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Reviews for February 28th, 2020

Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Directed by Albert Shin

        Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to Niagra Falls, her hometown, to decide whether or not to see the Rainbow Inn which she inherited after her mother died. Charles “Charlie” Lake III (Eric Johnson) and his wealthy family want to purchase the Inn. When she was only seven-years-old, Abby had witnessed the kidnapping of a one-eyed boy which was assumed to be a suicide. She believes that she can prove that there was a crime involved. Her sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), doesn't believe her, though, so she seeks the help of Walter Bell, a conspiracy theorist who hosts a podcast. She looks through photos and newspaper clippings to do research, but

      The screenplay by James Schultz and writer/director Albert Shin hooks the audience right away with a scene where young Abby witnessing the kidnapping which has traumatized her for years. When she arrives at Niagra Falls as a young adult, it makes sense why she can't fight the temptation to investigate the disappearance further. Just like the audience, she has many questions, but very few answers initially. Is she merely paranoid or is she on to some dark truth from her hometown's past? The answer to that question, though, becomes more obvious as the plot progresses. Others might find her to be unreliable, but it's increasingly clear that the one-eyed boy did not, indeed, commit suicide. There's a lot that she finds to be suspicious and mysterious, especially Charlie who may or may not be hiding key information from her. Once she discovers the identity of a woman who might be involved with the kidnapping and locates her, that's when the film loses a bit of its suspense as dark secrets, none of which are surprising, get unraveled. The third act feels rushed and has a twist that doesn't leaves too many questions and plot holes. Fortunately, though, the character of Walter Bell is interesting enough to hold your attention, so once Abby meets him, the film regains some of that much-needed suspense. You won't be at the edge-of-your-seat, but you won't be bored to tears either.

      Disappearance at Clifton Hill does have some stylish cinematography with great use of lighting and music score which add to the eerie atmosphere. The filmmakers ought to be commended for not relying on jump scares or grisly violence to shock the audience. They trust their patience and move the film along at a leisurely pace which feels refreshing, although it might not be as pleasing to less patient audiences accustomed to fast-paced editing. It's also worth mentioning that the setting of Niagra Falls becomes a character in itself and adds some richness that can't be found in the screenplay. At a running time of 101 minutes, Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a slow-burning, mildly engaging psychological crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Michael Winterbottom

       Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan), a billionaire under investigation for tax fraud, hosts his 60th birthday party at a luxurious hotel on the Greek island of Mykonos. His daughter, Lily (Sophie Cookson), son, Finn (Asa Butterfield), mother, Margaret (Shirly Henderson), and ex-wife, Samantha (Isla Fisher), also join the festivities. Nick (David Mitchell), the ghost writer of McCreadie's autobiography, tags along as well.

      Writer/director Michael Winterbottom tries to tickle the funny bone with this satire of the rich-and-famous, but the attempts at humor fall flat more often than not. McCreadie seems more like an over-the-top caricature than a complex, flesh-and-blood human being, and he's more annoying than fun to be around. His wife left him, he has a dysfunctional relationship with his spoiled son and daughter, and he's mean to his underlings while unashamedly exploiting cheap labor in third-world countries. He's also arrogant, narcissistic and greedy. None of those traits are remotely surprising, and they're explored in a very shallow, repetitive way that quickly becomes exhausting and tedious. Winterbottom also fails to adequately explore McCreadie's toxic relationship with his mother which could have something to do with how he turned out such a mess to beging with. It would've been great to see McCreadie "behind the curtain" to get a sense of what he's like when he's not putting on such a confident act. Is he sensitive? Vulnerable? Insecure? You learn a little about his rise to fame and fortune, but not nearly enough about what's going on inside his head. If the film were funnier, sharper and more scathing, perhaps the lack of character depth would be forgivable, but the laughs are too few and far between. This is the kind of mockumentery that tries too hard to be funny and where most of the beats don't land which makes for an awkward and dull experience. Imagine Monty Python and the Holy Grail without the wit or laughs. The inclusion of the ABBA song "Money, Money, Money" is one of the many example of Winterbottom's tendency to avoid subtlety and make choices that are too obvious while treating the audience as though they were dumb. Charlie Chaplin did a much better job at satirizing capitalism in the brilliant, funny and charming Modern Times.  

      At least Steve Coogan gives a decent performance, but even that doesn't manage to succeed in enlivening the film. He usually has great comedic timing, but here he's undermined by the unimaginative, asinine and witless screenplay. The best aspect of the film is its picturesque scenery on Mykonos, so at least there's some eye candy every now and then. At a running time of 104 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Greed is a lazy, tedious and sophomoric satire lacking wit, laughs and bite. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and AMC Lincoln Square.

