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Reviews for December 1st, 2023

Documentary Films


      1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture, is a provocative, well-researched, and eye-opening documentary about the first time that the word "homosexual" was used in a revised edition of the Bible in 1946. Through interviews with scholars like Ed Oxford, a gay Christian and bible expert, Kathy Baldock, an evangelical Christian, and Steve Greenberg, a gay Orthodox rabbi, director Sharon “Rocky” Roggio sheds light on how and why the word was mistranslated and how it provided fuel for the anti-LGBT movement to base their homophobic views on the Bible. 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture bravely and persuasively argues, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they have no biblical basis on which to justify their homophobia. Roggio should be commended for keeping the film focused and for not exhausting or overwhelming the audience despite covering a lot of ground with a human rights issue that's not only complex, but also spans many decades. She also delves into her relationship with her father, Pastor Sal Roggio, and how he wasn't supportive of her when she came out as a lesbian. The fact that they're still able to have an open and intelligent conversation with each other and have maintained contact throughout the years highlights the importance of compassion and empathy, especially when debating controversial and sensitive issues. As Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, "The day your life begins to end is on the day you're silent about the things that matter." Thank you, director Sharon “Rocky” Roggio, for making a documentary about an issue that matters in many ways to people all over the world. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture opens at Village East by Angelika.


      Bad Press is a gripping, eye-opening and vital documentary about the struggles of Angel Ellis, a reporter for Mvskoke Media, to fight for freedom of the press in Muskogee Nation, a self-governed Native American tribe in Oklahoma. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler follow Angel's uphill battle as she bravely stands up for beliefs and, more importantly, for democracy, despite the corrupt politicians who try to prevent freedom of the press from being part of the tribe's Constitution. Bad Press is lucky to have her a subject because she's brave, determined, intelligent, sensitive and decent which makes her a great role model. The film also sheds light on how a politician tried to suppress Mvskoke Media when it reported allegations of his sexual harassment and how it burned its bridges with other politicians after reporting on embezzlement. A truly great documentary finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Bad Press finds that essential balance with flying colors while being a potent reminder that we're living in a dysfunctional democracy. It's worth fighting for democracy because it's easy to lose democracy and very hard to gain it. At a running time of 98 minutes, Bad Press opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema. It would be a great double feature with the documentary The End of America based on Naomi Wolf's book The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.


      Joonam is a genuinely heartfelt and illuminating documentary about director Sierra Urich's mother, Mitra, and grandmother, Behjat, who had immigrated to the US from Iran before she was born. Sierra examines how their past experiences in Iran have shaped her own Iranian identity. She interviews Mitra and Behjat both of whom provide candid accounts of their past which also includes some painful memories. She also interweaves archival footage and photographs, so this is a very well-researched documentary that avoids becoming dry and academic, yet it's still insightful. Unlike A Revolution on Canvas, another documentary opening this week, it's actually beneficial that the director is related to her subjects because, firstly, she asks private questions about tough subject matters. Secondly, it also allows her to reflect on her own life. Sierra is also among the film's subjects, but she lets Mitra and Behjat do most of the talking, so this isn't a navel-gazing documentary. There are some very profound, emotionally resonating moments as the documentary progresses which makes the audience feel like a voyeur. Bravo to Sierra for having the courage to display her sensitivity and vulnerability on-camera. She shows signs of empathy, compassion, curiosity, introspection and emotional maturity as well as the desire to learn and to grow, all of which are very admirable traits. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Joonam opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema.


      Pianoforte is a mildly engaging and well-edited, but shallow and underwhelming documentary about pianists who prepare for the International Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw, Poland. Director Jakub Piatek opts for a fly-on-the-wall approach without talking heads which would have been fine if the footage of the pianists were moving and/or illuminating. The differences between Pianoforte and Spellbound (2002) are like night and day, although, on the surface, they're about a very tough competition that takes a lot of stress and hard work to excel at. What Spellbound gets right, Pianoforte gets wrong. A more fair comparison would be the Tribeca Festival doc Maestra about four female orchestra conductors who prepare for the La Maestra competition. Both films lack the suspense found in Spellbound, but at least Maestra manages to do a better job of humanizing its subjects, unlike Pianoforte. There are too many subjects here--nearly twice as many as in Maestra--, but none of them stand out or provide much-needed poignancy or insights. That said, the film has terrific editing as it intertwines the footage of the pianists without being choppy, clunky or overwhelming. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Pianoforte opens at IFC Center via Greenwich Entertainment.


