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Highly Recommended Movies


Directed by Ari Aster

      Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). After Annie's estranged mother dies, she attends a grief counseling support group where she meets and befriends Joan (Ann Dowd). Strange, supernatural events begin to occur revealing dark secrets from the dysfunctional family's past.

      The less you know about Hereditary's plot before watching it, the more you'll be able to be surprised by its twists and turns. Writer/director Ari Aster knows how to build suspense like the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. He trusts the audience's patience from the very first frame as he gradually introduces the characters each of whom is interesting and relatable in their own way. Annie creates miniature art which reflects her state of mind. Charlie has an allergy to peanuts which becomes an important detail later on. Like a typical teenager, Peter wants to go to a party with his friends from school and to smoke weed with them. The more you get to know the characters, the more you feel emotionally invested in them as human beings when tragedies befall them.

      Aster grounds the film in realism, so you can look at Hereditary as a tragic drama about a dysfunctional family coping with grief and/or as a psychological horror film in the vein of Don't Look Now which it shares a lot in common with. Both films allow you to use imagination, a very powerful tool, as a means of terrifying you. He wisely avoids resorting to cheap scares like in Insidious or The Conjuring and incorporating just the right amount of exposition without spoon-feeding or babying the audience. He treates them as intelligent adults. Moreover, he effectively creates a foreboding atmosphere through the use of lighting, pacing, musical score, set design and sound design. The house becomes a character within itself and even the trees surrounding it add to the creepy atmosphere. Hereditary's style essentially becomes part of its substance.

      Fortunately, Aster doesn't overdo the film's style. In other words, it never feels over-produced nor does it bombard you with visual effects or shaky cam. There's something refreshingly old-fashioned about the way he shot the film. Perhaps it would look even better in black-and-white. The only scene when the audience becomes aware of the camera is when Annie sits a circle with the grief counseling support group and the camera slowly zooms in on her. If you're a perceptive audience member, you'll notice some of the clues that Aster includes to foreshadow the events to come. Bonus points if you know Hebrew because that would help with one of the clues that has the words "Liftoach Pandemonium." You will also find some symbolism in the story that Peter learns at school. Every detail, even something as seemingly trivial as a doormat, has purpose and meaning, so don't be surprised if you'll be tempted to rewatch the film to catch everything that you might've missed the first time. Watching it on the big screen would be ideal because its visual and emotional impact would be lessened on the small screen.

      The performances from everyone on screen are superb. Toni Collette one of the best performances of her career and deserves to awards recognition later this year. She yells without over-acting. Alex Wolff also impresses with his moving performance as do the always-reliable Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd. It's very rare for a psychological horror film to have a strong story and interesting characters while keeping you emotionally and intellectually engaged concurrently. You won't actually feel like you're losing brain cells while watching Hereditary. At a running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes, it's a taut, heartfelt and intelligent psychological horror film with superb performances, exquisite production design, and just enough room for interpretation.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24 Films.
Opens June 8th nationwide.

Who We Are Now

Directed by Matthew Newton

      Beth (Julianne Nicholson), freshly released from prison for manslaughter, struggles to regain custody of her 10-year-old son, Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), who's now under the custody of her sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler) and Gabby's husband, Sam (Scott Cohen). She gets drunk at a local bar where she meets Peter (Zachary Quinto) and has sex with him, but refuses to give him her phone number to go beyond being a one-night stand. Carl (Jimmy Smits), Beth's laywer, has a new young lawyer, Jess (Emma Roberts), working at his law firm. Jess and Beth meet at a nail salon that Beth works at and strike a friendship with one another.

      The screenplay by writer/director Matthew Newton feels poignant and thoroughly engrossing. Much like Richard Linklater, Newton clearly has a very sharp ear for natural dialogue and knows when to include pauses without causing the film to become lethargic. This is a slow-burning drama, but no scenes drag. He also knows how to incorporate exposition in a realistic way and when to trust the audience's intelligence. A lesser talented filmmaker would've bombarded the audience with all of the details of Beth's tragic past right away when she asks Vince (Jason Biggs), a restaurant manager if he wants her to elaborate on her manslaughter conviction when she bravely admitsit. Vince doesn't want her to elaborate. Instead Newton withholds that key information until it all rises to the surface in the third act. Newton avoids 2 tropes which makes the film truly refreshing: there's no musical score, flashbacks nor any voice-over narration. By omitting music, with the exception of a jazz band playing music at a bar, he demonstrates that he trusts the audience's emotions, a quality that's rarely found in modern American filmmakers with the exception of Linklater.

