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Reviews for April 26th, 2024

Documentaries/Experimental Films

      Art College 1994 is a semi-autobiographical animated film about writer/director Liu Jian's experiences at Chinese Southern Academy of Arts during the 1990s. The screenplay by him and co-writer Shan Lin follows various students as they attend classes, talk with their friends, discuss art, philosophize and deal with a potential romance. There's a hint of a compelling scene on a bridge where one of the characters puts a coin on the railing and makes a wish that can only be granted if it falls onto the bridge when a train rumbles by. It's a sweet scene, but, like nearly every scene in the film, there's not much of a payoff. If you can imagine a Hong Sang-soo movie crossed with Waking Life minus the humor and wit, you'll get a sense of what it's like to watch Art College 1994. The 2D animation style isn't exceptional in any way or dazzling enough to transcend beyond mediocrity. Even the character designs are very bland and lacking emotion which doesn't help the audience to connect with anyone on screen. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Art College 1994 is occasionally cerebral and lyrical, but often meandering, dry, overlong and lethargic with underwritten, forgettable characters and not enough onscreen to captivate the audience. It opens at Metrograph via Dekanalog.

      Beyond the Raging Sea is a shallow, underwhelming and clunkily edited documentary about Omar Nour and Omar Samra, two Egyptian adventurers who took part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000 nautical mile journey by rowboat from the Canary Island to Antigua. Director Marco Orsini includes talking-head interviews with both men as they recall the challenges and near-death experiences that they endured for the race which took 40 days. There's no doubt that they've been through a lot, especially when their boat capsized before a cargo ship rescued them. Some of this documentary feels thrilling, but, beyond that, there's too little to keep the audience engaged because Orsini barely scratches the surface of what went on inside Nour and Samra's head during their ordeal. Orsini also fails to provide a larger scope with provocative themes. The sudden inclusion of refugees' struggles toward the end arrives too late and feels too brief as though it belongs in a separate documentary. Moreover, there are some excessively and unnecessarily stylish editing choices during some of the cuts between scenes. A truly great documentary manages to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Beyond the Raging Sea ultimately fails to find that important balance that better documentaries like Maiden manage to find. At a running time of 1 hour and 10 minutes, it opens at Cinema Village via Cinema Libre Studio.

      Jamie Wyeth and the Unflinching Eye is an illuminating and engrossing documentary biopic about Jamie Wyeth, an American realist painter. Director Glenn Holsten does a great job on providing insights about Wyeth's life as well as his work as an artist. He's the third generation of painters in his family after his father, Andrew, and grandfather, N.C., also pursued a career in painting. He never met his grandfather, but he did include him in one of his paintings. Holsten combines interviews with Jamie Wyeth and art experts who describe what makes his paintings so exceptional. He painted nature and portraits of famous people like JFK, Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev. Just by observing the Warhol portrait, you can tell that Wyeth indeed has an unflinching eye because he shows Warhol's skin with all of its blemishes intact. So, as an artist, he believes in capturing the truth. As someone astutely observes about him, he also leaves some room for interpretation in his paintings. In 2021, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston loaned Wyeth's portrait of JFK to President Joe Biden which speaks volumes about how powerful and iconic the painting is. You don't have to be passionate about painting to be captivated by this well-edited and heartfelt documentary, but it might inspire you to pick up a paintbrush or, at the very least, to seek out Jamie Wyeth's paintings at a museum. At a running time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Jamie Wyeth and the Unflinching Eye opens at Quad Cinema via Juno Films.

      Lyd is a provocative, heartfelt and eye-opening documentary about Lyd, a formerly Palestinian town that's now in Israel and known as Lod. Co-directors Sarah Ema Friedland and Rami Younis chart the history of Lyd from the peaceful times to the time when Israeli paramilitary groups occupied the city during Nakba in 1948 to modern times when it's mixed with both Arabs and Jews. They go beyond that, though, to also imagine what Lyd would be like if the ethnic cleansing, Nakba, never occurred. There are interviews with the mayor of Lod, Palestinians who survived Nakba, former Israeli soldiers, and more, so Lyd is a refreshingly thorough, fair and balanced documentary. It's also creative by using some animated sequences and the voice of Lyd, Maisaa Abd El-Hadik, the narrator. The testimonies of the Nakba survivors are emotionally devastating and not easy to listen to because of the vivid details of the violence and suffering, but it's essential for the sake of truth and democracy. With the rise of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Oct. 7th massacre, this is a very timely documentary that shows the systemic issues plaguing the Israelis and Palestinians. It would be an interesting double feature with Tantura and Mourning in Lod. At a running time of just 1 hour and 18 minutes, Lyd opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema.

