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Reviews for February 10th, 2023

The Blue Caftan

Directed by Maryam Touzani

      Halim (Saleh Bakri) and his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), run a handmade caftan shop in Morocco. When Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a young man, arrives as a new apprentice to help them at the shop, he and Halim develop an attraction for each other.

    Writer/director Maryam Touzani has woven a gently moving and understated love story while trusting the audience's intelligence, imagination and emotions. Halim and Mina lead what seems like a quiet, happy life together as a married couple, but a lot goes on beneath the surface. Touzani deftly handles exposition while avoiding schmaltz, over-explaining and melodrama. With a less talented screenplay, The Blue Caftan could've turned into a mawkish soap opera. Instead, it's a profoundly human slice-of-life that feels genuinely engrossing while seeing and treating its characters like complex human beings. Even though there are no flashbacks to provide a backstory about how Halim and Mina fell in love, you still can palpable sense that they've been married for many years just by the way they talk to one another, much like Andrew Haigh effectively accomplished in 45 Years. The plot remains focused without meandering or veering into a completely different genre, i.e. when the police stop Halim and Mina outdoors at night to ask for their ID and marriage certificate, that scene could've turned the film into a suspense thriller, but it doesn't. The police officer turns out to be compassionate. So, it would be safe to say that there are no villains in The Blue Caftan except for a silent one: Mina's terminal illness. Even that subplot isn't dwelled upon too much; this isn't a Lifetime disease-of-the-week movie after all. There's also just the right balance of comic relief without any unevenness. Kudos to writer/director Maryam Touzani for making a film about emotionally mature human beings for emotionally mature audiences. That's a rare feat these days.

      Saleh Bakri, Lubna Azabal and Ayoub Missioui give raw, nuanced and emotionally convincing performance without over-acting or under-acting. They're also very charismatic and express a lot of emotions without words. Writer/director Maryam Touzani should also be commended for grasping the power of quiet moments to convey emotions and to let the audience absorb themselves in those emotions. The slow pace does take time to get used to, so patient audiences will appreciate this film the most. Patience is often rewarding which is the case here. The cinematography looks exquisite with many surprisingly beautiful shots of Halim and Youssef crafting the caftans. Small details like when Halim touches Youssef's hand speaks louder than words. There's also some provocative use of metaphors, i.e. the titular blue caftan, which adds poetry and depth without hitting the audience over the head. Poetry is, after all, a form of protest for or against something. The Blue Caftan is a protest for love, tolerance and compassion as well as a protest against hate and intolerance. At a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes, it's a mesmerizing, engrossing and profoundly human love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Film Forum.

Cinema Sabaya

Directed by Orit Fouks Rotem

      Rona (Dana Igvy), a filmmaker, leads a video workshop with eight Jewish and Arab women who document and discuss their lives with each other. The sabaya, which means "women" in Arabic, include Nasrin (Amal Markus), Carmela (Liora Levi), Souad (Joanna Said), Eti (Orit Samuel), Nahed (Aseel Farhat), Awatef (Marlene Bajali), Gila (Ruth Landau) and Yelena (Yulia Tagil).

      The screenplay by writer/director Orit Fouks Rotem takes on a very big task: to get to know the eight women by the time the end credits roll. The more they get to know one another, the more the audience gets to know them, in turn. They're strangers to each other and to the audience at first, but, by the end, they're no longer strangers. That's essentially what happens throughout Cinema Sabaya. The women come from different walks of life. Some are young, some are old. Some are single, some are married. Some are Jewish, some are Arab. When Rona asks them to document their lives with a camera and to share the footage with the group, what she's really asking from them is introspection. For some of the women, like one who's married to a physically and emotionally abusive and controlling man, it's harder than for others to be introspective. They're all brave, though, for sharing their emotions so candidly in front of others and for showing their vulnerability. In an interesting moment, one of the women turns the tables on Rona to ask her about her own life since she hasn't shared anything about it so far. To be fair, much of the film feels like a play because it pretty much takes place in one room. It's not as hard-hitting emotionally as Mass nor as powerful as the documentary Promises, but it's far more engrossing than the dull and shallow Women Talking. The only scenes that feel contrived and add unnecessary conflict are the ones involving the subplot about Rona's hidden motive to use the women's video footage for a documentary that she's editing behind their backs. Not surprisingly, when the women find out about that, they're not too happy.

