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Reviews for April 21st, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Dry Ground Burning is a documentary/fiction hybrid that blurs the line between the two which makes it hard to tell if what you're watching is fiction or nonfiction. Co-writers/directors Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós follow Léa (Léa Alves da Silva) and her sister, Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who live in a favela called Sol Nascente on the outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil. Léa and Chitara join a group of women who steal oil from a pipeline and sell it to a local motorcycle gang. One of the women, Andreia (Andreia Vieira), runs for office in the Prison People Party. The filmmakers gain access to the daily life of these women who break the law to learn a living. The women also want to make life better for people living in favelas, especially for former prisoners. It's unfortunate that they cross legal boundaries to try to achieve their goals, but Dry Ground Burning doesn't judge them nor does it ask you to judge them or to excuse them---just to experience them and to learn about their troubled past which provides some insight into what lead to their illegal actions. There are no talking heads or interviews with scholars. The filmmakers leave it up to you to analyze what you're watching on your own, so they demand a lot from you. They also demand your patience because the film moves at a very slow pace with many scenes that go on and on, sometimes without dialogue, while overstaying their welcome. At a running time of 2 hours and 33 minutes, Dry Ground Burning is provocative and unflinching, but overlong and exhausting. It would make for an interesting double feature with the much more fast-paced and intense thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Grasshopper Film opens Dry Ground Burning at BAM Rose Cinemas.

      Little Richard: I Am Everything is slickly-edited and mildly engaging documentary biopic on the true king of rock'n'roll, Little Richard. Director Lisa Cortes follows a conventional structure without taking any major risks as she blends archival interviews with Little Richard, concert footage and contemporary interviews to chart Little Richard's rise to fame and a little about his personal life---she does go a bit too far, though, by also including anecdotes from his sex life. It should be nobody's business that he hosted orgies or that his father had to sleep in the bathroom because of all of Little Richard's orgies. Although this documentary is broad in scope as it covers many decades of its subject's life and career, it's not very profound or moving like other documentary biopics are, i.e. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song or Whitney which are transcendent. Yes, the film is stylishly edited which makes it feel less dry and more cinematic, but it never manages to transcend. It's nothing more than a reader's digest glimpse into the life and work of Little Richard, and a hagiographic albeit shallow exploration of what makes him so iconic. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Little Richard: I Am Everything opens at Quad Cinema and on VOD via Magnolia Pictures.

The Best Man

Directed by Shane Dax Taylor

      Cal (Luke Wilson), a former Special Ops soldier, is about to marry Brook (Nicky Whelan) at a resort hotel. He had met her when he and his Special Ops team, including Anders (Dolph Lundgren) and Bradley (Brenden Fehr), rescued her during a mission when she was held hostage in Mexico one year ago. Anders and Bradley attend the wedding along with Hailey (Scout Taylor-Compton), Brook's sister and father, Chuck (Chris Mullinax). Their lives remain in jeopardy when a group of mercenaries led by Axel (Scott Martin) arrive to hold them hostage for ransom at the resort hotel.

      As you can probably tell by now, The Best Man isn't a remake of the 1999 romantic comedy which shares the same exact title. It's yet another B-movie that takes itself too seriously without delivering enough thrills, suspense or intrigue. The screenplay by writer/director Shane Dax Taylor takes a while to get to the meat of the story as it spends a lot of time with exposition and introducing the characters, none of whom are particularly compelling. With a leaner, tighter and more focused screenplay, this could've been at least a mildly engaging B-movie instead of a meandering bore. It takes too long for the mercenaries to finally arrive to begin the mayhem, but once they do, the film doesn't pick up much steam. The villains are underdeveloped and bland, the dialogue is dull and witless, and there's not a single memorable character. Renny Harlin, director of The Long Kiss Goodnight, once stated to me in an interview that many films these days are just more sausage from the sausage factory. That could be said about The Best Man which borrows bits and pieces from better action thrillers, but doesn't know how to put them together in a way that's entertaining. Is it too much to ask for some comic relief or some risks to be taken? If The Best Man had the guts to take its premise to somewhere more surprising and bonkers with some much-needed comic relief, it would've at least been a guilty pleasure.

