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Reviews for August 18th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Bella! is a powerful, illuminating and well-edited documentary biopic of Bella Abzug, a congresswoman and lawyer who fought for women's rights, gay rights and inspired many women to this very day. Through archival footage of Bella Abzug and contemporary interviews with Hillary Clinton, Barbra Streisand, Nancy Pelosi, Lily Tomlin, among other women whom she had inspired, director Jeff L. Lieberman captures Abzug's brilliance, tenacity, compassion and courage. Although there are a lot of talking heads, there are also plenty of insights about Abzug so that audiences who've never heard of her will understand what makes her so significant in American history. Lieberman is lucky to have her as a documentary subject because she's so compelling. It's shocking that she's not better known, but why is that the case? Bella! doesn't explore the answer to that question, but it does present a lot of information that will persuade you that she deserves to be better known. Every great documentary should find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. Bella! accomplishes that feat with flying colors much like the recent documentary Aurora's Sunrise. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, it opens at Village East by Angelika and would make for an ideal double feature with Simone: Woman of the Century, a biopic of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and women's rights activist, who became France's Minister of Health and the first female president of the European Parliament in 1979. She and Bella Abzug are cut from the same cloth.

The Adults

Directed by Dustin Guy Defa

      When Eric (Michael Cera) returns home for a brief visit to see his friend's new baby, he reunites with his sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis), and plays poker with his childhood friends.

      The screenplay by writer/director Dustin Guy Defa squanders too many opportunities to be a poignant and unflinching character study of an adult grappling with his past and struggling to become more emotionally mature. Eric, Rachel and Maggie each have their own emotional pain, but the film doesn't delve into it enough as though it were afraid to go into dark territory. There's nothing wrong with a gentle "slice-of-life" approach to filmmaking. Directors like Richard Linklater, Kennith Longeran and Andrew Bujalski know how to make those kinds of films become profound and more than just the sum of their parts and transcendent. There's also nothing wrong with not having any action, villains or palpable suspense as long as the tension comes from somewhere else. Unfortunately, The Adults lacks tension because it neglects to show any of its characters' innate conflicts. It's also disappointing that the screenplay barely stops to allow the audience to get to know the siblings' heart, mind and soul. None of their character arcs feel believable. How introspective is Eric? How introspective is Rachel? What about Maggie? They each begin as strangers to the audience and end as strangers as well which is a sign that the screenplay dehumanizes them as well as the audience because you're kept at a cold distance from them. The brief moments of comic relief fall flat and there's too little wit. A lot remains unspoken throughout the film which makes it a frustrating experience rather than an enlightening one.

      The Adults has decent, understated performances by Michael Cera, Hanna Gross and Sophia Lillips, but they're undermined by the vapid screenplay that fails to bring their characters to life. The Adults could've used the warmth found in other films about siblings who bond like The Skeleton Key. The pace moves so sluggishly that 5 minutes feel like 20 minutes with very little forward momentum in the plot or even character development. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, editing, set design or music score that would've invigorated the film with style to compensate for its lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, The Adults is a dull, meandering and shallow slice-of-life that moves at a snail's pace.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Variance Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation

Directed by Youssef Chebbi

      Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi), a policewoman, and her partner, Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa), investigate a series of bizarre murders in the neighborhood of The Gardens of Carthage in Tunisia.  

      The screenplay by writer/director Youssef Chebbi and co-writer François-Michel Allegrini blends suspense and intrigue with some horror and supernatural elements. It's hard to classify Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation in one particular genre because it doesn't lean heavily toward any of the genres that it combines. As a crime thriller, it begins with the police discovering a burned corpse and no evidence that helps them to figure out how it happened, why it happened or who lit him on fire. Another burnt corpse turns up, so now there could be a serial killer on the loose. However, the more that Farma investigates, the more the crime points to something far more sinister and supernatural. Exposition is kept to a minimum, so if you're looking for a conventional film with easy answers and to be spoon-fed information, this won't be the film for you. It's nice to know that a filmmaker trusts an audience's intelligence without dumbing anything down. There are some shades of David Fincher's Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but, for the most part, Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation remains a creepy, foreboding and gritty crime thriller with a refreshingly un-Hollywood third act that won't be revealed here.  