      A Revolution on Canvas is an illuminating and engaging, but unfocused and overstuffed documentary co-directed by Sara Nodjoumi and her husband, Till Schauder. There are essentially three documentaries within the film: one is a biopic on Sara Nodjoumi's father, Nikzad (Nicky) Nodjoumi, an Iranian artist who protested the Shah regime through his paintings which he exhibited at the Tehran Museum of Modern Art back in 1980. Shah supporters protested the exhibit . Afterward, Nodjoumi fled Iran. His paintings have not been returned to him since then. The second is his quest to get his paintings back. Contacting the museum's director, Masud Shafie Monfared, turns out to be futile because he claims that he doesn't remember the exhibit. The third and least necessary part of the film sheds light on his private life with his wife Nahid Hagigat whom he ended up divorcing. The co-directors deserve credit for trying to cover a lot of ground, but they bite off more than they could chew. Perhaps someone with more distance from the subject, Nikzad (Nicky) Nodjoumi, to allow for more perspective, focus, and better structure, especially through the editing process. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, A Revolution on Canvas opens at Cinema Village via HBO Documentary Films.


      Show Her the Money is an inspirational, insightful and empowering documentary about four women, Diipa Büller-Khosla, Vicky Pasche, Jasmine Jones and Marian Leitner, who seek funding for their start-up companies from venture capitalists and angel investors. Director Ky Dickens follows the four entrepreneurs and interviews them as well as the investors, namely, Dawn Lafreeda, Pocket Sun and Wendy Ryan. Show Her the Money sheds light on the obstacles that the women face, first and foremost, the fact that, statistically, women receive less than 2% of venture capital, so they're in a very male-dominated industry and trying to break the mold. Dickens does an exceptional job of educating the audience with important terms that they might've not heard of before like "angel investors" or "pitch decks." What the film doesn't delve into, though, is what actually makes a good and effective pitch deck. It sounds like something easier said than done. One of the entrepreneurs, Jasmine Jones, candidly admits that she didn't have a great deck, but she ended up getting funded nonetheless for her start-up that sells mastectomy bras.

      It's very uplifting to watch these women succeed and prosper despite setbacks. Vicky Pasche, for instance, gets politely turned down by investors after her pitch deck. She was nervous during her presentation and lost her train of thought which makes her all the more relatable to many people, especially if they're new at it. It's ok to make mistakes. Her perseverance and patience are both very admirable traits that paid off because she ended up getting funded eventually. The most moving part of the documentary, though, are the interviews with investor Dawn Lafreeda whose resilience, intelligence, emotional maturity, honesty and courage shine as she explains how and why she became an angel investor: she loves making money for herself while also making money for others simultaneously, so it's a win-win situation. Money is power, after all. What she also has, though, is decency, compassion and empathy which are very admirable strengths. She's a wonderful role model who understands the wisdom behind Pablo Neruda's poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Dawn Lafreeda deserves her own separate documentary biopic, At a running time of 90 minutes, the very well-edited doc Show Her the Money opens at Village East by Angelika via Yellowing Productions. It would make for an interesting double feature with To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America about the Grameen Bank which lends money to poor women to empower them to become successful entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, and with the documentary Beauty Bites Beast.


Directed by William Oldroyd

      Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) lives with her alcoholic father, Jim (Shea Whigham), and works as a secretary at a juvenile detention center. She befriends Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), a criminal psychologist who just arrived in town. Meanwhile, Leo Polk (Sam Nivsola), a teenager who murdered his father, confronts his mother who visits him at the detention center.

