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Reviews for April 8th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Cow is an unflinching glimpse of the life of a dairy cow on an English farm. The cow, named Luma, gives birth twice to a calf, produces milk and gets separated from her calves. Director Andrea Arnold uses a fly-on-the-wall approach to showing Luma on the farm. There are no interviews with the farmers, no music score to accompany the images, and no narration or texts to describe what you're seeing. She grasps precisely how powerful images and sound can be. Images are often more powerful than words which is the case with this spellbinding documentary. The sounds are natural which makes the film all the more immersive. The images aren't picturesque or glossed up in any way through editing.

      Andrea Arnold makes you feel as though you were there at the farm interacting with Luna, so the audience, in a way, becomes an essential part of the film. You become less aware of the camera and, soon enough, you begin projecting from your own experiences and making your judgements about what you're observing. As you take in the sights and sounds, Luna eventually becomes anthropomorphized. Bravo to Andrea Arnold for trusting the audience's emotions and letting them to emotionally process Cow. There are lots of emotions to process during and after the film as well. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Cow is a transcendent, profound experience for those who open their heart, mind and soul to it. IFC Films opens Cow at IFC Center and on VOD.


Directed by Michael Bay

      Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) desperately needs money to pay the medical bills of his wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), who has cancer. He turns to his adopted brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), for help with his money problems, but Danny convinces him to join him in a bank heist to steal $8 million. The heist doesn't go as expected, and they steal an ambulance with an EMT, Cam Thompson (Eiza González), inside along with a wounded cop.

      The screenplay by Chris Fedak wastes takes a little too long to get right to the action that audiences expect from a Michael Bay film. He introduces the characters and their motives for a good 20 minutes before the bank heist occurs, so it feels like it's treated water until with lazy exposition. The rest of the film is a long, intense chase sequence through the streets of L.A. As if the conflict of Will and Danny stealing the ambulance and trying to evade capture weren't enough already, there's also the added tension from the wounded cop who's life remains at stake unless Cam can find a way to keep him alive. A lot goes on throughout Ambulance, yet so little actually sticks. Sure, the first 30 minutes or so of the action sequence feels like a rush of adrenaline, but that soon dissipates as the plot becomes tedious and increasingly preposterous. The dialogue is dull with little to no wit or comic relief, and the characters are forgettable. They're just there as mere pawns to move the plot forward. The plot isn't even that interesting to begin with and takes a backseat to the many, many action sequences. There's so much action that Ambulance becomes exhausting and dull around the hour mark and doesn't recover from that. Even the equally dumb F9 is more wildly entertaining.

      Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal give decent performances, but they deserve a better screenplay. They're not given enough material here to breathe life into their characters, so it's not their fault that you don't even sense the fact that Will and Danny have been siblings for years. Why aren't they just good friends instead? Did they have to be siblings? That's yet another plot detail that has no real purpose and doesn't go anywhere interesting. There's nothing exceptional about the camerawork; it's dizzying at times which leads to nauseam. All the quick cuts eventually get tiresome and unimaginative. Does every movie have to look like it's shot like a music video? Worst of all, the running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes is way too long. You can easily feel the weight of the running time which isn't something you want to feel while watching any movie. Ultimately, Ambulance is an exhausting, dull and bloated action thriller not worth chasing down.

Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

As They Made Us

Directed by Mayim Bialik

      Abigail (Dianna Agron) has a lot on her plate. She raises two kids with the help of her ex-husband, Peter (Charlie Weber). She has an unhealthy relationship with her narcissistic mother, Barbara (Candice Bergen). Her father, Eugene (Dustin Hoffman), who's just as toxic as her mother, suffers from a degenerative condition and has, at most, six months to live, according to his doctor. Abigail's brother, Nathan (Simon Helberg, has been estranged from the family for two decades. She emotionally blackmails him by using their father's health issues and imminent death to hoover him back into a relationship with their mother and father.