      Director Youssef Chebbi does a great job of creating an eerie, chilling atmosphere through the set design, lighting and camerawork. There are some very interestingly-composed shots that provide some visual poetry which becomes part of the film's substance. He also should be commended for keeping the film moving at a leisurely pace that's established from the very beginning, so he trusts the audience's patience without moving the pace too slowly. The violence is graphic, but not too shocking or disgusting. So. Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation doesn't rely on gore to push the envelope nor does it overstay its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes. It would make for an interesting double feature with Don't Look Now, Fallen and The Night of the 12th.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Yellow Veil Pictures.
Opens at Roxy Cinema.

Back on the Strip

Directed by Chris Spencer

      Merlin (Spence Moore II), aspiring magician, lives with his mother, Verna (Tiffany Haddish), while being secretly in love with his female friend, Robin (Raigan Harris). He goes to Las Vegas in hopes of pursuing his career in magic, but a wardrobe malfunction during a show exposes how well endowed he is which happens to catch the attention of Luther (Wesley Snipes), the former leader of a male stripper group called The Chocolate Chips. Luther convinces Merlin to join The Chocolate Chips' reunion. The members of the group include Desmond "Da Body" Day (Faizon Love), Pastor Amos "Slim Sexy" Fowler (J.B. Smoove), Tyriq “Da Face” Cox (Bill Bellamy) and Xander, a.k.a. Dr. X (Gary Owen). Meanwhile, Merlin learns that Robin is engaged to Blaze (Ryan Alexander Holmes) and tries to stop them from getting married.

      The screenplay by writer/director Chris Spencer and Eric Daniel suffers from a plot that's contrived and tonally uneven, but it's nonetheless funny and irresistibly entertaining. The humor is often raunchy and even occasionally witty. There aren't any surprises, though, because the plot follows a conventional romcom route with a cheesy Hollywood ending. It's obvious from the get-go that Verna and Robin will eventually learn the truth about what Merlin is really up to in Las Vegas, so the only questions that remain are "When?" and "How will they react?" What ensues sounds like it could be a screwball comedy, but the film doesn't quite take the screwball elements far enough. The third act feels rushed and contrived, but at least it has some humor to keep you engaged.

      Back on the Strip is lucky to have J.B. Smoove and Faizon Love because they bring their terrific comedic timing to their roles and have a few hilarious scenes. Everyone seems to be having a great time on-screen, so this is a very-well cast ensemble. Colleen Camp makes the most out of her brief supporting role as does Tiffany Hadish. The pace moves brisky enough, but what slows it down a bit is when the plot switches gears to the romantic subplot. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Back on the Strip is a funny, raunchy, and crowd-pleasing comedy despite an uneven tone and a cheesy romantic subplot. It would make for a great double feature with The Full Monty and, of course, Magic Mike.

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


Directed by Laura Moss

      Rose (Marin Ireland) works as a pathologist at a morgue. Celie (Judy Reyes), a midwife at a hospital's maternity ward, learns that her daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister), suddenly died of meningitis and that her corpse has mysteriously disappeared from the morgue.

     The screenplay by writer/director Laura Moss and Brendan J. O'Brien doesn't go anywhere surprising with its concept, but it does go into dark territory and engage the audience with a fascinating relationship between two seemingly different women. The opening scene foreshadows the events to come while establishing the film's creepy tone. That particular scene will make more sense later on, so there's not a lot of exposition right away. From the first moment that you meet Rose, you can sense that something is off with her and that she can't be trusted. When Celie learns that her daughter's body has gone missing from the morgue, by that point the audience already knows what happened to her body, who stole it and why. So, it comes as no shock when Celie also learns that Rose has used Lila's corpse to bring it back to life as part of an experiment. Not surprisingly, the experiment doesn't go quite as smoothly as planned. What happens afterward won't be spoiled here, but it's interesting to observe how Rose and Celie's lives converge in a way that explores the dark side of human nature. The plot doesn't quite go as bonkers as it could have, though.

