Review by Sean Boelman
After hitting a certain age, most action stars reach a pbase in their career where they are predominantly making self-referential action comedies, and Jean-Claude Van Damme has already been there for a while now. His new film, The Last Mercenary, is fun enough when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, although the plot is frustratingly derivative.
The movie tells the story of a retired secret agent who must return to France when a case of mistaken identity results in his son being pursued by the government and dangerous criminals. It’s the type of convoluted espionage plot that only exists to set up some action sequences and comedic situations, and it succeeds in both of those regards.
However, with the film clocking in at an hour and fifty minutes after credits, the movie is just too long. Everything that isn’t an action sequence or comedy bit drags by, and for some reason, the writers felt the need to incorporate a lot of exposition, as if a majority of viewers would even care if the plot for a Van Damme action-comedy is remotely sensible.
It’s a shame, because a lot of the action sequences here are genuinely enjoyable to watch. A scene early on in the film which introduces us to JCVD’s character and his unique skill set shows the potential this has as a throwback. And a comedic car chase is one of the best of its type in recent memory.
Director David Charhon shoots the movie in a way that is somewhat haphazard. Although the action choreography is strong and the stunt performers are solid, the camera is positioned in a way that makes it obviously look fake. And like a majority of modern action films, the editing is extremely aggressive.
Something that would have helped this movie to be a bit more memorable would have been more distinctive characters. Van Damme is playing a role that is poking fun at the characters that put him in the spotlight to begin with, but he’s done that type of thing before. And all of the supporting characters are basically straight archetypes.
As expected, Van Damme does a lot of the heavy lifting for the cast here. After all, this is an action movie starring him that is a throwback to the type of films that made him, so it’s only fitting that everyone else in the movie works around him. That said, the chemistry he has with Samir Decazza, who plays his son, is notable.
The Last Mercenary is a pretty decent action-comedy, but it would have been a lot better had some of the fluff been cut. Still, for those looking for mindless entertainment, this Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle delivers.
The Last Mercenary is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Sean Boelman
Although Jake Johnson is perhaps primarily known for his goofier roles, he has shown on more than one occasion that he has the talent to pull off more complex characters. Trent O’Donnell’s Ride the Eagle gives him a chance to flex his dramatic muscles in a quaint but effective dramedy.
The film follows a slacker who is accidentally propelled on a mission of self-discovery when his estranged mother leaves him a conditional inheritance, demanding that he complete a series of tasks before getting it. And although this may sound like a high-concept comedy set-up rife with over-the-top hijinks, it’s actually the foundation of a compelling (if not too subtle) character study.
Clocking in at a brisk sub-ninety-minute runtime, the movie goes by quite nicely. The narrative is essentially a series of interactions that the protagonist has with a plethora of zany supporting characters. Some of these moments end up being hilarious, and others do a great job of being endearing.
What the script, written by O’Donnell and Johnson, has to say about grief is hardly anything new, and there is also an element of forgiveness to the film that is pretty moving, although it too lacks originality. Still, the somewhat insightful observations that the movie offers allow it to connect with viewers.
Admittedly, the protagonist’s arc is somewhat underwhelming in that it is almost entirely predictable and generic. However, like so many great dramedies like this, the film’s supporting characters are great. O’Donnell and Johnson take these archetypes and build upon them in a way that is interesting.
Of course, a lot of this has to do with the talent of the cast. Jake Johnson is definitely good in his role, but it is everyone else who really shines. Susan Sarandon, D’Arcy Carden, and J.K. Simmons are all excellent as the people who the protagonist encounters along his journey to acceptance.
O’Donnell could have done more with his movie given the rustic, woodsy setting, but the simple approach here works. A majority of the film is composed of back-and-forth scenes between two actors, and the editing does a good job of accentuating the natural rhythm in these sharply-written dialogues.
Ride the Eagle is about as charming as one can expect from an indie dramedy such as this. A strong cast and lean and crisp writing make it a solid watch even though it isn’t the most original movie in the genre.
