Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, a filmmaker takes a long time between their efforts, but more often than not, it’s worth the wait. It’s been over a decade since Michelangelo Frammartino’s last critically-acclaimed feature, Le Quattro Volte, and his newest movie, Il Buco, does not disappoint.
The film tells the story of a group of spelunkers who explore one of the deepest caves in the world while on an expedition in the south of Italy. While this may seem like a concept destined to make a thriller a la The Abyss or even an Indiana Jones-style adventure, Frammartino opts to do something much more restrained.
There isn’t much dialogue in the movie, and when there is dialogue, you can’t expect it to be particularly obvious or revealing. This is a film about mood and emotion, with a narrative created almost exclusively through the juxtaposition of its images. It’s a style that is certain to lose some people’s attention, but others will vibe with its restrained poeticism.
The themes of the movie are hard to pinpoint at first, and if you are looking for Frammartino to be making anything resembling a clear statement, you are certainly looking in the wrong place. However, there are some interesting threads here about the unknown and how small we are as individuals in the big picture of things.
Because of the largely dialogue-free nature of the film, there admittedly isn’t a whole lot of character development for any one person. Indeed, the characters are all billed as “Speleologist” or “Shepherd”, except for one who is a “Speleologist and drawer.” It’s far more about the collective experience of exploration than any one person.
In a similar way, none of the actors really shine in the movie, but they all do a solid job. Frammartino used nonprofessional actors — opting to compose the cast of real-life speleologists — and it works all the better for it. Not only does it give it an added sense of realism, they also do an exceptional job of communicating the power of this world through their mannerisms.
Of course, the film is just as gorgeous as one would expect. The movie is full of long shots of the eponymous cave, and it would be hard not to be in awe of the beauty of one of the deepest parts of our world. Renato Berta’s cinematography is fantastic and will undoubtedly go down as some of the year’s best.
Il Buco certainly isn’t going to be for everyone with its slow pacing and general lack of narrative, but those who are willing to let it almost roll over your body and experience it in a profound way will be quietly impressed. This is the type of movie that seems small at first, but is really much bigger when you look at it differently.
Il Buco is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, one of the writers behind last year’s critically-acclaimed The Worst Person in the World, The Innocents couldn’t be more different than that film. A largely dull affair, it feels as if Vogt had an interesting concept and a few strong scenes in mind but struggled to build something compelling up around it.
The movie follows a group of kids with mysterious supernatural powers as their world is enveloped in chaos and they struggle to contain their gifts. The whole “X-Men but a horror movie” concept has been done before — and more successfully — but in trying to take a more restrained approach, Vogt fails to do anything with it that is particularly developed.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is that it is glacially paced. The runtime is nearly two hours long, and much of it feels very unnecessary. It’s clear that Vogt is invested in the movie’s atmosphere more than anything else, and he wants it to be a slow burn developing from innocent to sinister, but it takes too long for things to heat up.
There are some mildly interesting socioeconomic undercurrents in the film, but they are largely underdeveloped. In choosing to stick more to the perspective of the child characters, rather than exploring their family units as a whole, the ability of the movie to explore these weighty themes is limited, and it has to instead settle on vague statements.
The dynamic between the central characters of the film is certainly intriguing, even if it doesn’t always work. It’s definitely not the normal, wholesome portrait of childhood friendship that we are used to seeing, and Vogt does a great job of making everything feel slightly off-kilter so that the disturbing things can set in interestingly.
The one aspect of the movie that Vogt did knock out of the park was the casting. All of the young actors that lead the film are shockingly good, especially Rakel Lenora Fløttum and Sam Ashraf. They do an exceptional job of playing the duality of their characters: apparently pure yet having a dark secret bubbling beneath the surface.
Vogt also does an excellent job of making this a daytime horror. Audiences are so used to seeing horror movies that are shrouded in darkness that anytime we see one set predominantly in the light, it feels discomforting. The cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is a big part of what makes that work.
The Innocents shows a lot of potential, but for the most part, it’s a pretty big letdown. Despite an intriguing concept, excellent performances, and some solid technical elements, it’s dull and not as creepy as it wants to be.
The Innocents hits theaters and VOD on May 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
There is something to be said about a film that unabashedly wears its influences on its sleeve. Even if its existence has little more purpose than being an homage, a talented filmmaker can still make something entertaining out of it. The Last Victim owes a lot to the neo-Westerns of the past two decades but is just brutal and sharp enough to work.