      Set in 1964, the screenplay by co-writers, Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, based on her novel, blends psychological thriller with drama. Eileen keeps those elements understated, for the most part, until a plot twist around the hour mark which won't be revealed here. Until then, it's an intriguing character study of a lonely young woman who comes from an abusive home and feels frustrated while having to take care of her alcoholic father. There are a lot of emotions going on inside of her, but the screenplay doesn't tap into it until the last 30 minutes. Is Eileen and Rebecca's relationship platonic or romantic? That's left up to the audience to interpret, but if you were to discern it on the nuances, it could be argued that they have romantic feelings for each other. The plot does get increasingly darker, but the plot twist still feels shocking and bold nonetheless. It will probably be very divisive and change the way you look at Eileen and Rebecca. To be fair, there's enough dramatic tension before that twist, so it's not a twist that's necessary in retrospect. Perhaps it works better in the novel. Here, though, it leaves the audience with more questions than answers and drastically changes the film's tone in a way that's heavy-handed, convoluted, clunky and nearly not as plausible or engrossing as the scenes leading up to it.

      Thomasin McKenzie gives a raw, convincingly moving performance. She effectively tackles Eileen's vulnerability and strengths while breathing life into her role. She and Anne Hathaway have palpable chemistry together with a lot of understated moments that imply a physical and/or romantic attraction between Eileen and Rebecca. The underrated Owen Teague and Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who's superb in Shelter in Solitude, make the most out of their supporting roles. Director William Oldroyd trusts the audience's imagination enough during the first hour until the twist arrives with too much over-explaining and no more nuance. The cinematography, lighting, set design, costume design along with the wintry setting adds some style and atmosphere which becomes part of the film's substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Eileen is a captivating, bold and gripping psychological thriller that's ultimately undercooked.

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

Everyone Will Burn

Directed by David Hebrero

      When Lucia (Sofía García), a young girl who looks disheveled, stops María José (Macarena Gómez) from jumping off a bridge, María José decides to bring her to safety. She soon suspects that Lucia might have been sent to stop an imminent apocalypse.

      The screenplay by writer/director David Hebrero and co-writer Javier Kiran suffers from knowing where to take its ideas from without taking those ideas anywhere interesting. It opens with an intense and captivating scene that introduces Lucia, her superpowers and exposition about a legend involving an apocalypse. However, soon after that strong opening, the narrative begins to become tedious and less and less intriguing. It doesn't help that the audience already knows that Lucia isn't a villain. At least to the audience, it's clear that she's there to prevent the apocalypse. Other people in the town, namely, Abelino (Germán Torres), a priest, believes that she has nefarious purposes and doesn't trust her. If the film didn't reveal that key information about Lucia's true intentions and left it more ambiguous, it would've added more suspense and intrigue. As a horror film, there aren't any palpable scares nor does the screenplay take any risks like in the recent When Evil Lurks. It's not bland, dumb or clunky like the Firestarter, but it's not diverting enough as a B-movie nor bold and brilliant enough to be an elevated horror film. Is it too much to ask for some comic relief? Without it, the film feels monotonous.

      Much like The Nun II, Everyone Will Burn has stylish cinematography and set pieces that provide plenty of atmosphere. It doesn't have a scene that stands out like the magazine stand scene in The Nun II, but it's nonetheless well-shot enough to make the film feel cinematic. The performances by Sofía García and Macarena Gómez are also pretty solid and add authenticity as well as a modicum of poignancy that the screenplay sorely lacks. There are also pacing issues because some scenes move at a sluggish pace with very little narrative momentum, and the film overstays its welcome with its lengthy running time. At 2 hours and 5 minutes, Everyone Will Burn is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. It's as visually stylish as The Nun II, but just as unscary, mediocre and forgettable.

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

Godzilla Minus One

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

      After surviving World War II, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot, moves in with a stranger, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), who helps him to raise an abandoned baby that he found. Just as he's about to rebuild his life, Godzilla rises from the ocean and causes destruction. He, along with his colleagues and friends, including Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a scientist, come together to try to defeat the king of the monsters that's now even stronger with nuclear energy.

