The NYC Movie Guru: Reviews from a Movie Buff

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Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

      12-year-old Charlotte (Alyla Browne) lives with her mother, Heather (Penelope Mitchell), stepfather, Ethan (Ryan Corr), in an NYC apartment. One night, she finds a small spider, names it Sting, and keeps it as her pet. Little does she know that the more she feeds it, the more it'll grow into a giant deadly spider that terrorizes the residents of the apartment building.

      Writer/director Kiah Roache-Turner has made an enormously entertaining crowd-pleaser with a perfect blend of horror, comedy and thrills. In the prologue, an exterminator, Frank (Jermaine Fowler), arrives to investigate the source of loud noises in the walls of the apartment building. A mysterious creature soon drags him before the film flashes back to the moment when a  spider egg falls from outer space and crashes through a window in Charlotte's apartment building. The hatches, Charlotte finds it and keeps it in her room while feeding it cockroaches. Where did the spider egg come from? How is it able to make sounds that mimic Charlotte like a parrot? Why does Charlotte choose "Sting" out of all other possible names for the spider? Those questions aren't answered, but that's fine. The screenplay remains lean and light on exposition which is beneficial because it allows the plot to remain tight, focused and uncomplicated. Kiah Roache-Turner does an effective job of establishing the bond between Charlotte and Sting as well as her rocky relationship with her stepfather. Those scenes are surprisingly moving without being cloying or clunky.

      As Hitchcock once wisely observed, logic is dull; imagination is more important than logic. Fortunately, Sting doesn't run out of neither imagination nor ideas as it presents different ways for the spider to scare and excite the audience including it crawling on the ceiling like in the film's theatrical poster. Arachnophobic audience members need not worry, though, because the spider isn't so scary that they'll be shielding their eyes. There are some very intense scenes, though, especially one that will be talked about and referenced because of how it pushes the envelope while tipping its hat to Alien. Erik (Danny Kim), a scientist who lives in the building, and the exterminator, Frank, provide some much-needed comic relief. Some jump scares are used in amusing ways. One of Frank's zingers, which involves the mention of sex with a blender to describe what he's seeing, is laugh-out-loud funny. The third act escalates the action and thrills without becoming exhausting or tedious.  

      Sting has pretty solid performances, especially from Alyla Browne who gives a breakthrough performance. Everyone from the major roles to the supporting roles, like Helga (Noni Hazlehurst), Heather's mother, is well-cast. The film also boasts a very clever and creative opening credits sequence with a well-chosen song that sets the tone. A song with very appropriate lyrics that plays over the end credits is unexpected which makes it all the more refreshing. Hint: it's the same song that plays over the opening credits of the underrated 90's cult classic Blast From the Past. The production design makes the most out of the low budget without looking cheap. There are actually some very well-shot sequences with practical effects and not too much CGI. The spider's design looks much less scary than Hanus, the giant spider from Spaceman. Sting doesn't rely heavily on blood and gore, but when those moments do arrive, they're quite shocking, so audiences looking for some cool kills will be pleased and might even exclaim, "Holy shit!" during one particular kill. The pace moves briskly enough, and the film doesn't overstay its welcome at a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes. Ultimately, Sting is scary, funny and suspenseful.  It’s one of the best horror comedies films in years, and it's destined to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens April 12th, 2024 nationwide.

Love Lies Bleeding

Directed by Rose Glass

      Lou (Kristen Stewart) lives in a small town in New Mexico and manages a local gym which her estranged father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), owns. One night, Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a drifter from Oklahoma, arrives in town on her way to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. She and Lou hit it off, but they get into trouble when Jackie takes matters into her own hands after JJ (Dave Franco) physically abuses his wife, Lou's sister, Beth (Jena Malone).

      If you take Blood Simple and cross it with <Bound an Killer Joe, it would look something like Love Lies Bleeding. The screenplay by writer/director Rose Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska doesn't score points for originality, but it compensates for that as a taut and compelling crime thriller that's afraid to take risks and to get into dark territory. To say that Lou comes from a dysfunctional family would be an understatement. Her father is corrupt, domineering, violent, menacing and intimidating. Lou's sister, Beth, ended up marrying a man who's just as toxic as her father. When the audience first meets JJ, he's having sex with Jackie in his car. It's only a few minutes later that you'll learn that he's married to Beth and that Lou will fall in love with Jackie. Beth gets hospitalized when JJ beats her up. Did she try to fight back? Interestingly, the filmmakers choose to not show him beating her up or a scene that shows what caused him to beat her up, so the audience is expected to connect the dots on their own and to use their imagination, a powerful tool. There's a wonderful scene where Lou, Jackie, Beth and JJ are eating at a Chinese restaurant together while neither Jackie nor JJ talk about the elephant in the room: the fact that they had sex earlier. However, the audience can tell by the way that JJ behaves that he's very nervous.

      Elsewhere, though, Love Lies Bleeding very little to the imagination as Lou tries to help Jackie from covering up a crime that she commits. They also try to frame Lou Sr. for it. The plot gets increasingly complicated and twisted when Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) claims to have witnessed their crime, so she blackmails Lou. The filmmakers should be commended for writing characters who are quite unlikable and deeply flawed, yet complex human beings. Lou and Jackie cross legal boundaries, but they have somewhat of a conscience. Whether or not they're introspective is a whole other matter. One of the film's most revealing and surprisingly tender scenes is when Lou sits down with Jackie when they first meet at the gym as they talk about their traumatic past. It's wonderful that beneath all of the grittiness, darkness and violence, Love Lies Bleeding actually has a beating heart.

      Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian give raw as well as emotionally resonating performances. They both have palpable chemistry together. Ed Harris is very-well cast as Lou's father who's also a sick and twisted crime boss. In terms of sex and violence, there's plenty of it, although not much nudity. The violent scenes are very graphic, though, and push the envelope with the unflinching gore. Other ways that the film tries to be shocking and disturbing include a scene where Lou Sr. devours a live beetle whole. Love Lies Bleeding also has some surprisingly surreal sequences which are darkly comedic. On top of that, the music score is superb along with the stylish cinematography and lighting. The film's visual style and use of music often become a part of its substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Love Lies Bleeding is a sizzling, suspenseful, and electrifying crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Now playing nationwide.

Dune: Part Two

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

     Paul (Timothée Chalamet) has joined the Fremen tribe and chooses to be given the name Muad’Dib while promising to bring paradise to the Freman as their messiah. Meanwhile, he joins fellow warrior Chani (Zendaya) in a war against the Harkonnens, led by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler).

      Based on the novel by Frank Herbert, the screenplay by writer/director Denis Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts is more heartfelt than Dune: Part One's screenplay which spends too much time treading water with clunky exposition. Dune: Part One does have some exposition and introduces new characters, but it's not dull or convoluted. The film takes its time to develop Paul as a boy who's becoming a man and must face his future and the Fremen tribe's expectations of him. There's a lot on the line for him, especially with the war going on with the Harkonnens who desperately want to take over Arakis. Feyd-Rautha is a very terrifying and ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to win the war, so Paul and the Fremen warriors have many tough challenges ahead of them that put their lives at risk. Dune: Part Two also focuses a little on the relationship between Paul and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), which ground the film in emotionally resonating scenes. His bond with Chani, which could be something more, also feels engrossing while humanizing Paul. So, this isn't just a big, loud and action-packed spectacle; it actually has a beating heart beneath the surface that allows the audience to empathize with its heroic protagonist. In other words, it has just the right balance of truth, or humanity, and spectacle.

     Dune: Part Two is a mesmerizing display of CGI effects combining with set designs, costume designs and cinematography to provide plenty of visual style and spectacle which becomes part of the film's substance concurrently. It's not only a spectacle for the eyes, but also for the ears thanks to the terrific music score by Hans Zimmer. The action sequences, particularly with the giant worms, are thrilling and awe-inspiring to behold on the big screen. Much like with most blockbusters, watching the film on the small screen would diminish the power of its visuals and sounds. Once again, Timothée Chalamet gives a solid performance as does Zendeya. The stand-out here, though, is Austin Butler who chews the scenery as Feyd-Rautha. Christopher Walken briefly shows up as Emperor Shaddam IV, and Florence Pugh plays the emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan. At a running time of 2 hours and 46 minutes, Dune: Part Two is a rousing, heartfelt and breathtaking spectacle.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

Io Capitano

Directed by Matteo Garrone

      16-year-old Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall) embark on a dangerous journey from Senegal to Italy in search of a better life despite the disapproval of Seydou's mother (Khady Sy).

      Writer/director Matteo Garrone and his co-writers, Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso and Andrea Tagliaferri introduce Seydou and Moussa as they live in poverty in Senegal while dreaming of fleeing abroad. Their wish comes true when they save enough money to make the arduous voyage from Senegal to Italy by foot, vehicle and boat. Their journey takes them through a desert where they must hide their money or else it will be stolen and they'll get into trouble. They both put their lives at risk, but at least they have each other. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters capture the palpable bond between Seydou and Moussa, so the emotional beats land during the right moments when something happens to one of them. . Moreover, it avoids becoming maudlin, clunky or wallowing in Seydou and Moussa's suffering. Garrone knows what to leave to the audience's imagination and when to leave it without spoon-feeding the audience or dumbing anything down. He also knows when and how to trust the audience's intelligence. There are even some surprising moments of coming relief and surrealism which provide levity. So, Garrone also has a great command of the film's tone which is no easy task. Although Io Capitano maintains its suspense as it focuses on their long trek by land and sea, it also remains poignant and warm, so it finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle.

      Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall both give raw, convincingly moving performances that help to further ground the film in authenticity. Everything from the cinematography to music score to the editing and breathtaking scenery are exquisite while contributing style and substance concurrently. Io Capitano feels epic in scope, yet firmly grounded in humanity from start to finish. It never becomes exhausting, tedious or lethargic. Moreover, you never feel the weight of its lengthy running time which is a testament to how truly engrossing it is. At 2 hours, Io Capitano is an exhilarating, captivating and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey brimming with warmth and tenderness.

      Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), an applejack salesman, must fight hundreds of beavers who destroy his wooden barrels filled with applejack. To win over a young woman (Olivia Graves), he must bring hundreds of beavers to her father, a merchant (Doug Mancheski).

      Hundreds of Beavers is a delightfully zany, exuberant and outrageously funny slice of comedy heaven. The screenplay by writer/director Mike Cheslik and co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews takes a simple concept and turns it into an enormously entertaining slapstick comedy reminiscent of the classic comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It has the same madcap energy found in Looney Tunes and the offbeat humor found in A Town Called Panic. Fortunately, it never runs out of steam and gets increasingly bizarre without being exhausting or tedious. There are many clever surprises, big and small, along the way which makes this a rewatchable film to catch all of the details and jokes.

      In terms of its plot, logic and reason are thrown out the window, but that's okay because, as Hitchock once wisely observed, there's something more important than logic: imagination. Hundreds of Beavers has plenty of imagination from start to finish. It's also visually stylish while making the most out of its limited budget with animation that's charming, like Ray Harryhausen's animation. The black-and-white cinematography and the fact that it's silent will make you feel like you're watching a film from the Golden Age of American Cinema. You can laugh with it or at it. You can still enjoy it whether you watch it sober, intoxicated or high. It's best to see it with a large crowd, though. At 1 hour and 48 minutes, Hundreds of Beavers deserves to become a cult classic. Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Now playing at Quad Cinema and AMC Empire.

Driving Madeleine

Directed by Christian Carion

      Charles (Dany Boon), a cab driver, develops a friendship with his passenger Madeleine (Line Renaud), a 92-year-old woman who's moving into a nursing home.