Ride the Eagle is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
Hogir Hirori’s documentary Sabaya is one of those documentaries that deals with such an important issue that its power is inherent, even if its approach is flawed. Perhaps a tad opportunist in its approach to this issue, this is nonetheless required viewing due to the urgency of this discussion.
The film follows a group of men and women who put their lives at risk by traveling into dangerous refugee camps in the Middle East and freeing women being held by ISIS as sex slaves. A lot of stories are told about the military forces involved in the war on terror, but few are seen about everyday people like this doing extraordinary things to fight back, and that makes this movie distinctive.
Sex trafficking is obviously a horrifying issue, and Hirori dials into that feeling to create a documentary that is altogether harrowing. The level of anxiety that viewers will have watching this film is through the roof, as the audience is worrying both for the subjects of the movie and the people they are rescuing.
However, there is something to be said about taking a thriller approach to this story. Obviously, the stakes are as high as possible here, and the subjects are racing against the clock to save these women’s lives, but presenting it in a way that feels like popcorn entertainment to viewers is at least a little ethically questionable.
That said, the film still does a great job of putting most of its effort where it needs to be. This is a story of heroism and selflessness, of people who risk everything to help those who are unable to help themselves. As a result, even though the movie is undeniably dark, there is a hopeful tinge to it that allows it to stand out from a lot of other anti-terrorism documentaries.
Of course, it is also worth noting that there are a lot of limitations that come with this type of film in order to preserve the safety of these people who are already in extreme danger, and Hirori does his best to get around these. The movie easily gets the viewer to root for these heroes despite the fact that they can’t be developed with many identifying details.
Much of the footage in the film is done in a run-and-gun format, which makes sense given the extremely frantic nature of the story. This also helps build suspense in a way that is extremely effective, heightening the tension even more than it already was. It can get to be a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s often for the best.
Sabaya will leave the canny viewer asking some questions about what they have just been presented with, but it achieves all of its goals. It’s an all-around affecting documentary, and that’s what will let it connect with audiences.
Sabaya is now in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
2021 truly is the year of Lin-Manuel Miranda, as the cinematic adaptation of his Broadway musical In the Heights was released to great acclaim, and that is only his first of four projects coming out this year. Next on the slate is Vivo, an animated musical from Sony Pictures Animation, and while it can be a bit too conventional at times, it’s an altogether charming family film.
The movie follows a musically talented kinkajou (also known as a “honey bear”) who travels from Cuba to Miami to deliver a love song to the love of his owner’s life. First and foremost, this is a love letter to Cuban musicians, and the level of respect that the film has for this culture is absolutely exceptional.
Miranda’s eponymous tropical mammal is a surprisingly wonderful protagonist. Feeling like much more than an attempt to sell stuffed toys (although don’t be surprised to see honey bear plushies popping up on store shelves regardless), the movie gives the character a very compelling and emotional arc while, of course, doubling down on the adorable factor.
Miranda’s performance in the leading role is just as strong as one would expect given his past body of work. However, it is the supporting cast that steals the spotlight. Newcomer Ynairaly Simo threatens to steal Miranda’s thunder on more than one occasion, and there is an absolutely show-stopping turn from Gloria Estefan.
The opening musical number is absolutely spectacular, offering some of the most magical moments that any kids’ movie has had in a very long time. Unfortunately, the remaining hour of the film isn’t as breathtaking, as it’s a pretty by-the-numbers (albeit infectiously energetic) animated adventure.
It will not be surprising to viewers that the soundtrack is full of Miranda’s usual Latin and hip-hop-inspired songs, and they’re definitely very catchy. However, there is no denying that a lot of Miranda’s work is starting to sound similar to each other, and especially in a year where he is putting out so much content, he’s going to need to start messing with the formula a bit.
There is a lot of visual energy in the animation, and that will help keep audiences — especially younger ones — invested in the story, even during its more generic portions. There are a few musical sequences that are right on the edge of going overboard, but for the most part, it’s all good fun.
Vivo is definitely a very good animated movie to check out with the family this Spring. Although the film borrows a lot from stories we already know, strong execution all-around makes this extremely enjoyable.
