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.
Review by Sean Boelman
Horror spin-offs are all the rage these days, taking characters from moderately successful horror movies and using them to create franchises. Just look at the Conjuring Universe — with several spin-offs based on the franchises’ villains. Billed as “from the world of Verónica,” Paco Plaza’s Sister Death is incredibly dull, mostly because there’s not enough material to justify this as a feature.
The film serves as a prequel to Verónica, telling the story of the blind elderly nun to whom the possessed teen turned to advice. Set nearly half a century before the events of its predecessor, Sister Death follows the character as she joins a school to teach young girls — only to experience terrifying visions of the supernatural.
Although Verónica was incredibly simplistic in terms of its narrative, it worked well because of how atmospheric and terrifying it was. Unfortunately, Sister Death is nowhere near as scary as the movie to which it owes its existence. There are some suddenly violent images throughout, but they are never particularly frightening — nor do they build to anything in a way that makes the conflict feel threatening.
It doesn’t help that the film feels like any number of convent-set horror flicks of the past many decades. Plaza deals in the same imagery you’re used to seeing in any Catholicism-inspired terror — mostly burning or bleeding Christian iconography. Jorge Guerricaechevarría’s script does nothing to add to the formula, nor does it add meaningfully to the mythos of this would-be franchise.
It’s a shame because Plaza is a skilled director, and he managed to attract some talented collaborators to work with on this project. The production design by Laia Ateca and cinematography by Daniel Fernández Abelló create some beautiful images that give the movie the potential to be visually hypnotic, but the writing is so underwhelming that it will immediately draw viewers out of the film.
Ultimately, what Sister Death is missing is a purpose. If this weren’t a streaming release destined to disappear in the sea of content on these services, one would almost accuse this of being a shameless cash grab, trying to milk something with little franchise potential into a usable IP. It truly feels like there is no reason for this movie to exist, as it tells a story in 90 minutes that Verónica managed to effectively tell in a single scene of exposition.
It’s also worth noting that movies like this are made or broken by their lead performances. Unfortunately for Sister Death, actress Aria Bedmar does not have what it takes. Of course, not all of the blame lies on her shoulders — one can’t do much with an incredibly bland and generic character — but Bedmar is simply never believable in the role. You never feel her fear, and worse yet, you never feel her faith.
All in all, Sister Death feels like nothing more than a massive waste of time. It’s easy to see that Guerricaechevarría was really grasping at straws when writing this. Although, who should really be surprised? It’s a feature length origin story about a character who only had a few minutes of screen time in a moderately acclaimed cult classic where her origin was already explained. It’s competently made, but that does not result in an experience that is even remotely satisfying.
Sister Death streams on Netflix beginning October 27.
Review by Sean Boelman
Having debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the Argentine crime dramedy The Delinquents became its country’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar. While it’s refreshing to see writer-director Rodrigo Moreno take such an unorthodox approach to its genre, the laid-back nature gives way to an air of nonchalance that is difficult to overlook.
The movie follows two bank employees whose lives are fundamentally changed after one of them becomes fed up with his monotonous life and decides to steal enough money to retire. While this may sound like the set-up to a heist movie — and to an extent, it is — this portion lasts only about a half hour, with the rest of the runtime being focused on the quiet aftermath.
Ultimately, the biggest thing working against The Delinquents is its length. Clocking in at right around three hours excluding credits, there’s really not a lot of reason for this to be as long as it is. The first hour and a half are effective, if slight, but the back half of the film meanders. Although the purpose of this more meditative is clear, it is too lacking in personality to work.
That being said, the movie does manage to give us two protagonists who are very compelling. Moreno uses parallelisms — in both the script and the editing — to connect the arcs of these two men. Part of what makes this film work is that Moreno is so effectively able to make us care about these characters individually, while also weaving the arcs together in a way that is easy to get invested in.
Both actors also give phenomenal performances. Esteban Bigliardi is the bigger standout of the two, giving a quieter, sadder turn, but Daniel Elías brings an ineffable charm to his character. Legendary character actor Germán De Silva also shines in the supporting cast in his dual role — a casting decision that is extremely bold, but pays off extremely well by adding an element of absurdity to the movie.
The Delinquents is at its best when it interrogates the system that has driven people to such feelings of hopelessness. Early in the film, one character asks “three and a half years in prison, or a lifetime in the bank,” referring to the fact that he would do less jail time for his crime than it would take to earn the money he stole legitimately. It’s an eye-opening fact that serves as the foundation for the anti-capitalist sentiments of the messaging.
