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Vengeance Review | B.J. Novak Goes from the Fire Guy to the Podcast Guy in Brilliant Directorial Debut

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Original films do live on! With Nope topping the box office charts last week with a $44 million domestic debut — the highest for an original film since Peele’s last film, Us — it’s proof that original films do have a home in the age of blockbusters and tentpole films galore. Now, B.J. Novak, who my generation may know as Ryan from The Office as a result of all of the rewatches that we did when the series was on Netflix, makes his directorial debut with Vengeance, a unique mystery-comedy film with a millennial twist that puts Novak’s brilliant mind and writing at the forefront.

Ben is a writer for The New York — em, sorry — The New Yorker magazine but longs to be more than just a writer; though Issa Rae — who plays his podcast editor — suggests he speak more from the heart than his brain. Ben wants to be a voice, and what better way to do that than starting what all white men in New York City have: A podcast? After all, Ben has lucked into a situation with the “Holy Grail” of podcasts: A dead white girl.

(L to R) Clint Obenchain as Crawl, B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz, and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in VENGEANCE, directed and written by B.J. Novak, released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret/Focus Features

After one of his (presumably) many hookups, Ben receives “the worst phone call you’re gonna get in your life” from the brother of a former hookup — Abilene (Lio Tipton) — who was found dead. Her brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), gets Ben to travel to a rural Texas town for Abilene’s funeral where Ben is roped into giving a speech at the funeral that only Michael Scott could make more cringey as he has to scramble to come up with a moving speech (luckily, his natural knack for writing bails him out). But the trip doesn’t stop there, as Ty also convinces Ben to go full Pattinson Batman and seek vengeance with him and believes Abilene was murdered; thus kicking off the film’s adventure as Ben chronicles this journey through his voice memos app for a true crime podcast series.

If you’ve ever read B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories, One More Thing, you’ll know that Novak is somewhat of a philosopher himself. That carries over to his character in Vengeance, Ben. Opening at a New York City house party, Ben, who’s the “our conversation should be a podcast” guy, and his friend are sharing lines like “people like cookie dough because it’s unfinished; it can be anything,” while scouting out a part full of “infinite possibilities.” You’d probably just ignore a guy like Ben at a bar, but when the film is centered around him, you’ve got no choice but to go along with him.

(L to R) Isabella Amara as Paris Shaw, Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw, Louanne Stephens as Granny Carole, and Eli Abrams Bickel as El Stupido in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

But for as obnoxious as Novak’s character may seem on the surface, it’s a character that suits Novak as well as the plaid button-downs that he wears in the middle of West Texas. Ben really is the exemplification of a northerner that sticks out like a sour thumb anywhere south of the east coast (trust me, I spent my freshman year of college down south). He’s not looking for Chinese food like Pesci and Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, opting for WiFi passwords instead. Like your average millennial, Ben isn’t going to get his hands dirty. As he tells Ty, he doesn’t usually opt for vengeance when someone he knows dies. Fair enough, but that means he uses the second-most powerful tool in 2022: A podcast. The best way I can describe it is that Novak has written himself a character that perfectly combines the charming neuroticism of a Woody Allen-written character and the spirit of a millennial.

While Novak is great in the lead, a special shoutout is deserved for scene-stealer Ashton Kutcher, who plays Quentin Sellers, a record producer in West Texas. And while he seems cool as a cucumber and like a guy who just goes with the flow on the surface, he delivers some of the film’s best dialogue opposite of Novak and his final monologue will send chills down your spine. He’s the one who brings the film’s motifs full circle, and while the choice made with his character in the third act wouldn’t have been my first choice, you have to respect the choice coming from Novak.

