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Reviews for February 24th, 2023


Directed by Mark Burman

      During the Vietnam War, Captain Drummond (Aaron Eckhart) sends Captain Mora and his soldiers on a mission to retrieve a binder that contains classified information about Vietnam operatives before it ends up in the hands of the Vietnamese. Miller (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a hunter who uses a dog to track the enemy, joins their mission after the Vietnamese soldiers ambush them.

      Despite a screenplay that has three writers, namely, Johnny Lozano, Michael McClung and writer/director Mark Burman, none of the characters manage to come to life, so it's hard to care about them as human beings. They're merely pawns used to move the plot forward. Even the plot, though, fails to be exciting; it's just one action sequence after the next which mostly takes place in a tunnel. The dialogue sounds stilted without much wit or comic relief. Even war films like 1917 and Saving Private Ryan have a few scenes that provide much-needed levity. Otherwise, the film is at risk of becoming exhausting and monotonous which is precisely what happens during Ambush. That's a major, systemic flat that it never recovers from. What are these characters' lives like back at home in the U.S.? How do they feel about the war? Why did they enlist in the army to begin with? Ambush doesn't seem remotely interested in answering any of these questions or providing some backstory. It's as painfully dull, forgettable and emotionally cold as most Michael Bay films albeit with a much lower budget and fewer explosions.

      Sometimes great or decent production values can compensate for the lack of substance, but that's not the case here. Nothing about the cinematography, lighting, choreography, editing or music score add anything that entertains the audience on a visceral level. It's all as bland as the screenplay. None of the performances stand out either; they're undermined by the very weak screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Ambush is a shallow and tedious war film that's neither thrilling, suspenseful nor engrossing.

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


Directed by Adrian Langley

      During World War I, Lieutenant Turner (Patrick Moltane) leads of group of soldiers, including Segura (Eddie Ramos), a medic, Captain Hall (Sean Cullen), inside a bunker. Little do they know that an evil, supernatural presence awaits them.

      Another week, another B-movie that squanders its potential to at least be entertaining on a visceral level and to go bonkers enough. Last week, it was the disappointing Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. This week, it's Bunker. The screenplay by Michael Huntsman doesn't offer much in terms of interesting characters nor does it care about exploring their relationships with each other. That would be forgivable if the plot were compelling and intriguing or if it took more risks. Once the soldiers encounter Kurt (Luke Baines), a German POW, tied to a cross, the film's dramatic momentum and suspense gradually wanes as no new major revelations are made until the third act, but by then it's too little, too late. The soldiers remain stuck in a creepy bunker for a long period of time while they turn against each other eventually. What does that have to do with the evil presence inside the bunker? Why do they turn against each other? Is the evil presence an alien or something else? What's going on? More exposition would've been helpful; the lack of it just seems lazy. Is it too much to ask to get to know these characters a little more? Are they not human beings, after all? There's also not nearly enough comic relief to break up the monotony. Screenwriter Michael Huntsman doesn't give the audience much to work with, so what follows is just a dull and tedious second act that treads water without engaging the audience enough.

      The best aspect of Bunker is its claustrophobic underground setting which does allow for a few chilling scenes, but they're ephemeral. There's nothing exceptional about the music, editing or camera-work that would've invigorated the film with some much-needed style to compensate for the lack of substance. A leaner second act with a slightly faster pace would've made it drag less. Even the performances fall flat, for the most part, with no one standing out. That said, there's some gore that's, fortunately, not excessive nor does it push the envelope. The design of the evil creature looks impressively creepy and icky. At an overlong running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Bunker is overlong, lethargic and not nearly scary, suspenseful, thrilling nor bonkers enough.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters including Regal E-Walk.

Cocaine Bear

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

      A bear gets high on cocaine dropped from a plane. It soon terrorizes and kills people in a forest.

