The NYC Movie Guru: Reviews from a Movie Buff


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Recommended Films






      Writing with Fire sheds light on Dalit women from Northern India, Meera Davi, Suneeta Prajapatii and Shyamkali Devi, among others, who started a newspaper called Khabar Lahariya. Dalit, as the doc clearly explains at the very beginning, are women who are treated by society as the lowest caste in India. They're raped and dehumanized in other ways by men in the upper castes while the government ignores their pleas for basic needs like electricity in their villages. Co-directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh do an impeccable job of following the brave Dalit women from the inception of the newspaper to their obstacles along the way. They even started online journalism with video footage to reach more people and make more of an impact. Their perseverance and courage pays off because changes were indeed made after one of their news reports spread like wildfire online. It's inspiring to observe how they managed to conquer adversity and make a difference. Most importantly, they provide a sliver of hope for democracy, truth and justice in a society that oppresses women and suppresses freedom of the press. Naomi Wolf, who wrote about how the government shut down democracy by suppressing the press in The End of America, would be proud of them. The Dalit women clearly grasp that fighting for truth and justice through journalism is fundamentally about fighting for democracy and that it's easier to lose democracy than it is to gain it, so the fight for democracy must always continue. They're brave for risking their lives and should be commended for sharing their story which will hopefully compel others to find the inner strength and awareness to stand up against any form of oppression through the power of journalism.

      To watch the Dalit women of Khabar Lahariya come together to help each other and to be so compassionate toward others is also inspiring. They're aware that just because they're dehumanized by their society and government, it doesn't mean that they should dehumanize themselves and other people. In other words, they're great role models. The doc remains engaging from start to finish thanks to the compelling story of these women as well as the film's editing style that elevates it beyond just an average, dry documentary with talking heads. There's nothing dry at all about Writing with Fire. Even though the filmmakers focus on Khabar Lahariya, Writing with Fire is not limited in scope because also tackles larger human rights issues like truth, justice and democracy that will resonate with every compassionate human being around the world. After all, it's much easier to lose democracy than it is to gain it. Documentaries like Writing with Fire provide some much-needed fuel for the fight to keep democracy alive. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Writing with Fire is an empowering, heartfelt and captivating documentary that's essential viewing for the sake of democracy. It'd be an interesting double feature with What is Democracy?. Music Box Films opens it at Film Forum.


Licorice Pizza

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson




      Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old, flirts with Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old photographer's assistant he meets at picture day at his high school. He finds the courage to ask her to meet him at a local restaurant, and she shows up despite her initial reluctance. They hit it off and wander around the San Fernando Valley together. He runs a waterbed company and pinball arcade in town while aspiring to be an actor. She helps him out with his business ventures before volunteering for a local politician, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie).

      Set in 1973, Licorice Pizza is a laidback and breezy coming-of-age movie that's ultimately more than the sum of its parts. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson understands that a movie's plot isn't as important as the feeling that it captures within the plot. To adequately summarize Licorice Pizza's plot is just as difficult as summarizing Harold & Maude or Ghost World's plot. Both films are funny, tender and seemingly episodic while dealing with a relationship between a teenager and someone older. The age gaps between Harold and Maude as well as between Enid and Seymour are much, much wider than the age gap between Gary and Alana, but each of those films transcends their plot. Licorice Pizza isn't really about the romance between Gary and Alana just like Ghost World isn't really about the relationship between Enid and Seymour, and Harold & Maude isn't just about Harold and Maude's relationship. It's more about how Gary and Alana struggle to find purpose and direction within the chaos of their lives. They're both going through their own coming of age in a way and struggle to deal with emotional maturity as they navigate through life. Anderson eschews voice-over narration, so he trusts that the audience can find their own way of connecting the events in the film.  

      Like Harold and Maude, Gary and Alana go on adventures together and almost get into trouble. There are no "big events", though, except for one that almost veers into thriller territory when Gary gets arrested for reasons that won't be spoiled here. For the most part, Anderson channels Richard Linklater's vibe and tone in Slackers and Dazed and Confused. No one gets shot or ends up in the hospital with cancer.  There are some very funny and witty scenes, i.e. the Shabbat dinner scene with Alana, Lance (Skyler Gisondo) and Alana's family. Fortunately, the humor doesn't resort to the lowest common denominator; this isn't Superbad, after all, but it does get pretty outrageous in a trippy way when Sean Penn shows up as Jack Holden and Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a movie producer who's in a relationship with Barbara Streisand. A joke about how Gary mispronounces her last name is humorous, but it goes on a little too long. Between the comedic moments, there's just enough heartfelt moments between Gary and Alana to make their relationship feel poignant. The third act could be interpreted literally which would make it unrealistic, very Hollywood and cheesy or as a fairy tale that's only in the innocent, naive mind of Gary which would make it more realistic, less cheesy and less Hollywood. Again, Anderson leaves that up to the audience to decide because it could be argued both ways, much like Ghost World's open ending which can be taken literally or metaphorically.

      Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, gives a solid performance as Gary. Alana Haim is a revelation as Alana Kane. She exudes pure, unadulterated warmth and charisma in her role. Even the supporting cast is terrific. Harriet Sansom Harris gives a hilarious performance in a brief scene at the beginning. Tom Waits is also superb as is Christine Ebersole and Maya Rudolph. They're all clearly having fun with their roles, and that fun transfers to the audience as well. Blink and you'll miss seeing a nearly unrecognizable John C. Reilly. The costume design, set design, cinematography and use of music are all top-notch and feel authentic to the 70's time period. Watch Licorice Pizza on a 35mm or 70mm print if your movie theater offers it instead of on digital because that's the best way to experience the film. Digital might often be sharper than film, but it lacks the warmth and glow of a film print. At a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes, Licorice Pizza is a funny, sweet and tender coming-of-age film with shades of Dazed and Confused, Harold & Maude and Ghost World

     

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by MGM.
Opens in select theaters on Friday, November 26th. Expands nationwide on December 25th, 2021.

The Humans

Directed by Stephen Karam




      Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), host a Thanksgiving dinner at their new apartment in New York City's Chinatown. Their guests include Brigid's mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father, Erik (Richard Jenkins), older sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer) and grandmother, Momo (June Squibb). Dark secrets from each of them get revealed throughout the night.

       The Humans, based on the play by writer/director Stephen Karam, is the kind of film that's hard to classify in a one particular genre. On the surface, it looks like it could be a psychological horror drama in the vein of Rosemary's Baby and The Shining. Beneath the surface, it's the story of a dysfunctional family whose members are suffering in their own way. They might seem like a somewhat functional family initially, but the screenplay by writer/director Stephen Karam gradually shatters that as the night progresses. The film gets darker and deeper as Brigid and her family members reveal their intimate thoughts and feelings. Karam does a great job of fucking with the mind of the audience by playing around with their imagination. Something supernatural may or may not be occurring. Is there an evil presence lurking inside or outside of the apartment? The answer to that question remains open to interpretation. There's no clear villain, but the more you get to know Richard, the more he seems very toxic. His problem with alcoholism is just the tip of the iceberg. A sense of unease and foreboding horror can be felt from start to finish which reflects the family's escalating tensions. Fortunately, the dialogue sounds natural without any stiltedness, and the characters feel like complex human beings with inner lives, emotional pain and fragility.

    The apartment becomes like a character in itself with its deteriorating walls and strange, unexplained sounds. There are many shots throughout the film that are just as creepy as some of the scenes in Paranormal Activity, especially when the lights go out. In one particular nighttime scene, the reflection in the window of two candlelights looks like eyes. Karam uses sound design, cinematography and lighting to maximum effect when it comes to teasing the audience with horror elements. It makes The Humans an unnerving, intense experience. "Where is this all headed towards?" is a question that will be on your mind eventually, and the answer isn't necessarily what you think will be which makes the film all the more unpredictable. Much of the film lives inside the imagination of the audience, so it all depends on how you're conditioned to think what a horror film is. The third act, which won't be revealed here, is poetic because it can be seen as a metaphor that, yet again, leaves room for interpretation as for what it's a metaphor of.  Writer/director Stephen Karam wisely avoids spoon-feeding the audience or preaching to them. The Humans, much like Mass, asks a lot from the audience, but films that ask for a lot usually end up giving a lot, too, which is the case here. Regardless of how you interpret the metaphors, The Humans leaves you thinking about the meaning of the title and opens up the discussion of what all the creepy atmosphere actually means. As the title implies, the characters on-screen are your species.