Vivo hits Netflix on August 6.
Review by Sean Boelman
When thinking of Disney attractions prime for cinematic adaptations, Jungle Cruise was near the top along with its Adventureland cousin, Pirates of the Caribbean. And while the film is mostly effective as passive entertainment, this is an overwhelmingly forgettable attempt to start a franchise.
The movie follows an explorer who sets out on a journey across the Amazon with the help of a charming riverboat captain in search of a mythical object. It’s an old-school adventure movie, complete with wacky hijinks, quippy one-liners, and extravagant set pieces, but what holds this film back is that it all too often feels like an imitation of the classic movies whose magic it is trying to recapture.
At just under hours before credits, the film is of a pretty average length for the genre, but the pacing is really inconsistent. Although the action scenes are pretty well spread-out, the beats of the movie are very generic and predictable. There are a few scenes that showcase the cheesy, campy fun this could have been, but the film loses its steam pretty quickly.
There is also the fact that the movie has absolutely no nuance with what it is trying to say. Although the anti-misogynist message of the film had the potential to be something really powerful and inspiring, the repeated attacks against the protagonist’s gender become cumbersome after a time. And an “openly gay” moment is well-intentioned but cheaply executed.
It’s a shame, because there are a lot of individual elements that work here — they just don’t come together into the satisfying whole. The two leads could have been interesting action heroes, if only they were given a more enjoyable adventure to partake in. And had the roles of the villains been developed a bit further, they could have been memorable.
The highlight of the movie is definitely the cast, which is mostly strong. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are both charming in their roles, making the most out of the little they were given. Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti are both hamming it up as the antagonists, and provide for some of the most fun-to-watch moments in the film.
Visually, the movie is very disappointing, which is heartbreaking to say. It’s a monstrous combination of CGI and practical effects that lacks the Disney “magic”. It’s always clear that what we are watching is fake, even more so than the dated animatronics in the theme park attraction that inspired the film.
Jungle Cruise has its moments, but for the most part, it’s pretty dull. The cast is exceptional, and are clearly having fun, although they deserve more than this entirely uninspired attempt at paying homage to the classic adventure movie.
Jungle Cruise hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 29.
Review by Sean Boelman
The South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo has made a name for himself directing quirky and quiet indie dramas. His newest, In Front of Your Face, shares a lot of qualities with the rest of the filmmaker’s body of work, but the extraordinary restraint exhibited by Hong and his cast is what makes this one of his best efforts yet.
The movie follows two sisters who reunite when one of them, an actress, decides to take a meeting with a director who has been wanting to work with her for years. Like a majority of Hong’s films, the priority here is not the plot, but rather, the conversations that it enables, allowing Hong to make an interesting examination of his themes.
What so often puts off viewers about Hong’s movies is their leisurely pacing, and audiences shouldn’t expect anything different from this. It’s a film where the conflict doesn’t come from external sources, but the struggles that the characters have with their own emotions. It’s a movie that points a mirror back at reality in a way that is very effective.
This film also comes with a dose of optimism that makes it pretty lovely. This is a movie about appreciating life, which hits even harder when one realizes that Hong made this film during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from Hong’s dialogue, but only if the viewer has the patience to listen.
Admittedly, the movie could have done a lot more with the dynamic between the two sisters. The first part of the film, which explores their relationship, is less developed (and therefore less compelling) than the second half between the actress and the director. There’s still something to be gained from this portion, but it isn’t nearly as profound.
The two lead actresses, Cho Yunhee and Lee Hyeyoung, both do a great job in their roles. Given the very conversational nature of the movie, it makes sense that their acting is quite naturalistic, and the chemistry they have with one another is great. Kwon Hae-hyo is also great, although his role is much more reactionary.
Hong’s visual grammar is just as restrained as his scripting, with a very still and quiet camera. However, this gives the very effective feeling that the audience is getting a personal glimpse into something that they shouldn’t really be seeing. It’s a subtly poetic approach that will have its share of both fans and detractors.
