Alphabetical Menu
Chronological Menu

Reviews for February 2nd, 2024

Documentary/Experimental Films Round-Up

      Dario Argento: Panico is a mildly engaging glimpse at the work and life of legendary filmmaker Dario Argento. Director Simone Scafidi combines interviews with Argento's family members, ex-wives, actors and actresses he worked with as well as directors like Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noé and Guillermo del Toro who admire him. There's nothing exceptional about the documentary's structure or format, so it's pretty conventional as it follows Argento's career linearly while jumping back and forth between clips from his iconic films and talking-head interviews. The most fascinating parts are the interviews with Dario Argento himself because the audience gets a sense of his personality and sense of humor. He's not very introspective, though, or at least the questions that the director asks don't compel to use introspection enough, so as a documentary biopic it does come up short in terms of emotional depth. That said, it's well-edited and the film clips are well-chosen. As an introduction to Dario Argento, it's decent albeit not mandatory viewing like the superior doc Alan Pakula: Going for Truth. At 1 hour and 38 minutes, 1Dario Argento: Panico opens via Shudder at IFC Center on January 31st before streaming on Shudder.

      She is Conann is an audacious and trippy interpretation of Conan the Barbarian, but it's also tedious and exhausting. Writer/director Bertrand Mandico follows the various lives of Conann with different actresses portraying her. Reiner (Elina Löwensohn) serves as Conann's guide through the underworld. To call She is Conann an experimental film would be an understatement. Mandico eschews a conventional narrative while blending horror, sci-fi, action and surrealism. It's the kind of film that's hard to describe in words because it transcends words. That's not always something positive, though. While Mandico deserves to be commended for taking risks and subverting the audience's conventions, the film does run out of steam around the 30 minute mark as it begins to feel repetitive with very dull dialogue. Is it too much to ask for some comic relief or campiness? At times the tone almost veers toward campiness, but doesn't quite stick the landing. On a purely aesthetic level, She is Conann does have plenty of visual style that matches its surreal atmosphere. The use of color, black-and-white and lighting are superb. It's too bad that the screenplay isn't as compelling as the cinematography. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, She is Conann opens at Anthology Film Archives via Altered Innocence. It would be an interesting double feature with another shallow, visually stunning experimental film, Divinity.


Directed by Matthew Vaughn

      Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), the author of the spy novel series Argylle, has a tough time finishing her latest novel about the adventures of Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). She reluctantly agrees to visit her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara) who insists on helping her to write. On the train ride there, she crosses paths with Aidan (Sam Rockwell) who claims to be a real-life agent.

      A lot more happens in Argylle than what's described in the synopsis above. The screenplay by Jason Fuchs piles on twist after twist after twist, so to avoid spoiling the surprises, it's best to know as little as possible before watching the film. Just when you think there are no more twists coming, there's yet another one right around the corner. Unfortunately, the plot quickly turns into a convoluted mess that fails to generate laughs with dark comedy, tongue-in-cheek humor and satire. It tries too hard to be like a cross between Deadpool and The Long Kiss Goodnight while blurring the line between fantasy and reality and insulting the audience's intelligence with clunky exposition. Yes, there's a long speech with Aidan going on and on to explain some essential backstory. Meanwhile, that scene derails the narrative moments. The attempts at humor get repeated too often, i.e. anything involving Elly's cat, Alfie. Logic and plausibility are thrown out the window which would've been fine if the film compensated for that much-needed imagination. Argylle knows where to take its ideas from, but not where to take its ideas to. Even when the plot goes bonkers, which happens most of the time, very few of the comedic beats actually land.

      Unfortunately, none of the actors or actresses in the ensemble manage to rise above the lazy screenplay. The only one who comes close is Sam Rockwell. Ariana DuBose, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard E. Grant shows up in supporting roles, but they've all been funnier in far better-written movies. Even Samuel L. Jackson phones it in here. Bryce Dallas Howard is miscast because she has bad comedic timing and very little chemistry between her and Sam Rockwell. Moreover, the action sequences are poorly shot and the editing feels choppy at times. There's also tries too hard to be funny and outrageous with its use of music during the action scenes. Director Matthew Vaughn also fails to grasp the concept of restraint because he allows Argylle to clock past the 2 hour mark. It's never a good sign when you can feel the weight of a film's running time. At 2 hours and 19 minutes, Argylle is an exhausting, overlong, asinine and unfunny misfire.

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

Beyond the Wall

Directed by Vahid Jalilvand

      Ali (Navid Mohammadzadeh), a man who's almost completely blind, lives in an apartment where Leila (Diana Habibi), a fugitive, hides. She's desperately searching for her son who separated from her during a workers' protest.