       The performances by everyone in The Humans also help to make it engrossing. It's refreshing to see Amy Schumer playing against type like Melissa McCarthy did in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. She has the acting chops to handle dramatic roles. The same can be said about Beanie Feldstein. Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell are well-cast and breathe life into their roles. At times, the talky scenes can seem stagey--after all, it's based on a play--but it's never stuffy, and Karam tries to make it look and feel as cinematic as possible with the cinematography. Karam also avoids veering into maudlin, melodramatic or over-the-top territory. See The Feast if you prefer over-the-top endings rather than nuanced, poignant ones. If you like your holiday movies bold, profound, haunting and refreshingly un-Hollywood, The Humans would be right up your alley. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, it's spellbinding, provocative and haunting. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Now playin at Quad Cinema and on Showtime.

Drive My Car

Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi




      Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater actor and director, catches his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), having sex with a younger man. Soon after, she dies, and he learns that he's losing his eyesight in one eye which impairs his vision. He casts a young actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), in a play Uncle Vanya that he's directing. Takatsuki happens to be the same young man whom he caught Oto cheating with. When the theater company learns of his poor eyesight, they require Yusuke to have a chauffeur, Misaki (Toko Miura), drive him to and from work.

       The screenplay by writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe takes its time to develop its narrative and the themes about memory, emotional pain and regret. Yusuke doesn't seem like an interesting character at first, but that's only because he's not very introspective and candid initially. His chauffeur, Misaki, awakens something in him as though he were an iceberg being thawed out gradually. The more time they spend together, the more she gets to know him and the more the audience gets to know him concurrently. Eventually, you also get to know Misaki as she opens up to him as well. In a way, it's inevitable that two people in a car would eventually connect, so that part of the film isn't surprising. What's surprising is how deeply human the relationship between the two of them feels without them actually having a romance with one another. She becomes like a therapist, a friend and a mother to him all at once despite the fact that she's younger than him. She seems more emotionally mature than him, ironically, but, without revealing any spoilers, she has her own traumatic events from her past to deal with. It's fascinating and engrossing to observe the evolving dynamics between them, and what happens when Tusuke confronts Takatsuku, his deceased wife's lover. Hamaguchi avoids contrivance or any big Hollywood moments of drama. There are no car chases or gun fights; just human beings interacting.

      Just like with Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Hamaguchi proves that he grasps human nature and has a natural ear for the way that people talk. There's no stilted dialogue or overexplaining. Even the exposition feels organic. There are also a few brief moments of comic relief, but for the most part, he's unafraid to delve into the darker side of humanity and to explore tough human emotions. In a way, there's even another character who's there for the ride, but not on-screen: the audience. Hamaguchi makes you feel as though you're a voyeur observing two human being bonding and, eventually, sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with each other. As Yusuku and Misaki gradually pull the curtain displaying their humanity and unmasking their true selves with emotional nakedness and introspection, the audience is compelled to do the same and to project. Drive My Car is essentially an emotionally mature film that rewards emotionally mature, introspective audience members.

       Drive My Car will also reward patient audiences. Hamaguchi clearly trusts the audience's patience as he moves the film at a slow, leisurely pace with moments of quiet every now and then. Some of the driving scenes, and there's plenty of them, can be seen as a travelogue of sorts, so even if you might think you'll be bored by them, you'll have scenery to take in and enjoy. The running time of 2 hour and 59 minutes sounds excessive, but once you're used to the film's refreshingly unhurried pace and immerse yourself in the lives of its characters, you won't feel the weight of the running time that much. The performances are all natural without over-acting or under-acting which adds to the film's sense of realism and emotional depth that's also present in the screenplay. Drive My Car is a meditative, profound and engrossing journey. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Janus Films.
Now playing at Film Forum.

C'mon, C'mon

Directed by Mike Mills




      Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a radio journalist in Los Angeles. He agrees to travel all the way to New York City to take care of his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), while his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), has to spend time with her ailing husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy).

      To describe the plot of C'mon, C'mon wouldn't be fair not just because it has a thin plot, but because it's not really about its plot. The screenplay by writer/director Mike Mills is more about the relationship between Johnny and his nephew, Jessie, and how they affect each other throughout their adventures in New York. Even labeling it as a comedy or drama wouldn't do it any justice. It's fundamentally a slice-of-life with shades of A Thousand Clowns. Mills resorts to some cliches, like the fact that Jesse is a precocious child, but there's some truth to cliches and it's a cliche to complain about cliches anyway. Of course, there's a scene where Johnny briefly thinks that he lost Jesse for good in the city and wanders around looking for him. Of course, it's no surprise that he finds him and that the experience changes Johnny. C'mon, C'mon isn't really about big plot surprises, even though it does have a small surprise toward the end. Mills wisely grounds the film in the bond between Johnny and Jesse. It's equally fascinating and moving to watch how their relationship evolves. It feels natural which makes it all the more engrossing on an emotional and human level.

      Fortunately, Mills avoids schmaltz and melodrama, and the profound moments that include some aphorisms don't feel preachy. He mixes some documentary footage of kids talking to the camera that Johnny points at which blurs the line between reality and fiction. Mills should be commended for trusting the audience's patience. To be fair, C'mon, C'mon takes a little time for its narrative momentum to get going, but once it sets up its exposition and Johnny starts spending time with Jesse, it takes off without taking a nosedive at any point like some films do. Unlike Kenneth Branagh who directed Belfast, Mills grasps the importance of understatement, subtlety, and that less is more. He doesn't hook the audience right away, but gradually, while letting the film grow on the audience, so he doesn't try too hard to please the audience like Branagh does in Belfast.

      C'mon, C'mon uses black-and-white cinematography like Belfast without relying on style overshadowing other essential elements like emotions. In other words, it offers both style and substance, and its style sometimes becomes part of its substance. New York City becomes like a character in itself, much like in A Thousand Clowns. There are a number of breaktaking shots of the city that make it look poetic, i.e. the scenes in Central Park. Mills is also unafraid to dig deeper and delve into the darker themes which rise to the surface later on. Jesse goes through an emotional and psychological journey, but so does Johnny. In a way, Johnny behaves like a child because he has a lot of growing up to do. By the end of the film, he's changed somewhat or at least there's some hope for him to change since he does show signs of emotional maturity. That makes both him and Jesse interesting characters and all the more human. Joaquin Phoenix gives a raw, emotionally resonating and nuanced performance. It's refreshing to see him in a role that doesn't require him to go over-the-top in any way. He also does a great job of showing Johnny's emotional pain beneath the surface. Woody Norman gives a breakthrough performance. He's charismatic, radiant and has great chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, C'mon, C'mon is a heartfelt, wise and profound emotional journey. It's just the right antidote to the cloying and pandering Belfast.

     

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Now playing in select theaters.

Hive

Directed by Blerta Basholli




      Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) works as a beekeeper while raising her two children, Zana (Kaona Sylejmani) and Edon (Mal Noah Safqiu), and taking care of her father-in-law, Haxhi (Çun Lajçi), in the village of Krusha. She awaits the news of the whereabouts of her husband who went missing during the Kosovo War in 1999. After donations from a women's organization wane, she struggles to make ends meet, so she gets a driver's license, a car and starts a business making and selling ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread, in jars.

