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Reviews for February 23rd, 2024

Documentary Round-Up

      Guadalupe: Mother of Humanity is a fascinating, eye-opening and profoundly moving documentary about the history and significance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a.k.a. the Virgin Mary. Co-director Andrés Garrigó and Pablo Moreno interview scientists, priests and other scholars while also including reenactments of St. Juan Diego's interactions with an apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some of the film does feel repetitive as it shows testimonies, again and again, of how Guadalupe has healed others emotionally, spiritually and physically all around the world. Parents of a former cancer patient recall how their daughter was one day completely cured of cancer. Karyme Lozano, a very charismatic Mexican actress, provides some of the exposition every now and then. The most interesting part of the film is when it examines St. Juan Diego's tilma with the engravement of Guadalupe on it and how it has to be authentic because the substance used for the engravement would normally disintegrate the material that it's engraved on, so it must be a miracle. A scholar explains how there are musical notes hidden in the tilma. Is this documentary fair and balanced? It's fair, but not very balanced because it doesn't delve into anyone who's skeptical, so there's not much debate going on and it feels like an infomercial albeit a very insightful one. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Guadalupe: Mother of Humanity opens in select theaters nationwide via Goya Producciones. It would be a great double feature with The Miracle Club or, if you're looking for more debate, Religulous.

      Kiss the Future is a provocative and timely documentary about U2's activism during the Bosnian War in the 1990s and their concert in 1997 to celebrate the end of the war. It's also a testament to the transcendent power of music and how it can be a form of peaceful protest. Director Nenad Cicin-Sain combines archival footage of the Bosnian War, interviews with U2 band members, and footage from U2's 1997 concert in Sarajevo. Kiss the Future juggles the topics of music and war smoothly and compellingly thanks to the solid editing. It's not a documentary biopic on U2, Bono or any of the other U2 band members, but it does capture an important time during their career. However, it doesn't get into much depth nor is it very emotionally unflinching, so it's merely a glimpse into the Bosnian War and how U2 expressed their anti-war activism through music. It opens in select theaters nationwide.

      Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World is a captivating, illuminating and heartfelt documentary about Veselka, the iconic Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village of New York City. It charts the history of Veselka from its inception in 1954 when it began as a newsstand and candy shop founded by Volodymyr Darmochwal and his wife, Olha. A positive review from a local food critic sparked the restaurant's success. Tom Birchard, their son-in-law, currently co-owns Veselka with his son, Jason. You'll learn about how a rave review from a local food critic boosted the popularity of Veselka when it first opened. The film also includes other important anecdotes like how the newsstand/candy store was a popular place for people to buy lottery tickets. Director Michael Fiore does a terrific job of finding the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually. He avoids turning the doc into a dry, academic history lesson filled with talking heads. There are even a few surprises like the story of Vitalii Desiatnychenko, how he became the restaurant's manager and his relationship with his mother while the war in Ukraine goes on. Fiore grasps the concept that by starting with a specific documentary subject, he's able to make it more universal and provocative by expanding its scope. That feat takes great editing to accomplish. Foodies will appreciate the many sights of Veselka's classic food like the pierogies, but don't expect any recipes. Veselka would make for an interesting double feature with I Like Killing Flies, a documentary about Shopsin's, another iconic NYC restaurant. At 1 hour and 46 minutes, Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World opens at Village East by Angelika, a few blocks north of Veselka on 2nd Avenue.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba---To the Hashira Training

Directed by Haruo Sotozaki

      Tanjiro Kamado (voice of Natsuki Hanae) goes to the swordsmith village to have his damages sword repaired and to train to fight the demons, Hantengu (voice of Toshio Furukawa and Koichi Yamadera) and Gyokko (voice of Kohsuke Toriumi), responsible for murdering his family and transforming his sister, Nezuko (Akari Kitô), into a demon.

      The screenplay by Koyoharu Gotouge does a decent job with exposition, but it has a lot of ground to cover and assumes that the audience is already familiar with who's who. There are many characters, but it's clear that Tanjiro has been through a lot of tragedy and must prepare for revenge against the demons who slaughtered his family and transformed his sister into a demon. The plot sounds simple at first, but at times it does feel a little convoluted. Demon Slayer does have a few surprisingly moving scenes, especially between Tanjiro and his sister. For the most part, though, the film just goes through the motions of its plot with some action sequences as Tanjiro inevitably fights against the demons. Like Dune: Part One, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba---To the Hashira Training is pretty much the prologue or appetizer that sets up the events for its protagonist before the major events or main course.

