Alphabetical Menu
Chronological Menu

Reviews for August 25th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      In Blue Box, director Michal Weits investigates the lesser-known history of her grandfather, Yosef Weits. who was the father of Israel's forestation. It turns out that he was also considered the "architect of transfer," helping to raise money to purchase land belonging to the Arabs in Palestine. Weits combines archival footage, readings of her great-grandfather's diary entries and interviews with her family members to get a sense of what they know about her great-grandfather. One of her relatives refuses to participate in her investigation and insists that she stop bringing up events from history that she wasn't a part of. Fortunately, she doesn't cave into his demands. She's very brave for shedding light on a dark part of her family's history and for understanding that healing and learning can only happen after looking at the past head-on without rose-tinted glasses. Yosef Weits was a Zionist who, among other Zionists, wanted Israel without any Arabs. You'll learn how the government, with the help of Yosef, used legal means to purchase the land from the Arabs. Sure, it was legal, but was it moral and ethical? That's an entirely different matter that's up for interpretation. Was Yosef an introspective person? There are some signs in his diary entries that he's capable of remorse, but is it true remorse? Did he fully acknowledge his actions and the consequences of his actions? Director Michal Weits doesn't judge her great-grandfather; instead, she humanizes him, warts and all. At a running time of 1 hour and 22 minutes, Blue Box is a captivating, provocative and illuminating exposé. It opens at Film Forum via Cinephil.

Bank of Dave

Directed by Chris Foggin

      Dave Fishwick (Rory Kinnear), a hardworking millionaire, sells minibuses and vans for a living. With the help of his lawyer, Hugh Stockwell (Joel Fry), he tries to open a community bank in the small town of Burnley, Lancashire, but faces opposition from larger banks who stand in his way.

      Bank of Dave is a harmless and breezy, but contrived and sugar-coated underdog story. You can feel the wheels of Piers Ashworth's unfocused screenplay turning every step of the way. Despite being based on a true story, the screenplay doesn't bother to allow the audience to get to know Dave. He seems like a decent human being and very courageous as well as determined, but where or from whom did he get all of those good qualities from? A subplot involving a music band who learn about Dave and instantly support his cause feels like a contrived fairy-tale. There's also a very cheesy romantic subplot with Hugh and Alexandra (Phoebe Dynevor), a young doctor in town whom he flirts with. Feel-great movies should earn their uplift, but Bank of Dave doesn't succeed in accomplishing that. Usually, British humor is dry, irreverent and witty, but none of that kind of British humor can be found here. It could've either been a delightful, funny and witty comedy in the vein of Ealing Studios films like Whiskey Galore! or a profound character study/biopic. Instead, it's merely whimsical, but slight and forgettable without having the courage to be darker, bolder, unflinching or to add much-needed emotional depth.

      The performance range from decent to mediocre to wooden, so no one, not even Rory Kinnear, manages to rise above Bank of Dave's shallow screenplay. Kinnear is fine, but not given enough material here to breathe life into his role. Dave remains a stranger to the audience from start to finish. Joel Fry and Phoebe Dynevor have very little chemistry, so none of the beats land during their scenes. Moreover, the courtroom scenes are poorly shot and the ending feels rushed. Director Chris Foggin doesn't turn the town of Burnley enough into a character in itself. In other words, you don't really get to sense what it's like to live in that town or get to know any of the townspeople---it seems like it could be any small town. With tighter editing and a more focused screenplay, Bank of Dave wouldn't overstay its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens in select theaters.

Before, Now & Then

Directed by Kamila Andini

      In 1960s Indonesia, Nana (Happy Salma) lives with her second husband, Mr. Darga (Arswendy Bening Swara), while secretly pining for her husband (Ibnu Jamil) who went missing and presumed dead after the war that killed her father. When she meets Mr. Darga's mistress, Ino (Laura Basuki), they form an unlikely friendship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Kamila Andini begins with the horrors of the war that changed the course of Nana's life. She survived it, but with a lot of emotional and psychological trauma because she had yet to overcome the death of her father and the loss of her first husband. Even though she has moved onto a second husband, her past comes back to haunt her. She feels lost, lonely and sad, but that changes when she meets her second husband's mistress, Ino. Before, Now & Then could've easily turned into a maudlin, melodramatic drama with a less sensitive screenplay. Instead, it becomes an engrossing and tender character study as well as a story about female friendship which is very refreshing. That said, the film does get heavy-handed and repetitive at times, especially when it comes to depicting Nana's longing for her first husband and how she and Ino's new friendship affects each of them while they're yearning to be happy and liberated from their emotional struggles. The plot does somewhat meander as Nana and Ino's relationship blossoms, though, but the third act has a few poignant and provocative surprises that won't be spoiled here.

