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Reviews for April 14th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      From Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the co-directors of The Rescue and Free Solo, comes their latest documentary Wild Life about how Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kris, worked diligently as conservationists to buy land in Argentina and Chile to convert into natural parks. Doug died in 2015 during a kayaking accident. The filmmakers briefly include news footage of it at the beginning of the doc. How did he die exactly? You'll have to wait until the last 20 minutes to learn about those details. This documentary isn't about his death; it's about his work as a conservationist and businessman, and his romance with his wife, Kris. Like in their previous documentaries, Vasarhelyi and Chin know how to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Wild Life is far from a dry, academic documentary; it's captivating, emotionally engrossing and well-edited. Above all, it's cinematic, especially with the breathtaking scenery that captures the majestic quality of Chile and Argentina's natural landscapes.

      Not surprisingly, Doug and Kris' mission to convert land in Chile and Argentina into natural parks came with opposition from the government initially. Even the church opposed their plans. However, they didn't give up so easily. That part of Wild Life is equally gripping and inspirational. Then there's the romance between Doug and Kris which provides a lot of emotional depth. Candid interviews with Kris are particularly moving and illuminating. The scenes that go into detail about Doug's death toward the end feel especially hard-hitting because you've been so emotionally invested in the life of Kris and Doug until that point, so the emotional beat lands. Wild Life doesn't dwell too much on his death, though. It shows how Kris struggled afterward, but also how she persevered and found a way to move on while honoring Doug's legacy, hopes and dreams, i.e. by successfully converting the land in Chile and Argentina into national parks and by rewilding it, too. Kris grasps the empowering and profound message behind Pablo Neruda's poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Wild Life opens at Angelika Film Center via National Geographic Documentary Films and Picturehouse.

Beau is Afraid

Directed by Ari Aster

      Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), lives alone in a New York City apartment and sees a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to deal with his childhood trauma and abusive mother, Mona (Patty LuPone). He's supposed to visit his Mona the next day for the anniversary of his father's death, but a series of unfortunate events occur: he oversleeps, someone steals his apartment keys, and he learns that his mother died when a chandelier fell and decapitated her. He now has to travel to her funeral because, according to her lawyer (Richard Kind), she won't be buried without him there. Another tragic event occurs when Roger (Nathan Lane), a surgeon, and his wife Grace (Amy Ryan) accidentally hit him with their van, and they let him recover at their home after he gets released from the hospital.

      There have been many fictional toxic mothers in film history ranging from Beth in Ordinary People to Mother Gothel in Tangled to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest to Norman Bates' mother in Psycho. Mona initially seems like no worse than Beth from Ordinary People, but by the end of the film, she's far worse. She's a controlling, emotionally abusive, physically abusive malignant narcissist who resorts to gaslighting, guilt-tripping, double binds, and infantilizing her son to keep him dependent on her. She's rich, powerful and well-connected to other powerful people, like her lawyer, who have no shame in crossing boundaries to enable her to abuse her son and/or to abuse him themselves. It wouldn't be surprising if Mona's lawyer happens to be a "friend" of hers for many years whom she pays very, very well for his services. When confronted, like most narcissists, Mona uses a tactic known as DARVO: Deny, Attack and Reverse the Order of Victim/Offender. It's no wonder that Beau is an emotionally wreck in his adulthood. His therapist prefers to give him pills for his anxiety rather than to help him realize that he has to cut off contact with his mother. Writer/director Ari Aster combines dark comedy and horror with a heavy dose of surrealism to get inside Beau's heart, mind and soul. The flashbacks to him as a teenager (now played by Armen Nahapetian) on a yacht with his mother (now played by Zoey Lister-Jones) reveal a lot about his traumatic past and how it has affected him as an adult.