      The animation throughout Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba---To the Hashira Training is often dazzling and colorful while adding plenty of visual pizzazz. The action scenes are exciting and, fortunately, there aren't too many of them, so this isn't the kind of anime film that will leave audiences exhausted. Its pace even slows down at times, i.e. when Tanjiro reaches the village, which is refreshing. At 1 hour and 44 minutes, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba---To the Hashira Training is a dazzling and thrilling spectacle that leaves audiences hungry for more.

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

Drive-Away Dolls

Directed by Ethan Coen

      Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and her best friend,  Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), embark on a road trip to Tallahassee, Florida to visit Marian's aunt. Little do they know that the wrong car that they were given at the drive-away service happens to have a mysterious briefcase inside the trunk that belongs to The Chief (Colman Domingo). He sends his henchmen, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson) to track Jamie and Marian down.

      The less you know about the plot of Drive-Away Dolls beforehand, the better because it's full of surprises from start to finish. The screenplay by writer/director Ethan Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke brims with wit and humor that's unafraid to be dark and zany. Coen and Cooke establish the film's comedic tone during the wickedly funny prologue. Sometimes a comedy starts on a strong note and then fizzles out as it runs out of jokes and ideas. That's not the case with Drive-Away Dolls. There's something to laugh at in nearly every scene including the ones at the drive-away service station with Curlie (Bill Camp). The way that The Chief's henchmen banter in the car is reminiscent of the way that Carl and Gaear banter in Fargo. Drive-Away Dolls is pretty much Fargo meets Bound with a lot more zaniness, satire and even a little campiness. It's bold, raunchy and a lot of fun without becoming tonally unneven, lethargic or clunky. Moreover, it also humanizes Jamie and Marian by giving each of them a unique personality and by showing how they grow closer as friends and more throughout their road trip.

      Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan have palpable chemistry together on screen and play off of each other in a way that makes it feel like Jamie and Marian are best friends. So, kudos to the filmmakers from grounding the film in authenticity and for selecting the terrific ensemble cast. Even the actors and actresses in supporting roles like Beanie Feldstein, who plays Jamie's ex, Sukie, gets the chance to shine. Colman Domingo is also superb, just as expected. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun in their roles and it shows in their performances. The pace moves briskly without any scenes that overstay their welcome. Although the film is quite graphic and unflinching in terms of sex and violence, it doesn't go too far in either direction. The fact that writer/director Ethan Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke manage to keep the running time down under 90 minutes is a testament to their skills as filmmakers and that they grasp the concept of restraint. If it were over 2 hours, it would risk becoming exhausting. At a running time of only 1 hour and 24 minutes, Drive-Away Dolls is an outrageously funny, audacious and exhilarating ride. It's destined to become a new American classic. 

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

Drugstore June

Directed by Nicholaus Goossen

      June (Esther Povitsky) lives at home with her mother, Marla (Beverly D’Angelo), father, Arnold (James Remar), and younger brother, Jonathan (Brandon Wardell), while working as a cashier at a local pharmacy. When the pharmacy gets robbed, she takes matters into her own hands by investigating the robbery.

      The screenplay by writer/director Nicholaus Goossen and co-writer Esther Povitsky has a systemic problem that starts first and foremost with the character of June who comes across as annoying, over-the-top and cringe-inducing. She's like nails on a chalkboard with little to no redeeming qualities, especially when it comes to the way she treats others. Case-in-point: her ex-boyfriend, Davey (Haley Joel Osment), has a restraining order against her yet she still hasn't gotten over him nor does understand the concept that he doesn't want to see her. Apparently, she doesn't understand the concept of boundaries either. Her investigation of the robbery leads to more silliness than anything funny or clever while making her seem even more unbearable. The supporting characters like her mother and Bill (Bobby Lee), her boss at the pharmacy, are just as irritating and underwritten. Drugstore June tries, but fails, to be a character study and coming-of-age story about a young woman who's struggling to grow up. It's hard to believe that she truly changes or learns anything, though, especially because she shows no signs of introspection, remorse or empathy. How does she feel about herself? Is she lonely? Insecure? The film has a long way before it can even begin to delve into June's deeply-rooted issues. It's too shallow and sugar-coated to explore its darker themes or to allow the audience to get to know June beneath all of her masks. If only it were at least funny.