      Writer/director Takashi Yamazaki finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally. Although there's plenty of rousing action, he never forgets to keep the film grounded in humanism, a truly special effect. The opening scene effectively introduces Kōichi to the audience before Godzilla goes on its rampage. It's a key scene not just in terms of the plot itself, but also for understanding where the source of Kōichi's regret and guilt comes from when he fails to save his fellow men from Godzilla. He wants to defeat Godzilla to prove that he's courageous and, also, for another reason which fuels his ambition and desire to put his life at risk. That second reason won't be spoiled here, though, because it's among the film's plot twists. Yamazaki does a wonderful job of fleshing out the relationships between Kōichi and his colleagues in a way that feels organic without clunkiness. There's also some comic relief in the dialogue and, surprisingly, in some of the scenes with Godzilla, but there are no bad laughs. Godzilla Minus One remains a consistently captivating edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from start to finish.

      On a purely visceral level, Godzilla Minus One is a triumph with impressive production value that provide both style and substance. The CGI effects during Godzilla's scenes of destruction are stunning. Fortunately, the film doesn't bombard the audience with action scenes and CGI effects, but it's worth mentioning that those scenes are spellbinding, especially on the big screen. The performances from the ensemble cast are all superb, even the actors in supporting roles like Sakura Ando and Kuranosuke Sasaki. Ryunosuke Kamiki is very well-cast because he exudes palpable charisma and also handles the emotional depth of his role with conviction. The cinematography, set designs, editing and costume designs are all top-notch along with the music score. A truly great film, according to Francois Truffaut, has a perfect balance between Truth and Spectacle. Bravo to writer/director Takashi Yamazaki for achieving that balance with flying colors. At a running time of 2 hour and 5 minutes, Godzilla Minus One is a rousing, exhilarating and crowd-pleasing spectacle with just the right amount of action, suspense, humor and heart. The Japan Society will hold a sold-out sneak preview to the public on November 28th, 2023 @ 7 PM.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Toho International Company Inc.
Opens nationwide.

How I Learned to Fly

Directed by Simon Steuri

      Eli (Lonnie Chavis) and his older brother, Daniel (Marcus Scribner), struggle to survive after their mother, Dorothee (Crystal Bush), and father, Cliff (Method Man), abandon them.

      The screenplay by writer/director Simon Steuri is, at its core, a life-affirming story about unconditional brotherly love. Why did their mother and father abandon them? What's their relationship with them like? Exposition is kept to a minimum, but, gradually you learn more about the toxic environment that Eli and Daniel grew up in. How I Learned to Fly could've easily turned into a mystery/thriller given its premise; instead, it focuses on how Eli and Daniel cope with adversity while coming to terms with it. Daniel tries to make ends meet as a dishwasher. He becomes like a surrogate father for Eli who's taciturn. Eli's unanswered voice messages to his mother are heartbreaking. They're lucky to meet kind people like Louis (Cedric the Entertainer), their neighbor, and Yaya (Michele Selene Ang). Although How I Learned to Fly isn't as unflinching as Ken Loach's social realist films and it does feel a little preachy at times, it manages to be sweet without being sappy. It's also honest and hopeful with a warm-hearted, engrossing and inspirational relationship between two brothers who learn how to conquer adversity.

      Lonnie Chavis and Marcus Scribner ground the film with their convincingly moving, natural performances that open the window into their characters' heart, mind and soul. It's refreshing to see Cedric the Entertainer play against type in a more serious role as Louis, a neighbor who helps Eli to heal from his emotional pain with the help of his friendship, compassion and life wisdom. The pace moves slowly, but not too slowly while the editing is smooth without being choppy. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, How I Learned to Fly is a wise, tender and heartfelt emotional journey. It embraces the message behind Pablo Neruda's poem, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming."

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

La Syndicaliste

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé

      Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert), the head of the union of Areva, a nuclear power company. After Anne Lauvergeon (Marina Foïs), an Areva executive, gets let go from her job, she discovers that Areva has been secretly trading technologies with China while putting many jobs at the company at risk. Soon enough, she claims that she's been held hostage at her home and sexually assaulted, but the police don't believe her account of the events.