      Unfortunately, nothing about The Best Man's production values stands out. The action scenes aren't very impressive or exciting, the cinematography is average at best, and the pace moves too slowly during the initial scenes at the resort. So, it's a chore to sit through those scenes until the action begins rather late in the plot. Luke Wilson lacks the acting chops to be a convincing action star, but it's nice to see him trying to play against type. More actors should do that just to see if it works. You never know until you try. Dolph Lundgren, a more seasoned action star, also falls flat here, even during the action scenes. Perhaps the only reason to see The Best Man is to be able to appreciate far more engaging action thrillers like Die Hard or Olympus Has Fallen. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, The Best Man is often meandering, anemic and bland while very low on thrills, suspense and excitement.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.


Directed by Benjamin Millepied

      Carmen (Melissa Barrera) escapes her home in Mexico where a cartel brutally murders her mother. She crosses the border to the US and she meets Aidan (Paul Mescal), a marine. They fall in love while going on the run to Los Angeles.

      Carmen is an uneven, but occasionally exhilarating re-imagining of the classic novella by Prosper Mérimée and the opera by Georges Bizet. The screenplay by Loïc Barrere, Alexander Dinelaris and Lisa Loomer combines romance, thriller, musical and magical realism with mixed results. The film comes alive the most during the musical dance numbers. Everything else just feels dull and contrived by contrast. The opening scene shows Carmen's mother singing and dancing before cartel members shoot and kill her. It's a clunky way to start the film and leads to tonal whiplash because one minute you're exhilarated and the next you're expected to be sad. A lot remains underdeveloped throughout the film, i.e. Aidan's PTSD from serving in the war. Even his relationship with Carmen is shallow and underdeveloped; there are moments that feel engrossing, but they're far and few between. The film also doesn't quite engage as an adventure/road trip journey from Mexico to Los Angeles. The most interesting character is one that doesn't get enough screen time: Masilda (Rossy de Palma), a family friend who provides a room for Carmen and Aidan to crash at when they arrive in LA. It's ultimately hard to be genuinely moved by Carmen because one minute it's taking itself seriously, and the next minute it doesn't. The transitions aren't very smooth enough between romance to thriller to musical to tragedy. It takes a much more sensitive screenplay to combines those elements to create an equally entertaining and heartfelt experience.

      The performances by Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal are fine, but nothing outstanding. They have more chemistry together when they're dancing than in the non-musical scenes. Rossy de Palma shines in her radiance performance as Masilda adding gravitas and panache to her role. The highlights of Carmen are the dance numbers which are exhilarating to behold with great choreography, cinematography and costume design. It's too bad that the rest of the film can't live up to the energy found in those scenes. At a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes, Carmen is uneven, clunky and undercooked, but occasionally exhilarating.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Stephen Williams

      Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the illegitimate son of French plantation owner and an African slave (Ronke Adekoluejo), excels at fencing, playing the violin and composing music in 18th Century France. Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) gives him the title Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He wants to become the music director of the Paris Opera, but he faces opposition when he casts Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) as the lead singer instead of La Guimand (Minnie Driver). He also ends up in a risky love affair with Marie-Josephine which angers her husband, Marquis Montalembert (Marton Csokas).

      Another week, another biopic. Chevalier opens with a bang as Joseph Bologne outshines Mozart (Joseph Prowen) when they compete in playing the violin during a concert. After Mozart exclaims, "Who the fuck is that?", you'd think that the rest of the film will be a subversive, unconventional dark comedy in the vein of The Favourite. You'd be wrong, though. What ensues is a by-the-numbers, shallow biopic with too many characters and not nearly enough of a window into Joseph Bologne's heart, mind and soul. The dialogue often sounds stilted and on-the-nose with over-explaining that leaves little to no room for interpretation. There's some comic relief, but not all of the jokes land, and the film lacks wit. Unfortunately, screenwriter Stefani Robinson doesn't trust the audience's emotions enough. There are also awkward flashbacks that provide some exposition about the traumatic past of Joseph Bologne's mother. His relationship with his mother should be the heart of the film, but once he reunites with her, the film, believe it or not, ignores her for a large chunk of the plot until she briefly shows up again near the end. A lot of Joseph's current emotional and psychological state has to do with his relationship with her, so it's a shame that the film sidelines it. Instead, it focuses on his struggles to put on his opera and to deal with his forbidden relationship with Marie-Josephine. Their romance is contrived, though, and some of the dialogue that Marie-Josephine says is even cringe-inducing. The film becomes a melodramatic soap opera when she introduces him to her domineering husband, the Marquis, who's so one-note as a villain that he seems like he belongs in a cartoon or in a comedic satire, not in a serious live-action biopic.