      That above synopsis is the basic plot and what audiences expect from the film. Unfortunately, screenwriter Jimmy Warden spends too much time with exposition and adding silly subplots that turn the plot into an unfocused mess until the bear arrives 20 minutes into the first act. A prologue briefly shows the bear killing a hiker before it introduces the rest of the characters. Sari (Keri Russell) brings her two kids, Henry (Christian Convery) and Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), to the forest where Dee Dee goes missing when the bear terrorizes her and her brother. Daveed (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) arrive to look for the cocaine that fell off the plane. Then there's an environmentalist, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a forest ranger (Margo Martindale), a police detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and a ruthless gangster, Syd (Ray Liotta).There are too many characters and none of them are remotely interesting or even likable except for Sari. That's fine, though, because no one's watching Cocaine Bear to connect with any characters on an emotional level. They just want to have a good time with lots of laughs, violence and a plot that goes bonkers. It does deliver on the violence whenever the bear arrives to kill his next victim, but the laughs are far and few between. The forest ranger has a few humorous lines, i.e. when she snaps at a flirtatious punk when he demands for a green lollipop instead of a red one that she kindly gives to him for free. She gets the biggest laugh when she shoots someone's head instead of the bear. Not long after that scene, the paramedics arrive and there's a hilarious scene with the bear chasing the ambulance which is the best scene in the film. After that point, it goes downhill and the laughs fizzle out as the humor becomes repetitive. This is essentially a one-joke movie stretched too thinly without taking enough risks or reaching the levels of bonkers like in the cult classic Lake Placid or, recently, M3GAN.

      Margo Martindale is Cocaine Bear's MVP much like Betty White is Lake Placid's MVP, but it doesn't make the most out of her role. Christian Convery also stands out and has two funny lines, one at the beginning as Henry and Dee Dee try cocaine that they find in the forest, and again at the end. The editing, CGI and camerawork are very amateurish and clunky, though. Director Elizabeth Banks cuts some scenes too quickly which leads to some choppiness. The film does deliver on the gore, though, so if a severed hand, severed foot and disemboweled guts are enough to keep you entertained, then you won't be disappointed. If you're looking for more than that, prepare to be sorely disappointed. That said, it's more entertaining than the painfully unfunny Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Cocaine Bear repetitive, unfocused, poorly directed and only intermittently funny without going bonkers enough. It makes Lake Placid look like a masterpiece.

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

Dancing the Twist in Bamako

Directed by Robert Guédiguian

      In 1960s Mali, Samba (Stéphane Bak), a young man, travels from village to village around Bamako to spread his socialist views. He meets Lara (Alice Da Luz), a young woman who escapes her arranged marriage, and risks angering her protective brother and her abusive husband by romancing her.

      The screenplay by writer/director Robert Guédiguian and co-writer Gilles Taurand covers a lot of ground as it blends of romance, drama, thriller and politics together. With a less sensitive screenplay, this could've been a clunky, saccharine and/or dry film that just goes through the motions. Instead, it's sweet, tender and gripping with just the right balance of light and dark elements. It would even be safe to say that it's a Shakespearean tragedy similar to Romeo & Juliet. The story has two major threads: Samba's political awakening during Mali's independence, and Samba and Lara's forbidden romance. The first thread regarding Samba's involvement in politics is compelling and inspirational, but a little oversimplified without digging deeper. The other plot thread regarding the romance is much more compelling and profound. What happens when Lara's brother and her husband find out her location and how they react isn't very surprising, and they both seem like one-note. undeveloped caricatures rather than fully-fleshed human beings, but those are minor, systematic flaws. Samba and Lara's relationship is genuinely heartfelt without being cloying or contrivated, so that helps you to feel emotionally engrossed by that part of the story and to want them to end up together. It's exhilarating and moving to watch them dance with each other. That's when the film truly comes alive beyond words, and you can feel Samba and Lara's love and connection palpably. The beats during the third act land, for the most part, almost as much as they do in the similarly tragic West Side Story. However, the epilogue set years later when Lara is a grandmother spoon-feeds the audience in a way that feels tacked-on, redundant and contrived without trusting the audience's emotions and imagination enough.

      Stéphane Bak and Alice Da Luz give wonderful, charismatic performances that provide plenty of poignancy. Much of the film's emotional depth comes from their performances, not from the screenplay. Fortunately, they have chemistry together. Without it, the film would fall flat and the central romance won't be convincing. The dance sequences are among the best scenes because they're invigorating and enchanting to behold. The lively soundtrack is very well-chosen, and the cinematography, which starts as black-and-white before changing to color, is terrific without being excessively stylish. In other words, director Robert Guédiguian aims for naturalism and achieves it while the film remains cinematic. That's no easy task. At a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes, Dancing the Twist in Bamako is a captivating and genuinely heartfelt love story with shades of West Side Story.

