Review by Sean Boelman
Winner of a Special Jury Award for acting in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Maltese film Luzzu is minimalistic in its approach, for better or worse. Telling a simple story very simply, there are some strong moments throughout the movie, but not enough to allow it to have the intended impact.
The film follows a fisherman who risks everything to provide for his wife and newborn son by getting involved in the black-market illegal fishing industry. There’s a lot here that shows the potential to be really interesting, but for the most part, it ends up being just another tale of a man who the world seemingly has it out for.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the movie is that it doesn’t make much of anything with its themes. On one hand, this is a film about the social class system in Malta, following a member of the working class who toils every day only to be exploited by those in more favorable conditions. Then there is also the part of the movie about the environmental regulations and the black market. Unfortunately, neither of these are explored with much substance.
Instead, what we get is a dramatic thriller pretty much divided into two halves. The first part shows the character’s entire world falling down around him, before he starts to rebuild it in the second part only for it to collapse again. It’s a series of beats that we have seen done again and again without much in the way of variation.
Unfortunately, the film does not have the depth in its character work to justify redoing these beats. Although we sympathize with the protagonist for his plight as the sole provider for a young family, there isn’t much more to the character than that. There’s a thread about the protagonist’s relationship with his legacy coming from a long line of fishermen, but this isn’t all that interesting.
That said, the acting in the movie certainly does impress. Non-professional actor (and actual fisherman) Jesmark Scicluna does an excellent job in his leading role. Of course, his expertise in the area makes all of the physical fishing scenes feel authentic, but he also does an exceptional job pulling off the dramatic, dialogue-oriented moments.
The film is also strong on a technical level. The use of color in the movie is great, which is fitting since the title comes from the name of the colorful fishing boats used by fishermen such as the protagonist. And the sense of claustrophobia created in the market scenes goes a long way in creating a sense of tension.
Luzzu is a film with a lot of good ideas and plenty of strong moments, but they don’t boil down into anything especially noteworthy. It works best as an acting showcase for its non-professional star, although that may not be enough to make it worth going out of your way to see.
Luzzu is now in theaters and virtual cinemas.
Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Ridley Scott predominantly works in three genres — sci-fi, crime, and historical epics — but it’s been seven years since his last work in the latter of the three, and even longer since his last memorable one. The Last Duel hopes to join the ranks of his Best Picture-winning Gladiator, and while it’s as well-crafted as can be expected, it’s basically a longer, medieval version of Rashomon.
The movie follows two friends-turned-rivals who participate in a duel to the death when one accuses the other of assaulting his wife. It’s based on an interesting true story, but in both structure and content, the film plays out very similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s masterful courtroom drama from 1950.
There are four main sections to the movie — one from the perspective of each involved party, and then the eponymous duel that serves as the finale. There is some repetition in the first and second segments, as they are essentially an alternate take on the same events, whereas the third segment feels like more of an addition. And the climactic battle pays off after the slow build.
One of the more noticeable flaws of the film is that it takes a somewhat questionable approach to its themes. The storytelling device exploring multiple perspectives is an interesting way to question the idea of the truth, but the dialogue (particularly in the third act) poses some potentially problematic questions. Asking what the truth is worth feels somewhat insensitive in this situation.
The character development in the movie is also lacking in nuance. It’s clear from the beginning of the film who each of these people are, and the movie doesn’t explore anything beyond the basic archetypes. Even the protagonist’s arc, coming to terms with his own desire for honor and notoriety, feels very cold and generic.
That said, the cast manages to do an exceptional job with their roles. Matt Damon and Adam Driver are great together, capturing the constantly shifting dynamic between the two characters extremely well. However, it is the prominent supporting players that steal the show. Ben Affleck goes all-in as the pompous lord, and Jodie Comer is cripplingly emotional in her pivotal role.
The film is as gorgeous as one would expect given the filmmaker that Scott is. The level of detail in the production design and costuming is very precise and immersive. And while there aren’t many scenes in the movie that have much violence, those scenes which do are viscerally brutal.
The Last Duel is entirely solid, but one expects no less from such an established filmmaker. Although there are a few really brilliant moments, it’s mostly just an all-around entertaining and well-shot epic.
The Last Duel hits theaters on October 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
Todd Haynes is an exceptional filmmaker, so the release of his first-ever documentary film was obviously highly anticipated. And as one would expect, The Velvet Underground is not an average rock documentary, the filmmaker’s and subjects’ unique sensibilities come together to form a genuinely distinctive movie about the musical process.