      Anyone who's familiar with narcissistic personality disorder or who has experienced it as a survivor will be able to see the red flags in Mona's behavior during Beau's childhood that strongly suggest that she's a narcissist. Some red flags are big while others are small, i.e. when Mona belittles Beau saying that only women know women and that men's cluelessness are just part of their charm. She might as well be singing the song "Mother Knows Best" like Mother Gothel does to Rapunzel in Tangled. Beau is essentially Mona's emotional and psychological prisoner. Like many adult children of narcissists, he has a tough time knowing what's real and what's not real because living with a malignant narcissist is like living in an Escher painting where it's hard to tell where's up or where's down or who to trust for that matter. That explains his behavior throughout his journey and why writer/director Ari Aster blurs the line between fantasy and reality which makes for a trippy mindfuck and emotional fuck concurrently. The audience doesn't know what's real and what isn't, but neither does Beau, so that makes them on the same page as him, more or less. Is his reunion with Elaine (Parker Posey), his childhood crush, real or imaginary? That's up to you to decide. There could be arguments both ways. Bravo to Ari Aster for trusting the audience's imagination, intelligence and emotions. Many aspects of Beau is Afraid are quite blunt and explicit, but there's a lot of room left for interpretation.

      Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the best performances of his career as Beau. It's no easy task to portray such a complex character convincingly, but he accomplishes that feat with rawness and emotional honesty which makes it truly heartbreaking to watch Beau suffer. Kudos to Ari Aster for seeing and treating him as a human being and for allowing the audience to have empathy for him. Patty LaPone deserves an Oscar for her over-the-top performance as Mona. She's just as terrific as Faye Dunaway is in Mommie Dearest. She uses the word "love", but it's doubtful that she even understands the concept of love. How could she know how to love her son without loving herself first or healing from the fact that her mother didn't love her enough? Despite how confident and strong Mona seems on the outside, on the inside she's a weak, cowardly and emotionally immature child who can't handle not being the center of attention and when she doesn't get what she wants, she uses emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping as part of her "extinction burst." So, Ari Aster also shows some surprising empathy for Mona because he gives her backstory that explains, without excusing, how she became such a toxic mother.

      The production design and cinematography are also worth mentioning along with a wildly imaginative animated sequence and a bold, outrageously funny sex scene with Mariah Carey's song "Always Be My Baby" playing. You've never seen a sex scene like that before. Beau is Afraid is filled with many details that can be seen as poetic with deeper meanings upon further consideration. Even the word "Beau" in French means "nice" or "beautiful" which adds another layer of meaning and poetry to the film. Water also has some symbolic meaning. A napkin that Beau finds with the words "Don't incriminate yourself." also has significance despite being a small detail. The same can be said for a brown recluse spider that's shown in the first act. To be fair, though, Beau is Afraid isn't a pleasant experience, but not every movie has to be joyful or sugar-coated. Ari Aster demands a lot from the audience emotionally and inspires introspection, as many great films do. There hasn't been such a brave, honest and disturbing film about how narcissists gaslight, control and terrorize their victims since Arlington Road. At a running time of 3 hours, Beau is Afraid is a bold, provocative and surreal portrait of an adult child of a malignant narcissist. Hopefully, if you can relate to Beau's struggles, even to a small degree, you will be able to find some life wisdom and healing from the following poem by Pablo Neruda: "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming."

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters in NY and LA before expanding wide on April 21st, 2023.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Directed by Pierre Földes

      After an earthquake and tsunami strike Japan, Komura, a bank employee, considers finding a new job. His wife, Kyoko, leaves him. Meanwhile, his boss, Katagiri, has a vision of a human-sized frog that warns him about major earthquakes that will destroy Tokyo if they don't team up to defeat an underground worm that's controlling the devastation.

      The screenplay by Pierre Földes is based on the short stories of Haruki Murakami. Part suspense thriller, part surrealism, part drama, it's hard to classify the film in one particular genre. On the one hand, it's an animated film for adults, but it does get silly at times. Its tone is all over the place. One minute you're supposed to take the scenes seriously, the next it goes a little bonkers. If you're unfamiliar with Murakami's short stories, it'll be a lot for you to take in all at once. This isn't a conventional animated film nor does it try to be. It's unafraid to be bizarre, surreal and enigmatic with shades of David Lynch. Some of the stories are more compelling and amusing than others. The one with Katagiri and the frog---whose name is simply Frog--feels like a version of Donnie Darko except with even more surrealism. Just when you think that Komura's story won't take a surreal turn, it does. Both stories manage to find a few poignant moments that ground them in realism, but those moments are ephemeral. The stories are also refreshingly unpredictable, intriguing and offer a few surprises along the way which won't be spoiled here.

      Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman combines 2D animation with rotoscope animation that makes for a mesmerizing experience. There are a few very trippy animated sequences, but they also provide some visual poetry. Clearly, a lot of imagination and passion went into the animation process. It's far more impressive and haunting than any other animated film in recent memory. That said, there are pacing issues. It moves too slowly at times with scenes that overstay their welcome while others move at a faster pace that feels right. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is an exhilarating, Lynchian and poetic journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Zeitgeist Films.
Opens at Film Forum.


Directed by Sophie Galibert

      When 25-year-old Cherry (Alex Trewhitt) learns that she's almost 11-weeks pregnant, she has 24 hours to decide whether or not to have an abortion. She loses her job at a costume store, and her boyfriend, Nick (Dan Schultz), remains unsupportive when she tells him the news that she's pregnant. As the deadline to make the decision approaches, she spends time with her mother, Carla (Angela Nicholas), sister, Anna (Hannah Alline), grandma (Melinda DeKay), and estranged father, Bob (Charlie S. Jensen).

      The screenplay by writer/director Sophie Galibert and co-writers Arthur Cohen and Anne-Claire Jaulin is a heartfelt, witty and captivating coming-of-age story about a young woman at a major turning point in her life. Cherry has a lot of emotions to sort through upon discovering that she's nearly 11 weeks pregnant. She feels confused, frustrated and lost. Fortunately, Cherry's estranged father, Bob, who works as a mechanic isn't written as a villain. There's a simple, yet poignant scene where they eat from a fruit stand together. She does confront him about the fact that he barely knows her or who her latest boyfriend is, but the confrontation doesn't lead to a bitter fight. Cherry doesn't resort to violence or melodrama to generate dramatic tension. It also balances the heavy topic of abortion with just the right amount of comic relief, i.e. when Cherry confides in her grandmother that she's pregnant, her grandma mistakenly thinks that it's not the first time that she's pregnant. Cherry attempts to tell her mother and sister during a dinner the news that she's pregnant, but she decides not to when her sister announces that she's infertile. It's an awkwardly funny scene that's also very revealing about Cherry's insecurity, compassion, fear and emotional immaturity.

      What's more complicated, though, is the relationship between Cherry and her boyfriend who doesn't help her during these tough times. It'd be reasonable to label him as an insensitive jerk at first, but there's more to him than meets the eye, so don't be quick to judge him. It's hard to tell, though, if he truly changed by the end of the film or if their relationship will be able to be salvaged. Will he make for a good father? A good husband? That's up to the audience to decide and imagine based on their own projections and experiences. That subplot is the one that remains underdeveloped, so it's a missed opportunity to add more emotional depth and realism to the film. The third act ends on an uplifting, yet understated note while briefly breaking the 4th wall in a way that's witty and amusing without tying everything neatly in a bow. Cherry does, indeed, earn its uplift.

      Alex Trewhitt gives a radiant and moving breakthrough performance as Cherry. She handles the emotional complexities of her role very convincingly while also displaying great comedic timing. Much of the film's emotional resonance comes from her performance, not from the screenplay. The pace moves briskly enough, the soundtrack is lively with well-chosen music, and the cinematography makes the film more cinematic. Moreover, the filmmakers should be commended for keeping the running time under 90 minutes. They grasp that the best kind of stories are the ones where you leave the audience wanting more, not less.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Entertainment Squad.
Opens in select theaters.

Everything Went Fine

Directed by François Ozon

      When 85-year-old André Bernheim (André Dusollier), suffers a stroke and remains bedridden at a hospital, he expresses his desire to end his life through assisted suicide. His daughter, Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau), finds a clinic for assisted suicide in Switzerland and arranges to secretly transport him there because it's is illegal in France.