      It wouldn't be fair to call Barbara and Eugene parents because of how abusive they were and still are to their own children. The abuse includes physical and emotional abuse as well. As They Made Us doesn't shy away from showing that abuse, but the screenplay by writer/director Mayim Bialik spreads out the exposition when it comes to the childhood abuse through flashbacks to the younger versions of Abigail and Nathan (played by Anastasia Veronica Lee and Oliver Patnode). From the get-go, it's obvious that Barbara has no empathy or boundaries. She doesn't like it when Abigail dares to talk back to her or stand up for herself. She even refers to one of the doctors as "Dr.AshekeNAZI", making sure to mispronounce the last four letters of his name. Abigail didn't abuse her brother, so why is she the one that has to hoover him back into a relationship? She essentially volunteers to be her mother and father's flying monkey.

      Barbara or Eugene should've actually been the one to convince Nathan to come back, but only if they were both willing to acknowledge their actions and the consequences of their actions toward their son. He's been estranged from them for 20 years, so it's a big decision for him to suddenly see his abusive mother and father after all of these years. Neither Barbara nor Eugene have really seemed changed, so why should he light himself on fire just to keep them warm? Abigail wants to repair her relationship with Nathan, but that's a separate subplot that becomes more important later on. Barbara isn't as toxic as the mother in Mommy Dearest---the are no wire hangers here---but she's still far from being a good mother, and worse than Beth from Ordinary PeopleOrdinary People. Are Barbara and Eugene a malignant narcissists? That all depends on whether or not they're introspective, remorseful, empathetic and truly capable of changing which there isn't enough evidence of, so perhaps they are malignant. Writer/director Mayim Bialik should be commended for avoiding schmaltz and preachiness, especially during the third act, so As They Made Us doesn't become like the cloying and cringe-inducing The Family Stone.

      The moving performances Dianna Agron and Simon Helberg help to keep As They Made Us afloat and to ground it in authenticity. The emotional depth doesn't come from the screenplay, but rather from their performances. It's also great to see Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman together, and they add some charisma while breathing some life into their roles as well. Unfortunately, the third act is where the film takes a slight nosedive as it ties everything in a way that's a little too pat, oversimplified and contrived without cutting deep enough or tackling its darker, tragic elements head-on. That makes the ending, which won't be spoiled here, a bit of a cop-out and a squandered opportunity to be more powerful and haunting. Ordinary People does a much more honest job of examining the dynamics of a dysfunctional family dealing with trauma and abuse, and the effects that it has on both the children and their mother and father. Then there's also one of the best film's from last year Shiva Baby which also stars the underrated Dianna Agron. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, As They Made Us is well-acted and heartfelt, but ultimately undercooked and not unflinching enough.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Quiver Distribution.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.


Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

      In Donbass, the southeastern region of Ukraine, actors rehearse in a van for their task of spreading propaganda through fake news. A corrupt government official, Mikhalyich (Boris Kamorzin), visits a maternity hospital to show the staff that a doctor steals and hoards their food and supplies. The doctor (Evgeny Chepurnyak) turns out also to be sordid. A woman (Lyudmila Smorodina) walks into a town meeting and pours a bucket of manure onto the head of someone working for the media accusing them of fake news for making a false accusation (according to her, at least) about her in an article. Russian soldiers falsely accuse a German journalist (Thorsten Merten) of fascist with no grounds other than the fact that he's German. A man (Sergey Kolesov) marries a woman (Svetlana Kolesova) who seems far more happy to marry him than he is to marry her.

