After an anxiety-driven Super Tuesday and beyond, it’s time to take a look back at the movies. It’s a week with another wide variety of new releases out there, and stay tuned for more in the weeks to come. That in mind, this week’s write-ups include a bare-knuckle boxing drama, an astronaut drama, a psychological thriller about being trapped, a home invasion film with a twist, an offbeat superhero movie, a horror-thriller inspired by Misery, a Swedish romantic drama, and a coming of age story about a boy with a hairy problem. The following features reviews for Jungleland, Proxima, Kindred, The Dark and the Wicked, Mortal, Spell, Ghabe, and The True Adventures of Wolfboy.
Jungleland: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Two brothers (Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell) try to work off a debt by traveling across the country to a major prize match for bare-knuckle boxing.
Review: Here’s a good enough sports drama trapped by cliched ideas connecting it to an unneeded crime drama. Yes, the world of boxing seems to link up nicely to criminals when it comes to cinema. That’s a shame when you have a film that already feels so compelling just by the nature of the two central performances. That in mind, while these extra elements throw the film off, it’s not down for the count.
As brothers, Hunnam and O’Connell are both great here. Hunnam, in particular, gets a real chance to shine as a man who has obviously dealt with harsh times his whole life and sees ambition in his brother as a way to help him climb out of the hole he has dug for both of them. Even so, it’s this self-destructive drive, however inadvertent, that leads to bad decisions that constantly mess things up.
Not helping the cause is the presence of Sky (Jessica Barden, also very good here). She’s been forced to travel with the brothers so she can be returned to another mobster during the trip. However, O’Connell’s Lion takes somewhat of a liking to her, which has more to do with having the chance to speak with someone besides his older brother, showing that there’s more to this guy than just his fists.
There’s an interesting character play here, as we watch the brothers dig into their sincerity with one another while also dealing with outside forces trying to bring them down. Elements such as Jonathan Majors and John Cullum in small roles as the criminal element only go so far. Still, the sibling relationship, the x-factor that is Sky, and some solid filmmaking from both director Max Winkler and cinematographer Damian Garcia go a long way into making this underdog worthwhile.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters November 6, and on PVOD and digital, November 10, 2020.
Proxima: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Sarah (Eva Green), a French astronaut in training, is selected to be a part of a historic mission into space. While dealing with the arduous program as the only woman selected for this mission, Sarah begins to feel guilty over-preparing for a mission that will separate her from her daughter for a long period of time.
Review: This is another film where intention and performance succeed over the actual product, but Proxima is still quite successful overall. Working as a stripped-down drama, even when including astronauts’ rigorous training leading up to a rocket launch, the film is still a grounded drama that happens to have a majorly notable location.
The work done by Green is quite stellar, as she’s put into a position of tackling all the different stresses ranging from physical turmoil to emotional stress to contending with sexism, initially represented by the mission’s commander, Mike (Matt Dillon). Director and co-writer Alice Winocour has not made a film presenting a fantastical version of what could happen if a woman joined an all-male crew on a mission to space (there are many female astronauts), but there is an effort to dig into some core ideas as to what kinds of issues there can be.
While not without finding ways to justify its approach, one does think about what kinds of roles are being assigned to women automatically, if the film’s major challenge for Sarah is the prospect of not getting to be a mother to her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) for a period of time. Not that this would not cause anyone any issues, but there’s a very strong focus on Sarah’s family-related issues as if she’s the only one to have these kinds of problems, compared to what challenges her crewmembers face.
Now, this is a film told from her perspective, and there’s more thematically going on with the nature of this character study. Critiquing the very premise of the film will only go so far when other elements work so well. While a bit of a mixed bag of a character, Dillon does well on selling his role, balancing the line of being insufferable to Sarah and finding common ground. There’s also the sense of scope with a film like this, which needs to be about space travel, yet never actually take off. Fortunately, the film does manage to clear the skies.
Where To Watch: Available on digital and VOD, November 6, 2020.
Kindred: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Following the sudden death of her boyfriend, mother-to-be Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) is taken in by his family, only to grow paranoid that she is being monitored constantly with possible nefarious means for her and separate, higher intentions for her unborn baby.
Review: On the one hand, Lawrance delivers such a great, sympathetic, bordering-on-unhinged performance that it calls to mind Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. However, on the other hand, Kindred ends in such a maddeningly frustrating way that I’m not sure what to do here. Sure, as a lower-budget film doubling as psychological horror and a gothic piece of work, there’s a lot to admire here. Still, I wish it amounted to more.
Things get off to a strong start, as you absolutely do not want to see anything bad happen to Charlotte and her boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft). Right away, the film sets up trouble in the form of Ben’s mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), and brother Thomas (Jack Lowden). They seem ready to pounce at every moment with their creepy stares and cold deliveries. Where is this going to go?
