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Reviews for August 11th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Aurora's Sunrise is a genuinely heartfelt, exhilarating and captivating documentary biopic about Aurora Mardiganian that also serves as an eye-opening reminder of the Armenian Genocide. It's one of the best documentaries of the year. Aurora Mardiganian was only a teenager when witnessed her family being murdered during the Armenian Genocide in 1915 before she was sold into sexual slavery and fled to the U.S. where she starred in a silent Hollywood film called Auction of Souls. Director Inna Sahakyan combines archival interviews, footage Auction of Souls and animation to tell Aurora's gripping story that's filled with twists and turns. It also doesn't shy away from going into dark territory by depicting the gory details of Aurora's experiences during the Armenian genocide---the descriptions of how women were killed are particularly devestating and shocking to hear and see, as they should be. This isn't a documentary for the faint of heart, but it does highlight Aurora's determination, resilience and courage. She's like a warrior in many ways and deserves to be commended for having the strength to speak about her traumatic experiences so candidly. Within despair, hope can be found. In a world filled with hate and suffering, there's also love and compassion. As Pablo Neruda once wisely observed in a poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Aurora's Sunrise is a roller coaster ride of emotions which makes it all the more haunting, emotionally resonating. Above all, it's brimming with pure, unadulterated humanity because it shows the full spectrum of humanity from the light side to the very dark side without any sugar-coating. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Aurora's Sunrise opens at New Plaza Cinema and Village East by Angelika via Bars Media Films.

      The Eternal Memory is a tender, unflinching and profoundly moving story about unconditional love. On the surface, it's a documentary about how Paulina Urrutia deals with her husband's Augusto Gongora battles with Alzheimer's. They've been together for 25 years and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2014. Since then, she has remained by his side while taking care of him both physically and emotionally. Director Maite Alberdi captures the warmth, compassion and palpable love between Paulina and Augusto. It's painful to watch at times and there's a sense of voyeurism as though you were eavesdropping on the couple's private lives. However, that's a sign of a truly intimate documentary and of Paulina and Augusto's emotional generosity because they allow the cameras to capture them at their emotionally vulnerable moments. Alberdi doesn't dwell on Augusto's suffering, though. You'll learn about how he met his wife and about his accomplishments as a TV journalist. The cinematography and editing are also superb with many small, quiet moments that speak louder than words. The Eternal Memory is a transcendent documentary that can be very useful, enlightening and inspiring for anyone who's taking care of someone with Alzheimer's. At an ideal running time of only 1 hour and 25 minutes, it opens at Angelika Film Center via MTV Documentary Films.

      King Coal is a breathtaking and lyrical, but sugar-coated and mildly engaging documentary that's too limited in scope. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon explores the history and significance of coal and coal mining in the Appalachian region of the United States. She captures the culture of Appalachia as well as the majestic quality of its natural lanscapes, but beyond it barely scratches the surface of its topic and fails to provoke the audience intellectually. Brief mentions of how coal miners suffer injuries from working in the coal mine aren't enough to provide much-needed balance and depth. There are more than two sides to every coin: there's the sides, the ridges, the corners, etc. King Coal mostly looks at coal and coal mining from a very myopic perspective. It also doesn't focus enough on getting to know the individual people from Appalachia which could've humanized the documentary much more. Perhaps it would serve better as a long promotional video for Appalachia. The director grew up in Appalachia, so a director who has much more distance from her subject might've led to a more provocative, fair and balanced documentary. At a running time of 1 hour and 18 minutes, King Coal opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema via Drexler Films.

      King on Screen is a shallow, hagiographic and incomplete documentary about what makes Stephen King so iconic as an author whose work has been adapted into more than 80 films and series. What makes it incomplete, you ask? Director Daphné Baiwir includes plenty of interviews with film directors like Frank Darabont who adapted King's books and also plenty of clips from the films and series. However, what's sorely missing are more background information about Stephen King -and interviews with King himself to get some insights straight from the horse's mouth. He's the elephant in the room, so-to-speak, but by the end of the doc, you learn too little about him and what makes him tick. A squandered opportunity to add much-needed depth is when the interview subjects discuss how King was injured in a car crash, the aftermath and his resilience, but that segment of the doc is too brief as though Baiwir were afraid to dig deeper to try to understand how King's near-death experiences affected King as a filmmaker and as a human being. King on Screen would be more fitting as a DVD extra in a boxed set of Stephen King's adapted films, but as a documentary feature, it's disappointing, overlong and underwhelming. At 1 hour and 45 minutes, it opens at Village East by Angelika via Dark Star Pictures.