      The performances are either dull and awkward or over-the-top, one-note and exhausting. Unfortunately, Esther Povitsky gives a performance that's very much the latter. Everything about Drugstore June tries too hard to be funny, offbeat or outrageous, but just feels too desperate. That's the equivalent of someone banging on piano on the same notes over and over. Not a single scene stands out or sparkles with any wit. A twist in the third act feels rushed, tacked-on and contrived with too much over-explaining. The brief running time and fast pace are the only aspects that save the film from being an insufferable mess. At 1 hour and 31 minutes, Drugstore June is a painfully unfunny, witless and cringe-inducing attempt at comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Shout! Studios.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

Golden Years

Directed by Barbara Kulcsar

      When Alice's (Esther Gemsch) best friend, Magali (Elvira Plüss), passes away, Peter (Stefan Kurt), Alice's husband, invites Magali's widowed husband, Heinz (Ueli Jäggi), to join them on a Mediterranean cruise. Alice and Peter's marriage gets put to the test on the cruise while hiding a secret about Magali from Heinz.

      Screenwriter Petra Biondina Volpe deserves to be commended for focusing on characters who are in their later stage in life without throwing them on the sideline as merely supporting characters or dwelling on their suffering. Golden Years isn't heavy or unflinching like Amour nor does it try to be. It's more like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel meets Out to Sea. The film does deal with topics like grief, love, marriage, divorce and unhappiness, but it tackles them very lightly without digging deeper. That's a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, Golden Years often feels like a contrived sitcom that's overstuffed, on-the-nose and somewhat undercooked, but, on the other hand, it's also irresistibly entertaining and uplifting. A lot happens within the first 20 minutes with the introduction of many characters, one of whom dies. Alice discovers a secret about Magali and tells Peter not to disclose it to Heinz because it'll make him sad while on the cruise. That doesn't stop Alice, though, from taking matters into her own hands by investigating the secret which won't be spoiled here. Whether or not she crosses a boundary when she does that is a whole other matter because the way she suddenly treats her husband without thinking about the consequences of her actions makes her seem selfish and toxic. She deserves to be happy but it says a lot about her that she hurts him in the process. How introspective is she? How remorseful is she that she hurt him by her actions on the cruise and away from the cruise? There's a brief intimate moment with Alice and Peter in bed where they share their emotions candidly, but those moments are far and few between. Shirley in Shirley Valentine is a better-written character who's also unhappily married and going through a period of self-discovery.

      Everyone in the ensemble cast gives a performance that's equally charming and moving. The film's emotional depth comes from their performances rather than from the screenplay. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would've probably fit easily into the roles of Peter and Heinz if they were still alive today. Director Barbara Kulcsar moves the pace along briskly without any scenes that overstay their welcome. The picturesque scenery also helps to enliven the film. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Golden Years is a witty, warm and life-affirming delight. It would make for a great double feature with Two Tickets to Greece, Out to Sea and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Invisible Fight

Directed by Rainer Sarnet

      Rafael (Ursel Tilk), a soldier, survives a battle by the USSR/China border. He returns home to live with his mother, Zinaida (Mari Abel), in Estonia where works as a car mechanic before he discovers his spirituality and joins a monastery.

      The screenplay by writer/director Rainer Sarnet sounds like it could be a zany, entertaining action comedy with shades of Stephen Chow. However, in execution it's a tonally uneven mess that doesn't amount to anything that's funny enough, zany enough or bold enough. The plot combines elements from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle and other action films, so Sarnet knows where to take ideas from. There's nothing inherently wrong with being derivative. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite know where to take his ideas to. The Invisible Fight is often silly and amusing at most without being witty or clever. Its jokes, including many sight gags, repeat over and over. Very few of the beats actually land, and the characters are all shallow and forgettable, especially Rafael.

      In terms of production values, The Invisible Fight is well-shot with decent action choreography and costume designs, but this isn't the kind of movie where the style compensates for the lack of substance. Too many scenes overstay their welcome which leads to tedium and uneven pacing, so the film could've used tighter editing. It's just as disappointing as The Book of Clarence. At 1 hour and 54 minutes, The Invisible Fight is an overlong, unfunny, exhausting and witless misfire.