      Terrestrial Verses is a series of vignettes about the daily struggles of people in modern day Iran. The screenplay by co-writers/directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami begins with the story of a father who wants to register his infant son's name as David, but he's not allowed to because it's not in the list of approved names. In another vignette, Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari), a young woman, gets interrogated while being accused of not wearing a hijab while driving. She claims that her brother was the driver when she's shown footage that the interrogator believes is evidence of her wrongdoing. A young girl at a clothing store tries on a hijab, but she's uncomfortable in it and asks her mother why she doesn't put it on since she's the one who likes it. A young man applying for a driver's license must disrobe to show his tattoos of spiritual verses by the poet Rumi. An elderly woman searches for her dog at a police station. This vignette is the funniest and also ends on a surprisingly unexpected note. A filmmaker must tear out parts of his screenplay to appease a censor who doesn't like the fact that a policeman is portrayed negatively and that the protagonist's wife gets killed. The filmmaker insists that he wrote the policeman as a multidimensional character, but to no avail. None of the vignettes are connected, so some of the transitions between them are abrupt and might make you wish that they were fleshed out into longer stories. However, it's always better to want a narrative to be longer rather than shorter. Each vignette makes its point and moves on to the next one without wasting any time with filler except for the shots of Tehran that bookend the film---the first shot is Tehran at dawn and the last shows buildings falling down during an earthquake. At a running time of 1 hour and 17 minutes, Terrestrial Verses is provocative, engrossing and poetic. It opens at Film Forum via KimStim.

      Uncropped is a fascinating and captivating documentary biopic about James Hamilton, an American photojournalist who shot the art scene in NYC since the 1970s. Director D.W. Young interviews Hamilton himself who provides plenty of insight about his career as photographer which started when he became the staff photographer for a rock music magazine called Crawdaddy!. His photography isn't just limited to music, though; it includes the film scene, art scene and even war photography. His work was featured in The Village Voice, Harper's Bazaar, among other print outlets. He wouldn't let anyone publish his photographs if they were cropped. In terms of its structure, Uncropped is conventional as it charts Hamilton's life and career beginning with his early years as he learned the ropes. Many of the film's anecdotes are illuminating, like how he managed to make Alfred Hitchcock smile during a photoshoot. He became the unit photographer for a number of film projects including Knightriders, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Squid and the Whale. Wes Anderson talks about how Hamilton shot what was going on off on the side of the film set instead of right in front of the camera. Not surprisingly, he and Hamilton became friends and he even let him have a cameo because he has an interesting face. What makes Uncropped transcend an average documentary is that director D.W. Young captures Hamilton's warmth through the interviews, therefore avoiding turning the film into a dry, "academic" documentary. Hamilton comes across as friendly, intelligent, candid, articulate and humble which makes him a great documentary subject. There's a brief mention toward the end about the tragic fall of print journalism, a timely topic that deserves a separate documentary. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, Uncropped opens at IFC Center via Greenwich Entertainment.


The Big Bend

Directed by Brett Wagner

      Cory (Jason Butler Harner) drives his wife, Melanie (Virginia Kull), and kids to visit their friends, Mac (David Sullivan) and his wife, Georgia Talbott (Erica Ash), who live out in the small town of Terlingua, Texas. Their friendship and marriage get put to the test while they spend time together.

      The screenplay by writer/director Brett Wagner takes a while to get going to somewhere interesting. During the first 45 minutes or so, the plot doesn't kick into full gear as Wagner shows Cory and Melanie interacting with Mac and Georgia with nothing exciting happening yet. That changes, though, when Cory, Mac and their kids go on a hike together while leaving their wives behind. Something happens to Fiona (Delilah Wagner) that won't be spoiled here, but at that point, The Big Bend swerves into an unexpectedly different genre like Antonioni's L'Avventura. Unfortunately, it bites off more than it could chew and doesn't maintain its suspense as it also tries to juggle other subplots like Mac and Georgia's marital issues. Complicating matters even further, there's a drifter, Karl (Nick Masciangelo) who poses a danger to both families, but there's more to him than meets the eye. At times, The Big Bend is a thriller, at times it's a drama and other times it veers toward psychological horror. So much goes on during the film, but the many underdeveloped subplots make it all feel disjointed. The third act has a few twists and turns that are surprisingly and unpredictable, though, and Wagner deserves to be commended for taking the plot into dark territory without going bonkers like too many films do nowadays.