      The screenplay by writer/director Vahid Jalilvand is a often compelling blend of thriller, mystery and drama that takes small nosedive as it adds contrived twists and turns. Ali is introduced to the audience just as he's about commit suicide before the police knock on his door to look for the futigitive. It's no spoiler to state the fugitive, Leila, has broken into his apartment to use it as a hideout. Why is Leila on the run from the law? How did Ali become nearly blind? Who's the woman sending letters to him? Beyond the Wall spends a lot of time treading water until it answers those questions later on in the third act. Until that point, it's an engrossing psychological thriller, but it doesn't quite work as a character study because there's too little backstory about Ali and Leila. The information that the audience learns about them through flashbacks isn't enough. For example, what was Leila's relationship like with her son before the workers' protest? Beyond the Wall does have a few surprises, but they're poorly integrated into the narrative. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning most of the time, so it would've been helpful if Jalilvand were to let the scenes and characters breathe more rather than making Ali and Leila seem like they're merely plot devices. Moreover, the film sorely lacks some form of levity to balance all of the intensity.

      Navid Mohammadzadeh and Diana Habibi give decent performances which ground the film in authenticity. The cinematography, set design and lighting adds to the grittiness. If only the film were more emotionally gritty than just physically gritty, though. There are also some pacing issues because some scenes in the beginning move too fast while others move too slowly while the third act feels a bit rushed. The editing could've been tighter and the same can be said about the screenplay because the film overstays its welcome as it clocks past the 2 hour mark. Less is often more, so more restraint would've been beneficial. At 2 hours and 6 minutes, Beyond the Wall is gritty, intense and surprising, but also contrived, exhausting and undercooked.

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

Fitting In

Directed by Molly McGlynn

      16-year old Lindy (Maddie Ziegler) lives with her mother, Rita (Emily Hampshire), and spends time with her best friend,  Vivian (Djouliet Amara), while having a crush on Adam (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), a guy from school. One day, after she still hasn't had her period, she visits a gynecologist and discovers that she has MRKH syndrome, a genetic condition that means that her uterus, vagina and cervix are underdeveloped. Lindy struggles to come to terms with her diagnosis and how it affects her relationships.  

      Writer/director Molly McGlynn has woven a witty, captivated and big-hearted coming-of-age film. She does an effective job of designing a window into Lindy's heart, mind and soul which helps the audience to empathize with her as a vulnerable human being. The relationship between Lindy and her mother, Rita, feel real as does the friendship between her and Vivian. Fitting In doesn't dwell on the nitty-gritty details of MRKH, but, concurrently, it doesn't shy away from showing Lindy's struggles and shed light on how it affects Lindy and her relationships including a new one with Jax (Ki Griffin). The screenplay also brims with some witty lines and some comic relief that provides some levity, so kudos to McGlynn for having a wonderful command of the film's tone without leading to any clunkiness or unevenness. There are many characters yet the plot never feels overstuffed or undercooked like too many films do nowadays. Lindy is lucky to have at least two compassionate people in her life, her mother and Vivian, who she can rely on for emotional support as she goes through a challenging time in her life. There's a beautiful scene with her and Dr. Aranda (Rhoslynne Bugay) whom she bonds with during a doctor's visit. Without that support, it would've been hard for her to navigate through her complex emotions after learning about her MRKH diagnosis. Her most important and profound journey, though, involves how she learns to love and accept herself, warts-and-all. Fortunately, Fitting In manages to be inspirational and uplifting without being preachy or cloying. It ultimately earns its uplift every step of the way.

      Maddie Ziegler gives one of the best performances of her career. She exudes charisma, warm and impeccable comedic timing while also finding the emotional truth of Lindy. She captures Lindy's innate strengths, ulnernabilites and insecurities very convincingly, so she's very brave for opening the window into Lindy's heart, mind and soul so widely. Her emotionally generous performance is palpable and very rewarding for the audience. Everyone, even those in the supporting roles like Djouliet Amara, Emily Hampshire and Ki Griffin are given a chance to shine and to ground the film in authenticity. The pace moves at just the right speed without moving too quickly or too slowly nor does any scene overstay its welcome. That's a testament to the film's terrific editing. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Fitting In an empowering, inspirational and captivating journey brimming with wit, warmth and tenderness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

How to Have Sex

Directed by Molly Manning Walker

      Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Paige (Laura Ambler) and Skye (Lara Peake), three teenage friends from the UK, spend their spring break at the coastal city of Heraklion in Greece to party, drink, take drugs and have sex.