      Who We Are Now is a warm and wise character study with complex characters, even when it comes to the small roles, i.e. Vince, Peter, and Beth's mother, Alana (Lea Thompson). Beth remains a fascinating character because she's fallible like human beings are. She's vulnerable yet courageous. She has likable qualities and unlikable qualities, but that makes her all the more interesting, real and relatable. Words cannot adequately describe just how radiant and mesmerizing Julianne Nicholson's performance truly is here. She finds the emotional truth of Beth's role and carries it with her from start to finish. Her performance is just as powerful as Gena Rowlands' performance in A Woman Under the Influence. Bravo to Newton for providing a window into Beth's soul, and bravo to Nicholson for opening that window so widely. One can only imagine how challenging it might've been to shake this role off emotionally. If there were any justice, she would be nominated for Best Actress this awards season. Newton and Nicholson ultimately achieve something far more valuable than any accolades can achieve: they help to ground the film in humanism, a truly special effect that money cannot buy. If you were to remove the plot, you'll find a palpable heart, mind and soul in its center. Who We Are Now will be held for a second week at Cinema Village because of popular demand, and it deserves to become a sleeper hit with strong word of mouth. It would make for an interesting double feature with A Woman Under the Influence, Funny Ha Ha and A Kid Like Jake.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by FilmRise.
Now playing at Cinema Village.

A Kid Like Jake

Directed by Silas Howard

      Alex Wheeler (Claire Danes) and her husband, Greg (Jim Parsons), have just moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn with their four-year-old son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who's experimenting with gender identity by fixating on Disney princesses. The process to get him enrolled in a private school becomes an even more difficult task when Judy (Octavia Spencer), the director of Jake's preschool, suggests to them that they should include his gender identity experimentation in his school applications. Greg works as a shrink who's analyzing a woman (Amy Landecker) with marriage problems. Alex gave up her job as a lawyer to raise Jake despite the disapproval of her mother, Catherine (Ann Dowd). Meanwhile, Alex and Greg go through their own marital issues as tensions between them gradually escalate.

      There's nothing that's Hollywood about A Kid Like Jake. There are no car chases, explosions, fights or alien abductions to be found yet it's 100x more captivating, wise and emotionally engrossing than Avengers, Deadpool 2 and Solo combined. The sensitive, intelligent screenplay by Daniel Pearle, based on his play, tackles many topics ranging from parenting to gender identity in a nuanced, understated and organic way. Every scene feels grounded in reality without any contrivance or stiltedness. Even though there are many supporting interesting supporting characters and subplot, the film remains focused on the dynamics between Alex and Greg without feeling overstuffed or undercooked like too many modern American indies feel. Pearle and director Silas Howard know when to trust the audience's intelligence and emotions without hitting them over the head. Not a single scene overstays its welcome.

      Another part of A Kid Like Jake's strengths is that there's more to it than meets the eye. Alex and Greg's marriage seems fine at the beginning, but much like in Ordinary People, cracks in their marriage start to show up as they deal with financial woes and Jake's gender identity. It's both interesting and true-to-life that Greg struggles to keep his marriage afloat despite that he's a therapist. Perhaps, like some therapists, he became a therapist to work out his own psychological issues. Although the plot might seem like it's quite heavy, it never feels that way because Pearle knows how to balance the drama with just the right amount of comic relief without leading to clunkiness or unevenness. The characters feel lived-in and complex rather than like caricatures while their character arcs are believable. It's very rare for a film to have a strong third act that doesn't tie up everything too neatly yet it leaves you satisfied.

      It's also worth mentioning the terrific production values. Many scenes are well-shot with stylish lighting and set design that contribute to the film's richness and substance. Yes, sometimes style can become substance. The same can be said for the use of music by Roger Neill which never feels intrusive. Despite its origins as a play, the film never feels stuffy or stagy; there's a cinematic quality to it. This is a drama that actually looks and sounds great on the big screen unlike many dramas that work better on the small screen. Moreover, everyone is well-cast, and Claire Danes gives one of the best performances of her career. Like a truly great film, A Kid Like Jake has just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. Its Spectacle can be found within its many Truths if you're perceptive enough to look beneath the surface.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by IFC Films.
Opens June 1st, 2018 at IFC Center.