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

Io Capitano

Directed by Matteo Garrone

      16-year-old Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall) embark on a dangerous journey from Senegal to Italy in search of a better life despite the disapproval of Seydou's mother (Khady Sy).

      Writer/director Matteo Garrone and his co-writers, Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso and Andrea Tagliaferri introduce Seydou and Moussa as they live in poverty in Senegal while dreaming of fleeing abroad. Their wish comes true when they save enough money to make the arduous voyage from Senegal to Italy by foot, vehicle and boat. Their journey takes them through a desert where they must hide their money or else it will be stolen and they'll get into trouble. They both put their lives at risk, but at least they have each other. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters capture the palpable bond between Seydou and Moussa, so the emotional beats land during the right moments when something happens to one of them. . Moreover, it avoids becoming maudlin, clunky or wallowing in Seydou and Moussa's suffering. Garrone knows what to leave to the audience's imagination and when to leave it without spoon-feeding the audience or dumbing anything down. He also knows when and how to trust the audience's intelligence. There are even some surprising moments of coming relief and surrealism which provide levity. So, Garrone also has a great command of the film's tone which is no easy task. Although Io Capitano maintains its suspense as it focuses on their long trek by land and sea, it also remains poignant and warm, so it finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle.

      Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall both give raw, convincingly moving performances that help to further ground the film in authenticity. Everything from the cinematography to music score to the editing and breathtaking scenery are exquisite while contributing style and substance concurrently. Io Capitano feels epic in scope, yet firmly grounded in humanity from start to finish. It never becomes exhausting, tedious or lethargic. Moreover, you never feel the weight of its lengthy running time which is a testament to how truly engrossing it is. At 2 hours, Io Capitano is an exhilarating, captivating and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey brimming with warmth and tenderness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Ordinary Angels

Directed by Jon Gunn

      Sharon (Hilary Swank), a hairdresser, suffers from alcoholism. When she learns that a 5-year-old girl, Michelle, desperately needs a liver transplant for her incurable disease, she persuades Michelle's widowed father, Ed (Alan Ritchson), to let her him him to raise money for the transplant. She also hopes to reconnect with her estranged son, Derek (Dempsey Bryk).

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by co-writers Kelly Fremon Craig and Meg Tilly is a paint-by-numbers story about a broken woman who finds the kindness to help save a young girl's life. Ordinary Angels takes a while to get to the second act because it spends the first act with a lot of exposition until Sharon finally shows up at Ed's doorstep to offer to raise money for his daughter's liver transplant. Raising the money isn't the only tension, as it turns out. She must also find a way to transport Michelle to the hospital for the transplant. The only way to get her there in time is by a private plane. Will Sharon be able to raise the money? Will she find a private plane? Will she be able to convince the airport to let the plane take off in the middle of a snowstorm? Will she reunite with her son? If that plan doesn't work, what's the next plan? Even if you don't know the true story, the ending can be seen from a mile away. There's no doubt that no matter what obstacles Sharon comes across, she conquers them eventually with her persistence. She doesn't seem like a great mother, though, because she shows up to her son's workplace to confront him even though he clearly doesn't want to see her. She seems like the kind of person who doesn't take "no" for an answer easily. Perhaps she means well, but her son has the right to remain estranged from her if he wants to. Moreover, Sharon seems like she's emotionally needy and insecure. At least she doesn't have romance with Ed because that would've turned the film into an unfocused mess. The last half hour tugs hard at the audience's heartstrings in a way that feels maudlin at times. However, it's concurrently uplifting, so if you don't mind your uplift to be sugar-coated, you'll be able to tolerate Ordinary Angels' saccharine ending without getting a cavity.

      Hilary Swank gives a convincingly moving performance that rises above the pedestrian screenplay. She breathes life into her role as Sharon, so the film is lucky to have her. It's one of her meatiest roles since she played Ellen Gruwell in Freedom Writers and Betty Anne Waters in Conviction. The cinematography is fine along with the music score, but there are pacing issues. The first act feels slow paced until the pace picks up in the second act and then slows down again before building up speed again in the third act. There are also small details that diminish the realism like how the setting sun can be seen clearly in the distance in the middle of a major snowstorm. Why didn't the filmmakers just inform the audience what time it is and the time that the sun is supposed to set instead? Also, the film could've used a trimming in the editing booth because it does overstay its welcome as it approaches the 2 hour mark. At 1 hour and 58 minutes, Ordinary Angels is schmaltzy, contrived and paint-by-numbers, but anchored by Hilary Swank's moving performance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens nationwide.

