April Films Bring May Reviews: New Release Breakdown
April Films Bring May Reviews: New Release Breakdown
The cinematic calendar is always erratic, with some months featuring a meager slate of titles while others are jam-packed with noteworthy features. April 2023 fell in the latter category. The last weekend of the month alone saw the release of five nationwide titles – a reality that imbued me with excitement and exhaustion as a film critic.
I want to take you behind the curtain for a moment. Film criticism can often be a thankless endeavor. There is no viable monetary future for most; thousands of other fantastic writers are trying to gain similar recognition, and the always-moving industry leaves little break time for those trying to stay ahead. I’ve always been conscious of this reality, but my love for the craft continues to supersede any potential pessimism.
Still, I always stumble upon one point in the year where the Hollywood Locomotive catches up with me. Every thought I try to extract hits a harsh roadblock when translating it to the page, and the sheer mass of movies hitting the market leaves me overwhelmed by even the notion of typing a review. I am sure everyone reaches this point from time to time in their work life or with a hobby. My only advice – don’t beat yourself up about it. We are not AI-programmed metronomes of consistency; it is ok to cut yourself some slack and recharge your battery. I went roughly a week without writing, which feels like a lifetime for me. Now, I am refreshed and ready to get to work!
It bums me out this occurred during April, a month loaded with intriguing titles. I cannot fathom writing my usual 600/700 words per film, so I wanted to jot down some quick thoughts on what I’ve been checking out.
Sisu – Directed by Jalmari Helander (April)
Sisu Synopsis: During the last days of World War II, a solitary prospector crosses paths with Nazis on a scorched-Earth retreat in northern Finland. When the soldiers decide to steal his gold, they quickly discover they just tangled with no ordinary miner.
A muted prospector unleashes his fury upon a callous barrage of Nazi soldiers in Sisu. Riding a tidal wave of positive momentum following its film festival run, Sisu is the type of indie breakout I love to see connecting with the masses. As for if the film actually warrants its hype, that answer is a little more complicated.
Don’t get me wrong; Sisu is a sturdy retrograde action offering. Writer/Director Jalmari Helander, synonymous with his work on spirited B-movie romps like Big Game and Rare Exports, displays a poised command of the genre. There are seldom few words uttered and a lack of grander thematic pretenses, but Helander consistently compensates through his relentless onslaught of lively action setpieces. Countless hard-hitting brawls and bullet-ridden clashes paint the screen with blood as Helander pushes his limited budgetary resources to their absolute apex. The use of practical effects feels particularly inspiring. Chucks of flesh and tactile vehicles explode on screen with more impact than most of the film’s big-budget counterparts.
I appreciate the ingenuity the writer/director showcases throughout, always finding clever avenues for further dialing up the bombastic mayhem. His instincts behind the camera are also refreshing. There is a certain simplicity in the film’s straightforward storytelling approach that fits its insular protagonist like a glove. Star Jorma Tommila works well in these confines, allowing his swaggering presence to carry the material on his shoulder.
Other aspects of Sisu leave something to be desired. Helander’s approach to violence in Sisu indulges too much in modern action movie tendencies. His shaky cam flourishes and frequent jump cuts only work to muddy up the inventive stunt work onscreen. Additionally, I can’t help feeling that the concept did not realize its full potential. The film’s embrace of barebone storytelling essentials works in telling an efficient action film, but it does little to acknowledge the intriguing subtext of its World War 2 setting.
I still found myself charmed by Sisu. It’s a no-nonsense bloodbath crafted with love and understanding of age-old action movie tenets.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (April)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Synopsis: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
A precocious teenager finds herself amidst a spiritual and adolescent awakening when moving to a new town in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Adapted from an iconic Judy Blume work, Margaret finds writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig continuing her keen insights on women coming of age (Craig crafted 2016’s Edge of Seventeen with similarly warm and personable results). Craig remains an unheralded voice, but she hopefully won’t stay that way for long. She is an essential auteur who magnifies overlooked human dynamics, with her work here inside a literary classic only proving her adept skill and understanding behind the camera.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is an utter delight. Craig captures her narrative as a yearbook of kaleidoscope memories, each effervescently shining as ordinary yet ultimately defining blips in young Margaret’s life. She faces the challenges of adjusting to a new chapter in life – making friends in her unfamiliar town, entering the unknown quandary of puberty, and coming face-to-face with her spiritual identity. This medley of personal plights could quickly become too busy in the wrong hands, but Craig weaves each chapter together seamlessly.