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

God's Time

Directed by Daniel Antebi

      Dev (Ben Groh), a recovering addict, attends a 12-step program with his friend, Luca (Dion Costelloe). He meets Regina (Liz Caribel Sierra), another recovering addict who repeatedly talks about her secret desire to murder her ex-boyfriend "in God's time." When she leaves out those words one day, Dev assumes that she's serious about her threat. He and Luca go on an adventure through NYC to stop her from murdering her ex-boyfriend during the pandemic.

      The screenplay by writer/director Daniel Antebi suffers from a silly concept with very lackluster execution. It doesn't work as a comedy, satire, thriller nor as a character study. Dev comes across as neurotic, creepy and annoying like nails-on-a-chalkboard. All you learn about him is that he's been struggling with drug addiction and he's an aspiring actor. What led him to become a drug addict to begin with? Who knows? How long has he and Luca been friends? Who knows? There's very little exposition regarding Regina's relationship with her ex-boyfriend before he became an ex. Yes, he's abusive and "evil", according to her, but Regina seems like a toxic person, too, for even considering to murder him. She clearly has anger issues and lacks restraint. Are her dark thoughts normal? What's her life like at home? Doesn't she have any good role models? Without enough information about her or any other character on screen, there's no one to connect to on an emotional level because they don't feel like fully-fleshed human beings.

      The performances are decent with Liz Caribel Sierra giving the most raw and radiant performance, but she's undermined by the shallow and dull screenplay. The breaking of the fourth wall as Dev talks to the camera at times feels distracting and just plain lazy. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, editing or the music score. The plot meanders while losing momentum and becoming anemic pretty quickly as the comedic beats don't land and the suspense wanes. At a running time of 1 hour and 23 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, God's Time is yet another witless and asinine bore that could've been wildly entertaining if it took more risks and didn't take its wafer-thin plot so seriously. It doesn't even remotely hold a candle to After Hours or the B-movie thriller Premium Rush. The spirit of the good ole' American indies of the 80's and 90's deserve to be rekindled, but this ain't it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.


Directed by Marvin Samel

      Mordecai Samel (Judd Hirsch), a Holocaust survivor, has a rocky relationship with his son, Marvin (Sean Astin), and his wife, Fela (Carol Kane). He owns an old cell phone that barely works and struggles to adapt to modern technology. That changes when Marvin takes him to a store to buy a brand new iPhone where he meets Nina (Azia Dinea Hale), a young woman who teaches a class on making art with iphones. She happens to volunteer at a Jewish Community Center to talk to Holocaust survivors. She also happens to agree to meet up with Mordecai to teach him how to use his new iphone, but Fela doesn't approve of their relationship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Marvin Samel along with co-writers Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman is unevenly blends comedy and drama. It feels more like a clunky, unfunny, shallow and contrived sitcom than a warm and wise portrait of a dysfunctional family. The use of animation to provide some backstory at the beginning is witty, refreshing and creative. The same can't be said about the rest of the film that bites off much more than it could chew. There's the relationship between Mordecai and Marvin, Mordecai and Fela, Nina and Mordecai, and Mordecai's relationship with himself as he grapples with his traumatic past as a Holocaust survivor. There are too many coincidences and contrivances while the dialogue isn't very funny or witty. None of the relationships feel organic and not a single scene rings true. There's also yet another subplot involving the family's struggle to sell their cigar business. There are so many subplots and conflicts each of which could easily be the main plot of 5 different films. If iMordecai were to have focused on just on two or three of the subplots or just Mordecai's own struggles with technology and trauma, it would've been a much more engaging and illuminating film.

      Unfortunately, none of the performances rise above the weak screenplay. Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane both give over-the-top performances that seem more like schtick or a Saturday Night Live skit, especially with the awful attempt at accents. The editing is also subpar with some scenes lasting too long and with poor transitions between scenes, and uneven pacing. In a double feature with Ordinary People or The Fabelmans, iMordecai would be the vastly inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Jesus Revolution

Directed by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle

      In 1970s California, Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney) has a spiritual awakening when he meets Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), a hippie who has discovered his love of Jesus. Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), a pastor with dwindling church members, has his own spiritual awakening when his daughter (Ally Ioannides) introduces Lonnie to him. Meanwhile, Greg falls in love with Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow), a hippie.