      Based on the novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim, the screenplay by writer/director François Ozon is an unflinching, tender and provocative drama about life, death, and family. Ozon deserves to be commended for shedding light on the sensitive, provocative issue of assisted suicide without any sugar-coating or contrivance. There's also very little filler, so the film remains focused and avoids going off into tangents with unnecessary subplots that would've made it feel overstuffed. Within the first five minutes, André already has a stroke and Emmanuèle rushes to his hospital bedside. Ozon displays his skills and experience as a filmmaker because he avoids turning the film into a maudlin, Lifetime movie-of-the-week or a heavy-handed, preachy drama. He also has a great handle on exposition which he peppers throughout the film without relying on flashbacks. Gradually, you learn more about his relationship with his family, i.e. the toxic relationship between him and his wife (Charlotte Rampling). He also has a former lover, Gérard (Grégory Gadebois), whom Emmanuèle and her sister, Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas), nickname "Shithead." There's some moral ambiguity regarding André's wish to die, but Everything Went Fine doesn't delve into that nor does it judge any of the characters' decisions. It does compel you to ask yourself, "What would I do in Emmanuèle's situation? Is she doing the right thing? What is the right thing?" Those are difficult questions, as are most of life's important questions. A little suspense arrives when Emmanuèle's plan to transport her father to Switzerland has a few setbacks that gets her into trouble with the law. For the most part, though, the film stays focused on Emmanuèle and André's emotional journey as the day of the assisted suicide approaches.

      André Dusollier gives one of the best performances of his career as André. It's a tough, complex role with some scenes that aren't easy to watch, but Dusollier brings a lot of emotional truth to those scenes which makes it hard to look away. Sophie Marceau brings poignancy and charisma to her role while doing an effective job of portraying Emmanuèle's strength and vulnerability concurrently. Charlotte Rampling makes the most out of her few scenes and conveys a lot of emotion, especially anger, through a few words. Although Everything Went Fine isn't as powerful and haunting as The Sea Inside or Amour, it comes close.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Lasse Hallström

      Hilma af Klint (Lena Olin), an abstract artist, recalls her younger years as a teenager (now played by Tora Hallström) in art school in Sweden where she joined a community of artists, Mathilda Nilsson (Lily Cole), Cornelia Cederberg (Rebecca Calder), Anna Cassel (Catherine Chalk) and Sigrid Hedman (Maeve Demody), known as "The Five." Meanwhile, as she rebelled against the sexism in the art world, she developed a romance with Anna.

      The screenplay by writer/director Lasse Hallström is a mildly engaging introduction to Hilma af Klint, A Swedish woman who became the first abstract painter, but it barely scratches the surface of Hilma's heart, mind and soul. Hilma never truly comes to life because Lasse Hallström focuses too much on her struggles with her artwork and not with her relationships with "The Five", especially when it comes to the romance between her and Anna. This is the kind of movie where you can hear the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way. The dialogue isn't stilted per se, but it's occasionally on-the-nose, lacks depth and dry without much wit. Moreover, Hilma's personality seems bland and she remains at an emotional distance from the audience. What makes Hilma laugh? What's her sense of humor like? What's going on inside her after she get rejected and invalidated as an artist? There aren't nearly enough scenes with her when she's much older---those scenes bookend the film, but the feel tacked-on.

      Tora Hallström gives a fine performance that provides the film with much-needed warmth and tenderness. It's too bad that she's undermined by the shallow, pedestrian screenplay. No one else really gets a chance to shine, not even Lena Olin who deserves more scenes than the few that she has. The cinematography is decent without exceptional stylistically like in Julie Taymor's far superior Frida. There are also pacing issues with too many scenes dragging as the pace slows down to a crawl without much that's engaging. At a running time of 2 hours, Hilma's stystemic flaws are that it doesn't take enough risks, it lacks emotional depth and, above all, it fails to illuminate Hilma's inner life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Juno Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

      Kaho (Aoba Kawai) gathers with his friends, Takeshi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), Kenichiro (Nao Okabe), and fiancée, Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto), at a restaurant to celebrate his 29th birthday. They drink and converse before the women split up and go home and the men go to visit another one of their friends, Takako (Fusako Urabe).