      Kelvin Harrison Jr. is superb as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He gives a very moving performance that ever so slightly rises above the shallow screenplay. It's too bad that he's not given a more profound and organic screenplay like in Waves to truly showcase his acting talent. Samara Weaving is miscast in the role of Marie-Josephine, but, to be fair, she's undermined by the weak screenplay, so there aren't too many actresses who'd be able to shine in that role here. Ronke Adekoluejo is terrific in her supporting role as Joseph's mother, but she deserves more scenes. She brings warmth, tenderness and nuance with her performance. On the other hand, Marton Csokas gives a hammy, over-the-top performance that gets tiresome and repetitive quickly. The cinematography, costume design, set design and sound design are all top-notch and add plenty of style to the film, though. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Chevalier is shallow, contrived and underwhelming despite exquisite production values and Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s strong performance. It suffers from style over substance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.

Evil Dead Rise

Directed by Lee Cronin

      Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a single mom who works as a tattoo artist, lives with her three children, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Kassie (Nell Fisher), in a Los Angeles apartment. After her estranged sister, Beth (Lily Sullivan), arrives out-of-the-blue, Danny finds the Book of the Dead and unwittingly unleashes an evil spirit that possesses Ellie.

      Writer/director Lee Cronin knows how to deliver what fans of the Evil Dead expect: mindless entertainment with blood & guts and dark comedy. He doesn't waste any time setting up the plot. Within the first five minutes, an evil spirit possesses a woman who terrorizes her friends at a lakeside cabin. Who are these friends and how did they meet? Evil Dead Rise isn't interested in that kind of exposition or padding. It's just a lean, mean and focused horror thriller. You learn a few details about Ellie and Beth before the evil spirit takes over Ellie's body. It also possesses other characters, too. What does the evil spirit want ultimately? That remains unclear, but that's okay because this isn't "elevated" horror. Cronin doesn't give the audience much room to breathe because the action and horror elements are relentless, so be prepared for a horror film that doesn't hold back or sugar-coat anything. It's dark, twisted and disturbing. There's a palpably terrifying scene with Ellie in an elevator and then soon after she walks back to her apartment and fries some eggs. It's outrageously funny, but also kind of dumb because it takes too long for her kids to figure out that Ellie is actually possessed. The less you think about the logistics of the plot, the better because logic isn't one of its strong points; imaginatively grotesque kills are what it excels at with flying colors. As Hitchcock once keenly observed, "Logic is dull....There is something more important than logic: imagination."

      Allyssa Suthernland gives a solid performance---she physically resembles Tilda Swinton at times. Horror films don't really need big stars because horror is the star, according to Roger Ebert. He's right. The other actors here are decent, but the real star of the film is the horror which shines brightly. Writer/director Lee Cronin includes plenty of blood, guts and gore without cutting away, so Evil Dead Rise definitely earns its R-rating. There's a scene with an eyeball that will surely be remembered and discussed for being so absolutely bonkers. This isn't a movie for the faint of heart. Everything from the lighting to the set design to the camera angles adds to the creepy and terrifying atmosphere. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Evil Dead Rise is lean, palpably terrifying and wickedly funny. It also has one of the best title card drops in all of film history.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by E.J. Foerster & Marny Eng

      When her mother (Judy Greer) dies in a car accident, 16-year-old Marge (Jess Gabor), a high school soccer player, briefly moves in with her grandparents before running away to search for her estranged father, Jackson (Steve Zahn), across the border in Mexico. Jackson is alcoholic, has a girlfriend, Elsa (Roselyn Sanchez), and coaches a soccer team. Marge temporarily stays with Jackson and has a romance with Chilo (Nico Bracewell).