      Writer/director Blerta Basholli has woven an engrossing story about a woman who dares to become independent and rise above adversity. It's rooted in tragedy, specifically the horrors of the Kosovo War, but Basholli doesn't dwell on it nor does she use flashbacks. The war serves as an integral backstory, though, and it's clear from the very beginning that it haunts Fahrije on an emotional and psychological level. She's a brave and strong character who remains unafraid to go against the grain and to take risks. It's refreshing to see such a complex and inspirational human being on screen. Basholli wisely avoids schmaltz and contrivance while grounding the film in realism. Every scene rings true, and there are just enough understated and nuanced moments. Fahrije isn't perfect--even her business isn't perfect either, initially, because her jars don't even have a label on them, so they don't sell well. She also goes through some setbacks when someone breaks many of her ajvar jars, but what she does after noticing the damage, which won't be spoiled here, speaks volumes about the kind of person that she is and sends a positive message to anyone who's ever had to deal with setbacks in life. The messages in Hive are profound and meaningful, and they're presented in a way that's never preachy nor heavihanded thanks to the sensitive screenplay that has shades of Ken Loach's social realism.  

      Ylkka Gashi gives a wonderful, nuanced performance as Fahrije. With her warmth and charisma, tackles the complex role effectively by displaying Fahrije's innate strength and fragility at the same time. Through her performance, you can grasp that Fahrije feels sad and angry--which she has every right to be--while she's concurrently hopeful, courageous and optimistic. Basholli also does a great job of incorporating metaphors into the film, i.e. the beekeeping and the ajvar. Both of those involve processes that result in something useful and flavorful---or in the case of the bees coming together to make honey, the end result is something sweet. That provides that film with visual poetry and some food for thought, no pun intended. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, Hive is genuinely poignant, tender and inspirational. 



Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Now playing at Film Forum.

Spencer

Directed by Pablo Larraín




      Prince Diana (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly spends three days at the Queen's Sandringham Estate with her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) to celebrate Christmas. She struggles loneliness while processing the fact that her husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), cheats on her with his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith). Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), a Scottish army veteran working for the royals, keeps an eye on her, but her only confidante is her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins).

      Spencer doesn't take the conventional biopic approach by any means. Screenwriter Steven Knight merely focuses on a few days in the life of Princess Diana at Sandringham Estate while she's haunted by her past and deals with the consequences of her marital problems. It's an immersive, emotional journey into the unstable mind of a fragile human being who feels trapped and desperately wants to escape from her suffocating environment. In a sense, Spencer is a prison break movie, but not in the traditional sense because Princess Diana is an emotional prison. She comes across as like a teenager and behaves immaturely. From the very few minutes, you learn a lot about her: she has no shame in showing up late to Sandringham Estate and gets lost while driving on the way there. She's a mess, but one that's captivating to watch because she's so flawed, complex and unpredictable which makes her all the more compelling as well as human. Knight doesn't shy away from providing many glimpses of Princess Diana behind the curtain, so-to-speak. There's a voyeuristic aspect to the film as though because you're essentially watching her during her private moments, even when she's vomiting into the toilet or harming herself with garden clippers. Very little happens plot-wise, but like a lot of great films, Spencer isn't really about its plot. A lot goes on both on the surface and beneath the surface because Spencer is ultimately a dark psychological character study.

      Kristen Stewart gives a raw, transcendent performance as Princess Diana. She transforms into that character so much that you forget you're watching Kristen Stewart. It's not an imitation of Diana; she becomes her. Kristen Stewart gives the best performance of her career and deserves an Oscar for tackling the dark side of Princess Diana's humanity with such utter conviction. Diana is suffering from a lot of emotional pain, and Stewart captures that emotional pain unflinchingly. Interestingly, director Pablo Larraín films the movie like a horror film. Even the music score has the nervous tension that you'd expect from a horror film, much like in Shiva Baby. The cinematography, though, is breathtakingly exquisite with so many poetic shots. The costume design also looks wonderful as does the set design and lighting, so Spencer certainly has plenty of style to offer. It's just as visually stylish as The Favorite and I Am Love. No matter how hard you try, you can't look away from the screen because it looks so beautifully shot, like a painting with a lot for the spectator to observe and contemplate all of the poetry. Larraín also makes great use of the song "All I Need is a Miracle" by Mike & the Mechanics in a cathartic scene that's among the film's many memorable ones. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, Spencer is a triumph. It's a spellbinding psychological journey into the heart, mind and soul of a troubled human being who yearns to break free. Spencer would make an interesting double feature with Swallow, Safe and Shirley Valentine, because they're also portraits of women who go through psychological journeys while trying to escape from an emotional prison.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by NEON.
Opens nationwide.

Eternals

Directed by Chloé Zhao




      Thousands of years ago, a Celestial tasked the Eternals, an immortal race, with protecting the human race from predators  known as Deviants. The Deviants show up on Earth and pose a threat to the humans. The Eternals, an immortal race, come together to battle the Deviants. Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Eternals' leader, joins forces with the other Eternals, Sersi (Gemma Chan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sullen Druig (Barry Keoghan), Sprite (Lia McHugh),  Ikaris (Richard Madden), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), on a mission to save the human race.  

      Writer/director Chloé Zhao along with co-writers, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo and Patrick Burleigh treat the characters like human beings and develop their relationships, personalities and feelings. They provide the characters with enough space to express their emotions and to build a rapport with others. Without revealing any spoilers, some of the characters even get a chance to cry which is something that's rarely seen in a superhero movie these days. A film, after all, is not just about its plot, but the emotions contained within it which are intangible. There's just enough action, but not so much that it overwhelms and exhausts the audience like in The Suicide Squad.

      One of the best scenes in the film is a simple one without action when the Eternals gather to eat with Gilgamesh. The dialogue during that scene as well as the tone as well as the humanity truly shines through there. The way the screenwriters incorporate exposition and introducing is also commendable, although there are a few scenes early on that feel contrived because they're merely there for exposition. Fortunately, there's just enough exposition so that the audience doesn't become confused about who's who. With so many characters, it would've been easy to confuse the audience with a less expositional screenplay. Also, the use of comic relief works very well with some witty and humorous lines, so Eternals, unlike the very dull Black Widow and Dune, knows when not to take itself too seriously. Everything that Black Widow and Dune lacks, Eternals has, for the most part. The action scenes are thrilling while the story remains suspenseful without veering into tedium. Some scenes feel uneven, but that's not enough to sink the film or to take away from its dramatic momentum. The biggest surprise, though, is that >Eternals remain grounded in humanism that it's unafraid to display. By treating the characters as human beings, Zhao treats the audience as human beings, too, which is a major feat.

       When it comes to the visual effects, Eternals has stunning CGI and, most importantly, action scenes that don't resort to shaky cam or choppy editing like in the nauseatingly shot Snake Eyes; G.I. Joe Origins. Much of the breathtaking cinematography helps to make the film look and feel epic in scope while keeping audiences exhilarated. The performances are pretty solid and the actors and actresses are well-cast, especially Lia McHugh who's as memorable here as Millicent Simmonds is in A Quiet Place: Part II. Kumail Nanjiani is also terrific and has great comedic timing. The pace moves quickly enough, although, admittedly, the lengthy running time does begin to weigh down on the film a little around the 2-hour mark, but not as much as in Dune because Eternals succeeds in engaging the audience on an emotional level instead of just entertaining their eyes and ears. Eternals recognizes that the audience has a heart and soul, although it's not very thought-provoking so it doesn't engage the mind that much. For a sci-fi action thriller that does cater to the audience's heart, mind and soul concurrently, see the recent anime film The Laws of the Universe: The Age of Elohim which actually has wise life messages to be  inspired by. At a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, Eternals is one of the most humanist MCU movies ever made. It's an exhilarating, suspenseful and visually dazzling spectacle with a surprisingly warm, beating heart. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios.
Opens nationwide November 5th, 2021.

The Souvenir: Part II

Directed by Joanna Hogg




      Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student, is still grieving from the suicide of her boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke). She decides to write and direct a graduate film about her relationship with him. Her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), agrees to cut her a check to finance her film. The production doesn't go as smoothly as Julie expected while she seeks advice from her friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), and sees a therapist (Gail Ferguson) to deal with her grief.