The Invisible Man

Directed by Leigh Whannell

        Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her physically abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She seeks refuge at the home of her best friend from childhood, James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter, Syndey (Aldis Hodge). Adrian commits suicide and leaves her with a large sum of inheritence money. Adrian's brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), handles the affairs of Adrian's estate. Meanwhile, Cecilia experiences events that might mean that she's being haunted by a ghost that's trying to scare her and to put her life in jeopardy as well as her relationship with her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer).

      The Invisible Man begins as a captivating psychological thriller that's essentially a cross between Fatal Attraction and Poltergeist. The first hour has a few genuinely chilling scenes with Hitchcockian suspense as something pulls Cecilia's blanket off of the bed and she later hears her husband's cellphone ringing in her attic and goes up there to investigate. In every supernatural horror/thriller, there's always someone who doubts that anything supernatural is occurring. In this case, that person happens to be James who believes that it's all in Cecilia's head and that she's probably crazy. Once Cecilia takes matters into her own hands and begins to uncover the truth behind the haunting, the screenplay by writer/director Leigh Whannell starts to fall apart while throwing internal logic out the window along with the Hitchockian suspense and any sympathy that the audience might have had for Cecilia.

      Whannell treats Cecilia like a human being for that first hour, but like less and less of a human being once the action kicks into gear during the second half. You'll end up caring more about an innocent man whose car she steals while she interrupts a phone call with his wife who's clearly worried about what happened to her beloved husband. Then there's a scene at a restaurant which will be remembered for being shocking, but in retrospect it's a cheap and facile way to move the plot forward. The way that Whannell incorporates one of the twists feels contrived as though he didn't know how to transition to it naturally, so he chose the laziest and least believable way to incorporate it. The twists themselves lack surprise because they could be seen from a mile away. If The Invisible Man were a horror comedy, its plot holes could be forgiven, but since it wants audiences to take the plot and characters seriously, it needs to earn that plausibility which is fails to do. Is it too much to ask for a Hollywood horror/thriller that treats its audience like intelligent human beings who don't want to check their brain at the door before watching a movie?  

      Elisabeth Moss gives a convincingly moving performance helps to keep The Invisible Man afloat for the most part. Any depth of emotion comes from her performance, not from the screenplay itself. She's as compelling to watch as Riley Keough is in the far more nuanced and intelligence psychological thriller The Lodge. Although The Invisible Man lacks the visual poetry found in The Lodge, it does look cinematic with slick editing, great production design and impressive CGI effects. By the end credits, though, it seems overproduced, though. If it were to have a lower budget, perhaps it would've relied less on CGI and shock value, and spent more on finessing the screenplay to allow for more character depth, a plausible enough plot and atmosphere At running time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, which feels bloated and overlong by at least 20 minutes, The Invisible Man an initially gripping and chilling psychological horror thriller that falls apart midway as the plot holes begin to accumulate and the Hitchcockian suspense wanes.

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

The Jesus Rolls

Directed by John Turturro

      After serving time in prison for indecent exposure, Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) meets up with his friend, Petey (Bobby Cannavale). They steal a car belonging to Paul (Jon Hamm) who owns a hair salon.  Marie (Audrey Tautou), Paul's shampooist, tags along with them while they go on the run from the law. Another woman, Jean (Susan Sarandon), just released from prison, joins them as well.

      Loosely based on Bertrand Blier's Going Places and featuring the beloved character the Jesus from the cult classic The Big Lebowski, the screenplay by writer/director John Turturro has an increasingly silly plot that never takes itself too seriously nor does it make much sense. The characters are cartoonish and over-the-top, especially the free-spirited Marie who sleeps with every guy she meets with the drop of a hat and prefers to avoid settling down with anyone. Jean is the only character who adds a sliver of emotional gravitas to the film. Fortunately, the freewheeling plot can be ignored when the screenplay itself is so witty, outrageously funny and whimsical. After all, a film's plot isn't as important as how it goes about its plot and what feelings are contained within the plot. A film can have an intricate plot, but still be lethargic and tedious. The Jesus Rolls doesn't have a dull moment. There are some visual gags, dirty humor and hilarious banter that will leave you in stitches. 

      The cast appears to be having a great time onscreen and have palpable chemistry together. John Turturro and Bobby Cannavale have a wonderful rapport and make Jesus and Petey feel like old friend. Christopher Walken, J.B. Smoove, Tim Blake Nelson and Sonia Braga also show up to chew the scenery in brief, amusing roles. The lively soundtrack is also worth mentioning. The Jesus Rolls has a tone that's somewhat reminiscent of Hal Hartley's Simple Men which also takes place on Long Island and also has a freewheeling, lighthearted plot, although that film is much more cerebral. Kudos to Turturro and editor Simona Paggi for keeping the film moving along at a brisk pace and the running time down to a lean, palatable 85 minutes. The Jesus Roles is ultimately a witty, exuberant and wildly entertaining screwball comedy. It's a crowd-pleasing delight. This is the kind of film that's best seen with a group of friends or a rowdy crowd at a movie theater, preferably while intoxicated (please remember not to drink and drive; drink before your drive).