      Gringa suffers from a shallow, contrived and overstuffed screenplay by Patrick Hasburgh. A lot happens within the first 20 minutes, but Hasburgh rushes through everything while barely even establishing the relationship between Marge and her mother. Before you know it, Marge's mother dies all of a sudden and Marge has no one she can look up to whom she can feel safe with. Her grandparents are toxic. Why does she think that her father who abandoned her and her mother years ago isn't toxic? Before you know it, Marge manages to find her father. Before you know it, she joins his soccer team. Before you know it, she falls in love with a local boy in Mexico. There are enough subplots in Gringa for 5 or 6 movies. At least Beau is Afraid, which also has many subplots, revealed more about its protagonist and the nature of his relationship with his mother. This film doesn't even scratch Marge's surface, so it dehumanizes her as well as the other characters. How is she grieving her mother? The screenplay doesn't slow down to even explore her grief with any emotional depth or insight. It doesn't help matters that everything that happens plot-wise can be easily predicted. You can leave to go to the bathroom, come back, and not feel like you missed anything that's surprising other than yet another subplot involving Marge's attempt to cross the U.S. border without any documents---she has no passport or any IDs to prove that she's a U.S. resident/citizen. Gringa ultimately falls flat as a character study of someone grieving over their mother, as a father-daughter story, a coming-of-age film, a thriller, a romance, a sports film, and adventure film. So, as you can probably imagine, the ending does not earn its uplift.

      Unfortunately, none of the performance manage to rise above the contrived and lazy screenplay. Jess Gabor tries her best, but she's undermined by a screenplay that neglects to provide enough of a window into Marge's heart, mind and soul. It's nice to see Steve Zahn in a complex role, but his character, too, doesn't come to life either at any point throughout the film. The only thing that stands out is the picturesque scenery in the beachside town in Mexico where Jackson resides. The pace moves too quickly, especially during the first act and third act, so there are issues with uneven pacing and awkward editing that skips over a lot without enough exposition. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Gringa is shallow, hackneyed, overstuffed and undercooked.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Gravitas Ventures.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant

Directed by Guy Ritchie

      John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), a U.S. Army Sergeant, gets injured in an ambush by Taliban forces while serving in Afghanistan in 2018. His interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim), saves his life by transporting him to safety at an army base. John's wife, Caroline (Emily Beecham), waits for his return to his home in the U.S.

      To describe the plot any further would be to spoil its surprises. The screenplay by writer/director Guy Ritchie and his co-writers, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, begins as a gripping war movie with action, suspense and thrills before veering into a different director around the hour mark. This marks the second movie in Jake Gyllenhaal's career that takes a sudden turn into a different genre. Just to be clear, no, it does not go the direction of Brokeback Mountain, but it's almost as emotionally resonating. The first hour of the film effectively establishes the emerging friendship between John and Ahmed, and the perils that they face together during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's a gritty, intense and immersive experience with a few ephemeral moments of comic relief without clunkiness or unevenness, although it doesn't quite reach the heights of Saving Private Ryan. To be fair, some of the dialogue sounds on-the-nose and stilted, but that's not a systemic issue. The same goes for Ritchie's lack of trust in the audience's intelligence, i.e by including a text on the screen that explains what IED stands for. He even defines the word "covenant" at the end in case you don't know the meaning. Without revealing what happens after Ahmed rescues John, it's worth noting that Ritchie avoids preachiness and schmaltz while doing a great job of focusing on the bond between John and Ahmed. John comes across as a decent human being because he has a conscience and shows signs of introspection. That makes him a hero worth rooting for. The same can be said about Ahmed, although his character isn't as well-developed, but there's enough backstory about him to humanize him.

      Jake Gyllenhall is very well-cast as John Kinley as he tackles the emotional complexities of his role convincingly without over-acting. Thanks to his skills as an actor, he manages to show hints of John's inner life. Dar Salim is also superb as Ahmed. John and Ahmed's friendship feels palpable which means that the emotional beats land more often than not, especially in the third act that ends on just the right note while trusting the audience's imagination. The editing, cinematography and sound design are all terrific and help the film to be an immersive, cinematic experience, so it would be best to see this on the big screen. At a running time of just over 2 hours, Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is the most suspenseful and heartfelt movie in Guy Ritchie's career.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens nationwide.

