Review by Sean Boelman
Succession has made a name for itself as one of the greatest shows currently airing on television, and so the long-awaited third season is one of the biggest television events of 2021. This is a show that gets increasingly nuanced with each new entry, and the shifting dynamics of this new season are absolutely riveting.
Following Kendall Roy’s shocking defection from the family at the end of season two, the series follows the Roy family as they attempt to keep Waystar Royco from collapsing due to internal and external threats. It’s more of the backstabbing and cutthroat antics that fans of the show have come to love, although this time with even higher stakes.
This is inarguably the most technical season yet, as the volatile nature of relationships in the series is heightened even further. With all of the double-crossing that happens, it can become a bit difficult to keep track of who is on which side at any given point, but this is part of the charm of the series.
One of the most interesting things about this season is that it takes the characters in very different directions. Much of the first two seasons is the audience loving to hate the family members (with the exception of Cousin Greg, who is just outright lovable), but this season adds a lot more depth to them.
Kendall, for example, has been one of the least sympathetic characters in the show, but these new episodes turn him into a sort of antihero. Although the whininess and privilege that has always been a fundamental part of his character is still there, this goes deeper into his scars and how they made him who he is.
Other characters that get really interesting arcs include Cousin Greg, Tom, and Shiv. Likely in response to how well-received the character has been by fans and critics, Cousin Greg’s role this season is significantly expanded. He’s gone from being a humorous side character to a significant player in this civil war, which is a welcome change.
Jeremy Strong is at his best yet in his role, bringing even more nuance than he did in his Emmy-winning turn last season. Fan-favorite Nicholas Braun is certainly a standout here, giving a performance that is a shit ton of fun to watch. And the rest of the family — Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, and Alan Ruck — are all great as well. New cameos this season include Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgård, both of whom are memorable.
In what will be a surprise to absolutely no one, this new season of Succession is absolutely exceptional. Although this won’t win over many converts, it’s a brilliant continuation of what has already come from the series to this point.
Succession premieres on HBO on October 17 at 9pm ET/PT with new episodes airing subsequent Sundays. Seven out of nine episodes reviewed.
Review by Sean Boelman
The A24 brand has become associated with a certain type of film — artful, yet straightforward with its symbolism, and defined by a characteristic indie quirkiness. More often than not, the results are successful, but there are misfires like Lamb which take the formula and add little to it, making it a frustratingly one-note experience.
The movie follows a childless couple living an isolated life on their farm in Iceland when an unusual newborn enters their life, bringing them happiness before later threatening to rip it away. It’s an undeniably intriguing concept, and the film should be praised for finding that balance between approaching it with a straight face and not taking itself overly seriously, but in the end, it does very little with it.
As one can expect, this is a slow burn psychodrama, and the pacing can be a bit taxing at times. There is definitely some humor to be found in watching these people rear this unusual child, but its novelty wears thin at a certain point and there’s just not enough tension to give it momentum. The payoff is oddly satisfying, but the journey to get there is very uneven.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it doesn’t have much subtlety with its themes. This is obviously a film about parenthood, and while there thankfully isn’t a whole lot of exposition (in fact, the movie doesn’t have much dialogue in the first place), the script doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.
That said, the writers did a pretty solid job with the character work. The main couple are both very compelling. The mother figure is a bit more developed than her male counterpart, which makes sense given the film’s “mother nature” motif, but both of them have strong emotional arcs.
Noomi Rapace gives a very solid performance as the lead of the movie, bringing a lot of emotion to a role that easily could have leaned into the ridiculous. Hilmir Snær Guðnason provides an excellent foil to her, with a little less depth but still selling his role. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson rounds out the main cast well.
The film is definitely very impressive from a technical standpoint, but one should expect no less. The cinematography is gorgeous and utilizes the cold, foggy Icelandic settings quite well. And the integration of the titular creature into the visuals of the movie is effective and never distracting, selling the film where the story doesn’t.
Lamb is made to appeal to a certain audience, and those people will absolutely eat it up. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s a lot more shallow than it lets on and would have been much more effective had it embraced its simplicity.
Lamb is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
With the second season of Ted Lasso having just come to an end, everyone is high on Jason Sudekis right now, and so the timing of South of Heaven is absolutely perfect. A fun, if straightforward thriller, this film rides on the strength of its central performances to have an emotional impact.
The movie follows a recently released ex-convict who, on early parole and hoping to spend time with his ailing childhood sweetheart, finds himself unintentionally drawn back into his life of crime. Everything about the film’s story is overwhelmingly familiar, but it works thanks to the unexpected empathy it has.