      Birth/Rebirth remains emotionally engrossing thanks to the moving performances by Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes. They elevate the film above mediocrity while breathing life into their roles, so the poignancy comes from their performances, not from the screenplay. On a purely aesthetic level, the cinematography has a few visually stylish scenes, like during the opening scene, but, for the most part, this isn't the kind of film that relies a lot on its visual style. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Birth/Rebirth is a dark, twisted and creepy amalgam of sci-fi and horror.

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

Blue Beetle

Directed by Angel Manuel Soto

      Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a recent college graduate, returns to live in Palermo City with his mother, Rocio  (Elpidia Carillo), father, Alberto (Damián Alcázar), sister,  Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), and grandmother (Adriana Barraza). Upon learning that his family might end up homeless because their rent has tripled, he and Milagro get a job at the mansion of Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). They get fired when Jaime stands up to Victoria for her daughter, Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), who promises Jaime a job at her family's company, Kord Industries. When he arrives at the company's headquarters, he bumps into Victoria who gives him a fast food takeout box to safeguard. Little does he know until he opens the box at home that it contains a Scarab, an alien device shaped like a beetle that belongs to Victoria. It attaches itself inside of him, giving him a metal body armor that comes with superpowers including flying. Meanwhile, Victoria and her henchman, Conrad (Raoul Max Trujillo), want the blue beetle back even if it means killing Jaime.

      There's nothing new, surprising or exceptional about Blue Beetle's plot. Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer's screenplay goes through a checklist of clichés that you've seen in nearly ever superhero movie before. An ordinary young man suddenly gains superpowers and turns into a superhero? Check! A villain searches for a MacGuffin that the superhero has? Check! The superhero has a potential love interest? Check! The superhero learns about the meaning of family? Check! And the list goes on. As an action adventure, Blue Beetle has a few thrills, but they're sporadic. The screenplay does a clunky job of incorporating exposition and backstories, especially a scene that explains Jenny's tragic backstory which feels tacked-on. What it succeeds in, though, is its use of comic relief which includes some slapstick humor, tongue-in-cheek humor and wit, especially during the first hour. Afterward, though, the humor somewhat wanes as the film turns into a dull action-packed adventure with some maudlin and preachy scenes toward the end that lead to tonal unevenness. It's not a good sign when you can hear the wheels of the screenplay turning. The most interesting character happens to be a supporting one that deserves more screen time: Jaime's grandmother. Everyone else, including the villains, are bland, underdeveloped, one-note and forgettable.

    The charismatic, hilarious Adriana Barraza is Blue Beetle's MVP, but the screenplay doesn't utilize her charisma, warmth and comedic timing enough. Whenever she's on screen, the film suddenly feels invigorating and refreshing. Unfortunately Xolo Maridueña and Bruna Marquezine lack chemistry as Jaime and Jenny, so the beats don't quite land in the third act that can be seen from a mile away. Susan Sarandon gives a performance that ranges from campy to mediocre. If she were to have dialed up the campiness, she would've made the villain a lot more fun. The CGI effects are decent, but come with diminishing returns because they're over-used in the action-packed final hour. So, yes, Blue Beetle does suffer from being overproduced. The pace moves briskly, though, so only the lengthy, exhausting action scenes overstay their welcome. At a running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes, Blue Beetle is an often funny and occasionally thrilling, but over-produced spectacle with dull action, clunky exposition and an uneven tone.  