Leon's Fantasy Cut

Directed by Josh Caras & Jon Valde

      Two Ukrainian-American brothers, George (Josh Caras) and Iggy (Jon Valde), live in a Brooklyn apartment together while struggling to achieve the American Dream. George works as a salesman at a cellphone store and starts dating a young woman, Ella (Ella Rae Peck). Iggy works as a videographer with her few hustles on the side like selling weed.

      The screenplay by co-writers/directors Josh Caras and Jon Valde effectively juggles many themes, subplots and different tones while remaining captivating, witty and engrossing. The characters are interesting because they're flawed and there's more to them than meets the eye, especially George who comes across as an emotionally needy, selfish narcissist who lacks the concept of boundaries. He's trying to do the right thing, but lacks the emotional maturity and good role models in his life to know what the right thing even is. After a first date that leaves Ella with a bad impression of him, he has the nerve to show up at Ella's store out-of-the blue to give him a second chance. She asks him whether or not he realizes how creepy he's behaving which is also a question that's on the audience's mind. He displays one moment of introspection where he shows his insecurity and how much hatred he has for himself, but it's ephemeral and not necessarily genuine because he's probably putting on an act just to emotionally blackmail Ella to give him a second date. Again, it's all about him. Whether or not she falls for his emotional blackmail and gives him another chance won't be revealed here, though. In another subplot, George wants to get a loan to buy the cellphone store he works at and become a successful businessman. He and his brother, Iggy, have a rocky relationship which becomes even rockier toward the end in ways that won't be spoiled here. It's worth mentioning, though, that Ella is among the few decent characters throughout the film which provides a nice contrast with the toxic George and Iggy.

       Fortunately, Caras and Valde have a good ear for natural dialogue much like Richard Linklater does in many of his films, i.e. Slacker, and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon do in Good Will Hunting, a film that would pair well with this one in a double feaure. They wisely avoid schmaltz, excessive exposition and sugar-coating. With a less sensitive screenplay, Leon's Fantasy Cut could've turned into an uneven, clunky, meandering and/or cheesy mess. Kudos to them for seeing and treating the characters, as well as the audience, as human beings, and for having the courage to go into dark territory while balancing the tragedy with just the right amount of comic relief so that it's not too heavy. Although the Leon's Fantasy Cut doesn't quite go as deep and bonkers as Beau is Afraid does, it's nonetheless a gritty, unflinching and honest portrait of flawed human beings.

      Josh Caras and Jon Valde give raw, natural performances that find the emotional truth in their roles as brothers. Thanks to their acting skills as well as the performances, it's easy to feel engrossed in the lives of George and Iggy, and to believe that they're brothers. Ella Raw Peck also gives a terrific performance. It's great to see a film with a complex role for a woman that also allows the character to stand up for herself in a powerful, understated scene. The music score is also superb while invigorating the film and effectively complimenting that tone without being intrusive. The filmmakers wisely avoid resorting to shaky cam to generate tension. There are also some interesting editing choices, i.e. a cut to the middle of a conversation between George and Ella, that recalls the unconventional editing choices in Michael Angelo Covino's recent dramedy The Climb. Both Leon's Fantasy Cut and The Climb are reminiscent of the good 'ole American indie movies of the 80's and 90's which deserve a resurgence.  At a running time of 99 minutes, Leon's Fantasy Cut is genuinely heartfelt, funny, honest and refreshingly un-Hollywood.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Twisted Bag.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Plan 75

Directed by Chie Hayakawa

      In the near future, senior citizens have the option to sign up for Plan 75, a government-sponsored program that euthanizes citizens aged 75 and up. 78-year-old Michi (Chieko Baishō) must decide whether or not to join the program with the help of Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a Filipino nurse who counsels her. Meanwhile, Hiromu (Hayato Isomura), a sales agent for Plan 75 has a crisis of conscience when he elderly uncle, Yukio (Takao Taka), signs up for the program.

