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Reviews for August 4th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      A Compassionate Spy is a mildly engaging and well-edited, but hagiographic documentary that squanders its opportunity to tell its story of Ted Hall, a U.S. spy, in a way that's gripping, moving and insightful enough. Director Steve James interviews Ted's wife, Joan, to hear her explain how her husband joined the top-secret Manhattan Project as a physicist and passed along highly classified nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Why did he become a spy? The reason gets repeated over and over throughout the documentary: he was trying to prevent a nuclear war. In his eyes and from his wife's perspective, he was doing the right thing at the time. Although, A Compassionate Spy has an intriguing subject, it doesn't transcend its rather conventional blend of talking heads and archival footage of interviews with Ted Hall. The editing is pretty great because it allows the film to flow smoothly without feeling too dry and academic. However, it never quite reaches the emotional heights and potency of the superior doc The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers which did a better job of finding the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, A Compassionate Spy opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema via Magnolia Pictures.

      Our Body is an intimate, illuminating, but ultimately exhausting glimpse inside the gynecological ward of a Parisian hospital. Director Claire Simon begins the documentary by walking toward the hospital while explaining her motivation for making it in the first place; she doesn't just throw the audience inside the hospital right away. Once she enters the hospital, the film focuses on the doctors and female patients who arrive at the gynecological ward for a variety of reasons. Simon should be commended for having access to the private consultations between the doctors and patients, neither of whom speak to the camera, but they're aware of it. The fly-on-the-wall filmmaking approach isn't quite as thorough as Frederick Wiseman's documentaries which would've probably shown every part and employee of the hospital to add more scope. Claire Simon's filmmaking style is closer to Agnes Varda's filmmaking style in the sense that she finds warmth and poignancy in her subject. The nearly 3-hour running time does cause the film to overstay its welcome and to feel both repetitive as well as exhausting, especially after 2 hours. However, at least it's not as overwhelming, nauseating and relentlessly intense as the recent documentary De Humani Corporis Fabrica which boldly takes audiences inside the human body of patients at a hospital. Our Body opens at Film Forum via The Cinema Guild.

Bobcat Moretti

Directed by Rob Margolies

      Bobby Moretti (Tim Realbuto), an overweight, unemployed young man suffering from multiple sclerosis, decides to turn his life around by learning how to box at a gym run by Joanne (Vivica A. Fox).

      Bobcat Moretti is a captivating, empowering and genuinely heartfelt underdog story. The screenplay by writer/director Rob Margolies and co-writer Tim Realbuto doesn't sugar-coat Bobby's struggles nor his challenging mission to lose weight and find purpose in his life. When you first meet him, he's at his lowest point emotionally, physically and psychologically. Instead of turning to booze or drugs to deal with his depression, he turns to boxing. Even with no money to pay for boxing training, he takes a risk by approaching Joanne and asking her if she can train him in exchange for his cleaning services at her gym. She takes a chance on him and agrees. It's only a matter of time before he'll learn how to believe in himself. He essentially experiences two kinds of battles: the boxing fights and his emotional battles as he processes a lot of trauma. Within despair, there's always hope. Life can often be like a dark tunnel, but it's always possible to find a small light. In Bobby's case, his determination to box helps him to find that light inside of him. Bobcat Moretti avoids preachiness and schaltz while remaining focused on Bobby's emotional journey. Although the film does go into dark territory, it's not as emotionally devastating as Beau is Afraid or The Whale. Bravo to the filmmakers for treating Bobby as a complex, flawed human being, for not shying away from emotional grit, and for allowing the audience to empathize with him.

      Tim Realbuto gives a raw and emotionally resonating breakthrough performance. There's nothing artificial about his performance: Bobby's weight loss isn't CGI because Realbuto actually lost weight for his role throughout the production. The cinematography and editing are fine without any awkward cuts or flashbacks, and the pace moves briskly enough without rushing the third act, so the film does earn its uplift.  As Pablo Neruda's poem wisely observes, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." It's both empowering and moving to watch the garden of Bobby's heart, mind and soul gradually blossom from start to finish. It will make you stand up and cheer. Bobcat Moretti would make for an interesting double feature with The Whale and RevoLOUtion.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Stonecutter Media.
Opens at the Kent Theater in Brooklyn.