      The screenplay by writer/director Christian Carion and his co-writer, Cyril Gely, is an engrossing story brimming with warmth, tenderness and joie de vivre. Fundamentally, it's a platonic love story between two broken souls who connect during a long cab ride. Charles has hit a rough patch with his wife, struggles to make ends meet, and will lose his license if he receives another traffic ticket. When Madeleine first enters his cab, she seems content as the two of them have light conversations. When she asks him to stop by the place she grew up in and tells him about her past, that's when Driving Madeleine delves into darker and more tragic territory. There's much more to Madeleine than meets the eye. The film flashes back to Madeleine as a young woman (Alice Isaaz) who falls in love with Raymond (Jérémie Laheurte). She vividly recalls their first kiss. A lot more happens in Madeleine's past that won't be revealed here, but it does change the way you look at Madeleine because of her actions. However, bravo to the filmmakers for not judging her nor for asking the audience to judge her; instead, they ask you to experience her, warts and all. Madeleine, like the film itself, is like a beautiful rose with a few prickly thorns. It doesn't dwell on its darker themes, but it doesn't shy away from them either. Most importantly, though, it's sweet without being schmaltzy, and dialogue sounds natural with just the right amount of wit and gentle comic relief.

      Line Renaud shines in a warm, charismatic and radiant performance. She's just as great of an actress as Judi Dench. Dany Boon is also terrific and has a palpable chemistry with Renaud. They both breathe life into their roles, so the film's poignancy mostly comes from their moving performances. The flashbacks are somewhat clunky, but that's a minor, systematic issue that doesn't take away from the narrative momentum. The film moves at just the right pace without feeling rushed or too slow. No, nobody stares off into the distance for 10 minutes. Impressively, director Christian Carion grasps the concept of restraint and that less is more by keeping the running time under 2 hours. At just 1 hour and 31 minutes, Driving Madeleine is a captivating, wise and genuinely heartfelt journey well worth taking. It would make for a great double feature with Philomena.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Now playing at Quad Cinema.

The Teachers Lounge

Directed by Ilker Çatak

       Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) works as a math and gym teacher at a German middle school. After a series of thefts that includes cash, her students get searched and one of them, Ali (Can Rodenbostel), who's Turkish, gets caught with cash in his backpack. He insists that he's innocent and has a logical explanation for the cash, so Carla decides to take the investigation into her own hands. She suspects that the school's secretary, Mrs. Kuhn (Eva Löbau), could be the thief.


        Carla has good intentions and seems like a decent person. She cares about her students and wants to do what's right by finding out the truth behind who actually stole the cash. The lengths in which she goes to investigate the theft leads to moral ambiguity because she does cross a line that she doesn't have the right to cross. She's also quick to point her finger at Mrs. Kuhn as the thief based on circumstantial evidence. Her flaws, though, along with the moral ambiguity, are large part of what makes her such a compelling character. There's more to her than meets the eye. The filmmakers do a very effective job of incorporating exposition and building tension gradually while maintaining suspense. There are also a few surprises along the way which won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that there's just enough room for interpretation because Çatak and Duncker trust the audience's intelligence as well as their imagination. The screenplay by writer/director Ilker Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker takes a premise that sounds simple, lean and straightforward and turns into a complex, intriguing and profound exploration of human nature, truth, justice and, above all, democracy. It avoids becoming heavy-handed, contrived, convoluted and meanderings, so by maintaining focus and grounding the narrative in authenticity, it becomes an immersive, intense roller coaster ride of emotions while keeping you at the edge of your seat from start to finish.

      Leonie Benesch gives a raw, bravura and mesmerizing performance. She tackles the emotional complexities of her role as Carla very convincingly. The supporting cast including child actors are just as superb. The music score helps to add to the dramatic tension without being intrusive or overbearing. It's similar to the nerve-wracking music score in Shiva Baby and Uncut Gems.  The cinematography and the use of the 4:3 aspect ratio also contributes to the film's intensity while making it feel cinematic. In other words, The Teachers' Lounge finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle while also finding plenty Spectacle within its Truths, a.k.a. its humanity. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, The Teachers' Lounge is a spellbinding, taut and provocative psychological thriller. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and New Plaza Cinema.

The Iron Claw

Directed by Sean Durkin

      Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) grows up in Texas with his mother, Doris (Maura Tierney), father, Fritz (Holt McCallany) and three brothers, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons), in Texas during the 1980s. He and his brothers pursue a career in professional wrestling with their father serving as their coach. Meanwhile, Kevin falls in love with Pam (Lily James) while struggling to deal with a series of family tragedies.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Sean Durkin remains poignant and tender as it explores the topics of love, family, ambition and grief. Although on the surface it's about wrestlers, it's fundamentally an unflinching portrait of a dysfunctional family who stick together even through their hardships. The father, Fritz, comes across as domineering, cold and emotionally abusive toward his sons. Their mother is often stoic and also cold much like Beth in Ordinary People. She enabled Fritz's abusive behavior. The Iron Claw doesn't just deal with one kind of love; it tackles romantic love between Kevin and Pam and also the unconditional love between him and his brothers. Writer/director Sean Durkin does a terrific job of opening the window into Kevin's heart, mind and soul so that you can grasp the wide range of complex emotions that he's feeling. He has a lot of pent up emotions that gradually externalizes. It could be argued that he channels his rage and frustrations through wrestling. As the plot progresses, it becomes increasingly darker and melancholic, but without becoming maudlin or melodramatic. There are certain darker elements that Durkin leaves off-camera without dwelling on; instead, he trusts the audience's imagination and emotions. The dynamics between Kevin and his brothers feels organic, and the same can be said for his character arc as he learns and changes while concurrently growing more emotionally mature. Thank you, writer/director Sean Durkin, for seeing and treating these characters as complex human beings and for showing empathy even toward the most unlikable character, Fritz.

      Zac Efron gives the best performance of his career. He doesn't just transform into Kevin physically by bulking up; he also finds Kevin's emotional truth. His emotionally generous performance pays off with some very heartbreaking scenes that ground the film in authenticity. Jeremy Allen White, Stanley Simons and Harris Dickinson are also superb. Even the supporting actors like Maura Tierny and Holt McCallany make the most out of their roles and are very well-cast. Moreover, there's the exquisite cinematography which starts in black-and-white before changing to color, and the well-edited wrestling scenes that don't shy away from showing the physical grit. The pace moves slowly without becoming sluggish, so there aren't any scenes that overstay their welcome. The third act won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that it earns every one of its emotions without becoming heavy-handed. At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, The Iron Claw is a triumph. It's a powerful, captivating and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing nationwide.


Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

      When Saori (Sakura Ando) notices that her son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), has been behaving strangely, he informs her that his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), physically abused him. She confronts the principal, Fushini (Yûko Tanaka), who apologizes to her and makes Mr. Hori apologizes to her as well, but she doesn't accept their apology. Mr. Hori claims that Minato has been bullying a fellow classmate, Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi).

      The intricate screenplay by Yûji Sakamoto unfolds the narrative from different perspectives, starting from Mr. Hori's perspective, then Fushini's and then Minato and Yori. Sakamoto has a wonderful handle on exposition by knowing precisely when to reveal information to the audience and how much to reveal. So, the film comes with a few surprises that won't be spoiled here. It's worth mentioning, though, that as the narrative progresses, it becomes increasingly complex and engrossing.The film doesn't judge anyone's actions, although it welcomes the audience to try to discern what's actually going on with them.The more you get to know each character, the more you realize that they're each flaws and are going through their own emotional battles. There's a beautiful scene with her and Minato as she teaches him how to play an instrument while they bond. The relationship between Minato and Tori feels understated, yet genuinely moving. Monster avoids veering into sappy territory and becoming heavy-handed or preachy. Bravo to director Hirokazu Koreeda and screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto for seeing and treating the characters as fully-fleshed human beings from start to finish.

      The performances from the ensemble cast are all extraordinary, especially the child actors, Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiirag, which helps to make Minato and Yori's relationship feel true-to-life. Everyone gets the chance to shine and to bring authenticity to their role while opening the window into their heart, mind and soul concurrently. The music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is truly exquisite and very well-chosen without being overbearing or intrusive. The slow-burning pace suggests that Koreeda trusts the audience's emotions. Moreover, the editing is superb as it interweaves the different perspectives seamlessly without any clunkiness. At a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes, Monster is profoundly moving, powerful and gripping. It's one of the best coming-of-age films since Close.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Well Go USA.
Now playing in select theaters.

The Holdovers

Directed by Alexander Payne

      Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a history teacher at Barton Academy, looks after students who must stay behind at school during Christmas break because they can't spend time with their family. He befriends one of those students, Angus (Dominic Sessa), a rebellious teen, while bonding with Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school's chef.

      Set during the early 1970s, the screenplay by David Hemingson avoids schmaltz, melodrama, clunkiness and contrivance as it explores the blossoming friendship between Paul and Angus. In a way Angus is a lot like Harold from Harold & Maude: he's rebellious, angry, sad and mischievous. He's going through a lot which the film doesn't shy away from delving into quite deeply and unflinchingly. Paul comes across as very cantankerous and stern at first, but he gradually reveals more of his layers like sadness and loneliness. He also drinks a lot. It turns out that he and Angus have more in common than they could've imagined even though they don't get along at first. They both have some emotional pain from traumatic experiences to cope with. Mary, too, as it turns out, has been processing her grief from the death of her son. When Paul takes Angus on a short adventure in Boston, that's when they learn the most about each other and their relationship truly evolves. Fortunately, The Holdovers remains focused on Paul and Angus' emotional and spiritual journey toward healing from their emotional pain. It could've veered into a romance when Angus flirts with a girl at a party and they kiss, but it doesn't. There are some sweet and tender moments between Paul and Mary, but, again, there's no romantic subplot between them. The humor is often either dry, witty or just wickedly funny without resorting to lowbrow toilet humor. Screenwriter David Hemingson does a wonderful job of designing a window into Paul, Angus and Mary's heart, mind and soul while also giving them a personality that further breathes life into them and makes them feel relatable because they're very much human beings, not caricatures. The Holdovers also boasts one of the most hilarious, liberating and cathartic insults since Bernadette insulted the homophobic lady at the bar in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or since Rhonda insulted her so-called "friends" at the end of Muriel's Wedding.

      Paul Giamatti gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Tackles the emotional complexities of his role as Paul very convincingly without any hamming. Dominic Sessa gives a breakthrough performance. He's just as impressive as Bud Cort is in Harold & Maude. The cinematography, set design and costume design are superb and help to further ground the film in authenticity for that particular 70's time period. Even the use of music is very well-chosen including a Cat Stevens song, "The Wind," that pays homage to Harold & Maude. Both The Holdovers and Harold & Maude have at least two wonderful traits in common: they both have writers/directors who show an effective command of balancing tones, and who grasp human nature from the dark side to the lighter side without any sugar-coating. At a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes, The Holdovers is a warm, wise, and profoundly moving coming-of-age film with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Featers.
Opens October 27th, 2023 in select theaters.

The Killer

Directed by David Fincher

      A hitman (Michael Fassbender) botches an assignment in Paris which causes a series of events that lead to him seeking revenge against his employers.

      Based on the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent, the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker is refreshingly witty, funny and full of clever surprises. The less you know about the plot beforehand, the better, but it's worth mentioning that the hitman, who remains nameless, narrates the film which helps to understand his mindset even if he's far from a good role model. Walker throws plausibility and logic out of the window at times, but that's okay because, as Hitchcock once noted, logic can be dull, and imagination is more important than logic. The Killer offers plenty of imagination, especially when it comes to the many different aliases of the hitman and some of the set pieces during the action sequences. Fortunately, there's not too much action, so you won't feel exhausted, but there's just enough to whet your appetite. The screenplay has a fine blend of comedy, suspense and action and maintains that balance throughout. There's a particularly well-written scene with great use of dark humor in an elevator when the hitman takes a woman hostage. Another example is when the hitman briefly holds a cheese grater in an action scene set in a kitchen. To be fair, like most of David Fincher's films, The Killer lacks warmth, but that makes sense as internal logic because the hitman is a cold, mean and calculating human being who doesn't show many signs of empathy or compassion, although there's some hope for him because he does show signs of introspection through his voice-over narration.