      The Souvenir: Part II is a vast improvement on The Souvenir: Part I. The screenplay by writer/director Joanna Hogg has more wit, humor and warmth while becoming more and more thought-provoking. Julie's student film mirrors her life, so when the actors question the relationship between the couple, they're essentially questioning Julie's relationship and compelling her to ask those very same questions to herself about their relationship. Hogg does a great job of providing a window into the heart, mind and soul of Julie. You don't have to be a filmmaker to understand Julie's struggles with grief or what it feels like for her to ask her wealthy, cold mother for money to fund her film. The Souvenir: Part II becomes most interesting as the lines between reality and fiction start blurring, much like in the recent film Bergman's Island which is also a cerebral film about filmmaking, relationships and the parallels between life and art. Some of the humor, though, will be funnier and most appreciated to those who have experience in filmmaking because there are some inside jokes about filmmaking. Fortunately, Hogg keeps the film feeling profoundly human and moving. Julie goes through an emotional journey which the audience gets to observe intimately like voyeurs peeking behind a curtain. Joanna Hogg clearly grasps not only filmmaking and what filmmakers go through, but, most importantly, human nature.

      Julie's emotional journey wouldn't feel so true-to-life if it weren't for Honor Swinton Byrne's radiant and moving performance. She's charismatic and captivating to watch from start to finish. She should be commended for showing emotional vulnerability in front of the camera which means that she's both brave and emotionally generous. Just like in The Souvenir: Part I, the production design looks exquisite and stylish. The pacing moves unhurriedly and the editing feels smooth. There's also a wonderful soundtrack and terrific cinematography. Hogg makes use of different film grains too which adds more richness. The visual style becomes part of the film's substance which is not an easy feat to achieve. At a running of 1 hour and 46 minutes, The Souvenir: Part II is wise, heartfelt, witty and profoundly human. It would pair well in a double feature with Bergman's Island.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens October 29th, 2021 at Angelika Film Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Last Night in Soho

Directed by Edgar Wright




      Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer living with her grandmother, Peggy (Rita Tushingham), packs up her bags and moves from Cornwall to the West End of London where she attends a fashion school. Unhappy with her roommate at the school's dormitory, she finds an apartment to rent from an old landlady, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), who explicitly tells her never to bring any men over. She walks into a local pub where Ms. Tobin (Elizabeth Berrington) hires her as a bartender. That's where she meets a mysterious older man (Terrance Stamp). After she falls asleep in her bed, she magically wakes up in 1960's London where an aspiring singer, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) sings at a nightclub and murder takes place which might involve a charming man, Jack (Matt Smith).

      The less you know about Last Night in Soho's plot, the better because it has suprises up its sleeve. Writer/director Edgar Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns don't delve into the narrative's sci-fi elements until roughly 15 or 20 minutes into the film as it takes its time to introduce the characters before it switches genres. There's no explanation of how the time travel actually works--there's no Delorean with a flux capacitor, just a bed, but it's more interesting to ponder why she transported back there and whether or not someone from the present might be the murderer from the past. That mystery is a large part of what makes the film so gripping to watch. Last Night in Soho gets very trippy at times and even veers into David Lynch territory, although it's not nearly as much of a mindfuck nor as ballsy or confusing as Mulholland Drive. It's much better than the recent Reminiscence which it shares a lot in common with in terms of its time-traveling concept, and it's a masterpiece compared to The Turning which also has a protagonist with a mentally ill mother who may or may not be mentally ill herself. Is what Eloise is going through all in her head or not? There are also shades of Black Swan and Suspiria which are also psychological horror films. Unfortunately, Last Night in Soho takes a small nosedive in the third act that suffers from clunky dialogue with over-explaining and contrived situations with too many coincidences. It's as though Wright were afraid to confuse the audience a little or to trust their critical thinking skills. Very little is left to the audience's interpretation.

      When it comes to the production values, Last Night in Soho excels with a stylish use of color, lighting, cinematography and, most memorably, the soundtrack. Its style becomes part of its substance more often than not, although it does use some songs that comment a little too literally about the narrative, i.e. the song when Eloise enters the 60's the second time. The well-chosen, talented cast help to elevate the film and breathe life into it. Anya Taylor-Joy does a great job of giving a somewhat campy performance. She's as delightful to watch here as she was in Emma.. Thomasin McKenzie is superb, just as expected, and handles the emotional and mental aspects of her role convincingly. Terrance Stamp, Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham make the most out of their supporting roles. At a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes, Last Night in Soho is a wildly entertaining, stylish and gripping ride. It's destined to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Features.
Opens nationwide Oct 29th, 2021.

Bergman Island

Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve




     

Chris (Vicky Krieps) and her husband Tony (Tim Roth) spend their summer on Fårö, an Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman had once lived and worked. Both Chris and Tony work as filmmakers who hope to find the inspiration that Bergman found on the island. As they work on their own film projects, their deteriorating marriage gets put to the test.

      To describe Bergman Island's plot wouldn't do it justice because it's much more than about it's plot. Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve provocatively explores the themes of marriage and art as well as the thin line between reality and fiction. Chris writes a film about a young woman, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who travels to Fårö where she reunites with her long lost former love interest, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie). That film-within-the-film is fictional, yet the characters show up within Bergman Island. The screenplay feels natural and it's refreshing to just watch Chris and Tony doing something seemingly simple like walking and conversing with one another. The more they talk, the more you learn about the quality of their marriage as well as their different personalities. They become increasingly human and complex which makes them all the more interesting as characters. Much like an Eric Rohmer film, the dialogue is filled with perceptive insights which are quite thought-provoking. Hansen-Løve also makes great use of quiet moments which speak louder than words. Once the reality and fiction elements merge, the film becomes more intriguing without going over-the-top. Nuance and understandment are among the film's many strengths. Hansen-Løve should also be commended for trusting the audience's patience, intelligence and emotions. Patient audience members will be rewarded the most. If you're a fan of Eric Rohmer's cerebral and honest films about relationships, you'll easily find Bergman Island to be captivating and engrossing.

      One of characters in Bergman Island isn't human at all, yet it's among the important characters in the film because it becomes a form of poetry: the island of Fårö. An island represents isolation which could be what it represents as a metaphor. The surrounding sea also becomes a character which could represent freedom much like the sea in The 400 Blows. Another film combines the themes of filmmaking and relationships on an island: Jean-Luc Godard Contempt. Both films are very different in terms of plot and filmmaking style, but they both make great use of the setting to create atmosphere. It's also worth mentioning the leisurely pace that's refreshing and allows audiences to fully absorb each scene; there's no choppy editing or shaky cam to be found here, fortunately. Vicky Krieps is very well cast as Chris; she's a naturally talented actress who's just as mesmerizing here as she is in Phantom Thread. She also resonates warmth and charisma in her role. Chris and Tony seem like a married couple albeit an imperfect one. The way that their relationship evolves through the film is fascinating, moving and, much like the film itself, true-to-life. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Bergman Island is provocative, honest and genuinely poignant with poetic imagery and shades of Eric Rohmer's cerebral films.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Films.
Now playing at IFC Center.

Freeland

Directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean




      Devi (Krisha Fairchild) has been making a living, albeit illegally, as a marijuana farmer for years in rural Northern California. When marijuana becomes legalized, the future of her business remains in jeopardy as she faces financial and legal hardships. It also affects her relationship with her clients, her workers and her former lover, Ray (John Craven). Meanwhile, a mysterious person she may or may not know texts her out of the blue expressing interest in purchasing some of her weed.

