Review by Sean Boelman
When it comes to holiday movies, Christmas is all the rage, but there are comparatively few set on Thanksgiving. And while Casey Tebo’s definitively unfestive horror-comedy Black Friday is unlikely to join the very small pantheon of classic Turkey Day flicks, it’s a good time thanks to how much fun the cast is having.
The film follows a group of toy store employees on the busiest shopping day of the year as their customers become a ravenous horde infected by an unknown parasite. In terms of story, it’s a pretty by-the-book zombie movie, but the dark sense of humor in Andy Greskoviak’s script allows it to be a good time, even if it isn’t anything original.
Like so many horror flicks that clock in at under ninety minutes, this movie feels quite rushed. But at least the film has the frenetic energy to keep up the momentum, resulting in a genuinely fun watch. However, the action-packed nature of the movie prevents many of the emotional beats from resonating as they probably should.
As one could expect, there is a strong anti-capitalist edge to the film. This is clearly making fun of the consumerist tradition of this so-called “shopping holiday”, something which ties in extremely well to the absurdity of the premise. Ultimately, there’s not a ton of emphasis on this, but it’s definitely there.
One of the issues with the movie is that the character development is so thin. All of the employees of the store are archetypes to an almost cartoonish level. Ultimately, no one is going to really care who gets killed because there’s really not much done to make the audience become invested in their stories.
That said, the entire cast does an extremely good job of playing it over-the-top in a way that makes these caricatures fun to watch. Bruce Campbell is definitely the highlight as the arrogant store manager, hamming it up as usual. And the rest of the cast, including Devon Sawa, Ivana Baquero, and Micahel Jai White are all fun.
It’s clear that this is a B-movie from its technical qualities, but there are still some really fun things going on here. The gore effects aren’t super convincing or anything, but given that the film itself is very cheesy, it fits. And as for the creature design, it’s nothing especially creative, but it’s just barely nostalgic enough to work.
Black Friday isn’t anything exceptional within the realm of horror-comedies, but it’s a good time. For those looking for a mindless watch, with a fun Bruce Campbell performance to boot, this is definitely worth checking out.
Black Friday is now in theaters and hits VOD on November 23.
Review by Sean Boelman
Although the single-take film is undeniably a gimmick, when executed well, it can result in a genuinely suspenseful thriller. Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point certainly isn’t without its flaws, but it has plenty enough strong elements to make it a worthy movie even beyond its storytelling device.
The film follows the head chef and staff of a gourmet restaurant as they prepare for an especially grueling dinner service. Ultimately, one of the issues of the movie is that it has too many moving parts in the story. And while this does contribute to a feeling of realism, it also makes it feel like the film is too busy.
As is the case with any movie that is shot in a single take, the film is limited by the constraints of playing out in real time. But unlike a lot of those movies, this never drags thanks to the fact that it keeps pushing. There is a constantly mounting feeling of tension, and while it doesn’t pay off as one would hope, it mostly works quite well.
Because of the fact that there are so many moving parts, there are also a lot of themes in play. Some of these, like the film’s exploration of accountability, are really insightful. But on the other hand, there are a lot of subplots that feel entirely underdeveloped. And the ending of the movie is about as unsubtle as they come.
The character development in the film is also a problem. It is in this regard that it becomes abundantly obvious that the movie has bitten off more than it can chew. The film does a good enough job of developing the protagonist, but he is the only character in the movie with a substantial amount of depth. The film tries to make the audience care about some of the other restaurant employees but there is not enough screen time for it to work.
This is an extraordinary showcase for lead actor Stephen Graham, who gives what is undeniably the best performance of his career. He does an exceptional job of capturing this rapid descent into madness. In the supporting cast, Jason Flemyng is also a stand-out, being very effectively hateable.
Any movie that is shot in a single take is obviously quite an impressive feat, but the thing that stands out about this is the way in which it really immerses the viewer in the restaurant setting. The production design and cinematography are very effective at ratcheting up the anxiety that the viewer will inevitably feel.
