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Reviews for February 17th, 2023


Directed by Eromose

      Femi Jackson (Brandon Victor Dixon) works as the Financial Director of One USA, a political action committee associated with the campaign of presidential candidate Harold Roundtree (Orlando Jones). One day, he notices that donations from two major campaign donors each have digits that add up to the number 88. His friend, Ira Goldstein (Thomas Sadoski), who happens to be a financial blogger, joins him to investigate what turns out to be a conspiracy that involves white supremacy.

      88 suffers from the same systemic issue that the recent thriller On Sacred Ground suffers from: it squanders its opportunity to become a suspenseful and engrossing narrative. The screenplay by writer/director Eromose just seems to be going through the motions from plot point A to plot point B without breathing life into any of its characters. Femi has a wife, Maria (Naturi Naughton), who's pregnant, but their scenes fall flat and feel contrived. When it comes to exposition, though, the film does excel at that thanks to some clever and witty animation at the beginning that explains how PACs and political donors function, and how they're able to hide financial corruption. If only the rest of the film were as witty and clever. There's too much on-the-nose and stilted dialogue which leads the film to become lethargic. Once the plot veers into another direction when Ira tells Femi that 88 stands for "Heil Hitler" and that the financial corruption is associated with White Supremacy, that's around the time the film loses steam. It bites off more than it could chew while suspense dissipates, perhaps because that "big reveal" occurs too early, so there's nothing left that's even remotely as surprising or intriguing. Arlington Road is a better example of a paranoid conspiracy thriller that not only gradually ratchets up the tension, but also sees and treats its characters like human beings without being afraid to go headfirst into dark territory. Then there's the bold and brilliant political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Many of Alan J. Pakula's films, especially All the President's Men, generated suspense effectively while keeping the audience emotionally involved in the characters' lives. That can't be said about 88 which pales by comparison.

      Unfortunately, the performances are mediocre without rising above the weak, shallow screenplay. Besides the aforementioned animated sequence, not a single scene stands out. Moreover, the cinematography, lighting and editing don't create a tense or foreboding atmosphere; the film is brightly lit which makes it look like a made-for-TV movie or sitcom, minus the laughs. The pacing is fine at first before dragging a lot during the second act. At an overlong running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes, 88 is a lackluster, contrived and vapid political thriller that's not nearly suspense, emotionally engrossing or biting enough.


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

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Directed by Peyton Reed

      Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a.k.a. Ant-Man, has started a career as the author of his autobiography. He's ready to put down his Ant-Man suit and spend more time with his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton). Little does he know that Cassie, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) a.k.a. The Wasp, Hope's stepmother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), and father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), have been working on a science project. When one of their experiments goes wrong, they all get stuck inside the Quantum Realm where the tyrannical Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) rules.

      The third installment in the Ant-Man film series, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania suffers from . Part sci-fi fantasy, part mystery, part satire, part action thriller, part family drama, the screenplay by Jeff Loveness awkwardly blends a lot of genres and tones together which requires a smart and sensitively-written screenplay to get right. Unfortunately, the dialogue often sounds stilted, there are too many poorly-introduced characters, clunky exposition and underwhelming world-building. Lord Kylar (Bill Murray), for instance, briefly shows up as Kang's henchman before disappearing for the rest of the plot. He and every other character for that matter just seem to be there just to move the plot forward. Heart-to-heart scenes like the ones between Scott and Cassie or when Janet sits down to talk about her secret past feel contrived while nearly derailing the film. There are a few witty, tongue-in-cheek lines, like when a barista confuses Scott for Spider-Man or when a character in the Quantum Realm makes a comment that Ant-Man is easy to confuse with other superheroes. Despite those moments that poke fun at the superhero genre like Guardians of the Galaxy does, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania isn't nearly as exhilarating, funny or exciting. It just seems to be going through the motions and ends up losing its momentum every time it stops to add more exposition as it introduces yet another new character with yet another undeveloped backstory.

      None of the actors get a chance to shine, although Jonathan Majors comes the closest with his bravura performance as Kang. At times, though, he's very hammy as he was trying to do a spoof of a villain. There's nothing subtle about his performance. He might as well be constantly yelling, "I'm a villain!" over and over. Perhaps Kang will be given a more compelling backstory in future films in the series that fleshed out his character a lot more which would, in turn, give Majors more material to worth with. He deserves better as do Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas. The CGI is visually dazzling and the sound design is terrific, though, just as expected, so you'll find plenty of eye and ear candy that looks and sounds great on the big screen while providing some spectacle on a visceral level. Beyond that, though, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is an overstuffed, meandering, clunky and tonally uneven mess.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Frances O'Connor

      Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey) lives with her sisters, Anne (Amelia Gething) and Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), and brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) in a small village. She's the black sheep of the family because of her erratic behavior. When a clergyman, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) arrives, she criticizes his sermon and his writing before they begin a sexually-charged relationship while helping to fuel her passion for writing Wuthering Heights.

      Writer/director Frances O'Connor reimagines what might have inspired Emily Brontë to write the classic Wuthering Heights. Art often imitates life, as the saying goes. The screenplay does a poor job, though, of getting inside Emily's heart, mind and soul because it barely scratches the surface of what makes her tick. There's no doubt that she's haunted and traumatized by the death of her mother and has trouble making sense of her emotions. She hasn't fully grieved her mother's death. What was her relationship with her mother like though? Emily isn't very interested in exploring that, but it's an important question. Why is Emily so emotionally immature? She seems bright and brave enough to speak her mind which makes her an intriguing character with more than meets the eye. However, her relationship with her siblings remains underexplored and her affair with the clergyman is dull. There's a cold, emotional disconnect between the audience and all of the characters, so it's hard to care about them as human beings. They rarely come to life, unfortunately. Moreover, Emily has very little to say that's profound about love, artistic struggle, religion, grief, depression or freedom, so it ends up a squandered opportunity to tell a character-driven story in an engrossing, provocative and illuminating way.