Book Club

Directed by Bill Holderman

      Four friends, Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen), deal a variety of issues after reading Fifty Shades of Grey as part of their book club. Diane copes with become a widow and develops a romance with a pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia), who has his own plane. She also has to decide whether or not she wants to move into the basement of one of her daughters. Carol is stuck in a sex marriage; her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), seems to care more about fixing his motorcycle than in having sex with her. On the other hand, Vivian, the owner of a hotel, has had plenty of sex, but hasn't settled down with anyone yet. That might change when she meets Arthur (Don Johnson). Sharon, a judge, hasn't dated anyone since getting divorced nearly 2 decades ago. Her ex-husband, Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), is about to marry a much younger woman. Her friends persuade her to place an ad on a dating site, and ends up finding 2 dating prospects, George (Richard Dreyfuss) and Derek (Wallace Shawn).

      Book Club is the perfect antidote to summer's blockbusters because there are no explosions, car chases, gun fights nor any archenemies to be found. It's fundamentally about human beings undergoing a coming-of-age during their golden years. Their battles are emotional and psychological rather than physical; fight with words instead of with guns or knives. Writer/director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms do a great job of introducing Diane, Vivian, Sharon and Carol within the first 10 minutes so that you can easily grasp what they're struggling with, their unique personalities, and their strong bond of friendship as well as their rapport. The kind of humor found in Book Club is the rare kind because it doesn't go for lowbrow, gross-out, bottom-of-the-barrel humor. There are no vomit jokes (I'm looking at you, Blockers!), poop jokes (I'm looking at you, Bridesmaid!) or peeing jokes (I'm looking at you, Girls Trip!). You'll find plenty of wit, quips and innuendos with a dash of slapstick and screwball comedy.

      Admittedly, though, there's a cheap Viagra joke that goes on for too long, but it begins with a hilarious scene where a police officer pulls Carol and Bruce over while he's under the influence of Viagra. That scene almost rivals a certain laugh-out-loud scene in Parenthood a wife (also played by Mary Steenburgen) and husband (Steve Martin) get into a car crash while she goes down on him. Unlike most modern romantic comedies, though, Book Club, is the kind of romcom that actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, i.e. Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Zasu Pitts, Doris Day, among others, would've probably been very happy to star in. Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton are all well-cast, though, and provide plenty of charisma onscreen. They give marvelous performances. Seeing them together in this is a pleasure to behold and makes the film irresistibly entertaining.

      If you look beneath Book Club's comedy and lightheartedness, you will find a beating heart and some kernels of wisdom. Fortunately, the screenplay never becomes preachy, although it does have a few moments of corn straight from the cob, but those are forgivable flaws. Comedy, after all, is rooted in tragedy, so it makes sense that each of the four friends has something that they're struggling with. They're human beings, after all. Even though they're grown-ups, that doesn't mean that they don't have more growing up to do or lessons to learn. The third act feels like a fairy tale that's slightly contrived and pat, though, i.e. a brief scene with Diane standing up to her daughters doesn't involve them having an actual conversation. However, not every film has to have 100% realism. There are different degrees of realism, and audiences are allowed to suspend their disbelief every once in a while as long as they don't have to check their heart, mind or soul at the door. At a running of 104 minutes, Book Club is a feel-great romantic comedy that will warm your heart. It's the rare funny, charming and delightful Hollywood film that baby boomers can just sit back, relax and enjoy with a group of friends and some chardonnay. It's a warm, wise and wonderful film that would make for an interesting double feature with Shirley Valentine, Year By the Sea, Finding Your Feet, Parenthood, and Moscow, Belgium.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

Red Sparrow

Directed by Francis Lawrence

      Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina living with her mother in Russia, suffers a serious foot injury that puts an end to her career in ballet. Her uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), persuades her to join the Sparrow School where the school's matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches her how to use her body to seduce Russia's enemies. She's soon given a new assignment using her skills as a sparrow: to seduce C.I.A. agent, Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), in hopes of finding the identity of a mole within the Foreign Intelligence Service. What lengths will Dominika take to succeed in her mission? Are her romantic feelings for Nathaniel genuine or just part of her act as a "sparrow"? Hakuna matata: none of the answers to those questions will be spoiled here.