      Freeland could've taken the legal thriller route because the first ten minutes or so show Devi as she faces the legal issues when marijuana becomes legalized. She even consults with a lawyer. Instead, the screenplay by co-writers/directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean takes a more character-driven route as Devi struggles financially and emotionally. To watch her life spiraling downward is heartbreaking, but she remains a compelling character because she's innately fragile and brave at the same time. Those two characteristics are not mutually exclusive even though they may seem that way. Her workers are like her family, so for her to lose them one by one is the equivalent of her losing part of her family. She comes across as a compassionate person in spite of the actions that she takes which won't be spoiled here. She has every right to be indignant, though, for the way that others treat her, not just the government, but also someone one tries to mess her with via text. A scene that speaks volumes about her compassion is when one of her workers comes onto her one night while he's drunk and instead of yelling at him, she asks him if he's alright. It's interesting how the filmmakers incorporate exposition, particularly when it comes to Devi's hippie past. They don't reveal it right away, but when they do, it's at the right time and shown through brief flashbacks. Admittedly, the third act does take a slight nosedive as it switches to a different genre and goes into much darker territory while also veering inro contrivance, but at least it doesn't crash or take a steep nosedive, so that's merely a minor flaw.

      Krisha Fairchild gives a tour de force performance as Devi. She's the movie's heart, mind and soul. The film's emotional depth comes more from her than from the screenplay, so the filmmakers are fortunate to have her as the lead. It's also quite rare and refreshing to see an older character, especially a woman, written as a human being rather than as someone who's just "old" or as a supporting character or comic relief. The screenplay remains focused, for the most part, on Devi and constructs enough of a window into her heart, mind and soul for the audience to peer into it, particularly during the moments of silence as you merely observe Devi. There's no voice-over narration, so the filmmakers trust the audience's imagination and emotions to decide for themselves what Devi might be thinking during those moments. Also, Freeland doesn't ask the audience to just Devi. They're free to do that if they want, but it's easy to just experience her instead. It's also worth mentioning how nature becomes a character in and of itself more often than not throughout the film. Some of the breathtaking shots not only add atmosphere, but also poetry. At a running time of merely 1 hour and 20 minutes, Freeland is engrossing, lyrical and poignant with a radiant, bravura performance by Krisha Fairchild.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Dark Sky Films.
Now play at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Luzzu

Directed by Alex Camilleri




      Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) struggles to make ends meet while working as a fisherman on the island of Malta. He has a wife, Denise (Michela Farrugia), to take care of as well as their newborn baby son, Aiden, who's showing signs of developmental problems. His fishing boat, known as a luzzu, needs to be repaired because it sprung a leak. When he discovers the black market of the fishing industry, he must choose whether or not to become a part of it to solve his financial problems.

      As Hitchcock once wisely observed, some movies are a slice-of-cake; others are a slice-of-life. Luzzu is much closer to being a slice-of-life. Writer/director Alex Camilleri introduces the character of Jesmark as he goes about his daily life as a fisherman. The exposition is there, but only minimally. This isn't the kind of film with lots of action and everything gets spoon-fed to the audience. There's also little to no comic relief nor does the third act wrap everything up neatly. In other words, Luzzu remains refreshingly unHollywood. It's a simple story that becomes increasingly complex. Within the first 30 minutes, the audience learns about Jesmark's various problems which include money issues, marital issues and health issues regarding his newborn son. He's experiencing many tragedies concurrently, so it makes sense that he's under a lot of pressure and stress. Fortunately, Camilleri doesn't turn the film into "poverty porn" by hitting the audience over the head with Jesmark and his family's pain and suffering. Sure, the pain and suffering is there, but that's not what Luzzu is really about. It's ultimately about a broken human being who's doing his best to get out of poverty and to help his family. Even when Jesmark seems to be in despair, there's still a little hope on the horizon.

      Jesmark Scicluna, a fisherman himself in real life, gives a natural, understated performance as Jesmark. His performance feels authentic from start to finish which makes the film all the more emotionally engaging. As mentioned before, there's a lack of comic relief and levity, but what comes closest to serving as levity is the beautiful, majestic scenery of the Mediterranean Sea which provides some eye-candy. The use of metaphors is also worth mentioning. For instance, Jesmark's luzzu has become an extension of Jesmark himself. When it breaks, he breaks too. When it needs to be repaired because of a leak, he needs to be repaired too because he's broken too. Writer/director Alex Camilleri wisely grasps that it's much harder to repair a human being than it is to repair an object. Bravo to him for treating Jesmark like a human being and for finding an actor who accomplishes the same task. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Luzzu is an emotionally engrossing, well-acted and refreshingly un-Hollywood slice-of-life

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Now playing at Quad Cinema.

Golden Voices

Directed by Evgeny Ruman




      After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Victor (Vladimir Friedman) and Raya Frankel (Mariya Belkina), a married Soviet Jew couple, leave their home in the USSR in hopes of starting a new life in Israel. Raya finds a job as a phone sex operator while Victor tries to find a job himself. She lies to him about her true line of work which puts their marriage to the test as they struggle to make ends meet far away from their homeland.

The screenplay by writer/director Evgeny Ruman and co-writer Ziv Berkovich brims with warmth, wit and tenderness as it explores the relationship between a married couple. Victor and Raya are both elderly, but they're written as fully-fleshed human beings, not as "old." They have dreams, yearnings, frustrations and regrets just like every human being, young or old, does. There are no viagra jokes nor are there any villains. Ruman and Berkovich deftly blend the humor with the sad, dark elements that gradually rise to the surface without becoming too dark or emotionally devastating. Similarly, the humor doesn't go too far or result in clunkiness. Yes, the phone sex work that Raya has is funny, but the screenwrites don't let that humor overstay its welcome. The root of comedy, after all, is tragedy which the filmmakers grasp. They wisely avoid schmaltz and melodrama, especially during the later part of the second act as tensions between Victor and Raya arise. It's also worth mentioning how they incorporate exposition in a natural way. For example, they reveal later on the fact that Victor and Raya don't have children together.

      Evgeny Ruman and Ziv Berkovich also deserve to be commended for trusting the audience's emotions, intelligence and imagination. Their use of metaphors that leave room for interpretation, i.e. the ocean which could represent freedom. There's no first act showing Victor and Raya's life in the USSR nor is there a third act scene that ties everything up neatly with a bowtie; the last line of the film ends everything on just the right note while letting the audience use their imagination to fill the rest in. Admittedly, there are some contrivances like when a movie theater owner just so happens to recognize Victor from his past dubbing job at just the right time and then just so happens to offer him a job, but that's a forgivable flaw. There's a wonderful subplot involving a man who Raya interacts with and messes with his emotions in a way that could've made her unlikable, but the way that she shows compassion toward him and, eventually, remorse is quite brave, mature and admirable of her. It's refreshing to see such an interesting, complex role for a female character on screen. Golden Voices is also the rare film that's made for adults and that treats the audience not only as mature adults, but also as human beings.

      Mariya Belkina gives a radiant and genuinely moving performance as Raya much like Pauline Collins does in Shirley Valentine, Barbara Sarafian in Moscow, Belgium and Paulina Garcia in Gloria. She provides much of the film's heart and soul, and her chemistry with Vladimir Friedman as Victor feels palpable. They actually seem like a married couple not only because of the organic screenplay, but also because of the raw, natural performances from both Belkina and Friedman. It takes emotional maturity and generosity to handle such emotionally complex roles, so bravo to both of them for having those essential traits that breathe life into their roles. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, Golden Voices is a triumph. It's warm, wise and wonderful with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Music Box Films.
Now playing at the Quad Cinema.

Nine Days

Directed by Edson Oda




      Will (Winston Duke) interviews human souls in an isolated house in the middle of a desert to decide which of them will be born on Earth. The unborn souls include Mike (David Rysdahl), Emma (Zazie Beetz), Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Anne (Perry Smith) and Maria (Arianna Ortiz). His assistant, Kyo (Benedict Wong), brings the souls to him. They each have nine days to complete the test that will determine their fate.