Corner Office

Directed by Joachim Back

      Orson (Jon Hamm) works a mandane office job at Authority Inc. One day, he discovers a hidden office room where he feels the happiest at, but no one else can see the room.

      Corner Office has an intriguing concept with shades of Charlie Kaufman's films, but the screenplay by Ted Kupper, based on the novel The Room by Jonas Karlsson, leaves a lot to be desired because it doesn't take its concept anywhere interesting. Within the first 15 minutes, Orson has already discovered the hidden room at his workplace and learns that it has a positive effect on him emotionally, mentally and psychologically. His performance at work improves the more time he spends there. Meanwhile, he doesn't get along with any of his coworkers nor his boss, each of whom he sees as inferior to himself. Orson comes across as a selfish, emotionally immature man with a huge ego. There's nothing wrong with an unlikable, deeply flawed protagonist as long as they're well-written and complex. That can't be said about Orson, though, because he's not given enough of a backstory, personality or anything else that would humanize him more to the audience. The plot quickly becomes repetitie as Orson makes the same points over and over through his voice-over narration. Despite the voice-over narration which feels lazy, dull and excessively used here, he remains at a cold distance from the audience. There's little to no levity or comic relief. Just when you think that the film will turn into a dark comedy or go bonkers, it doesn't, so it refuses to take risks like the far more brilliant, provocative and wildly entertaining Being John Malkovich.

      Jon Hamm gives a bland, one-note performance that fails to rise above the vapid screenplay or, more importantly, to enliven the film. The cinematography is fine with some atmospheric shots of the tall building where Orson works at. The set design of the hidden room makes it look effectively warmer and more inviting than the other rooms in the building, so at least that helps to make it plausible for Orson to enjoy being inside the room. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Corner Office is a dull, toothless and tedious satire.

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

Dreamin' Wild

Directed by Bill Pohlad

      When Donnie (Noah Jupe) and his brother, Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer), were teenagers in the 1970's they formed a band called Dreamin' Wild with the help of their parents, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges) and Salina (Barbara Deering), but their first album flopped and failed to launch their careers as musicians while causing a rift between the two brothers. 30 years later, Donnie (Casey Affleck) and Joe (Walton Goggins), who've been estranged from one another, reunite after Matt (Chris Messina), a record label executive, arrives at their family's farm offering to re-release their album.

      Based on a true story, Dreamin' Wild is a heartfelt and tender story about forgiveness, unconditional love and second chances. The screenplay by Bill Pohlad avoids turning the film into a schmaltzy, preachy, pedestrian melodrama. The non-linear structure works well and the flashbacks are well-integrated without being distracting or clunky. Donnie and Joe's narrative non-linearly. A lot happens between Donnie and Joe's childhood years and their adulthood years, but Pohlaad knows how to include just the right amount of exposition while introducing new characters, i.e. Nancy (Zoey Deschanel), Donnie's wife. It's refreshing to watch a drama that spans many years without feeling overstuffed or undercooked. Writer/director Bill Pohlad keeps the film focused on Donnie and Joe's emotional journey as they gradually reconcile while Donnie struggles with his painful memories of their albums' failure back in 1979. You may not agree with Donnie's hesitance when the record label executive re-released their album and has them go on a reunion tour, but you'll be able to empathize with him because Pohlad has empathy for him as well as the other characters. There's a lot going on inside of Donnie, and the film isn't afraid to show his darker, more emotionally vulnerable moments. It's very moving to watch him go through the process of forgiving himself for his failure. The musical scenes where Donnnie and Joe perform their music are solid, but it's ultimately the dramatic scenes outside of the music that stand out the most.

