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Reviews for February 7th, 2020

And Then We Danced

Directed by Levan Akin


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens Quad Cinema and Landmark at 57 West.

Birds of Prey

Directed by Cathy Yan

        Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), still grieving from her break up with the Joker, teams up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), police detective Montoya (Rosie Perez), and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to defeat Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Roman initially kidnaps Harley Quinn and she persuades him that she can use her skills to retrieve a precious diamond that a young girl, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), pick-pocketed from him.

      Birds of Prey tries to be a subversively funny action comedy like Deadpool and Kick-Ass, but it doesn't quite hit its groove until the one hour mark when Harley Quinn and Cassandra Cain finally meet. Until then, the screenplay by Christina Hodson is essentially 1 hour of exposition that introduces each character and their conflicts while flashing back and forward in time. The flashbacks, in the form of rewinds,  Harley Quinn narrates the film, talking to the audience and thereby breaking the fourth wall a lot. It's clear from the get-go that she's batshit crazy which takes a while to get used to. At first, she's like nails-on-a-chalkboard, but eventually you get used to her many annoying characteristics. The other characters are various levels of crazy. Would it have been so hard to include at least one sane character for the audience to connect to?

      Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan hit the audience over the head with not just lunacy, but also about how Birds of Prey is really about female empowerment. Men are evil, women are good. There's nothing subtle about the way that the film presents that message. The plot itself is not really that important and forgettable. Of course, there's a McGuffin, the diamond, and plenty of action sequences with CGI effects so you can be reminded of where the films budget went to. The soundtrack is lively, the cinematography looks stylish and slick, and the same can be said about the set design which provides eye candy. Unfortunately, during the first hour, the pacing feels uneven as it slows down and then picks up before slowing down again while the plot doesn't gain that much momentum. The tone is all over the place from serious to outrageously, and there's some grisly gore that could've been easily cut because it's more disgusting than funny.

      Once the first hour kicks in and the filmmakers are done with the exposition, Birds of Prey starts to find its footing tonally with a few funny albeit random one-liners, i.e. one the pokes fun at Frida Kahlo. The action scenes are well-choreographed and fun to watch in a guilty pleasure sort of way like when Harley Quinn fights some villains in a warehouse. The humor ranges from slapstick to tongue-in-cheek to off-kilter humor. Most of the comedic beats don't land as hard as they should, though, and are repeated often, so they become less funny the second time they you hear or see the joke. Birds of Prey tries too hard to please the audience, and it shows, but its energy and the chemistry between the Birds of Prey team, when they do finally come together, feels entertaining on a visceral level. The cast members are clearly having a lot of fun onscreen. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Birds of Prey is an action-packed, subversively funny and campy slice of escapism that takes an hour of exposition and uneven tone to kick into full gear and to become a guilty pleasure. 

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

Cane River

Directed by Horace B. Jenkins

       Peter (Richard Romain) returns to his hometown, Cane River, Louisiana, after being absent for many years. He meets and flirts with Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick), but her domineering mother (Carol Sutton) refuses to let her date him because he's a descendant of Claude Thomas Pierre Monteyer, a white slave-owner. He's a light-skinned Creole; she's a dark-skinned African American. They date anyway in spite of her mother's wishes.

      Originally made in 1981, Cane River never received a theatrical release. Writer/director Horace B. Jenkins died soon after the premiere in New Orleans and the film was lost for over 2 decades. The newly restored version looks just as grainy as you'd imagine an 80s indie movie would look, but that's just part of its charm. When it comes to the performances, they're mediocre at best and amateurish at worst. However, there's an emotional truth the performances that rises to the surface every now and then. Moreover, Romain and Myrick have chemistry together. A memorable scene that's quite poignant is when Peter convinces Maria to go horseback riding together as a date. Their scenes are sweet without being saccharine. The only scenes that feel melodramatic are the ones in the third act, especially when Maria's mother confronts her. The soundtrack does sound a bit overbearing and intrusive more often than not.

       The landscape becomes part of the film's charm as well and a character in itself. Perhaps seeing the film on the big screen would be best because something would be lost when seeing that landscape on the small screen even though the plot itself is very lean. More happened in the past than in the present, so it's quite amazing that the Jenkins avoids flashbacks. There's also a subplot involving land ownership that Peter fights for with the help of a lawyer, but that subplot isn't explored enough. The crux of the film is the love story between two people from different classes and ancestries which makes the film. It's about the importance of looking past one's prejudices and also the importance of forgiving, two timely and relatable issues. If you're willing to overlook the awkward, stilted performances, the subpar production values and the clunky screenplay, there's a warm, beating heart to be found beneath the surface.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at BAM.

Come to Daddy

Directed by Ant Timpson

       Norval (Elijah Wood) receives a letter from his estranged father (Stephen McHattie) to visit him at his isolated seaside cabin.