The writing of Boiling Point definitely isn’t its strongest suit, but there are a lot of really good things happening here. It’s a tense, effective thriller boosted by strong performances and strong execution.
Boiling Point is now in theaters and hits VOD on November 23.
Review by Sean Boelman
Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude is nothing if not unique, and his newest film Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is definitely one of the more unorthodox movies to come out this year. However, despite having a compelling premise, a messy (almost scattershot) structure keeps this from being more than a zany and pretentious art house film.
The movie follows a teacher who comes under fire from the local community when her personal sex tape is leaked online, causing a great deal of outrage. It’s a premise that seems opportune for some great situational comedy, but Jude almost gets too caught up in his political message for his film to be especially funny.
One of the biggest issues with the movie is that it bites off more than it can chew in a thematic sense. The main message about freedom of speech and invasion of privacy is compelling and discussed in a thought-provoking way, but there is too much else going on in the film. Jude does not let the audience lose track of the fact that this is a COVID-19 movie, but it doesn’t say that much about it that is interesting.
And then there is the pacing of the film. After getting off to an extremely (and hilariously) graphic running start, the movie devolves into a bunch of wandering for the first chapter. And the third chapter is exactly what viewers likely expected from the premise. But the second chapter is very difficult to get through, a visual essay that has little audio and tells its story only through captions.
The character development in the film shows a lot of potential, but any momentum the protagonist’s arc has is lost when the movie shifts into its less narrative format for the middle third. Had Jude focused exclusively on the central plot of the film, the result undoubtedly would have been much more intriguing.
In the final third of the movie, Katia Pascariu does an excellent job in her role, but it is frustrating to see how underutilized she is for the rest of the runtime. And the actors who play the angry mob of townspeople fighting back against the supposed obscenity are all gleefully over-the-top, fitting the satirical nature of the film.
For a movie made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the first and final third of the film are quite well-made. Although the mask wearing and social distance limit blocking and the camera, Jude still does a good job of creating isolation in the first act and entrapment in the third act. The middle portion is a whole different beast, but is technically accomplished.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is not an agreeable film by any means, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. It’s easy to admire Jude’s movie for what he was trying to do, even if one isn’t on the same wavelength as him.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
Abel Ferrara has a very eclectic filmography, with an almost auteur-like output blending the intelligence of art house fare with the trashiness of genre flicks. His newest movie, Zeros and Ones, is just as angry and confusing as one would expect, but there are enough interesting things going on here to make it worthwhile.
The film follows an American soldier who fights an unknown terrorist threat after the Vatican is blown up. And while this may sound like a relatively straightforward espionage thriller on paper, it is anything but. Like so much of Ferrara’s work, trying to follow what is happening in the story in a literal sense is futile, and the audience is better off going along for the emotional ride.
Ferrara builds an excellent atmosphere for the movie, taking advantage of the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic (although within the world of the film, the lockdown is caused by the fictional war of the plot) to allow these characters to wander through the streets of Rome, and more metaphorically, the consciousness of society.
And if audiences are looking for a clear answer as to what the movie is about, they clearly shouldn’t be watching the new Abel Ferrara film. There are messages about capitalism, the government, and of course Ferrara’s favorite: religion. As always, most of the exploration of the themes in the movie is through not-so-subtle dialogue packed with symbolism and metaphors.
Ferrara should definitely be praised for doing something unique and different with the war film. This is by no means jingoistic, which should not be surprising given the movie’s politics, nor is it the standard costs of war ethical study. Ferrara isn’t afraid to absolutely rip apart these well-established institutions.
Ethan Hawke has to play a double role in the film, and he is such a talented actor that he mostly manages to pull it off. It’s pretty clear at times that Hawke doesn’t completely understand what he’s saying — but to be fair, it’s entirely possible that Ferrara didn’t completely understand what he was writing.
Ferrara’s style is definitely fit for the COVID-19 pandemic, as the trance-like state in which so many of his narratives exist is only compounded by empty streets and forcibly awkward blocking. That said, some of the more technically-savvy portions of the narrative aren’t executed as well and have some issues with cheapness.