      Cinema Sabaya often feels like a documentary at times because the characters are written as complex human beings which makes them relatable and universal. Anyone who's been through emotional pain and suffering will be able to relate to them to some degree, regardless of your gender or nationality. Writer/director Orit Fouks Rotem doesn't tie everything neatly in a bow in the third act, so if you're looking for closure or easy solutions for these women's problems, you won't find it here.

      The strong performances are a large part of what makes Cinema Sabaya so emotionally resonating. The actresses feel natural as they sink their teeth into a wide range of emotions: joy, sadness, frustration, anger, regret, hope and despair together. In other words, they're human, just like me and you. By the end of the workshop, it's clear that they've not only become friends, but they've found more inner strength and self worth, which are very important tools to have for emotional growth, maturity and healing. As the great poet Pablo Neruda once wisely observed, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." At a surprisingly brief running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Cinema Sabaya is a well-acted, genuinely moving and empowering emotional journey well worth taking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Civil Dead

Directed by Clay Tatum

      Clay (Clay Tatum), works as a photographer and lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Whitney (Whitney Weir), and a cat. While Whitney's away for the weekend working out of town, Clay bumps into an old high school friend, Whit ((Whitmer Thomas), whom he had lost touch with for years. He learns the next morning that Whit is actually a ghost that only his cat can see.

      The Civil Dead has a bold premise with interesting concepts and a promising first act. The screenplay by writer/director Clay Tatum and co-writer Whitmer Thomas, though, doesn't quite know what to do with its ideas. To be fair, balancing comedy, horror and thrills with satire isn't an easy task. Peter Jackson tried that combo in the campy, unconventional, wild & wacky dark comedy cult classic The Frighteners. The Korean film Hello Ghost, which deserves a remake, deftly combines comedy and horror with surprising poignancy. The Civil Dead veers toward wackiness and has a little dark comedy, but the beats don't land more often than not. It runs out of steam around the time Clay invites to a poker game at a Hollywood producer's house in hope that he could help him to win the game by cheating. That scene could've been played for laughs or suspense, but it's neither suspenseful, funny nor witty.  It doesn't help that Clay comes across as an unlikable jerk because that makes it hard to connect with him. It also doesn't help that The Civil Dead isn't interested in getting to know him more profoundly as a human being, in exploring his friendship with Whit (both past and present), his relationship with his wife, Whitney, who's more successful than him. This is yet another movie that bites off more than it could chew. Moreover, it doesn't take any risks until the disappointing third act with a very bitter, abrupt yet lazy ending that won't be spoiled here.

      The performances are fine, but no one really gets the chance to shine with their comedic or dramatic talents because of the weak screenplay. There's just enough chemistry between Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas to keep you mildly engaged, though. Their banter is initially amusing at first before it becomes tedious and dull. In terms of pacing, The Civil Dead is a little uneven. It drags the second act, rushes its third act, and slightly overstays its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes. Ultimately, The Civil Dead is mildly engaging with a bold premise, but lackluster execution. It's low on enough laughs, bite, wit and campiness. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Utopia.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan.


Directed by Christopher Smith

     Grace (Jena Malone) visits the Mount Saviour Convent in Scotland to investigate the suicide of her brother, Michael (Steffan Cennydd), a priest. She's believes that it wasn't a suicide and that the convent must be harboring a dark secret. The nuns and Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) aren't very friendly and welcoming to Grace, Father Romero (Danny Huston) tries to help her.