      Michael Fassbender is very well-cast in the lead role. He exudes palpable charisma throughout much like Keanu Reeves does in John Wick, so he makes the hitman exciting to watch and even to root for. The action sequences are well-choreographed and unflinchingly gory at times without leaving much to the audience's imagination. That said, the cinematography, music score and set-designs add to the film's style while, sometimes, compensating for the lack of substance. Tilda Swinton has a brief scene that's memorable, but it won't be mentioned here to avoid spoiling the surprises during that scene. Moreover, pace moves briskly, so there are no scenes that drag or overstay their welcome. At a running time of just under 2 hours, The Killer is a wildly entertaining, thrilling and wickedly funny ride.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Netflix.
Opens October 27th, 2023 at the Paris Theater before streaming on Netflix on November 10th, 2023.

The Zone of Interest

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

      Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, lives with his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and five children at a large house near the camp.

      Loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis, the screenplay by writer/director Jonathan Glazer eschews a conventional approach to depicting the Holocaust. Glazer focuses on the lives of Rudolf and his family in the titular "zone of interest", an area outside of the concentration camp. The film opens as the family enjoys a peaceful swim before gradually shifting to their time inside their home which includes a beautiful garden. Exposition is kept to a minimum, but you gradually learn that Rudolph is a Nazi officer which is clear when you see his folded-up uniform. Hedwig learns that he will be transferred to Berlin, and she's unhappy to leave their current home. The Zone of Interest is a very cold film with very little palpable emotion and no warmth, but that's precisely the point. Rudolph and his family are dehumanizing people who dehumanize themselves as well. There's a lot going on inside of them emotionally, but it's all buried under the many masks that they wear. Rudolph's mother eventually visits, and you can observe where Rudolph got his lack of empathy, apathy, coldness, shallowness and lack of introspection from. Much of the film feels eerie, creepy and foreboding like a horror film. The horrors of the Holocaust remain off-screen and in the imagination of the audience, so Glazer grasps the power of one's imagination---in the things that are not seen and not spoken about. That's where truely terrifying horror can be found.

      The cinematography is exquisite with many shots that add visual poetry. The images throughout The Zone of Interest speaks louder than words. One of the most poetic scenes is when Rudolf and Hedwigs talk by a river with a very strong current, but it's up to you as an intelligent, critically-thinking audience member to decide what the river represents symbolically. The same can be said about the sound design which plays a significant role while adding both style and substance, especially during the first few and last few minutes of black screen with sounds that bookend the film. Poetry is often a form of protest, so The Zone of Interest is ultimately a powerful protest against hate. The performances are effectively cold with very few glimpses inside any of the characters' heart, mind and soul. It's ironic that Hedwig and Rudolph maintain a beautiful garden in her backyard and that Rudolph's mother comments on it, but neither of them manage to recognize the garden of their soul which they neglect. They hate themselves and have no shame in cutting their own flowers and in cutting other people's flowers, so-to-speak, which makes them all the more dehumanizing to both themselves and to others. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, The Zone of Interest is a spellbinding, haunting and terrifying psychological horror film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens December 8th, 2023 in select theaters.

Poor Things

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

      Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a scientist, brings Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) back to life using the brain of her unborn child while prohibiting from leaving his home. Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who's tasked with looking after her, falls in love with her instead and they get engaged to be married. She runs away with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer who's supposed to draft her and Max's marriage contract.

      Based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, the screenplay by Tony McNamara deftly blends sci-fi, dark comedy, horror and satire elements. With a less sensitive screenplay, Poor Things would've become a convoluted, tonal mess that's bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. The plot, which has many shades of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein does, indeed, go bonkers and take big risks with a few scenes that will be referenced a lot in the future. Bella is like a whirlwind of character. She's erratic, childlike, curious and very unpredictable. There hasn't been a character like hers on screen before, so prepare to be overwhelmed at first. There's more to her than meets the eye, and it's fascinating to watch how she evolves into more of a functional adult throughout the course of the film, although she's still bizarre. Her creator, whom she refers to as God, is essentially the film's villain like Dr. Frankenstein. However, McNamara doesn't treat him as a cartoonish villain nor is his relationship with Bella simple which makes it all the more interesting. There are even surprisingly poignant moments which won't be spoiled here. Once Bella escapes with Duncan, Poor Things turns into an even more surreal experience with shades of Buñuel because of all of the symbolism. Director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara include so much attention to detail, imaginative world-building, and room for interpretation that it will take multiple viewings of Poor Things to fully appreciate it.

      In terms of production values alone, Poor Things is a triumph. The costume design, set design, cinematography, lighting, use of color and makeup design combine to create a dazzling visual spectacle. The music score is also well-chosen and helps to compliment the film's off-kilter, eerie atmosphere. Director Yorgos Lanthimos uses similar Dutch angles and fisheye lenses that were used in The Favourite, but here they highlight the surrealism more effectively. Emma Stone gives a tour de force performance. She deserves an Oscar. Everything from her body language to the way that she delivers her lines captures Bella's inner life as well as her very eccentric personality. There are more than a few sex scenes with some unflinching nudity that earns the film its R rating, but what Stone should be commended for the most is her emotional nakedness on screen. It's a brave, physically demanding performance which she convincingly nails from start to finish. Willem Dafoe is also superb and very-well cast. It's his best performance since playing Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire. At a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes, Poor Things is a mesmerizing, provocative, audacious and outrageously funny trip down the rabbit hole.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Opens December 8th, 2023 in select theaters.

Anatomy of a Fall

Directed by Justine Triet

      Sandra (Sandra Hüller), an author, lives in an isolated chalet deep in the French Alps with her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), and 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who's visually impaired. One day, when Daniel takes the family dog for a walk, he discovers Samuel dead below the chalet's attic window with blood tracks near his body. Sandra hires a lawyer, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), her good friend, to defend her after she's accused of murdering him by pushing him out of the window. She claims that he committed suicide.

      The screenplay by writer/director Justine Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari isn't based on a novel, but it's narratively intricate enough to feel like it could be based on one. As the film opens, Sandra sits down for an interview inside the chalet while loud construction noises interrupt the interview. Soon after, Daniel discovers Samuel's corpse outside the chalet. Was Samuel murdered or did he commit suicide? Is Daniel telling the truth when he claims that he heard Sandra and Samuel fighting? Was it physically impossible for him to hear them over the loud construction noise? What was Sandra and Samuel's relationship life before Samuel died? What explains the blood tracks on the snow near his body? Those are among questions posed throughout the trial which contribute to the suspense and intrigue. However, what helps to elevate the film and make it more than just a procedural is that it also serves as a character study of Sandra and Daniel as well as a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage. The plot becomes more compelling and complex as it unfolds, but without being confusing or meandering. In other words, the filmmakers have a great handle on exposition. They know precisely how much information to reveal to the audience, when to reveal it and how to reveal it, so they trust the audience's intelligence. Those aren't easy tasks to accomplish. Anatomy of a Fall's greatest strength, though, is that never forgets to see and treat its characters empathetically as human beings without judging them. It also avoids turning into a melodrama or a dry courtroom drama, so it remains engrossing and riveting from the first frame to the very last frame while the audience doesn't feel the weight of the lengthy running time.

      Sandra Hüller gives a mesmerizing, emotionally resonating performance that deserves an Oscar. She sinks her teeth into the role of Sandra with conviction while concurrently handling the emotionally complexities of the role which provide the character with an inner life that the audience can observe. There are many powerful scenes, but the ones that are the most haunting are the quiet, more understated moments. Fortunately, director Justine Triet trusts the audience's patience because she moves the film at a slow-burning pace. The thrills are there and can be felt, but they're not heavy-handed nor does the music score tell the audience how to feel, so she trusts the audience's emotions as well. The cinematography and editing are superb without relying too much on visual style. That said, the wintry landscape does add some visual poetry because, like in Fargo, the snow symbolically represents secrets that are hidden beneath the surface. At a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Anatomy of a Fall is spellbinding, provocative and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Now playing in select theaters .

El Conde

Directed by Pablo Larraín

      Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) has been a vampire living in an isolated mansion for the past 250 years with his wife,  Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer), his butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) and his children, Manuel (Diego Muñóz), Luciana (Catalina Guerra), Mercedes (Amparo Noguera) and Aníbal (Marcial Tagle). However, he's ashamed of the world seeing him as a thief, so stops drinking blood because he prefers to die. That changes when he meets Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), a nun, who arrives to do the accounting of his estate.

       Part political satire, part dark comedy, part horror, the screenplay by writer/director Pablo Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón brims with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor. Logic isn't among the film's strengths, but that's okay because, as Hitchcock once wisely observed, imagination is more important than logic. El Conde has plenty of imagination from beginning to end. Its premise never feels like it's stretched too thinly nor does it run out of steam because there's always something surprising or refreshing around the corner. With a less sensitive screenplay, it could've been a tonally uneven mess, but, fortunately, it establishes its off-kilter, darkly comedic tone from the get-go and maintains it until the end. As the plot becomes increasingly complex and new characters, like the nun and Pinochet's mother---Margaret Thatcher!--are introduced, it also becomes more zany and outrageously funny without ceasing to be thought-provoking and clever. The last line of the film is one of the most funny last lines since the one at the end of Barbie, another smart and entertaining satire.

      Beyond its well-written screenplay, El Conde also boasts mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography with a few exhilarating, dreamlike shots of Pinochet flying. The cinematography only changes to color at the end, but it remains stunning to behold. The performances are all terrific and everyone gets a chance to shine, especially Gloria Münchmeyer who plays Pinochet's wife and Alfredo Castro who plays his butler. There's plenty of blood and gore, so this isn't for audiences with a weak stomach because the filmmakers don't leave the brutality of the violence to the audience's imagination. To be fair, though, the fact that it's in black-and-white makes it less disgusting and shocking, though. The film is very well-paced without any dull scenes or scenes that overstay their welcome despite that the setting takes place primarily inside Pinochet's mansion which becomes like a character in itself. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, El Conde is one of the most razor-sharp, biting and wickedly funny vampire movies ever made.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Netflix.
Now streaming on Netflix.

War Pony

Directed by Gina Gammell & Riley Keough

     23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) lives in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where he struggles to  make ends meet. One of his babies' mamas is incarcerated and wants him to pay $400 to bail her out. Echo (Jesse Schmockel), his other baby's mama, lives in town, but isn't interested in rekindling their relationship despite his many attempts. He convinces Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy rancher, to hire him on his turkey farm. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a delinquent, ends up homeless when his father dies and gets into trouble when he finds his father's meth pills.

       The screenplay by writer/co-director Gina Gammell and her co-writers, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, feels true-to-life and organic. They avoid clunky exposition, over-explaining, schmaltz and melodrama. The dialogue has a natural flow like in the films of Richard Linklater and Larry Clark while the film's unflinching depiction of poverty is reminiscent of Ken Loach's social-realist films. As Hitchcock once wisely observed, some films are a slice-of-life while others are a slice-of-cake. War Pony is a slice of both: it's a "life cake." Tim, who initially seems like a decent human being, turns out to be quite sordid. When Bill sits down to have dinner with Tim and his wife (Ashley Shelton) and tells them that he's no longer in a relationship with one of his babies' mamas, Tim asks him, "What did you do to her?" and even asks it again when Bill denies being the cause of the break-up. On the surface, Tim's question sounds innocent, but beneath the surface, Tim is probably projecting because he's someone who hurts women himself. Case-in-point: he states that money would have no purpose in a world without women. That statement is one of the film's humorous moments that's concurrently grounded in tragedy because it's not just a funny thing to say, it's also very disturbing.