Those who are familiar with Hong Sang-soo’s work know exactly what to expect from In Front of Your Face, and will likely be left feeling fulfilled. It’s an altogether refreshing viewing experience, and one of Hong’s best.
In Front of Your Face screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.
Review by Sean Boelman
There have been a lot of recent documentaries about the Chinese healthcare system (for obvious reasons), but what makes Ye Ye’s film H6 stand out is that it isn’t about the COVID-19 pandemic. A glimmering portrait of humanity, this is an absolutely moving work of verite filmmaking.
The movie takes a look at the patients of the No. 6 People’s hospital in Shanghai, China and their families, as they struggle to stay alive and maintain their optimism despite their seemingly bleak circumstances. It’s a highly relatable film in many regards because so many people have lived through loved ones experiencing crises.
At nearly two hours long, the movie does perhaps go on for a bit longer than it needs to. The film straddles the line of becoming monotonous in regards to how it presents these stories that feel similar to one another, but it manages to connect the audience emotionally to so many of these everyday people.
Ye Ye does set out to document a lot of individuals’ experiences in this movie, but they all serve the greater purpose of representing the collective experience of the people of China (and to an extent, the world). It’s one of those films that sets out to find empathy in the darkest of moments, and it works.
Of course, the movie hits the hardest when we see these families go through the emotional challenges of dealing with illness. Yet there is also something inspiring about seeing these people persevere through all of these challenges. Ye Ye finds the right balance between the optimistic and gritty elements of the film.
That said, the movie could have done a lot more in its commentary on the actual system. Although this was filmed right before COVID-19, it’s undeniable that audiences will be looking at this with a very different lens than it was probably created with. And the result is that it feels like it could do a bit more.
Still, Ye Ye does an excellent job creating meaning out of her heavily observational footage. It’s a very intimate movie, and the directorial approach works quite well, emphasizing the feeling that the audience is right there alongside these patients and families. Ye Ye makes something that could have felt voyeuristic and instead makes it personal.
H6 is without a doubt one of the best documentaries to come out of this year’s Festival de Cannes. Even with the changed perspective we will have on the film due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still very moving.
H6 screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.
Review by Sean Boelman
The typical festival midnight movie is not what one would generally associate with the prestigious Festival de Cannes, and so it only makes sense that the Cannes midnight section is a different breed. Like a somehow more demented version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Jean-Christophe Meurisse’s Bloody Oranges is about as messed up as they come.
The film follows a group of people whose lives intersect around a rock dance competition. There is a lot more to the story than that, but its surprises are best left unspoiled. It’s a movie designed to intentionally shock, and it will undeniably leave some viewers feeling disgusted (for better or worse), but it’s definitely a very challenging film at the least.
It does take a lot of time for the movie to get moving as all of the different pieces have to fall into place, but once they do around the one hour mark, the film is absolutely captivating from there. Most viewers will find the more graphic moments in the final act to be hard to swallow, but that’s clearly Meurisse’s point in presenting them.
There is definitely some political commentary in the movie about corruption, and this is interesting, but this takes a back seat to the two other more shocking storylines. One, about how the economy exploits the lower class, is surprisingly sorrowful, and the other, about sexual assault, packs a brutal punch.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that it doesn’t juggle all of its characters effectively. There is one storyline that is clearly dominant because it is the one that grabs the viewer’s attention most easily. This comes at the expense of the other, more subtle storylines that make up the plot.
The absolute highlight of the movie’s cast is Lilith Grasmug, who gives a performance that is absolutely energetic and angry. She commands the screen, particularly in the final act, which was undoubtedly the most challenging portion of her role. The rest of the cast, including Olivier Saladin, Lorella Cravotta, and Alexandre Steiger are all good, but this is very much Grasmug’s show.
Meurisse very successfully captures the balance that he was trying to find between the grimier aspects of the film and the glossy visual style that the movie utilizes. While it may not seem like it at first, it’s a very deliberately-crafted film that has some really interesting things going on beneath the surface.