      The screenplay by writer/director Christopher Smith and co-writer Laurie Cook suffers from excessive, clunky exposition and not nearly enough palpable scares, suspense or thrills. When you first meet Grace, you learn that she's a scientist working in a lab and hasn't seen her brother in years. When she receives word that he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, she has a gut feeling that something sinister happened to him. What led to their estrangement? What was their relationship like in the past, especially during their childhood? Consecration answers those questions to an extent while barely digging deeper. It's obvious from the moment that she arrives at the convent that nuns and Mother Superior are hiding a dark secret and that they can't be trusted. Their characters are one-note, and forgettable, though. Father Romero, on the other hand, is slightly more compelling as a character, but the screenplay treats him, too, merely as a plot device. Some of his dialogue goes on and on with exposition in a way that feels contrived, stilted and distracting. In a truly great psychological horror film, the plot becomes engrossing, gripping and scary as it progresses, especially if there's a dark twist. That can't be said about this particular film. Yes, there's a dark twist, but it seems tacked-on without leading to anything terrifying, provocative or haunting.

      Consecration has two strengths that help to make it at least moderately entertaining: The strong performances by Jena Malone and Danny Huston, and the atmospheric cinematography. Their performances account for the modicum of emotional poignancy which the screenplay sorely lacks. At times, the setting and landscape in general becomes like a character in and of themselves. It's clichéd to set a horror film somewhere isolated and to intertwine the church with supernatural elements, but, to be fair, there's nothing inherently wrong with clichés as long as they're used effectively. Fortunately, Consecration clocks well under 2 hours, so it's not a chore to sit through nor is it as cringe-inducing as the recent, unintentionally funny horror film The Devil Conspiracy. At a running time of 90 minutes, it's atmospheric with solid performances, but clunky, overwrought, and neither scary nor suspenseful enough.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by IFC Films.
Opens in select theates.

Hannah Ha Ha

Directed by Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky

      25-year-old Hannah (Hannah Lee Thompson) lives with her father, Avram (Avram Tetewsy), in a small Massachusetts town. She spends her days working at his farm. When her brother, Paul (Roger Mancusi), arrives, he encourages her to find a more stable job for a bright future, but the only job she can find is a dead-end job at a fast food restaurant.  

      Hannah Ha Ha is a fine homage to the cult classic Funny Ha Ha, the film that launched the "Mumblecore" wave. The screenplay by co-writers/directors Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky has a wafer-thin plot, much like Funny Ha Ha; it's about the struggles of a young woman who's going through a turning point in her life. In a way, it would be safe to call it a "coming of age" film, but without any romance, sex or drugs--although there is some booze and smoking. As Hitchcock once shrewdly stated, some movies are like a slice-of-life while others are like a slice-of-cake. Hannah Ha Ha is proud to be a slice-of-life with shades of Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha and Ken Loach's social realist films, although it's not as emotionally devastating or unflinching. Understatement, nuance and minimalism are among the film's virtues which are rare to find these days. There are no villains, plot twists, action or edge-of-your-seat suspense. The film avoids voice-over narration, flashbacks, schmaltz and preachiness. There are also ephemeral moments of awkward humor albeit nothing that's laugh-out-loud. Hannah isn't as compelling as a character as Marnie from Funny Ha Ha or Mason from Boyhood, but she's nonetheless human and increasingly complex the more you get to know her. She bike rides, teaches others how to play the guitar and loves spending time walking her dog. The filmmakers do a decent job of turning mundane moments from life into something slightly more profound and relatable.

      Hannah Ha Ha's main flaw is its distracting use of cinematography that looks out-of-focus at times. There's nothing wrong with soft focus, but when the scenes look hazy, it's hard to see what's going on, and it's also quite nauseating. Is it supposed to be gritty or perhaps another homage to low budget films like Funny Ha Ha? Or did the focus puller fall asleep perhaps? Either way, it doesn't work. The film goes too far with its visual style that makes it feel less true-to-life and more dreamlike/experimental---almost like the hazy visuals in Skinamarink, but at least that film's visual style is more effective and compliments its tone. That can't be said about Hannah Ha Ha. That said, Hannah Lee Thompson gives a breakthrough performance and shines in her role while concurrently breathing life into it. Her warmth, charismatic and emotional generosity are palpable and rewarding to perceptive, emotionally mature audiences. This film also requires a lot of patience because it moves at a leisurely pace, so it might not be the film for you if you have ADHD. At a running time of only 1 hour and 15 minutes, Hannah Ha Ha is a quietly moving, warm and tender slice-of-life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Cinedigm and Fandor.
Opens at AMC Empire 25 and Alamo Drafhouse in Manhattan.


Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera

      Valeria (Natalia Solián) has wanted to be a mother for quite some time. When she finally gets pregnant, she starts seeing horrifying images. Her husband, Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), thinks that it's all in her head.

      Huesera is a chilling supernatural horror films that also serves as a provocative psychological thriller. Writer/director Michelle Garza Cervera and co-writer Abia Castillo don't jump head-first into the horror elements. They let the suspense build gradually as Valeria visits the statue of the Virgin Mary with her husband to pray for her to get pregnant. Her wish comes true, but not without consequences. She sees someone jumping to their death in the apartment across from her in the middle of the night. The body looks contorted and other-worldy. What's going on? Is it all in Valeria's mind like her husband believes? The screenplay is pretty conventional when it comes to its premise because it has one character who believes in the supernatural and another who thinks they're crazy. It's reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby, at times, and just as dark and foreboding. The filmmakers keep exposition at a minimum, so prepare to be confused as you'll have many questions including how it all ties into dark magic. They trust your intelligence to make sense out of everything and let you interpret it on your own. They also blur the line between reality and fantasy. What's real? What's not real? As Valeria looks into more and more about what's going on, the film becomes increasingly intense. This isn't a B-movie with lots of cheap jump scares; it's "elevated" horror because it's intriguing and gripping while remaining grounded in humanism. Valeria is, after all, a human being who's going through adversity and dealing with new emotions that she doesn't quite know how to handle. You'll be confused, too, about the supernatural events when she's confused because the audience knows as much as she does. You'll feel scared when she's scared. Therefore, it makes it easier to connect with her. It's also fascinating to observe how Valeria's experiences with the supernatural affect her relationship with her husband. The third act is satisfyingly creepy as goes to a very dark and terrifying place that won't be spoiled here, but it's still grounded in reality while treating its characters as human being.

      Natalia Solián gives a very moving performance as Valeria. Kudos to her for seeing and treating Valeria as a human being by opening the window into Valeria's heart, mind and soul to show her vulnerability as well as her strengths. Valeria clearly goes through a wide range of emotions throughout the film, so it's a testament to Solián's skills and emotional maturity as an actress that she's able to convey all of those emotions with so much conviction. Finding the emotional truth of a role is no easy task, but she has managed to find it. The cinematography, sound design, visual effects and lighting are also top-notch with some pretty unsettling images. Huesera would make for a great double feature with Baby Ruby or Nanny which are similar in theme, tone and use of metaphors. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, it's a provocative, suspenseful and spine-tingling horror thriller.

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

Magic Mike's Last Dance

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

      Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) works as a bartender at upscale parties. At one of the events, the party's host, Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), offers him $6,000 to strip for her after learning that he used to be a stripper. They spend the night together, and she offers him $60,000 to travel with her to her home in London to become the new choreographer for a strip show that will take place at the old theater. She recently received ownership of the theater from her wealthy soon-to-be-ex husband who wants to stop the show from running because he thinks it would tarnish the family's name. A local beaurocrat, Edna (Vicki Pepperdine), also stands in their way of putting on the show.