      The screenplay by writer/director Edson Oda takes a very provocative concept and turns it into a poignant, haunting profoundly human story. Oda takes his time to present the audience with exposition to explain the film's sci-fi premise without bombarding them with information. The first images are just the videos that Will watches on TV screens. Who are they people that he's watching? Why is he watching them? Who is Will? Those questions get answered eventually, but it takes some patience. Oda knows how to introduce characters without spoon-feeding the audience. He eschews voice-over narration which would've dumbed down the film, so he trusts the audience's intelligence and, most importantly, their emotions. This isn't the kind of sci-fi movie that has a twisty, convoluted plot with special effects. It's far more grounded in humanism than some dramas that aren't science fiction. Each of the characters feel like human beings and they're each worth rooting for despite their flaws. Will asks them a challenging question which won't be spoiled here, but the answers that each of them are different and reveals a lot about each of the characters. Will himself has a very interesting backstory that's gradually revealed until the very powerful, cathartic ending. The dynamics of the relationship with Emma in particular makes the film increasingly compelling. There's a well-written scene that provides some comic relief when Will gathers with Kyo and some of the human souls for a dinner outside as they discuss some stories from their past. Oda also does a great job of showing the passage of time without any text that state "2nd day" or "4 days left"; he incorporates that into the dialogue instead, so it's important for the audience to pay attention because every details matters in Nine Days.

      Winstone Duke gives a breakthrough performance that's mesmerizing on many levels. Will has an inner life, and it's remarkable how Duke manages to display that even without words. His monologue, though, at the very end is one that will be remembered and rewatched because of how much emotion Duke put into it. It's just as moving as the cathartic ending of Departures. The final words that he says after a long pause after the monologue are simple, yet very profound. There are quiet moments throughout the film which are just as powerful if not more than the scenes with dialogue. Oda clearly grasps the power of images. For example, there's a slow-paced scene when Will walks outside at night and another when one of the human souls walks in the desert toward Will's office. Oda takes the mundane and makes it profound which is no easy feat. The music composed by Antonio Pinto should also be commended because it compliments the mood very effectively without being obtrusive. His filmmaking style is reminiscent of Ozu and Kore-eda, especially Kore-eda's After Life which would make for a great double feature with Nine Days. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, Nine Days is one of the best films of the year. Winston Duke deserves an Oscar.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing in select theaters.

The Green Knight

Directed by David Lowery




      Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), attends a Christmas banquet with the King and Queen. The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) shows up to the banquet and offers a challenge to any of King Arthur's knights: if one of them injures him in a fight, he will injure the knight in the same way one year later. Gawain accepts the challenge and behinds the Green Knight, so, a year later, he has to travel a long distance to the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight.

      Based on the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," The Green Knight is a refreshingly unconventional approach to telling a medieval fantasy tale. The screenplay by writer/director David Lowery sets up the basic plot within the first ten minutes before Gawain embarks on his journey. This isn't the kind of movie that has a heavy or complicated plot or lots of exposition. It's more of a slow-burning mood piece that focuses on Gawain's spiritual journey as he gradually learns to accept his fate that awaits him when he faces the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. He has a girlfriend, Essel (Alicia Vikander), whom he loves deeply. Throughout his journey, he crosses paths with a Lord (Joel Edgerton), a scavenger (Barry Keoghan), some giants and a little fox who tags along with him. The fox provides much-needed comic relief every now and then which helps to lighten the tone a little. If you're looking for palpable thrills and suspense, you'll be disappointed because there's very little action. The suspense is there, but it's muted and understated. The Green Knight can best be described as a bold, experimental character study of Gawain that's just as imaginative and exhilarating as Pan's Labyrinth. Kudos to Lowery for trusting the audience's patience, imagination and intelligence. He's a filmmaker who treats the audience like human beings without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

      Dev Patel gives the best performance of his career as Gawain. It's truly a transformative performance. He's charismatic, but most importantly, he successfully tackles the emotional complexities of his role as Gawain. There's nothing cartoonish or one-dimensional about Gawain; he's a fully-fleshed human being with a heart, mind and soul. On an aesthetic level, The Green Knight is a triumph. Every shot feels poetic with the set design, landscape, lighting, camera angles and colors. The camera becomes a character in and of itself and reflects the film's atmosphere effectively. The soundtrack is also worth mentioning and adds yet another layer of depth in a way that doesn't come across as heavy-handed. There's some CGI which looks impressive, but it's not excessive or distracting. It wouldn't be surprising if The Green Knight were to be studied in film school or if it will become a cult classic like Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice or Stalker. At a time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, The Green Knight is a breathtaking, cerebral and exhilarating experience brimming with visual poetry. Like all truly great films, it transcends words. Please be sure to stand through the end credits for a brief stinger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Now on VOD.

Eyimofe (This is My Desire)

Directed by Arie and Chuko Esiri




      Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), a factory technician, hopes to move to Spain, but he first has to deal with financial strains after the death of some of his family members. Meanwhile,  Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams) works two jobs as a hairdresser and bartender to save enough money to move to Italy, but faces financial hardship when her sister ends up in the hospital with a medical issue. Both stories take place in Lagos, Nigeria.    

      Like Hitchcock once observed, some movies are a slice of cake while others are a slice of life. Eyimofe (This is My Desire) is very much the latter. The screenplay by writer/co-director Chuko Esiri trusts the audience's patience because the event unfolds in an unhurried pace while allowing you to get to know Mofe and Rosa gradually. Even though the plot centers around two different stories in Lagos, they're not really that different. The "events" don't involve violence or anything overly dramatic that add edge-of-your-seat suspense. It's about people who desperately struggle to make ends meet and must deal with obstacles along the way which makes them all the more relatable. Their life isn't easy, and they're struggles are shown unflinchingly. Esiri also avoids melodrama, schmaltz, unnecessary exposition and voice-over narration, so he trusts the audience's emotions as well. Every scene rings true without any contrivance, even during a subplot involving Rosa's relationship with an American tourist, Peter, (Jacob Alexander) whom she begs for financial assistance after sleeping with him. Esiri essentially takes the mundane and turns it into something profound and moving. It's also worth mentioning that the screenplay doesn't jump back and forth between Rosa and Mofe's story which would've made the film too choppy and convoluted; it merely them in separate chapters, Spain and Italy. Both stories are equally captivating glimpses into the lives of everyday people in Lagos.  

      Both Jude Akuwudike and Temi Ami-Williams give natural performances which add to the film's realism. At times, you'll feel like you're watching a documentary. The cinematography isn't too showy or stylish nor does it resort to shaky-cam. It all feels organic, understated and, most importantly, true-to-life. Moreover, it deals with socio-economic issues that's reminiscent of Ken Loach's films, like Ladybird, Ladybird or the recent Sorry We Missed You. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, Eyimofe (This is My Desire) is an engrossing and unflinchingly honest slice-of-life that's just as powerful as a Ken Loach film. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Janus Films.
Now playing at Film Forum.

Undine

Directed by Christian Petzold




      When Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) announces to his girlfriend, Undine (Paula Beer), that he's going to leave her, she tells him that if he does, she'll kill him. Right after he breaks up with her, she meets another man, Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a professional diver, and falls in love with him.

      Based on the novella "Undine" by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, the screenplay by writer/director Christian Petzold starts right at the end of the relationship between Undine and Johannes without flashing back to their romantic past. Petzold doesn't just omit those scenes which would've padded the first act, but also omits the exposition of the myth of Undine. By starting with the second act, he trusts the audience's intelligence as well as their imagination. Even if you're not familiar with the myth of Undine, Undine still works as intriguing blend of realism and fantasy while blurring the line between both every now and then. Its blend of psychological drama, romance, character study, suspense and fantasty could've been a convoluted, uneven mess if it didn't have such a well-written screenplay that infuses those elements effectively. Fundamentally, though, it's a love story albeit not a conventional one. What transpires after Christoph and Undine meet and fall in love won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that Petzold keeps the audience captivated by every turn of event. Undine remains, from start to finish, a fascinating character because of her mystique. She's alluring and confident, yet fragile and sensitive. She yearns to be loved and exhibits signs of emotional neediness and vulnerability which makes her all the more human and compelling because she's flawed. Petzold wisely avoids voice-over narration, flashbacks and schmaltz.