3 Days in Malay

Directed by Louis Mandylor

      John Caputo (Louis Mandylor), a former marine, defends an airfield in Malay from the Japanese army while stationed there with other soldiers, including his good friend, James (Donald Cerrone), Conroy (Randall Bacon), and Simmons (Randy Wayne).

      . The screenplay by Brandon Slagle has a plot that feels so generic with poorly developed characters that you wouldn't believe that it's actually based on a true story. John comes across  as dull which makes it hard to care about him as a human being when the film barely even attempts to humanize him. He doesn't have much of a personality or anything that makes him stand out. Nor does it have an interesting backstory. How does he feel about serving in the marines in the past? How did it change him as a human being? How did it change the way he looks at war or, more philosophically, his perspectives on life and death? What about his family back home? 3 Days in Malay isn't concerned about even exploring any of that on a superficial level like truly great war films do. That's fine. Not every war film has to be like The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan or, more recently, 1917 and All Quiet on the Western Front. Sometimes a shallow war film can still be at least mildly entertaining. There were plenty of those kind of B-films back in the 1950's. 3 Days in Malay doesn't even succeed at accomplishing that minor feat. The dialogue is stilted and witless while sorely lacking comic relief. There's very little camaraderie between the soldiers except for a clunky scene where they briefly gather around in a circle to talk about themselves. This is yet another film that does a subpar job of incorporating exposition. Without allowing the audience to care about anyone on screen, none of the beats land during the action scenes.

      Unfortunately, even the action scenes aren't exceptional. They're competent, but not enough to invigorate the film or to add much needed visual style to compensate for the lack of substance. The cinematography and washed-out colors gives the film a very somber atmosphere, but not much more than that. The editing feels choppy at times with a few very abrupt cuts, i.e. after the scene when the soldiers gather around to talk. None of the actors have the necessary charisma and acting skills to rise above the bland screenplay, but, to be fair, it's not like they're given enough material. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes,  3 Days in Malay is a shallow and lethargic war film that fails to pack any palpable thrills.

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


Directed by Scott Monahan

      Jacob (Scott Monahan) and his older brother, John (Dakota Loesch), embark on a road trip from Florida to Anchorage, Alaska. They hope to strike it rich there by selling bags of opioids that they've stuffed inside of teddy bears in their trunk.

      . The screenplay by Dakota Loesch has a minimalist plot that remains focused on Jacob and John's experiences during their drug and alcohol-fueled road trip. Loeusch introduces you to them with very little exposition. What was their childhood like? What are they rebelling against? Did they have any girlfriends? The lack of backstory feels frustrating initially, but that's forgivable because you get to know what their personalities are like and how as well as why they fight as siblings. Anchorage does have some voice-over narration that's used sparingly, fortunately, which is a sign that the filmmakers trust the audience's emotions and intelligence. They also avoid using flashbacks and taking their narrative into a direction that's bonkers like the recent Unidentified Objects. No, there's no sci-fi twist or any magical realism. There are no villains either because, throughout the course of Jacob and John's journey, they come across as human beings albeit very flawed ones who aren't easy to like. Characters who are 100% decent would be boring anyway, so their fallibility is part of what makes them so compelling.  Anchorage has a few dark, outrageously funny moments like when Jacob and John get high on opioids, but it doesn't shy away from going into dark, bleak territory either. It also includes some provocative commentary about faith, the opioid crisis and the American dream without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

       A truly great film, according to Francois Truffaut, is one that finds the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. Anchorage has plenty of truth---harsh truths, to be precise---while finding the Spectacle within the Truth.  Scott Monahan and Dakota Loesch give raw performances that further ground the film in authenticity. The camerawork along with the editing, the landscape and the use of music makes the film feel poetic as well aas cinematic without going overboard with visual style, i.e. during the scene Jacob and John get high by the poolside. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 21 minutes, Anchorage is one of the most exhilarating, gritty and intense thrillers since Uncut Gems. It would make for an interesting double feature with the recent American indie film Leon's Fantasy Cut.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Screen Media Films.
Opens at Cinema Village.


Directed by Jared Moshe

      Sophie (Judy Greer) struggles to raise her daughter, Riley (Faithe Herman), alone while still grieving the death of her husband, Mal (Edi Gathegi), who was killed by a drunk driver 8 months earlier. When she confides in Mal's best friend, Jabir (Payman Maadi), a former physicist, about her grief, he tells her about a time machine that he and Mal had been working on. She must face the tough decision of whether or not to use the time machine to have the drunk driver die so that Mal can live.