The movie tells the story of The Velvet Underground, a band whose experimentation with sound became highly influential in the world of rock-and-roll. However, unlike a majority of rock documentaries, this film isn’t just about the eponymous band — it’s more about the scene that popped up around them and allowed them to become who they are.
This is a documentary more for people who are already familiar with rock-and-roll history, as it covers so much ground that pre-existing knowledge would be useful to have. Haynes connects the dots between The Velvet Underground and some of the most popular musicians of the day quite well, but it requires a moderate understanding of the technicalities of music to follow these developments.
There’s something to be said about the counterculture movement of the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the 1970s), but this is more of a love letter to music. Haynes is clearly much more interested in the musical aspects of the story than the way in which the music reflected the anxieties of society at the time, but if the viewer aligns with those interests, this is a fascinating watch.
Since the movie is about the overall movement that The Velvet Underground started in the music industry, there isn’t as much insight into the band itself as one would expect. There are portions of the film which are devoted to each band member, but this is by no means a biography. Those looking for deeper insight into the personal lives of the band should look elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack of the movie is very diverse and eclectic. In addition to the songs of The Velvet Underground, which span a wide range in and of themselves, the film features music from the various groups that they influenced. From some of the most popular tunes of the ‘60s and ‘70s to inventive and obscure songs, there is a lot of great music to hear in the movie.
On a technical level, this is one of the most accomplished music documentaries in recent memory. Although one shouldn’t be surprised that Haynes’s newest film is technically impressive, the fact that it is so confident despite being his documentary debut is astounding. There’s rightfully a lot of experimentation to the visual style, fitting given the experimental nature of the subjects’ music, echoing some of the groundbreaking techniques of the classics in the genre.
The Velvet Underground is an amazing documentary, although that won’t come as much of a shock. Those wanting a traditional movie need not bother, but this is a rewarding viewing experience in more ways than one expects.
The Velvet Underground hits theaters and Apple TV+ on October 15.
Review by Sean Boelman
The Thai horror film The Medium partners some of the best voices in horror from across Asia, but the result isn’t as scary, nor even as interesting, as one would hope. A few interesting ideas and a strong premise aside, there isn’t enough going on here to make this any more than a decently-executed found-footage horror flick.
The movie takes the form of a fictional documentary following a shaman whose niece begins to experience supernatural occurrences that suggest that she may be inheriting the family’s shamanism, but could have more sinister implications. The title cards in the introduction of the film show its potential to be something interesting, but what results is a pretty standard possession horror.
What threatens to make the movie stand out is the cultural specificity it has. The film is set within a region of Thailand with unique customs relating to shamanism. And while these traditions and rituals set the stage for an interesting horror, the script doesn’t make much of them. That said, the movie thankfully doesn’t otherize the people whose culture it depicts.
Part of the issue with the film is that the pacing is rather weak. It’s rare for a horror movie to clock in at over two hours, and a movie has to earn that length. Unfortunately, this one does not, with little happening in the way of tension for much of the runtime. The final act offers a supposed payoff that is hectic, but not all that memorable.
The character development in the film is also lacking. For a movie that is about a tight-knit community, there isn’t a whole lot here that is especially emotional. There is an investment in the family dynamic in the first hour or so, before the horror starts to take over, but it doesn’t result in any real connection.
For the most part, the cast in the movie is solid. As the lead, Narilya Gulmongkolpech does a good enough job convincing the audience of her horrifying situation. Although Gulmongkolpech doesn’t add anything new to the possession canon, she has a few scenes in which she really heightens the terror.
Visually, the film doesn’t have a whole lot going on that lets it stand out from the many found-footage horror movies. The camerawork is about as shaky as it can be, and the setting is mostly generic rainy woods. There are some solid effects in the final third, but they aren’t enough to immerse the viewer.
The Medium isn’t a bad film, but it’s definitely a disappointment considering all of the talent involved. It’s ultimately going to be little more than a forgettable entry into a genre full of generic B-movies.
The Medium is now streaming on Shudder.
Review by Sean Boelman
Succession has made a name for itself as one of the greatest shows currently airing on television, and so the long-awaited third season is one of the biggest television events of 2021. This is a show that gets increasingly nuanced with each new entry, and the shifting dynamics of this new season are absolutely riveting.