      Paula Beer gives a terrific perfmances as the titular character while capturing the nuances of her role very naturally. Most importantly, she finds the emotional truth of Undine and provides her with an inner life along with a heart, mind and soul, even during the moments when Undine isn't particularly likable. Her chemistry with Rogowski feels real and palpable, so when they profess their love for one another, it feels raw, tender and heartfelt. Fortunately, the pace doesn't move too quickly, so their relationship doesn't feel rushed. That's ultimately a testament to Petzold's skills as a director who trusts the audience's intelligence and treats them like adults. On an aesthetic level, he should also be commended for using color and lighting to add more depth and well as poetry to the film while infusing it with symbolism. The aquarium that shatters onto Christoph and Undine can be seen as a metaphor and, concurrently, as a catalyst. Poetry, after all, is a form a protest, so then what might the film be a protest for or against? That's left up to the audience's imagination and intelligence, but at least it provides some food for thought about humanity once the credits start rolling. At a running time of 91 minutes, Undine is one of the most mesmerizing, poetic and heartfelt love stories since The Shape of Water.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Films.
Opens June 4th, 2021 at IFC Film Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Drunk Bus

Directed by John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke




      Michael (Charlie Tahan) works as a night bus driver for the college he recently graduated from in the small town of Kent, Ohio. He lives with a roommate (Zach Cherry), still has feelings for his ex-girlfriend, Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte), and has to deal with drunk and disorderly bus passengers. Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), a security guard, gets assigned to protect Michael after one of the passengers beats him up. He gradually befriends Pineapple along with Kat (Kara Hayward) and her friend, Justin (Tonatiuh).

      Drunk Bus is The screenplay by Chris Molinaro does have some low brow humor that veers toward Judd Apatow and Farrelly Brothers territory, but, for the most part, it has witty dialogue that's quite funny and perceptive, especially when it comes to Pinneaple's quips. Even though the plot can be easily predicted once Michael meets Pinneaple, so what? There's nothing inherently wrong with predictability. A film's plot, after all, isn't as important as how it actually goes about its plot which, in this case, remains one that's grounded in realism. Most of the characters feel real because the filmmakers treat them like living, breathing human beings. Michael feels stuck in a mundane job and lacks direction and self confidence. Essentially, he's a prisoner trapped in a prison without bars. How Pineapple helps to free him from that prison is part of what makes Drunk Bus surprisingly touching and inspirational. Molinaro avoids cloying or preachy moments and also doesn't use voice-over narration as a means of getting inside the head of its protagonist.

      With a less sensitive screenplay, Pinneaple could've been written as a cliched, one-note character, but instead he's a human being with issues of his own that he's struggling with given his backstory. The fact that Molinaro doesn't include flashbacks or subplots involving Pineapple's wife and kid shows that he has a grasp on how to provide the audience with just enough exposition in just the right way. Pineapple Tangaroa gives a warm, charismatic performance and has great chemistry with Charlie Tahan. Their rapport along with the journey of their friendship provides plenty of depth and poignancy to the film. Some of the side characters are also interesting because of how eccentric they are, i.e. FU. Bob (Martin Pfefferkorn), a man on a wheelchair who has more to him than meets the eye which won't be spoiled here. The same can be said for a goth girl (Sydney Farley), whom Michael sleeps with, and Michael's supervisor (Will Forte).

      Ultimately, Drunk Bus is kindred spirits with Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World more than with any of Apatow or the Farrelly brothers' movies. Both Drunk Bus and Ghost World use a bus as a metaphor while leaving the meaning of that metaphor open to interpretation. Even FU Bob's wheelchair can be seen as a metaphor. Enid and Michael are loners who desperately yearn to escape their boring, vapid, alienating life and to discover their true selves. They both meet someone older who awaken their innate feelings which sets them on an emotional journey and opens the door for some ephiphanies as well as emotional maturity. At a running time of 101 minutes, Drunk Bus is an equally funny, perceptive and heartfelt coming-of-age story about friendship and self discovery. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a stinger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by FilmRise.
Now on VOD.

The Perfect Candidate

Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour




      Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) works as a doctor at a clinic in a small Saudi Arabian town. She's invited to a medical conference in the big city of Riyadh in hopes of getting a better job at a hospital there, but she gets turned away at the airport because her travel permit expired. To try to secure a temporary travel permit, she goes to the office of her cousin who has political connections. He's only speaking to candidates who applied to run for office at the municipal council, so, on a whim, she decides to sign up before learning that he can't even help her get the temporary permit after all. She now becomes the first woman to campaign for a position in politics. Her older sister, Selma (Dae Al Hilali), an event planner, helps her while their father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a traveling musician, tours with his band and follows Maryam on social media.

      The screenplay by writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann recognizes that Maryan is, first and foremost, a human being who strives for democracy in a country that ostracises and dehumanizes women. She just wants to speak her mind and to be treated equally and fairly. Even at her job at the town clinic, she faces struggles with misogyny from her superiors as well as from patients. Surprisingly, some of her female co-workers admit that they won't vote for her. Despite her struggles, though, she remains strong and perseveres. The main issue that she talks about in her campaign is the poorly paved road to the clinic which she hopes to repave if she were to be elected. She repeats that promise over and over. ?The true test of her courage is when she gives a very powerful, honest speech to those who oppose her. The way she talks to them shows that she's not only bright, but also emotionally immature, much more than the older people who she's running against. She knows how to stand up for herself and what she believes in.

      The filmmakers wisely don't try to make Maryan seem like a hero or someone who's perfect. She makes mistakes like all human beings do, and she's sometimes naive. Her father, too, is far from a perfect father because he doesn't show support for her right away, but he still loves her. Fortunately, the filmmakers avoid schmaltz because many scenes ring true. They don't include any unnecessary subplots like a romantic interest for Maryam which would've made the film feel overstuffed and "Hollywood." Maryam doesn't need a man in her life to feel happy or fulfilled. She's a hard worker with a beautiful heart, mind and soul. Bravo to the filmmakers for treating the audience like human beings just like they do for the characters.

      ?Mila Al Zahrani gives a moving performance that opens the window into Maryam's heart, mind and soul. Her performance is naturalistic much like the film itself. Maryam's bond with her sisters feels palpable as she goes on her tough journey with many obstacles along the way. There's nothing contrived about their relationship, so it's very engrossing. It's also worth mentioning the filmmakers' use of metaphors. ?The pavement of the road serves as a metaphor for the metaphysical road that Maryam paves for the way of other women for finding the courage to run for office. Even the final, dialogue-free scene can be seen as a metaphor. A film that uses metaphors is poetic, and poetry is a form of protest for or against something, so in many ways, The Perfect Candidate is protest against dehumanization and a protest for democracy. At a running time of 1 hour 41 minutes, The Perfect Candidate is a heartfelt, provocative and refreshingly un-Hollywood human rights story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Music Box Films.
Now on VOD.

Paper Spiders

Directed by Inon Shampanier




      Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen), a 17-year-old looking forward to leaving for college soon, lives with her widowed mother, Dawn (Lili Taylor), and has therapy sessions with her high school guidance counselor, Mr. Wessler (Michael Cryil Creighton). Dawn suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness that makes her paranoid, particularly about her neighbor who she thinks is spying and harassing her. Her delusions even threaten her job at the law office of Bill Hoffman (David Rasche). Melanie starts dating Daniel (Ian Nelson) and sets Dawn up on a date with Howard (Tom Papa). Meanwhile, Dawn hires a PI, Gary (Max Casella), to investigate her neighbor.