The movie follows a group of people whose lives begin to intertwine in violent ways: a terrifyingly violent criminal, the sheriff pursuing him, and a woman who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when loose ends need to be tied up. The way in which the script twists these stories together creates a sense of narrative momentum, even when they stall out on their own.
Like the best films in the genre, this is really an exercise in restraint over anything else. Yes, there are some brutal and shocking moments, but they are timed right to leave an impact on the viewer. The violence feels very real and never like it is mean-spirited, with the focus instead on depicting the bleak reality of the human condition.
Still, despite the movie’s best efforts, it does still suffer from the feeling that many kaleidoscopic ensemble pieces have — that it can’t juggle all of its many elements effectively. Perhaps due to budget constraints, it often feels as if these elements are having to function on their own more than they have to come together.
The character development in the film certainly leaves something to be desired. All three of the leads are generic characters that have frustratingly shallow backstories. It’s not enough to simply throw the audience into the situation alongside the characters. We have to be given some reason to care about these characters.
Nevertheless, the three leads of the movie do a fantastic job in their roles despite being given lackluster material to work with. Ralph Ineson is the MVP, giving a menacing performance as the film’s antagonist. Ron Perlman gives it his all, although the fact that he probably had the highest price tag in the cast keeps him from having too much screen time. And it’s nice to finally see Ali Larter again after what seems to have been several years relegated to the sidelines.
Director Naveen A. Chathapuram’s style cannot be described as being particularly original, but it’s just sharp enough to work. He’s obviously trying to create a gritty, grimy world for this story to exist in, and he generally succeeds in doing so. The few bursts of violence in the movie are also extremely well-executed.
The Last Victim is enjoyable enough for what it is, even if it isn’t particularly original in terms of story or style. The cast and visuals manage to keep it afloat, especially when it doesn’t have the natural energy to keep moving.
The Last Victim hits theaters and VOD on May 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
The road that Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure has taken to the big screen is troubled, to say the least. After making a big splash at Sundance in 2021 and quickly getting snatched up for distribution by A24, it dropped off the radar until it was announced last fall that NEON would be taking over due to concerns over releasing the film unedited. Audiences are finally getting the opportunity to see the movie (uncut), and it doesn’t always deliver on its promise.
The film follows a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming the next adult film star only to be met with the harsh reality of the porn industry. It isn’t the first movie about the world of pornography, but one would be hard-pressed to find one as frank as this, even if it does have its fair share of issues.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it offers a very narrow view of the sex work industry. Yes, the movie is very effective in its exploration of the particular problems it hopes to address, but it largely ignores the elephant in the room that is human trafficking. Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij do their best to create a blunt but sex-positive portrait of this industry, but fail to peel back the curtain as insightfully as they claim to.
The film is undeniably relentless in its pacing and depiction of graphic sexuality. And while the movie isn’t as clinical as something like say, David Cronenberg’s Crash, it still is not even close to being meant to arouse. The explicit nature of the film is sure to be divisive — as some will undoubtedly argue that it is exploitative of trauma, and to an extent, it is. However, this feels entirely necessary to bring home its point.
Unlike a lot of other movies set in the porn industry, this one does not feel heavily stylized. It has a gritty, almost documentary-like approach in a way that makes us as the viewer feel like we are a fly on the wall. It’s an enormously uncomfortable way to watch these events, but that is exactly what Thyberg seems to be going for.
The protagonist of the film is a tragic hero the likes of which many movies attempt but few pull off. Thyberg and Modestij do an excellent job of making the audience understand and sympathize with the character even when she makes the most frustrating of decisions. No small part of this is thanks to lead actress Sofia Kappel, who gives a phenomenally nuanced performance that will go down as one of the best breakouts of the year.
On the other hand, the supporting cast of the film feels entirely underdeveloped. Everyone, from her co-stars to the agents all feel like caricatures. The movie does feature a lot of pornographic actors who play exaggerated versions of themselves, but everything feels like it is being manipulated to fit the narrative of the protagonist.
Pleasure is a film that should be admired for the audacity it has to tackle such a topic so openly, but it sometimes misses the mark in what it explores. Although it does some things very well, much of the movie feels more like a first step than the full conversation.