Following Kendall Roy’s shocking defection from the family at the end of season two, the series follows the Roy family as they attempt to keep Waystar Royco from collapsing due to internal and external threats. It’s more of the backstabbing and cutthroat antics that fans of the show have come to love, although this time with even higher stakes.
This is inarguably the most technical season yet, as the volatile nature of relationships in the series is heightened even further. With all of the double-crossing that happens, it can become a bit difficult to keep track of who is on which side at any given point, but this is part of the charm of the series.
One of the most interesting things about this season is that it takes the characters in very different directions. Much of the first two seasons is the audience loving to hate the family members (with the exception of Cousin Greg, who is just outright lovable), but this season adds a lot more depth to them.
Kendall, for example, has been one of the least sympathetic characters in the show, but these new episodes turn him into a sort of antihero. Although the whininess and privilege that has always been a fundamental part of his character is still there, this goes deeper into his scars and how they made him who he is.
Other characters that get really interesting arcs include Cousin Greg, Tom, and Shiv. Likely in response to how well-received the character has been by fans and critics, Cousin Greg’s role this season is significantly expanded. He’s gone from being a humorous side character to a significant player in this civil war, which is a welcome change.
Jeremy Strong is at his best yet in his role, bringing even more nuance than he did in his Emmy-winning turn last season. Fan-favorite Nicholas Braun is certainly a standout here, giving a performance that is a shit ton of fun to watch. And the rest of the family — Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, and Alan Ruck — are all great as well. New cameos this season include Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgård, both of whom are memorable.
In what will be a surprise to absolutely no one, this new season of Succession is absolutely exceptional. Although this won’t win over many converts, it’s a brilliant continuation of what has already come from the series to this point.
Succession premieres on HBO on October 17 at 9pm ET/PT with new episodes airing subsequent Sundays. Seven out of nine episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
The A24 brand has become associated with a certain type of film — artful, yet straightforward with its symbolism, and defined by a characteristic indie quirkiness. More often than not, the results are successful, but there are misfires like Lamb which take the formula and add little to it, making it a frustratingly one-note experience.
The movie follows a childless couple living an isolated life on their farm in Iceland when an unusual newborn enters their life, bringing them happiness before later threatening to rip it away. It’s an undeniably intriguing concept, and the film should be praised for finding that balance between approaching it with a straight face and not taking itself overly seriously, but in the end, it does very little with it.
As one can expect, this is a slow burn psychodrama, and the pacing can be a bit taxing at times. There is definitely some humor to be found in watching these people rear this unusual child, but its novelty wears thin at a certain point and there’s just not enough tension to give it momentum. The payoff is oddly satisfying, but the journey to get there is very uneven.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it doesn’t have much subtlety with its themes. This is obviously a film about parenthood, and while there thankfully isn’t a whole lot of exposition (in fact, the movie doesn’t have much dialogue in the first place), the script doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.
That said, the writers did a pretty solid job with the character work. The main couple are both very compelling. The mother figure is a bit more developed than her male counterpart, which makes sense given the film’s “mother nature” motif, but both of them have strong emotional arcs.
Noomi Rapace gives a very solid performance as the lead of the movie, bringing a lot of emotion to a role that easily could have leaned into the ridiculous. Hilmir Snær Guðnason provides an excellent foil to her, with a little less depth but still selling his role. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson rounds out the main cast well.
The film is definitely very impressive from a technical standpoint, but one should expect no less. The cinematography is gorgeous and utilizes the cold, foggy Icelandic settings quite well. And the integration of the titular creature into the visuals of the movie is effective and never distracting, selling the film where the story doesn’t.
Lamb is made to appeal to a certain audience, and those people will absolutely eat it up. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s a lot more shallow than it lets on and would have been much more effective had it embraced its simplicity.
Lamb is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
With the second season of Ted Lasso having just come to an end, everyone is high on Jason Sudekis right now, and so the timing of South of Heaven is absolutely perfect. A fun, if straightforward thriller, this film rides on the strength of its central performances to have an emotional impact.
The movie follows a recently released ex-convict who, on early parole and hoping to spend time with his ailing childhood sweetheart, finds himself unintentionally drawn back into his life of crime. Everything about the film’s story is overwhelmingly familiar, but it works thanks to the unexpected empathy it has.
