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Reviews for December 16th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Nelly & Nadine is a fascinating, well-edited and heartfelt documentary about the love affair between two women who met and fell in love at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Nelly Mousset-Vos was a opera singer who was also a spy captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1944. She met Nadine Hwang and began a relationship while their lives remained at risk. After the war, they reunited and lived together. Director Magnus Gertten is lucky to have Sylvie Bianchi, Nelly's granddaughter, in the film because she provides access to many photographs, film footage, audio recordings and diary entries that tell the love story of Nelly and Nadine. A photograph with one of them glancing at the other speaks volumes analyzed twice, once at the beginning and again at the end when you observe that glance from a new perspective. Sylvie discovers a lot about her grandma and is very generous for allowing the audience to follow her through her emotional journey as she learns about an important part of her family history. The fact that Nelly and Nadine survived the war while their love for one another never waned is a testament to the enduring power of humanity and love--through thick and thin. It's a love story that has enough tension and poignancy to be turned into Hollywood film. At a running time of only 1 hour and 32 minutes, Nelly & Nadine opens at Cinema Village via Wolfe Releasing.

     There are two documentaries opening this week about less-traveled places around the world. They're both very different in terms of style and subject matter. The first doc, The Great Basin is a captivating and breathtaking snapshot of rural Nevada in a region called Great Basin. Director Chivas DeVinck ops for a mostly fly-on-the-wall approach reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman's documentaries with a hint of Agnes Varda and a few interviews. As you meet the local people from Great Basin, the doc gradually, unflinchingly provides the audience with a glimpse of what it's like to live there. The place may look quiet and boring at first, especially if you didn't grow up in a small rural town, but there's much more to it than meets the eye. There's a brothel called The Shady Lady, a movie theater, and a supermarket with plenty of meat prepared by a local butcher. You'll also get to watch some moments from a town meeting. Although you don't spend a lot of time with each subject to get to know them, the true subject of the doc is the Great Basin itself, so at least the film does an effective job of introducing you to a location with beautiful scenery that you've probably never heard of or been to before. It's not an emotionally devastating doc nor a very provocative one either like Bad Axe; it's light, harmless, leisurely-paced and easy to watch which is just fine. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, it opens at Quad Cinema via Circle Collective.

      The second geographical documentary, Children of the Mist, is much more focused and heartfelt. It centers on a 12-year-old girl, Di, living in a village tucked away within the mountains of northern Vietnam. She's among a minority called the Hmong. Director Diem Ha Le follows Di for 3 years, so she's lucky to have access to her for such a long time as Di grows up throughout the years. Di is at risk of being kidnapped and sold as a bride despite still being a child. According to tradition, she's meant to enter an arranged marriage, but she doesn't consent to it. Her family won't accept no for an answer and coerce her to get married--even grabbing her and pulling her. It's hard to watch at times, but essential because it's a human rights issue. What seems like a quaint, idyllic place to live turns out to be a toxic environment for Di. What follows is an engrossing, eye-opening and haunting doc that also serves as a poignant coming-of-age story. At a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Children of the Mist opens at Firehouse Cinema via Film Movement.

The Almond and the Seahorse

Directed Celyn Jones and Tom Stern

      Two different couples deal with partners who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Sarah (Rebel Wilson), an archaeologist, has a husband, Joe (Celyn Jones), diagnosed with TBI after a tumor was removed from his brain. Meanwhile, Toni (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a lover, Gwen (Trine Dyrholm), battling TBI fifteen years after a car accident. Both Joe and Gwen get treated for TBI by Dr. Falmer (Meera Syal) at a hospital.  

      Based on the play by Kaite O'Reilly, The Almond and the Seahorse suffers from an uneven screenplay by writer/director Celyn Jones and Tom Stern that neither works as a dramedy nor as a romance. It's yet another film that bites off more than it could chew with too many underdeveloped subplots. There's the romance between Sarah and Joe, and between Gwen and Toni. There's Joe and Gwen's struggles with TBI which they're each battling in their own way. Then there's also Sarah and Toni's blossoming friendship once they cross paths. It's obvious that they will eventually meet. Unfortunately, the screenplay does a lackluster job of exploring their friendship or any of the relationships with depth. Very few scenes ring true, so the emotions fall flat. You're thrown right into their relationship and don't learn everything about the tragic elements right away, but that's okay. Once the film reveals what it's really going to be about, it chooses to go a route that's lighthearted and, at most, bittersweet, without being unflinching. There's not nearly enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of any of the characters, so it's hard to be emotionally invested in any of their lives. The attempts at comic relief also fall flat, so when the film doesn't feel schmaltzy like a disease-of-the-week movie, it's just bland and monotonous.  