      The filmmakers have a knack for revealing a lot about these characters' personalities through dialogue. Kudos to the filmmakers for seeing and treating these characters as complex human beings, warts and all. Bill and Matho are both deeply flawed, but they do have some redeeming qualities. Within despair, there's always hope. When there's hate, there's also love, although it's safe to say that neither of them come from loving homes. They're a product of their own environment, but that doesn't excuse their behavior. By showing empathy for everyone on screen, the filmmakers provide an opportunity for the audience to empathise with them as well. They also do a wonderful job of gradually merging Bill and Matho's narratives in a way that remains grounded in realism, with just the right amount of levity, nuance and understatement without tying everything in a neat bow during the refreshingly un-Hollywood third act.

      Newcomers Jojo Bapteise Whiting and LaDainian Crazy Thunder both give raw, breakthrough performances. You wouldn't believe they haven't acted in a film before. They both manage to find the emotional truth of their roles while portraying their strength and vulnerabilities effectively. Neither of them overacts or under-acts. The pacing, editing, cinematography and use of music are all superb while making the film feel more cinematic. The film's style becomes part of its substance, especially how it uses nature as a form of visual poetry, i.e. spiders and bisons, which leave some room for interpretation. It's very rare to find filmmakers these days that actually trust the audience's emotions, imagination and intelligence, but the filmmakers accomplish that feat with flying colors here. At a running time of just under 2 hours, War Pony is a captivating, genuinely heartfelt and poetic slice-of-life.

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

Two Tickets to Greece

Directed by Marc Fitoussi

      Blandine (Olivia Côte), single mother, suffers from depression and loneliness after her ex-husband left her for a younger woman. She's supposed to go on a trip to Greece with her son, Benjamin (Alexandre Desrousseaux), but, at the last minute, he says that he can't make it. Instead, he gives his ticket to Magalie (Laure Calamy), Blandine's childhood friend who Blandine hasn't seen since they had a fallout back in middle school. He also surprises her by arranging her to have dinner with Magalie at a restaurant before they both embark on the trip to the Cyclades islands of Greece.

      If you're a fan of empowering films about women going through self-discovery like in Under the Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine, Two Tickets to Greece will be just the film for you. The screenplay by writer/director Marc Fitoussi is wise and witty with the right balance of humor and poignancy while avoiding schmaltz and lowbrow humor. Blandine has a lot in common with Shirley from Shirley Valentine because she's unhappy with her life and stuck in a rut, although she's not quite as self-aware nor as blunt as Shirley. Magalie, on the other hand, has an upbeat personality, isn't afraid to speak her mind, to be free-spirited, and to be reckless much like Maude from Harold and Maude. Not surprisingly, Blandine and Magalie's trip to Greece doesn't go as smoothly as the planned because of Magalie's recklessness, so they end up stranded on a completely different island than the one where they booked their hotel at. Magalie helps Blandine to break out of her shell, so-to-speak, like Maude does to Harold during their adventures. They can also be compared to Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. As the plot progresses, Blandine and Magalie become increasingly complex human beings who have more to them than meets the eye. Bravo to writer/director Marc Fitoussini for not only seeing and treating them as human beings, warts and all, but for making their blossoming friendship feel authentic. It's great to see characters who are capable of introspection, a very important tool in life, that's a sign of emotional maturity. Small details like the fact that Blandine used to enjoy roller skating during her childhood or that she and Magalie love The Big Blue become more significant details later on. Kristin Scott Thomas shows up in the second act as Bijou, one of Magalie's free-spirited friends who moved to Greece to live with her wealthy Greek husband without learning Greek. She, too, has more to her than meets the eye, as it turns out. There are no villains here except a silent one: the breast cancer that Bijou is fighting against. Fortunately, the subplot about her cancer battle doesn't veer the film into maudlin territory nor does it distract from the film's refreshingly honest focus on female friendship.

    Olivia Côte and Laure Calamy are very well cast and have terrific chemistry together, even during the scenes when Blandine and Magalie don't get along. They handle the comedic scenes convincingly and naturally as well as the dramatic scenes, so that's a testament to their skills as actresses. More importantly, though, they find the humanity of their roles while radiating plenty of warmth. Kristin Scott Thomas manages to have some fun in her role as Bijou. Of course, the breathtaking scenery of Greece adds plenty of visual style to the film and becomes like a character in and of itself. Moreover, the pace moves briskly enough without any scenes that overstay their welcome. Among all of the films in the "female friends bond on a trip together" series of 2023, namely, 80 for Brady, Book Club 2, Joy Ride and The Miracle Club, Two Tickets to Greece reigns supreme and fully earns its uplift. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, it's a heartfelt, funny and empowering journey well worth taking.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens July 14th, 2023 at Quad Cinema.

Loren & Rose

Directed by Russell Brown

      Loren (Kelly Blatz), a young filmmaker, dines at a restaurant with Rose (Jacqueline Bisset), at a restaurant to discuss a role for her in his next film. Over the course of six years of meeting at the same restaurant, their friendship blossoms.

       he screenplay by writer/director Russell Brown brims with wit, wisdom and genuine tenderness. The dialogue has a natural flow that feels compelling without any dull moments, so Brown has a great ear for dialogue. The only flaw, albeit a minor one, is that there's no short pause before Rose says the word "feelings" during one of her conversations with Loren. See Shirley Valentine for an example of how  organic a pause can be if added before the word "feelings." Anyway, going back to this film, Loren and Rose have 3 meetings at the restaurant---one for an appetizer, one for a main course and one for dessert. During the first meeting, the conversation between them remains light, much like the food itself, as they get to know each other. During their second meeting, that's when their conversation becomes deeper and more revealing about each of them. Bravo to Brown for providing a large window into the heart, mind and soul of Loren and Rose and for trusting the audience's emotional intelligence to peer through that window. Much like the recent film Sanctuary, there's a voyeuristic aspect to the film as though you were eavesdropping on the private conversations of two strangers. However, by the second time they meet, they're no longer strangers to the audience, but fully-fleshed human beings.

      In my interview with Zachary Wigon, the director of Sanctuary, he keenly observed that. "Not all movies feel voyeuristic even though, categorically, the art form itself is voyeuristic. In order for a movie to feel voyeuristic, you have to believe that what you're watching is really happening.In order for a movie to feel voyeuristic, you have to believe that what you're watching is really happening. It's only if you believe that what you're watching is really happening that you feel a little bit like, 'Oh gosh! I'm actually spying on the private, intimate moments of these real people. I'm looking at something that I'm not supposed to be looking at!'" Wigon goes on to say that, "When you're able to have a situation where the emotional lives of these characters are totally plausible to the viewer, I think that's probably what generates this feeling of voyeurism." So, the voyeuristic aspect of Loren & Rose is ultimately a testament to how real it feels and how emotionally invested the audience is in the lives of Loren and Rose. In a way, it can be seen as a love story albeit a platonic one. What makes it transcendent, though, is that it also reveals a lot to the audience how Rose views herself. She's emotionally mature, candid and vulnerable yet concurrently blunt and her quips are often pithy. There's a palpable rage boiling inside of her from all of her life experiences, some of which were traumatic for her, but she still treats Loren with compassion and empathy which shows that she's a decent human being. Meanwhile, Loren proves to be a good listener which is a great quality to have.  

      Jacqueline Bisset gives a tour de force performance as Rose. She deserves to be praised for giving a warm and emotionally generous performance. By opening the curtain to peer into Rose's inner feelings "backstage", so-to-speak, and to display Rose's introspection so effectively, she encourages the audience to also open their own curtain and to be introspective, too. This is the kind of movie, like Mass and Sanctuary, that rewards introspective audiences. Writer/director Russell Brown trusts the audience's patience because Loren and Rose's conversations unfold gradually as does their deep connection. He also includes some visual poetry at the end which is quite profound. Poetry, after all, is often a form of protest for or against something. Without any preachiness or schmaltz, Loren & Rose manages to be a witty, wise and profoundly human protest for friendship, love and compassion. Filmmaker François Truffaut once observed that a truly great film should have the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. With Loren & Rose, Brown has found that balance and, more importantly, he has also managed to find the Spectacle within the Truth. It's also one of the best movies for foodies since Big Night.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Wise Lars.
Opens June 23rd, 2023 at Quad Cinema.

Past Lives

Directed by Celine Song

      Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) became childhood friends with Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) in Seoul before she moved with her mom to Toronto. Twelve years later, Na Young, now called Nora (Greta Lee), looks up Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on the internet and reconnects with him through a Skype session. Another twelve years pass and Nora is now living in New York City with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), when Hae Sung decides to visit her after breaking up with his girlfriend.

      In the opening scene, Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur at a bar while strangers sitting across from them try to guess their relationship to one another. Are Nora and Haae Sung brother and sister? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Husband and wife? Who's Arthur? Their tour guide, perhaps? Writer/director Celine Song's decision to begin the film with that scene before flashing back to show how they met is very intriguing and unconventional while also effectively establishing the film's gently comedic tone. The strangers represent the audience because you'll have the same questions, although you might not jump to the same conclusions as the strangers do. Within the first hour, you'll realize that first impressions based on observation alone can be deceiving. At first, Nora and Hae Sung seem like the kind of characters that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks used to play in 90's romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal's characters in When Harry Met Sally.... Past Lives isn't a Hollywood film, though, nor does it try to be. A lot goes unsaid and doesn't quite go in the direction that you expect it would. It's a movie for adults because it deals with friendship, romance, love and longing in a very emotionally mature way without oversimplifying anything while treating each character as a complex human being. It's just as sophisticated as a French movie like An Affair of Love and A Man and a Woman or as honest as (500) Days of Summer and Once. There are no villains, no sex/nudity, and nobody gets cancer or murders someone. There is, indeed, a love triangle between Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur, but without melodrama, schmaltz or heavy-handedness. As the years go by, the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung becomes increasingly complicated and complex which makes the film all the more compelling, engrossing and enriching on an emotional level.

      Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro each manages to give a natural and nuanced performance that helps to make the film feel more true-to-life. The cinematography is exquisite with some very poetic shots that speak louder than words, like a recurring shot of a puddle. As Hitchcock once wisely observed, some films are like a slice-of-cake while others are more like a slice-of-life. Truffaut once also wisely observed that a truly great film has just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. Through the performances, the screenplay, the editing, and the cinematography, Past Lives finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle while finding enough Spectacle within its many truths. It's also both a slice-of-life and a slice-of-cake: it's a life-cake albeit one that doesn't try too hard to please the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, Past Lives is wise, honest and genuinely heartfelt. It's destined to become a classic love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Beau is Afraid

Directed by Ari Aster

      Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), lives alone in a New York City apartment and sees a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to deal with his childhood trauma and abusive mother, Mona (Patty LuPone). He's supposed to visit his Mona the next day for the anniversary of his father's death, but a series of unfortunate events occur: he oversleeps, someone steals his apartment keys, and he learns that his mother died when a chandelier fell and decapitated her. He now has to travel to her funeral because, according to her lawyer (Richard Kind), she won't be buried without him there. Another tragic event occurs when Roger (Nathan Lane), a surgeon, and his wife Grace (Amy Ryan) accidentally hit him with their van, and they let him recover at their home after he gets released from the hospital.

      There have been many fictional toxic mothers in film history ranging from Beth in Ordinary People to Mother Gothel in Tangled to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest to Norman Bates' mother in Psycho. Mona initially seems like no worse than Beth from Ordinary People, but by the end of the film, she's far worse. She's a controlling, emotionally abusive, physically abusive malignant narcissist who resorts to gaslighting, guilt-tripping, double binds, and infantilizing her son to keep him dependent on her. She's rich, powerful and well-connected to other powerful people, like her lawyer, who have no shame in crossing boundaries to enable her to abuse her son and/or to abuse him themselves. It wouldn't be surprising if Mona's lawyer happens to be a "friend" of hers for many years whom she pays very, very well for his services. When confronted, like most narcissists, Mona uses a tactic known as DARVO: Deny, Attack and Reverse the Order of Victim/Offender. It's no wonder that Beau is an emotionally wreck in his adulthood. His therapist prefers to give him pills for his anxiety rather than to help him realize that he has to cut off contact with his mother. Writer/director Ari Aster combines dark comedy and horror with a heavy dose of surrealism to get inside Beau's heart, mind and soul. The flashbacks to him as a teenager (now played by Armen Nahapetian) on a yacht with his mother (now played by Zoey Lister-Jones) reveal a lot about his traumatic past and how it has affected him as an adult.