      The less you know about what transpires afterwards, the better because this is the kind of film that takes many unpredictable twists and turns. The comedy ranges from dark to outrageous and deadpan, so it's definitely not for everyone. Director Ant Timpson and screenwriter Toby Harvard take risks that pay off, for the most part, with a third act that's over-the-top. Much like Us, it leaves many questions unanswered and throws plausibility, but at least it doesn't bombard you with sociopolitical messages. It's also surprisingly moving when it's not trying to make you laugh or shock you with gore, some of which might make viewers sick to their stomach. The filmmakers also have a very strong handle on exposition without relying on flashbacks or lengthy, contrived speeches like the one at the end of Us. In other words, it's better than Us. Part of the fun of watching Come to Daddy is that you're confused about what's going on and why, but it all makes a little bit more sense by the time the end credits roll. Timpson and Harvard clearly grasp the fact comedy is rooted in tragedy because there's plenty of tragic events and themes that occur throughout the film. If you're in the mood for a wild, unpredictable ride that's far from conventional, you'll be satisfied.

      Elijah Wood's performance is convincingly moving, but the real stand-out here is Stephen McHattie who gives an equally creepy and campy performance. McHattie and Wood play off each other very well during the first 20 minutes or so when they banter and bicker with very acerbic, irreverent dialogue. One of their best scenes is when they sit by the fireplace and make up stories about knowing Elton John Even the supporting roles like the ones played by Madeleine Sami and Michael Smiley are well-cast and deliver their comedic lines effectively. Even though many of the events that transpire are far-fetched and over-the-top, the film remains at least somewhat grounded in realism. The filmmakers never forget that the film is fundamentally a story about a son yearning to reconnect with his estranged father who abandoned him as a child. At a running time of 93 minutes, Come to Daddy is an acerbically funny, campy and surprisingly heartfelt amalgam of horror, comedy, mystery, thriller and drama. It's destined to become a cult classic. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.

The Lodge

Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

       Richard (Richard Armitage), still in the process of divorcing his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), takes their children, Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), and his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keogh), to an isolated cabin for a family vacation. He leaves them alone with her for a few days when he suddenly has to travel for work. 

      The Lodge is an intelligent, slow-burning psychological thriller for adults. Writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz along with co-writer Sergio Casci prepare audience for the forthcoming roller coaster ride of emotions by including an unexpected event within the first 5 minutes. That event has a haunting, ripple effect on each of the characters throughout the film. The tension builds gradually after Richard leaves his kids alone with Grace who's taking medication to deal with the trauma that she suffers from after surviving a cult massacre. Aiden and Mia don't trust nor like Grace, but there's so evidence that she's a bad person. She even asks Aiden flat out what she can do to make things better between them and if she's doing anything wrong. The filmmakers do a great job of trusting the audience's imagination, intelligence, emotions and patience which are rare feats these days. They don't rely on gore to generate scares; the scares come from what the audience imagines more than from what they see in front of their eyes. Just as you think The Lodge is going in one direction, it subverts your expectations by going in different direction while leaving room for interpretation. What's real? What isn't real? That's up for you to decide until the big reveal during the third act that takes the film in yet another direction which won't be spoiled here. The ending works without feeling like a cheap gimmick and will make you want to rewatch the film.

       On an aesthetic level, The Lodge has visual poetry reminiscent of the visual poetry in The Shining. Both films have a similar tone and remain grounded in a story about mental illness within a dysfunctional family. The religious symbolism feels a bit heavy-handed, though, but perhaps that's the point. The cold, snowy landscape and muted colors help to create a very creepy and foreboding atmosphere. Everything from the lighting to the set design, camera angles, the score and even the sound design also enriches the chilly atmosphere. Bravo to the filmmakers for grasping the fact that quieter, wordless moments  can be quite powerful. Every shot in the film has meaning to it. In other words, its style successful becomes part of its substance. 

       Riley Keough gives a breakthrough performance in the best performance of her career. She sinks her teeth into the role of Grace naturally without overacting which allows you to care about Grace as a flawed human being. Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh are also superb. Essentially, everything that The Turning got wrong, The Lodge gets right. The less you know about The Lodge's plot going in, the better because it's full of clever surprises, but it's not all about its surprises. It's about human beings, and the filmmakers treat the characters as well as the audience like human beings. They allow the audience to think and feel without spoon-feeding them. There are no flashbacks or voice-over narration. The well-written screenplay has enough psychological and emotional depth to make it a fascinating story albeit one that's unflinchingly grim with few ephemeral moments of comic relief. The Lodge is like a bold cup of black coffee with no cream or sugar added. It might be best to watch a much more upbeat family film like Yours, Mine and Ours afterward.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Opens at Angelika Film Center, Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.
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