      The performances are decent without anyone giving a wooden or hammy performance. The film's major strength, though, is how it uses its scenery to create atmosphere and even some visual poetry occasionally. Its landscape alone makes it feel concurrently cinematic and breathtaking. To be fair, there are pacing issues. The beginning moves slowly until the pace somewhat after a tragic event occurs, so for the first 45 minutes requires some patience from the audience. At a runnin time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, The Big Bend is refreshingly unpredictable, atmospheric and mildly engaging, but unfocused, overstuffed and undercooked.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Eammon Films.
Opens at Look Cinemas West 57th.

Boy Kills World

Directed by Moritz Mohr

      A deaf mute (Bill Skarsgård), raised by a shaman (Yayan Ruhian) in the jungle, prepares to seek revenge against a ruthless dictator, Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen), who's responsible for murdering his family.

      Director Mortiz Mohr and his co-writers, Tyler Burton Smith and Arend Remmers, have created a wildly entertaining action comedy. The screenplay begins with some exposition about the nameless boy's childhood when he witnesses Hilda Van Der Koy murdering his mother and sister while leaving him deaf and mute. He spends the rest of his childhood, teenage and young adult years with a shaman in the jungle. Now's the time for him to finally avenge his family's death, so the shaman prepares him for a battle as he takes on the Van Der Koy family including Glen (Brett Gelman), Melanie (Michelle Dockery), and Gideon (Sharlto Copley). A major plot twist that gets revealed midway turns Boy Kills World from a dark comedy into a more interesting psychological drama that still delivers plenty of thrills and suspense. It's a shocking twist, but at least it's not nearly as disturbing as the twist in Old Boy. The filmmakers find just the right tone with some tongue-in-cheek humor, macabre humor, and outrageously funny action scenes that go over-the-top in ways that won't be spoiled here. If you're a fan of Monkey Man, Kill Bill and John Wick, you'll find this to be just as much as a guilty pleasure that isn't afraid to go bonkers and to take risks.

      Bill Skarsgård is very well-cast in the lead role and exudes charisma. H. Jon Benjamin does the voice of his inner monologue which occasionally gets annoying, but at times it's quite hilarious.Sharlto Copley and Brett Gelman make the most out of their supporting roles while displaying their great comedic timing. Famke Janssen is also superb and has a lot of fun in her role as Hilda. The highlights of Boy Kills World are its well-choreographed fight sequences including a very memorable one taking place inside a kitchen that's as funny as the kitchen fight scene in Jean-Claude Van Damme's Sudden Death. Bravo to the filmmakers for not holding back on the blood and guts which are quite graphic while leaving little to the imagination. The pace moves fast with rarely a dull moment, although the running time of 1 hour 55 minutes does feel overlong and lead to slight exhaustion by the time the end credits roll. Boy Kills World is ultimately a rousing, action-packed and outrageously action comedy. It deserves to become a cult classic.

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


Directed by Luca Guadagnino

      Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former tennis player now working as a coach, convinces her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), to compete at a Challenger tournament. Little does he know that he'll be playing tennis against Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), his former best friend and doubles partner. Patrick also used to be Tashi's boyfriend and still has a crush on her.

      Part tennis movie, part romantic drama, and part comedy Challengers is a very mixed bag of genres that never quite finds its footing. One of its systemic issues comes from the tonally uneven and unfocused screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes that repeatedly goes back and forth to different time periods of Art and Patrick's friendship. The non-linear plot makes the tennis match between Art and Patrick less suspenseful because all of the flashbacks constantly interrupt it. Why do the romantic drama subplots seem so needlessly convoluted? Is it to hide its lack of complexity and emotional depth? At its core, it's about a ménage à trois between Tashi, Art and Patrick that leads to Patrick's broken heart when Art marries her. Will she cheat on Art with Patrick? To be fair, it's hard to care because Tashi seems toxic for the way she treats Art by giving him an ultimatum: if he loses the tennis match, she'll leave him. Why would Art even want to be with someone manipulative like her? Challengers has very little to say about sex, sexuality, sensuality, love, marriage or friendship. The scenes on the court are occasionally exhilarating and among the film's highlights; off the court, though, Challengers turns into a contrived and meandering melodrama that's far from being bold, risqué, refreshing, profound or brilliant.

       Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor and Zendaya give convincingly moving performances and manage to add some nuance, sexiness and charisma to an otherwise heavy-handed and shallow film. So, any emotional depth comes from them, not from the screenplay. The most interesting character, though, isn't Tashi, Art or Patrick, but the camera which director Luca Guadagnino makes sure to use in many different ways like showing an unlikely perspective: the tennis ball. Yes, it looks like Art and Patrick are hitting the camera back and forth during a tennis game. Then he shows the audience yet another unlikely perspective: from under the tennis court. Both sides of the tennis court are rarely shown simultaneously like the way a spectator sitting on the bleachers would be observing it. For an example of better-shot tennis scenes, see Battles of the Sexes. Meanwhile, Challengers drowns those scenes, among others, in the same pulsating techno music over and over. You'll feel like you're watching a music video, not a movie. Not since Elvis has a movie's visual style gotten so much in the way of its little amount of substance. Also, it's not a good sign that you can feel the wait of the long running time that goes over the 2 hour-mark. At 2 hours and 11 minutes, Challengers is sexy, slick and well-acted, but unnecessarily convoluted and emotionally hollow with excessive style over substance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by MGM.
Opens in theaters nationwide.

Dancing Village: The Curse Begins

Directed by Kimo Stamboel

      In an attempt to cure her mother's illness, Mila (Maudy Effrosina), her cousin,  Yuda (Jourdy Pranata) and his friend, Arya (Ardit Erwandha), travel to a remote Indonesian village to return an ancient bracelet.  Badarawuhi (Aulia Sarah), an evil spirit, haunts the village and holds a ceremony to choose someone to be among the cursed dancers who spend the rest of eternity dancing.  

      Dancing Village: The Curse Begins, a prequel to KKN Di Desa Penari, is a supernatural horror thriller that's not very scary, but it does offer a few creepy scenes. The screenplay by Lele Laila makes it obvious from the beginning that the village that Mila will be traveling to is haunted and that her mother's illness has something to do with the bracelet that she had taken from the village years ago. She discovers that a local girl's mother happens to be ill like her own mother and that their illness might have something to do with Badarawuhi (Aulia Sarah). However, takes too long to realize that something sinister lurks in the village because by the time she does, the audience is already way ahead of her. Exposition isn't among the screenplay's strengths because it reveals too much too soon. Badarawuhi isn't a terrifying supernatural villain nor an interesting one. So, a weak villain is never a good sign in any kind of movie, especially a horror film.  The plot just goes through the motions without exploring Mila's relationship with her mother or the bond between her and her cousin. Soon enough, the film becomes tedious as well as less and less engaging without any surprises or palpable scares.  

       Dancing Village: The Curse Begins has decent production design and cinematography, but nothing that stands out beyond adding a hint of creepiness. Director Kimo Stamboel squanders the opportunity to deliver the scares with the setting in the woods. At least he doesn't rely on gore or shaky-cam to intensify the film. None of the performances manage to rise above the dull screenplay. Flashbacks are handled clunkily, and you can feel the weight of the lengthy running time, so it's a shame that the film isn't tighter and leaner. At 2 hours and 2 minutes, Dancing Village: The Curse Begins is creepy and atmospheric, but overlong, repetitive and low on scares, surprises and imagination.

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


Directed by Caitlin Cronenberg

      In a futuristic world where climate change has caused the environment to collapse, the government has program called Enlistment that seeks to reduce the population through people who agree to commit suicide. Their children will get paid subsequently. Charles (Peter Gallagher), a journalist, gathers his adult children, Rachel (Emily Hampshire), Ashley (Alanna Bale), Noah (Sebastian Chacon) and Jared (Jay Baruchel), together to announce that he and his wife, Dawn (Uni Park), have agreed to "enlist" together. The night doesn't go quite as smoothly as he had planned.

      Screenwriter Michael Sparaga knows where to take ideas from, but not where to take them to. The premise doesn't earn any points for originality, which is fine because it's more important how it's executed. Humane takes too long to get to the meat of the story as it spends a lot of time with exposition and introducing Charles and his family members each of whom has his or her own issues that they're dealing with. So, yes, this is yet another B-movie that bites off more than it could chew. That said, there's enough exposition to avoid confusing the audience about what's actually. Bob (Enrico Colantoni), an employee of the Department of Citizen Strategy, arrives for the "enlisting" and makes it clear he's there to collect 2 bodies and that no one will be able to use their cell phone because their signal has been intentionally blocked. Without giving away any spoilers, Charles and his family turn out to be more dysfunctional than you may think after you meet them at first. What starts out as a provocative satire with psychological horror turns into a dark, heavy-handed action thriller. Its systemic issue, though, is that the suspense wanes once the ending gets telegraphed with a shot of a cell phone that someone threw onto the front lawn where the cell phone signal suddenly works and a crucial text message happens to get successfully sent. Why keep the audience a few steps ahead of the characters? Why not allow them to be on the same page in terms of important information that they know? The beat doesn't land when the person who received the text message shows up later on. It also doesn't help that Bob is often silly and almost campy at times. He's rarely menacing. Humane suffers from an uneven blend of dark comedy, satire, drama and thrills thereby making it feel like a tonal mess. One minute, it's taking itself seriously and the next it's not. Concurrently, it doesn't take any of its satirical elements far enough nor does it take enough risks by pushing the envelope or delving into its "world building" beyond just scratching the surface.