      Not since Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has there been such a strong femme fatale as Dominika in Red Sparrow. She's a character who's fleshed out enough as a human being to allow you to root for her whenever she kicks ass against her abusers. In this case, those abusers happen to be perverted men. Red Sparrow arrives at just the right time during the #MeToo movement to serve as a form of much-needed catharsis. It's a rousing crime thriller with edge-of- year-seat suspense. The screenplay by Justin Haythe weaves a complex, but not too complicated nor exausting plot. Fortunately, Red Sparrow isn't nearly as convoluted and dry as the slow-burning espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy nor as asinine and shallow as the action-packed Atomic Blonde.

      If you haven't read the novel by Jason Matthews, that's probably good because you'll find the twists and turns to be much more surprising. The third act does lose a little bit of steam, though, because it spoon-feeds the audience a lot of key information in a way that feels contrived. Although the screenplay forgoes realism to merely move the plot forward during those scenes, that's a minor, forgivable flaw that doesn't make the film any less captivating. Even at a running time of 2 hour and 19 minutes, the Red Sparrow flies by, for the most part, with slick editing whiling hooks you with its compelling characters and an intriguing story made for an audience that Hollywood seldomly caters to these days: adults.

      Red Sparrow's true heart and soul can be found in Jennifer Lawrence's performance. She not only looks ravishing throughout the film, but also convincingly captures the emotional complexity of her role. David O. Russell hit the nail on the head when he once stated that Jennifer Lawrence is reminiscent of the Golden Age actress Carole Lombard. The supporting actors, namely, the underrated Matthias Schoenaerts and the talented Charlotte Rampling, make the most out of their roles. Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, and Mary-Louise Parker also get their own chance to shine onscreen. Overall, Lawrence's moving performance somewhat compensates for the screenplay's lack of emotional grit. The grit that you will come across, though, is that of the more visceral kind: unflinching sex and violence. Director Francis Lawrence leaves very little to the audience's imagination by showing plenty of unflinching nudity and gore, so if you're prude or squeamish, this film probably won't be your cup of tea. If you loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you'll also love Red Sparrow.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 20th Century Fox.
Opens March 2nd, 2018 nationwide.

The Shape of Water

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

      Sally Hawkins gives a bravura performance as Elisa, a lonely mute who works as a janitor at a top secret government laboratory. Her closest person that she could call a friend is her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) had found a a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) in the Amazon and tortures it in lab. He hopes to have it killed for research; Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist, prefers to keep it alive. When Elisa develops a friendship with the creature that blossoms into a romance, she persuades her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to help her to free it from captivity.

      To lump The Shape of Water into one particular genre wouldn't be fair because, like most great films, it's many things all at once. It's part sci-fi, romance, suspense thriller, horror, action, drama, and, briefly, it even veers into musical territory. That combination could've easily resulted in an uneven, clunky, chaotic mess if it weren't for the intelligent and organic screenplay by writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor. Del Toro and Taylor ground the film in so much humanism, a truly special effect, that you can feel the palpable passion and chemistry between Elisa and the creature while feeling empathy for both of them. Their romance is just as enchanting as that of Beauty and the Beast. Bravo to the filmmakers for bravely not shying away from showing their sex scene. That scene feels tender without becoming creepy or unintentionally funny.

      Even the supporting characters in the film feel lived-in Colonel Strickland may seem like a villain, but he's given a backstory that makes him more of a victim of a dysfunctional, abusive family which explains why he's so sadistic and domineering. Giles goes through his own struggles as well: he's a closeted homosexual and, like Elisa, is lonely. Every little detail in the film helps to enrich the story: even the key lime pie turns out to be something significant to the story. The same goes for eggs which Elisa feeds the creature while gaining his trust. The filmmakers clearly understand that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes.

      The Shape of Water recalls classics like E.T., King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it finds its own identity without making you feel like it's derivative. After all, it's not important where ideas are taken from, but rather where they're taken to. Fortunately, the film never runs out of momentum, imagination nor its humanism. It also has a strong beginning, middle and end without any scenes that drag or that last too long. Although it's visually stylish like all of Del Toro's films, it also has plenty of substance beneath the surface. In other words, like all truly great films, The Shape of Water has a perfect blend of Truth and Spectacle thereby making it one of the best films of the year. The running time of 2 hours flies by like 90 minutes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Now playing in select theaters.


Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

      Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy, has a passion for music and secretly plays his guitar to the music of his idol, musician/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) strictly forbids anyone in the family to play music ever since Miguel's great-great-grandfather abandoned his great-great grandmother, Mama Coco (voice of Alanna Noel Ubach) and great-grandmother Mama Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), to pursue a music career. After he sneaks into a mausoleum during the Day of the Dead festivities and steals a guitar belonging to Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel and his cute dog, Dante, end up crossing over the Land of the Dead where he meets the shady Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), who serves as his guide, along with deceased relatives. Miguel needs his family's blessings in order to escape the Land of the Dead and seeks the help of Héctor, but first he has to help Héctor who will disappear unless his loved ones on Earth remember him.

      Coco, the new Pixar film, is an exhilarating and enchanting adventure. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich has just the right blend of humor and heart with complex characters who seem true-to-life, whether they're likable or not. Even the film's most villaneous character isn't really a villain, but a flawed human being. Just when you think the story will be going in a certain direction, it offers some surprises up its sleeve. The twists will not be revealed here, but it's worth mentioning that the film becomes increasingly poignant as it progresses. Miguel is a hero well worth rooting for and caring about. He comes from a dysfunctional family and struggles to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician, so he's relatable to anyone who's ever had a dream. The screenplay also succeeds in finding an terrific blend of light and dark elements while avoiding schmaltz or being too scary. Many scenes are delightful and uplifting, but, like in any great Disney movie going back to Bambi, there are some sad ones as well when some dark themes rise to the surface. You'll undergo a roller-coaster ride of emotions throughout Coco which makes it among the Best Animated films of the year.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Coco is a marvel to look at with its dazzling display of colors. If you think that Land of the Dead would be a depressing place to be, think again. It's got plenty of lively characters and breathtakingly beautiful locations that will leave you in a sense of awe. The filmakers have created a world with plenty of attention to detail that reflects their wonderful imagination. Kids will be thrilled to admire all of the eye candy while joining Miguel on his journey. Adults will have the added bonus of appreciating the film's layers of emotional depth and profound messages about family which culminate in a third act that will bring you to tears---unless you're made out of stone. Kudos to the filmmakers for making an animated film that doesn't just have great CGI, but also a compelling story with memorable characters grounded in realism. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Coco is a perfect holiday treat for the entire family. It would make for an interesting double feature with Coraline for kids and What Dreams May Come for adults.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Opens nationwide on November 22nd, 2017.


Directed by Ferenc Török

      In a Hungarian village during August of 1945, Árpád (Bence Tasnádi), a pharmacy manager, is about to marry Kisrózxsi (Dóra Sztarenki), a peasant, who's truly in love with her ex-boyfriend, Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel). Árpád's mother, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), grasps that Kisrózxsi doesn't love her son and . Meanwhile, a two Orthodox Jews, Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive at the village via train while carrying two boxes which may or may not contain perfume for the pharmacy that they had once owned before WWII. The villagers have plundered the property and valuables of Jews during WII, so they're not too happy to see the Sámuels upon their arrive. Some, like Bandi (József Szarvas), a drunkard, feels remorse and shame for his plundering. Even the village priest (Béla Gados) possesses stolen goods from Jews.

      Shot in breathtaking black-and-white, 1945 is a mesmerizing, quietly moving, and enthralling film. From the very first frame til the last, writer/director Ferenc Török and co-writer Gábor T. Szántó gradually build suspense without going over-the-top. You can sense that something will happen upon the arrival of Hermann Sámuel and his son; just the way that the villagers glare at them speaks louder than words. Bravo to Török for trusting the audience's patience by moving the film at a slow pace to allow for them to absorb each scene better. The elements of thriller and horror can be found beneath the surface in an understated way, so you'll find psychological horrors and slow-burning thrills which resonate emotionally for more than any cheap palpable thrills and horrors can. Provocative themes like that of shame, forgiveness, and anti-Semitism are explored in a gentle way that avoids heavy-handedness, schmaltz, and preachiness.

