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Reviews for April 30th, 2021

Documentary Round-Up

      Duty Free, directed by Sian-Pierre Regis, sheds light on the topics of ageism, happiness, perseverance and fulfillment through the journey of Sian-Pierre and his mother, Rebecca Danigelis, who was fired from her job as a hotel housekeeper at the age of 75. Sian-Pierre asks his mother to create a bucket list and raises $60k on Kickstarter to help her to fulfill the activities on that list which includes learning how to hip hop, skydive and milk a cow. He creates an Instagram account for her while documenting her adventure. The first half of the doc feels upbeat and very light compared to the last half that goes into slightly darker territory involving the reunion of Rebecca with her estranged daughter, Joanne, from another marriage years ago. Meanwhile, Sian-Pierre teaches his mother how to use the internet to apply for new jobs which is easier said than done, but she does land a few interviews. It's heartwarming and inspiring to watch him be so kind and compassionate to his mother and to watch them bond with one another. He, as the audience, learns a lot about her past as well as her personality in the process which humanizes her. Putting a human face to the human rights issues that the doc raises to the surface is its major strength. It would've been more profound and illuminating if it explored its topics through experts rather than merely show the footage of Sian-Pierre and his mother's journey. Societies, after all, are measured by how the elderly are treated. If the doc were to have broadened its scope more insightful. At a brief running time of just 1 hour and 13 minutes, Duty Free is a heartfelt documentary that ultimately bites off more than it could chew. It opens in select theaters and on VOD. 

Cliff Walkers

Directed by Zhang Yimou

      In the 1930's, four Chinese spies, Chuilang (Zhu Yawen), Lan (Liu Haocun), Zhang (Zhang Yi) and Yu (Quin Hailu) infiltrate Manchukuo, a puppet state of the Empire of Japan located in China. The Japanese had bombed an internment camp in Manchukuo to cover-up the existence of the camp. The four spies' mission is to rescue a surviving prisoner who was held at an internment camp in hopes of exposing the truth around the world.

      Cliff Walkers seems more concerned about moving its plot forward than about developing any of its characters or delving into their relationships. The screenplay by Quan Yongxian is almost as dry, convoluted and confusing as the screenplay of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which means that it's almost as exhausting to try to figure out what's going on. Yongxian and director Zhang Yimou could've used a little bit more exposition and slowed the pace of the plot down a bit to allow the film to breathe more. It's hard to be riveted when you're not emotionally invested in any of the characters' lives enough. The third act does generate some emotions, but by then it's too little, too late. Cliff Walkers does seem epic in scope, so it's disappointing that it doesn't manage to be an enthralling or sweeping epic. There's also not enough levity to balance the heaviness of the serious subject matter, so the film becomes increasingly monotonous and somewhat tedious, especially during the second act. A more sensitive, less shallow screenplay would've made it a much more powerful experience.

      One of Cliff Walkers' strengths, though, is that it does have great production values. The cinematography, set design, costume design, editing as well as some of the scenery add plenty of style. Style can often become part of a film's substance, and it does accomplish that feat somewhat, but not enough to overcome the screenplay's lack of depth. The action scenes provide sporadic thrills which keep you entertained on a palpable level. It's too bad, though, that Cliff Walkers, at a running time of 2 hours, suffers from style over substance while failing to leave a lasting impression. In other words, it engages the eyes and ears, but not enough of the heart, mind or soul.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Utopia.
Opens only theaters.

Four Good Days

Directed by Rodrigo García


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Vertical Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.

Golden Arm

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha

      Melanie (Mary Holland), has a mundane job as a baker and deals with rude customers. Her best friend, Danny (Betsy Sodaro), a trucker, comes to her rescue by inviting her to tag along with her in her truck and to split the money they'll make at the end of the delivery route. Little does Melanie know until later on Danny wants her to replace her at an  Women's Arm Wrestling Championship which has a large cash prize. Melanie and Danny used to arm wrestle back in their college days, but she never competed professionally under now. Big Sexy (Dot-Marie Jones) trains her for the championship while she sparks a romance with the referee, Greg (Eugene Cordero).

      The screenplay by Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly is more silly than funny or witty and it doesn't have any surprises up its sleeve, but it doesn't really need to surprise the audience to entertain them. Melanie and Danny's friendship does have its ups and downs, yet they love each other and care about each other. To be fair, Danny's character comes across as a bit too over-the-top and even a bit annoying like nails on a chalkboard. She's similar to the kind of characters that Melissa McCarthy usually plays, i.e. in Bridesmaids and The Heat. Her rapport and quips with Melanie, though, are quite amusing, though, especially when they banter during the truck ride. She's a great ball of energy while Melanie seems more chill, so they seem like opposites in terms of their personality, like Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World. It's great that the screenwriters give them a personality because that makes both characters all the more human. If they were given more backstory besides some glimpses from their college days, they'd be even more fleshed out human beings and would've made their friendship become more emotionally resonating.

      The chemistry between Melanie and Danny is what keeps Golden Arm from falling apart. That's a testament to the casting director, Amey René, and also to the acting chops of Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro who make Melania and Danny believable to the audience as best friends. Although the film doesn't have much that's profound to say about friendship per se, it's nice to see a true friendship depicted authentically onscreen. The subplot involving Melanie's romance with Greg seems a bit too Hollywood and superfluous, as though it were merely there for filler. The arm wrestling scenes aren't particularly suspenseful and the ending can be seen from a mile away, especially if you've seen an underdog sports movie before. Fundamentally, underneath all of the comedy and arm wrestling action, it's about a friendship and a sort of love story between two women which is quite refreshing and rare to see on screen these days. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Golden Arm is somewhat silly, too over-the-top and rather conventional as an underdog sports movie, but much more engaging as a movie about friendship. 

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

Percy vs. Goliath

Directed by Clark Johnson


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


Directed by William Brent Bell


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Open Road Films.
Opens only theaters.