Review by Sean Boelman
With an all-star cast of cinephile favorites who have blown up over the past year, including Jacob Elordi and Ayo Edibiri, The Sweet East might be one of the most singular, esoteric debuts in recent memory. Although the film doesn’t always work, its certainly admirable, thanks to the clear ambition on display.
The movie follows a teenage girl who, after getting separated from her peers on a class trip in Washington, DC, gets her first unexpected glimpse into the real world. What starts out seeming like a pretty standard road movie evolves into something more quirky and sinister as it goes on before culminating in a finale that’s undeniably wild yet works surprisingly well in context.
In terms of what The Sweet East has to say, there’s some very sharp commentary — particularly in the first act — on the absurdity of the white supremacy movements that emerged in the fringes of American society but have become scarily mainstream. Few films on the topic have managed to so effectively convey how these disgusting individuals manage to look “normal” and could be among us.
The supporting cast has a few recognizable faces, all of whom are entirely game for the movie’s weird vibes. Simon Rex is fantastic as a white supremacist, having a duplicitous charm about him that makes the character all the more menacing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ayo Edibiri and Jeremy O. Harris are wonderfully flamboyant as idiosyncratic filmmakers, and Jacob Elordi has yet another scene-stealing turn (his third this year) as a heartthrob actor.
However, none of these performances would make much of an impact were it not for Talia Ryder’s commanding leading performance. From a scene early in the film where she sings an enchanting song into a mirror, Ryder is completely spellbinding. She is very quiet in the role but has a commanding presence nonetheless.
The transfixing nature of Ryder’s performance is further complemented by the movie’s aesthetic. Shot in 16mm, The Sweet East has a grainy, dreamy aesthetic that will remind viewers of old-school Americana, creating an interesting juxtaposition against the film’s snapshot of the modern-day alt-right.
For much of the first half, it feels like the movie is trying to be a cringe comedy — particularly as we deal with the discomfort in the relationship the protagonist forms with Rex’s white supremacist. If this wasn’t enough to alienate some viewers, others will be thrown off by an absurd turn in the second act. Those who make it through both of these tones will be on board with the film’s weird wavelength.
The Sweet East uses its warm aesthetic and charming performances to deliver a stunningly terrifying truth about our world. Although its unorthodox approach is unlikely to resonate with everyone, this is a confident debut for director Sean Price Williams and writer Nick Pinkerton.
The Sweet East hits theaters on December 1.
Review by Sean Boelman
Screenwriter Richard Curtis delivered one of the most unexpectedly iconic holiday comedies of all time in Love Actually, so cinephiles were obviously eager to see him return to the genre with Genie. Unfortunately, the film’s bland and generic nature prevents it from connecting as well as his past work.
Genie follows a workaholic man (Paapa Essiedu) who enlists the help of a genie (Melissa McCarthy) to win back his family heading into the holiday season. Curtis hopes to put a fresh spin on the tropes of the wish-fulfillment storyline and the holiday genre, but mixing these familiar beats is not enough to create a distinctive product.
It should come as no surprise to fans of Curtis’s work, but there is a maudlin sentimentality to Genie. While it’s hard not to crack a smile at the ending, even if it is overly saccharine, the rather generic storytelling does the movie no favors. Only in the third act does Curtis do anything interesting with these tropes, and by then, the first two-thirds have felt so bland that it’s hard to admire anything it does that is fresh.
In a development not new to Christmas movies whatsoever, the central themes of Genie are about the value of family and spending time together. In many ways, McCarthy’s genie is effectively the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all wrapped up into one — but the issue with the film comes in that Essiedu is no Scrooge.
The balance Curtis is trying to strike with the protagonist is complex, and he is not entirely able to pull it off. On the one hand, if you make the character too neglectful, the audience would not possibly root for him. But here, where his main transgression is working too late on his daughter’s birthday, it’s hard to see an arc of substantial growth.