      Those are just some of the many vignettes in Donbass that paint an equally terrifying and darkly humorous portrait of the corrupt politics in Ukraine. Part satire, part war film and drama, the screenplay by writer/director Sergey Loznitsa bites off a lot more than it could chew, but it's nonetheless as provocative and searing as 1984. Lies are truth and war is peace in the Orwellian world of Donbass where the people are controlled by the fake news and the government corruption runs rampant as Russian separatists clash with Ukranians and others. Lines begin to blur from the very beginning in the vignette with the fake news actors that bookends the film. Everyone is used as a puppet. They're dehumanized and expandable. Lozanitsa himself blurs the line between documentary and fiction because Donbass is filmed like a documentary at times. Some of the vignettes are serious and unflinching while others are absurdly and wickedly funny. The amalgam of all of those genres and tones don't quite meld into a cohesive whole, though, so Donbass does suffer from some tonal unevenness. Lozanitsa doesn't delve into the lives of any of the characters either. Only a handful of them even have names for that matter. He's unafraid, though, to go into dark, cynical territory, and the final vignette reflects that. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, but perhaps that's most likely part of the film's point and as it should be.

      The acting in Donbass ranges from naturalistic during the serious scenes to off-the-wall and over-the-top during the satirical scenes. The natural performances add to the documentary-like feeling. When it comes to the editing, some of it feels choppy at times as one vignette leads to yet another. A few of the vignettes, i.e. the wedding scene, overstay their welcome and drive their point over and over. Less is more which is something that Loznitsa doesn't quite grasp in Donbass. He clearly has a lot to say and isn't afraid to provoke the audience, but at times he tests the audience's patience and trusts their patience too much which leads to some vignettes that are less emotionally resonant and more meandering and repetitive than others. The cinematography and washed-out colors enhance the film's bleakness. At a running time of 2 hours, Donbass is bold, haunting and terrifying, but tonally uneven and occasionally repetitive.

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

The Girl and the Spider

Directed by Silvan and Ramon Zürcher


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Cinema Guild.
Opens at The Metrograph and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Directed by Jeff Fowler

      Sonic (Voice of Ben Schwartz) must save the world from the nefarious Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) who's searching for a precious emerald that will give him world domination. Dr. Robotnik teams up with Knuckles (voice of Idris Elba) while Sonic teams up with Tails (voice of Colleen O’Shaughnessey). At the same time, Sonic's adoptive parents, Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tiki Sumpter), attend a wedding in Hawaii and leave Sonic home alone.

      Sonic the Hedgehog 2 plays it safe by being pretty much more of the same of the first film that became a box office success. That's both something positive and negative concurrently. If you're looking for something fresh, the screenplay by co-writers Pat Casey, Worm Miller and John Whittington will often be disappointing. The humor is slapstick, yet again, and veers more toward silliness than being laugh-out-loud funny. The villain hasn't really changed nor has Sonic's adoptive dad, Tom. They still have a sweet relationship where Tom teaches Sonic valuable life lessons about what it means to be a hero, especially after Sonic created a lot of destruction with one of his latest acts that he thought was heroic. Those "life lessons" scenes, which there are 2 of, are a bit preachy and tacked-on as though the screenwriters didn't know of a better way to include them and they had to, so that was the only way they could think of doing it. There are some sporadic thrills to be had during Sonic's adventures, and there's an amusing wedding scene that resorts to, yet again, slapstick humor. The best scenes, though, are with Dr. Robotnik. He's not very intimidating nor should he be because this is a movie geared for kids more than adults, but he's a lot of fun to watch with all of his tongue-in-cheek humor and zaniness.

      Jim Carrey brings his terrific comedic timing to make the most out of his role of the villain. knows how to go over-the-top in a way that's captivating much like he did in The Mask. He helps to invigorate the film as much as he did in the last one. The CGI is pretty impressive just as expected, and the pace moves briskly enough. What does take away from the narrative momentum, though, is the lengthy running time of 2 hour and 2 minutes. If it were 20 or 30 minutes shorter, it would've been a breezier and more entertaining action adventure, but around the 90 mark is when it begins to overstay its welcome. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is ultimately as harmless, mildly entertaining and amusing as the original, but it's too long and doesn't take enough risks.

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