Clocking in right at two hours in length, the movie is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but it never drags. In fact, the film can almost be cleanly divided into two halves: the first, a pretty predictable blue collar crime saga, and the second, a blend of revenge thriller and dark comedy. And yet, despite the script being so busy, it manages to work.
The themes in the movie about redemption are nothing new. The protagonist’s journey is to right his wrongs against the world by making things right for the woman he loves. It’s a sweet and heartwarming arc, albeit one that doesn’t offer much in the way of originality. The fact that the antagonist even has an arc is refreshing, although it still feels like an afterthought.
Sudekis, much like the roles he has gotten so much notoriety for in recent years, proves here that he is able to blend dramatic and comedic elements extremely well. However, even though his performance is great, the supporting cast is even better. Evangeline Lilly is surprisingly nuanced as the love interest, Shea Wigham is wonderfully exaggerated as the secondary antagonist, and Mike Colter is exceptional as the big baddie.
That is why it is disappointing that all of this great work is weighed down by a conventional crime story. A lazy MacGuffin of a lost bundle of money almost delegitimizes the genuine emotion around which the film is built. This is especially the case as the motivations in the second and third act become more generic.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is mostly solid. Aharon Keshales has created a competent neo-Western with some solid cinematography. There aren’t any images that are particularly striking or lingering, but the short bursts of violence in the film are very effective and shocking in the moment.
South of Heaven would be a forgettable B-movie thriller were it not for above average character development and some really strong performances. It’s the right combination of things coming together to deliver a satisfying watch.
South of Heaven is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Ascension is an observational documentary from director Jessica Kingdon. This film marks her feature documentary debut as a director. It had its premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival where it won the award for Best Documentary Feature. While it has some great footage and vignettes to communicate its core ideas, it feels like it lacks the substance to truly say anything profound about China in a modern and industrial age.
In this documentary, Kingdon tells the story of the “Chinese Dream”. Through footage of China’s economic landscape through various social classes, she aims to explore what this dream is and how it fits into a modern context. It’s an interesting premise that isn’t explored often and can be very timely, but the film unfortunately doesn’t do much to deeply explore the implications of its premise.
First and foremost, the footage is almost entirely well shot and composed. It’s dynamic footage that has a lot of kinetic energy to keep viewers engaged throughout despite the lack of guidance. It’s very similar in feeling and style as Users, another 2021 observational documentary. Much like that film, Ascension relies on a lot of viewer participation to piece together its themes and ideas. While this is interesting in theory, it doesn’t work out especially well in practice.
One of the things that was surprising about this movie was how Kingdon used this extensive footage to show how foreign the Chinese dream is to a westerner while simultaneously making this footage feel globally relevant. It also cleverly uses Chinese social class to structure its abstract narrative. These are some areas in which I feel the observational nature of the film limited its ability to deliver sharp and insightful commentary on the current state of China’s industry.
We see a country that values innovation and productivity as a means to an end. The film bombards you with imagery of life outside and inside work that are all so directly influenced by the modern nature of their economy. Does the film ever really discover a concrete answer as to what the “Chinese Dream” is all about? Not quite, but it does attempt to use its vignettes and execution to give you a better understanding than when you started the film.
Ascension has strong roots and some beautiful footage, but it often lacks in terms of execution. It’s one of the more complex observational documentaries I’ve seen, and it’s one that may speak to certain crowds more than others. While it may not take full advantage of its premise, it’s a unique calling card for Kingdon’s visual style as a documentary filmmaker.
Ascension is in theaters October 8.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
National Geographic Documentary Films have done various kinds of nonfiction films in the past, from animal docs to adventure docs. This time they are doing a real-life rescue doc. This is a life and death situation that they are filming. This situation was all over the news and the whole world was watching. The filmmakers, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, are the same people that made Free Solo, the Academy Award-Winning doc from 2018.
The film takes place in Mai Sai, Thailand. It's about the Tham Luang cave rescue. A Thai soccer team consisting of 12 boys and their coach go exploring in a cave system and get stuck there due to flooding waters that start to fill up the cave system. They were there for 20 hours before anybody even noticed they were gone. The ages of the boys range from 11-16 years. Thai authorities bring in the Thai Navy Seals and Vern Unsworth, a consultant on cave exploration in Thailand.