      Paper Spiders could've turned into an overstuffed, uneven drama if it didn't have such an organic screenplay by writer/director Inon Shampanier and co-writer Natalie Shampanier. The husband-and-wife team of filmmakers do a great job of blending comedy, drama with a little romance while treating the characters as well as the audience as human beings. It's fundamentally a story about the unconditional love between a troubled mother and her daughter who, at times, has to parent her very own parent. Dawn never comes across as unlikable even though she's not always a great role model for Melanie. She's flawed and fallible like all human beings are which makes her all the more relatable. Kudos to the filmmakers for not asking the audience to judge her, but rather to experience her. The same can be said for Melanie who's trying her best to deal with the psychological effects of living with a mentally ill parent. Interestingly, the filmmakers choose not to show the neighbor, just his wife, so he's left to the audience's imagination. The focus remains on the dynamics between Melanie and her mother which feels real throughout all of its ups and downs.

      It's also worth mentioning that Inon and Natalie Shampanier do a great job of incorporating comic relief which makes Paper Spiders less intense than it might sound like based on its premise. There are indeed some emotionally resonating scenes, but for the most part, the tone is light and the film avoids schmaltz and melodrama. There's nothing "Nicholas Sparks" about the romantic subplots with Melanie and Daniel or Dawn and Howard nor do those subplots derail the films; they enrich the audience's understanding of Melanie and Dawn as human beings who want to feel loved and to love others. Michael Cryil Creighton has some very funny dialogue as Melania's guidance counselor who quips that he's also there because of problems with his mother when Melanie announces that she's doing therapy because of her mother. As funny as that line is, it's also based on the harsh truth that everyone has issues to deal with in life. How Melanie chooses to help her mother and does what's best for her won't be spoiled here, but her decision does highlight her compassion, kindness and empathy toward her. Those are very admirable traits which makes Melanie a very decent person worth caring about and seeing as a role model. Both Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen give raw, moving performances that enrich the film with warmth, tenderness and poignancy. They both get a chance to shine thanks to the well-written screenplay that provides a window into their character's heart, mind and soul. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Paper Spiders is genuinely heartfelt, funny and captivating. It's a warm, wise and wonderful story about unconditional love and compassion.?

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Entertainment Squad.
Now on VOD.

Hope

Directed by Maria S?dahl




      Anja (Andrea Br?in Hovig), a dance choreographer, and Tomas (Stellan Skarsg?rd), a theater director, live with their six children in Oslo. When Anja gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer that spreads to her brain, she struggles to come to terms with the diagnosis as well as how and when to disclose the tragic news to her family and friends. She must also deal with the effects that it has on her marriage.

      ?Hope is a tender, warm and heartbreaking portrait of a family experiencing a tragedy in their own separate ways. The screenplay by writer/director Maria S?dahl doesn't have any villains except one silent villain: the cancer. This isn't a cancer movie, though. It's about marriage, love, forgiveness, hope and, above all, human beings. The more you get to know Anja and Tomas, the more you notice their flaws which make them interesting. ?Like in Ordinary People, the family's tragedy eventually causes a rift in the relationship between the husband and wife as their dysfunction rises to the surface. The scenes at the hospital when Anja goes through more and more tests are quite intense, and it's a testament to the film's unflinching honesty that it doesn't shy away from how Anja suffers both emotionally and physically. Bravo to writer/director Maria S?dahl for seeing and treating the characters as human beings. They're not caricatures nor are they merely there to move the plot forward.

      On the inside, Anja is sad, angry, confused and frustrated, but she hides those emotions from her children initially before she tells them the tragic news. Although she does have vulnerability which every human being has, she also has an inner strength, that's quite admirable. ?Tomas isn't always likeable nor does he have to in order to be a compelling character. This is the kind of movie that feels so real that you're tempted to ask yourself whether or not you would make the same choices that Anja and Tomas make. There's no right or wrong answer which makes the film all the more profound. The screenplay's avoidance of schmaltz and melodrama without any contrived scenes reflects how well Maria S?dahl grasps human nature. It's also worth mentioning that she includes chapters heads that show the passage of time through dates at the end of December which add a little suspense as the audience awaits for the date of Anja's operation. ?

      Andrea Br?in Hovig gives a bravura performance and sinks her teeth very effectively into the emotional complexities and nuances of the role. While S?dahl provides a large window into Anja's heart, mind and soul, Hovig opens that window all the way. Anja has an inner life which Honig does a great job of showing to the audience. The same can be said about the always-reliable Stellan Skarsg?rd. Neither of them gives a hammy performance even when they're bickering with one another. The screenplay feels authentic as does their performances. At a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes, Hope is profoundly moving, honest and gripping.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by KimStim Films.
Now on VOD.

Keep an Eye Out

Directed by Quentin Dupieux




      Police Commissioner Buron (Beno?t Poelvoorde) interrogates Louis Fugain (Gr?goire Ludig), the chief suspect in a murder case. Louis recounts how he found a bloody corpse outside of his apartment building before calling 911 and why his neighbor witnessed him going in and out of his apartment seven times that night. Philippe (Marc Fraize) converses with him while Commissioner Buron briefly steps?out of the office, but something unexpected happens to Philippe which sets the course of events for the rest of the night.

      The less you know about the plot of Keep an Eye Out, the better because it's unpredictable and filled with surprises. ?Writer/director Quentin Dupieux has a knack for humor that's equally surreal, silly, dark, screwball, satirical and very witty. He sets the tone right away with a scene of a man conducting an orchestra with just his underwear on. For the next few minutes, you're introduced to the banter between Commissioner Buron and Louis which continues throughout the film. Poelvoorde and Ludig have great comedic timing, chemistry and rapport together. The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny at times which is something rare these days when too many filmmakers resort to the lowest common denominator. Even the smaller roles have memorable scenes, like the janitor played by Vincent Grass, and Fiona, Philippe's wife, played by Ana?s Demoustier.

      It's also interesting how small details become more important later on, such as an oyster that Commissioner Buron receives from one of his colleagues who had announces early on in the film that he's going out for some dinner.?Even the film's title itself is a play on words that takes on a whole new meaning after you watch it. Rarely do comedies have so much attention to detail while still entertaining the audience without numbing their minds, so it feels like a breath of fresh air to see something that's as cleverly written and funny as Knives Out and that has provocative, surreal mindfucks like those found in Bu?uel's films. At a running time of 1 hour and 13 minutes, Keep an Eye Out is an outrageously funny, surprising and refreshingly witty comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Dekanalog.
Now on VOD.

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Directed by Jasmila Zbanic




      Aida (Jasna Duricic), a Bosnian Muslim who works as teacher in the town of Srebrenica, has a husband and two children. When Bosnian Serbs, led by General Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), approach the town to invade it, Aida becomes an interpreter for the United Nations to facilitate the communication between the UN and the Serbs. She desperately tries to save her beloved husband and two sons from being killed.

      The screenplay by writer/director Jasmila Zbanic, based on a true story, remains grounded in realism without a single scene that feels clunky or contrived. There's no reliance on flashbacks, narration nor heavy expositional scenes. The plot unfolds in a procedural fashion much like All the President's Men as the audience follows Aida every step of the way. Procedurals could sometimes feel dry, dull or monotonous, but fortunately, Quo Vadis, Aida avoids those pitfalls because it brims with humanism. Kudos to Zbanic for not forgetting to include the human element in the film and for making Aida such a fascinating human being. She's frustrated, compassionate, persistent and justifiably indignant. Zbanic also uses music very sparingly which means that he trusts the audience's emotions. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly intense and heart-wrenching without going over-the-top. There's just enough left to the audience's imagination, i.e. merely hearing the shots of gunfire as the Serbs kill the Bosnian Muslims off-screen.

      Jasna Duricic gives raw and moving performance as Aida. While the screenplay provides a large window into Aida's heart, mind and soul, Duricic opens that window completely as she bares her heart, mind and soul to the audience. It's a brave, deeply human and emotionally generous performance. Not only does Jasmila Zbanic grasp human nature as a filmmaker, but also the same can be said about Duricic in the way that she portrays with such naturalism without over-acting or under-acting. She's mesmerizing to watch even during the film's quieter moments. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Quo Vadis, Aida is a thoroughly powerful, engrossing and riveting film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Super LTD.
Now on VOD.






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