      The screenplay by writer/director Jared Moshe first introduces Sophie to the audience, she's sad, lost and in a state of despair and hopelessness because she has yet to overcome the death of her beloved husband. That changes when Jabir informs her about the time machine which comes with a set of rules. One of the rules is that to save a life with the machine, another life has to be taken. That rule adds a layer of moral ambiguity that makes the film more provocative and complex. Every choice that Sophie makes comes with moral consequences that affect her on an emotional level. It's equally fascinating and heartbreaking to watch how she reacts to the new realities each time she goes through the time machine, and how experiences her epiphanies so naturally during the third act. Fundamentally, she's a decent human being who has a conscience, so she doesn't intend on hurting anyone. More importantly, though, she's introspective. Without spoiling any of the twists, there's a beautiful moment when she meets a character who wouldn't expect to bond with, but she does indeed connect with her which shows her compassion and humanity for someone who, like her, is suffering from emotional pain. Aporia could've easily turned its premise into a trippy sci-fi thriller or into a conventional, by-the-numbers tearjerks. Instead, it takes a more grounded, understated and profoundly human route with a non-linear structure without being confusing, maudlin or over-the-top.

      Judy Greer gives a convincingly moving performance which helps to make the film an engrossing experience because she fully opens the window into Sophie's heart, mind and soul. The poignancy comes from both her performance as well as from the screenplay.The cinematography and editing are fine without being distracting or overbearing. The same can be said about the music score. When it comes to the pacing, there are some slower paced scenes during the second act, but, for the most part, the film doesn't become a sluggish bore, i.e. the writer/director Jared Moshe wisely doesn't choose to show Sophie's introspectiveness by having her stare off into the distance for 5 minutes. Despite being a sci-fi movie, Aporia doesn't rely on CGI or other kinds of special effects to entertain the audience. It brims with a truly special kind of special effect called humanism. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, it's a thought-provoking, tender and refreshingly honest meditation on grief, love and hope.

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

Go West

Directed by Jeremy Warner & Stephen Meek

      Aveline (Natalie Madsen) travels from Illinois to Oregon with her sister, Cora (Mallory Everton), to stop her teenage daughter from marrying an outlaw. Captain Evander Lillianquist (Matthew Meese) leads their way through the Oregon Trail while a store owner, Robert Failure Gladstone (Whitney Call), and her assistant, Chesterton (Jason Gray), hunts them down because Aveline owes her half a cent for supplies that she bought from her store.

      The screenplay by co-writers/directors Jeremy Warner and Stephen Meek and their co-writers, Adam Berg, Whitney Call, Mallory Everton, Jason Gray, Stacey Harkey, Natalie Madsen, Matt Meese and James Perry, is witty, outrageously funny and delightfully zany. Set in the 1800s, Go West establishes its comedic tone with tongue-in-cheek humor from the very first frame as a narrator (voice of Sean Astin) briefly introduces the offbeat characters and their backstories one by one. Yes, they're all over-the-top caricatures and the plot doesn't make much sense, but that's the point. As Alfred Hitchock once wisely observed, "Logic is dull...There is something more important than logic: imagination." You'll find plenty of imagination throughout the film as there's either a sight gag or a funny line in nearly every scene. Not all jokes land, but, to be fair, not every comedy has to be consistently funny. It's nothing like the crude, rude and lewd Western comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West that resorts to a lot of low brow humor to entertain the audience. Nor does it rely on dark humor by pushing the envelope violence like in the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In other words, the screenwriters wisely avoid low-hanging fruit when it comes to comedy. It could've easily turned into a tedious film with a plot that's stretched too thinly if it weren't for the well-written screenplay with its lively characters each of whom invigorates the film and makes it feel fresh as well as enormously entertaining.

      Like Barbie, Go West is a satire that's empowering for women---it's refreshing to watch actresses being funny. Whitney Call is especially hilarious as the villain, similar to Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie in Barbie. The entire ensemble cast are all terrific together and have wonderful comedic timing. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun in their their roles. More importantly, though, they each get a chance to shine. The pace moves briskly enough so that there's no dull moment nor any scenes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of 90 minutes, Go West is a slice of comedy heaven.