      Anyone who's familiar with narcissistic personality disorder or who has experienced it as a survivor will be able to see the red flags in Mona's behavior during Beau's childhood that strongly suggest that she's a narcissist. Some red flags are big while others are small, i.e. when Mona belittles Beau saying that only women know women and that men's cluelessness are just part of their charm. She might as well be singing the song "Mother Knows Best" like Mother Gothel does to Rapunzel in Tangled. Beau is essentially Mona's emotional and psychological prisoner. Like many adult children of narcissists, he has a tough time knowing what's real and what's not real because living with a malignant narcissist is like living in an Escher painting where it's hard to tell where's up or where's down or who to trust for that matter. That explains his behavior throughout his journey and why writer/director Ari Aster blurs the line between fantasy and reality which makes for a trippy mindfuck and emotional fuck concurrently. The audience doesn't know what's real and what isn't, but neither does Beau, so that makes them on the same page as him, more or less. Is his reunion with Elaine (Parker Posey), his childhood crush, real or imaginary? That's up to you to decide. There could be arguments both ways. Bravo to Ari Aster for trusting the audience's imagination, intelligence and emotions. Many aspects of Beau is Afraid are quite blunt and explicit, but there's a lot of room left for interpretation.

      Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the best performances of his career as Beau. It's no easy task to portray such a complex character convincingly, but he accomplishes that feat with rawness and emotional honesty which makes it truly heartbreaking to watch Beau suffer. Kudos to Ari Aster for seeing and treating him as a human being and for allowing the audience to have empathy for him. Patty LaPone deserves an Oscar for her over-the-top performance as Mona. She's just as terrific as Faye Dunaway is in Mommie Dearest. She uses the word "love", but it's doubtful that she even understands the concept of love. How could she know how to love her son without loving herself first or healing from the fact that her mother didn't love her enough? Despite how confident and strong Mona seems on the outside, on the inside she's a weak, cowardly and emotionally immature child who can't handle not being the center of attention and when she doesn't get what she wants, she uses emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping as part of her "extinction burst." So, Ari Aster also shows some surprising empathy for Mona because he gives her backstory that explains, without excusing, how she became such a toxic mother.

      The production design and cinematography are also worth mentioning along with a wildly imaginative animated sequence and a bold, outrageously funny sex scene with Mariah Carey's song "Always Be My Baby" playing. You've never seen a sex scene like that before. Beau is Afraid is filled with many details that can be seen as poetic with deeper meanings upon further consideration. Even the word "Beau" in French means "nice" or "beautiful" which adds another layer of meaning and poetry to the film. Water also has some symbolic meaning. A napkin that Beau finds with the words "Don't incriminate yourself." also has significance despite being a small detail. The same can be said for a brown recluse spider that's shown in the first act. To be fair, though, Beau is Afraid isn't a pleasant experience, but not every movie has to be joyful or sugar-coated. Ari Aster demands a lot from the audience emotionally and inspires introspection, as many great films do. There hasn't been such a brave, honest and disturbing film about how narcissists gaslight, control and terrorize their victims since Arlington Road. At a running time of 3 hours, Beau is Afraid is a bold, provocative and surreal portrait of an adult child of a malignant narcissist. Hopefully, if you can relate to Beau's struggles, even to a small degree, you will be able to find some life wisdom and healing from the following poem by Pablo Neruda: "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming."

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Now playing at select theaters in NY and LA before expanding nationwide on April 21st, 2023.


Directed by Saim Sadiq

      Haider (Ali Junejo) is unemployed and lives in Lahore, Pakistan with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who works at a hair salon. He spends his time taking care of his wheelchair-bound father (Salmaan Peerzada) and doing household chores. One day his friend suggests to him to apply for a job as a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender woman, who performs burlesque at a club. Haider soon falls in love with Biba.

      Joyland is just as powerful and moving as the recent film The Blue Caftan which it shares a lot in common with. The screenplay by writer/director Saim Sadiq and co-writer Maggie Briggs weave a tragic love story that's filled with tender, unflinchingly heartbreaking moments. They avoid turning the film into a maudlin, melodramatic soap opera which it could've been with a less sensitive screenplay. Despite the heavy subject matter, there are some surprisingly light and funny moments every now and then. Most importantly, though, each character becomes more interesting as the plot progresses. Even Haider's wife, Mumtaz, who married him in an arranged marriage, is given enough scenes to humanize her through her complex emotions. Haider is suffering emotionally, but Joyland doesn't forget to show the consequences of his actions on his wife. These aren't stock characters or caricatures. Biba, too, has her own issues to deal with, as it turns out.

      There's a particularly memorable and provocative scene when Biba and Haider are about to have sex and Haider does something that offends her. The way that she reacts speaks volumes about everything she's been through and how she's willing to stand up for herself without letting anyone else dehumanize her. She's not a pushover. Why is she getting involved with a married man? Joyland doesn't judge her for that nor does it judge Haider for cheating on his wife. There are no villains, and no one gets beaten up or murdered, so the plot remains character-driven without any huge Spectacle or nail-biting scenes. However, it's emotionally gripping because it feels so true-to-life and natural. Therefore, it makes it easier for you to be immersed in these characters' lives and to want them to find joy--even though true joy is often ethereal. Kudos to writer/director Saim Sadiq and co-writer Maggie Briggs for showing empathy and compassion toward everyone on screen and for the audience as well. That's a major feat that even films made for 10x the budget sorely lack these days.

      The performances are superb and feel just as organic as the screenplay. Alina Khan is a revelation as Biba. She bears her heart and soul for her role. It's that emotional nakedness that makes Joyland an emotionally generous film that will keep you engaged if you open your heart to it. The only element that takes a little away from the naturalism is the lighting that excessively uses blue and other colors to add some style, visual poetry and make the film cinematic, but they're distracting. The aspect ratio used is 1.37:1 (a square) already provides enough visual poetry. Like The Blue Caftan, Joyland trusts the audience's patience, emotions and intelligence. The pace moves slowly, but not too slowly. At a running time 2 hours and 6 minutes, Joyland is a captivating, unflinching and profoundly human love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens April 7th, 2023 at Film Forum.


Directed by Ben Affleck

      In 1984, Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) convinces his superiors, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker), to spend all $250,000 of their sports budget on NBA player Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young) for a new line of shoes called Air Jordans.

      Like the recent Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, Air The screenplay by Alex Convery avoids turing the plot into a dry, by-the-numbers procedural that merely goes through the motions. It actually stops to breathe some life into the characters by giving them a personality and allowing them to be witty every now and then. Sure, the dialogue feels on-the-nose at times without much subtlety or any major surprises, but those are forgivable flaws. Sometimes playing it safely and resorting to conventions as well as formulas can work as long as it uses those conventions and formulas well. Every film is manipulative and formulaic to a certain degree. Air tries hard to please the audience, and it succeeds more often than not. It also has just the right amount of comic relief. Moreover, Sonny makes for a very crowd-pleasing underdog: he's willing to put his career on the line by taking a huge risk on Michael Jordan. He trusts his gut and won't let anyone get in the way, not even Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), who doubts that Sonny 's risk will pay off. Convery does a great job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition that remains insightful and never boring. Even small details like the NBA's requirement of how much white must be on the shoes of NBA players turns out to be a significant detail. The film truly picks up steam when Sonny arrives at the home of Michael Jordan's mother, Deloris (Viola Davis) and father, James (Julius Tennon), to convince them to sign the deal with Nike instead of with Reebok. Jordan's parents turn out to play a major role in their son's career--even more than Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). Much of the film's poignancy comes from the interactions between Jordan's mother and Sonny.

      Viola Davis knocks it out of the ballpark again with another moving performance. She's Air's MVP when it comes to its emotional resonance because she helps to ground the film in warmth and tenderness. The entire film, though, is well-cast, so this is a terrific ensemble because everyone gets their moment to shine and no one feels miscast or distracting. The lively soundtrack with some great choices of songs help to invigorate the film and to keep it entertaining. A lot of money was probably spent just on getting the music rights for the songs, but it was ultimately worth it. Everything from the cinematography to the editing, lighting and costume designs are top notch, so this is a very well-produced movie that feels cinematic with just the right balance of style and substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Air is a triumph! It's an enormously entertaining, witty and genuinely heartfelt crowd-pleaser.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Amazon Studios.
Opens April 7th, 2023 nationwide.

Full Time

Directed by Eric Gravel

      Julie (Laure Calamy), a single divorced mother, struggles to make ends meet and to balance work and raising her two young kids, Chloé (Sasha Lemaitre Cremaschi) and Nolan (Nolan Arizmendi). Every early morning, she has a long commute to Paris where she works as a chambermaid at a 5-star hotel. Meanwhile, she applies for a marketing research job at a firm. Her chambermaid job remains at risk because she's frequently late because of a transit strike that also affects her work performance.

      Full Time serves as a fascinating character study of an overworked, frustrated single mom and as a gripping, breathless thriller that's as intense as Uncut Gems and as grim as a Ken Loach film. From the very first frame, writer/director Eric Gravel throws you right into the stressful life of Julie. She wakes up very early in the morning to go to work while repeatedly trying to contact her ex about missing alimony payments. Her bank tries to schedule a meeting with her because she's behind on her mortgage payments. She arrives home very late from work because of the transit strike, and the interview for her new corporate job happens to be in the middle of her work day. Julie is clearly at wit's end with little to no sleep and hanging by a thread. Writer/director Eric Gravel effectively keeps the audience at the edge of their seats and caring about Julie as a human being because they're with her every step of the way. Her character is relatable because everyone at some point goes through what she's going through--or they will later on in life. Is she a bad parent? Is she trying her best or can she do better? Fortunately, Full Time doesn't judge her nor does it ask you to judge her, but rather to experience her. The situations that she puts her kids in as well as her babysitter and a new young coworker at work speak volumes about the kind of reckless person she is. However, despite her imperfections, flaws and apparent selfishness, she has good intentions and isn't a monster.

      What remains up to the audience's interpretation, though, is what Julie's true sense of self is. Does she have introspection? Is she an optimist or a pessimist or somewhere in between? Will she repeat her mistakes in the future? Is she truly capable of learning and growing? What has she learned? Did she even really want to be a parent? Amidst the hustle and bustle of her life, perhaps she doesn't even have time to stop to look inward, to learn and to grow. She has blossoming friendship with a kind neighbor, Vincent (Cyril Gueï), whom she flirts with, but fortunately that doesn't turn into a distracting romantic subplot, so the film remains focused without losing its narrative momentum or going off on any unnecessary tangents. Julie does indeed experience a lot of despair and suffering, but there are some glimmers of hope as well.

      Laure Calamy gives a tour de force performance as Julie. She's the film's heart and soul, so Full Time is lucky that she has the acting chops to sink her teeth into the complexities of her role with utter conviction while allowing you to empathize with Julie at the same time. The techno music score by Irène Drésel adds to the intensity much like the score in Uncut Gems and Shiva Baby, but it does get repetitive and somewhat overbearing. There's enough tension within the narrative, so whenever the music score comes on--which is often--it hits the audience over the head without trusting their emotions enough. Everything from the cinematography to the fast pace makes for a wild ride that's occasionally exhausting which might help you to relate to Julie because she's exhausted, too. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Full Time is one of the most gripping, intense and unnerving thrillers since Uncut Gems.