      Based on a true story and on the novel by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, the screenplay writer/director Jean-Paul Salomé and co-writer Fadette Drouard begins right after Maureen gets assaulted before flashing back to the event leading up to it. La Syndicaliste then briefly morphs into a paranoid thriller in the vein of Alan Pakula's thrillers from the 70's. However, just when the suspense builds, it takes a different turn when Maureen gets accused of staging her sexual assault and now must stand trial, yet it still remains a psychologicl thriller. Despite all of the holes that the police poke in her story, i.e. that the assailant bound her legs first before binding her arms or that the tools he used belonged to her husband, Gilles (Grégory Gadebois), Maureen maintains that she was sexually assaulted. Whomever assaulted her left no fingerprints or any other kind of evidence. It might be connected to the fact that she's blowing the whistle on a powerful company. Interestingly, La Syndicaliste doesn't show the actual assault to the audience, so by leaving it to the audience's imagination, the film becomes more provocative and suspenseful because the audience knows as much as the police knows. In other words, the screenwriters do an effective job of incorporating the right amount of exposition at just the right time. The shady dealings between Areva and China and Maureen's whistleblowing are no longer the film's focus; Maureen's lack of credibility and the misogyny that she experiences as she stands up for the truth is the primary focus. Fortunately, La Syndicaliste has a complex and compelling protagonist because she keeps the film engaging even when the narrative momentum starts waning without exploring her relationship with her husband enough or being unflinching.

      Isabelle Huppert gives yet another raw and moving performance that rises above the shallow screenplay. There's not much emotional depth or nuance coming from the screenplay itself, but Huppert manages to compensate for that thanks to her palpable warmth and charisma. Marina Foïs is also superb in a supporting role. The pace moves briskly enough and the editing is smooth while avoiding choppiness. Beyond that, there's not much that's exceptional about the production values, but that's alright because what the film lacks in its style, it makes it up for it in its engaging portrait of an innately strong, brave woman who's stuck in a world filled with prejudice, misogyny, corruption and injustice. At a running time of just over 2 hours, La Syndicalist is a provocative and compelling psychological thriller with a heartfelt performance by Isabelle Huppert.

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

Raging Grace

Directed by Paris Zarcilla

      Joy (Max Eigenmann), a undocumented Filipina immigrant, gets hired by Katherine (Leanne Best), to be the caretaker of her uncle, Mr. Garrett (David Hayman), who has terminal cancer. Little does Katherine know that Joy has brought her teenage daughter, Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla), with her. Little does Joy know that Katherine is hiding a dark family secret.

      Writer/director Paris Zarcilla has woven a foreboding psychological thriller that takes a steep nosedive when it veers it horror territory. Raging Grace charts the same water as Parasite as it tackles class issues and has a very dark twist. There's already enough dramatic tension between Joy and Katherine, so the sci-fi/horror elements feel tacked-on. The film is at its most intriguing moments when Zarcilla focuses more on the dynamics between Joy and Katherine who has more to her than meets the eye. The psychological horror feels more scary because it relies on the audience's imagination. Once the "big reveal" rises to the surface, it's shocking and disturbing, but not much more than that. The big twist in Parasite works better on many levels without diminishing the film's narrative momentum. The same can't be said about Raging Grace. The twist arrives too late, though, with poor exposition that makes the plot feel too convoluted and complicated without being complex like Parasite. It's never a good thing when you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way.

      The performances are decent with no one giving a weak performance, but no one standing out either. What does stand out, though, is the production design, use of lighting, camera angles and sound design which enhance the film's creepy atmosphere. The pace moves slowly at first before it picks up speed, so there's some issues with uneven pacing. That said, it's refreshing that writer/director Paris Zarilla doesn't rely on violence and gore to entertain or scare the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Raging Grace is an often unnerving and atmospheric slice of psychological horror.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Brainstorm Media and Doppelgänger Releasing.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan.


Directed by Noora Niasari

      During Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) flees Iran with her 6-year-old daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), to seek refuge at a women's shelter in Australia run by Joyce (Leah Purcell). She tries to avoid her abusive husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami), who wants to force her and Mona to return to Iran with him.