All the below-the-line aspects of the movie are on point as well. The cinematography is great, with the second half being where it stands out the most aesthetically — almost making up for the fact the sense of inertness of the script in this portion. The editing is also quite strong, doing a great job of making this undeniably complex story feel simple.
The Delinquents is definitely a well-made film. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and well-written. However, there’s a disconnect — likely owing to the bloated runtime — that prevents it from ever having the impact it deserves.
The Delinquents hits theaters on October 18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Luke Gilford’s directorial debut National Anthem debuted at SXSW in the spring to almost universally positive reviews, but little fanfare. Now, it is making a reappearance on the fall circuit, and audiences are finally getting to recognize the warm, restrained beauty of this poignant drama.
National Anthem follows a construction worker who stumbles across a troupe of queer rodeo performers in his search for work, only to find something else within him in the process. Gilford’s film is the type that rewards patience. With the occasionally meandering pacing, it’s often easy to think that this could have been tightened into a short, but Gilford along with co-writers Kevin Best and David Largman Murray manage to keep adding meaningful new layers to the story.
Charlie Plummer has never been better than he is here. Plummer is known for performances that are quiet and somewhat withdrawn, and while that usually results in a feeling of awkwardness, it works perfectly in the context of the role he has here. Even in the more melodramatic beats, such as the subplot about his relationship with his mother, Plummer manages to show an incredible amount of restraint.
It’s easy to have incredibly mixed feelings about Eve Lindley’s character. Although Lindley’s performance is fantastic, the character essentially falls into the archetype of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" as the protagonist’s love interest that pushes him into his awakening. And while this trope is generally condemned for its objectification of women, the fact that the character is genderfluid does bring a unique (if not always effective) perspective.
However, the protagonist’s storyline is so compelling and nuanced that it’s hard not to be won over by the movie. Although this is essentially a coming out story, it’s refreshing to see National Anthem take such an introspective approach — where the obstacles are not homophobia or prejudice, but something much more quiet and contemplative.
Gilford clearly has such a love for this band of characters, which should not be surprising considering that in his work as a photographer, he had already gotten a chance to get a glimpse into the world of the real International Gay Rodeo Association. While Gilford easily could have painted this culture as strange and otherworldly, he presents it with an undeniable and affecting warmth.
It should also surprise no one that the feature debut of a photographer is visually stunning, but Gilford clearly has an extraordinary eye. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography beautifully captures not only the Western landscapes, but also the more surrealist sequences of the film that lend it an airy, dreamlike quality.
National Anthem is not a perfect movie, but its quaint coming out tale feels very authentic and unique. Luke Gilford is clearly a talent to watch in the director’s chair, thanks to both his command of the visual medium and his ability to get exceptional performances out of his actors.
National Anthem screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.
Review by Sean Boelman
Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania has already had one movie nominated for the Best International Film Oscar (2020’s The Man Who Sold His Skin), and hopes to be earning that honor again with another submission this year. The filmmaker’s latest effort, Four Daughters, takes a very unique approach to telling its subjects stories — an ambitious swing that pays off in its emotional resonance.
The film tells the story of a Tunisian woman and her four daughters, two of whom suddenly disappeared one day. Much of the movie is a reflection on this family and their stories, but there is the looming specter of the two eldest daughter’s disappearance hanging over the seemingly mundane affairs. Of course, there’s more to this story than it seems.
What makes Four Daughters stand out is its elements of dramatization. Although plenty of films incorporate reenactments or other staged elements, Ben Hania’s approach to this story is very different. She casts actors to represent the two missing daughters — as well as the mother in some scenes — often having them interact with the real subjects.
At first, it feels as if this device might become gimmicky, but the emotional necessity of its use soon becomes extremely obvious. Just as much as this method is about challenging the audience to perceive this story in a different light, it provides the subjects a cathartic experience to process their emotions.
What Ben Hania does best in the movie is getting the audience to identify with each of the subjects. Each of the four daughters — including the two being portrayed by actors — has a distinct personality that Ben Hania fleshes out through allowing the subjects to share anecdotes and stories. However, even more compelling is their mother, who conveys an unexpected feeling of hope — even in a time of tremendous tragedy.