(L to R) Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

Boyd Holbrook plays ‘Abilene’s brother, Ty. This is a far cry from Holbrook’s villainous turn in Logan, but this heightened burlesque portrait of a stereotypical American is the target of many (simple, yet effective jokes). On most occasions, Ty and his whole family (and perhaps all of West Texas for that matter) are painted to be bigoted, ignorant, racists. Whether it be the time when Ty says that Ben looks like a character from Schindler’s List or the racial profiling that he does when accusing someone of Abeliene’s murder, there are lines in the film that’ll make you cringe in 2022. Sure, many of Vengeance”s jokes can be boiled down to the Texans being painted as gun-loving racists, but sometimes simple is effective and it’s best not to overwrite these jokes.

Writer/director B.J. Novak on the set of VENGEANCE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

Above all else, Vengeance is a movie about audience expectations. Not everything is what it seems, and Ben discovers this as he continues getting deeper into the weeds on this assignment. Vengeance begs the question of the motives of people like Ben: Is he really trying to help the family of a woman he went out with, or is this for his own good? Because at the end of the day, do we, the audience, really care about the victim and the collateral damage it causes to a family? It’s a fascinating question that bleeds into our current age where true crime series are all of the rage and where everyone has a take on social media.

A potential misconception about Vengeance is that it’s a murder-comedy in the vein of Knives Out. Like the expectations just talked about, it’s important to recognize that Vengeance is a comedy that really dips its toes into various genres. Maybe Novak’s writing style or humor takes a bit of time to adjust to, so I would recommend reading even a small portion of Novak’s collection of short stories; it’ll help get your understanding of the writing and comedy of Vengeance far better than I can. Even still, Novak is a brilliant writer and could have a promising future ahead as a filmmaker. 1970s Woody Allen has his fingerprints all over Vengeance, a stellar, or dare I say, fire, directorial debut from the “fire guy” himself, B.J. Novak.


Focus Features will release Vengeance on July 29.

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Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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Review | The Final Serve: ‘Federer: Twelve Final Days’ Offers an Intimate Look at a Tennis Great’s Goodbye

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Federer_Roger
Roger Federer in a still from 'FEDERER: TWELVE FINAL DAYS' (Prime Video)

We have seen a lot of legendary players in the game of Tennis, but only a few have ever matched the charisma of Roger Federer. Apart from winning Grand Slam tournaments, he went on to win people’s hearts every time he stepped inside the court for a game. However, when the Swiss Tennis great announced that he would be taking retirement from the sport, everyone felt it and knew that one of the greatest Tennis players of all time was bidding farewell to the game that he loved so much. So, in the final 12 days of Federer being a Tennis star, directors Asis Kapadia and Joe Sabia followed the sporting icon and witnessed how Federer prepared himself for his last set of matches. Now, the moments captured by the duo have been turned into a documentary called ‘FEDERER: TWELVE FINAL DAYS’ in which fans get to see how the legend said goodbye to the game of Tennis.

(Photo Credit: Prime Video)

From the very beginning, you get to know that you are going to see something special. One of the documentary’s greatest strengths is its unprecedented access to Roger Federer during the pivotal moment in his life. The filmmakers follow him closely and offer viewers an insider’s perspective on his thoughts and feelings as he prepares to bid adieu to something that has defined his life for over two decades. Meanwhile, the candid interviews with Federer reveal an honest man, and at times, vulnerable. His love for the game, his insights into his career, and his contemplation of what comes next are both enlightening and deeply moving.

However, some of the most fascinating things take place in the documentary when viewers get to see Federer’s wife Mirka talking about him and his love for the sport. She is poignant and offers a glimpse into the personal sacrifices and shared experiences that have marked their journey together. On the other hand, the interviews of his chief rivals – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – add depth and richness to the story, providing a multifaceted view of Federer’s impact on the game and the people who watch him play. Their stories tell you how much they respect each other and the camaraderie they share while being fierce competitors. Kapadia and Sabia, known for their masterful storytelling and ability to delve deep into their subjects’ psyches, have crafted a documentary that transcends the boundaries of a typical sports film. They capture not just the athlete, but the man behind the icon, providing a holistic view of Federer as he navigates the emotional terrain of retirement.  Visually, ‘FEDERER: TWELVE FINAL DAYS’ is stunning. The use of archival footage, and blending it seamlessly with new material to create a compelling story. The scenes, especially, from the Laver Cup are really powerful and beautifully capture the intensity of Federer’s final games.