Red Right Hand

Directed by Eshom & Ian Nelms

      Cash (Orlando Bloom) lives in a small town with his brother-in-law, Finney (Scott Haze), and his niece, Savannah (Chapel Oaks). He agrees to pay off Finney's debt to the town's criminal kingpin, Big Cat (Andie MacDowell), by working for her.

      The screenplay by Jonathan Easley is yet another unimaginative, dull and tedious crime thriller. It's filled with unlikable and consistently unpleasant characters who are also underwritten. The dialogue is bland, stilted and sorely lacks wit as well as much-needed comic relief. Cash has a dark, criminal past that he's like to forget, but he's drawn back into it when he works for Big Cat as a killer. Unsurprisingly, he puts his life in danger and many people get killed in the process. Big Cat is nothing more than a one-dimensional villain which makes her boring and forgettable. Yes, she's a mean, ruthless and sadistic tyrant, but the screenplay dehumanizes her without giving her much of a backstory. Red Right Hand is too concerned about moving on to the next action scene rather than offering intrigue, suspense, thrills or basic entertainment. It even briefly urns into torture porn in a way that tries hard to push the envelope, but fails. Even Saw has more entertainment value and a better-written villain.

      Orlando Bloom and Andie MacDowell are both undermined by a vapid and lifeless screenplay which they fail to rise above no matter how hard they try. MacDowell, especially, is miscast here. Although it's great seeing her playing against type, she deserves stronger material. There's nothing about the cinematography, set design or action set pieces that stands out. Yes, it's very bloody and gory, but that only leads to making the audience feel disgusted and repulsed. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, Red Right Hand is a bloated, exhausting and tedious bore.

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


Directed by Meredith Hama-Brown

      Judith (Ally Maki) copes with the death of her mother while on a retreat with her husband, Steve (Luke Roberts), and daughters, Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller). Meanwhile, they befriend another married couple, Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon).

      Writer/director Meredith Hama-Brown has created an engrossing and profound portrait of a marriage on the rocks and of a woman's emotional awakening. When Judith arrives with her family at the idyllic retreat on an island, she seems content as does her husband. Gradually, the cracks in her facade and in her seemingly healthy marriage appear. She begins to come to terms with a sadness that she has buried deep inside of her as she goes through the process of grieving her mother's death. One of the film's most revealing moments is when she and Carol lay by the pool and talk because she finally gets a chance to feel comfortable enough to open up to someone emotionally. She shares thoughts and feelings with Carol that she hasn't shared with her husband. It's a well-written scene for many reasons including the fact that Carol displays her compassion and empathy for Judith when she asks her about how she's dealing with her grief---and she says that she doesn't want to pry, so she doesn't pressure her into talking about it. Judith uswa introspection, an important, underrated tool in life, to heal from her emotional pains and to grow. Steve, on the other hand, isn't as introspective or emotionally mature. The film doesn't villainize him. With a less sensitive and more Hollywood screenplay, he would've been involved in some steamy affair with a woman---perhaps with Carol. However, he doesn't. Seagrass does toy with the audience a little, though, because it sometimes gives the impression that it's about to turn ino a palpable suspense thriller with something dark and very tragic that might happen at any moment. So, it does have some surprising moments of psychological thrills which won't be spoiled here, and a few other surprises that enliven the film as well. The dialogue sounds natural without any stiltedness or clunkiness. Seagrass could've also turned into a maudlin soap opera, but it also avoids that pitfall. Kudos to writer/director Meredith Hama-Brown for seeing and treating these characters as complex human beings and for showing empathy towards them. Judith isn't just a wife, mother and daughter; she's a woman who's on the verge of major epiphanies. Her character arc feels organic, believable and fully earned.

