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Reviews for February 21st, 2020


Directed by Michael Herbig

       In Germany 1979, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Strelzyk and the Wetzel families hatch a plan to build a hot air balloon to escape from their home in East Germany to freedom in West Germany. Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) works as an electrician and has a wife, Doris (Karoline Schuch), and two kids, Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) and Andreas (Tilman Döbler). Frank flirts with a girl next door, Klara (Emily Kusche), whose father (Ronald Kukulies) is a member of the Stasi. Petra Wetzel (Alicia von Rittberg) and her husband, Günter (David Kross), also have two kids, Andreas (Ben Teichmann) and Peterchen (Tilman Döbler). Their first attempt to cross the board via the hot air balloon backfires and the balloon crashes in the woods of East Germany, the Strelzyk family and Wetzel desperately try to rebuild the balloon. Meanwhile, a Stasi colonel (Thomas Kretschmann) investigates the crash and desperately tries to determine the identity the individuals who built the balloon.

      Writer/director Michael Herbig and co-writers Thilo Röscheisen and Kit Hopkins do a great job of hooking the audience from the beginning by introducing audiences to the Strelzyks and Wetzels as they're about make their first attempts to escape. The fact that their plan doesn't go as expected and have to start from scratch adds to the tension as the Stasi find clues and continue to narrow down their search. The filmmakers effectively create a sense of paranoia and nail-biting suspense as both families refuse to give up their plan to try to escape again. They know that their lives are at stake as well as the lives of their very own children. There's a very intense scene when one of their kids explains to their teacher that he witnessed his father sewing something which raises the teacher's suspicions that the father might be the criminal that the Stasi has been looking for. The aftermath of that scene won't be spoiled here, but it's one scene among many that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Fortunately, the screenplay doesn't forget to humanize the families so that you care about them as human beings and can root for them throughout the film, especially when they're inside the hot air balloon. They also spend some time showing the Stasi colonel's investigations to give you an idea of how close the Stasi are to finding the truth. There's not a single dull, melodramatic, clunky or contrived moment to be found nor are there any scenes that take away from the dramatic momentum.  

      Beyond the well-written screenplay, Balloon also boasts strong, convincingly moving and natural performance by everyone onscreen. No one hams or gives a wooden performance. Thomas Kretschmann, especially, is very well cast and exudes charisma. In no way does this a dry or pedestrian thriller that's merely going through the motions. The filmmakers clearly trust the audience's intelligence, patience and emotions, although they trust their imagination to a lesser extent because there's not much left for interpretation. The special effects look believable during the hot air ballon scenes, but the truely special effects are the emotions that the audience feel toward the Strelzyks and Wetzels. When they're happy, you're happy. When they're disappointed, you're disappointed. When they're nervous and paranoid, you feel the same emotion. Bravo to the filmmakers for make it easy for audiences to empathize with the protagonists every step of the way. At a running time of 125 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, Balloon is as spellbinding, taut and poignant as The Lives of Others. It will make you stand up and cheer.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Distrib Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Call of the Wild

Directed by Chris Sanders

     During the Gold Rush of the 1890s, a dog named Buck lives comfortable in the home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) in California before finding new owners, Hal (Dan Stevens) and his sister, Mercedes (Karen Gillan). Buck then becomes a sled dog in Alaska where a musher leads him and other dogs that carry mail. John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a prospector, ends up with buck and bonds with him. Meanwhile, the malevolent Hal desperately searches for Buck to get him back.

      The screenplay by Michael Green starts with Thornton talking to the audience via voice-over narration which recurs throughout the film. Other than one brief scenes, Thornton himself doesn't show up with Buck until much later, so the first half hour or so will leave audiences anticipating the moment when the two will finally meet. Until then, the narrative follows Buck as he goes from owner to owner while providing some exposition about the main villain, Hal, and his intentions regarding Buck. Hal comes a cross as a one-note character, and Steven's performance is over-the-top in a somewhat campy way that's slightly irritating and doesn't quite mesh with the film's serious tone. That's a minor, systematic flaw, though, that doesn't make the film any less entertaining. There are a few moments of comic relief via visual gags, i.e. some of Buck's antics, which will make kids laugh and amuse adults. Just like with any family film, there are also moments of sadness to be found, but they're handled in a gentle way while, for the most part, avoiding schmaltz.