But not everything about this film is celebratory. Certain moments would make you cry because there is a sense of melancholy as Federer tries to grapple with the fact that he indeed is stepping away from the game that gave him so much. Even with so many positive things, some moments do feel like melodramatic. There are moments when the pacing slows, and the narrative feels somewhat repetitive. Nevertheless, these are minor speedbumps in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted documentary.

Overall, ‘FEDERER: TWELVE FINAL DAYS’ is a captivating documentary that chronicles the journey of one of the greatest athletes of all time. Even if you are not a fan of Roger Federer, you should see this documentary to feel why he was and will always be a LEGEND.

‘Federer: Twelve Final Days’ premiered on Tribeca and will stream exclusively on Prime Video on June 20.

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‘Tell That to the Winter Sea’ Review | A Heartfelt Exploration of Love and Friendship with Outstanding Performances by Greta Bellamacina and Amber Anderson

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Tell That to the Winter Sea
Greta Bellamacina and Amber Anderson in a still from 'Tell That to the Winter Sea' (Kaleidoscope)

It takes time to understand that life is all about learning, growing, and changing. It’s about heartbreaks and dealing with them. Every stage brings new challenges and makes you think if you’ll ever reach your desired destination. In Jaclyn Bethany’s reminiscent drama, Tell That to the Winter Sea, this sentiment is distinctly captured through the touching journey of two characters, Jo (Greta Bellamacina) and Scarlet (Amber Anderson), who find themselves grappling with unresolved pasts.

There have been several movies around female friendships or relationships, but only a few have captured their essence, and Tell That to the Winter Sea is among them. The profoundly moving film starts with bride-to-be Jo (Bellamacina) reading a book while waiting for her school-time friend and first love, Scarlet (Anderson), on a girls’ trip to a country manor. Soon, we get to know that this trip is meant to celebrate Jo’s upcoming marriage. However, as soon as they meet, this trip becomes a moving journey of emotional discovery and unresolved feelings. Even with the festive atmosphere created by the rest of the group, Jo and Scarlet can’t help but deal with the lingering feelings from their shared past.

Tell That to the Winter Sea

Greta Bellamacina as Jo in a still from ‘Tell That to the Winter Sea’ (Kaleidoscope)

Directed by Jaclyn Bethany, the movie does a magnificent job of navigating the delicate terrain of past and present emotions through the eyes of its central characters. One of the primary reasons why this movie feels so personal is because of how authentic it looks. In many ways, we have endured heartbreak in love. Sometimes, we move on, but other times, we keep looking for answers by revisiting those moments. In Tell That to the Winter Sea, both central characters try to show that they have moved on, but in reality, it’s just the opposite and Bethany shows that with utter precision. Meanwhile, the script is a delicate blend of heartfelt dialogue and introspective moments. It’s fair to say that the script is the soul of this powerful drama. The writing shines in its ability to convey the unspoken and unresolved feelings between Jo and Scarlet. Their interactions are loaded with a glaring sense of nostalgia and unspoken yearning, capturing the beautiful essence of what it means to reconnect with your first love after years apart.

Another stunning aspect of the movie is its mesmerizing cinematography. The beautiful frames wonderfully complement the emotional landscape of the story, making the viewers feel like they are a part of the characters’ journey.

Acting-wise, both the film’s central characters are extraordinary in their respective roles. Greta Bellamacina as Jo is breathtaking as she brings a deep emotional resonance to her character and magnificently captures the complexities of love, friendship, and personal growth. One of the most striking things about her performance is how she makes viewers feel about her internal conflicts and struggles. It feels so real, raw, and authentic. She is truly one of the finest actors we have in the industry now. Meanwhile, Amber Anderson shows a wide emotional range and effectively portrays the complexities of her character’s feelings and experiences. Her performance feels deeply connected to her character’s past and present, making the audience empathize with her journey. The chemistry between both stars is mesmerizing, making their shared moments both powerful and poignant.