McCarthy is back to being typecast again after a few roles that actually took advantage of her talents. She’s back to doing slapstick and fish-out-of-water comedy, but at least she’s not getting body-shamed anymore. The surprising highlight of this movie is Essiedu, who brings an ineffable charm to his role. There is also a surprisingly rich supporting cast, including Alan Cumming, Marc Maron, and Luis Guzmán, but none of them feels well-used — almost as if some of their subplots ended up on the cutting room floor.
Visually, the film is shot like virtually every studio comedy this side of 2000. It’s oversaturated, with festive but generic production design. However, there are some scenes that make use of CGI to create the more whimsical, magical aspects of the storyline, and these look distractingly bad.
Genie isn’t a terrible movie, but it feels strangely uninspired. Even the generally warm touch of writer Richard Curtis cannot be felt in a film that lacks much in the way of a distinct identity or fresh approach to its storytelling. In other words, this is hardly a match to Curtis’s iconic holiday hit Love Actually.
Genie streams on Peacock beginning November 22.
PLEASE DON'T DESTROY: THE TREASURE OF FOGGY MOUNTAIN -- SNL Trio Makes Feature Debut in Funny, if Forgettable Comedy
Review by Sean Boelman
Many of the best skits in the modern tenure of Saturday Night Live come from the group known as Please Don’t Destroy — who star as themselves in goofy, deadpan skits. Although their big feature debut, Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, is hardly original storytelling, it’s a funny watch thanks to their signature style of humor.
In the film, Please Don’t Destroy plays a trio of longtime friends who realize they are unhappy with their dead-end lives, inspiring them to set out on an adventure to find lost treasure that they once sought out as children. Although the adventure itself is far-fetched and not all that original, the comedy makes up for it.
The set-up is essentially three twenty-something adults who have failed to really grow up, as they go on one last adventure, learning that becoming more mature doesn’t mean giving up what makes life fun. If that emotional arc sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s the premise of virtually every comedy with a juvenile sense of humor.
The sense of humor is pretty much what any SNL fan would expect from a feature length movie made by this comedy troupe. It’s goofy and silly, but there are some great gags that will get a chuckle out of audiences. It’s definitely at its best when it leans into the usual deadpan nature of PDD’s comedy, rather than when it tries to go into more broad raunch that they could explore with the R-rating.
Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain does live or die by how much audience members enjoy the main trio of Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall. However, there is one thing that absolutely cannot be denied: they have brilliant chemistry together. If nothing else, the friendship dynamic between them should be enough to charm their way into the audience's hearts.
There’s also a surprisingly good supporting cast in The Treasure of Foggy Mountain. Of course, there are some SNL players like Bowen Yang, who probably appeared in the project because of their friendship with the PDD guys and admiration for their work, but there are some other great appearances, like Conan O’Brien in a funny supporting role, John Goodman as the narrator, and one cameo that’s ridiculous enough to be very funny.
As far as R-rated comedies go, The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is pretty standard. It would have been nice to see the film have a bit more of a distinct aesthetic. For example, if it had embraced the adventure vibe more, it could have felt more like an adult version of The Goonies. While what we get is passable, it also ends up being somewhat forgettable due to its lack of identity.
Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is unlikely to win the comedy trio over any new fans, but it will be a funny watch for those who are already a fan of the SNL writers/players. It’s a downright silly comedy, and we really don’t get enough of those anymore these days.
Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is now streaming on Peacock.
[DOC NYC 2023] SOUTH TO BLACK POWER -- Fascinating Doc About Race Focuses on the Solutions More Than the Problems
Review by Sean Boelman
Sam Pollard is beyond prolific, putting out multiple documentaries in any given year. South to Black Power, which he co-directed with Llewellyn M. Smith, is the latest in his line of documentaries to explore the important issue of race in the United States, and it’s certainly impressive in how it pulls it off.