Pleasure hits theaters on May 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
Recent years have proven that the horror genre doesn’t have to be reliant on gore and jump scares to succeed — a little bit of tension and some interesting themes can do the heavy lifting. Russell Owen’s Shepherd is one such film that emphasizes mood over anything else, and it’s an eerie, if somewhat uneventful watch.
The movie follows a grieving man who retreats to a secluded island in the hopes of a fresh start and trying to maintain his sanity, only for him to find himself tested when his past comes back to haunt him. It’s a psychological horror the likes of which we have seen dozens of times before, and Owen does little to reinvent the wheel.
Its glacial pacing is sure to put off some who are less intrigued by the idea of watching a slow descent into insanity, but more universally frustrating is the fact that the final third of the film feels extremely rushed. Understandably, Owen seemed to want to leave the conflict feeling resolved to an unsatisfying level, but it’s a bit too cut short for its own good.
Owen also fails to explore any themes that are particularly interesting within his movie. It covers the standard grief and guilt storyline that is common for any movie about a mourning widow/widower who decides to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. It has surprisingly little emotional resonance for a film with this subject matter.
One of the big issues with movies that are about isolation like this is that there are no supporting characters to boost the protagonist when their arc is weakly written. There are some ominous other villagers in the film, and some of them are even genuinely creepy, but they all exist merely for the purpose of pushing the plot along.
Indeed, a majority of the movie’s weight rests on Tom Hughes’s back, and he does a decent job carrying it. Granted, it’s not stellar work like something such as Robert Pattinson’s turn in the similarly-themed The Lighthouse, but Hughes does a good enough job of bringing the emotion and a slightly unhinged feel to the role.
It can be argued that Owen succeeds much more in the director’s chair than he does as a writer here. The cinematography by Richard Stoddard is gorgeous but cold, creating that atmosphere that is so integral in the film’s success. And there is some fantastic effects work in some of the movie’s more horror-heavy bits.
Shepherd is a solid movie for what it is, even if it seemingly aspires to be something more. It won’t stick with you in your mind like the best of the psychological horror genre do, but it’s eerie enough to be worth your time.
Shepherd is now in theaters and hits VOD on May 10.
Review by Sean Boelman
Gaspar Noé has gained a cult following for making films that are incendiary and provocative, both in content and form. Lux Æterna, his mid-length movie produced in cooperation with Yves Saint Laurent, isn’t as extreme in what it depicts, it’s perhaps his most formally aggressive work yet.
The film features acclaimed actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle making a movie about witches as the production plunges into chaos. As far as meta stories go, Noé’s is certainly very intriguing — but one would expect no less from a filmmaker who has such an interesting relationship with the cinema.
It’s a mere fifty-one minutes long, and while there are certainly elements that could have been expanded, its brevity is a blessing. This is especially the case during the disorienting finale — an obstacle for the film for anyone who is photosensitive, and potentially nauseating even for those who aren’t — which is a visceral experience but one that is mercifully short.
For a movie that is made with a commercial sponsor, it is shockingly deep. The film doesn’t feel like it is an advertisement for Yves Saint Laurent, as they seemingly let him go wild. It’s an essay on filmmaking but not in a way that feels didactic or self-congratulatory, making it a must-see for any cinephiles.
Granted, casual moviegoers probably aren’t going to find anything of value here, but then again, why is anyone who isn’t a hardcore film fan going to see a fifty-minute movie by Gaspar Noé about filmmaking? There are a few narrative through-lines in the show with some of the cast and crew members of the film-within-a-film but none are quite strong.
The best part of the movie is undoubtedly the stellar chemistry between Gainsbourg and Dalle. Obviously, their roles weren’t too big of a stretch for them given that they are playing exaggerated versions of themselves, but they do a fantastic job nonetheless. And while most of this is a two-hander, Abbey Lee also gets some phenomenal moments of her own.
Noé uses split screen in the film, and while it is quite overwhelming at first, it does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere of chaos that reigns over the movie. The use of color is also fantastic, especially during the climactic final moments that are among the most hypnotic images you may ever see committed to film.
Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna is an achievement, yet another wonderful entry in his filmography. It may have been made as more of an experiment than anything else, but it’s a fascinating one at that, telling this story in a captivating, enthralling way.
Lux Æterna hits theaters on May 6.