      Magic Mike's Last Dance isn't as audacious or campy as its predecessors, Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL, but it's nonetheless a pleasant, amusing diversion. The screenplay by Reid Carolin takes itself too seriously while meandering with contrived and underdeveloped subplots, i.e. the cheesy romance between Mike and Maxandra, the relationship between Maxandra and her daughter, Phoebe (Nancy Carroll), or between her and her wealthy husband. It's refreshing to see a strong role for women in the character of Maxandra---she's determined, confident and doesn't let anyone, including her husband, walk mess with her. She refuses to go down without a fight even when the local authorities show up to close down the show. Magic Mike's Last Dance doesn't succeed in humanizing its characters enough, but the one who's most humanized is Maxandra. Unfortunately, all of the drama that takes place outside beyond the theater feels very bland and hackneyed while lacking in surprises, boldness and even sexiness. There are a few scenes that stand out, though, because they're outrageously funny and allow the film to feel invigorating, like the scene on the bus when the strippers put on a dance to try to seduce Edna. Of course, their seduction works, and the comedic beats in the next scene when Edna, unsurprisingly, suddenly approves of the show, do indeed land. The beats also land during the strip show itself, but, again, you'll be able to predict what will happen and whether or not Edna will be in the audience. This is the kind of movie where you can take a bathroom break at any time and be able to accurately predict precisely what you've missed. There's one witty, tongue-in-cheek line to be found at least: when Hannah (Juliette Motamed), one of the performers at the strip show, holds a mic and refers to it as a "magic mic." If only there could be more witty humor like that! The only surprise is the rather tame strip show doesn't make the most out of the film's R rating. Also, the rushed third act, which can be seen from a mile away, doesn't earn its uplift and ends a little too abruptly.

      Magic Mike's Last Dance is lucky to have Salma Hayek Pinault because she's the movie's MVP. She gives a very charismatic, radiant and warm performance that helps to ground the film ever so slightly while also keeping you engaged in the by-the-numbers story. Channing Tatum gives a rather wooden performance here, and he's surprisingly under-used when it comes to putting on dance moves as the iconic Magic Mike---a brief dance at the beginning isn't enough. Also, the cinematography lacks the exquisite visual style that you'd expect from a Soderbergh movie. You'll forget that you're even watching a Soderbergh film. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Magic Mike's Last Dance is moderately entertaining and diverting, but often shallow, bland, unsexy and surprisingly tame. It takes itself too seriously without enough campiness, audacity and wit.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros.
Opens nationwide.

The Outwaters

Directed by Robbie Banfitch

      Robbie Zagorac (Robbie Banfitch), his brother, Scott (Scott Schamell) and their friends Ange Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis) and Michelle August (Michelle May), a singer, venture out to the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video for one of Michelle's songs. While camping out in the desert, they encounter a terror beyond anything they could've possibly imagined.

      Writer/director Robbie Banfitch begins with a foreshadow of the horror to come by showing the audio recordings of the 911 calls that the four friends you're about to meet made. Then the film flashes back to the moment they arrived in the Mojave desert. By teasing the audience with the 911 calls at first, Banfitch keeps the audience in Hitchockian suspense because they're constantly anticipating that something bad will happen to Robbie, Scott, Ange and/or Michelle. Trying to figure out what will happen and when it will happen, though, becomes a frustrating and nerve-wracking experience because The Outwaters doesn't delve head first into the horror immediately. The first hour isn't very scary, but worry not because the second half of the film compensates for that without holding back the scares. Although there's plenty of blood and guts to be found here, there's also a lot left to the audience's imagination, especially during the night time scenes where it's hard to see what's going on. You'll find no exposition when it comes to what the evil entity/creature is, what it wants or why it's terrorizing these people. Also, the film doesn't spend much time getting to know any of the victims so that you can grasp their personalities or what their life was like before their desert trek, so the plot remains very lean and focused without any unnecessary padding. With virtually no comic relief or easy answers, it's an intense, exhausting and confusing experience, but perhaps that's the point because the people on screen are also exhausted and confused.

      As Roger Ebert once wisely observed, horror doesn't need any big stars because the star is the horror. The Outwaters uses a "found footage" format and benefits from the fact that the actors aren't recognizable. Their anonymity makes it all the more real and terrifying. Imagine if it co-starred Tom Cruise or Nicolas Cage. It wouldn't have been as scary. Writer/director Robbie Banfitch trusts the power of the audience's imagination during the very dark night time scenes. Those are among the most palpably chilling scenes along with an upside down shot that will scare the living daylights out of you. Bravo to Banfitch for allowing the audience's patience to pay off with a very bloody and gory last hour that might make you sick to your stomach--it's almost as gory as Terrifier 2. The sound design also adds some creepiness and style. The use of shaky cam, though, is very nauseating, though, and a cheap way to add tension. That's among the many similarities this film has to The Blair Witch Project, so if you could handle the shaky cam, you can handle it in The Outwaters. It's pretty much Blair Witch in the desert. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, it's one of the most bold, terrifying and riveting horror films since The Descent.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Cinedigm.
Opens at select theaters.