      Passion marks the directorial debut of writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, best known for Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It's a promising first film that showcases his knack for writing dialogue that sounds natural while avoiding melodrama and schmaltz. His films are like a slice-of-life and the thin plot unfolds very gradually. He has a good ear for the way that people converse and how a conversation can end up revealing a lot about someone. That's precisely what happens in Passion. What starts out as a seemingly simple birthday party at a restaurant turns into something far more profound, complex and deeply human as the night goes on. Why? Because Hamagchi sees and treats the characters as human beings, warts and all. They might not be relatable to you at first, but eventually you'll find something that you'll be able to relate to about their issues. François Truffaut once observed that a truly great film has just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. On the surface of Passion, there's not much Spectacle at first glance---no one kills anyone, there are no car chases or anything else that's overly dramatic. Instead, the Spectacle can be found within the Truth---in the dialogue, in the nuances and quiet moments. Hamaguchi has sensibilities similar to those of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer: his films are character-driven, subtle, cerebral and don't try too hard to please the audience.

      The acting feels just as organic as the screenplay with no one giving a hammy performance. That helps to further ground the film in authenticity and to make it easier to care about the characters as human beings. Their friendship feels palpable. The cinematography isn't very showy, but there are some interesting shots like when the characters talk outdoors, the camera doesn't show them talking, but points higher up to show smoke billowing from a factory's chimney. It's an odd, unconventionally-shot scene that's somewhat poetic, although it's hard to pinpoint what precisely Hamaguchi is trying to say by filming the scene in that way. Also, some scenes do drag and slightly overstay their welcome. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Passion is a tender, nuanced and profoundly human slice-of-life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

The Pope's Exorcist

Directed by Julius Avery

      Julia (Alex Essoe) moves with her two kids, Amy (Laurel Marsden) and Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), into an abbey in Spain that she inhereted from her late husband. Soon enough, Henry becomes demonically possessed. Father Amorth (Russell Crowe), the Vatican' Chief Exorcist, travels there to investigate the possession with the help of Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto).

      Ever since The Exorcist opened back in 1973, there hasn't been a single horror film that has managed to even match its quality. Some films have come close while others, like The Pope's Exorcist pale by comparison. Co-screenwriters Michael Petroni and Evan Spilliotopoulos fail to generate any scares, suspense or intrigue. There are no surprises because everything is telegraphed, even the ending which can be seen from a mile away.  The plot quickly becomes repetitive and dull. =Father Amorth, though, has a surprisingly funny personality. His odd sense of humor that makes The Pope's Exorcist feel like it's a spoof of demonic possession film and clashes with the dark tones which leads to unevenness. It's too bad that he's stuck in such a bland horror film. William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, once told me in an interview that what makes dark themes so compelling is the tug of war between good and evil. Unfortunately, that tug of war in The Pope's Exorcist isn't compelling enough. Nothing is left to the imagination which would've been fine if there were some palpable thrills or terrifying scenes, so there isn't even psychological horror to be found here. The on-the-nose dialogue doesn't help matters either nor does some of the unintentionally funny lines that the demon says through Henry in a particularly cringe-inducing scene. A last-minute revelation about the Catholic Church's dark past is underdeveloped and clunky. Exposition isn't one of this film's strengths, sadly. This is the kind of movie that you can leave to go to the bathroom, come back and easily predict what you missed while away. Moreover, the third act feels rushed, toothless and unimaginative. The only major surprise comes from the fact that Father Amorth is actually a real priest who died in 2016.  

      Does Russell Crowe want some cheese to go with all of that ham? His over-the-top performance gets exhausting after an hour. Also, his Italian accent is not very convincing which would've been forgivable if this were a parody. The CGI effects are average at best--obviously, the third act uses CGI the most because it has more action. As for blood and guts, there is indeed some to earn the film its R-rating, but it's not shocking or excessive. Some scenes are somewhat creepy and atmospheric. It's too bad, though, that the film doesn't use its lighting and settings enough to escalate the creepiness. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, The Pope's Exorcist is bland, dumb and tedious while low on scares and thrills. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.

Rare Objects

Directed by Katie Holmes

      Benita (Julia Mayorga), a young woman, leaves a psychiatric hospital after receiving treatment for a traumatic event from her past. She struggles to rebuild her life while working at an antique shop and befriending Diana (Katie Holmes), a patient she met at the hospital.