The most interesting aspects of the film are those in which the subjects discuss the patriarchal society that is a big part of the Muslim culture in Tunisia. Interestingly, the subjects themselves have created a sort of matriarchal microcosm within this patriarchy, and the contrast between them having to conform to external conventions while also practicing this unorthodox family dynamic is brilliantly explored.
That being said, the movie is slightly less effective in its exploration of its themes of religion. Of course, there are more than a few times where the thematic lines are blurred because of the role that religion plays in the creation and enforcement of these patriarchal values in Tunisian society. However, in the final act, when the film makes its bleaker turn, it starts to feel much softer in its criticism.
There is obviously a lot of nuance in the situation Kaouther Ben Hania sets out to capture in her documentary Four Daughters, and her equally nuanced approach to telling this story allows her to convey it. While the movie is a tad convoluted, and perhaps doesn’t hit hard enough, it’s impossible not to admire Ben Hania’s ambition.
Four Daughters is screening at the 2023 Chicago International Film Festival, which runs October 11-22.
SILVER DOLLAR ROAD -- Raoul Peck's Latest Documentary Undermines Its Essential Story With an Uneven Approach
Review by Sean Boelman
Silver Dollar Road has everything it would have taken to be one of the top documentaries of the year — an incredible story, an acclaimed director, and themes that are on the top of the public’s consciousness. Yet, Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) struggles to cut to the heart of this story in a way that is satisfying and engaging, all too often settling for maudlin sentimentality over urgency.
Based on the article “Kicked Off the Land” by Lizzie Presser, the documentary tells the story of a family who battles to save their family’s land from land developers after they are targeted for harassment in an attempt to pressure them to move. What we see is an incredibly shocking story told through the lens of a family drama, and it doesn’t effectively contextualize this small story within its greater context.
The biggest issue with Silver Dollar Road is that Peck seemingly can’t settle on the tone he hopes to convey. Is this story supposed to be a tragic one, of a family whose plight is indicative of a massive issue in our society? Or is it a story of triumph by figures who have pushed back against authority to fight for their rights? While these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, Peck is unable to find the right mix of them to be stirring.
There are several moments in which the subjects of the film get very passionate, and unfortunately, it is in these moments of anger that it is hardest to take the movie seriously. In many of the more stressful moments of the story, their reactions feel almost performative. That’s not to belittle their experience — as their anger is absolutely justified — but it often feels like they are beating a dead horse.
The more interesting aspects of the film are those which are less overtly political, yet still have subtle undertones of anger. One of the most powerful moments deals not with the generation who had been jailed for trying to save their land, but the younger generation, who raps about the effects this oppression has on them and their family. Sequences like this pose interesting questions about the core themes of legacy and systemic racism that has persisted through generations.
The cinematography by Katie Campbell and Mayeta Clark is great, if you’re approaching it from an aesthetic sense. The shots of the North Carolina waterfront are stunning. However, the documentary’s purpose is not to show off the land, but to capture this emotional battle over it. Thus, one could argue that the glossy cinematography and sweeping, sentimental score by Alexei Aigui undermine the severity of the issue.
Other parts of the movie feel shockingly amateur — especially from a filmmaker as prolific as Peck. There are some graphics and editing choices made in the film that you would expect to see in a PBS documentary, not one by an Academy Award nominee with the backing of a major streaming service.
Silver Dollar Road is a movie that’s hard to take seriously, which is a shame, considering the potential this story had to expose injustices to which our society often turns a blind eye. Still, if the only thing that comes out of this documentary is that it inspires viewers to read more deeply into this situation and Presser’s reporting, it will have succeeded.
Silver Dollar Road hits theaters on October 13 and streams on Prime Video beginning October 20.
Review by Sean Boelman
Horror fans have learned the hard way that sometimes horror fiction doesn’t make for a great transition from the page to the screen. Dark Harvest is unlikely to satisfy those looking to get their spooky season fix, as this rural horror struggles to step out of the shadow of the much better films to which it owes its existence.
Based on the 2006 novel by Norman Partridge, the movie is set in a rural community in the 1960s, where the teen boys have an annual tradition of going on a hunt to capture a pumpkin-headed creature, only to discover that the ritual has much darker secrets afoot. The comparisons here abound — Children of the Corn, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — and therein lies the issue: it’s generic.