Based on the book The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, this documentary presents author Charles M. Blow’s vision of the future, where African Americans are able to reclaim the power they rightfully deserve. A powerful call to action, the film blends personal stories with larger societal observations to make an important point about our society.
The film is built around Blow’s proposal of a “reverse Great Migration,” in which the Black people of the United States move back to the land and cultures they left behind in the post-Civil War diaspora, resetting power structures to their advantage. It’s a fascinating approach to one of our society’s most pressing problems, and while it’s not an airtight solution, it’s certainly provocative in all the best ways.
Clocking in at under an hour and thirty minutes, it would be hard to find a more efficient documentary exploring these themes in recent memory. Pollard and Smith structure the film brilliantly in a way that allows it to make its argument without ever feeling like it’s preaching or bashing the audience over their heads.
Part of what makes South to Black Power so effective is that it finds the right balance between anger, practicality, and innovation. In his exploration of this idea, Blow genuinely wants to find a solution. Yes, discussing the solution does require him to identify the problems that he is solving, but it’s primarily solutions-focused, which makes it quite refreshing.
Another interesting thing about Pollard and Smith’s approach to South to Black Power is that instead of falling back on an overabundance of talking head interviews, they take a more conversational approach. Although there are some talking heads of Blow explaining his philosophy, most of the film comprises moderated talks Blow gives or conversations he has on camera with other social scholars.
Other than that, the film is pretty much as one would expect, with some effective use of animated graphics to explain statistics and lots of fly on the wall footage to add to the emotional resonance of the movement. It’s not the most unconventional film, but Pollard and Smith are great arguers — which is exactly what this calls for.
South to Black Power is an extremely effective documentary, and goes to show that overwhelming anger is not the only way to be effectively persuasive. This documentary is fascinating, and clearly accomplishes its goal of being thought-provoking.
South to Black Power is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
[DOC NYC 2023] DAVID HOLMES: THE BOY WHO LIVED -- A Hopeful, Moving Documentary About Life After Adversity
Review by Sean Boelman
There are few franchises with as much of a lasting impact on the world as the Harry Potter series, but for some people, that impact is extremely personal. David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived tells the story of a former stuntman with a personal, tragic connection to the franchise, but in a way that does not feel exploitative or pandering whatsoever.
David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived tells the story of David Holmes, who got the job of his dreams when he was selected to be Daniel Radcliffe’s lead stunt double in the Harry Potter franchise, only for his world to come crashing down around him when he suffered a traumatic spinal injury. The film is refreshingly uncynical, feeling little need to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.
It is also surprising how non-promotional this documentary is considering that it is executive produced by Radcliffe himself and distributed by a subsidiary of the studio behind the Harry Potter movies. Although there are many points at which Holmes remembers his experiences on set fondly, it always feels authentic and never like it’s crassly taking advantage of Holmes’s trauma.
The most compelling aspect of the story is the friendship that has formed between Radcliffe and Holmes. It’s interesting to see how the friendship formed as Radcliffe idolized the older gymnast-turned-stuntman Holmes, and now how they remain in touch even after Radcliffe has become a megastar.
Of course, fans who are looking to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Harry Potter are going to be satisfied, as the first half of the film does focus on Holmes’s career before his injury. Even for those who are not fans of the Wizarding World, the documentary offers some fascinating insight into the life and work of stunt people.
Still, it is the second half of the documentary that is likely to leave the most lingering impact on the viewer. It is a story of triumph over adversity; of the hopefulness that Holmes showed despite his life changing fundamentally because of this tragic accident. The emphasis on the work Holmes has done, with the help of Radcliffe, to advocate for greater awareness around these injuries and improving the experience of survivors.
Because the film is being released by HBO, the filmmakers had access to a large library of behind-the-scenes footage from the production of the Harry Potter movies. This, combined with talking head interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage of Holmes and Radcliffe’s advocacy work allows this story to be told in a straightforward, yet consistently powerful way.