     Once Buck meets Thornton, though, that's when The Call of the Wild's emotional resonance begins to truly soar. Dogs, after all, are man's best friend, so it's moving to watch how the two of them befriend each other. Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances in years, and it's a pleasure to watch him interacting with Buck. Since Buck and Thornton's bond of friendship feels so palpable, the beats during the third act tug at your heartstrings do successfully land without feeling contrived. In other words, the beats land because they're well-earned. The film doesn't get too dark or scary for kids nor does it pander too much to the adults members of the audience, so families should be able to enjoy The Call of the Wild together without boring young or old family members.

      When it comes to the use of CGI animation, you'll be amazed at home photorealistic Buck looks despite being all CGI. It's even more impressive that the CGI in The Lion King. Another element of the film that stands out, though, is the breathtaking scenery. The film's landscape becomes a character in itself, so to fully witness the majestic quality of nature, it would be ideal to watch this on the big screen. The pace moves briskly without any scenes that drag, and the running time is only 100 minutes. The Call of the Wild is ultimately a heartwarming, family-friendly, epic journey well worth taking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Autumn de Wilde

       Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) prefers to be single and opposes getting married. Despite the lack of love in her life, she serves as a matchmaker for others who request her services. One of those is her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), whom she wants to set her up with Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor). George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) pines for Emma, but she prefers to flirt with Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner) instead. Mr. Churchill has another woman interested in him, though: Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson).

      Emma. is . The screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen, can't decide if it wants to be a parody of Emma or a light comedy that wants to be taken seriously during the dramatic moments. It can't have it both ways. At times, at comedy like during the wedding scene at the beginning, lean heavily toward parody. The same can be said about the few scenes with the under-used Bill Nighy who plays Emma's father. Emma clearly has issues with her father who's emotionally neglectful and cold, but their relationship feels underexplored which is a squandered opportunity add depth. The hint of depth is when Emma's true colors rise to the surface during a picnic with her friends including Miss Bates played by the charismatic Miranda Hart. That scene has the film's most effective balance of light and dark elements, of humor and pathos. Most importantly, though, it shows a darker side of Emma that the audience only had glimpses of before. It's too little, too late, though, to turn Emma. into a moving character study because too much of the film fails to cut deep.

      Any brief moments of nuance, humor or tenderness comes from the performances, not from the screenplay. Anya Taylor-Joy is very well cast and delivers her lines in a way that captures the tongue-in-cheek humor that sort of winks at the audience at times. Merely from her glances and body language alone, Taylor-Joy conveys a lot to the audience.  Her lively performance almost saves the film from being so dull. Also enlivening is the costume design and set design which looks gaudy at times, but at least it provides plenty of entertainment for one's eyes. It's too bad, then, that Emma. offers so little for one's mind, heart and soul. Little Women was a much more emotionally resonating period piece and then, of course, there's the more wildly entertaining, brilliant, subversive period piece The Favourite. At an overlong running time of 125 minutes, Emma. is a sumptuous and breezy, yet anodyne comedy of manners that's only sporadically funny and witty. The costume design is better than the movie. 

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

The Night Clerk

Directed by Michael Cristofer

       Bart (Tye Sheridan), a young man with Asperger's Syndrome, works as a night clerk at a hotel and lives with his mother, Ethel (Helen Hunt). He installs hidden cameras in his house and in the hotel rooms, and watches the camera footage from his basement. One night, he witnesses a fight taking place in a hotel room and discovers Karen (Jacque Gray) murdered. He behaves oddly when a police investigator (John Leguizamo) questions him and treats him like a suspect. After getting transferred to a different hotel, Bart meets a seductive woman Andrea (Ana de Armas) who might have something to do with the murder.