      Ally Maki gives a convincingly moving, heartfelt performance that finds the emotional truth of her role. It's so refreshing to watch a movie with such a complex role for women. Sarah Gadon also shines in a supporting role. She's a talented, underrated actress. In a way, Seagrass shares a lot in common with Ordinary People except, in this case, it's the wife, not the husband, who realizes they're unhappy in a toxic relationship with a narcissist. Both films end with something similar, but here it takes on a whole new meaning. It's also as poignant and wise as 45 Years, and just as beautifully shot. The picturesque landscape becomes a character in itself while providing visual poetry. Water, for instance, becomes an important symbol which is left to interpretation. Writer/director Meredith Hama-Brown knows when to trust the audience's imagination and intelligence, too, without resorting to flashbacks. Judith's experiences with her mother aren't shown, but they don't need to be; they're alluded to and there's enough information to grasp what their relationship was like. So, Hama-Brown knows how to incorporate exposition effectively. Moreover, she trusts the audience's patience because she moves the film at a slow pace that's not too slow. Fortunately, no one stares off into the distance for 10 minutes. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Seagrass is a wise, tender, poetic and refreshingly un-Hollywood emotional journey. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Game Theory Films.
Opens at Regal Union Square.

Stolen Valley

Directed by Jesse Edwards

      Lupe (Briza Covarrubias), a Navajo Mexican-Diné woman, works as a mechanic while struggling to make ends meet. She desperately needs $50,000 for an operation to save the life of her hospitalized mother. So, when she discovers the identity of her estranged father, Carl (Micah Fitzgerald), she hits the road in hope that he'll give her the money. On the way, she befriends Maddy (Allee Sutton Hethcoat), a cowgirl on the run from a dangerous mob boss.

      Stolen Valley is yet another movie with an interesting premise that squanders its opportunities to be heartfelt, suspenseful and thrilling. Its systemic issue arises from the dull screenplay by writer/director Jesse Edwards. The dialogue is too either on-the-nose or stitled which makes it difficult for any of the characters to come to life. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way. It's also in a hurry to jump right to its main plot without delving into the relationship between Lupe and her mother enough. The same can be said about the friendship between Lupe and Maddy which feels emotionally flat. Carl comes across as an over-the-top caricature who's pretty much one-note. Nuance and subtlety aren't among this film's strengths. Unfortunately, the plot is often overwrought, unfocused and contrived with a rushed third act.

      Briza Covarrubias's moving performance and the picturesque scenery are the only elements that hold Stolen Valley together. Writer/director Jesse Edwards does manage to make the film feel like a western that's epic and cinematic in scope at times. Beyond that, though, nothing really elevates the shallow screenplay. There are pacing issues and some choppy editing. The running time of 1 hour and 45 feels more like 2 hours. The Stolen Valley is ultimately clunky, overwrought and contrived.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens at select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Robert Morgan

      Ella (Aisling Franciosi), a stop-motion animator, lives with her domineering mother, Suzanne (Stella Gonet), who's also a stop-motion animator. When Suzanne dies, Ella moves into a new apartment and continues to work on her final film while struggling to make sense of reality.

      There have been other films about dysfunctional relationships between mothers and daughters who are tortured artists, i.e., Black Swan, but none of them are quite as trippy and terrifying as this film. The screenplay by writer/director Robert Morgan and co-writer Robin King takes the audience on an intense, unflinching experience inside the mind of Ella. She's deeply disturbed and probably emotionally scarred because of her mother's abusive behavior which has made her feel suffocated. Even after her mother dies, she's still being controlled by the artwork that she's creating. One of the puppets actually starts to give her orders. Just when she thinks that she has escaped from her mother's clutches, she's now in the clutches of the puppet, so she hasn't attained freedom yet. She's lucky, though, to have a kind and caring boyfriend, Tom (Tom York), who's there for her. However, no matter how hard he tries, he can't stop her from going mad. As the lines between reality and fantasy blur for Ella, the film becomes increasingly dark, creepy and foreboding.

      Stopmotion's production design and visual effects enhance its creepiness and surrealism. If you have a weak stomach, prepare for some grotesque images that leave nothing to the imagination. Merely the look of the puppet that Ella creates will send shivers down your spine, especially when it comes alive. Aisling Franciosi anchors the film with her genuinely heartfelt performance while opening the window of Ella's heart, mind and soul. Stopmotion can be seen as a horror film, a character study and as a metaphor, albeit a heavy-handed and obvious one about art and tortured artists. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, it's a wildly entertaining, poetic and haunting blend of horror and surrealism.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at select theaters and on VOD.