There is certainly some interesting imagery in the film, but even that feels largely derivative of other, better movies. For example, there are some serious Halloween III vibes to the creature design of monster Sawtooth Jack, and the greaser ‘60s aesthetic is nothing new to the genre. However, for those satiated by shallow nostalgia bait, Dark Harvest might satisfy.
It’s hard to discount some of the technical aspects of the film, like the special effects work and the costuming and production design. However, these strong visuals are often undermined by cinematography that is overly dark, aggressively digital, and often shaky. The movie is never able to feel like more than a throwback — a mere mimicry of the style it tries so hard to capture.
Also frustrating is the film’s lack of thematic depth. There is a subplot in the movie about an interracial couple that shows the potential to ask some questions about racism — especially when combined with the central theme of questioning broken generational traditions — but it doesn’t amount to much.
However, the most damning thing for the film’s success is that its characters aren’t particularly compelling. In many ways, the characters feel ripped out of young adult fiction, despite the movie being dark and often brutal to the point of being aimed more at adult audiences. Not a single character’s arc goes in an unexpected direction, making the whole affair feel annoyingly predictable.
Because it is so hard to get immersed in the film’s derivative world or shallow characters and storytelling, Dark Harvest ends up feeling unfortunately boring. The premise of a bunch of teenagers violently hunting down a pumpkin monster should lend itself to an absolutely exciting horror flick, but the movie is disappointingly bare in terms of thrills, scares, or even anything to care about.
All that is to say, it’s hard to call Dark Harvest a bad horror flick when it offers solid creature design and some pretty cool effects, but it’s not particularly interesting, either. It definitely feels like a good concept squandered by a script that’s far too derivative for its own good.
Dark Harvest hits VOD on October 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is one of the most acclaimed experimental films of all time, but unlike many breakout debuts, it did not lead to a prolific career — Reggio instead opting to take a much more patient cadence with his work. The filmmaker’s latest movie, Once Within a Time, coming out a decade after his last effort, is more accessible than one might expect, but very audacious nonetheless.
The film takes the form of a fairy tale, depicting the end of the world leading into the birth of a new one. Like his non-fiction movies, Reggio again is exploring many of the mistakes humanity has made and what must be done to correct them. Structuring a pseudo-narrative as a fable-esque fantasy is honestly a perfect fit for Reggio’s style and message.
In many ways, Once Within a Time is more accessible than your average experimental film. Sure, there’s no dialogue, and the barrage of trippy visuals the audience is subjected to is incredibly dense. However, there is also a clear sense of humor to Reggio’s latest work. Some of the imagery Reggio creates — including one homage to “The Creation of Adam” — and it ends with a Simpsons joke. Reggio is definitively operating on a different level here than with his Qatsi trilogy.
The cinematography in the movie creates a very old-school aesthetic, almost as if you are watching an early silent film, but with themes that are distinctly modern-day. Although one could argue it is gimmicky — and to an extent, it seems meant to be, playing into our understanding of the gimmick to create its effect.
Arguably even more interesting than the cinematography, though, are the other aspects of the visual design. Reggio creates the surreal world of the movie through production design and costuming in conjunction with digital effects. It’s the perfect mix of minimalism and expansiveness to capture the atmosphere that Reggio clearly intends.
Equally important to Reggio’s contributions, though, is the score by Philip Glass — which does a lot of heavy lifting in immersing the viewer in the dreamscape Reggio creates. Reggio and Glass have been longtime collaborators, and the duo together are absolute magic here, especially when Glass’s whimsical compositions are juxtaposed against Reggio’s imagery in the more futuristic elements.
One thing that stood out while watching Once Within a Time is that the pantomime is becoming a lost art. Many actors in the film give performances that are too exaggerated and over-the-top. Interestingly, the major exception to this is Mike Tyson, whose cameo fits perfectly in place. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, though, as the physicality of being an athlete might have prepared him for the physicality of a silent performance.
Once Within a Time is undeniably interesting on a formal level, and allows Godfrey Reggio to take his talents to a whole new genre and approach. It’s sometimes a bit too big and on-the-nose, but it’s quite intriguing — and likely will be even to audiences who aren’t as comfortable with experimental cinema.
Once Within a Time hits theaters on October 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
In a time when concert documentaries are receiving a bit of a resurgence, it’s exciting to see when someone tries to do something innovative with the medium — even if the ambitious swings don’t always land. A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: “Omoiyari” rides on the strength of its creator’s talent, as well as his personal connection to the material, to deliver an experience that is beautiful, if not as substantial as one would hope.