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


Directed by Benjamin Caron

      Tom (Justice Smith) meets a customer, Sandra (Briana Middleton), at the bookstore that he owns in NYC. They fall in love and have a whirlwind romance before Sandra complains that her brother owes $350,000 to thugs who'll hurt him if he doesn't pay up. Tom claims that his father, Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow), is wealthy and kindly offers to give her the money in cash which she accepts. After she receives it, she stands him up on their next date and vanishes. Her disappearance has something to do with her involvement with Max (Sebastian Stan) who's involved with Madeline (Julianne Moore) who's involved with Richard.

      The plot won't be described any further to avoid spoiling any surprises. Some films are best experienced while knowing little to nothing about the plot. Sharper is one of those films. Just by its premise alone, it sounds like a labyrinthian crime thriller and a mindfuck. That observation turns out to be accurate because the screenplay by co-writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka pile on twist after twist with plenty of cons, double crossings and seductions. By the 4th or 5th twist, the audience feels just as manipulated as the characters do. Just when you think you could trust someone, they turn out to be shady and corrupt. Meanwhile, Tom tries to investigate Sandra's whereabouts. He's still in love with her. Is she still in love with him? That's the subplot that feels contrived and cheesy. There are so many subplots, characters and cons that the film already overwrought around the hour mark. Fortunately, it avoids becoming too confusing or convoluted. The screenwriters do a great job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition. You'll be confused at first and have a lot of questions, but by the end, pretty much all of your questions will be answered. Sharper does resort, though, to spoon-feeding the audience which leaves no room for interpretation. The final major plot twist can be easily predicted if you're a critical thinker, so it's not quite as surprising and shocking as it aims to be. Moreover, the ending requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, so if you're willing to just sit back and experience the film without picking apart the complex, intricate plot, you'll be able to easily forgive the implausibility. Not every film has to be 100% realistic or a 100% "slice of life." As Hitchcock once observed, some movies are like a slice of cake while others are a slice of life. Sharper is a delicious slice of cake with many, many layers.

      Sharper sparkles with a terrific ensemble cast of actors each of whom is well-cast while bringing much-needed emotional depth that the screenplay lacks. It's refreshing to see Julianne Moore playing a seductive con artist. She seems to have as much fun in her role as Sigourney Weaver has in Heartbreakers or Annette Benning and Anjelika Huston in The Grifters. Justice Smith's moving performance helps to make Tom, the most likable character of them all, worth rooting for. In terms of production values, the editing, editing, and set design and camerawork provide the film with a very cinematic style without any scenes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Sharper is spellbinding and irresistibly entertaining. It's a slick, seductive and suspenseful thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Apple Original Films and A24.
Now play at Regal Union Square and streaming on Apples TV+.

The Blue Caftan

Directed by Maryam Touzani

      Halim (Saleh Bakri) and his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), run a handmade caftan shop in Morocco. When Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a young man, arrives as a new apprentice to help them at the shop, he and Halim develop an attraction for each other.

    Writer/director Maryam Touzani has woven a gently moving and understated love story while trusting the audience's intelligence, imagination and emotions. Halim and Mina lead what seems like a quiet, happy life together as a married couple, but a lot goes on beneath the surface. Touzani deftly handles exposition while avoiding schmaltz, over-explaining and melodrama. With a less talented screenplay, The Blue Caftan could've turned into a mawkish soap opera. Instead, it's a profoundly human slice-of-life that feels genuinely engrossing while seeing and treating its characters like complex human beings. Even though there are no flashbacks to provide a backstory about how Halim and Mina fell in love, you still can palpable sense that they've been married for many years just by the way they talk to one another, much like Andrew Haigh effectively accomplished in 45 Years. The plot remains focused without meandering or veering into a completely different genre, i.e. when the police stop Halim and Mina outdoors at night to ask for their ID and marriage certificate, that scene could've turned the film into a suspense thriller, but it doesn't. The police officer turns out to be compassionate. So, it would be safe to say that there are no villains in The Blue Caftan except for a silent one: Mina's terminal illness. Even that subplot isn't dwelled upon too much; this isn't a Lifetime disease-of-the-week movie after all. There's also just the right balance of comic relief without any unevenness. Kudos to writer/director Maryam Touzani for making a film about emotionally mature human beings for emotionally mature audiences. That's a rare feat these days.

      Saleh Bakri, Lubna Azabal and Ayoub Missioui give raw, nuanced and emotionally convincing performance without over-acting or under-acting. They're also very charismatic and express a lot of emotions without words. Writer/director Maryam Touzani should also be commended for grasping the power of quiet moments to convey emotions and to let the audience absorb themselves in those emotions. The slow pace does take time to get used to, so patient audiences will appreciate this film the most. Patience is often rewarding which is the case here. The cinematography looks exquisite with many surprisingly beautiful shots of Halim and Youssef crafting the caftans. Small details like when Halim touches Youssef's hand speaks louder than words. There's also some provocative use of metaphors, i.e. the titular blue caftan, which adds poetry and depth without hitting the audience over the head. Poetry is, after all, a form of protest for or against something. The Blue Caftan is a protest for love, tolerance and compassion as well as a protest against hate and intolerance. At a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes, it's a mesmerizing, engrossing and profoundly human love story.

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

Infinity Pool

Directed by Brandon Cronenberg

      James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), an author suffering from writer's block, goes on a vacation to an island resort with his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). They meet and befriend Gabi (Mia Goth) and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), and spend time with them on a secluded beach. Later that night, James strikes and kills a pedestrian while driving Em, Gabi and Alban. Gabi persuades him to flee the scene. The next day, local authorities arrest all four of them and take them to prison. James has the option of either facing the death penalty or watching his doppleganger get killed. He chooses the latter which sets off a course of wild, depraved events.

      If you thought last year's The Menu and Triangle of Sadness were dark, subversive and bitter satires that go bonkers, wait until you see Infinity Pool. Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg lets you know that you're in for something unconventional from the very beginning because the first 30 seconds or so have dialogue in total darkness. You have no idea who's talking to whom or what's the location until James opens the curtains in the hotel room. By eschewing a first act that would've shown James and Em's life back at home, Cronenberg cuts right to the meat of the story without any filler. If you're seen horror films, you know that there's more to Gabi than meets the eye and that she's seducing James with an ulterior motive. Precisely what that motive turns out to be what makes Infinity Pool so complex and compelling. To describe the plot wouldn't do it any justice because it's more than just the sum of its parts. It's the kind of film that transcends its genre of sci-fi, horror and satire.

      There are shades of Eyes Wide Shut and Us in Infinity Pool, with just as much surrealism. What's real? What's not? Cronenberg frequently blurs the line between both realms which makes for an equally mysterious, intriguing and frustrating experience. There are no easy answers because he keeps exposition to a minimum without much over-explaining, so he clearly trusts your intelligence---except for a scene when Gabi sits down with James to explain Alban's past while also referencing the titular infinity pool. He doesn't leave much to the imagination when it comes to nudity and gore, though, which there's plenty of. Some of the images might shock you, but that's part of the point because Infinity Pool boldly pushes the envelope from start to finish. It also works as a character study of an insecure man who's being infantilized and degraded by a controlling, masochistic woman who won't let him escape from her clutches so easily.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Infinity Pool is drenched into visual style from the lighting to the set design, landscape, use of color, cinematography and costume design. It's overwhelming, at times, because there's so much for your eyes and ears to take in all at once. You'll also find some symbolism, i.e. water, which leaves some food for thought. Alexander Skarsgård is well-cast in the role of James. He's charismatic, slick and suave while also vulnerable during the more emotionally resonating scenes. Mia Goth is super, once again, after wowing audiences in Pearl. She sinks her teeth into the complex role of Gabi with aplomb--in many ways, Gabi is cut from the same cloth as Pearl. At a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes, Infinity Pool is spellbinding and exhilarating. It's a wildly entertaining, audacious and provocative trip down the rabbit hole.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Now playing in select theaters.

A Man Called Otto

Directed by Marc Forster

      Otto (Tom Hanks) lives alone and still grieves over the death of his wife. On a cold, wintry day, just as he's about to hang himself from the ceiling, his new neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), arrive at his door with home-cooked food to show their kindness. They gradually become friends the more they spend time together.

      Based on the novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and on the Swedish film by Hannes Holm, A Man Called Ove is a genuinely heartwarming, tender and inspirational story about a man who rekindles passion for life. The screenplay by David Magee does a wonderful job of turning Otto into a fascinating, complex human being. At first, Otto seems like nothing more than a grumpy, impertinent curmudgeon who hates nearly everyone he meets. The way that he treats his neighbors with such hostility makes him very unlikable. He's just as toxic and rude as Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets. However, like Melvin, there's so much more to him than meets the eye. Screenwriter David Magee doesn't shy away from peeling the layers beneath Otto's anger and bullying to reveal a very sad, depressed, lonely and emotionally immature man. Similarly, beneath Marisol's upbeat, bubbly personality, there are other layers revealed there, too, which humanize her. Magee handles exposition in a very organic way because you don't learn about the backstory of Otto and his wife right away. There are some flashbacks which help you to get inside Otto's mind as he recalls his memories of how he met her. Despite the heavy subject matter, there's just the right amount of comic relief and wit to counterbalance the darker moments to make them more palatable. To be fair, at times, it's a little bit saccharine, but like the Mary Poppins says, it takes "just a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down."

      The best way to describe the emerging friendship between Otto and his new neighbors is to compare it to Harold and Maude---Otto is Harold while his new neighbors are Maude, essentially. Otto comes of age and experiences epiphanies as much as Harold does while he learns to embrace life. Ultimately, he learns how to befriend and love himself while getting rid of the hatred. As poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." That's a life lesson worth learning and appreciating.

      Tom Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career as he grounds the character of Otto with pure, unadulterated poignancy. The screenplay designs a large window into Otto's heart, mind and soul, so it's a testament to Hanks' acting skills that he manages to open that window fully. Both the sensitive screenplay and Hanks' moving, emotionally generous performance help to make Otto's character arc feel natural, believable and inspirational. Mariana Treviño gives a breakthrough performance. She's a revelation, and exudes plenty of warmth, charisma and terrific comedic timing that invigorate the film while she finds the emotional truth of her role. At a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes, A Man Called Otto is one of the best films of the year. It would make for a great double feature with Living, Harold & Maude, As Good as it Gets, Scrooge and Joe Versus the Volcano.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.


Directed Oliver Hermanus

      In 1950s London, Williams (Bill Nighy) works as a civil servant at a government office. His mundane life is interrupted when his doctor informs him that he has terminal cancer and only six months to live. He sets out to make the most out of his remaining time alive while confiding in a younger woman from work, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood).

      Living is a stirring and deeply moving character study of a man who embraces life while facing death. The screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, based on the screenplay of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, introduces the audience to Williams by showing him at his government office job as a new worker, Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp) arrives. Williams has worked there for a while. He's taciturn, soft-spoken and keeps to himself a lot as he goes about his daily routine. Something awakens inside of him when he gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. He decides not to tell anyone about his diagnosis right away. There's no villain in the film except a silent one: the cancer. Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro does a terrific job when it comes to exposition about Williams' past, revealing little by little about his memories and all of the feelings that he has bottled up inside of him. It's refreshing to meet a protagonist who's a decent human being and emotionally mature concurrently. Case in point: when Margaret tells him that they nickname him "Mr. Zombie" at the office, he doesn't get angry, but laughs about it and accepts it. He doesn't invalidate anyone's feelings. In other words, he has learned to accept himself for who he is. The new friendship he has with Margaret is interesting and explored in a way that feels organic without being icky or creepy. They're not quite like Harold and Maude, though, but it's a similar kind of bond.