Clocking in right at two hours in length, the movie is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but it never drags. In fact, the film can almost be cleanly divided into two halves: the first, a pretty predictable blue collar crime saga, and the second, a blend of revenge thriller and dark comedy. And yet, despite the script being so busy, it manages to work.
The themes in the movie about redemption are nothing new. The protagonist’s journey is to right his wrongs against the world by making things right for the woman he loves. It’s a sweet and heartwarming arc, albeit one that doesn’t offer much in the way of originality. The fact that the antagonist even has an arc is refreshing, although it still feels like an afterthought.
Sudekis, much like the roles he has gotten so much notoriety for in recent years, proves here that he is able to blend dramatic and comedic elements extremely well. However, even though his performance is great, the supporting cast is even better. Evangeline Lilly is surprisingly nuanced as the love interest, Shea Wigham is wonderfully exaggerated as the secondary antagonist, and Mike Colter is exceptional as the big baddie.
That is why it is disappointing that all of this great work is weighed down by a conventional crime story. A lazy MacGuffin of a lost bundle of money almost delegitimizes the genuine emotion around which the film is built. This is especially the case as the motivations in the second and third act become more generic.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is mostly solid. Aharon Keshales has created a competent neo-Western with some solid cinematography. There aren’t any images that are particularly striking or lingering, but the short bursts of violence in the film are very effective and shocking in the moment.
South of Heaven would be a forgettable B-movie thriller were it not for above average character development and some really strong performances. It’s the right combination of things coming together to deliver a satisfying watch.
South of Heaven is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
The V/H/S franchise is one of the biggest franchises among the cult audience that loves anthology horror, and the newest entry, V/H/S/94, has just what it will take to revitalize the series after a seven-year hiatus. Lots of fun and surprisingly consistent between its segments, this is a good start to Shudder’s October content.
Like the rest of the franchise, the film is presented as a series of found footage VHS tapes connected by a framing narrative. In this case, it’s a police raid investigating a cult documenting their horrific exploits on these tapes. Though the fragmented and rushed nature of this story keeps it from making much sense, the high-intensity direction from Jennifer Reeder heightens the viewer’s anxiety quite well.
The first segment, Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain”, sets the tone of what we are about to see. It’s an absurd, frequently scary, and occasionally funny monster movie, and it’s probably the most fun of the bunch. Out of the four main shorts, this one seems to take itself the least seriously, and as a result, falsely earns the viewer’s trust before scaring the hell out of them in the last few minutes.
Simon Barrett’s contribution, “The Empty Wake”, is arguably the most traditionally good segment. It is the only one that would likely work well on its own, as it is a simple yet well-executed chiller. That being said, it is also the least dynamic of the bunch, and it is obvious where it is heading from the start.
The only foreign language entry in the group, Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject”, seems to be the one that will get the most fans. Absolutely blood-soaked from the moment it starts, this is the type of wild horror filmmaking that a lot of people have come to associate with the anthology medium.
“Terror”, directed by Ryan Prows, wouldn’t have been a bad entry had it come in the middle of the movie, but as the finale, it’s a tad underwhelming. A satirical horror-comedy, it definitely has its merits, yet both within the segment and as a conclusion to the anthology, it is rather anticlimactic. It would have been much more opportune for “The Subject” to get this prime spot.
As a whole, the ‘90s aesthetic of the film works pretty well. It’s always clear that these are retro movies made to feel like they were made nearly two decades ago — none of the filmmakers do a great enough job to make their work feel actually ripped out of the ‘90s — but given the popularity of retro horror, it’s fun for what it is.
V/H/S/94 is one of the better anthology movies to come out recently thanks to some strong directors making some legitimately enjoyable segments. Although one bit is slightly weaker than the others, it’s a good time all-around for horror fans.
V/H/S/94 streams on Shudder beginning October 6.
Review by Sean Boelman
(L to R) Chloë Grace Moretz as the voice of Wednesday Addams, Charlize Theron as the voice of Morticia Addams, Oscar Isaac as the voice of Gomez Addams, and Javon Walton as the voice of Pugsley Addams in THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2, directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.
2019’s The Addams Family was a surprise hit, making over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office, so it’s no surprise that a sequel was greenlit quickly. However, unlike most animated films that were rushed into production, The Addams Family 2 is quite watchable, as there is genuinely some charm to be found even if everything is by the book.