      Based on the novel by Kathleen Tessaro, the screenplay by writer/director Katie Holmes and co-writer Phaedon A. Papadopoulos is an engrossing story about healing from trauma. Both Benita and Diana have experienced traumatic events and suffer from emotional pain, but the film doesn't reveal those events nor does it dwell on their emotional pain. Instead, it focuses on the recovery process from their trauma and on their blossoming friendship which helps them to heal. The screenwriters jump back and forth between the perspectives of Benita and Diana while flashing back to show how they met at the hospital. The non-linear structure makes the film feel less pedestrian. Fortunately, the flashbacks aren't clunky or distracting. The supporting characters, like the co-owners of the antique shop, Peter Kessler (Alan Cumming) and Ben Winshaw (Derek Luke), remain underdeveloped and not as interesting as Benita and Diana. Rare Objects isn't hard-hitting on an emotional level, and it shies away from exploring its darker, complex themes unflinchingly. However, at least it avoids turning into a maudlin, heavy-handed, preachy melodrama. It's engrossing, though, to observe how Benita bonds with Diana as they both struggle to heal from their traumatic past. They're in the process of learning the important life message behind Pablo Neruda's wise poem: "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Benita and Diana deserve to find true joy once again in the garden of their soul, so-to-speak. Through their friendship, they know that they're not alone in their journey to cultivating a garden that's fully blooming.

      Julia Mayorga and Katie Holmes give raw and moving performances which helps to make Benita and Diana's friendship feel palpable and organic. Most of the film's emotional depth doesn't come from the screenplay; it comes from their performances. Alan Cumming is very well-cast as Peter and adds plenty of charisma to the film. He always enlivens any scene he's in. The cinematography is fine, but nothing exceptional. The editing is terrific, though, especially how smoothly the film incorporates the flashbacks. At a running time of just over 2 hours, Rare Objects is genuinely heartfelt, wise and empowering.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.


Directed by Chris McKay

      Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has been the loyal servant of Dracula (Nicolas Cage) for centuries. He attends support group meetings for people stuck in codependent relationships, and hopes to escape the clutches of his narcissistic boss, Dracula. Meanwhile, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), police officer, wants to put the members of a crime family, the Lobos, lead by Ella Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz), behind bars because she holds them responsible for killing her father. Renfield and Rebecca team up to defeat the Lobos.

      Renfield is a failed The screenplay by Ryan Ridley tries too hard to push the envelope with over-the-top violence and outrageous sight gags, but the dialogue is often witless and unfunny. There's also too much going on in the plot that makes it feel bloated and overstuffed: Renfield wants to escape his relationship with the narcissistic Dracula, Rebecca wants to avenge her father's death, the Lobos want to kidnap Renfield and form an alliance with Dracula, and, finally, Dracula seeks world domination. The dark humor quickly becomes repetitive as jokes are recycled and resort to the lowest common denominator. Everything feels telegraphed and there are no big revelations, not even about anyone's backstory. The exposition feels clunky and poorly integrated in the plot while Renfield remains an underdeveloped character who's increasingly unlikable, but the film actually wants you to root for him. It also wants you to believe that there's some hope for a romance between him and Rebecca, but that unnecessary subplot also falls flat. Renfield's voice-over narration adds nothing essential; it's just distracting and breaks the fourth wall in a very lazy way. Laziness is the least of the film's problems, though. If Renfield were to succeed at being campy, funny and witty, it would've been a guilty pleasure like What We Do in the Shadows or the classic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead.

      Despite Nicolas Cage having fun sinking his teeth into the role of Dracula, Renfield runs of steam around the 30 minute mark. Cage's over-the-top performance will please his fans who like him in the cult classic Vampire's Kiss, but his performance here comes with diminishing returns. It's amusing without being campy, and it eventually becomes one-note and tedious much like the film itself. Shohreh Aghdashloo is well-cast as the head of the Lobos crime family. Unfortunately, Awkwafina gives a very grating performance as Rebecca whose character is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. That said, there are a few minor strengths that help the film to avoid being a total disaster: the make-up effects of Dracula are effectively creepy and grotesque, and some of the action scenes push the envelope and add shock value with lots of blood and guts that leave nothing to the imagination. Shock value alone is not enough, though, to entertain the audience, and it, too, becomes tiresome and dull. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Renfield is a repetitive, exhausting and lazy misfire that sorely lacks wit, campiness and imagination.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide


Directed by Makoto Shinkai

      17-year-old Suzume (voice of Nanoka Hara) meets a mysterious young man, Souta (voice of Hokuto Matsumura), who's tasked with closing doors that serve as a portal for an alien creature called the "worm" which causes destruction. They need to find a keystone to close the doors, but the keystone shapeshifts into a cat, Daijin (voice of Yamane Ann). It's up to her and Souta to find Daijin and to save Japan by closing the doors.