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

The Engineer

Directed by Danny A. Abeckaser

      Etan (Emile Hirsch), a former Mossad agent, leads a team of agents and mercenaries to hunt down Yahya Ayyash (Adam Haloon), the mastermind behind a terrorist bombing in Israel that killed the daughter of a senator (Robert Davi).

      The Engineer is yet another B-movie with a compelling premise, but lackluster execution that fails to generate suspense, thrills and intrigue. The screenplay by Kosta Kondilopoulos follows a conventional linear narrative that begins with the bombing that kills the senator's daughter on a bus in Israel before briefly introducing the audience to Etan and his family. Is it too much to ask to allow the audience to get to know the daughter a little bit before she gets onto the bus? Without humanizing her like that, she's merely there as a plot device to move the plot forward. Soon enough, Yakov (Danny A. Abeckaser) convinces Etan to join the mission to find Yahya Ayyash, the terrorist who's responsible for building the bomb that blew up the bus. Instead of generating suspense like in superior crime thrillers, namely Heat and Zero Dark Thirty, The Engineer turns into a run-of-the-mill action thriller that eventually becomes tedious and exhausting without a single scene that stands out. Even the interrogation scenes are dull with stilted, on-the-nose dialogue. The plot actually becomes less and less interesting as it unfolds toward its ending that lacks any surprises and fizzles out into a lethargic bore because the audience isn't given enough opportunities to be invested in the lives of any of the characters or to care about what happens to them. Therefore, the third act fails to pack an emotional punch and there's no catharsis.

      Unfortunately, Emile Hirsch lacks the acting chops needed to carry the emotional weight of his role as Etan. He's also not a very charismatic lead. Sometimes charisma can help make a bland film more captivating, but that's not the case here. No one gets the chance to shine or to rise above the shallow screenplay. The action sequences are decent, but nothing exceptional. The editing feels choppy at times with the pace moving too quickly without letting scenes and the audience breathe for change. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, The Engineer makes Blown Away and The Siege look like a masterpiece.

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

Landscape with Invisible Hand

Directed by Cory Finley

      In the year 2036, an alien race called the Vuvv have taken over Earth, isolating the lower class from the upper class and taking away jobs from the lower class. 17-year-old Adam (Asante Blackk) lives with his mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish) and sister, Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). When he meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers) and learns that her family is homeless, he invites her, her father (Josh Hamilton) and brother (Michael Gandolfini) to live in his family's basement. Chloe convinces him to make money by acting like they're in love to entertain the Vuvvs, but their plan backfires when the Vuvvs sue them for breaching their contract because they no longer show signs of being in love.  

      Based on the book by M.T. Anderson, the screenplay by writer/director Cory Finley has an intriguing and inspired premise The Vuvv's spaceship arrives in the first scene and, soon after, they have already conquered Earth. How, precisely? Did humans try to fight back? Finley leaves that up to the audience's imagination. Before you know it, humans in the lower class are given some kind of blocks that they put on their face for the aliens to monitor. You gradually learn more about what the aliens are like, but from the perspective of Adam,  Chloe and Beth, for the most part. The Vuvvs don't have a cardiovascular system, so they can't feel love---they're understanding of love only comes from the films that they watch. To be fair, the film spends much of the first 45 minutes or so on exposition and "world-building." The plot picks up some momentum and a little suspense when the Vuvvs sue Adam, but it also becomes more twisted, bizarre and complex while biting off more than it could chew as it juggles themes of love, family and artistic expression. However, it explores those themes in an oversimplified way while barely scratching their surface. The way that Adam and Chloe's relationship evolves doesn't feel very organic, although it doesn't become cheesy at least. When Chloe asks one of the aliens, "How do you know what's in my heart?", it's a good question, but also a reminder of how the film doesn't allow the audience to see enough of Chloe's heart, mind and soul. That said, there are some very amusing and off-kilter scenes that are reminiscent of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kauffman's brand of awkward humor like in Being John Malkovich. Landscape with Invisible Hand isn't quite as powerful as that brilliant satire nor does the anticlimactic and sugar-coated ending feel bold, dark or haunting enough.