Seriously Red

Directed by Gracie Otto

      After losing her job as a real estate agent, Red (Krew Boylan), a huge fan of Dolly Parton, pursues her dream of becoming a Dolly Parton impersonator. Teeth (Celeste Barber), a talent scout, and Wilson (Bobby Cannavale), a booking agent, help her to kick off a new career doing what she loves. Joining Red on her tour are Elvis impersonator, EP (Rose Byrne), and Kenny (Daniel Webber), a Kenny Rogers impersonator, who becomes her romantic interest.

      The screenplay by Krew Boylan does a wonderful job of bringing Red to life in a way that makes her relatable to anyone who's ever struggled to be true to oneself in a world that's very alienating, dehumanizing and full of inauthenticity. She and Muriel from Muriel's Wedding are kindred spirits. Muriel loves ABBA, and Red loves Dolly Parton. They're both insecure, sad and lost as they navigate through their adult life. They have a lot of growing up to do, but their abusive, narcissistic parents don't help. Red is also cut from the same cloth as Enid from Ghost World, Bridget from Briget Jones' Diary, Shirley from Shirley Valentine and Bernadette from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, another Aussie classic. Red's mother, Viv (Jean Kittson), often belittles her, invalidates her feelings and puts a damper on any joy that comes with her pursuing her dream. To say that Viv is a bad parent and the source of Red's emotional pain would be very accurate. However, she's not written as a villain; she's not a monster. It wouldn't be surprising if, like a true narcissist, Viv hates herself and projects that onto her daughter who she sees as an extension of herself. She's jealous of Red's success, so she puts her down to feel better about herself.

      To watch Red stand up to her mother and, most importantly, for herself is genuinely uplifting and empowering. It's refreshing to see a character who's complex, flawed and willing to learn, to grow and to love herself. Seriously Red is ultimately a story about a woman's romance with herself which is far more enlightening and profound than any other kind of love story. Moreover, the film finds just the right tone as it juggles comedy, tragedy, drama, romance and a little campiness while avoiding schmaltz, unevenness and preachiness, although there are quite a few witty, aphoristic Dolly Parton quotes displayed on screen. Most importantly, Seriously Red earns its uplift during the third act.

      Krew Boylan gives a radiant and charismatic performance as Red. When Red isn't impersonating Dolly Parton, Boylan looks a lot like a red-headed version of Renee Zellweger. She deftly handles the emotional complexities of her role while opening a window into Red's heart, mind and soul. The hair and makeup designs are superb during Red's Dolly Parton impersonations, and the musical numbers are pure joy to behold. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Seriously Red is a triumph. It's one of the most funny, wise and exuberant coming-of-age films since Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Gravitas Ventures and Lionsgate.
Opens at select theaters.


Directed by Benjamin Caron

      Tom (Justice Smith) meets a customer, Sandra (Briana Middleton), at the bookstore that he owns in NYC. They fall in love and have a whirlwind romance before Sandra complains that her brother owes $350,000 to thugs who'll hurt him if he doesn't pay up. Tom claims that his father, Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), is wealthy and kindly offers to give her the money in cash which she accepts. After she receives it, she stands him up on their next date and vanishes. Her disappearance has something to do with her involvement with Max (Sebastian Stan) who's involved with Madeline (Julianne Moore) who's involved with Richard.