      How to Have Sex is much more profound than a teen sex comedy or the raunchy dark comedy Spring Breakers. Tara hopes to lose her virginity which her friends encourage her to do. The plot becomes increasingly complex and dark when she meets a confident guy, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), who takes her virginity on the beach at night. Her experience doesn't go as smoothly as she hoped it would and she slowly comes to terms with how much she regrets it. Despite its title, How to Have Sex doesn't just have sex on its mind. Kudos to writer/director Molly Manning Walker for seeing Tara, Paige and Skye as human beings with complex emotions. Tara might seem happy initially, but eventually there are hints of sadness, loneliness and insecurity lurking beneath the surface. How he takes advantage of her while she's intoxicated on the beach makes you question whether or not Paddy is a predator. Fortunately Walker doesn't judge Tara nor does she ask the audience to. Nor does she ask the audience to judge her wild friends or Paddy for that matter. With a less sensitive screenplay, How to Have Sex could've turned into aimless, tedious, pointless and meandering mess that just tries to shock the audience or to push boundaries. Instead, it morphs into a thought-provoking, honest, understated and emotionally engrossing film that avoids becoming heavy-handed, maudlin or contrived.

      Mia McKenna-Bruce gives a raw and radiant breakthrough performance as Tara. Her co-stars who portray Tara's friends, Laura Ambler and Lara Peaker, also ground the film in authenticity with their natural performances. The cinematography, editing and the music score add some style without being excessive. How to Have Sex doesn't have any nudity and leaves the sex scenes mostly off-camera or skips over them thereby relying on the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. Instead of physical nakedness, the film offers something much more intimate and powerful: emotional nakedness. Writer/director Molly Manning Walker should also be commended for grasping the power of quieter moments because silence often speaks louder than words. At a running time 1 hour and 31 minutes, How to Have Sex is a genuinely poignant, tender and provocative coming of age story.

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

The Jungle Bunch: Operation Meltdown

Directed by Laurent Bru, Yannick Moulin & Benoît Somville

      Maurice, Junior, Miguel, Batricia, Gilbert, Al, Bob and Fred, a.k.a. The Jungle Bunch must save their jungle from a chemical foam that coats the forest and explodes when coming to contact with water. They embark on a quest to find the antidote.

      . The screenplay by writer/director David Alaux and his co-writers, Eric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti, keeps the plot simple and easy to follow for children without dumbing it down for adults. The characters are lively, goofy and a lot of fun to be around, so if you enjoyed them in the previous film, you'll enjoy them here, too. Some of the humor involves sight gags which will especially entertain younger audiences, but there's also some witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor for older audiences. The screenplay doesn't waste too much time introducing the characters, i.e. Maurice is a penguin who thinks he's a tiger. It would help to see the original beforehand, but even if you haven't you'll still be able to understand what's going on; the original provides more backstory. Key plot points are repeated, so there's nothing that's confusing. Fortunately, the filmmakers blend the comedy with just the right amount of action and thrills. It's a pleasantly diverting slice of escapism that's in the vein of Ice Age and just as surprisingly sweet as Paw Patrol and Migration.

      The CGI animation is bright, colorful and often dazzling with a little photorealism when it comes to the water, trees and sky. The animation of the animals are also impressive while giving them some personality and, in some cases, some cuteness. It's worth noting that the film moves along at a fast enough pace to hold the attention of younger audiences. At 1 hour and 29 minutes, The Jungle Bunch: Operation Meltdown is a delightful, fun and captivating adventure for the whole family.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Viva Kids.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Leah McKendrick

      34-year old Nellie (Leah McKendrick) isn't ready to have children yet, but feels pressure from her domineering father, Richard (Clancy Brown), to give him grandchildren . When she learns that her biological clock is ticking because of a diminished ovarian reserve, she decides to freeze her eggs.

      Writer/director Leah McKendrick deftly combines comedy and drama. Like most comedies, Scrambled is rooted in tragedy. Nellie is at a crossroads in her life and grappling with a major life decision that's also very expensive. She has to borrow money from her more financially successful brother to pay for the egg freezing. Her best friend, Sheila (Ego Nwodim), is already getting married and pregnant; she, on the other hand, is still single and childless. So, she has a long journey ahead of her for self-discovery. Meanwhile, she tries to re-enter the dating scene without much luck. McKendrick's screenplay sees and treats Nellie as a complex human being with an inner life. She's flawed, yet likable in many ways and also has a bit of a snarky personality which humanizes her even more. More importantly, it shows how introspective and emotionally mature she becomes throughout her journey toward self-discovery. Although Scrambled does deal with serious issues, it has enough comic relief to make it more palatable. Humor is a great way to grab the audience's attention. The film also works well as a character study of a woman who's experiencing her own coming-of-age, so Nellie's character arc feels organic without much contrivance.