      Despite decent performances by the underrated Trine Dyrholm and the always-reliable Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Almond and the Seahorse doesn't come alive with any of their performances perhaps because the dull, shallow screenplay doesn't give them much space to truly shine. They deserve a better screenplay. Rebel Wilson gives an awkward performance that fails to be convincing on an emotional level, especially during the scenes that aim for poignancy. Although it's nice to see her in a more complex role, she's miscast while not succeeding in rising above the weak screenplay. There's nothing exceptional about the editing, set design or the cinematography except for the bright lighting which makes it looks like a TV-movie or a sitcom.  At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, The Almond and the Seahorse is undercooked, underwhelming, schmaltzy and uneven while failing to pack an emotional punch. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.

The Apology

Directed Alison Locke

      Darlene (Anna Gunn) lives alone in a suburban home 20 years after her 16-year-old daughter, Sally (Holland Bailey), went missing. She plans to celebrate Christmas with her friend and neighbor, Gretchen (Janeane Garofalo). On a snowy Christmas Eve, her estranged brother-in-law, Jack (Linus Roache), shows up unexpectedly. She offers him to sleep on her sofa before he confesses a dark secret that changes the course of the rest of the night.  

      Part drama, part revenge thriller, The Apology is a dark and twisted story. Unfortunately, the contrived screenplay by Alison Locke leaves a lot to be desired. It begins promisingly as a psychological thriller, but as soon as Jack reveals why he's really there and what secret's been hiding for years, the plot takes a nosedive as does the suspense and intrigue. Anyone who's ever seen a horror film would know from the get-go that Jack has an ulterior motive and shouldn't be trusted from the moment that he enters Darlene's home. She's oblivious to his deception, though. By the time she realizes that and even makes that realization loud and clear thanks to the on-the-nose dialogue, attentive audiences have already realized it much earlier. Also, the character of Jack isn't very well written. It makes no sense that someone so sociopathic would confess to the victim's mother something so tragic that makes him look awful. Why would he do that? Does he have introspection? Remorse? Darlene hasn't even suspected anything about him before he confesses the dark truth to her nor has anyone else suspected him, so, again why would he confess to her out of all people? His confession is filled with clunky exposition that slows down the film's narrative momentum rather than building it up. There are no flashbacks with him, but there are some flashbacks with Darlene's memories of Sally. Fortunately, Darlene is a better-written character---she's a recovering alcoholic who's still grieving her missing daughter and bottling a lot of anger toward whomever hurt her. Take a wild guess what Jake has to do with Sally's disappearance. You'd probably be right. Soon, the film turns into a pedestrian B-movie cat-and-mouse chase with surprises that can be seen from a mile away. Moreover, there's an awkward moment where another character who happens to arrive at just the right time which makes for yet another contrived scene that strains plausibility. It seems like that character was just written as a plot device. This is the kind of film where you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning from start to finish.

      The performances are fine, especially Anna Gunn's raw performance who anchors the film on an emotional level. The modicum of emotional depth comes from her performance, not from the screenplay. Janeane Garofalo makes the most out of her underwritten character, but she's undermined by the shallow screenplay. She has a much more sensitively-written role in the provocative and gripping film The God Committee which has a brave female victim standing up to her toxic abuser through words, not through violence. The setting, lighting, set design as well as the wintry weather all contribute to The Apology's foreboding, eerie atmosphere that makes it clear from the beginning that you're about to watch something unsettling. Unfortunately, the film's style doesn't compensate for its lack of substance. At a running time of 90 minutes, The Apology is a psychological thriller that morphs into an increasingly preposterous, clunky, contrived and dull B-movie. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Directed James Cameron

      Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) live on Pandora as Nav'is with their three biological children,  Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and  Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and their adopted children, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a Na'vi/human hybrid, and Spider (Jack Champion), a human. The deceased Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a human, comes back to life in the form of a Na'vi/human avatar, and will stop at nothing to wage war against the Na'vis to take control over Pandora. Jake and his family befriends Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), members of a Na'vi clan called the Metkayina who live among the coral reefs.