      Writer/director Noora Niasari has woven a spellbinding psychological thriller about a mother who's desperately trying to escape her toxic environment back at home in Iran. Shayda knows that she's taking a major risk when she leaves Iran to find refuge at the women's shelter in Australia. The film eschews a first act that would've shown her life back in Iran; it begins when she's already in Australia. Her husband, Hossein, has the legal right to visit and spend time with Mona. She's lucky to have Joyce and the other women at the shelter who make her feel safe and care about being, unlike Hossein. Niasari has a great command of exposition as she keeps the narrative focused on Shayda and Mona's experiences while building tension very gradually. She wisely avoids resorting to flashbacks or voice-over narration to propel the story. What might happen when Hossein visits? What is he capable of doing to Shayda? What if he finds out that Shayda is flirting with another man? Just the thought that he might kill her or the other man provides some psychological thrills. During a few scenes, the film even feels Hitchcockian in terms of its palpable suspense. Bravo to writer/director Noora Niasari, though, for seeing and treating Shayda and Mona as human beings because by the time Shayda fully shifts into thriller territory, the audience is emotionally invested in Shayda and Mona's lives which means that the beats land when they struggle break free from Hossein.

      Zar Amir-Ebrahimi gives a tender and radiant performance while finding the emotional truth of her role. She also knows how to convey a lot of emotion even during the quieter moments. The pace moves slow, but not too slow, until it picks up when Hossein shows up to spend time with Mona, so not only does writer/director Noora Niasari know when to trust the audience's imagination, but also when to trust their patience. That's no easy feat. The music score is also well-chosen without being distracting or intrusive while the cinematography, fortunately, avoids the use of shaky cam to generate tension. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Shayda is a powerful and engrossing psychological thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens for an Oscar-qualifying run at Village East by Angelika.

The Shift

Directed by Brock Heasley

      Kevin Garner (Kristoffer Polaha) lives with his beloved Molly (Elizabeth Tabish), whom he had met and settled down with when he just lost job at a hedge fund. After getting into a car accident, he meets the Benefactor (Neal McDonough) who claims he has the power to shift people into other dimensions. Kevin turns down the Benefactor's offer to send him into a dimension with a life full of riches, so instead he sends, or shifts, him into a dystopian dimension where he's no longer with Molly. He now has to find his way out of the dimension in hope of reuniting with Molly.

      Loosely based on The Book of Job, the screenplay by writer/director Brock Heasley effectively blends sci-fi, thrills and romance. He introduces the audience to Kevin just as he loses his job at the hedge fund and flirts with Molly at a bar before they go out on a date. Years later, he has married her and grieves the death of his son. He's also struggling to make ends meet, so when he meets the Benefactor, he has the option to solve all of his financial problems if he were to be shifted into a dimension where he's wealthy. His decision to turn down the Benefactor's Faustian bargain sends him into a hellish dystopia filled with misery, poverty, anguish and suffering. Kevin refuses to give up hope, though. He knows that he needs to get ahold of a special bracelet to be able to shift to another dimension. He also believes that he can find Molly in another dimension. Gabriel (Sean Astin) and Russo (John Billingsley) might be able to help him. The screenplay does a fine job of incorporating exposition in a way that doesn't distract from the film's narrative momentum. At times, the rules of the multidimensions and shifters are confusing and even a little convoluted, but those are minor flaws. The Shift is fundamentally about someone who finds the inner strength to believe in himself, in love and in God despite many setbacks and adversities. Kevin comes across as a determined, brave and decent, yet flawed human being which makes him all the more relatable and worth rooting for. You gradually see snippets from his life with Molly and his son which allows you to grasp how much he's longing to be with his family again. There are some emotionally gritty scenes that are powerful and poignant as Kevin desperately tries to reunite with Molly. Prepare to be at the edge of your seat thinking and feeling a lot. That's a sign that The Shift has just the right blend of Truth and Spectacle.