Bloody Oranges certainly isn’t going to be for everyone, but its very aggressive approach to the midnight movie is going to find its audience. It’s certainly one of the most unique movies to debut on this year’s festival midnight circuit so far.
Bloody Oranges screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.
Review by Sean Boelman
Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa is one of those daring festival discoveries that will divide audiences that see it. Benefitting from a strong directorial vision and some exceptional commentary, this is a fascinating genre film that signals da Silveira as someone to keep an eye on in the future.
The movie follows a young woman who, along with her friends, goes out on the streets at night to punish “sinners” who do not hold up their ideal of the perfect woman. It’s a coming-of-age film under the guise of a surreal thriller, but da Silveira does a wonderful job of developing both sides of the story.
What makes da Silveira’s movie so effective is the way in which she is able to lull viewers into this world. It’s a film that exists in a reality that feels slightly alternate to the one in which we live, although somehow it still reflects the real world in the scariest of ways. With this, the viewer will feel totally immersed for the entirety of the two hour runtime.
There is a very pronounced visual style to the movie that feels very established given that this is only da Silveira’s sophomore feature. The use of color is absolutely brilliant and goes a long way in building the uncanny atmosphere on which the film is so dependent. And the way in which the more violent scenes are shot is absolutely breathtaking.
Obviously, the movie is very heavily topical in the way in which it addresses misogyny and the patriarchy. The film’s commentary on how society holds women to a double standard isn’t something that should have to be said, but it does anyway, and da Silveira does an excellent job of it. The commentary on religion isn’t quite as developed, but it’s still thought-provoking as well.
The character development in the movie is absolutely fascinating. Although the protagonist’s arc of breaking free from the bounds of a society that treats her poorly isn’t the most original, it is still very compelling. And there are plenty of memorable supporting characters, from her friends to the leaders of the community.
Mari Oliveira’s performance in the leading role is quite strong. It’s fittingly mysterious in how it presents her, more emotional depth being added to her performance as the character changes over the course of the film. And in the supporting cast, there are some gloriously hammy players that fit right in.
There are a lot of things that are impressive about Medusa, but perhaps the best thing about it is how unabashedly confident it is. Some viewers may be off-put even though this is one of the most exciting genre movies so far this year.
Medusa screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.
Review by Sean Boelman
The kidnapping thriller is a particularly prevalent subgenre because the thought of being separated so violently from a loved one is unimaginable. Teodora Mihai’s La Civil, which screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Festival de Cannes, is an entirely effective, if also straightforward, addition to the genre.
The film follows a mother who takes matters into her own hands after her teenage daughter is kidnapped and the authorities refuse to do anything about it. And while this sounds like a run-of-the-mill revenge thriller on paper, it shares more in common with a subtle drama than a movie like Taken.
In the movie’s nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, there isn’t much in the way of action, the film instead opting to build suspense through anticipation. Much of the movie’s anxiety will come from the way in which the film explores the more bureaucratic parts of dealing with a kidnapping. These may be less exciting than the action, but they are arguably even more frustrating.
There is a lot to be read into here about the incompetencies of the Latin American police system, and that is where the movie thrives. Although the main antagonists here are obviously the people who kidnapped the protagonist’s daughter, the police who are so passive are the more insurmountable obstacle.
Audiences will immediately side with the protagonist because of what she is going through, but there isn’t a ton of depth to her beyond that. It’s not a character study, but it would have been nice to have more development to the character other than her (very strong) motivation to protect her family.
That said, actress Arcelia Ramírez makes the most out of her role and delivers a genuinely brilliant performance. The level of emotion she is able to milk out of the character sells everything that the film needs to work, making up for some of the shortcomings that it has in the writing department.
Mihai attempts to utilize a visual style that is a mixture of quiet and grittier tendencies, and for the most part, it works. The directorial decisions are made to keep the viewer invested in the story for the entirety of its relatively long runtime, and it succeeds in doing so with only a few exceptions.
La Civil does fall victim to a few conventional trappings, but for the most part, it’s a riveting kidnapping thriller. Great acting and solid writing allow this to be a great entry in an overstuffed genre.
La Civil screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.