but this isn’t anything that hasn’t been explored better in the past (specifically in Captain America: Civil War). It’s also very clear from the beginning that this is a passing-the-baton arc, which is frustratingly bland.
Kate Bishop ranks among the middle of the new Phase Four MCU protagonists so far. She has a slightly arrogant and entitled attitude to her that makes her a bit difficult to approach. What the series is doing with Hawkeye, turning him into an unwilling mentor of sorts, shows a lot of potential to add depth to a previously uninteresting character.
Jeremy Renner is at his best in the show when he is able to flex his comedic chops. One of the issues with the show is that it is trying to be both a serious crime drama and a campy show about people running around in spandex shooting bows and arrows. And Renner seems to be much more comfortable with the latter.
Avengers: Endgame gave us a brief glimpse of Barton picking up the Ronin mantle, and while those events have a direct influence on the plot of this series, the action here is nowhere near as inspired as that one fight sequence. Although there isn’t much action in these first two episodes, the little which there is doesn’t have much creativity in the choreography.
And then there’s the fact that this is also a Christmas show. This may not serve too much of a purpose other than to allow the series to be set in winter in New York City, but that does make for a gorgeous background. And it’s definitely one of the more restrained series in terms of execution, but that’s because it’s one of the smaller-scale ones.
More so than the other Disney+ series, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on in Hawkeye with just the first two episodes. However, if it doesn’t pick up the pace (and soon), the result will be one of the most forgettable entries in the MCU.
Hawkeye streams on Disney+ beginning November 24.