      Happy Salma and Ibnu Jamil anchor the film with their convincingly moving performances that rise well above the mediocre screenplay. The film's emotional depth comes from them, not from the screenplay. The scenery is exquisite with a few breathtakingly poetic scenes, i.e. when Nana and Ino jump off of a cliff.  The lighting, costume design and use of color are also worth mentioning. The music and cinematography occasionally reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai's films like In the Mood for Love, so it's great that writer/director Kamila Andini is inspired by such an iconic filmmaker and that she doesn't bombarded the audience with Wong Kar-Wai's visual style from start to finish; she uses it sparingly. The pace moves slowly, at times, too slow, so she trusts the audience's patience a lot. Very patient audiences will be rewarded the most. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Before, Now & Then is a heartfelt, tender and melancholic meditation on friendship, love and longing.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at BAM Rose Cinemas.


Directed by Emma Seligman

      PJ (Rachel Sennott) and her best friend, Josie (Ayo Edebiri), are queer high school students who want to be more popular and to seduce their cheerleader crushes, Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havan Rose Liu). So, they form a lesbian fight club and convince Brittany and Isabel to join it. Their teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch) agrees to serve as the faculty advisor.

      After her poignant, witty and funny directorial debut, Shiva Baby, writer/director Emma Seligman is back with a different kind of comedy the second time around. Co-written by Rachel Sennott, the screenplay blends dark humor, acerbic humor and wit with mixed results, especially when it tries to be heartfelt. It's at its most entertaining level when it's irreverent and tries to push the envelope of teen comedies. The plot borrows a lot from Mean Girls, Heathers and Jawbreaker, so the film doesn't exactly score points for originality. Nor does it develop any of its characters enough for you to care about them as human beings, so the beats during the more tender moments toward the end don't land and feel contrived without adding much depth. What are PJ and Josie's parents like? The subplot involving Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), a typical high school jock, isn't very interesting nor surprising. Also, the dark humor feels repetitive and only mildly humorous without enough laugh-out-loud funny scenes or lines. Seligman and Sennott have a decent command of the film's tone, though, which is often darkly comedic and satirical much like Heathers.

      Rachel Sennott proves to be good at dark, ascorbic comedy yet again after Shiva Baby and Bodies Bodies Bodies. She's also very charismatic. Then there's Ayo Edebiri who's terrific here and has great chemistry with Rachel Sennott. Marshawn Lynch makes the most out of his supporting role---kind of like Tina Fey's outreously funny portrayal of a teacher in Mean Girls. It's also worth mentioning the lively and well-chosen soundtracks. Fortunately, the pace moves briskly enough and the film clocks around 90 minutes which is ideal for a comedy because otherwise Bottoms would've overstayed its welcome. At 1 hour and 28 minutes, Bottoms is a mildly funny and dark satire that's concurrently repetitive and shallow, but the fine ensemble cast of comedic actors help to invigorate it.

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

The Dive

Directed by Maximilian Erlenwein

      May (Sophie Lowe) goes diving with her sister, Drew (Louisa Krause), but a landslide causes May to be stuck with her leg under a large rock 28 meters under water with only 20 minutes of oxygen left.

      The screenplay by writer/director Maximilian Erlenwein and co-writer Joachim Hedén stays lean and focused, for the most part, on the desperate struggles of Drew to save her sister's life by getting her an extra tank of oxygen that happens to be in the trunk of their car. The film doesn't waste much time with a lengthy first act; within the first few minutes, May and Drew drive to the ocean where they plan to dive together. Before you know it, the landslide occurs and traps May 28 meters below which instantly kicks up the tension. However, the tension begins to wane as the film tries to develop the relationship between May and her sister more and flashes back to their childhood in scenes that distract from the narrative momentum. There's already enough going on within the main plot, so the attempt to suddenly add a subplot with flashbacks is unnecessary and not very effective either. The dialogue between Drew and her sister is often sappy in a way that's almost unintentionally funny, but not quite. The film also suffers from an unfocused perceptive as it switches between Drew's perspective and May's perspective while it's hard to get a palpable sense of how much time is left before May's oxygen will run out. The underwater scenes are surprisingly not as intense or terrifying as you would expect it to be, and the filmmakers rarely rely on the audience's imagination to generate psychological horror or thrills. Moreover, there's not enough comic relief to ease some of the tension. The narrative also doesn't take enough risks or go into dark territory like the superior 127 Hours.