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Screen Media Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Saint Frances

Directed by Alex Thompson

       34-year-old Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan) quits her job as a restaurant server to become the nanny of 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams) who's being raised by two moms, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu). Maya experiences postpartum depression after giving birth. Meanwhile, Bridget decides to have an abortion when Jace (Max Lipchitz), a friend with benefits, gets her accidentally pregnant.

      The sensitively-written screenplay by Kelly O'Sullivan sets the tone from the very beginning with how it introduces the character of Bridget and shows how she meets Jace at a party. You learn a lot about Bridget within the first few minutes including her age, profession and her insecurities. How many films have a sex scene where the woman ends up having sex on her period and leaving blood stains on the bed? The fact that O'Sullivan finds the humor in such a refreshingly honest scene is a testament to her skills as a writer and as an actress. Even though Bridget does sleep with Jace, there's no romantic subplot involving the two of them which she makes clear from the get-go when Jace incorrectly assumes that he's her boyfriend. She goes through an emotional journey once she becomes a fulltime nanny for Frances and meets Maya and Annie. It's the evolution of those relationships that makes Saint Frances an engrossing and profound character study.

        Bravo to Kelly O'Sullivan for turning Bridget into a flawed, likable human being both in her performance and her writing. She finds the emotional truth of her role and sinks her teeth into Bridget's complex emotions very effectively and naturally which helps to humanize her. Bridget does indeed makes mistakes when she becomes Frances' nanny, i.e. by forgetting to strap Frances into her stroller. Maya forgives her, though, without firing her. Fortunately, Frances isn't one of those cliched precocious children that can be found in some arthouse and Hollywood films. She's just a regular child who acts out sometimes which can be frustrating for Frances, but she's never annoying or over-the-top. The way that Bridget gradually bonds with her feels genuinely heartwarming, and the same can be said for how their bond effects Bridget's relationship with Frances' parents.

      The friendship between Bridget and Maya strengthens the most, though, when Maya opens up to her about her postpartum depression and other struggles that she's going through which she explains with explicit detail. In another well-written scene, Bridget's mother, Carol (Mary Beth Fisher), tells Bridget about how difficult it was for her to raise her as a baby when she had thoughts of swinging Bridget's head into a wall back then. Those scenes, like many of the scenes in the film, have a bit of sadness and tragedy, but also some humor and plenty of truth to them concurrently. Saint Frances shies away from showing you all of the procedures that Bridget goes through when she has her abortion because this isn't a movie about abortion nor does it take sides on that divisive issue either; it's a story about the friendship between women, ultimately. For a more detailed, darker and unflinching look at the horrors that a woman experiences while going through an abortion, see Never Rarely Sometimes Always which would make for an interesting double feature with Saint Frances. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, Saint Frances is warm, funny and refreshingly honest.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Straight Up

Directed by James Sweeney


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

The Whistlers

Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

        Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a police inspector, travels to the Canary Islands in Spain to learn a secret whistling language that gangsters use to communicate. At a hotel, he falls for the seductive Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). He's under surveillance from the Bucharest police and works for both sides of the law as he tries to help a criminal, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), escape from prison.

      Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu takes a silly concept and turns it into a dull, clunky and convoluted slog that's neither funny, smart nor thrilling. A lot happens in terms of plot that includes double crossings all of which are told in a non-linear structure that merely adds to the confusion. None of the characters come to life, and there's no chemistry between Cristia and Gilda, although they do have a steamy sex scene together. Porumboiu doesn't seem to know how to properly edit a scene to transition to the next one once it makes its point to the audience. Listening to Cristi trying to learn the whistling language is mildy amusing at first, but quickly becomes tedious and unfunny as it's repeated over and over throughout the film to try to make the audience laugh from the weirdness. Weirdness just for the sake of weirdness simply doesn't work. Why include a very bloody scene with someone's neck being cut? It feels out of place as though the film were trying to mimic Tarantino's use of excessive violence. Is the non-linear storytelling trying to imitate Tarantino as well? Porumboiu should learn from Aki Kaurismaki who knows how to make dry, outrageously funny and delightfully bizarre comedies that rarely disappoint.

      Unfortunately, the only strength that The Whistlers going for it is the stylish cinematography, set design and beautiful scenery. There's nothing else that holds your attention, and it's no help that the pacing drags more often than not. The performances fails to enliven the film either because they range from mediocre to wooden. At a running time of 97 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, The Whistlers is an uneven, convoluted and underwhelming mess that's neither as brilliant, witty and funny as a Aki Kaurismaki film nor as entertaining, bold and shocking as Tarantino film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens at Film Forum.
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