      Dreamin' Wild is significantly elevated by its wonderful ensemble cast each of whom gets the chance to shine, even those in smaller roles like Zooey Dechanel. Casey Affleck gives a convincingly moving performance that opens the window into Donnie's heart, mind and soul. He has a powerful, yet understated scene with Beau Bridges later in the third act. It's also worth mentioning the terrific editing that jumps between past and present. Smooth flashbacks aren't easy to accomplish, but Dreamin' Wild accomplished it with flying colors thanks to a combination of the editing and the sensitive screenplay. There are even a few surprisingly surreal moments, i.e. when the adult Donnie briefly meets his younger self. It's a scene that could've been awkward or heavy-handed, but instead it's poetic and gently moving. A truly great film, according to Francois Truffaut, is one that has a perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle. Dreamin' Wild doesn't have car chases, gun fights, fist fights or stabbings. It doesn't need that kind of Spectacle. Instead, it finds a much more special kind of Spectacle inside its many Truths: humanism.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Maryna Er Gorbach

      Tolik (Serhi Shadrin) and his pregnant wife, Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna), live on a farmhouse in the Donbas region of Ukraine close to the border of Russia. During the early days of the Donbas War, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashes nearby and, soon, their farmhouse gets bombed in a mortar strike.

      Klondike is a war film about innocent victims whose lives are uprooted by war. The MH17 that comes crashing down at the beginning of the film serves as a catalyst for more danger and tragedy to come from Tolik and Irka. The screenplay by writer/director Maryna Er Gorbach focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of the war on a married couple. Gorbach spends very little time showing what Tolik and Irka's life was like before the war began. How did they meet? How long have they been married? Klondike avoids voice-over narration and flashbacks which is refreshing and highlights the fact that Gorbach trusts the audience's emotions and imagination. However, the lack of exposition keeps the film lean without providing enough of a larger scope of the war. There's also too much conflict going on besides the war. Sanya (Oleg Shevchuk), Irka's brother, tries to convince Tolik and Irka to join the separatists to no avail. Tensions between him and Tolik escalate as Tolik refuses to join the separatists. Irka refuses to evacuate her farmhouse even after it gets severely damaged in a bombing. It looks like she's about to give birth at any moment, so it comes as no surprise when she finally goes into labor albeit during the worst possible time. The film becomes increasingly darker and bleak as the plot progresses. The lack of levity, though, makes Klondike relentlessly dour, a bit tedious ,and not easy to watch, but that's probably part of the point because it's not supposed to be easy to watch. Gorbach deserves credit for not sugar-coating anything and for not giving the audience a Hollywood ending.

      Oksana Cherkashyna gives a raw and heartbreaking performance that further anchors the film in authenticity. She and Serhi Shadrin help to make it feel like for the audience that Irka and Tolik have been married for a while. The pace moves very slowly and even sluggish at times, though, with some scenes that go on for too long. Yes, this is the kind of foreign film where someone stares off into the distance for what feels like an eternity. More restraint and tighter editing would've made Klondike more gripping. Less is more, after all. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Klondike is an unflinchingly grim and emotionally devastating war film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Meg 2: The Trench

Directed by Ben Wheatley

      Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), an ecological warrior, joins Jiuming (Wu Jing), for a research expedition in a trench 25,000 under the ocean. Little do they know that they'll find Megaladons there along with an illegal mining operation headed by Montes (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).

      Co-writers Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber and Dean Georgaris tease the audience with a thrilling, darkly comedic prologue before the tone changes to a more serious one as the first act spend too much time with very dry exposition. The plot treads a lot of water until it finally becomes an outrageously funny thrill ride during the last half hour. Until then, though, it has a tough time to find the comedic tone found in the prologue and in The Meg. The dialogue is painfully dull and stilted, and the attempts to generate intentional laughs fall flat for the most part. There are more than a few moments of unintentional humor, though. Bad laughs are never a good sign. The subplot involving the villain, Montes, is distracting from the main plot and not very compelling. Audiences looking for lots of big shark action thrills will be disappointed. Sharks aren't the only threats; there are also dinosaurs. Does Meg 2: The Trench really need those little dinosaurs? It makes the film seem like a bait-and-switch. Around the hour mark, the plot loses steam before regaining some steam during the third act, but by then it's too little, too late. This is yet another action thriller that could've taken more risks and went more bonkers to be at least a mindlessly entertaining crowd-pleaser.