      The plot won't be described any further to avoid spoiling any surprises. Some films are best experienced while knowing little to nothing about the plot. Sharper is one of those films. Just by its premise alone, it sounds like a labyrinthian crime thriller and a mindfuck. That observation turns out to be accurate because the screenplay by co-writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka pile on twist after twist with plenty of cons, double crossings and seductions. By the 4th or 5th twist, the audience feels just as manipulated as the characters do. Just when you think you could trust someone, they turn out to be shady and corrupt. Meanwhile, Tom tries to investigate Sandra's whereabouts. He's still in love with her. Is she still in love with him? That's the subplot that feels contrived and cheesy. There are so many subplots, characters and cons that the film already overwrought around the hour mark. Fortunately, it avoids becoming too confusing or convoluted. The screenwriters do a great job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition. You'll be confused at first and have a lot of questions, but by the end, pretty much all of your questions will be answered. Sharper does resort, though, to spoon-feeding the audience which leaves no room for interpretation. The final major plot twist can be easily predicted if you're a critical thinker, so it's not quite as surprising and shocking as it aims to be. Moreover, the ending requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, so if you're willing to just sit back and experience the film without picking apart the complex, intricate plot, you'll be able to easily forgive the implausibility. Not every film has to be 100% realistic or a 100% "slice of life." As Hitchcock once observed, some movies are like a slice of cake while others are a slice of life. Sharper is a delicious slice of cake with many, many layers.

      Sharper sparkles with a terrific ensemble cast of actors each of whom is well-cast while bringing much-needed emotional depth that the screenplay lacks. It's refreshing to see Julianne Moore playing a seductive con artist. She seems to have as much fun in her role as Sigourney Weaver has in Heartbreakers or Annette Benning and Anjelika Huston in The Grifters. Justice Smith's moving performance helps to make Tom, the most likable character of them all, worth rooting for. In terms of production values, the editing, editing, and set design and camerawork provide the film with a very cinematic style without any scenes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Sharper is spellbinding and irresistibly entertaining. It's a slick, seductive and suspenseful thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Apple Original Films and A24.
Opens at Regal Union Square before streaming on Apples TV+ on February 17th, 2023.

She Came from the Woods

Directed by Erik Bloomquist

      Gilbert McCalister (William Sadler) and his daughter, Heather (Cara Buono), run Camp Briarbrook together. During the summer of 1987, the counselors gathered in the woods to party. They party in the woods while accidentally causing bloody mayhem when they awaken the spirit of Agatha, an evil, sadistic nurse who, according to legend, worked at the camp decades ago. The counselors include Heather's sons, Shawn (Tyler Elliot Burke) and Peter (Spencer List), Lauren (Clare Foley), Peter's girlfriend, and Dylan (Adam Weppler).

      She Came from the Woods attempts to blend supernatural horror and comedy while paying homage to the classic Friday the 13th. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Erik Bloomquist and co-writer Carson Bloomquist meanders and treads water too much setting up the plot before jumping into the meat of the story: the legend of Agatha. It takes too long until Agatha shows up and for the killings to commence. Isn't that what the audience is there for? Until then, there's not much that's engaging on any level or even funny, witty or campy (no pun intended). The characters are poorly developed and forgettable. Most of them are either dumb, obnoxious or just plain dull. Exposition isn't handled in an effective way; it's clunky and confusing which distracts from the film's narrative momentum rather than invigorating it or making it more suspenseful. It doesn't help that the dialogue often sounds stilted either. If the filmmakers were to have made the story leaner and tighter, it could've at least been an entertaining and terrifying guilty pleasure. Or it could've gone completely bonkers and over-the-top like Lake Placid and the recent M3GAN to entertain the audience through outrageous humor. Both of those films are satires with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. She Came from the Woods walks a fine line between spoof/satire and straight-forward homage without taking any risks by going one direction or the other. There's nothing wrong with dumb fun. Not every horror film has to be "elevated" horror. By playing it too safely, though, She Came from the Woods ends up an underwhelming experience.

      If all you need in a horror film is some blood and guts, She Came from the Woods at leasts provides audience with some of that to quench your thirst. It's not a splatterfest, though, nor does it push any boundaries gore-wise like Terrifier 2, but the make-up effects are impressive nonetheless. Also, the filmmakers avoid relying on nauseating shaky cam to generate tension. That said, some of the editing feels choppy especially during the third act. The setting in the woods adds some creepiness, but not enough to make it a palpably scary horror film. At an overlong running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, She Came from the Woods is an asinine, meandering horror comedy that's neither scary nor funny nor bonkers enough.

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