Tell That to the Winter Sea

Amber Anderson as Scarlet in a still from ‘Tell That to the Winter Sea’ (Kaleidoscope)

The supporting cast – Josette Simon, Jessica Plummer, Tamsin Egerton, and Bebe Cave – is equally compelling and adds depth to the story.

Overall, Tell That to the Winter Sea is a beautifully crafted film that offers a heartwarming and introspective look at love, feelings, and friendship. The film explores themes of the passage of time, and the bittersweet nature of moving forward is handled with a sensitive approach. It is a deeply affecting and memorable cinematic experience. For those who appreciate a thoughtful and emotionally resonant film, Tell That To The Winter Sea is an immersive watch.

Tell That to the Winter Sea will be released in UK theatres on May 31.

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X-Men ’97 Review | Nostalgic, Epic & Marvelous!

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X-Men '97 (Disney)

Get ready for action-packed adventure, many surprise cameos and a storyline that takes

Plot

A band of mutants use their uncanny gifts to protect a world that hates and fears them; they’re challenged like never before, forced to face a dangerous and unexpected new future.

X-Men ’97 (Disney)

Review

X-Men ’97 is a revival of the classic 1990s animated television series. The storyline picks up directly after the events of the original series, maintaining continuity and preserving the beloved elements that made the original a hit show back in the day. Many of the original voice cast members have returned, including Cal Dodd as Wolverine, Lenore Zann as Rogue, George Buza as Beast, Alison Sealy-Smith as Storm and Adrian Hough as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, which adds a layer of originality and contributes to the overall nostalgia of the television show​. Here I’m feeling like a little kid again, watching the show on a Saturday morning. I was 7 years old when it was on television in the early mornings, and it still brings back fond memories.

There were a number of new stars who joined the show such as Ray Chase who replaced Norm Spencer as Cyclops, Jennifer Hale who replaced Catherine Disher as Jean Grey, Holly Chou who replaced Alyson Court as Jubilee, A.J. LoCascio as Gambit, Matthew Waterson as Magneto, J.P. Karliak as Morph, Isaac Robinson-Smith as Bishop, Ross Marquand as Professor Charles Xavier and Gui Agustini as Roberto da Costa/Sunspot.

X-Men ’97 (Disney)

The series starts off in a world where the X-Men grapple with the loss of Professor Charles Xavier. Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, Magneto rises to the occasion and becomes the new leader of the X-Men. This provides additional drama and the team dynamics is frequently tested with the new leadership. While dealing with the new leadership dynamics the X-Men finds themselves still dealing with people who would stop at nothing to end all mutants. The storyline doesn’t hold back on the action sequences and themes such as grief, loss and acceptance are touched on throughout the series.

The trailer of the show doesn’t spoil anything for the viewer, and I highly encourage you to watch every intro and try to spot any new changes. The show provides many cameos and easter eggs, keeping my hopes alive of a potential crossover.

The story ends with a twist, leaving you hungry for the next season, and as any Marvel movie or television show would have it, a mid-credits scene to whet your appetite for what’s to come. If you are new to X-Men you can still jump in and watch the television series, but I highly recommend watching the original series to get you up to date with most of the lore and history of the X-Men.

X-Men ’97 keeps the legacy of our favorite mutants alive with a well-written story that is filled with emotion, surprises and promises of more adventures.

Thank you Beau DeMayo for an eXcellent story! I rate this show a 5 out of 5!

Will we skip the intro song? No! I don’t think we will. Make sure to catch the show on Disney Plus!

https://youtu.be/mp1Pax-QHlA?si=-fFlVYBRIPnLQyVO
X-Men ’97 Final Trailer (Marvel Entertainment)

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