      The CGI effects are decent at best without any impressive visuals that stand out. Only a few scenes feel exhilarating, but they're ephemeral. The pace moves too slowly during the first act because it takes a while until Jonas and Jiuming reach the titular trench. Unfortunately, the action scenes are rarely exciting except at the beginning and end. Moreover, the editing feels choppy with a few very awkward cuts between scenes. What's worse is that the running time approaches the 2 hour mark, but the film doesn't come close to justify its lengthy running time. At 1 hour and 56 minutes, Meg 2 is a bloated, anemic and lackluster bore that's too low on zaniness, thrills and dark comedy to be a mindless guilty pleasure like the original.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Men of Deeds

Directed by Paul Negoescu

      Ilie (Iulian Postelnicu) works as a police chief in a small village. He investigates a murder with the help of his new partner, Vali (Anghel Damian), while hoping to start his own orchard.

      The screenplay by co-writers Radu Romaniuc and Oana Tudor unevenly blends suspense and drama with a sprinkle of dark comedy. Ilie soon realizes it will be hard to do his job because of how corrupt the mayor, Constantin (Vasile Muraru), is. The identity of the murderer gets revealed early on, but it won't be spoiled here. Ilie would rather not get on the wrong side of Constantin, but Vali has the courage to put himself in danger by continuing to investigate the murder. Not surprisingly, his decisions come with very tragic consequences that make the plot more complex. Men of Deeds isn't quite as bold or suspenseful as No Country for Old Men nor as wickedly funny, witty and engrossing as Fargo, but it comes close. Co-writers Radu Romaniuc and Oana Tudor try their best to humanize Ilie. He's divorced and unhappy with his career while dreaming of starting a new line of work as an owner of a cherry orchard. His dreams will have to be put on hold for the time being because nothing goes as planned when he and Vali investigate the murder. The film's main flaw, though, is when it takes a nosedive during its over-the-top ending that's just as violent as the ending in The Departed. However, it feels like a tacked-on and lazy cop-out that's trying too hard to shock the audience. Understatement, subtlety and nuance aren't among Men of Deeds' strengths, unfortunately. Also, there are many missed opportunities to have some lively and witty banter between Ilie and Vali like there is in Hell or High Water.

      The performances are fine with no one standing out or giving a dull performance. If only the screenplay would've allowed more space for Iulian Postelnicu and Anghel Damian to have some chemistry as Ilie and Vali investigate the murder together. A far better crime thriller with more palpable chemistry between the leads is The Night of the 12th. Director Paul Negouscu opts for a slow burn, for the most part, before picking up the pace in the rushed third act which leads to some pacing issues. The cinematography is decent without being excessively stylish. The violent scenes are quite gory, though, while leaving little to the imagination. The most interesting, well-edited and memorable scenes happen to be the two scenes with the chicken that bookends the films. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, Men of Deeds is a mildly engaging, tonally uneven crime thriller.

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

Mob Land

Directed by Nicholas Maggio

      Shelby (Shiloh Fernandez) and his brother-in-law, Trey (Kevin Dillon), rob a store that illegally sells Oxycontin, but their plan goes awry when Clayton (Stephen Dorff), a mob boss, shows up and threatens Shelby's wife, Caroline (Ashley Benson), and daughter, Mila (Tia DiMartino). Meanwhile, Sheriff Bodie Davis (John Travolta) investigates the robbery.

      Mob Land is yet another lackluster and unimaginative B-movie with a premise that sounds like it could be gripping crime thriller. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Nicholas Maggio fails to deliver palpable thrills and suspense. There are too many villains, some more pernicious than the others. Shelby is the least unlikable villain because he doesn't actively participate in the robbery itself; he's only the getaway driver. In an unnecessary subplot, Sheriff Bodie learns that he has terminal cancer, so the cancer is another villain albeit a silent one. Then there's Clayton, a very boring villain who's not give enough of a backstory. Shelby has a wife and daughter, but this isn't the kind of film that even tries to explore their relationship. It's fine to keep a plot lean without much padding as long as it's entertaining. However, Mob Land quickly turns into a by-the-numbers and anemic thriller that pales when compared to more suspenseful and exhilarating crime thrillers like Heat, Hell or High Water, Fargo, Reindeer Games or A Simple Plan. The dialogue is dull and witless while the action scenes aren't very exciting either. Is it too much to ask for some banter between the leads? Or some comic relief? Every film needs some form of levity because, otherwise, it becomes tedious and exhausting. At least the film doesn't suffer from tonal whiplash, but it's systemic issue is that it doesn't develop much of any tone for that matter.