Review by Sean Boelman
From The Girl From Plainville to Under the Banner of Heaven, it seems like Hulu is on the search for America’s newest true-crime obsession. Their newest entry into the genre, Candy, is perhaps the best one yet, a riveting and ambiguous exploration of its real-life events that spins the tropes on their head.
The series tells the story of Candy Montgomery, a housewife living a seemingly idyllic life until she is accused of the murder of her lover’s wife. It’s a story that lends itself extremely well to a series like this, and the way that it is written is intriguing, eschewing a linear narrative in favor of an experience that is much more emotionally-driven and challenging
One of the most interesting things about the series is that it is being released as a five-night event. This is a release strategy that isn’t often used anymore, but this feels like event storytelling, both in its presentation and its story. It’s a potboiler with one shocking reveal after the next, and viewers will be left eager to see where the story goes next.
Admittedly, the show doesn't go into much depth with its themes, and a big part of that is likely the fact that the series is only five episodes. The show explores the adultery aspect in a way that several other series have before. Where it could have had some commentary on domestic life, it largely falls flat.
The character development of the show might turn some heads in how it depicts the subject. Obviously, it’s based on a true story, so many viewers might know the outcome. However, the series makes a point of playing with what the audience thinks they know — challenging the line that exists between guilty and innocent.
Jessica Biel gives an extraordinary performance in her leading role that will go down as career-defining work. The balance she is able to strike between empathetic and cold is downright fantastic. Melanie Lynskey and Pablo Schreiber are also standouts, giving performances that are significantly against type and very compelling.
Like many of the other true crime series that have come out recently, there is a definite schlock factor here, but the ‘80s aesthetic makes it work that much better. It’s the type of show where you are acutely aware that what you are watching is a heavily exaggerated take on events, but it embraces that fully.
Candy is the newest must-see television event — this spring’s Mare of Easttown or The Undoing. Yes, it’s slightly trashy, but that’s exactly what audiences are clamoring for from a project like this, and it delivers.
Candy streams on Hulu beginning May 9 as a five-day event. All five episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
Executive produced by Cooper Raiff (the filmmaker behind this year’s Sundance sensation Cha Cha Real Smooth), Sophia Silver’s coming-of-age film Over/Under is an indie gem debuting on the festival circuit. Wholesome and warm-hearted, even if it isn’t too unconventional, this nonetheless heralds the arrival of an interesting new voice on the scene.
The movie follows two inseparable best friends who spend a series of several summers growing up, growing both together and apart in unexpected ways. It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age film, down to the very run-of-the-mill framing device that it uses, but it is the sincerity with which the script — co-written by Silver and Sianni Rosenstock — is written that makes it effective.
With a runtime of under an hour and a half and solid pacing, the movie breezes by. Still, there are some tonal inconsistencies in the film that are perhaps a bit troubling. Some of the segments are much more on the awkward, comedic side, whereas others are more somber and dramatic. It’s a balancing act, and while it’s clear that the movie is trying to capture the volatility of real life, it doesn’t quite succeed in doing so.
The conversations between the characters explore many of the common themes of growing up — identity, sexuality, responsibility, etc. — but it doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the discussion. Yet even though there have been other films to discuss these ideas frankly before, they are so universal that movies can continue to explore them in poignant ways.
The film’s success really hinges around the central friendship between the two characters, and Silver and Rosenstock do an exceptional job of building this dynamic. It’s a really complex friendship that they share, and one that is hard to capture in a way that feels authentic and not cheesy, but it’s been done exceptionally well here.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie is the fact that the two lead performances are both phenomenal. Emajean Bullock and Anastasia Veronica Lee are both very talented child actors, bringing their all to the roles and having exceptional chemistry together. Even more astounding is that they seem entirely comfortable in their characters’ skin, something that is exceedingly unusual for actors their age.
Stylistically, Silver’s direction is nice and warm, although it isn’t anything particularly original. You can tell that there is a sentimentality and nostalgia for the days of childhood in her approach, and it’s quite infectious. Silver’s voice behind the camera seemingly isn’t fully developed yet, but it is her debut after all.
Over/Under is a sweet little movie, and even if it doesn’t do anything particularly new within the genre, it’s a decently-made entry. Sophia Silver has made something charming and promising, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.
Over/Under debuted at the 2022 San Francisco Film Festival.