The film’s middle act largely focuses on the building up of paranoia-turned-much-earned stress facing Charlotte, whose increasing pregnancy levels indeed call to mind the Polanski horror classic, as well as a relatable quality when it comes to feeling trapped. For this film, watching Charlotte be constantly thwarted in her attempts to simply leave the large manor Ben’s family resides would threaten to stretch credibility, were it not for the mood and circumstances that continually justify things to a certain point.
Yes, the film does need some kind of climax to better push audiences into some kind of feeling of relief. Allowing Charlotte to be clever enough to plan out certain things, only to be overwhelmed by aspects keyed more into the type of person she is, instead of what sort of hindsight allows an audience to tell her what she should be doing means the film is working. So yes, it is a shame the film doesn’t know how to properly close off this story. Not quite born to fail, but it is locked in place.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, digital, and VOD, November 6, 2020.
The Dark and the Wicked: 7 out of 10
The Setup: After returning home to care for their dying father and a mother who is breaking down mentally, two siblings (Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr.) find themselves plagued with waking nightmares. It soon becomes clear that something evil is taking over their family at their isolated farmhouse.
Review: Writer/director Bryan Bertino earned plenty of horror street cred with his 2008 home invasion thriller The Strangers. The Dark and the Wicked finds him back in similar territory, but with a twist. Rather than an anonymous but very human threat, this film presents the challenge of a malevolent force that is supernatural in nature. It can be frustrating in terms of having a lack of any clear hope, but the film is, nevertheless, effective.
Bertino is great with atmosphere. He gets that from his use of stark locations, negative space and shadows, editing rhythms, and effective use of score. That is all present in this film, and it goes a long way to create a constant level of suspense and terror. Whether it’s subtle moments like a presence in the background or something more extreme such as how one uses a knife when chopping vegetables, this film comes from someone who knows how to get the right jolts out of the audience.
Key to making this register are the unassuming performances from Ireland and Abbot Jr. We get enough to understand these two as regular folks doing their best and come to feel very sorry for their circumstances. With the idea of grief playing a large role in how the film can justify these characters’ attitudes and an interpretation of how frightening imagery is manifesting itself, there’s just enough on the mind of the film to get one past some of its slight hiccups.
The Dark and the Wicked may not be perfect, but it is brutal and efficient. At just over 90 minutes, the right amount of time is spent putting these characters through a difficult time and constantly amping it up with all sorts of horror imagery deployed effectively. Jump scares pop in at times, along with a welcome Xander Berkeley. It all makes for a solid horror experience, even if it is at the expense of some people who certainly do not seem wicked.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and VOD, November 6, 2020.
Mortal: 4 out of 10
The Setup: Based around Norse mythology, a young man, Eric (Nat Wolff), has begun harnessing his god-like powers, but while hiding out in the wilderness of Norway, he accidentally kills a teenager, leading to his arrest. While in custody, a young psychologist, Christine (Iben Akerlie), responds to Eric’s story, leading to the two of them going on the run.
Review: The crumbs of various good ideas are all in the right place for this, but whether it’s the writing, the structure, the familiarity, or just the lack of much care for Wolff’s performance, I wasn’t big on the execution of Mortal. That’s a shame too, as co-writer/director Andre Ovredal has delivered for me with the clever found-footage monster flick Troll Hunter, the very freaky Autopsy of Jane Doe, and the gateway horror film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I guess superheroes are a bit of a different beast to handle.
While not quite as egregious as Shyamalan’s Glass, perhaps it’s the way the film feels like its handling superhero origins and how to play into certain familiar conceits that give the film a vibe I’m already very familiar with. Films like Chronicle found an interesting way to bring viewers into a world in a unique way. Here, it seems like I understand where everything is going from the start.
Not helping is the character Wolff is supposed to be. He’s confused, afraid, and very powerful. He’s also taking steps towards a development that would be a lot more interesting if I haven’t seen another version of a certain Norse character in a popular series already. Again, it’s not that it’s a bad or useless concept, but there’s little here that got me excited for this version from what I am seeing.
There’s a way this could work as a fantasy adventure for a younger audience, but the choices to add a level of realism to the damage and violence Eric causes means it sits with a harsher rating and less opportunity to work as a way to appeal to a different group. The effects are fine, given the nature of the production. However, there’s only so much to enjoy in the realm of superpowered beings when the thrill of these discoveries, let alone the journey, is not that exciting.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, digital, and VOD, November 6, 2020. Available on Blu-ray, November 10, 2020.
Spell: 5 out of 10
The Setup: While attempting to fly his family to a funeral in rural Appalachia, Marquis (Omari Hardwick) crash lands his plane during a storm, only to wake up in the attic of Eloise (Loretta Devine), a traditional Hoodoo practitioner. With no clue where his family is, Marquis is desperate to leave and find them, only to be forced to remain a patient, with dark magic being used to keep him at bay.