      Out of the entire ensemble cast, the actor who shines the brightest is Enrico Colantoni as Bob because of his great comedic timing and facial expressions that make the most out of the tongue-in-cheek humor. It's fun to see Bob's reaction when Rachel's daughter, Mia (Sirena Gulamgaus), cuts his playing cards as an act of revenge against him. Director Caitlin Cronenberg doesn't leave much to the imagination when it comes to the violence and gore of which there is plenty. Some of it might make the audience with a weak stomach a little squeamish, but that's part of the point, so it's effective on a visceral level. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Humane is a gritty, darkly comedic thriller, but it's tonally uneven, undercooked and lacking enough satirical bite.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

Nowhere Special

Directed by Uberto Pasolini

      John (James Norton), a single father, works as a window cleaner and lives with his 4-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Lamont). After learning that he's going to imminently die from a terminal illness, he searches for the right family to adopt Michael.

      The screenplay b writer/director Uberto Pasolini has a plot that unfolds very gently with minimal exposition. All that the audience knows within the first 30 minutes is that John has an unspecified terminal illness and seeks the help of social service to find an adoptive family for Michael. It can't just be any adoptive family. Even the ones who seem eager to adopt Michael might not be the right match. Nowhere Special follows John as he comes to terms with his approaching death and parting with his beloved son. It captures their father-son bond in a way that feels painstakingly true-to-life. There are no villains except for the silent disease that's killing John. Instead, there are complex human beings who want to be happy and fulfilled. Pasolini effectively manages to avoid schmaltz, melodrama, unnecessary subplots, on-the-nose dialogue, over-explaining and tonal unevenness. There are some brief moments of levity, but, for the most part, the film remains melancholic and somber. Nowhere Special accomplishes the same feat that socio-realist directors like Ken Loach also accomplish: it presents a "slice-of-life" or a "Truth" and finds the Spectacle within that truth. Small things that might seem mundane become more profound in the process. Not a second feels contrived from start to finish, and the final shot will haunt you for days with its understated emotional resonance with an image that speaks louder than words.

      James Norton gives a raw, convincingly moving performance that finds the emotional truth of his role, even during the scenes without words. Newcomer Daniel Lamont is also worth mentioning. Their father-son bond feels palpable and real which is a testament to their performances as well as the sensitive screenplay that sees and treats John and Michael as human beings, warts and all. The pace moves slow, but not too slow, and there aren't any scenes that overstay their welcome. At 1 hour and 36 minutes, Nowhere Special is a warm, tender and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Unsung Hero

Directed by Richard Ramsey & Joel Smallbone

      After his music business in Australia fails, David (Joel Smallbone), Helen (Daisy Betts) and their seven children move to America where they start afresh and encourage their children's passion for music.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by co-writers/directors Richard Ramsey and Joel Smallbone follows the Smallbone family as they leave behind their life in Australia and move to the US, the land of opportunity. They hope to succeed in their music industry there, but they go through a lot of struggle to achieve that goal. Along the way, they support each other as a family and stick together. David and Helen notice their children's passion and talent for music, and push them to follow their heart. They soon begin a music career doing what they love with the emotional support of their family. Unsung Hero does have a few cloying scenes, but, for the most part, it remains sweet and tender. The film avoids being dark and unflinching which is fine because not every film has to be a 100% slice-of-life. Some films are a slice of life while others are a slice of cake, as Hitchcock once observed. Unsung Hero manages to be a slice of life cake. It's conventional and often plays it safe, but it has a warm, beating heart beneath the surface. There are no villains or annoying characters. The screenplay also has just the right amount of levity and some inspirational scenes with life wisdom sans preachiness. Most importantly, it ultimately earns its uplift.

      Joel Smallbone and Daisy Betts give genuinely moving performances that help to ground the film in authenticity. The music is among the many highlights because it transcends words and will nourish your soul. If you're a fan of "for King + Country," the Christian music duo with Joel and Luke Smallbone, you'll be happy to hear their music. If you're never heard them before, you'll be tempted to seek out more of their music. This is the story of how they became the legends in Inspirational Music. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Unsung Hero is an uplifting, heartfelt and captivating story about faith, family, and believing in the American Dream.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens in theaters nationwide.