      Despite a fine cast, including the charismatic John Travolta, none of them manage to breathe life into their roles or to invigorate the film. It needs a heavy dosage of Nicolas Cage's level of rage---at least Sympathy for the Devil has that much-needed "Cage Rage". The action scenes are poorly shot and the editing feels choppy and clunky at times. Moreover, the pace feels uneven because sometimes it's a slow-burn while other times it's fast-burn.  At 1 hour and 52 minutes, Mob Land is an overlong, tedious and anemic misfire.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at AMC Empire.


Directed by Ira Sachs

      Tomas (Franz Rogowski) lives with his husband, Martin (Ben Wishaw), but they're marriage goes on the rocks when Tomas explores a sexually-charged relationship with a young woman, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

      Passages has a simple plot that's handled in a way that's complex, moving and profoundly human. The screenplay by writer/director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias begins 15 years into the marriage of Tomas and Martin before delving head-first into the love triangle between Tomas, Agathe and Martin without wasting any time with a lengthy first act. No one gets murdered or gets sick with cancer. There are no villains nor any characters who are just there to move the plot forward. Everyone on-screen feels like a fully-fleshed human being, warts and all. Tomas isn't very likable at first because he cheats on Martin with Agathe, but there's more to him than meets the eye. Martin complicates the relationship even further by hooking with a guy who doesn't seem to mind that he's still emotionally attached to Tomas. Agathe tends to attract toxic men. She had ended a relationship with her abusive boyfriend right before she started to see Tomas. It's fascinating to observe how Agathe and Tomas' relationship affects Tomas' marriage and what happens when Tomas gets Agathe pregnant.

      Passages does have few explicit sex scenes which have earned it an NC-17 rating, but there have been other films like Blue is the Warmest Color which are more sexually explicit. What makes the film come alive, ultimately, isn't the physical nudity, but rather the emotional nudity displayed by Tomas, Martin and Agathe. The dialogue sounds natural without only a few brief moments of  on-the-nose dialogue when Tomas and Agathe speak to each other candidly about how they feel about each other. Passages tackles the themes of fidelity, love, sex, bisexuality and monogamy while embracing the messiness of relationships. The scene where Tomas first meets Agathe's parents and he stands up to her toxic, controlling mother is particularly well-written while avoiding melodrama. It's refreshing to watch a romantic drama that doesn't feel cheap and doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator. This is a sophisticated film for adults that sees and treats both the characters and the audience as human beings.

      Franz Rogowski, Ben Wishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos are all superbly cast because they handle the emotional complexities of their role convincingly. They effectively portray their character's strengths and vulnerabilities while opening the window into their heart, mind and soul. By the end of the film, Tomas, Martin and Agathe are no longer strangers to the audience because they've opened up so much on an emotional level. Kudos to writer/director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias for providing them with enough space to accomplish that. The editing is also terrific without feeling choppy or clunky. There's not a single scene that overstays its welcome or that moves too slowly. The nudity actually serves an organic purpose unlike the random nudity in the recent Asteroid City and No Hard Feelings. Moreover, it's amazing that the filmmakers manage to keep the running time well under 2 hours. They clearly grasp the concept of restraint and that less is more. At just 91 minutes, Passages is unflinching, honest, engrossing and refreshingly un-Hollywood.

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


Directed by Kim Seong-hun

      Min-joon (Ha Jung-woo), a South Korean diplomat, goes on a mission to Lebanon to rescue another South Korean diplomat who had been kidnapped two years earlier. A cab driver, Pan-soo (Ju Ji-hoon), joins him as his guide through Beirut.