Despite the hesitancy with which one would be reasonable to approach this documentary, considering that it is being distributed by the creators of a franchise it is somewhat critical of, David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived manages to be a surprisingly no-holds-barred, moving film. What could have been a fluff piece is instead a touching, hopeful, essential movie that serves as a reminder of the power of resilience.
David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Biographical documentaries at festivals tend to be hit or miss — with the most fascinating often being the subjects you already know about. Even though Uncropped doesn’t have a household name for its subject, the stories photographer James Hamilton has to share with skilled filmmaker D.W. Young make this a hidden gem to keep an eye out for.
In the documentary, Hamilton offers a chronicle of his career, which allowed him to take pictures across different beats and on film sets across the United States and around the world. Although the documentary is a biography, Hamilton’s life and career are so extraordinary that it stands out.
On its surface, Uncropped may feel like a pretty conventional combination of archive materials — pulled from Hamilton’s extensive library of work — and talking heads. However, the talking heads here feel more conversational than those in your average documentary. Part of it is just that Young tends to interview more than one person at once, allowing a dialogue to form, but even when conducting a solo interview, he asks fantastic, engaging questions.
As is the case with many biographical documentaries, how much the viewer engages with the movie will depend on how interested they are in the subject. However, with a veritable hodgepodge of a resume and portfolio, there’s something for everyone’s interests in Uncropped. And while it is on the longer side — a little over 110 minutes — the sheer amount of stories Hamilton has to tell keeps it moving.
The portion of Uncropped that is likely to gain it the most attention is its exploration of Hamilton’s career as a stills photographer. Working on film sets for filmmakers including George A. Romero and Wes Anderson (the latter of which serves as an executive producer on this documentary), Hamilton effectively revolutionized the art of film stills. For anyone with an interest in cinema, this is sure to be utterly fascinating.
The other side of Hamilton’s career is his bout as a journalist, which is arguably even more storied than his work shooting film stills. Although it may not be the documentary’s primary focus, there is room for questions to be asked about the role journalists and the images they create play in culture and society in the portion exploring his more provocative work.
One of the most impressive things about Young’s approach is that he manages to make the movie feel quite unfussy. Many documentaries set on the art scene tend to feel somewhat pretentious and uptight, but Hamilton’s very low-key personality makes him a much more approachable subject. Yet audiences will still walk away feeling nothing but admiration for the tremendous artist Hamilton is.
Uncropped is a very well-made biographical documentary that is fascinating thanks to its subject’s tremendous career. Whether you’re coming into this looking to learn about cinema or the world of journalism, you’re sure to leave feeling absolutely satisfied.
Uncropped is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
To no one’s surprise, the cinema history documentary Merchant Ivory is likely going to be a must-see for hardcore cinephiles, but is unlikely to resonate outside of that core audience. Filmmaker Stephen Soucy takes advantage of his exceptional access to subject James Ivory, creating a focus that feels somewhat skewed at times.
The documentary tells the story of Merchant Ivory Productions, the film production company formed from the collaboration between producer Ismael Merchant and writer/director James Ivory, who together created some of the most acclaimed independent films in all of history. Fans might recognize some of their films like A Room With a View and Howards End featured throughout the documentary.
Unlike a lot of cinema documentaries, Merchant Ivory isn’t really about behind the scenes drama or gossip. Instead, it’s an ode to one of the most fruitful collaborations in film history. Sure, it does start to feel a bit like a fluff piece at times, but it’s a compelling watch for anyone who is a fan of cinema.
For a film named after such an iconic collaboration, it is somewhat frustrating how one-sided Merchant Ivory can be. It often feels like there is much more of a focus on Ivory than Merchant. Although there are a few reasons that could explain this — it could be that Merchant was a more behind-the-scenes presence compared to Ivory, or maybe it’s that Merchant passed away nearly two decades ago — it’s still not the portrait of a collaboration one might have hoped for.