Zeros and Ones is closer to the type of movie that should play in art-houses, not be released straight-to-VOD like a B-movie actioner. It’s weird and not always satisfying, but very much the work of Abel Ferrara.
Zeros and Ones hits theaters and VOD on November 19.
Review by Sean Boelman
Cowboy Bebop is one of the most acclaimed anime series of all time, so the new live-action version of the series is understandably highly anticipated by fans. Although it would be impossible to live up to the quality of the original show, this is pretty great for what it is, a ton of stylish, sci-fi fun.
The series follows a group of space-bound bounty hunters who travel the galaxy hunting down dangerous criminals, as they find themselves up against larger-than-life threats. It’s a fun romp that throws us straight into this world, allowing the audience to immediately get caught up in the misadventures of Spike and the crew.
Part of what makes this show so much fun to watch is that each episode is a relatively stand-alone adventure, although they also each build towards the overall season arc. And although the Netflix release is typically conducive to binge streaming, the format of the show also allows viewers to take it at their own pace.
The main trio of the show is obviously very likable, and it is their dynamic that really drives the show. Those who are fans of the anime will already be familiar with this dysfunctional family of sorts, but the show does a great job of exploring their relationship after the first few episodes. And of course, the gallery of villains they face over the course of the season is definitely memorable.
John Cho is very charming in the lead role, but there’s not a whole lot of nuance to what he is doing. He pulls off the cocky side of the character quite well, but when the role calls for a bit more vulnerability, he doesn’t go far enough. The other highlight in the cast is Alex Hassell, who is amazingly villainous as Vicious.
The action sequences in the series do vary quite widely in quality. There are a few that are simple standoffs, and then there are others which are much more inspired. One episode, which features the heroes fighting a group of eco-terrorists, has one of the most wacky and creative sequences in any show this year.
There is definitely a goofy quality to a lot of the show’s execution, but it is fitting given the fact that the show is trying to faithfully emulate the highly-stylized anime. Some of the CGI isn’t the best, but what the show does to create this unique, futuristic world in which it is set is generally quite effective. And the opening sequence is on-point, which is a small detail, but shows just how much care was put into this.
Cowboy Bebop is exactly as much fun as fans of the original anime were hoping it would be. It may not be groundbreaking or revolutionary in any way, but as an homage to something so iconic, it delivers.
Cowboy Bebop streams on Netflix beginning November 19.
Based on a novel by Jennifer Clement, the Mexican submission for Best International Feature, Prayers for the Stolen, is sure to be one of the prime contenders for the awards. Effectively harrowing, even if its unique pacing may be off-putting to some, this is a nuanced and compelling coming-of-age story, the likes of which we don’t often see.
The film is set in a community stricken by war where young girls live under the daily threat of being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking. The central storyline of the movie is a coming-of-age arc, but it’s anything but standard, as writer-director Tatiana Huezo shows a very different perspective of what it means to grow up.
Obviously, this film offers a lot of social commentary in regards to the issue of human trafficking in Latin America, but what makes this stand out is that it as concerned with the characters as it is with what it has to say. It’s hard for a movie dealing with this issue to feel harrowing without being excessive, but this pulls it off quite well.
The way in which the film is paced is certainly very unique. It’s a ticking time bomb of a movie, and we know that it is going to explode, but when it does, it’s still soul-crushing. Huezo brilliantly builds suspense, alternating between moments of unadulterated childhood joy and the bleakness of this society dealing with human trafficking.
That said, this slower pacing can also work against the film at times. There are long stretches of the movie in which we are just watching the mundanities of life in this village, and then something devastating happens. Although there is a poignancy to these more restrained moments, the repetitiveness may exhaust some viewers.
The two young actresses who play the lead character are both superb. Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño play the younger and adolescent versions of the character, respectively, and they both embody the role brilliantly. They capture the emotional vulnerability of the character excellently.
This is Huezo’s first narrative feature as a director, and her foundations in documentary filmmaking are clear. The cinematography by Dariela Ludlow does a great job of capturing the harshness of the situation, both in reality and from the youthful, hopeful perspective of the protagonist.