Review by Sean Boelman
International films on streaming services are severely hit-or-miss; for every auteur-driven passion project, there’s a movie that’s content being pumped out for its own country and getting a platform here. Lisa Azuelos’s romantic comedy I Love America is certainly the latter, a film that is the very definition of unimpressive.
The movie follows a single, middle-aged Parisian woman who experiences a midlife crisis when she enters the dating pool in Los Angeles. Although the film is never explicitly autobiographical, the fact that the protagonist is a movie director named Lisa probably means that there is some personal angle to this — even if the extremely cliched script wouldn’t imply that.
Thankfully, the film is mercifully short at only an hour and forty minutes. The pacing is mostly breezy, which allows it to be pleasant even when it isn’t all that funny. Many of the gags in the movie are obvious — aiming for the low-hanging fruit in an attempt to get an easy chuckle rather than go for genuine wit.
While the title implies that this might have something insightful to say about the immigrant experience and assimilating to American culture, this is just a largely inconsequential romantic comedy. It isn’t even all that insightful about the modern dating scene in America, with just a few quips about dating apps and nothing more.
The characters in the film are nearly insufferable. Many of these midlife crisis movies are about selfish people learning to grow out of their shell and care for other people, and although the protagonist here does that, the character is so annoying that it’s hard to get over. And weren’t we past the days of having a stereotypically gay sidekick?
The only thing that manages to barely keep this movie afloat is its cast. Sophie Marceau is a gifted actress who has had a pretty well-respected career, and why she ended up in something trite like this, the world will never know. But she elevates it to something that is more than movie of the week material. Colin Woodell (of The Flight Attendant fame) is charming enough to be the love interest, even if he’s nothing more than eye candy.
Azuelos’s film is also severely lacking from a stylistic standpoint. For a standard streaming romantic comedy, it’s passable (if only just), but it’s clear that Azuelos wanted this to be something more. A few moments have some inspired soundtrack choices, but apart from that, its style is just ditziness, which gets old quickly.
I Love America isn’t really odious in any way, but it does feel like a waste of time. It’s a romantic comedy the likes of which you have seen dozens of times before, and apart from a solid performance from Sophie Marceau, there’s nothing about it that’s special.
I Love America streams on Prime Video beginning April 29.
Review by Sean Boelman
In its first season, the HBO Max romantic comedy/sci-fi series Made for Love proved to be an intriguing if messy satire. But now that the show has been able to settle on the quirkiness of the source material, it’s finally getting the chance to shine, allowing it to be something genuinely special.
Picking up after the events of the first season, the series now follows the protagonist as she has returned with her lunatic tech mogul husband to “The Hub”, his isolated and futuristic virtual reality compound. There’s a lot more to this season than the last, as gags turn into legitimate subplots and unexpected depth is added to character arcs that make them much more compelling.
For this second season, the book’s author Alyssa Nutting steps up to the plate to be a showrunner, and that may have been the factor to bring the show to its A-game. The humor feels so much sharper here, the storylines so much more intricate, and the satire is so much more aggressive. The result is a much more enjoyable watch.
The show isn’t particularly subtle about exactly who it is poking fun at — the tyrannical mogul and his company are quite literally named Gogol, as if anyone wouldn’t immediately figure out the connotation of that — but these mega-corporations have enough money that they can take a little heat.
Interestingly, the series does not go the direction of adding new characters, but instead uses this additional time to build deeper into the existing characters, which was a very wise move. A lot of comedy shows tend to try to add even more high-profile comedians their second time around, but Nutting et al. realized that the thing that really makes their show work is its commentary and writing.
Cristin Milioti and Billy Magnussen again knock it out of the park in their roles, with a tension between the two of them that is palpable and constantly feels like it is about to explode. And thankfully, Ray Romano feels much more effectively utilized here, getting some genuinely funny moments of his own rather than just being the butt of the joke.
The fact that a majority of this season (at least in the first four episodes) occurs inside The Hub allows the series to dive even deeper into its sci-fi vibes. It’s a fascinating world that they are building, and while some of the effects look a bit wonky, it fits given the nature of what they are supposed to represent.
Made for Love had a first season that showed it had a lot of potential, and this second season delivers on it in a way that is much funnier and much sharper. Like a lot of other comedy television shows, this started out a bit uneven, but once it was able to find its rhythm and footing, it became so much more tightly-written.
Made for Love debuts on HBO Max on April 28 with new episodes debuting subsequent Thursdays. Four out of eight episodes reviewed.