      1945's greatest triumph, though, is the sense of humanism that the filmmakers have managed to capture onscreen. Each and every character rings true, and a lot of emotions are generated even without words. That's a testament to not only the sensitive and intelligently-written screenplay, but also the convincingly moving performance. The film's cinematography alone is a wonder to behold with exquisite use of lighting and poetic imagery, i.e. the haunting final shot that symbolizes so much more than just the billowing smoke. Why can't more films be shot in black-and-white? The black-and-white cinematography compliments the film's atmosphere and tone very effectively much like it did in Son of Saul and The White Ribbon. It would be ideal to watch 1945 on the big screen to be fully enraptured by its sights and sounds as well as its humanism, a truly special effect which money cannot buy. Like a truly great film, 1945 has a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. It's one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Menemsha Films.
Now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

      Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon, lives with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). He befriends a mysterious teenage, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who lives with his mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin holds a grudge against Steven for a something immoral that he had done in the past. He tells Steven that if he does not kill one of his family members, they will all become paralyzed and die one by one. Soon after he gives him that ultimatum, Bob experiences paralysis and refuses to eat while at the hospital.

      Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have woven a narrative that transcends genre and even plot description. To lump it into one genre wouldn't be fair. Seen as a horror film, it has slow-burning, psychological horror. As a drama, it's a very dark, though-provoking parable about sins, revenge, and the human conscience or lack thereof. Everything from the music score to the camera angles, set design and lighting create a very eerie, foreboding mood. mother! also tried to use stylish visual and sound aesthetics to generate a similar mood, but it quickly became dull, pretentious, and tedious. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, on the other hand, grips you from the very first frame until the very last. The opening grotesque shot is quite a bold way to hook the audience. The film not only has style, but also some substance and something profound to say about humanity under its stylish surface. You constantly wonder where the plot will be headed toward as it goes further into dark territory. Between the drama and psychological horror scenes, there's also some dark, dry humor which works well as comic relief.

      Part of what makes it so compelling is that the characters are written in a way that makes them complex human beings even though they're cross moral boundaries and, in the case of Martin, act bizarrely. It seems like Steven has it all at the beginning: a nice house, a good wife and kids, and a successful job. However, just like in the film Ordinary People, the dysfunctional elements gradually rise to the surface, and Steven, like Beth in Ordinary People, struggles to put the pieces of the broken plate back together, so-to-speak. Martin is merely the catalyst who forces Steven to open his eyes and face the sins of his past. Perhaps Martin symbolizes as Steven's moral conscience.

      The best kind of horror films are the ones that allow you to use your imagination. Kudos to the filmmakers for not only trusting the audience's intelligence and patience, but also their imagination while leaving a lot to interpretation. Nothing is as simple as it seems which makes it all the more intriguing. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, could've easily become a silly mess like in mother!,is it's quite solid and satisfying in a non-Hollywood way. It's also very fortunate that everyone onscreen is at the top of their game. Barry Keoghan gives a breakthrough performance---he was also great in Trespass Among Us, but here he truly gets a chance to shine. Colin Farrell gives a solid performance, as usual, and Nicole Kidman hasn't been better since Birth which would make for an interesting double feature with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Todd Haynes' Safe and The Shining would also pair well with it.

      Fortunately, this isn't one of those movies where you can feel the weight of the running time or feel the wheels of the screenplay turning. There's so much going on that you might even be tempted to see the film again to appreciate all of its intricate layers. At a running time of 121 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is chilling, provocative, and mesmerizing. It's one of the best films of the year.


Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now on VOD.

American Satan

Directed by Ash Avildsen

      Johnny Faust (Andy Black), the lead singer of a new rock band called The Relentless, moves to the Sunset Strip along with his band members, Leo (Ben Bruce), Lily (Jesse Sullivan) and Vic (Booboo Stewart), and band manager, Ricky (John Bradley), in hopes of rising to fame. When he meets the enigmatic Mr. Capricorn (Malcolm McDowell), he makes a pact with him that brings his band instant success and fame, but it comes with more than a few sacrifices. The band signs a deal with Elias (Mark Boone Junior), the head of a record company, and hires Hawk (Bill Goldberg) as their tour manager---when the shit hits the fan, Hawk becomes the fan, so-to-speak. Soon, The Relentless get involved in debauchery---sex with groupies, drugs, booze, and a little violence. The only two people in his life who try their best to help Faust are his girlfriend, Gretchen (Olivia Culpo), his mother (Denise Richards), and Gabriel (Bill Duke), a mysterious man.

      American Satan is the kind of film that to describe it would not do it enough justice. On the one hand, it's an refreshingly unpredictable amalgam of drama, sci-fi, comedy, satire, parable, and romance with stylish editing and cinematography. The screenplay by Ash Avildsen and Matty Beckerman brims with razor-sharp wit and wickedly funny, tongue-in-cheek humor. Avildsen and Beckerman clearly grasp the ins-and-outs of the music industry while poking satirical jabs at it. The film pops with energy and even a little bit of campiness. The camp element mostly comes from the casting. Scenery-chewing Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange is very well cast and has a lot of fun in his role. Mark Boone Junior has terrific comedic timing. Jesse Sullivan oozes with charisma.