The authorities reached out to the world's best cave divers to come in and help during this difficult situation. These were normal guys that cave-dived on the weekends. One was an electrician, another a doctor, but they all jumped at the chance to help when called upon. Once they arrived, they went right to work, trying to figure out how to rescue these boys and their coach. The first step was to see if they were still alive. That was a feat in and of itself. The Thai Navy seals were a bit suspicious about the rescue and backed out to the third chamber. They wouldn't go any further. So it was up to the British divers to figure out how to save these young people and their coach.
This whole cave system had a claustrophobic nature to it. The waters were swiftly filling up the system because this was monsoon season in Thailand. This made this rescue an uncertain circumstance because the cave will fill up with water and everybody will die. This film is a life and death drama before the eyes of everybody and it was done masterfully. The camera work was exquisitely pieced together. The editing was superb. The talking heads ranging from a wife of a Thai Marine to the actual British divers brought a serious yet somber nature to every word they spoke.
The filmmakers added some interesting touches to the film to add information to the viewers. Animatics helped to give the people watching a better view of the cave system and how the various rescue scenarios were going to unfold. This was a very good idea as far as the filming of this situation goes. Mixing all these different techniques helped make this film one of the best docs of this year and a sure-fire contender for the Academy Award nomination come awards season.
Great documentaries keep the viewers engaged throughout due to the story and of those depicted within the said film. This was a film about the survival of young people and it was all over the world's stage on various news outlets. The actual footage from the rescue was used superbly by the filmmakers. The Rescue was about the harrowing rescue that captured the world's attention and it lived up to the actual situation.
The Rescue hits theaters on October 8.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Mass was the breakout hit of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s abundantly clear almost instantly why that is the case. It is the feature directorial debut of actor Fran Kranz, who assembled an extremely talented ensemble for his first outing. This is a masterfully acted drama that tackles thematically heavy subjects with sensitivity, diving into the raw emotions of pain that persist long after tragedy.
In the aftermath of a tragic school shooting, two sets of parents come together to process their emotions and heal. Jay and Gail lost their son in the aforementioned school shooting, and Richard and Linda are the parents of the perpetrator. Over the course of the movie, the parents sit in a room together in an attempt to come to grips with their reality. This is a complex and heartbreaking premise that isn’t restricted by its single setting and allows for some great dialogue.
The script, written by Kranz, is absolutely masterful. The dialogue is so fleshed out and natural in the most brutal ways. It captures a wide range of emotions in this real-time story, and it never once looses steam. All the transitions between emotions are so delicately and expertly executed, and the dialogue is nothing short of brilliant. It’s full of great insights into the minds of all the characters, and it is genuinely gut-wrenching in all of the best ways.
While Kranz’s script is excellent, a lot of credit must be given to the near-perfect ensemble. This film stars Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney who all give career-best performances. The script provides an exceptional framework, but it’s their delivery and acting that truly elevate this film into a modern classic. Their grief, pain, joy, and catharsis are palpable, and they might bring you to tears if you let them.
One of the most surprising parts of this movie is how it’s depoliticized yet still so timely. It doesn’t feel biased in its views on important issues, and the movie makes it a point early on not to center its premise on any politics. This decision truly allows the viewers to focus solely on the emotions of these characters and the unique and unimaginable journey they have been on.
This is a difficult watch, and it surely isn’t for everyone. However, it’s one of the most well-made, dialogue-driven dramas in a very long time. Everyone is in complete control of their craft, and it makes this a harrowing and emotional thrill ride that stands out as one of the crowning achievements in filmmaking this year.
With its PG-13 rating, this movie is accessibly to many viewers, and it fosters a lot of discussion about its relevant themes and difficult topics. As a whole, this film is a testament to the abilities of its ensemble as well as being one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the decade so far. It’s a must-see film that will tear you apart before putting you back together again.
Mass is one of those rare perfect films. It’s a movie that grips you immediately and doesn’t loosen up. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of grief unlike anything ever seen before. Isaacs, Plimpton, Dowd, and Birney do amazing things on screen all thanks to the great script and direction of Kranz.
Mass is in theaters October 8.
Review by Sean Boelman
The V/H/S franchise is one of the biggest franchises among the cult audience that loves anthology horror, and the newest entry, V/H/S/94, has just what it will take to revitalize the series after a seven-year hiatus. Lots of fun and surprisingly consistent between its segments, this is a good start to Shudder’s October content.
Like the rest of the franchise, the film is presented as a series of found footage VHS tapes connected by a framing narrative. In this case, it’s a police raid investigating a cult documenting their horrific exploits on these tapes. Though the fragmented and rushed nature of this story keeps it from making much sense, the high-intensity direction from Jennifer Reeder heightens the viewer’s anxiety quite well.