      Tiffany Haddish plays against type here which is refreshing for a change. She's very believable in her role here and has more than a few engrossing scenes, i.e. when she stands up to Chloe's father and brother or, in the film's most powerful scene, when she walks out the door to look for a job to stand up for herself while confronting an alien who demands that she stay home and not seek employment. Asante Blackk also has some moving scenes. Kylie Rogers, who's very reminiscent of a younger Thora Birch here, is also superb. Then there's the design of the aliens who are not very scary-looking, but still somewhat creepy. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Landscape with Invisible Hand is a thought-provoking and outrageously funny, but undercooked satire that blends sci-fi, comedy and romance elements while biting off more than it could chew. It's not quite campy and zany enough to become a midnight cult classic. What's the significance of the film's title, you ask? You'll have to wait until the very end of the film to find out.

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

Madeleine Collins

Directed by Antoine Barraud

      Judith (Virginie Efira) lives in Paris with her husband, Melvil (Bruno Salomone), and their two children. Little does Melvil know that Judith leads a double life and also lives in Switzerland with Abdel (Quim Gutiérrez) and their daughter, Ninon (Loïse Benguerel).

      Writer/director Antoine Barraud focuses on the perspective of Judith, so within the first 15 minutes, the audience already knows that she's leading a double life in two countries with multiple identities. The question "Why?" is more interesting than the question, "How?", because it remains open to interpretation. Judith comes across as a malignant narcissist who's a master manipulator and wears many masks. Does she really love her husband, secret boyfriend, and children? Probably not given her lies and gaslighting. Deep down, she has lost her sense of identity somehow. Perhaps that has something to do with her toxic mother, Patty (Jacqueline Bisset), who emotionally abuses and belittles her. Patty most likely behaved that way to Judith during her childhood, but, again, that remains open to interpretation. Barraud clearly trusts the audience's imagination and intelligence to connect the dots on their own and makes sense of Judith's actions. He also shows empathy toward Judith by humanizing her which is an admirable quality for a filmmaker to have. She's a terrible human being who lacks the concept of boundaries, but she's not a villain per se. There's nothing cartoonish about her; she even seems ordinary at times. Is she capable of killing? Hopefully not, but the answer isn't 100% clear because she's definitely not someone who can be trusted and it's hard to predict what other boundaries she'll be willing to cross. If Madeleine Collins were shown from the perspective of Melvil instead of Judith, it would've been a much more Hitchcockian suspense thriller with many twists and surprises.

      Virginie Efira gives a radiant, nuanced performance that brims with charisma and warmth. Her emotionally resonating performance makes it easier for the audience to empathise with Judith and to recognize Judith's unexamined emotional pain and suffering that lurks deep down inside of her. The cinematography is exquisite with many beautifully-shot scenes, some of which look and feel poetic. The editing is also superb without any awkward transitions between Judith's life in Switzerland and her life in France. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Madeleine Collins is a spellbinding, heartfelt and intelligent psychological character study.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Moon

Directed by Kim Yong-hwa

      Hwang Sun-woo (Doh Kyung-soo), an astronaut, remains the only survivor aboard a spacecraft that malfunctioned, stranding him in the middle of outer space. To bring him back safely, the space center requests the help of the former director of the space center, Kim Jae-guk (Sol Kyung-gu), whose last mission failed.