Review: Like most of the films from this week, I walked into this one blind, only to quickly learn the idea was to make a sort-of “Black Misery.” I wish it stayed on that route. While there is strong work from Hardwick as the panicked Marquis and an against-type Devine as the “Annie Wilkes of Hoodoo culture,” so much of this film feels like it’s pushing too hard without enough happening.
The opening is quite strong. Enough is established to understand Marquis, his family, and a version of the environment they are entering into. The initial display of Devine’s Eloise and her husband Earl (John Beasley), as older characters played by familiar character actors, who then turn out to be wicked, is also a good touch. However, the film turns into this mix of mystery and body horror, with plenty of gross-out moments but little depth.
With a “big city boy” and “country folk” being at odds, one would think writer-director Mark Tonderai would have a lot to work with. Alas, perhaps the work from writer Kurt Wimmer was not as nuanced as one would hope from a white writer to capture the layered unease involving various black characters in a situation as specific as this.
As a result, while there’s a lot of suspense that’s given a refreshing look thanks to the incorporation of dark magic (not seen all that often in a mainstream-ish film with black actors), there’s a missing element robbing Spell of its power.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters, digital, and VOD.
Ghabe: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Monir (Adel Darwish), a Syrian refugee, finds romance with Moa (Nathalie Williamsdotter), a Swedish woman, while living in a cabin deep in the forest over an eventful summer.
Review: One of the best compliments I can think of in regards to Markus Castro’s Ghabe is how much the film reminded me of the films of Asghar Farhadi. That’s not to say Ghabe is on the level of the Iranian filmmaker, but the way both manage to mine drama out of circumstances related to both cultures and the human condition. While this film plays more into the forbidden romance angle, there’s also enough going on in the realm of authenticity that keeps the melodrama from overwhelming the feature.
For debut performances, the stars are not only aligned as characters but quite good as their characters. Williamsdotter finds the right balance of playing up the rebelliousness of seeking out a foreign person as a way of going against her social norm and projecting actual feelings her Moa has for Monir. Meanwhile, Darwish is pretty terrific in wearing his heart on his sleeve, letting his vulnerabilities show, and making do with the way he handles the language/culture barrier.
Only adding to all of this is the wonderful visuals seen in this Swedish environment. The lush forests and the serene lake play a large role throughout the film, and it’s great to see these areas come alive at all times of the day. That’s an especially great contrast when considering the darker times hinted at by Monir, let alone seeing things become heavier for these characters as their relationship tightens while the world around them becomes smaller.
It’s ultimately all quite essential to the nature of the film, as it tells a nice indie romance story, with added layers concerning the issues of refugees. That makes for a unique tale to tell, and the film finds the right ways to capture it.
Where To Watch: Now available on digital and VOD.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Paul (Jaeden Martell), a teenage boy with a skin condition causing him to grow werewolf-like fur all over his body, runs away from home searching for his estranged mother, so he can ideally find some answers about who he is. Along the way, he makes some friends showing him that he’s not quite alone in the world.
Review: I can see a version of this film that came out in the 90s with Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam doing what they need to for a character challenged by their identity, only to learn more about themselves thanks to the bonds formed with other supposed “outsiders.” The True Adventures of Wolfboy doesn’t have much going on in the way of distinct direction to make it all that comparable to a film by those very distinct filmmakers. However, the overall messaging of the story is still appreciated.
In terms of being a sort of coming-of-age road trip movie (with a dash of Pinocchio), there’s not much that’s unexpected here. Sure, you have a unique set of characters for Paul to interact with, but the plotting almost feels inconsequential, with an eventual finale satisfying enough (thanks to a level of messiness as opposed to easy resolution). That in mind, these stops along the way and these supporting characters’ nature ultimately help the film.
During his journey, Paul meets up with Eve Hewson’s Rose, a cycloptic trouble maker, and Sophie Giannamore’s Aristiana, a trans girl with a penchant for singing and performing. These characters are working on figuring out or assuring themselves as being the people they want to be. Paul is slowest to reaching further confidence (he begins the film wearing a ski mask in public), but the film does the work to change that.
The adult performances were also welcome, with small roles for Chloe Sevigny and a very big John Turturro, who adds some fun and some menace. Chris Messina deserves more credit than he’ll likely get, as the devotion he brings as Paul’s father is strong work (along with the subtle thought that his character would have a beard to make his son feel more comfortable).
Wolfboy’s adventure may be a familiar one as a whole, but it still ends up as a worthwhile journey. Martell has a sense of sympathy to go along with his general curiosity, which ultimately keeps us rooting for him. With an effort to play as a fantasy drama, while not a howlin’ good time, there’s good work to be found here.
Where To Watch: Now available on digital and VOD.