The first segment, Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain”, sets the tone of what we are about to see. It’s an absurd, frequently scary, and occasionally funny monster movie, and it’s probably the most fun of the bunch. Out of the four main shorts, this one seems to take itself the least seriously, and as a result, falsely earns the viewer’s trust before scaring the hell out of them in the last few minutes.
Simon Barrett’s contribution, “The Empty Wake”, is arguably the most traditionally good segment. It is the only one that would likely work well on its own, as it is a simple yet well-executed chiller. That being said, it is also the least dynamic of the bunch, and it is obvious where it is heading from the start.
The only foreign language entry in the group, Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject”, seems to be the one that will get the most fans. Absolutely blood-soaked from the moment it starts, this is the type of wild horror filmmaking that a lot of people have come to associate with the anthology medium.
“Terror”, directed by Ryan Prows, wouldn’t have been a bad entry had it come in the middle of the movie, but as the finale, it’s a tad underwhelming. A satirical horror-comedy, it definitely has its merits, yet both within the segment and as a conclusion to the anthology, it is rather anticlimactic. It would have been much more opportune for “The Subject” to get this prime spot.
As a whole, the ‘90s aesthetic of the film works pretty well. It’s always clear that these are retro movies made to feel like they were made nearly two decades ago — none of the filmmakers do a great enough job to make their work feel actually ripped out of the ‘90s — but given the popularity of retro horror, it’s fun for what it is.
V/H/S/94 is one of the better anthology movies to come out recently thanks to some strong directors making some legitimately enjoyable segments. Although one bit is slightly weaker than the others, it’s a good time all-around for horror fans.
V/H/S/94 streams on Shudder beginning October 6.
THERE'S SOMEONE INSIDE YOUR HOUSE -- A Horror Film That Deals in Familiarity but Stays Fresh and Original
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Home invasion films and teen horror films are popular genres within horror. Both of them tend to be pretty formulaic. Combining these two subgenres of the horror genre can be an interesting way to write/direct a movie. Netflix is in the horror game this month leading into Halloween. There's Someone Inside Your House is another one of their original horror movies for October.
Sydney Park plays a young girl who moved to Nebraska from Hawaii to live with her ailing grandmother. She hangs with the odd kids in school that pretty much run the gambit of all possible races, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations. When some murders start to happen of kids that are standouts in sports and academics, she and her friends are caught in the middle. Evidence left at the crime scenes makes things more confusing for authorities to uncover the truth.
All of these kids in this rural area of Nebraska have secrets they keep and are trying to hide from their friends and family members. This community of seemingly regular high school kids has more to be ashamed of than any of them can fathom. Can anybody figure out the connection to the killer before they all die? That is the question. Produced by James Wan and Shawn Levy, their horror backgrounds have nurtured this straightforward horror film that combined multiple subgenres of horror.
This film has the usual horror movie tropes such as the weird kid that everyone thinks is the killer. It has family members that have motives to kill the kids as well. Law enforcement officers are no closer to finding the truth than they are at looking at their own suspicious family members for the killings. Nebraska and high school are the two perfect settings for this murder mystery.
The cast is full of relative nobodies but they are adequate in portraying the various roles they've been cast in. Director Patrick Brice has dabbled in the horror genre before with Creep and its sequel. He has the sensibilities to steer this film in the direction it needs to go. The camera work is also very professional as well. He adds nice editing to keep the scenes fast and fresh.
This has a score that keeps the viewers on their feet as well, especially during the more violent scenes. It creates a somber, dark tone that is needed in this kind of setting of the film. The script is pretty much straight to the punch but also weaves in the details of the various teens' secrets and backstories. This can be a bit misleading at times but brings out the truth of the motivations of who these kids really are.
Despite this film treading familiar ground, it has a very modern and up-to-date feel to it. It takes horror tropes and subgenres and combines them to create an interesting genre picture all its own. Lead by producers Wan and Levy, Brice and company keep the viewers guessing right up until the final knife blow is struck. As a horror fan that doesn't get surprised by anything I see in horror movies, this film was a pleasant surprise. Netflix is knocking it out of the park with their horror-themed month of films and mini-series.
There's Someone Inside Your House streams on Netflix beginning October 6.
Review by Sean Boelman
(L to R) Chloë Grace Moretz as the voice of Wednesday Addams, Charlize Theron as the voice of Morticia Addams, Oscar Isaac as the voice of Gomez Addams, and Javon Walton as the voice of Pugsley Addams in THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2, directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.