      The screenplay by writer/director Kim Yong-hwa wastes time with dull subplots that diminish the narrative momentum. There's already enough conflict involving Sun-woo's struggle to survive in outer space and bring the spacecraft back safely, so everything else just feels like unnecessary filler. Does the film really need an undercooked subplot about Kim Jae-guk and his ex-wife, Moon (Kim Yong-hwa), who happens to work at NASA? Kim Yong-hwa also does a subpar job when it comes to exposition during the first act which provides the backstory about the first failed mission and introduces the characters. The systemic flaw, though, is that the narrative changes perspectives between Hwang Sun-woo and the space center too often. If it were to stick to Hwang's perspective, it would've been more intense, focused, lean and suspenseful. That said, the scenes inside the spacecraft are among the most thrilling ones, but there aren't enough thrills. Moreover, the third act feels schmaltzy and heavy-handed without earning its uplift. It's hard to believe that after the ordeal that Hwang went through, he behaves like it hasn't affected him at all which is unrealistic while also dehumanizing him.

      The performances are decent at best, but the screenplay doesn't provide enough of a window into the characters' heart, mind and soul which would've given the actors more material. The visual effects are the film's highlights, though, with some exhilarating scenes in outer space that provide some spectacle. The running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes feels too long by at least 30 minutes. If you imagine Gravity as an unfocused, tonally uneven, cheesy and overstuffed sci-fi thriller and you'll get an idea of what it's like to watch The Moon.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens in select theaters.

The Owners

Directed by Jirí Havelka

      Apartment owners attend a co-op board meeting. Mrs. Roubíčková (Klára Melíšková) conducts the meeting with the assistance of her husband (Vojtech Kotek). The other owners include Mr. Kubát (Jiří Lábus), Mr. Novák (Ondrej Malý), Mr. Cermák (Kryštof Hádek) and his brother (Stanislav Majer), Mr. Svec (David Novotný), Mr. Sokol (Ladislav Trojan), among others.

     The screenplay by writer/director Jirí Havelka, based on his play, is a mildly engaging, meandering and exhausting, but often provocative satire of democracy. There are many characters, one setting and, not surprisingly, lots of bickering, not surprisingly. Each owner has his or her own viewpoint and concerns about the building, i.e. the lack of an elevator or the use of their attic space. Gradually, you get to know their personalities which occasionally causes friction, especially toward the end. Havelka should be commended for creating a palpable sense of realism through the dialogue that feels organic. You'll feel like you're at the meeting yourself and observe them interacting, so, in a way, the audience becomes like an additional character. Some of the owners are more likable than others. Some have quibbles, some have serious concerns and some are more toxic than others. The Owners is a microcosm of the functions and dysfunctions of democracy while also serving as an observation of human nature. It does become tedious around the hour mark, though, as it drives its message over and over about how democracy's  anarchic and messy side. Unlike other films set in one location, i.e. the recent film Mass and the classic 12 Angry Men, The Owners doesn't feel cinetic enough. It often feels stuffy and mundane. A truly great film, according to Francois Truffaut, has a perfect blend of Truth and Spectacle. Writer/director Jirí Havelka succeeds in capturing plenty of Truth, but not much Spectacle. What makes films like Mass and 12 Angry Men so transcendant is that the filmmakers manage to find the Spectacle within the Truth and to turn the film into a profoundly moving experience. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about The Owners.

      The performances are all terrific which helps to further ground the film in authenticity. Not all of the ensemble cast gets the chance to shine, though, because some of the characters are quieter than others. There's also pacing issues. The first act moves too quickly to the co-op board meeting as though it were in a hurry to get there, but once it starts, the pace slows down to a crawl. The filmmaker trusts the audience's patience too much. He also trusts their imagination too much because there's not nearly enough backstories about the titular owners; you know just enough about them to grasp their viewpoints during the meeting, but beyond that they're underdeveloped. Moreover, there's a very clunky scene set to slow-motion that  takes away from the film's realism. Why do filmmakers use slow-motion? It happens sometimes during comedies and action films, too, but it's just as distracting in those kinds of films as well. The Owner's running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes feels more like 2 hours and overstays its welcome by around 20 minutes. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Big World Pictures.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Simone: Woman of the Century

Directed by Olivier Dahan

      Simone Veil (Elsa Zylberstein), a Holocaust survivor and women's rights activist, became France's Minister of Health and the first female president of the European Parliament in 1979.