      Great underwater cinematography and two decent performances are the only elements that keep The Dive afloat. Unfortunately, that's not enough to compensate for the screenplay's shortcomings and lack of imagination. The editing between the scenes showing May's perspective and Drew's perspective aren't very smooth and even feel choppy at times. There are also pacing issues, especially during a lengthy scene where May and Drew interact underwater. These are two actresses who deserve a much more complex, smart, natural and meatier screenplay. At an ideal time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, The Dive is mildly suspenseful and well-shot, but also sappy, contrived and unimaginative while low on palpable thrills and scares.

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

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 nationwide.

The Hill

Directed by Jeff Celentano

      Rickey Hill (Jesse Berry), a young boy born with a degenerative spinal disorder, loves baseball, but his domineering father, James (Dennis Quaid), a preacher, doesn't want him to play it. As a teenager, Rickey (now played by Colin Ford), hasn't given up his dream to become a Major League baseball player. Despite injuring his ankle, he continues to pursue his love of baseball and catches the attention of a baseball scout, Red Murff (Scott Glenn).

      Based on a true story, the by-the-numbers screenplay by Angelo Pizzo and Scott Marshall Smith is contrived, cheesy and preachy. The plot unfolds more or less linearly except for the beginning that first introduces Rickey as a teenager before flashing back to him swinging at a rock as though it were a baseball. His father sees him and instantly discourages him from following his passion for baseball. His grandmother (Bonnie Bedelia) and siblings are the only ones who encourage him until he becomes a teenager and meets Red Murff, the baseball scout. Unfortunately, The Hill doesn't bring any of its characters to life, i.e. by giving them a personality or some nuance that would make them more complex and interesting. Rickey comes across as a very boring and bland hero which is a shame because he's based on a real person. The dialogue ranges from on-the-nose to cheesy. The filmmakers don't trust the audience's emotions, intelligence nor their imagination. Case in point: they have the commentators repeatedly mention during baseball games that Rickey is beating the odds and conquering his adversities by playing baseball. How many times does the audience have to be reminded of that? Even once is too much. Why spoon-feed the audience? There's not nearly enough comic relief, but there's plenty of speeches that try too hard to be inspirational and moving, but fall flat.

      The performances are decent, but none of them manage to enliven the dull screenplay or to breathe life into their roles. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, music or anything else in terms of production values that succeed in elevating the film with visual style. Moreover, the pace moves too slowly and the second act takes too long to get to the uplifting third act---uplift that doesn't feel earned, unfortunately. At a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes, The Hill is a heavy-handed, preachy and schmaltzy underdog sports story. In a double feature with American Underdog, it would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Briarcliff Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.

Our Father, the Devil

Directed by Ellie Foumbi

      Marie (Babetida Sadjo), an African refugee works as a chef at a retirement home in the south of France. When an African priest, Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane), arrives in town, she believes that he's actually an African warlord who's responsible for killing her family.

      The screenplay by writer/director Ellie Foumbi introduces the character of Marie without mentioning her traumatic past back in Africa. That changes when she meets Father Patrick who reawakens her painful memories because she suspects that he's the warlord who butchered her family. Even though he, not surprisingly, denies her accusations, she refuses to believe him and trusts her gut instinct. However, her decision to take matters into her own hands and to cross a moral boundary is where the film not only changes gears into a different genre, but will change the way you look at Marie. The psychologically intriguing elements remain intact as long as you're unsure of whether or not Father Patrick is the evil warlord whom Marie claims he is. What if he's innocent? What if Marie's memories and gut instinct can't be trusted? Once the truth comes out with no room for any doubt, that's when the film takes a bit of a nosedive into B-movie revenge territory that's almost as dark and disturbing as Hard Candy or even Saw. What makes her any better than Jigsaw after what she puts Father Patrick through? Her character arc isn't very believable or fully fleshed out. Concurrently, the ending raises more questions than answers regarding forgiveness, trauma, anger and decency while barely scratching the surface of those provocative themes.