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

Gran Turismo

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

      Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madewe), a teenager who excels at playing the video game Gran Turismo, lives with his father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou), and mother, Lesley (Geri Horner). Danny (Orlando Bloom), a marketing executive for Nissan, selects Jann and other gamers to compete against each other in real race cars. The winner will become a professional race car driver. Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former racer, agrees to be the chief engineer and to coach Jann.

      Gran Turismo is an overlong, paint-by-numbers and often bland underdog sports thriller. Based on a true story, the screenplay by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin follows a conventional linear structure that takes no risks and has no surprises, even if you're unfamiliar with Jann's story. It also fails to dig deeper into Jann's struggles as he becomes famous and deals with tough competition. This is the kind of film where you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way. Of course, there's a brief subplot involving Jann and his love interest. The relationship between him and his coach remains underexplored, but the relationship between him and his father does have a tender moment toward the end. Jann loves Kenny G 's music which is made quite clear when he listens to it with headphones at night. Why Kenny G., though? How does that music affect him or does he just simply like it because it sounds good? There's not enough details about Jann to humanize him. Even his personality doesn't really stand out in any distinctive way. The dialogue is often on-the-nose and witless with poor use of exposition, i.e. a scene where Jack suddenly decides to explain to Jann his backstory on the side of the road. It's a clunky and lazy way to add exposition. Do screenwriters not learn how to properly incorporate exposition anymore? Director Avi Nesher once told me in an interview that if a writer ever feels stuck when it comes to writing exposition, he or she should just have them doing something else, like eating, for instance, while the expositional dialogue take place. Gran Turismo fails as a dramatic biopic of Jann Mardenborough because the scenes outside of the races fall flat emotionally.

      What keeps Gran Turismo engaging on a visceral level, though, are its thrilling racing scenes with stylish cinematography and great sound design. Director Neill Blomkamp captures the film's spectacle palpable, but it comes with diminishing returns because the thrills begin to wane after a while before picking up again during the third act. It's too bad the Gran Turismo alienates anyone who's not a fan of the titular video game or race car driving. The performances are decent at best. No one gets a chance to shine here, although David Harbour succeeds the most to rise above the shallow screenplay. It's not a good sign when you can feel the weight of the bloated running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens in select theaters. Opens wide on August 25th, 2023.


Directed by Marc Turtletaub

      Milton (Ben Kingsley), a widower suffering from early onset Alzheimer's, lives alone in a small Pennsylvania town where he regularly attends his town's council meetings along with his neighbors, Sandy (Harriett Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin). His daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), visits him often to help him around the house and to help him pay his bills. One night, a small spacecraft crashes in his backyard and an alien emerges from it. Soon enough, Milton befriends the alien and introduces it to Sandy and Joyce who encourage him to keep it a secret from the government.

      The screenplay by Gavin Steckler doesn't take its premise very far in terms of comedy or its sci-fi elements, but it avoids becoming sappy, dull, tonally uneven and preachy. Jules sounds like it could become a whacky comedy or a sci-fi thriller. However, the screenplay doesn't go in either direction. The humor is gentle and mostly dry with a brief hint of dark comedy when Milton and his neighbors discover the meaning of Jules' crude drawings of cats. There are no surprises except that Jules remains mute and expressionless which makes it hard for Milton to interact with him, but that doesn't stop him from developing an emotional bond. What's Jules' life like back on its home planet? That remains as much of a mystery as E.T. 's life on its home planet, so it's left to the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps because there's not much exposition. Jules is essentially a story about friendship and loneliness, although without going very deeply or being unflinching or dark. It's also disappointing and lazy how and why the alien ends up with the name Jules to begin with. Unfortunately, because he doesn't emote, doesn't speak and has no backstory, he's the least interesting character and seems like more of a plot device. At least his make-up effects and costume designs are decent enough to make him look like a believable alien. He doesn't even come close to being as awkward and cheap-looking as the alien in the cringe-inducing Mac and Me.