Her direction imbues sensitivity into these personable parables, while her sage and introspective screenplay always capture authentic truths from Margaret’s odyssey. The film’s focus on religion is particularly insightful. In a climate where most religious films prop up half-baked sentiments or cheerlead simplistic propaganda, It’s Me, Margaret features an intelligent examination of a character stuck at a crossroads between various ideologies and their faithful ideas. It’s impressive just how seamlessly these trio of arcs complement each other in creating a well-rounded portrait of Margaret and the essential influences shaping her life.
One of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’s remarkable qualities is its resonance at all periods of life. As Margaret undergoes her awkward adolescent trials, her spirited mother, Barbara, reckons with her new existence as a stay-at-home mom. There is also her loving grandmother Sylvia, who is now entering her senior years without the support of her once-nearby family. Despite Barbara and Sylvia being tertiary figures, Craig wonderfully ties them together by capturing the kinship bonding them together.
The three also come to life through remarkably lived-in performances. Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates showcase their distinctive charisma and transfixing gravity onscreen as Barbara and Sylvia (few actors dawn such a bright glow on screen like McAdams). However, it’s young newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson who truly steals the show. The actress displays poise and complexion far beyond her years as she brilliantly conveys each high and low Margaret endures.
Reflective coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, yet that does not stop Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret from standing tall above the crowded field. Equally precise and affectionate, the film easily ranks as one of 2023’s first standout offerings to date.
Big George Foreman (April)
Big George Foreman Synopsis: Fueled by an impoverished childhood, George Foreman channels his anger into becoming an Olympic Gold medalist and World Heavyweight Champion. His experiences in the ring guide him toward a new pathway as a preacher before unretiring to become the oldest champion in history.
The biopic assembly line presses forward with Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World (yes, that is the actual subheading). On paper, I see the appeal of a George Foreman feature. He is a ubiquitous figure in athletics and popular culture, defying conventional wisdom at every turn by sticking to the beat of his own personable drum. I am sure you can imagine the vast potential that could result from diving inside the gloves of the magentic icon.
Like many wayward biopics before it, Big George Foreman stumbles into the ring as a vacant shadow of its subject. The film is just as clunky as its ungainly title would suggest, striking a generic one-two punch that will leave viewers knocked out from sheer boredom.
I struggle to understand why Hollywood never learns from the countless failures of the subgenre (the past few months alone produced Sweetwater and I Wanna Dance with Somebody). Instead of potentially subverting the tired trends, Big George Foreman embraces every cliche in the book. It’s almost like the team involved studied a formula on how to produce the most soulless and sanitized film imaginable.
The screenplay is easily the most glaring weakness. Foreman’s life features many monumental moments, from breaking out on the boxing scene as an unheralded youth to a mid-career religious epiphany, not to mention his various entrepreneurial endeavors. Yet, in a misguided creative decision, Big George Foreman attempts to reflect on all of these facets across a bloated 2-hour runtime. This decision creates a film that plays out like an awkward blending of half-written Wikipedia entries, regurgitating bullet-point facts but never capturing the humanity ingrained in these experiences.
Showcasing a historical figure’s timeline is not a biopics job; the genre’s duty is to try and develop an understanding of what the person may have been thinking or feeling during those seminal periods. Unfortunately, despite Foreman’s thought-provoking quandaries with spirituality and defining a legacy from humble beginnings, I never felt that Big George Foreman offered anything other than surface-level reflections. Instead, an onslaught of sanctimonious speeches and preachy instances of hero worship serve as cheap substitutes for any meaningful shading (any wrongdoing in Foreman’s life is given minimal attention).
The great shame with Big George Foreman is there are talented people involved. Director George Tillman Jr. infused a sensitive, character-driven focus in pertinent works like The Hate U Give and Soul Food. While his competent touch guides the combative boxing scenes along, Tillman Jr. rarely imprints his voice amidst the broken screenplay and a cacophony of over-eager score choices. The performances also showcase promise. Khris Davis nails Foreman’s distinct dialect and commanding gravitas as the film’s lead, and the presence of impactful character actors, like Forrest Whitaker and John Magaro, deliver much-needed weight into the proceedings. Everyone involved displays enough talent to leave viewers wishing they were featured in a film worthy of their time.
Big George Foreman is an empathic swing-and-a-miss in its attempts to define a herculean figure. I hope the inevitable next attempt to capture Foreman’s life onscreen does so with a more impactful creative punch.
Big George Foreman is now playing in theaters.
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