      Inspired by a true story, Ransomed is a gripping and captivating thriller. The screenplay by co-writers Kim Jung-yeon and Yeo Jung-mi remains plot-driven, for the most part, so none of the characters come to life per se. However, that's a forgivable flaw because the plot has enough twists, turns and complexity to hold the audience's interest while omitting unnecessary subplots or padding. No, Min-Joon doesn't meet a woman along the way and fall in love. There's also just the right amount of exposition without confusing the audience or leading to dullness or tedium. To be fair, the film truly finds its footing once Min-joon meets the cab driver, Pan-soo who gradually becomes his partner during his dangerous mission. Fortunately, the screenwriters have a decent command of tone as they mix suspense with some comic relief. Ransomed isn't an action comedy like Rush Hour or Lethal Weapon, though, but it does have some shades of it; it's more of an action thriller with a sprinkle of comedy. There aren't any clunky scenes or exhausting action sequences, but to fully enjoy Ransomed, it would help if you suspend your disbelief at times, especially as many coincidences pile up in a way that takes away from the film's sense of realism.

      The action scenes are well-choreographed with great use of special effects and stunt work. Ransom excels at being a rousing, cinematic spectacle. It's not gritty nor too bloody when it comes to its violent scenes, so it doesn't take any major risks. There also aren't any huge surprises or any set pieces that stand out. Jonathan Rhys Meyers once told me when I interviewed him for From Paris with Love that what turns an action thriller into a classic is the chemistry between the leads. He has a point because that's indeed among the essential ingredients in an action thriller. Fortunately, Ha Jung-woo and Ju Ji-hoon have palpable chemistry and play off of each other quite well when they're together on screen which is quite often. They're almost as fun to watch together as Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker are in Rush Hour. Thanks to their chemistry, the crisp editing and fast p.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well GO USA Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Randall Park

      Ben (Justin H. Min) lives with his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), and works as the manager of a local movie theater in Berkeley, California. With their relationship on the rocks, Miko gets hired as an intern in NYC and moves there leaving Ben alone with his best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), who's queer.

      Shortcomings works as a light comedy with some tongue-in-cheek humor and provocative issues regarding race. It doesn't explore those themes profoundly, though, nor does it have a lot to say about love and friendship like Past Lives does. However, screenwriter Adrian Tomine and director Randall Park display their grasp of human nature by treating Ben as a human being without villainizing him. Yes, Ben does become increasingly unlikable and even creepy at tims, but the un-Hollywood ending gives him what he deserves based on his narcissistic personality. The filmmakers clearly understand what narcissism is as well as the consequences without sugar-coated anything. They also avoid schmaltz and preachiness. A less sensitive screenplay would've turned Shortcomings into a contrived, cheesy and clunky melodrama instead of one that feels like a perceptive slice-of-life.

      Sherry Cola's lively and charismatic breakthrough performance as Alice stands out the most in Shortcomings. She's just as magnetic as Stephanie Hsu is in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Debby Ryan is also superb in a supporting role as Sasha, a young woman who flirts with Ben. The underrated Jacob Batalon is wasted here, though, in a small role as an employee at the movie theater. More scenes with Ally Maki as Miko would've been great, too, and turned the film into a full ensemble. That said, the pacing moves at just the right speed without any scenes that drag. It's also refreshing to see a film that doesn't rely on violence, low brow humor, or over-the-top zaniness to entertain the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Shortcomings is a witty, funny and honest portrait of a toxic relationship.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens in select theaters.

Til Death Do Us Part

Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr.

      A bride (Natalie Burn) ditches her groom (Ser’Darius Blain), at the altar. He commands his seven groomsmen, who are part of an organization of assassins called "The University," and his best man (Cam Gigandet) to detain her so that he can patch things up with her. Little do they know that she's more than capable of turning the tables on them and defending herself.