      The charisma, warmth and acting chops of the always-reliable Ben Kingsley helps to add some gravitas to an otherwise slight film. The film's tender moments come from his performance, not from the screenplay. Jane Curtain provides some comic relief as Joyce from the moment she enters Milton's home after spying on him and Jules like a nosey neighbor. The pace moves at fast, but not too fast nor does the film waste much time with a first act or add any subplots other than Jules' struggles with early onset Alzheimer's. There's actually a bolder, darker and more moving sci-fi dramedy called Unidentified Objects which also deals with themes of friendship and loneliness, but Jules is more understated and lighthearted without trying too hard to please the audience or to subvert their expectations. At an ideal running time of Jules is breezy, charming, and heartfelt. It would make for an interesting double feature with the underrated sci-fi comedy What Planet Are You From? which also stars Ben Kingsley.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens nationwide.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Directed by André Øvredal

      In the late 19th Century, Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) sets sail on the Detemer ship to England from Carpathia with his son, Toby (Woody Norman), Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a doctor. Little do they that a stowaway, Anna (Aisling Franciosi), is also on the ship along with Dracula (Javier Botet) who reawakens and terrorizes everyone onboard the ship.

    The screenplay by co-writers Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz, based on the chapter "The Captain's Log" of Bram Stoker's Dracula, stretches its premise too thinly while poorly introducing the character of Dracula. The plot wastes too much time with exposition without even teasing the audience with horror yet. If the suspense were gradual, that would've been fine, but there's no suspense. It takes too long for the Demeter to set sail and for Dracula to finally emerge to go on his rampage. Once he does, the film just meanders with very little forward motion. It also takes too long for others to realize that a vampire is the cause of the deaths. Clemens claims that he didn't kill someone on the boat even though the knife was found on him and he was the last one to see the victim before Dracula killed him, but no one doubts him, so that's a squandered opportunity to add tension between the ship's passengers. Also, The Last Voyage of the Demeter resorts to a very cheap way to add thrills by putting Captain Elliot's child in peril, but it's obvious that Dracula will eventually bite him and turn him into a vampire. There's not nearly enough exposition about Dracula, though, who's nothing more than a vicious, scary-looking killer. He's made into a very boring villain despite how iconic he is. So, that could be a systemic problem that stems from the limitations of the source material combined with a lack of imagination from the filmmakers who fail to provide the audience with enough palpable scares and thrills. There's also not nearly enough comic relief or wit in the bland screenplay.

      The Last Voyage of the Demeter does excel when it comes to its production values. The lighting, set designs, use of color and foggy settings add a creepy, foreboding atmosphere. The film is rated R and doesn't hold back on showing blood and guts, so if you're looking for a much darker version of Dracula, you'll at least be mildly entertained on a visceral level. Unfortunately, there are pacing issues. The first act moves too slowly before the second act picks up a little speed once Dracula shows up, but then it slows down again before picking up the pace again. You can begin to feel the weight of the nearly 2-hour running time around the 90 minute mark. The Last Voyage of the Demeter is atmospheric and gritty, but bloated, tedious and unimaginative without enough suspense, scares or imagination to sink your teeth into.

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

Medusa Deluxe

Directed by Thomas Hardiman

      On the night of a hairdressing competition, Mosca (John Alan Roberts) is found murdered backstage. The other hairdressers, Cleve (Clare Perkins), Divine (Kayla Meikle), Kendra (Harriet Webb) Rene (Darrell D’Silva), fear for the lives while the killer remains on the loose in the building.

      Medusa Deluxe is a toothless, tonally uneven and dull experience that squanders to be either a gripping suspense thriller or a fun guilty pleasure. The screenplay by writer/director Thomas Hardiman does a subpar job of hooking the audience with a dull opening scene that doesn't get to the meat of the story yet: the murder mystery. Unfortunately, the murder mystery itself isn't really that exciting---it's nothing like Knives Out's mystery at all. The dialogue has a few witty lines, but they're far and few between. Some of the characters are quirky and over-the-top as though they were in a Christopher Guest or Pedro Almodovar satire. There are way too many characters, though, which makes the film feel overstuffed. Medusa Deluxe's most systemic issue, though, is that it never quite finds its footing when it comes to tone. Is it a satire? Dark comedy? Suspense thriller? It's certainly not trying to be a drama or a romance, at least, but to successfully mix many tones together takes a sensitive, clever and focused screenplay which the film doesn't have. It could've easily been as campy and funny as the dark comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous or as bold as some of Gasper Noé's films like Climax or Mary Haron's American Psycho. Instead, it's as disappointing, unimaginative and underwhelming as last year's See How They Run.

      Medusa Deluxe does have one thing going for it that keeps it at least mildly engaging on a visceral level: plenty of visual style. Everything from the camera work to the editing, lighting, costume/hair design, use of color and music are top-notch while almost, but not quite, becoming part of the film's substance. The entire film is shot in one long take like Russian Ark which adds a little boldness. However, it quickly begins to feel like an unnecessary gimmick that sacrifices a compelling story, interesting characters, suspense, wit and emotional depth. None of the actors stand out, unfortunately, and the film overstays its welcome even at 100 minutes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by A24.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and on VOD.