      Emma Mackey gives a decent performance, but she's undermined by the vapid screenplay. Her performance here is more or less one-note without enough nuance. No one really gets the chance to shine or stand out. The cinematography and landscape does look exquisite, though, with terrific costume design and lighting that adds plenty of style and atmosphere, but not enough to provide the film with substance. The second act drags too much before the rushed third act that's quite dark. At a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, Emily is mildly engaging with great production design, but overlong, tedious and shallow.

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

Hidden Blade

Directed by Er Cheng

      Mr. He (Tony Leung) works as a counter-espionage agent for the Japanese government in Shanghai during World War II. He's secretly working as an agent for the Chinese Communist Party who steals classified information. Mr. Ye (Yibo Wang), an assassin, works with him along with Mr. Tang (Chengpeng Dong), Mr. Wang (Chuanjun Wang), Mr. Zhang (Lei Huang).

      Hidden Blade is an intelligent spy thriller with plenty of twists and surprises. The screenplay by writer/director Er Cheng follows a non-linear structure from different perspectives and time periods throughout the 1930s and 1940s before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Cheng keeps the film remaining plot-driven with a dry, serious tone and little to no comic relief. If you're looking for an action-packed thriller, you'll be disappointed that you have to wait until the third act for most of the action sequences. Until then, the story becomes increasingly complex, but also a little convoluted and confusing much like in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is cut from the same cloth as Hidden Blade. So, if you like that film, you'll probably like this one, too. There are double crossings, not surprisingly, so no one is who they seem to be. With so many characters, subplots, backstories and twists upon twists, your head might feel like it's spinning at times, so exhaustion begins to seep in around the hour mark. Writer/director Er Cheng trusts the audience's intelligence to piece everything together and follow along without spoon-feeding too much exposition. There's not a single character who's decent enough for the audience to root for, though. With so much focus on the plot, Hidden Blade sacrifices character development which makes it somewhat pedestrian and emotionally flat because it's hard to be emotionally invested in any of the characters on screen.

      The set design, costume design, lighting and camera angles add some style which becomes part of the film's substance and noirish atmosphere concurrently. There's no denying that Hidden Blade has a very cinematic look that's often stunning and even poetic. A lot of effort was clearly put into the production design, and it shows. The editing is also superb without any clunky or awkward transitions between past and present scenes. Moreover, writer/director Er Cheng trusts the audience's patience because the pace moves slowly as does the amount of information that the audience learns. It's the equivalent of a large puzzle that takes some time to solve, so it's a frustrating experience on occasion. At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, Hidden Blade is a visually stylish, well-edited and intelligent spy thriller, but also somewhat dry, tedious and exhausting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and AMC Empire 25.

A Radiant Girl

Directed by Sandrine Kiberlain

      19-year-old Irene (Rebecca Marder), a young Jewish woman, lives in Paris and aspires to become an actress during the summer of 1942. She flirts with her Jacques (Cyril Metzger), a doctor's assistant, while oblivious to the imminent danger that she and her family are in as the Nazis take over France.

      Writer/director Sandrine Kiberlain opts for a more subtle, restrained and understated approach at depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Irene leads what seems like an ordinary life. She has friends, lovers, a passion for acting, and an overprotective father, André (André Marcon), who's concerned about her arriving home late. She comes across as carefree, naive and somewhat immature, i.e. by pretending to have poor eyesight during an eye exam just to be able to see Jacques again. Kiberlain does a great job of exploring the innocence and joys of a young woman rather than showing how the joys and innocence will be taken away by the Nazis. The focus remains on Irene and her family without veering off into any other distracting tangents. To be fair, Irene's brief romance with Jacques feels a little contrived and cheesy. There's little to no depth to their relationship; she just seems to think that he's cute. Kiberlain leaves a lot to the audience's imagination when it comes to emotionally devastating scenes, so she should be commended for trusting the audience's imagination. That's a double-edged sword, though, because it makes the film feel sugar-coated without addressing the elephant in the room: the Nazi occupation. There are brief, ephemeral moments of anti-semitism, but they're not very hard-hitting on an emotional level. Kiberlain assumes that you're already familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust from other darker films that look at the horrors of the Holocaust head-on. A Radiant Girl isn't nearly as unflinching as The Boy with the Striped Pajamas nor does it even try to be. It's similar to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit in its tone and in its balance of light and dark elements which make it more palatable and family-friendly than most films set during the Holocaust.

      Rebecca Marder gives a genuinely moving performance as Irene while lighting up the screen with her warmth and charisma. She convincingly and truthfully portrays Irene's innocence, naivete, vulnerability, determination and persistence, so kudos to her for seeing and treating Irene as a human being. It certainly helps the audience to see Irene as a human being as well and to want her to be happy despite the inevitably dark outcome. Not surprisingly, writer/director Sandrine Kiberlain fades the screen to black during a key scene that cuts away before the tragic event occurs like the Coen brothers do at the end of A Serious Man as the tornado approaches. She holds the black screen for a long time perhaps to let the audience fill in the gaps with their imagination. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, A Radiant Girl is an understated, tender and mildly engaging coming-of-age story set during dark times, but it's ultimately sugar-coated and fails to pack an emotional punch.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at Quad Cinema.