      Writer/director Chie Hayakawa takes a more humanist and understated approach to telling the story rather than focusing on the sci-fi elements. The screenplay avoids spending time treading water with a first act; it cuts right to the chase because within the first few minutes, you learn precisely what Plan 75 is and who the three main characters will be. Exposition is kept to a minimum beyond that, so only bits and pieces of Michi, Hiromu and Maria's past get revealed as the plot progresses. Despite its sci-fi premise, there's no palpable suspense, big twists or any kind of major surprises. Hayakawa also avoids preachiness, on-the-nose dialogue, flashbacks and voice-over narration. She clearly trusts the audience's intelligence and emotions to come up with their own conclusions about the messages behind Plan 75; in that sense, it's similar to Ari Aster's approach to treating the audience without holding their hands, so-to-speak, in Beau is Afraid, but without a plot that goes bonkers or that takes any risks. It plays it safe, more often than not, without going very dark or deep neither on an emotional level nor on an intellectual one. Interestingly, there's no comic relief, so the melancholic tone begins to be tedious around the hour mark.

      First-time director Chie Hayakawa deserves to be commended for having a good eye for cinematography that enriches the film with visual style. Plan 75's style becomes part of its substance, especially during the poetic ending. She also trusts the audience's patience a lot because the pace moves very slowly with some lengthy scenes. That's a double-edged sword because some scenes overstay their welcome and start feeling lethargic. Even the last scene, which is quite a haunting image, goes on for too long while making its point over and over. Such repetition can feel frustrating at times. That said, the performance by Chieko Baishō adds some warmth and emotional resonance that the screenplay sorely lacks. No one over-acts or underacts, so the performances also manage to add authenticity to the film. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Plan 75 is mildly engaging, understated and poetic.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by KimStim.
Opens at IFC Center.

Somewhere in Queens

Directed by Ray Romano

      Leo (Ray Romano) lives with his wife, Angela (Laurie Metcalf), and son, Matthew (Jacob Ward), in Queens while working for his family's construction business with his younger brother, Frank (Sebastian Manisalco), and father, Dominick (Tony Lo Bianco). When Leo learns that Matthew's girlfriend, Dani (Sadie Stanley), a waitress, dumped his son before his college basketball tryout, he secretly bribes her to continue dating Matthew for a few weeks and not end her relationship with him until after the tryout.

      The screenplay by writer/director Ray Romano and Mark Stegemann sees and treats its characters as human beings, warts and all. TThey do a great job of introducing the characters in the opening scene at a wedding which also sets up the film's effective blend of comedy and drama. Leo isn't a very likable lead character because of how he meddles in his son's relationship with his girlfriend to coerce her into not dumping him yet. The way that Leo just shows up at Dani's door without prior notice to bribe her makes him seem creepy and immature. At least Leo doesn't catfish his son like in the cringe-inducing I Love My Dad. Fortunately, Somewhere in Queens doesn't villainize Leo. His reasons for meddling aren't malicious, though: he doesn't want Matthew, a.k.a. Sticks, to be heartbroken because it would most likely affect his performance at the college basketball tryout. After all, isn't it a parent's job to protect their child from harm from themselves and from others? He thinks he knows what's best for his son, but, fundamentally, he's afraid to watch his son grow up and deal with real adult emotions like heartbreak. Or perhaps Leo is ill-equipped as a parent to teach his son how to overcome heartbreak which is a normal part of life and growing up.

      It's fascinating to observe the dynamics of Leo's relationship with Matthew and how he reacts when confronted with what he did behind his back. It's a scene that could've been over-the-top or maudlin, but instead feels true-to-life and shows compassion for all of the characters, especially Leo. The only villain in the film is a silent one: Angela's cancer which she had battled and is currently in remission from. There are a few genuinely poignant moments between her and Leo as well as her and Matthew. Somewhere in Queens also effectively includes just enough witty comic relief without resulting in any unevenness or going overboard with the comedy, so writer/director Ray Romano and Mark Stegemann should be commended for finding the right balance between comedy and tragedy without veering into dark, unflinching or emotionally devastating territory. It's similar to the tone of City Island which would make for a great double feature.

      Laurie Metcalf gives the strongest performance in Somewhere in Queens while grounding the film with emotional resonance while making the most out of her supporting role as Leo's wife. She and Ray Romano have chemistry together which, with the help of the organic screenplay, help to make Angela and Leo believable as a married couple, including when they bicker. The soundtrack is well-chosen, especially the song that plays over the opening credits. The cinematography and editing are fine with any scenes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Somewhere in Queens, despite its bland title, is actually a warm, engrossing and witty portrait of an Italian American family that's far from bland.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens nationwide.