      Based on the book by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn, the screenplay by writer/director Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn is a heartfelt story about the Jesus Movement during the 1970s in Southern California. Erwin and Gunn do a great job of introducing the audience to the characters of Greg, Lonnie and Cathe whose lives intersect throughout the course of the film. They each go through their own innate struggles, conflicts, epiphanies which makes them all the more human and relatable. The most interesting character is Greg because he confronts his traumatic childhood when his father abandoned him. His alcoholic mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) neglects him and he has to take care of her. He doesn't have any role models to look up to until he meets Chuck and Lonnie. In a way, Chuck becomes like a surrogate father to him showing him unconditional love and compassion which seems to be missing from his home. The other subplots involving Chuck and Lonnie's character arcs aren't explored profoundly enough, although there are a few kernels of wisdom thrown in, i.e. when Chuck realizes that truths are often quiet while lies are often loud. Moreover, the romance between Greg and Cathe feels as cloying and contrived as the romances in Lifetime or Nicholas Sparks movies. Greg experiences drugs when he joins the hippies and the way that he confronts his emotional pain isn't unflinching or emotionally gritty enough which makes the darker elements of the film feel sugar-coated and oversimplified, perhaps to be "family friendly." Nonetheless, those are minor, systemic and forgivable flaws. Jesus Revolution wears its heart proudly on its sleeve and, refreshingly, doesn't treat any character as a villain. It even has some witty lines with some brief comic relief that enliven the film while make it less dry.

      Jesus Revolution has terrific ensemble cast with actors who do their best to find the emotional truths of their role. To be fair, the film's emotional depth comes from their performances much more than from the screenplay. No one over-acts or under-acts, so the natural performances help to ground the film in authenticity. It's also nice to see Kelsey Grammer in a meaty, serious role. He's as excellent here as he is in the underrated drama The God Committee where he plays a complex character who's also going through an epiphany and has some poignant moments of introspection. The lively soundtrack and stylish cinematography, which occasionally gets trippy during Greg's experience with the hippies, are also worth mentioning along with the use of poetic images, i.e. the sun as Greg rides his bike. Poetry is often a protest for or against something, so Jesus Revolution is a protest for love, compassion and happiness, and a protest against hate. At a running time of 2 hours, it's a heartwarming, captivating and inspirational journey well worth taking.

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


Directed by Matthew J. Saville

      Ruth (Charlotte Rampling), a former war correspondent, is bound to a wheelchair after fracturing her leg. She moves into the home of her son, Robert (Marton Csokas), in New Zealand, where a nurse (Edith Poor), Sarah, takes care of her. Robert's delinquent 17-year-old son, Sam (George Ferrier), recently kicked out of boarding school, moves in with her while his father goes away on business.

      Juniper is a bittersweet story about a blossoming friendship between a cantankerous grandma and her rebellious grandson. Neither of them like each being around each other initially. Ruth, an alcoholic, bosses him around and throws a glass pitcher at him when he doesn't fill it up with enough booze. She comes across as controlling, condescending, angry, rude and snarky, but there's more to her than meets the eye in the screenplay by writer/director Matthew J. Saville. Fortunately, she becomes a little more complex and even somewhat warm and friendly as she spends more time with Sam. It's easy to figure out what will happen between Ruth and Sam by the time that Sam's father returns from the business trip. To say that they become friends and form a human connection despite their bumpy introduction isn't a spoiler. They're both going through their own emotional pain; they just handle it differently. What's not too clear, though, is what Ruth's relationship is like with her son or what Sam's relationship was like with his mother. That's left up to the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps when it really shouldn't. There's some dark humor, but nothing that's laugh-out-loud funny. Ruth and Sam's relationship is fascinating, although it doesn't reach the emotional depths and profundity of Harold & Maude or the underrated and under-seen A Beautiful Secret, Katy Jurado's final performance.

      Speaking of performances, Juniper is very lucky to have Charlotte Rampling in the lead role because she's adds plenty of charisma, gravitas and emotional complexity to her role while breathing it to life. As always, she commands your attention whenever she's on-screen which, fortunately, is quite often here. George Ferrier also gives a solid performance. There are some pacing issues, especially during the second act that takes its time to build Ruth and Sam's relationship before a third act that's a little more fast paced and rushed. The cinematography and use of music is pretty good, but nothing exceptional. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Juniper is mildly engaging and harmless while failing to pack an emotional punch. Charlotte Rampling is radiant and mesmerizing, just as expected.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens at Regal Essex Crossing before hitting VOD on April 4th.