      Til Death Do Us Part is essentially a less bonkers version of Ready or Not and the last segment of the film Wild Tales with fewer laughs. The characters in the screenplay by Chad Law remain nameless, but that's forgivable because they're merely caricatures in a mindless, uninspired B action thriller. The minimal plot has very little exposition, especially when it comes to the mysterious group of assassins who underestimate the bride's fighting skills. They're not too bright which makes the film less exciting and suspenseful because it constantly gives the bride the upper hand as she outwits them more often than not. Screenwriter Chad Law includes flashbacks to the bride and groom on a yacht with another nameless couple (Jason Patric and Nicole Arlyn), but the frequency of the flashbacks along with the way that they're integrated into the meat of the story feels distracting and clunky. The action scenes are the film's highlights, but director Timothy Woodward Jr. doesn't push the envelope, so if you're looking for memorable kills like in Kill Bill, you'll be disappointed. As Hitchcock once wisely observed, "Logic is boring...There is something more important than logic: imagination." If Til Death Do Us Part were more off-kilter, funny and campy while taking more narrative risks, it would've been a guilty pleasure that doesn't run out of steam or imagination.

      The action sequences are very well-staged with plenty of blood and guts to disgust the audience. Shocking and disgusting the audience isn't enough, though, and there are many other films like Terrifier 2 and Saw that are far more bold with their level of gore. The editing between the present day scenes and the flashbacks are awkward, and the film begins to feel repetitive around the hour mark because the plot doesn't go anywhere interesting or surprising. The filmmakers know where to take ideas from, but not where to take them to. At an overlong running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Til Death Do Us Part is a clunky and uninspired action thriller that delivers the gore, but not enough thrills, excitement or imagination.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Cineverse.
Opens at select theaters nationwide.

What Comes Around

Directed by Amy Redford

      16-year-old Anna (Grace Van Dien) lives with her mother, Beth (Summer Phoenix), and Beth's fiance, Tim (Jesse Garcia), a police officer. Beth isn't too pleased when Anna tells her that she has been corresponding with her online boyfriend, Eric (Kyle Gallner), because he's 28-years-old. On Anna's 17th birthday, Eric shows up unexpectedly in front of her house.

      What Comes Around suffers from a shallow and contrived screenplay by Scott Organ that barely scratches the surface of any of its dark themes. Organ deserves to be commended for including a bold and surprising twist that changes the way you perceive Beth and Eric. The film feels like two movies in one. The first half has some hints of psychological thriller when Eric arrived at Anna's home without being invited. He's seemingly charming and sweet, but also controlling. Does he have a hidden motive? He's clearly a predator for being in a relationship with someone who's still technically a child. It's obvious, though, that the initial backstory about Eric will serve a purpose because there's something important about his past that only rises to the surface in the second half of the film. Once his true motive gets revealed, that's when What Comes Around no longer teases the audience with psycholigical thrills and turns into a meandering, unfocused drama that goes more into awkward territory than dark territory while sacrificing emotional resonance. The stilted, on-the-nose dialogue makes it difficult to humanize any of the characters. When the film's major twist arrives, the suspense and mystery fizzle out and get replaced with clunky melodrama. Also, the relationship between Anna and Eric isn't very believable, especially after the twist when it suddenly becomes a sidelined subplot. What's going on innately with Anna when Eric confronts Beth? In the second half, what took so long for Eric to confront Beth? What's going on inside of him emotionally and psychologically, especially in the past? What Comes Around squanders many opportunities to be a tender, unflinching and provocative character study. It lacks the nuance, emotional depth, subtlety and, above all, the humanism---a truly special effect--found in the recent dramatic thrillers Palm Trees and Power Lines and War Pony.

      Grace Van Dien and Kyle Gallner's heartfelt performances help to keep What Comes Around engaging and to add a slight amount of much-needed poignancy. It's too bad that the film doesn't give Van Dien much to do once the plot shifts to Beth's perspective. Gallner is a terrific, charismatic actor who deserves a better-written role than this one. Unfortunately, pacing and editing aren't among the film's strengths. Some scenes last too long while others feel too short which lead to uneven pacing. It also takes too much time until the film gets to the meat of the story which is part of Beth and Eric's dark past. Moreover, the brightly-lit sets make the film feel like a TV movie. There's nothing exceptional about the film's visual style that compensates for its lack of substance. At a running time of only 1 hour and 23 minutes, What Comes Around is an unfocused, shallow and contrived psychological thriller that's saved by Grace Van Dien and Kyle Gallner's strong performances.

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