To Catch a Killer

Directed by Damián David Szifron

      Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn), the FBI's chief investigator, recruits Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley), a police investigator, to help the FBI profile a serial killer who's on the loose in Baltimore.

      The screenplay by writer/director Damián Szifron and co-writer Jonathan Wakeham begins with a suspenseful and thrilling first act before fizzling out into a vapid, by-the-numbers and undercooked crime thriller. There's nothing inherently wrong with a film that heavily borrows from other films from a similar genre because many films, even great ones like The Bride Wore Black are derivative. To Catch a Killer's screenwriters know where to take ideas from, but not where to take ideas to or how to execute them in a way that even holds a candle to the high quality of the superior films. What distinguishes this film from better crime thrillers? It doesn't spend enough time humanizing its characters; instead it just teases the audience with a few details, i.e. Eleanor's traumatic past, without delving into them. The plot just seems to be going through the motions while Eleanor and Geoffrey are just pawns to move the plot forward. The Silence of the Lambs boasts a fascinating and complex albeit very dark relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter that surprisingly rings true. To Catch a Killer doesn't have a single fascinating relationship that feels true-to-life. There's little to no wit, comic relief or surprises. Moreover, the villain remains underdeveloped which makes him just as dull as this film. He's not even remotely as iconic or interesting as Hannibal Lecter.

      Ben Mendelsohn is the only actor who rises above the shallow screenplay. He exudes charisma and makes the stilted dialogue somewhat tolerable. Shailene Woodley gives an uneven performance, sometimes over-acting, sometimes under-acting. The screenplay doesn't provide enough of a window into Eleanor's heart, mind and soul which is disappointing because it would've provided Shailene with a better opportunity to showcase her acting talent which she does so amazingly in The Descendants. On a purely aesthetic level, To Catch a Killer has impressive production values that add some atmosphere through cinematography, lighting and editing which help make the film more cinematic and even creepy at times, i.e. during the opening scene. Style alone isn't enough to make a crime thriller engaging, though; it also needs substance to go along with it. At a running time of just under 2 hours, To Catch a Killer is a slick and stylish, but vapid and undercooked crime thriller with a dull and forgettable villain. If The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Holy Spider or Zodiac were the A-movie in a double feature, To Catch a Killer would be the inferior B-movie.

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


Directed by György Fehér

      Felügyelõ (Péter Haumann), a policeman, investigates the murder of three young girls who were murdered in a forest by a serial killer who lured them with candy. When his the main suspect commits suicide, Felügyelõ remains committed so solving the case.

      The screenplay by writer/director György Fehér and co-writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, based on Dürrenmatt's novella The Pledge, is a gripping, slow-burning crime thriller that's as chilling as Insomnia and Zodiac. This isn't the kind of thriller that relies on palpable suspense or intense action scenes. Fehér and Dürrenmatt build the suspense gradually without a lot of exposition. The plot isn't very convoluted, but it does become increasingly complex and intriguing. The filmmakers trust the audience's emotions and intelligence, so Twilight isn't for audiences looking to be spoon-fed or have their hands held, so-to-speak, during the film. In other words, it treats the audience like human beings and mature adults from start to finish. There's no voice-over narration or flashbacks. Even the plot unfolds in a linear structure that's pretty conventional. However, the way that it's told is unconventional. Even though it's a crime thriller, it veers into psychological horror at times and remains unafraid to go into dark territory. If you're looking for comic relief or wit to balance the heavy plot, this isn't the film for you. It's a thoroughly grim, foreboding and creepy experience that's scarier and more haunting than most modern horror films---and what makes it even more terrifying is that the villain isn't supernatural.

      The black-and-white cinematography coupled with the setting deep in the forest provide plenty of atmosphere an visual poetry. The opening scene with the bird's-eye view of the forest sets the film's tone effectively. The slow pace, which takes a while to get used to, makes it easier to feel engrossed by the cinematography. Twilight has many quiet moments which are more powerful than the scenes with dialogue, so kudos to the filmmakers for grasping the value of quietness. Moreover, the performances feel natural which further grounds the film in realism. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Twilight is a taut, chilling and intelligent crime thriller that deserves to become a cult classic.

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