2019’s The Addams Family was a surprise hit, making over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office, so it’s no surprise that a sequel was greenlit quickly. However, unlike most animated films that were rushed into production, The Addams Family 2 is quite watchable, as there is genuinely some charm to be found even if everything is by the book.
The movie follows the eponymous altogether ooky family as they set out on a road trip in an attempt to renew their connection with one another when they are suddenly threatened to be torn apart. Whereas the 2019 film was pretty much a bunch of Addams hijinks, this has a much more structured plot, with a road movie first half and what is effectively a superhero movie finale.
The pacing of both of these movies is very off because it seems like the storytelling is constructed more out of an obligation to hit all of the beats than a natural flow. As such, the hour-and-a-half runtime feels stuffed to the brim with content. That may not be a bad thing for young kids with short attention spans, but even the older single-digits may find this to be a bit too hyperactive to be its own good.
As is always the case with the franchise, the main message here is about being oneself and embracing what makes you unique, but this film takes it to a deeper emotional level. The movie explores the idea of changing one’s family, and while it doesn’t go into much depth (and one shouldn’t expect it to), it’s a very sweet thought.
(L to R) Chloë Grace Moretz as the voice of Wednesday Addams, Oscar Isaac as the voice of Gomez Addams, Charlize Theron as the voice of Morticia Addams, Nick Kroll as the voice of Uncle Fester, Javon Walton as the voice of Pugsley Addams, and Conrad Vernon as the voice of Lurch in THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2, directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.
The character development in the film is heavily lopsided. Wednesday is the only character in the movie who has much of an arc, but with this large of an ensemble and such a short runtime, there isn’t much room for each character to shine. The antagonist of the film is very cliched, though, and ultimately could have been cut out entirely.
Most of the cast of the first movie returned, with the exception of Finn Wolfhard, who is replaced by Javon Walton as Pugsley. This substitution isn’t very distracting, and Walton gives a very average performance. It can be hard to recognize some of the very famous actors giving voice performances here, as they are speaking so heavily in character, but Nick Kroll and Oscar Isaac are definitely the highlights.
The animation style here still isn’t great. It looks like cheap 3D computer animation, which is made even worse by the fact that the gap between the release of the first and second films is a mere two years. It’s a shame because the older versions of this franchise are so visually fun, and this feels very indistinct.
The Addams Family 2 isn’t a great animated movie, although it is ever so slightly an improvement over its predecessor. It’s the type of family movie that is made primarily with younger kids in mind, and will leave most other viewers feeling very neutral towards it.
The Addams Family 2 is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Sean Boelman
After The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special was embraced by fans of the series, it only makes sense that Disney+ would release another themed special. LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales, supposedly a “Halloween special”, loses track of what made its predecessor work so well and instead offers a few amusing non-canon anecdotes.
The special follows Poe Dameron and BB-8 as they hear stories of the history of the Sith and must fight to prevent an ancient evil from rising up. Although this is meant to be festive for the Halloween season, it’s equivalent to people standing around a campfire and telling scary stories (although not too scary, because this is made for a TV-G audience).
Perhaps the biggest issue with this special is that it tries to do too much in too little time. It crams in three separate, albeit thematically connected stories, into a runtime of less than forty-five minutes. And while everything is tied together nicely, if obviously, by the end, it still feels rushed and underdeveloped.
On top of that, there is a central story in which Poe has to save the day with the help of his friends, and it seems to be out of necessity to tie the stories together more than anything else. It’s a very simple storyline that feels like an afterthought, and it has just as little consequence as one would expect.
There is a new young character introduced in the special, and he sadly isn’t particularly memorable. It was an interesting choice for them to choose to go with Poe Dameron as the hero as opposed to one of the more A-list characters of the sequel trilogy, and while Oscar Isaac’s version of the character could have carried his own, Jake Green’s sadly cannot.
Something else that is missing in this one compared to the Holiday Special is notable cameos. There are no major names returning from the live-action series, with dedicated voice actors making up much of the cast. In prominent supporting roles are Tony Hale, Christian Slater, and Dana Snyder, and they all do well, but it doesn’t have that star power.
The quality of the animation is mostly strong, at the same level that the LEGO specials always are. It definitely feels as if we are in a brick-ified version of a galaxy far, far away. And while the substitutions in voice actors are distracting and make it obvious that what we are watching doesn’t have the same blockbuster budget, it tries its best to accommodate for this.
LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales is fun for what it is, although it will ultimately be mostly forgettable. Young padawans will definitely want to check it out, but don’t expect it to join your yearly Halloween rotation.
LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales is now streaming on Disney+.