The movie follows the eponymous altogether ooky family as they set out on a road trip in an attempt to renew their connection with one another when they are suddenly threatened to be torn apart. Whereas the 2019 film was pretty much a bunch of Addams hijinks, this has a much more structured plot, with a road movie first half and what is effectively a superhero movie finale.
The pacing of both of these movies is very off because it seems like the storytelling is constructed more out of an obligation to hit all of the beats than a natural flow. As such, the hour-and-a-half runtime feels stuffed to the brim with content. That may not be a bad thing for young kids with short attention spans, but even the older single-digits may find this to be a bit too hyperactive to be its own good.
As is always the case with the franchise, the main message here is about being oneself and embracing what makes you unique, but this film takes it to a deeper emotional level. The movie explores the idea of changing one’s family, and while it doesn’t go into much depth (and one shouldn’t expect it to), it’s a very sweet thought.
(L to R) Chloë Grace Moretz as the voice of Wednesday Addams, Oscar Isaac as the voice of Gomez Addams, Charlize Theron as the voice of Morticia Addams, Nick Kroll as the voice of Uncle Fester, Javon Walton as the voice of Pugsley Addams, and Conrad Vernon as the voice of Lurch in THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2, directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.
The character development in the film is heavily lopsided. Wednesday is the only character in the movie who has much of an arc, but with this large of an ensemble and such a short runtime, there isn’t much room for each character to shine. The antagonist of the film is very cliched, though, and ultimately could have been cut out entirely.
Most of the cast of the first movie returned, with the exception of Finn Wolfhard, who is replaced by Javon Walton as Pugsley. This substitution isn’t very distracting, and Walton gives a very average performance. It can be hard to recognize some of the very famous actors giving voice performances here, as they are speaking so heavily in character, but Nick Kroll and Oscar Isaac are definitely the highlights.
The animation style here still isn’t great. It looks like cheap 3D computer animation, which is made even worse by the fact that the gap between the release of the first and second films is a mere two years. It’s a shame because the older versions of this franchise are so visually fun, and this feels very indistinct.
The Addams Family 2 isn’t a great animated movie, although it is ever so slightly an improvement over its predecessor. It’s the type of family movie that is made primarily with younger kids in mind, and will leave most other viewers feeling very neutral towards it.
The Addams Family 2 is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
After The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special was embraced by fans of the series, it only makes sense that Disney+ would release another themed special. LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales, supposedly a “Halloween special”, loses track of what made its predecessor work so well and instead offers a few amusing non-canon anecdotes.
The special follows Poe Dameron and BB-8 as they hear stories of the history of the Sith and must fight to prevent an ancient evil from rising up. Although this is meant to be festive for the Halloween season, it’s equivalent to people standing around a campfire and telling scary stories (although not too scary, because this is made for a TV-G audience).
Perhaps the biggest issue with this special is that it tries to do too much in too little time. It crams in three separate, albeit thematically connected stories, into a runtime of less than forty-five minutes. And while everything is tied together nicely, if obviously, by the end, it still feels rushed and underdeveloped.
On top of that, there is a central story in which Poe has to save the day with the help of his friends, and it seems to be out of necessity to tie the stories together more than anything else. It’s a very simple storyline that feels like an afterthought, and it has just as little consequence as one would expect.
There is a new young character introduced in the special, and he sadly isn’t particularly memorable. It was an interesting choice for them to choose to go with Poe Dameron as the hero as opposed to one of the more A-list characters of the sequel trilogy, and while Oscar Isaac’s version of the character could have carried his own, Jake Green’s sadly cannot.
Something else that is missing in this one compared to the Holiday Special is notable cameos. There are no major names returning from the live-action series, with dedicated voice actors making up much of the cast. In prominent supporting roles are Tony Hale, Christian Slater, and Dana Snyder, and they all do well, but it doesn’t have that star power.
The quality of the animation is mostly strong, at the same level that the LEGO specials always are. It definitely feels as if we are in a brick-ified version of a galaxy far, far away. And while the substitutions in voice actors are distracting and make it obvious that what we are watching doesn’t have the same blockbuster budget, it tries its best to accommodate for this.
LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales is fun for what it is, although it will ultimately be mostly forgettable. Young padawans will definitely want to check it out, but don’t expect it to join your yearly Halloween rotation.
LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales is now streaming on Disney+.