A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: “Omoiyari” follows the musician as he sets out on a journey to explore his Japanese-American identity, all the while creating the eponymous album. The documentary hopes to bridge the gap between musicophiles and history buffs, but ultimately ends up feeling more satisfying as a musical voyage than a historical one.
In many ways, Omoiyari is like a visual companion to his album of the same name. The songs are infused throughout the movie like a sonata — with breaks for the conductor (in this case, the performer/composer) to interject context for listeners about what inspired the piece and what emotions they should be feeling.
It is through these interjections that Kishi Bashi is able to explore the film’s themes, which range from timely to universal. The title, Omoiyari, is a Japanese word that represents compassion and care for others — a perfect representation of what the musician hopes to achieve with his work and advocacy.
As case studies, the movie explores some of the historical injustices committed against the Japanese people, such as the internment camps they were forced into during WWII, and connects it to more modern-day prejudices. Kishi Bashi also paints through the lens of his own identity and his family’s experience, adding a personal touch to the film. Because of all of these threads, the movie ends up feeling overstuffed.
It will likely come as no surprise to viewers that the true hero of the film is Kishi Bashi’s music. The compositions are as lovely and emotional as you’d expect, but even more impressive are the improvised pieces that the musician creates at the sites of the former camps, as a sort of emotional response to the stories he is hearing and telling.
The visuals in these sequences are also stunning, with excellent cinematography by Max Ritter and Justin Taylor Smith creating an effective juxtaposition between the beautiful musical compositions and the somber sights of the locations of so many tragedies. The incorporation of archive footage, while straightforward, is an effective addition to the storytelling.
A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: “Omoiyari” is an unrequited success in its aesthetics, even if it bites off more than it can chew in a thematic sense. Still, for those who or fans of the musician — or just appreciate good, quality music — this is definitely worth the watch.
A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: “Omoiyari” hits theaters on October 6.
[Fantastic Fest 2023] THE BOOK OF SOLUTIONS -- Michel Gondry's Surprisingly Unpretentious Film About Cinematic Pretention
Review by Sean Boelman
French filmmaker Michel Gondry is remembered fondly for directing movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but he also has a few entities in his filmography that are less well-regarded. The Book of Solutions is his response to one of those “failures” in his career, urging audiences to appreciate the process as much as the art in an unexpectedly unfussy way.
The movie follows a filmmaker who, after his producers and financiers threaten to take control of the final cut of his latest work, retreats to the countryside with his crew in tow, hoping to finish the film his way. In many ways, The Book of Solutions feels cut from a similar cloth to Be Kind Rewind — another of Gondry’s odes to scrappy, DIY filmmaking.
Gondry’s latest is a subtly funny movie. The humor isn’t the type likely to have viewers rolling in their seats with laughter, but rather, having them hold a smirk on their face for the near entirety of the runtime. That being said, there is one cameo in the second act that’s so good it will get a few solid chuckles.
It’s important to realize that the film is, in many ways, a semi-autobiographical interpretation of Gondry’s own experience while making Mood Indigo. Of course, as one would expect from the filmmaker, it’s accentuated by eccentricities and surrealism in a way that allows it to have the distinct mark of its filmmaker.
The aspect of the movie that is likely to make or break most viewers’ appreciation of it is whether they are able to get on the same wavelength as the protagonist. Some may find the stand-in for Gondry himself to be conceited and insufferable, but as with much of the filmmaker’s best work, he infuses such a deep humanity into the absurdity that it’s hard not to be won over by the end.
Pierre Niney’s performance in the lead role is quite strong, capturing both the comedic and endearing aspects of the role. Although no one in the supporting cast shines particularly brightly until the third act, that plays into the film’s thematic narrative of the protagonist thinking the world revolves around him until he realizes it doesn’t.
Compared to some of Gondry’s other work, The Book of Solutions is much tamer and less inventive on a visual level. However, there are some images that Gondry manages to create that are absolutely wonderful. The very final moments in the movie stand out as particularly whimsical in a way that will leave a lasting impact on viewers.
The Book of Solutions isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but it’s charming in its subtle humor and humanistic approach. Unlike many movies inspired by a filmmaker’s own experiences, Gondry’s feels neither too nostalgic nor blinded by rage, hitting an enjoyable sweet spot.
The Book of Solutions screened at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which ran September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.