      Kristoffer Polaha is very well-cast as Kevin. He's very charismatic and handles the emotional complexities of his role with conviction. Elizabeth Tabish is terrific as Kevin's wife while Neal McDonough adds some gravitas as the devil-like Benefactor. Sean Austin and John Billingsley make the most out of their supporting roles. Fortunately, the action scenes are well-directed and choreographed without relying on excessive violence gore to entertain the audience. Moreover, the set design, use of lighting and color in the dystopian dimension add some style that become part of the film's substance. At a running time of 1 hour 55 minutes, The Shift is a gripping, heartfelt and provocative love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Angel Studios.
Opens nationwide.

Silent Night

Directed by John Woo

      After recovering from a gunshot wound that causes him to lose his voice, Godlock (Joel Kinnaman) seeks revenge against the gangsters, led by Playa (Harold Torres), who are responsible for killing his son.

      Screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn keeps Silent Night tight and lean without much filler or any major surprises. He also keeps the exposition to a bare minimum. Godlock has a wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who's increasingly frustrated with how he's willing to put his life in danger again to avenge their son's death. Silent Night has just enough comic relief in the form of very dark humor, but, for the most part, it takes its premise seriously. That doesn't mean that there's much plausibility and logic. Suspension of disbelief is highly recommended. To be fair, though, plausibility and logic aren't necessary in an action thriller as long as it's entertaining and has enough internal logic. As Hitchcock once astutely observed, imagination is more important than logic. Sure, Silent Night's plot isn't anything new; it's essentially John Wick, but without dialogue except for a few texts. However, it nonetheless avoids becoming clunky, tonally uneven or exhausting which is quite impressive.

      Joel Kinnamen gives a pretty good non-verbal performance as Godlock. He's charismatic and effectively conveys just the right amount of emotion when the scene requires him to, so he helps to make it easy for the audience to root for Godlock. Dodlock's relationship with Saya isn't very interesting, though, and Catalina Sandino Moreno doesn't have enough material here to stand out, so she's wasted in her supporting role. The real star of the film, though, is the action. Director John Woo knows how to direct action scenes which is also evident in Face/Off and Broken Arrow. Once again, the action sequences are well-choreographed with some exciting chase scenes and violence that doesn't hold back on the gore. There are some very gruesome kills which won't be spoiled here. Moreover, the pace moves quickly so there's rarely a dull moment. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Silent Night is an exhilarating, riveting and action-packed thrill ride.

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

The Sweet East

Directed by Sean Price Williams

     Lillian (Talia Ryder), a high school senior, runs away on a class trip in Washington, D.C. She meets a variety of strangers including Caleb (Earl Cave) and Lawrence (Simon Rex), a neo-Nazi, who takes her along with him to New York City.

      The screenplay by Nick Pinkerton  often feels episodic, yet engaging. One minute Lillian she's with one stranger, the next she's with another, soLawrence tries to get to know her when she sits down with him to grab a bite to eat, but she lies to him that she ran away from her physically abusive boyfriend. She's mysterious, naive and emotionally immature which makes it hard to like her, but that's forgivable. Not every protagonist has to be likable. She's at least somewhat grounded in reality like Lawrence who's unreliable and creepy. Other characters like Molly (Ayo Edebiri), a director, Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris), a producer, and  Ian (Jacob Elordi), an actor, are caricatures. The plot becomes increasingly preposterous, so realism and logic aren't its strong points. Perhaps that's part of the point. The Sweet East doesn't really have a powerful or profound message about coming-of-age or about America like Ghost World does. Enid from Ghost World has more of an interesting and complex personality than Lillian does. Moreover, the film suffers from tonal whiplash as it goes from offbeat humor to satire to tender drama to thriller. Much like Lillian, it's also often aimless and unpredictable.  

      Talia Ryder gives a charming, understated performance as Lillian who's somewhat as deadpan as Marnie in the cult classic Mumblecore film Funny Ha Ha. The highlights, though, are Ayo Edibiri and Jeremy O. Harris who seem like they walked out of Theater Camp with their over-the-top performances. Ayo has a monologue that's very funny, honest and razor sharp which she delivers very effectively. If only there were more scenes with her and Jeremy. The grainy cinematography gives the film an 80s or 90s vibe with a dreamlike atmosphere. It's also worth mentioning the lively and well-chosen music score. At a running time, The Sweet East is funny, witty and refreshingly unconventional.  