      Leah McKendrick gives a lively and convincingly moving performance as Nellie. She has terrific comedic timing and knows how to handle the dramatic scenes in a way that feels authentic. The film's emotional depth comes from her performance, mostly. In one of the film's well-written and poignant scenes, Nellie attends a support group where she finally gets the chance to speak her mind openly and honestly without any sugar-coating. It's a cathartic moment that pays off while revealing a lot about Nellie's emotional maturity. The film moves at just the right pace without any scenes that drag. It also doesn't overstay its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes. Ultimately, Scrambled is refreshingly witty, honest, funny and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens in selected theaters nationwide.

Skin Deep

Directed by Alex Schaad

      Leyla (Mala Emde) and her boyfriend, Tristan (Jonas Dassler), travel by boat to a remote island for a spiritual experience at a resort where people body-swap. After they swap bodies with another couple, Mo (Dimitrij Schaad) and Fabienne (Maryam Zaree), their relationship is put to the test.

      The screenplay by writer/director Alex Schaad and co-writer Dimitrij Shaad deserves credit for its ambitious premise that blends sci-fi, romance, suspense and intrigue. It treads the same waters as Being John Malkovich does, but with less subtlety while biting off more than it could chew. Skin Deep dives right into the meat of the story because within the first 10 minutes, you meet Leyla, Tristan, Mo, Fabien and the resort's leader, Stella (Edgar Selge), Leyla's friend who body-swapped with her late father. The plot presents a lot of exposition to the audience early on and yet there's more exposition, backstories and darker themes in the second act. Leyla enjoys the body-swapping experience, but Tristan doesn't. Nor does he like it when Mo comes onto him and assaults him when they body-swap. The experience affects everyone differently on an emotional and psychological level beyond just the obvious sexual and physical side of it. The dialogue is too "on-the-nose", to be fair, with some over-explaining as though the filmmakers were too afraid to confuse the audience. What's wrong with being confused, though? They also make it clear in each chapter who's body-swapping with whom so that it's crystal clear to the audience. Why not trust their intelligence more? Despite those missteps, the film does have some moments of genuine poignancy without sugar-coating any of its themes for the audience.

      The performances by Mala Emde, Jonas Dassler, Dimitrij Schaad and Maryam Zaree are all give decent performances that breathe life into their roles. The film's emotional depth comes more from their performances than from the screenplay. In terms of production values, the cinematography is among the highlights, especially a few underwater sequences which are quite visually poetic. The setting on the island also becomes an interesting metaphor. Fortunately, the filmmakers keep the running time under 2 hours, so the film doesn't suffer from being too long or exhausting. At 1 hour and 43 minutes, Skin Deep is ambitious and engrossing, but ultimately overstuffed and undercooked.

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


Directed by Laura Chinn

      Doris (Nico Parker), a teenager, lives with her mother, Kristine (Laura Linney), in Florida. Her brother, Max (Cree Kawa), has terminal brain cancer and has been moved to a hospice care facility called Suncoast where she befriends Paul (Woody Harrelson), a protester.

      The screenplay by writer/director Laura Chinn is an often dull coming-of-age story. Doris has a lot going on inside of her because she's dealing with the imminent death of her beloved brother while also struggling with teen angst and social pressures at school. On top of that, she's still processing grief from the death of her father and grandmother. Her mother, Kristine, isn't the best role model for her because she's barely around and when she is, she's short-tempered and often uses profanity. Kristine is trying her best though, but she's clearly frustrated. Unfortunately, the screenplay barely gets inside Kristine and Doris' heart, mind and soul. Their mother-daughter relationship feels underdeveloped and falls flat. The same can be said about the emerging friendship between Doris and Paul who becomes a mentor and father figure to her---in one day he even teaches her how to drive. That bond should've been the heart of the film, but it doesn't resonate or cut deep. The dialogue ranges from bland to witless and on-the-nose without nearly enough comic relief. Suncoast has very little to say about its many themes that it raises like grief. One of its systemic flaws is that it sugarcoats its darker elements which lurk beneath the surface and barely rise above until the maudlin third act. None of the character arcs feel organic, so the beats don't land especially at the end nor does Suncoast earn its catharsis. The very last shot is particularly unimaginative, conventional and lazy. This is the kind of film that you can leave to go to the bathroom without pausing and easily predict what you missed when you return.

      The performances are mediocre at best without anyone getting the chance to shine. Laura Linney gives a hammy performance, but she, like the other actors and actresses, are undermined by the shallow screenplay. She tries her best, though, but she deserves better material as does Woody Harrelson who also attempts to breathe some much-needed life into his role as Paul. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography, set designs or the scenery for that matter. Much of the film is brightly lit as though it were a sitcom. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Suncoast is meandering, shallow and schmaltzy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Opens at AMC Empire 25 before streaming on Hulu on February 9th, 2024.