Directed by Colin West

      Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan), the host of a science show, lives with his wife, Erin (Rhea Seehorn), and teenage daughter, Nora (Katelyn Naconhas), while dreaming of becoming a NASA astronaut. One day, a sports car falls out of the sky out-of-the-blue. The driver who survived the car crash happens to physically resemble him. Kent Armstrong (Jim Gaffigan), the man who's replacing Cameron on his science show, also looks like him and happens to move into the house across the street with his teenage son, Marc (Gabriel Rush). The following day, a Russian rocket crashes in Cameron's backyard and he decides to reconstruct it.

      Linoleum has a lot of great ideas and begins intriguingly as the film becomes increasingly bizarre and unpredictable. However, the screenplay by writer/director Colin West bites off more than it could chew after a major twist that occurs later in the second act which won't be spoiled here. Part dysfunctional family drama, part sci-fi mystery, part satire and comedy, the plot has a lot of different genres to juggle. It also has a lot of subplots to juggle concurrently. There's the relationship between Cameron and Erin, Cameron and Nora, Cameron and Kent, as well as Nora and Marc. Then the "big reveal" with the plot twist adds yet another subplot with a relationship. Watching Linoleum often feels like 5 movies in one. It takes a sensitive screenplay to blend all of those ingredients together effectively like in Being John Malkovich. Donnie Darko or last year's underrated mindfuck Big Gold Brick, but Linoleum doesn't quite blend them in a way that feels organic, so it becomes tonally uneven and convoluted as the plot progresses. Sometimes a big twist can work in hindsight and sometimes it doesn't in most M. Night Shyamalan films. Unfortunately, the big twist feels tacked-on as it hits the audience over the head and spoon-feeds twist without much emotional depth. The scenes that do try to be poignant feel maudlin and contrived.

      Jim Gaffigan gives a fine performance or, more accurately, fine performances in three different roles. It's too bad that the screenplay fails to breathe Cameron and any of the other characters to life to allow the actors to shine. The cinematographe looks pretty good, but not exceptional. Some of the editing during the "big reveal" at the end feels choppy, though. The pace moves at just the right speed, so there aren't any pacing issues per se, but the third act does feel slightly rushed. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Linoleum is initially intriguing, but tonally uneven, overstuffed and undercooked

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Shout! Studios.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

My Happy Ending

Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon

      Julia (Andie MacDowell), a famous actress, retreats to a clinic to undergo cancer treatment. She meets and befriends three women, Judy (Miriam Margolyes), Mikey (Sally Phillips), and Imaan (Rakhee Thakrar), at the clinic who also have cancer.

      Although cancer plays an integral role in the plot, My Happy Ending isn't fundamentally about cancer nor about death; it's about life, friendship, perseverance, being true to oneself and happiness. The screenplay by Rona Tamir, based on the play by Anat Gov, focuses on the friendship between Julia and the three patients who she meets at the clinic. When Julia first arrives there, she acts like an icy, entitled diva who just wants to be left alone. The more time she spends at the clinic, though, the more she opens up emotionally while seeing them as human beings, warts and all. They have dreams, regrets and flaws much like she does. Screenwriter Rona Tamir attempts to make the film more cinematic with some brief fantasy sequences when the women imagine they're somewhere else that's more happy and tranquil, but, for the most part, it remains true to its theatrical origins by staying in one location: the clinic. To be fair, My Happy Ending isn't as effective as a comedy because the humor falls flat, but it works much better as a character study of an actress struggling to find inner peace and strength during a time of adversity. It's great to see Julia expressing her anger every now and then with the F word. Women have every right to get angry. The relationship between Julia and her daughter who's about to get married is underexplored and feels tacked-on. The same goes for her relationship with her manager, Nancy (Tamsin Greg), who also happens to be her sister-in-law. The evolving dynamics of Julia's friendships with Judy, Mikey and Imaan are fascinating albeit not very profound or moving as Wit another play-turned-movie about someone battling cancer, but with more wit than My Happy Ending.

      Andie MacDowell gives a radiant performance that anchors the film with her charisma that's beyond words. Even when the screenplay lacks emotional depth, MacDowell manages to rise above it and to find the emotional truth in her role. The other actresses don't get enough of a chance to shine, though, especially the underrated Miriam Margolyes. The pace moves quickly enough without being too fast or too slow, although the film does end a little too abruptly with a final line that's revealing about Julia's character arc, but also oversimplified. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning almost every step of the way. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, My Happy Ending is breezy, harmless and mildly engaging, but sugar-coated, undercooked and contrived.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens at select theaters nationwide.