Prayers for the Stolen isn’t a perfect film, but it does what it does very well. Although there are definitely a few sequences that could have spared to be tightened significantly, few audience members will be left unmoved.
Prayers for the Stolen is screening at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Documentarian Robert Greene has made several documentaries that have dealt with the intersection between artistic expression and societal issues. Procession has the potential to be something extraordinarily profound, but ends up aiming a bit too high to be able to juggle everything.
The film follows a group of survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests who come to turns with their trauma by creating short films. There have been plenty of movies to explore the idea of self-expression as a means of understanding oneself, but Greene’s approach here is extremely sympathetic and understanding.
In term of dealing with the very serious issue of sexual abuse within the church system, the film handles it very subtly. Although this is an issue that is much more widespread than one would like, Greene doesn’t treat these people merely like pieces in a puzzle, but rather, the individuals with unique traumas that they are.
This is obviously a very angry movie, particularly when it is exploring the injustices that these victims have faced and the way that the church has covered up a lot of these instances. But the feeling that dominates here is sadness, as Greene really dials in on the soul-crushing aspects of these stories.
That said, one can’t help but feel like the film tries to juggle too many perspectives. Although all six of the men have very powerful stories of recovering from their abuse, telling all of these stories together will inevitably result in audiences seeing the similarities between them, rather than the way in which their healing process is special.
It’s definitely interesting to see how these people used their art in such a constructive way, but we don’t necessarily get to see as much of it as could have been used. There seems to be just a few minutes of footage that was produced, resulting in some of it being repeated. There’s probably a reason for this, but it still feels like something is missing.
There are definitely a lot of amazing things going on in the movie behind the camera. It’s nice to see a film approaching this issue from a perspective that is less journalistic and more humanistic. As a result, Greene shoots the movie in a way that takes care to be warm and welcoming, but still can have an edge to it when necessary.
Procession is a really captivating film, and it handles its material quite sensitively. It isn’t quite as devastating as expected, but it is effective in creating a somber feeling overall and offers some profound observations.
Procession screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
This is apparently the year of the long art house drama, as the unorthodox Georgian romance What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is truly something special. Taking its simple premise and expanding upon it in a way that is ingeniously poignant and almost hypnotic in nature.
The film follows two young people who fall in love after only a pair of chance encounters, only to find that an evil spell has been cast upon them that will keep them from finding each other. Although there is certainly a supernatural element to the movie, it isn’t the focus but more of a means to an end.
It goes without question that the two-and-a-half-hour runtime will certainly try the patience of some viewers, but writer-director Aleksandre Koberidze is very deliberate with his pacing. The first act is quite funny, with its deadpan meet cutes and wandering about, but it is when the film becomes more tragic in the second act that it starts to truly resonate.
There isn’t much subtlety in the movie’s messages on love and romance, with the narration even going so far as to spell it out to the audience. Although it may not be the most thought-provoking of films, there’s still enough going on here to justify the length of the story. Koberidze doesn’t add anything new to the trope of the star-crossed lovers, but it’s a good watch nevertheless.
The character development in the movie is also quite strong. Koberidze does an excellent job of making the audience immediately sympathize with the characters because they quite literally lose everything. This gives us the necessary feeling of hope, which is what drives along the narrative.
It is always a challenge for two actors to play the same role in a single film, but the cast here absolutely pulls it off. Giorgi Bochorishvili and Giorgi Ambroladze and Ani Karseladze and Oliko Barbakadze are great duos, playing alternate versions of each other in an entirely believable way. Bochorishvili and Karseladze, who play the versions of the couple with the most screen time, are truly brilliant.
Koberidze also does an amazing job with the movie from a technical standpoint. The cinematography is excellent, using the camera in plenty of interesting ways like shooting from extreme distance or only from the knees down to create a unique emotional effect. The score by Giorgi Koberidze is also a highlight.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is an extraordinary film, making something complex and innovative out of a simple story. It’s a shame this wasn’t submitted as its country’s representative for Best International Film, because it is one of the year’s best.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.