      Babetida Sadjo anchors the film with a genuinely heartfelt, bravura performance. She adds emotional depth to the film, especially during the scenes when Marie confronts Father Patrick about her traumatic memories that have scarred her emotionally. Souleymane Sy Savane is also superb while giving a very commanding performance. The cinematography and lighting add some visual style occasionally while the film moves at a pace that ranges from medium to slow, but not too slow. Kudos to writer/director Ellie Foumbi for not resorting to flashbacks to provide exposition and for not trying to shock or to disgust the audience with grisly violence. There's some physical grit, but mostly emotional grit which has much more intrinsic value and substance. At 1 hour and 48 minutes, Our Father, the Devil is a fascinating psychological character study that gradually evolves into a heavy-handed, but gripping thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Cineverse.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Ann Oren

      When her older sister, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), suffers a nervous breakdown and gets sent to an institution, Eva (Simone Bucio) replaces her at work as a foley artist for a commercial featuring horses. She visits a horse stable and soon starts growing a horse tail before beginning a sexually-charged relationship with Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), a botanist.

      The screenplay by Ann Oren and Thais Guisasola deserves credit for being unconventional as it blends dark comedy and surrealism with sex, sci-fi, and horror. However, unconventionality and genre-bending isn't enough to sustain one's entertainment when the plot and characters offer nothing else to hook the audience. Piaffe suffers from that issue, unfortunately. It's just bizarre for the sake of being bizarre while hitting the audience over the head with poetic images of nature every now and then. Eventually, it all becomes repetitive, tedious and pretentious while also emotionally hollow. It could've had a lot to say about sexual identity and freedom, but it doesn't have anything insightful to say about those themes that it barely explores. There's also a cold distance between Eva and the audience that's frustrating as though the filmmakers were too busy trying to break convention than to get inside Eva's heart, mind and soul. You also barely get to know her sister, Zara, or learn what caused Zara's nervous breakdown to begin with or what her relationship with Zara is like. You also don't learn what happens to Zara after she becomes institutionalized which dehumanizes her. Eva isn't so much a character but rather a caricature who's difficult to relate to. Moreover, her relationship with Novak feels contrived and just as shallow as the film itself.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Piaffe has plenty of visual style and great sound mixing/editing to offer. The cinematography is exquisite and invigorates the film. Initially, the style becomes part of the film's substance, but that comes with diminishing returns. Simone Bucio gives a strong performance that rises above the shallow screenplay, but doesn't provide Eva with a much-needed inner life. That's one of the systemic issues found in the screenplay, so it's a shame that Bucio isn't given enough of a window into Eva's heart, mind and soul to open the curtain wide to the audience to make her more emotionally resonating. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Piaffe is visually stylish and unconventional, but emotionally hollow and pretentious.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Charlotte Regan

      12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell) lives alone after her mother died and spends time stealing bikes with her best friend, Ali (Alin Uzun). One day, Jason (Harris Dickinson), arrives in her backyard and claims to be her father. He persuades her to give him a chance and to bond together despite her initial reluctance.

      The screenplay by writer/director Charlotte Regan begins shortly after Georgie's mother died and Georgie is still in the process of going through the 5 stages of grief. She throws you right into the world of Georgie and Ali who live in poverty and have no shame in stealing bicycles, so there's not much exposition right away which might make you feel startled. She also requires some suspension of disbelief because of how she has Georgie and Ali get away with stealing the bikes. Georgie also gets away with convincing social workers that her uncle is taking care of her. Just when you think the narrative will turn into a socio-realist film like those of Ken Loach, it morphs into a heartfelt father/daughter story with a few sprinkles of whimsy. To be fair, Scrapper isn't very unflinching nor profound, but it also avoids becoming preachy and maudlin. Georgie and Jason's relationship evolves in a way that feels organic. It's the glue that holds the film together and keeps the audience engrossed on an emotional level.

      Lola Campbell gives a breakthrough performance that's mesmerizing to behold. She's a natural talent. Alin Uzun is also superb, and the same can be said for Harris Dickinson, an underrated actor who makes the most out of his role while exuding warmth and charisma. The cinematography and editing are choppy at times while the visual style becomes distracting, i.e. the cut to the different kinds of spiders who are anthropomorphized. The spider scenes are witty and amusing initially, but become tiresome---unless you're arachnophobic, which, in that case, you'll find the spiders to be scary and cover your eyes. At a running time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, Scrapper is genuinely heartfelt and engrossing, but sugar-coated and occasionally clunky.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at IFC Films.