      Fortunately, the filmmakers do a great job at getting inside the head of the protagonist, Johnny Faust. Part of what makes him such a compelling and relatable character is because he's very flawed and not an entirely decent human being. A character who's 100% decent would be unrealistic and boring to watch---and according to some actors, it's even tougher to play decency. Musician-turned-actor Andy Black has the acting chops to sink his teeth into the lead role and to find the character's emotional truth. Yes, there are also some sex scenes with nudity, you'll get to see Faust during an even more intimate moment: when he's crying. It's equally captivating and moving to watch how his character evolves through the film and how he learns valuable lessons.

      Beneath the surface, American Satan has some heart and soul as well as provocative messages about inflated egos, the price of fame, creative struggle, the battles with one's inner demons, self-discovery, and the sacrifices that artists go through, i.e., selling their artistic soul. "Creativity takes great sacrifice and struggle" and "fame has a price" are messags that mother! also explored through symbolism and dark themes, but this film does it with more wit and depth without veering into pretentiousness, preachiness or lethargy. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, American Satan is a smart, wickedly funny, and biting satire that deserves to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sumerian Films.
Now on VOD.

Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko

      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Now on VOD.


Directed by Kogonada

      Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), works at the library and has a passion for architecture. She still lives with her single mother (Michelle Forbes), in Columbus, Indiana (not Ohio), but grapples with the decision of whether or not to finally leave her hometown. Jin (John Cho), the son of an architecture professor, meets Casey and the two of them gradually form a friendship with one another as they converse. He also has a potential love interest in an older woman (Parkey Posey), his father's colleague, while Gabriel (Rory Culkin) flirts with Casey.

      Columbus is a complex, wise, and profoundly human drama with a deceptively lean premise. Writer/director Kogonada, unlike many modern directors, trusts the audience's intelligence, imagination, and patience concurrently. He understands the power of quiet moments and how slow, but not sluggish, pacing can allow patient audience members to fully absorb the poetic images and thought-provoking dialogue. Fortunately, the dialogue itself feels organic without any stiltedness or pretensiousness; there's one conversation about attention span that veers into pretension as the film becomes self-aware, but that moment is ephemeral. Columbus' emotional hook, though, is Casey and Jinn. Casey finds herself at a major turning point in her life as she toys with the possibility of unchaining herself to her mother, so-to-speak. Their relationship may not seem toxic at first, but its dysfunction and toxicity gradually rise to the surface. As the saying goes, the bird has to leave the nest at some point if it wants to learn how to survive autonomously.

      Casey's relationship with Jin also can be found in the gray area: are they merely friends or more than just friends? Jin, just like Casey, goes through a turning point in his life as well: his estranged, gravely ill father might pass away soon, and he's unsure of whether or not to romance his father's colleague whom he always had a crush on. By the end of the film, both Casey and Jin make crucial decisions as they've each undergo an epiphany with the help of each other. Kogonada doesn't tie every subplot neatly with a bow, so you'll find a few unanswered questions lingering after the end credits role, but that's alright because this isn't the kind of film that spoon-feeds its audience as it were a baby. In other words, it's a movie for adults. Do you remember the days when films for adults used to rule the marketplace? Sadly, those days are long-gone, so it's refreshing when a film like Columbus comes along to remind you of the good 'ole days of American cinema.

      Perhaps not surprisingly, architecture plays a big role in Columbus, so perceptive audiences members will have a lot to feast their eyes on as the camera lingers on an interesting-looking building with an equally interesting interior design. Can the architecture be seen as a metaphor for something? If so, then for what? Kogonada leaves those answers up to you. It would probably make a difference if you see the film on the big screen to fully immerse yourself in the set design and cinematography; unlike some dramas, it would lose some of its visual power on the small screen. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Columbus is quietly moving, provocative, and refreshingly understated. It's the most wise and visually striking film since La Sapienza which also used architecture in a compelling way.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Now on VOD.