Review by Sean Boelman
Every artist worth a damn will one day get their story told in a biographical documentary, and the late author Kurt Vonnegut is finally getting his chance with this long-gestating film. However, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is more than your average recollection of his life and career thanks to filmmakers Robert B. Weide and Don Argott’s unique approach.
On one hand, the movie does exist to tell the story of Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but beyond that, it is also an exploration of Weide’s story of befriending Vonnegut while trying to make a more standard biography about him. This creates a very interesting exploration of the relationship between art and artist.
The pacing of the film is a tad uneven, as Weide and Argott struggle to maintain the more than two-hour runtime. That said, the structure of the movie is quite fitting. Much like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Weide weaves throughout time, creating parallelisms between different points in Vonnegut’s life and work that are really fascinating.
Of course, the film doesn’t shy away from some of the more political aspects of Vonnegut’s writing. One of the more compelling portions of the movie explores how Vonnegut’s experiences in his youth would come to shape his political beliefs, which would then basically define his style of writing.
The film does an excellent job of making Vonnegut a compelling subject. Although he passed away in 2007, this movie has been in the making for decades, so there is plenty of great footage to offer his personal insight. And his personality is exactly what one would expect from the voice he expresses through his work.
At first, one may be asking why they are supposed to care about Weide’s role in this story, but by the second half of the film, he becomes an important figure. Some of the greatest insight we get into Vonnegut as a person comes not from the praise that is showered upon him by talking head interviewees, but simply seeing the interactions he has with the filmmaker and the influence he had on his life.
Weide and Argott also back up their dynamic storytelling with a nicely kinetic technique. In the many years that this movie has been in production, Weide has been able to amass an extraordinary amount of material, and this makes the film feel comprehensive even though it jumps around and seemingly misses a lot.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time does have some conventional moments, but for the most part, it’s not an average biographical documentary. It’s a great watch, regardless of how familiar you are with its subject’s work.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC film festival, which runs November 10-28.
Review by Sean Boelman
Immediately heralded as a prime contender for top awards upon its festival debut earlier this fall, it’s understandable why Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast has been winning over audiences. It’s a crowd-pleasing, heartstring-pulling drama that is an excellent showcase for its cast of five excellent actors.
The film follows a young boy growing up in Belfast, Ireland in the late 1960s as his simple life is thrown awry by the onset of the Troubles. But even though the premise may imply otherwise, this is actually a really humble and quaint coming-of-age story, partially inspired by Branagh’s own experience in his youth.
For the first twenty minutes or so, the movie gets off to a bit of a shaky start, as it seems like it is trying to be something more than it is. But once the film sets into its rhythm and sets its sights on something less ambitious, it becomes extremely charming. And at ninety-eight minutes, it’s much shorter than most prestige dramas.
Branagh definitely isn’t very subtle with his script, using some pretty obvious imagery and dialogue to get his message across about empathy and acceptance. And the message is going to be palatable for white audiences, because it isn’t about an instance of discrimination that is particularly prominent today.
Perhaps most surprising about the movie is how well Branagh gets the audience invested in the story of this family. The set-up is a tad on the generic side — a father who is constantly away working forces the mother to basically raise the kids on her own — but it’s definitely compelling and relatable.
The biggest stars in the film are Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, and Ciarán Hinds, all of whom are extremely impressive in their roles (especially Dornan, who proves he has outgrown Fifty Shades eye candy characters). But the people who really impress are Caitriona Balfe and Jude Hill. Balfe is extraordinary as the mother, giving a turn that just oozes authenticity. And Hill is surprisingly charming, especially given that this is his first acting appearance.
There are also some very strong technical elements in play here. The (mostly) black-and-white cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is absolutely gorgeous, as is the score by Van Morrison. At a few points, it begins to feel as if the style is beginning to be a bit much, but it soon gets reined back in.
Belfast is a much more low-key movie than one would expect given that it is a passion project for Branagh, and it’s all the better for it. Although there are much more groundbreaking films to have come out this year, it’s certainly charming enough to get attention.
Belfast opens in theaters on November 12.