      From Makoto Shinkai, the writer/director of Your Name. and Weathering with You, comes a new animated adventure that blends fantasy elements with romance, action and thrills. Shinkai keeps the plot simple and easy-to-follow. The plot is conventional, dull and by-the-numbers, though, without any big surprises and with less heartfelt moments than Shinkai's last two films. There are some moving scenes between Suzume and Souta, but they're far and few between. Shinkai spends too little time humanizing Suzume as a character and exploring her relationship with her aunt, Tamaki (Fukatsu Eri), before the main plot kicks into gear. There's a MacGuffin: a keystone transformed into a cat. Of course, the villains (the alien "worms") want to cause destruction in Japan, but why? That's never explained, so they're rather boring, cookie-cutter villains. That said, Suzume does offer some suspense and exhilaration action scenes. As a pure Spectacle, it's fun and exciting, but it's not grounded in reality enough to transcend beyond that like Your Name. and Weathering with You manage to accomplish so effectively.

      Suzume major strength is its dazzling 2D animation. Hand-drawn animation tends to look and feel a lot more warm than CGI. The colors are vibrant and provide some eye candy. Some of the scenes feel simply breathtaking to behold and will probably benefit from the big-screen experience. The visuals will lose their impact on the small screen. To be fair, there are some pacing issues. The first 30 minutes or so move pretty quickly with minimal exposition before the pace slows down a little. At a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes, Suzume is an exhilarating action adventure with stunning animation, but the conventional and dull plot fails to pack an emotional punch.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Crunchyroll.
Opens nationwide in dubbed and subtitled versions.


Directed by Martin Guigui

      In 1950, Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton (Everett Osborne), became the first African American to sign an NBA contract after playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), the New York Knicks' coach, persuaded Ned Irish (Cary Elwes), the owner of the Knicks, to add more diversity to the Knicks by drafting a Black basketball player.

       Writer/director Martin Guigui should be commended for shedding some light on a lesser known part of basketball history, but the screenplay isn't provocative nor engaging enough as it explores the efforts to draft Nat Clifton into the NBA.  Sweetwater suffers from the same ailment that the recent biopic Hilma suffers from: it fails to breathe life into its subject and to dig deeper to allow the audience to get to know him as a human being. There's no doubt that Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton deserves to be more widely recognized as an icon in the NBA. Joe Lapchick worked hard to get him drafted into the New York Knicks. Not surprisingly, he had some obstacles along the way, but he didn't give up. Sweetwater lacks the entertainment factor, poignancy and suspense that makes Air such a crowd-pleasing sports drama that transcends its genre. Air uses humor as a tool to hook the audience while Sweetwater has little to no comic relief or wit. It's just a bland, conventional and by-the-numbers sports drama that aims to also be a biopic, but also falls flat in that regard. Nat Clifton begins as a stranger to the audience and ends as a stranger to them as well. The same can be said about Whitney Houston in I Want to Dance With Somebody. There are simply too many characters all of whom are underdeveloped. Is it too much to ask to humanize at least one of them? There are also unnecessary scenes that bookend the film with Clifton in 1990, shortly before his death, when he worked as a cab driver. Trumbo is a better example of a biopic that succeeds in humanizing its subject.  

      Unfortunately, Sweetwater doesn't have enough visual style to compensate for its lack of substance. Air at least feels cinematic and invigorating with slick editing and a lively soundtrack. This film, on the other hand, becomes lethargic at times as it just goes through the motions. Even the basketball scenes aren't very compelling, rousing or exciting to watch. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Sweetwater is a bland, anemic and shallow biopic. It pales compared to the much more entertaining, moving and gripping Air

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Briarcliff Entertainment.
Opens nationwide