      The American Media & The Second Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a searing, enraging, and eye-opening documentary about how Jim Garrison, New Orleans' District Attorney from 1962-1973, had set out to prove, using the American justice system, that the CIA was actually behind the assassination of JFK on November 22nd, 1963, and that the mainstream media was responsible for covering up the truth with fake news/propaganda. Essentially, the mainstream media were like "Good Germans." Garrison was far from a Good German, though, as he dared to question the Warren Commission report which included very weak and even fabricated evidence that pointed to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. He was not afraid to kick the hornet's nest, so-to-speak. The CIA wanted the public to believe that the bullet that killed JFK entered through the back of his head instead of the front like expert pathologists had observed but were suppressed. No one in the media questioned why JFK's motorcade route's plan was changed at the very last minute or why the car's bubble top was removed---or who made those decisions to begin with.

      Director John Barbour blends archival footage from his 3-hour interview with Jim Garrison as well as video of the Zapruder tape, interviews with witnesses, and clips which show concrete evidence of how the mainstream media mislead the public with false information. There's even a clip of Noam Chomsky making a very callous statement about how little he cares about the JFK assassination or who was behind it. It's very suspicious that many witnesses and people related to the investigation died of "suspect" suicides after the assassination while no witnesses died during other well-known investigations like the O.J. Simpson murder case. Bravo to Jim Garisson and John Barbour for being true patriots, unlike the mainstream media who's has been and still is in bed with the U.S. government. The government is essentially a pimp while the mainstream media serves as its prostitutes. Media figures, i.e. Dan Rather, who helped the government spread misinformation to cover-up the truth about JFK's assassination became more wealthy and successful.

      The film's running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes might seem a bit lengthy at first, but it does cover a lot of ground, and there's never a dull moment to be found. The crisp, fast-paced editing also helps to enliven the film. The narration by Barbour himself is humourous and witty at times---humor, after all, is a great way of hooking audiences. In other words, he manages to find just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually just like a truly great documentary ought to do. By the end of the film, you will never look at the mainstream media nor the CIA the same way again. Consider it your patriotic duty to see The American Media & The Second Assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film can now be found on Amazon VOD.

The Women's Balcony

Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon

      Zion (Igal Naor) and his wife, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), belong to an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. When they attend the Bar Mitzvah of their grandson at the synagogue, the balcony where the women pray at collapses all-of-a-sudden, injuring the rabbi's wife and leaving the rabbi so depressed that he's unable to continue working. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) steps up to the plate as the new rabbi and creates a rift in the community after requiring women to observe modesty rules, i.e. covering their hair. He also gets rid of the women's balcony when the synagogue re-opens. The women refuse to obey Rabbi David, and raise money to build a new balcony, but that task becomes easier said than done when he stands in their way of reaching their goal.

      The Women's Balcony effectively establishes its gently comedic tone from first few scenes as Ettie and Zion arrive at their grandson's Bar Mitzvah. Etti realizes that she forgot to bring candy that's supposed to be thrown from the balcony as part of the tradition. The tragic collapse of the balcony and the conflicts that arise in the aftermath are balanced by the many humorous, witty scenes found throughout the film. Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama clearly understands that comedy is derived from tragedy as she blends both with a light touch. Each of the characters feels like complex human beings instead of one-dimensional caricatures. Ettie and her friends, Margalit (Einat Saruf) and Ora (Sharon Elimelech), have different personalities that make them distinguishable, unique, and true-to-life.

      Even though the plot takes mostly predictable turns, so what? It still offers some satisfying surprises along the way. For instance, Etti's delicious fruit salad, which you might consider to be insignificant at first, becomes something much more meaningful in the third act. As Ebert once wisely observed, what a film's plot is about is not as important as how the film goes about its plot. Fortunately, Nehama grasps the importance of grounding The Women's Balcony in humanism from start to finish. She wisely avoids preachiness, schmaltz and lethargy. The fact that the screenplay never becomes tonally uneven is yet another testament to its many strengths. The ending is uplifting, but it earns its uplift.

      A large part of the film's warmth and charm comes from the well-chosen actresses who portray the women who bravely battle against the new rabbi's fundamentalism. Evelin Hagoel shines the brightest, but the other actresses also get their own chance to radiate warmth and charisma. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, which feels more like 1 hour, The Women's Balcony is a crowd-pleasing, charming delight brimming with genuine warmth, wit, humor, and tenderness. If only more films were to have such rich and lively roles for older women! It's a cause for celebration!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Menemsha Films.
Now on VOD and Netflix.
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