Operation Napoleon

Directed by Óskar Þór Axelsson

      Kristín (Vivian Ólafsdóttir), a lawyer, investigates the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her brother, Elías (Atli Óskar Fjalarsson), who sent her photos and video clips of him discovering a secret Nazi war plane from WWII in the melting glaciers of Iceland. The plane contains something that someone doesn't want her to know about, so she has to evade an assassin,  Simon (Wotan Wilke Möhring), assigned to kill her while desperately searching for her missing brother.

      Based on the book by Arnaldur Indriðason, the screenplay by Indriðason and his co-writer, Marteinn Þórisson, blends suspense, action and thrills with mixed results. The premise alone sounds intriguing, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. The systemic issue arises early on when the audience follows the plot from Elías' perspective as he and his friends discover the plane and bump into Julie (Adesuwa Oni), who claims to be a scientist before killing Elías' friends. Elías outwits Julie and flees. Meanwhile, Kristín has no idea if her brother is still alive, dead or perhaps he's being held hostage, but the audience knows, so they're a few steps ahead of her. That makes it hard to be on the same page as her throughout the film which introduces too many characters, all of whom are merely there to move the plot forward rather than being fully-fleshed human beings. Of course, there's a MacGuffin: the mysterious item inside the plane that others don't want Kristín to find. Unfortunately, Operation Napoleon isn't quite as riveting as last year's French crime thriller Black Box which also has a plot that becomes increasingly complex. The dialogue is very on-the-nose and there's too much over-explaining, especially in the third act when the secret inside the plane finally gets revealed. Just like in the thriller Kompromat there's a contrived romance added to the plot, in this case between Kristín and Steve (Jack Fox), her superior who happens to also be her ex-boyfriend. At least the plot doesn't become too confusing, but it's ultimately too dry and pedestrian to make any kind of an impact as it just merely goes through the motions.

      The cinematography is fine with some good use of scenery, i.e. the glaciers, which help to create an eerie atmosphere at times. Other than the scenes on the glaciers, there's not much else that provides the film with much-needed visual style. The pace moves too slow more often than not while some scenes move too fast which leads to an uneven pace. The performances are fine, especially Vivian Ólafsdóttir's, but they're all undermined by the vapid screenplay that fails to provide a window into any of the characters' heart, mind and soul. Operation Napoleon lacks the humanity found in Alan J. Pakula's classic thrillers. At a running time of nearly 2 hours, it's overlong, lackluster and often anemic while too low on thrills, intrigue and palpable suspense. In a double feature with the French thriller Black Box, it would be the inferior B-movie. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

The Pod Generation

Directed by Sophie Barthes

      Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and her husband, Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), live in a futuristic world where couples have a baby through an artificial womb, a.k.a. a pod. She happens to work for Pegasus, a tech company in the pod business. When they decide to start a family together, she takes a chance on the pod and raises it with Alvy, but it complicates their relationship.

      The Pod Generation is yet another sci-fi movie with an intriguing concept, but lazy, shallow and underwhelming execution. The screenplay by writer/director Sophie Barthes knows where to take ideas from but not where to take ideas to. She also squanders the opportunity to turn the film into a profound, psychological character study. Rachel initially likes the idea of the pod while her husband is reluctant, but she begins to have her own doubts about it, too. She has every right to change her mind, but The Pod Generation explores it very superficially without having the gut to go darker and to be unflinching. Barthes doesn't trust the audience's intelligence enough because she doesn't take her concept far enough to provoke the audience nor does she include enough world-building. The plot actually becomes less and less compelling as it progresses. It also runs out of steam too early and has a third act that fails to make an emotional impact. At least it's not as disappointing as the awkward and cringe-inducing Biosphere, but it comes close.

      The stylish production design is The Pod Generation's greatest strength. The set design looks slick as does the design of the pod which provides the film with a dehumanizing coldness that effectively contrasts with the humanizing warmth found in nature. It's too bad that Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor are undermined by the lazy screenplay that also doesn't allow for their charisma to radiate either. In other words, the film wastes their talent and doesn't give them enough opportunities to develop chemistry on screen, so too many scenes fall flat emotionally. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, The Pod Generation is visually stylish and slick, but emotionally hollow, unimaginative and shallow while biting off more than it could chew.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Vertical Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.