However, in exploring Ivory’s story in tremendous depth, it does get to explore some aspects of his story with which viewers may not be as familiar. In particular, the aspects of the film about Ivory’s sexuality are fascinating. Although there was some discussion of this leading up to his Oscar win for the Call Me By Your Name screenplay, this documentary allows his experience as a gay man to be told from the earlier days of his career.
As one would expect, Soucy tells this story using a lot of great archive materials. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and stills to pull from, and it also seems like the filmmakers had unrestricted access to the Merchant Ivory Productions library. The result is a documentary that is sure to be catnip for cinephiles.
Merchant Ivory also offers lots of great talking heads, with Ivory himself as well as many of his former collaborators. The documentary managed to attract some bonafide A-listers with whom Ivory has worked in the past, including Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant. The only iffy thing about the film’s interviews is that Soucy inserts himself inconsistently. It’s enough to notice, but not enough to become a legitimate device.
Merchant Ivory is arguably more effective as a biography of James Ivory than as a portrait of his collaboration with longtime partner Ismael Merchant, but it’s a strong cinema history doc either way. The film knows its audience and caters to their interests.
Merchant Ivory is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Julia Child is undeniably one of the most iconic figures in the world of professional cooking, and there have been plenty of versions of her story told across film and television. Max’s Julia debuted last year to a positive reception, and the second season is now returning with more delicious behind-the-scenes drama.
The show picks up after season 1, with Child having launched the extremely successful The French Chef, traveling to France to find inspiration for her next season of the show. There’s one thing that season 2 of Julia cannot be faulted for — and that’s a lack of ambition. This season tries to take the show in several exciting new directions, but part of the issue is exactly that: it bites off more than it can chew.
Still, the show manages to carry over many of the things that people loved about the original series. With any show about cooking, viewers expect to see plenty of absolutely scrumptious shots of food, and there’s no shortage of delicious dishes to be found here. And the first half of the season, which takes place partially in France, is particularly beautiful.
As far as the story goes, it follows pretty much the beats one would expect of this arc. Julia is overwhelmed with the fame she receives from her successful first season and finds her allegiances torn between the public broadcast station, the corporate interests, and even those courting her to take her career in a different direction.
However, season 2 of Julia aims much broader and bigger when it comes to its societal themes. With topics from civil rights to birth control, it’s clear that this series wants to have something more to say. The show uses its supporting characters to explore these themes, but this comes at the expense of the trailblazing woman at the center of this story.
That being said, even if they do distract from the main storyline of Child’s character, these supporting characters are certainly compelling. For example, we get to spend a lot more time with Brittany Bradford’s producer Alice this time around, who adds a very human element to the show at several points. We also get a few new additions to the cast, like Isabella Rosselini as one of Child’s main collaborators.
And of course, Sarah Lancashire’s performance in the lead role as the eponymous chef and television personality is fantastic — maybe even better than last season. Now that she has gotten hold of the figure’s mannerisms, she can really start to add new layers of emotion to the character that she wasn’t as freely able to explore in the first batch of episodes.
Season 2 of Julia is not as strong as its first entry because it aims a bit higher than it should have. Still, when you are able to focus in on the elements that made the first season work so well — and are so charming about the show’s subject — it’s moderately enjoyable. Too bad it feels like things were just beginning to ramp up again at the end, as Max is notorious for canceling shows after their second season.
Julia streams on Max beginning November 16 with three episodes, with new episodes dropping subsequent Thursdays. All eight episodes reviewed.
[DOC NYC 2023] THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE -- A Straightforward Chronicle of an Unappreciated Figure in History
Review by Sean Boelman
The Disappearance of Shere Hite debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, and is now receiving a prime awards season release. While the documentary is worth watching for the strength of its material alone, the standard filmmaking approach is not quite as engaging as one would hope.