      The screenplay by writer/director James Cameron and co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver keep the plot very simple and straightforward, but does a poor job of introducing the new characters, offers too few surprises and suffers from not enough emotional depth. The first Avatar has just the right blend of Truth and Spectacle along with a compelling albeit uninspired story; the sequel has too much Spectacle and not enough Truth while the story itself isn't very exciting or suspenseful. What ensues is essentionally more of a long and loud video game than an actual movie. There's more action and palpable thrills, but not much to engage the audience beyond that. It soon becomes tedious with not nearly enough levity. The expositional scenes feel clunky and slow down the plot's momentum. Worry not, though, because there's yet another action scene waiting for you right around the corner. There are too many characters here and none of them are easy to connect with on an emotional level like you could  during the first Avatar. So, the attempts at generating poignancy fall flat and the beats don't land, especially during the third act. The systemic problem with Avatar: The Way of Water, though, is that it tries too hard to please the audience and to please everyone as well, but doesn't come close to achieving those feats. To be fair, it's hard to top Avatar or even to match it on any level, so James Cameron deserves credit for at least trying to accomplish that.  

      On a purely aesthetic level, Avatar: The Way of Water is a dazzling Spectacle for the eyes and ears. That said, although your eyes and ears will be entertained for the most part, what about everything in between, i.e. your heart, mind and soul? That's among the film's major shortcomings that sets it apart from the first Avatar: it's cold, shallow and dehumanizing. The action scenes are somewhat exhilarating during the first 90 minutes, but soon become exhausting and overwhelming. Does James Cameron not grasp the concept that less is more? Too many scenes, especially the action set pieces, go on and on and on until they make you feel numb.  It's essentially an assault on your senses. Also, the high film rate (HFR) technology that it uses feels distracting, unnatural and awkward more often than not. The use of 3-D is pretty good, though, especially during the underwater scenes, but not as amazing as the 3-D in the first Avatar. At a running time of 3 hours and 12 minutes, Avatar: The Way of Water is visually dazzling and action-packed, but overproduced, exhausting and vapid.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.


Directed Mauro Borrelli

      Two police detectives, Mary Kelly (Melissa Roxburgh) and Jake Doyle (Martin Lawrence), investigate murders that appear to be committed by a copycat serial killer. Mary Kelly interviews the original serial killer, nicknamed The Artist (John Malkovich), who's now in prison.

      Mindcage is yet another crime thriller with a premise that sounds like it could be suspenseful and intriguing, but it never lives up to those expectations. The screenplay by Reggie Keyohara III follows a pretty conventional, linnear structure as a murder occurs, the detectives arrive at the scene, and the investigation commences. The characters all seem like mere pawns to move the plot forward. This isn't the kind of movie that stops to develop its characters to get inside their head besides the mind of The Artist. Why only The Artist? The answers won't be revealed here, but it's worth noting that the film does take a few risks by blending a few genres. Despite a plot that does have a fair share of twists, none of them are particularly exciting or inspired for that matter. Too little time is spent on developing the bond between Mary Kelly and Jake Doyle. Their banter isn't witty or engaging on any level. Also, the way that the film incorporates the modicum of exposition about their background feels tacked-on and clunky. It's okay for a crime thriller to remain plot driven as long as the plot remains captivating and exciting on some level. Not every film has to be like Zodiac, Seven or Insomnia, either, but those are examples of far superior crime thrillers that provoke the audience emotionally and intellectually while keeping them entertained simultaneously. That can't be said about Mindcage. The more complex and twisted its plot becomes, the more lethargic it becomes.

      Although Martin Lawrence deserves credit for playing against type with a serious role, he doesn't have enough material in the dull screenplay that fails to breathe any life into any of the characters. Melissa Toxburgh's performance as Mary Kelly and John Malkovich as The Artist also don't invigorate the film much with their performances. They're boring characters, for the most part, and don't have much in terms of personality like the iconic detective Marge Gunderson from Fargo. The production values are mediocre at best with no scenes that stand out visually to add much-needed style and atmosphere. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Mindcage is an anemic, forgettable crime thriller low on suspense, intrigue and atmosphere.

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

The Quiet Girl

Directed by Colm Bairéad



Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by NEON.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.