      The Night Clerk falls flat both as a thriller and as a drama. Most of the film's problems come from the screenplay by writer/director Michael Cristofer which piles one plot hole upon another and loses plausibility within the first ten minutes without generating even a little bit of suspense. Bart comes across as lonely, awkward and creepy, and it makes no sense how his mother never caught onto the fact that he's a voyeur. How did he afford of the the camera equipment to feed his voyeurism? What led to him becoming a voyeur to begin with? His relationship between him and his mother goes underexplored. It's also hard to buy his relationship with the police investigator who's another character that never comes to life. The same can be said about his relationship with Andrea. The ending can be seen a mile away as soon as you meet another character who you know right away isn't a good person. You also know right away that Bart couldn't have committed the murder, so there are no surprises once the actual murderer is revealed. So, with a dull plot, you'd think that at least there'd be an interesting character study of Bart, but even that can't be found here.

      To top it all off, Tye Sheridan gives a cringe-inducing performance as Bart. It seems like he's imitating someone with Asperger's without becoming the role. You can feel the wheels of his performance turning just like you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning. One of the most painfully inauthentic and unintentionally funny scenes is when Bart runs around repeating the words "Oh my God! Oh my God!" over and over. Even on a purely aesthetic level, there's nothing to write home about because the cinematography and editing don't stand out in any particular way that grabs your attention. The pacing often moves too slowly as though it were trying to . If Brian De Palma were at the help, perhaps he could've turned The Night Clerk into a taut, intelligent thriller with stylish camerawork. At a running time of 90 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, The Night Clerk is an uninspired, anemic, dumb and suspense-free thriller with no style nor substance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village.


Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green

       17-year-old Ayanna (Zora Howard) lives in Harlem with her single mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), and loves writing powtry. During the summer before going away to college, she has a tender romance with Isaiah (Joshua Booth). Their relationship gets put the test when he ends up getting her pregnant and when Isaiah ex-girlfriend shows up out of the blue.

        Writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green and Zora Howard keep the dialogue flowing naturally while organically blending romance and drama. Ayanna and Isaiah have a "meet cute" at a park which feels real, and it's heartwarming to watch their romance blossom as they get to know each other. Their sex scene is very beautifully shot and more sensual than sexual. The real meat of the story doesn't take place, though, until roughly 45 minutes into the film when Ayanna gets pregnant and doesn't tell Isaiah. There's a very moving scene when her mother suspects that she's pregnant as they sit in the kitchen and Ayanna goes to the fridge as she announces that she's hungry for some pickles. Just like her relationship with Isaiah, her relationship with her mother feels just as true-to-life. The screenplay could've used a little but more comic relief, but that's forgivable. At least there's not a single scene that's contrived, cheesy or melodramatic. Green and Howard avoid the use of narration, and they trust the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination for the most part, especially during the third act that's satisfying without tying everything in a near bow.

      Zora Howard gives a breakthrough performance as Ayanna. She's just as raw and radiant as Taylor Russell in Waves. None of the performances are hammy; they're all natural because they don't over-act. Admittedly, Premature isn't as powerful nor as visually poetic as Waves nor as moving as Once, but it comes close. It's much more engrossing than the shallow and unfocused romantic drama The Photograph. The cinematography adds to the realism and rawness. There's even some visual poetry in the scene when Ayanna and Isaiah sit and talk on a rock along the Hudson River around dusk. Small moments like that have the most impact. At a running time of just 1 hour and 26 minutes, Premature is a warm, tender and refreshingly un-Hollywood love story.

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

Vitalina Varela

Directed by Pedro Costa


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Grasshopper Film.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Young Ahmed

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne


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