      Writer/director Olivier Dahan starts near the end of Simone Veil's life as she looks back on her life while writing her memoir. Then it flashes back to how Simone (now played by Rebecca Marder) met her husband, Antoine (Mathieu Spinosi, later played by Olivier Gourmet), raised a family with him, before delving into the meat of the story of her accomplishments in French politics, how she fought for women's rights and legalized abortion. As socio-psychologist Erving Goffman once observed, life is like theater: everyone has a front stage life and a life backstage, behind the curtain. Simone: Woman of the Century pulls Simone Veil's curtain gradually until it opens completely during the third act when she recalls her painful memories of the Holocaust. Simone comes across as a courageous, kind-hearted, intelligent and decent human being---the kind of politician that's missing from politics these days. She's a great role model for women, especially. It's refreshing to see a biopic about a strong female who's an important part of world history and the women's rights movement--not just French history. Dahan avoids schmaltz, melodrama and heavy-handedness. He captures not only what makes Simone so iconic, but also what she's like as an introspective, vulnerable human being which makes her all the more relatable. Her ultimate bravery is for facing her traumatic experiences from the Holocaust and for channeling her indignity through words and through her compassion for others. It's inspirational to watch how she fought against racism and hate. She grasped Pablo Neruda's wise words in his poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming."

      Elsa Zylberstein anchors the film in a genuinely heartfelt performance. Most importantly, she opens the window into Simone Veil's heart, mind and soul while allowing the audience to get a glimpse of her inner life and her fragility. The editing is also superb as the film skips some chapters from Simone's life and also flashes back to other chapters that are significant without any awkward cuts or choppiness. The cinematography has a few haunting, mesmerising shots that add visual poetry. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something. Above all, Simone: Woman of the Century is a protest against hate and intolerance. At a running time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, it's captivating, profoundly moving and empowering.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.


Directed by Josh Greenbaum

      When his owner, Doug (Will Forte), abandons him, Reggie (voice of Will Ferrell), a Border Terrier, becomes a stray on the city streets. He befriends other stray dogs including Bug (voice of Jamie Foxx), Hunter (voice of Randall Park) and Maggie (voice of Isla Fisher), while hoping to to find a way back to Doug to seek revenge against him.

      Strays is a painfully unfunny, repetitive, uninspired and witless misfire. The screenplay by Dan Perrault has a concept that sounds like a darker version of Homeward Bound on acid or a comedic version of White God, but in execution, it leaves a lot to be desired. There's plenty of raunchy humor that tries too hard to push the envelope while failing, more often than not. The bestiality jokes, sight gags of dogs humping couches, poop jokes and pee jokes get old and unfunny pretty quickly. It's ok to resort to the lowest common denominator, but Strays aims for the low-hanging fruits without having anything else to offer. A scene where the dogs get high on mushrooms is more mildly amusing than funny. You know that the film is very desperate for laughs when it has a random, brief cameo by an actor who plays himself and even refers to himself in the third person. The ending, which has no surprises, includes more tasteless, juvenile and mean-spirited bestiality and toilet humor that will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Perhaps if it had the kind of witty, dark, irreverent British humor like in A Fish Called Wanda, which has wickedly funny scenes with dogs, it would've been a guilty pleasure that can be enjoyed while high.

      One of the saving graces of Strays is that it's around 90 minutes with no post-credits scene. Had it been 2 hours or longer, it would've been a chore to sit through, so audiences should be thankful that the filmmakers keep it tight and lean. The CGI effects with the talking dogs are decent, and the film moves at a brisk pace. It's too bad that the screenplay fails to be funny, witty or even a little bit clever. Not a single scene stands out unless you count the disgusting ones of which there are many. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Strays makes Cocaine Bear look like a masterpiece.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.