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

Teddy's Christmas

Directed by Andrea Eckerbom

      While visiting a Christmas market, Mariann (Marte Klerck-Nilssen), an 8-year-old girl, discovers a magical teddy bear (voice of Zachary Levi)  as one of the prizes. She goes on an adventure to find it after someone else wins the teddy bear.

      Co-screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg keep the plot simple, easy-to-follow and lighthearted. Young children will be enchanted and amused. However, older audiences looking for something as witty and entertaining for the whole family along the lines of Paddington won't find much to hold their interest. What makes the teddy bear so magical, you ask? It's alive and can speak. Beyond that and how cute it looks, there's nothing really that special about it. Marianne spots it at the Christmas market and instantly forms a bond with it which fuels her desire to have it all for herself. The teddy bear goes on a bit of an adventure as well as it meets a hedgehog named Bolla. His adventures aren't very exciting, though. That said Teddy's Christmas does have some uplifting messages about the importance of family, friendship, the spirit of Christmas, joy and the power of one's imagination.

      Teddy's Christmas is presented in a version that's dubbed in English; the original is in Hungarian. That's a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, it makes the film accessible to children who wouldn't be able to read English subtitles. On the other hand, though, the dubbing is very subpar and clunky except for the voice of Zachary Levi. The pace moves briskly, there's some lively music and the decent CGI effects, but in terms of production values there's nothing exceptional that stands out. Perhaps Teddy's Christmas would've worked better as an entirely animated film like the recent Glisten and the Merry Mission which would pair well with it in a double feature. At a running time of just 1 hour and 20 minutes, Teddy's Christmas is a wholesome, harmless and enchanting adventure that will delight and amuse young audiences.

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


Directed by Edouard Salier

      Lazaro (Pablo Cobo) and his twin brother, Tristan (Louis Peres), prepare for a mission in space at the Astronaut Academy. When something from outer space crashes into a lake that they are swimming in, Tristan gets severely disfigured and suffers from cognitive issues. His injury subsequently alters the relationship between him and Lazaro as well as him and his mother, Mayra (Marta Nieto).

      Set in the year 2041, the screenplay by writer/director Edouard Salier and co-writer Mauricio Carrasco combines sci-fi and drama with genuine poignancy as it explores the aftermath of a tragic accident that drastically changes Tristan's life. There's a subplot involving a space mission called Eternity that has something to do with plans for colonization. In the opening scenes, Lazaro and Tristan train hard for that mission at the Astronaut Academy. Instead of focusing on the sci-fi elements, Tropic instead delves into how it affects Tristan, Lazaro and their mother on an emotional and psychological level. Their dynamics change as Tristan's dreams are now crushed by his injuries while Lazaro continues to prepare for the mission, but he feels bad for Tristan. It also frustrates their mother who's going through her own innate battles as she takes care of Tristan. So, although there's very little exposition when it comes to the space mission itself, it's not as important as the emotional journey of the characters which serves as the meat of the story and provides a palpable heartbeat that's very rare to find in most sci-fi movies these days that bombard the audience with too much visual spectacle. Tropic sees and treats its character as human beings, warts and all, which makes it an emotionally resonating experience from start to finish. Fortunately, it has just the right balance between truth and spectacle while also finding the spectacle within its many truths, a.k.a. its humanity.

      Pablo Cobo, Louis Peres and Marta Nieto each give heartfelt performances that find the emotional truth of their role while further grounding the film in humanism, a truly special effect. Fundamentally, Tropic is about unconditional love and the importance of conquering adversity, so it's kindred spirits with How I Learned to Fly which also opens this weekend. It never feels tonally uneven nor does it meander or go bonkers. There are even some shades of The Elephant Man. The cinematography is very stylish and stunning with some impressive visual effects, especially for a lower budget film. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, Tropic is engrossing, honest and haunting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Dark Star Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Voy! Voy! Voy!

Directed by Omar Hilal


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