The movie tells the story of famed sex researcher Shere Hite, whose (in)famous book The Hite Report reinvigorated the conversation around female sexuality and pleasure. Although the title refers to the underrecognized nature of Hite’s work, the film really spends a lot of time talking about the impact she had.
Like its subject, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is largely unafraid to pull any punches when it comes to its themes. In addition to discussing sexuality in an incredibly frank way, the documentary offers a blunt (yet entirely essential) skewering of the patriarchal system that threatened to censor the work of this seminal figure.
One of the biggest issues with the documentary is that it is simply too long. Although the story being told is undeniably important, at nearly two hours in length, there’s also not much reason that it needed to be as long as this. The movie goes off on a few tangents that don’t add much to the story.
If the film does one thing well, it’s that it gives the viewer an intense admiration for its subject. However, what the movie fails to do is effectively engage with the controversy she stirred up. Although the intent seems to be to disprove the caricature many critics created of Hite, the more effective way to do so would have been to humanize the character, rather than creating a myth of her in the opposite direction.
Director Nicole Newnham’s (Crip Camp) use of archive footage in the film is very straightforward and conventional. In addition to these materials, Newnham conducts a number of talking head interviews with modern-day sexologists — who, as expected, shower effusive praise on the subject — adding context to the importance of Hite’s story.
The casting of Dakota Johnson as the narrator — speaking the words of Hite — is an inspired choice, especially considering that her role in the Fifty Shades trilogy essentially cemented her status as the modern embodiment of female sexuality. However, while she is a great, audacious choice to be the narrator, the way in which the narration is used is as conventional as the rest of the movie.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is the type of documentary whose success is carried on the merit of its subject more so than its storytelling being anything special. There’s no denying that it’s well-made, but it does feel a bit too conventional to have such an unconventional figure at its center.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Netflix is behind a number of original films from around the world, many of which fail to connect with audiences in the US. Mélanie Laurent’s action flick Wingwomen seems like it may be the exception to that rule thanks to it being elevated by strong performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Laurent herself.
The movie follows two professional thieves who want to retire, only to find themselves in over their heads when they are forced to take one last job. Narratively, Wingwomen is straightforward, following the usual tropes of the “one last job” arc — only with the mission feeling even more insignificant than usual.
Instead, what will get viewers invested in the story is the dynamic between the film’s two leads. Like virtually every other aspect of the movie, hardly anything about their arcs is original or even atypical. However, thanks in no small part to some committed performances, they’re nonetheless easy to root for.
As is likely a surprise to no one, the cast is the absolute highlight of Wingwomen. And while female-led action flicks are usually all about ogling their attractive stars, Laurent’s female lens does a great job of turning these cliches on their head. While she does not shy away from the fact that she’s cast several sex symbols (including Adèle Exarchopoulos and Isabelle Adjiani) or her own sexuality, their roles give them more of a chance to show off their acting chops than usual for the genre.
There are clearly some attempts at comedy throughout, but very few of them land. Perhaps the humor was lost in translation, but the situations are hardly ever funny, and the one-liners don’t have much wit, even when compared to some other examples of the genre. Still, despite this, the film moves along at a relatively breezy pace.
As far as made-for-streaming action movies go, Wingwomen has relatively standard choreography. Exarchopoulos does have one action sequence that impresses, but for the most part, it’s stuff we’ve seen done time and time again. It’s a mix of car chases, shootouts, and fights that, while nothing special, is typically diverting.
However, the movie does have some strong technical elements, owing to Netflix clearly putting some money into this. The CGI is solid, the editing slick, and the soundtrack energetic. The film has the right blend of stunts and visual effects to give it the feeling of a grand scale — something that so many Netflix releases have been missing these days.
Wingwomen is the type of action movie that seems like it was destined to disappear in the ranks of the Netflix library — especially outside of its home country of France. However, thanks to its strong cast that elevates it beyond its relatively plain script, it may not quite be doomed to that fate.
Wingwomen streams on Netflix beginning November 1.