      Not a lot happens on the surface in terms of plot, and some key moments like Williams' death itself are left to the audience's imagination without being dwelled on too much. A lot happens, though, within the heart, mind and soul of Williams, though. Watching him go on a spiritual awakening is the equivalent to watching a tree fully blossom with its leaves turning a variety of beautiful colors before they're shed. Living is ultimately a story of a man who goes on a journey of self-discovery while learning how to conquer adversity. To be fair, Living does become a little preachy and cheesy with on-the-nose dialogue during the last 15 minute after Williams dies, but that's a minor, systematic issue.

      Bill Nighy gives one of the best performances of his career. He finds the emotional truth in the roll of Williams and sinks his teeth into it. His quiet, understated performance isn't showy nor does it need to be. The nuances, warmth and charisma that he brings to the role breathe it to life even during the quiet moments. Everything from the cinematography to the costume design to the lighting and even the slow pacing contributes significantly to the style and substance. The flashbacks scenes are also well-edited without being clunky or diminishing the film's narrative momentum. At a running time of only 1 hour and 42 minutes, Living is warm, wise and wonderful. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing in select theaters.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Directed Joel Crawford

      Puss in Boots (voice of Antonio Banderas) learns that he has used up 8 out of his 9 lives, so he retires and hides out incognito at the home of a cat lady, Mama Luna (voice Da'Vine Joy Randolph), where he befriends a dog disguised as a cat, Perro (voice Harvey Guillén). Upon learning that a wishing star left a wish hidden deep in a forest, he goes on a quest to steal the map from Big Jack Horner (voice John Mulaney). He hopes to use it to regain his 8 lives. Also in pursuit of the map are Goldilocks (voice of Florence Pugh) and the three bears, Papa Bear (voice of Ray Winstone), Mama Bear (voice of Olivia Colman) and Baby Bear (voice of Samson Kayo), as well as his former love interest, Kitty Softpaws (voice Salma Hayek). Meanwhile, The Big Bad Wolf (voice of Wagner Moura) shows up to remind Puss in Boots that death is right around the corner.

      Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a delightful and exhilarating adventure for the whole family. The screenplay by Paul Fisher brims with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor while being unafraid to be a bit zany. Most importantly, though, the story itself remains engaging without losing steam or meandering. There are many characters and subplots, but the film never loses focus of its main storyline: the quest to reach the hidden wish. Also, it avoids becoming uneven or dull which tends to happen too often in animated films these days. Yes, I'm looking at you, Lightyear. There's just the right blend of action, comedy and even a little time spent developing the relationships between the characters, so that they're not just there to serve the plot or to move it forward. Despite the fact that these are animated characters, the screenplay does a great job of humanizing them which breathes life into the film. Puss in Boots, for instance, feels some regret that he left Kitty at the altar in the past. Without revealing any spoilers, there are some small surprises along the way, including a new character who's introduced later in the 2nd act. Although it's true that introducing a new character late in a film is generally a bad idea, it works here because the character makes for a fun and witty sidekick without being annoying. If he were introduced early-on and showed up a lot, he would've overstayed its welcome and become irritated after a while. Thank you, Paul Fisher, for not pandering to younger audiences. Both younger and older audiences will be entertained, so that's not an easy feat to accomplish. Even the 3-hour Avatar: The Way of Water fails at accomplishing that.

      Beyond the compelling story and characters, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish also has stellar CGI animation that not only adds eye candy, but provides the characters with some personality and even a little warmth. The voice acting is terrific too, especially that of Antonio Banderas who has a lot of fun in his role. That makes the comedic timing work more often than not. Kevin McCann does a wonderful voice impression of James Stewart as one of the film's many lively supporting characters. The pace moves quickly, but not too quickly like in many recent animated films, so you won't feel exhausted or nauseated. The fact that the running time is under 2 hours reflects that director Joel Crawford and screenwriter Paul Fisher grasp the concept that less is more and have mastered the concept of restraint. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is one of the best animated films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Universal Pictures.
Now playing nationwide and on PVOD.


Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

      A donkey named EO entertains crowds at a circus with his trainer, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). They get separated after animals rights activists protests and he goes on a journey to different places, i.e. a farm, and meets people from different walks of life including a countess (Isabelle Huppert).

      EO is the kind of film that's hard to describe with words. It's an experience and one that requires some patience, an open mind and an open heart. Writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska eschew conventional storytelling by having a non-human protagonist and keeping plot to a bare minimum. Who needs a complicated plot anyway? What's ultimately important are the feelings that a film contains within the plot. EO's journey is like an emotional roller coaster ride. The filmmakers do a terrific job of making you feel what he feels even though he's just an animal. How he's anthropomorphised becomes part of what makes the film so increasingly engrossing. You'll find yourself caring about him just like any human protagonist and you'll want him to be reunited with Kasandra whom he's happiest with. If you're a patient audience member, you'll be rewarded the most with some thrilling sequences that have to be seen to be believed. In a way, it's like a coming-of-age film with a donkey. It's moving, funny, intense, sad, joyous and suspenseful all at once. So, not only does EO capture animal nature, but it also captures human nature, warts and all.

      The cinematography, sound design, lighting, and music score are all exquisite. They add plenty of style which becomes part of the film's substance. One particular tracking shot bathed in red looks hypnotic and even a little bit trippy. It's a stunning moment which, combined with the soundtrack, adds an element of surprise and unpredictability that elevates the film significantly. If you're a fan of the always-reliable Isabelle Huppert, you'll have to wait until the last 20 minutes. At a running time of just 1 hour and 28 minutes, EO is a mesmerizing, exhilarating and poignant journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Janus Films.
Now playing in select theaters.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Directed by Eric Appel

      Al Yankovic (Daniel Radcliffe) rises to fame as he becomes the popular musician known as Weird Al.

      Despite its title, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is not a conventional biopic in any sense. Writer/director Eric Appel and co-writer Al Yankovic have created a parody of a parody, essentially. That's the equivalent of someone making a parody of Christopher Guest's parodies. It's no easy task. Appel and Yankovic set the darkly comedic tone right away with a scene in a hospital that will make more sense later on. Then it flashes back to Al's childhood where he gets bullied by classmates and also by his domineering father, Nick (Toby Huss). His mother, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), is his father's enabler. They don't believe in his passion for becoming a musician, but that doesn't stop him from pursuing his dreams alone. His first attempt to get a record deal for his parody songs fails. He still doesn't give up. Everything changes when he meets Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) who seduces him and wants to work with him. There's more that happens in the plot, but none of it will be spoiled here. The screenplay is witty and hysterically funny at times with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, sight gags and dark comedy. It knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. Fortunately, it's often just a wild experience that while remaining unafraid to take risks and to push the envelope a little--not too much, though. There's something to laugh at in nearly every scene which can't be said for most comedies these days.

      Daniel Radcliffe gives one of the most free-spirited and transformative performances of his career. It's up there with his Swiss Army Man performance. You'll forget that he's the actor who played Harry Potter. He truly sinks his teeth into the role and clearly has a lot of fun with it. The same can be said about Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna---she has her looks and mannerisms down pat. There are also some very funny cameos, i.e. during a pool scene. Blink and you'll miss Patton Oswald during the first 30 minutes. Too many comedies these days run out of steam or become anarchic and tedious bores, but that doesn't happen here because there's just so much fun to be had from start to finish. There's something for everyone: action, comedy, sex, drama, suspense and, of course, Weird Al's music. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is enormously entertaining, outrageously funny, and a crowd-pleasing delight. It's destined to become a cult classic like Popstar: Never Stop Stopping. See it with the largest crowd possible. It's a huge shame that it won't be playing in theaters. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Roku.
Now streaming for free on Roku.

Holy Spider

Directed by Ali Abbasi

      Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a journalist, investigates the killing of prostitutes in the city of Mashhad in Iran. The serial killer, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), nicknamed the "Spider Killer", continues his killing spree while communicating with a local reporter, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), through phone calls.  Rahimi risks her life by taking matters into her own hands to hunt down the Spider Killer without the help of the authorities.

      Writer/director Ali Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami do a great job of hooking the audience with a riveting opening scene where the Spider Killer picks up a prostitute before strangling her with her headscarf and then dumping her body outdoors in the middle of the night. Its turns out that he's a family man with three children, a wife and a job as a builder. He makes it clear from the get-go through his messages that he wants to cleanse to the city of immoral prostitutes by killing them and that he's just doing "God's work." How he ended up becoming a psychopathic religious fanatic remains underexplored in the screenplay which is based on a true story. However, he's enough of an interesting villain to make for an above-average crime thriller that veers into horror territory at times. Because of how human the Spider Killer is, he's much more terrifying than any of the villains in the recent horror films, i.e. The Terrifier, Barbarian and Smile. Beyond his murderous rampage, his life seems banal and ordinary. He's even looked up to in his community. Hannah Arendt would probably consider him as "evil" according to her book Banality of Evil. Adding further complexity, the perspective changes to Rahimi's perspective at times. Although there's almost as much tension as there is in David Fincher's Zodiac and Seven, it's not nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat suspense, but rather slow-burning suspense like in Heat. There are no lengthy cat-and-mouse chase sequences or long shoot-outs. If you don't know the true story, you'll be surprised about what direction the plot heads toward in the provocative third act that will send chills down your spine.

      The cinematography in Holy Spider along with the sound design, editing and lighting all add plenty of style which becomes part of the film's substance. It's an atmospheric, gritty film with many scenes taking place at night which is when the Spider Killer strikes. The birds-eye view of the city with all of the lights is visually stunning to behold and makes for a cinematic experience that's probably even more heightened on the big screen. The filmmakers don't shy away from showing the Spider Killer murdering the prostitutes, so those scenes will make you squeeamish---as as you should feel. You'll feel rightfully angry and frustrated when Rahimi fails to get the authorities to take action. The lengths that she goes to trap the Spider Killer, which won't be spoiled here, make her a true hero. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Holy Spider is a taut, spellbinding and provocative crime thriller. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Utopia.
Now playing in select theaters.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Directed by Martin McDonagh

      Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) have been lifelong friends on the island of Inisherin located off the west coast of Ireland. Colm announces to him that he no longer wants to be friends and calls him a dullard, but Pádraic refuses to accept the end of their friendship. Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic's sister, and Dominic (Barry Keoghan) try their best to save Pádraic and Colm's friendship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Martin McDonagh brims with wit and irreverent, razor-sharp humor that's McDonagh's trademark. He has a knack for writing acerbic dialogue and pithy, deeply flawed characters who aren't very likable, but they're still very human concurrently. He eschews a first act that might've shown Pádraic and Colm's friendship during their younger years, so he skips right to the meat of the story when they cease to be friends all-of-a-sudden. Whether or not Colm's reasons for wanting to leave the friendship are justified is left up to the audience to debate. He has a right to express his true feelings and to want to be alone. Does Pádraic have the right to have some kind of closure and to reignite the relationship. Fundamentally, The Banshees of Inisherin is a story about friendship, love and emotional pain. Colm has a lot going on inside of him; he's depressed, sad, frustrated, lonely, angry, self-loathing and bitter. He shows his self-loathing in a way that's shocking and disturbing. McDonagh isn't afraid to show the darker side of human nature. He's also unafraid to take the plot into unpredictable territory as it becomes increasingly absurd while avoiding unevenness, clunkiness and schmaltz.  McDonagh grasps that comedy is rooted in tragedy, and he does a fine job of intertwining both. You'll laugh one minute and be shocked the next. The Banshees of Inisherin joins Triangle of Sadness as a film that's enormously entertaining and surprising while making you think and feel simultaneously. Both films also have a donkey playing an important role. Wait until you see EO, though, which has a donkey as the protagonist.

      Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are just as terrific together as they were together in In Bruges. Gleeson gives one of the best performances of his career as he sinks his teeth into the role of Colm while portraying his strength and fragility effectively. He breathes life into the role to make you forget that you're watching someone acting. It's compelling to watch him and Farrell banter with each other. They have a wonderful rapport which is thanks to the sensitive screenplay and to their skills as actors. They're both very charismatic. The same can be said for the actors and actresses in the supporting roles like Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon. They make the most out of their smaller roles and get a chance to shine as much as Gleeson and Farrell do. The scenery is often breathtaking and occasionally adds an eerie, foreboding atmosphere making you feel as though you were watching a horror film or a Shakespearean film---especially with the addition of the mysterious, witch-like character Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton). The cinematography is superb as is the music score and editing. You don't feel the weight of the nearly 2-hour running time. Like any great film, The Banshees of Inisherin transcends its genre and plot. It's much more than the sum of its parts. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, The Banshees of Inisherin is a triumph. It's audacious, witty and wickedly funny. Most importantly, underneath all of the pith and irreverence, there's a warm beating heart. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Searchlight Pictures.
Now playing in select theaters.


Directed by Charlotte Wells

      Sophie (Francesca Corio), an 11-year-old girl, spends her summer vacation in a Turkish resort with her father, Calyn (Paul Mescal). 20 years later, she looks back on her memories of her father from that vacation through video taken from a camcorder.

      Writer/director Charlotte Wells grasps the fact that a movie's plot isn't as important as the feelings contained inside of it. Most people don't remember details of a plot anyway many years down the line unless they've seen the movie over and over. As Hitchcock astutely observed, some movies are like a slice-of-life while others are like a slice-of-cake. Aftersun is very much a slice-of-life with very little cake. Like in Boyhood, there are some scenes that play around with audiences' preconceived expectations of what will happen. For instance, when Sophie swims in the ocean, you might think that something bad will happen i.e., a shark attack or that she might drown. Your imagination will also be put to the test when Sophie wanders around the resort without her father in the middle of the night. Will she get kidnapped or hurt somehow? By often relying on the audience's imagination, Wells compels the audience to project from their own life experiences and their own fears. She also challenges you to rethink what's "cinematic." There are no action scenes here, no villain(s) or inspirational speeches or insights spoon-fed to the audience. Exposition remains kept to a minimum. Everything remains understated, even the emotions, until the powerful and haunting ending which won't be spoiled here.

      Francesca Corio gives a breakthrough performance as Sophie. She's a terrific child actor whose natural performance helps to further ground the film in realism. The same can be said about Paul Mescal. Neither of them under-act or over-act. It's rare to see a film where the performances are just as nuanced as the screenplay. The cinematography is also worth mentioning because it adds both style and substance without being overwhelming. There's some interesting use of symbolism that's left open to interpretation, i.e. the color yellow. Even the film's title, which refers to a cream used to moisturize the skin after exposure to the sun, can be seen as a metaphor---the sun can represent enlightenment, for instance. Bravo to writer/director Charlotte Wells for trusting the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination. She has a remarkable ability to take something mundane and turn it into something poetic, profound and deeply human. That's an impressive feat that takes a true humanist to capture. Patience audiences will be rewarded the most. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Aftersun is a spellbinding, genuinely heartfelt and refreshingly un-Hollywood slice-of-life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Now playing in select theaters.

      Turn Every Page is a provocative, moving and very well-edited documentary about author Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Director Lizzie Gottlieb, the daughter of Robert Gottlieb, does a great job of introducing the audience to these 2 legends in the literary world. The docu isn't just about these two men; it's about their relationship over the span of 50 years. Caro wrote the biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Moses. You'll learn how Gottlieb ended up as his editor, what his childhood was like and what it was like for him to work with Robert Caro. Turn Every Page covers a lot of ground in a way that's never confusing, exhausting or dull. That feat alone takes great editing to accomplish. If you're not familiar with the books that Caro wrote, you'll learn a little about those as well. There's also some humorous moments that provide some levity like when Caro, Gottlieb and others talk about what they think is the correct way to use a semicolon; they don't agree on one clear-cut way to use it. Most importantly, though, director Lizzie Gotlieb humanizes her father and Caro through the candid talking-head interviews with both of them. Robert Gottlieb even has a brief moment when he nearly tears up in front of the camera. He comes across as warm, charismatic and very, very intelligent as well as articulate. The same can be said about the equally-brilliant Robert Caro. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, which flies by like 90 minutes, Turn Every Page is captivating, illuminating and heartfelt. It will open December 30th, 2022 via Sony Pictures Classics.


Directed by Todd Field

      Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the chief conductor of a German Orchestra, gets caught in a scandal that threatens to end her successful career and her upcoming book launch. She lives with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), and has an assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), at work.

      Tár is a mesmerizing psychological study of a tyrant's downfall. The screenplay by writer/director Todd Field opens with an interview between a host and Lydia Tár which makes it clear that she's at the top of her career, very famous and, most importantly, very full of herself. She's an arrogant, stubborn, myopic, determined perfectionist who lets no one get in her way or disagree with her. In other words, she's a textbook narcissist. On the surface, she appears strong and confident, but, like most narcissists, she's wearing many masks. On the inside, she's weak, emotionally immature and lonely. Perhaps she even hates herself. Field offers no voice-over narration, but what he does offer are many private moments with Lydia Tár where her masks get unraveled gradually and you can grasp what she's thinking and feeling. Even though she's unlikable given the way that she treats everyone around her as inferior to her, including Sharon, she's still a human being.

      What remains unclear, though, are which events from her childhood shaped her personality in her adulthood. Was she raised by narcissists? Was she perhaps sexually abused as a child? On the one hand, it's okay to leave some things to interpretation, but Lydia's childhood shouldn't be one of those things that are unexplored. A small hint about her childhood would've been tremendously revealing about her current behavior. Nonetheless, Field does a great job of allowing the audience to get a glimpse of her heart, mind and soul, especially during a provocative, chilling dream sequence which is around that time that the film veers ever so slightly into the realm of psychological thriller. It's an exhilarating emotional journey with an understated ending that will linger in your mind for a while and compel you to re-watch the film.

      There's no denying at this point that Cate Blanchett is among the best actresses of our time. She's up there with the wonderful actresses from the Golden Age of American Cinema like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Tár gives Blanchett a huge platform to showcase her tremendous acting talents. She's spellbinding to behold as she sinks her teeth into the role of Lydia Tár so convincingly. You'll forget that you're watching Cate Blanchett. That says everything you need to know about how great she is as an actress. It's her best performance since Blue Jasmine. Nina Hoss also deserves to be commended for a moving and nuanced performance as Lydia's lover, Sharon. The music, sound mix, editing and cinematography are also exquisite. The first few minutes, though, are bizarre, though, because they're just the end credits slowly appearing on the screen. What's the purpose of that other than to subvert your expectations and to be unconventional? That's not very clear and feels distracting, especially since there still are credits at the end of the film. Fortunately, despite a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, you barely feel the weight of the long running time. Expect many Oscar nominations.

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

Triangle of Sadness

Directed by Ruben Östlund

      Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model, goes on a luxurious yacht cruise with his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a model and social influencer. Other guests on the ship include Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and his wife, Clementine (Amanda Walker), Uli (Ralph Schicha) and his wife, Therese, (Iris Berben) and Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) and his wife, Vera (Sunnyi Melles). Among the crew, there's Alicia (Alicia Eriksson) who works under the chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), and Abigail (Dolly De Leon), the toilet manager. The ship's captain, Thomas (Woody Harrelson), must show up for the Captain's Dinner, but he's drunk and refuses to come out of his room no matter how many times Paula tells him to. The guests get immediately stricken with a food-borne illness when the seafood spoils after Vera requests that the crew stop working and take a dip in the pool.

      To describe what happens during the rest of the plot after the guests get food sickness would be to ruin the film's many surprises. Writer/director Ruben Östlund once again hits the ball out of the ballpark with a witty, honest and very funny glimpse of the dark side of human nature. He begins by introducing Carl to the audience through his absurd and shallow experiences as a model. A fashion show has texts on a screen with social commentary that will become more relevant as the film progresses. Then it cuts to an expensive restaurant where he has an argument with Yaya over why she didn't make an effort to pay the bill despite promising to pay for the next meal. Their bickering continues in the hotel and, eventually, on the ship when Yaya flirts with a shirtless member of the crew (Timoleon Gketsos) while they lay out in the sun. A lot happens within the first thirty minutes, and that's even before the guests get sick. Each guest has his or her own unique personality and specialty. They all love to brag about their wealth and success in the world of capitalism.Triangle of Sadness is a black comedy, but with a lot of tragedy beneath the surface. It has a lot to say about capitalism and, occasionally, it's very blunt and unsubtle about its observations, i.e. when the crew chants "Money!" over and over. Other times, it's more subtle and nuanced, like with the look on Dimitry and Carl's face as Yaya and another woman flirt with Jarmo at a bar on the ship.

      Ruben Östlund has a knack for writing dialogue that's organic, full of pith and a wicked sense of humor. There's also a few sight gags that lead to some uncomfortable humor that will make you stop and think about why you're laughing. This isn't an ordinary comedy by any means. Concurrently, he keeps the audience in suspense as the film goes in directions that you least expect it to. Moreover, he trusts their intelligence and imagination to be able to connect the dots because he omits a scene when a crew member gets fired, but it's implied when he's waving goodbye to his coworkers as he's seen being taken off the ship in a speedboat. Without spoiling anything, Triangle of Sadness remains a brilliant, razor-sharp social commentary and a perceptive commentary on human nature even during the third act.

      Every actor and actress, from the lead roles to the supporting roles, is well-cast and gives a wonderful performance with terrific comedic timing. It's hard to choose just one stand-out performance, but if necessary, Dolly De Leon gives a breakthrough performance that's as great as Yalitza Aparicio is in Roma or Hong Chau in Downsizing. Zlatko Buric is also superb. He and Woody Harrelson play off of each other very well during a scene when they're drunk together. If you pay attention, you'll notice many interesting details that provide the film with more depth, i.e the book Ulysses that Carl reads on the ship or an even smaller detail that serves as a foreshadow: the sound of flies on the first day that the guests arrive on the ship. Like in Force Majeure writer/director Ruben Östlund grasps and shows the entire spectrum of human nature from the light side to the dark side. Making the audience laugh while making them think and feel is no easy task, but he accomplishes it with flying colors. At a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Triangle of Sadness is bold, provocative and wickedly funny.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Now playing in select theaters.


Directed Nicholas Stoller

      Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner) works for the LGBTQIA+ Museum which is about to open if he can secure $5 million from investors to fund it. After a series of failed attempts to meet someone on dating apps, he meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane) at a nightclub and spends time with him even though neither of them is emotionally available for a serious relationship.

      . The screenplay by writer-director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer Billy Eichner brims with razor-sharp wit, funny one-liners, and observational humor without trying too hard to please the audience. It's self-aware, yes, like many films are these days, but not excessively. Stoller and Eichner have a knack for understanding human nature because of the way that they treat Bobby and Aaron as human beings and explore their relationship in a way that feels true-to-life. Bobby comes across as candid, emotionally mature, intelligent, but also a little insecure at times. He's also confident, yet sensitive. Aaron may seem perfect at first, but he's far from it and has his own insecurities and issues that he has yet to confront until he meets Bobby. Their relationship unfolds organically with all the ups and downs that some modern relationships have. Aaron, for instance, enjoys having threesomes and open relationships, but Bobby isn't really into that. Not surprisingly, he gets jealous when he catches Aaron with someone else outside of a club. One of the most revealing scenes about Aaron, though, is when Bobby meets Aaron's parents and Aaron tells him to behave in a way that goes against his true self. Bobby has every right to be mad at him for dehumanizing, belittling and offending him. Whether he chooses to forgive him for it and, if so, how he forgives him won't be revealed here, though, but it's worth mentioning that it feels true to Bobby's character. Between all of the relationship drama, there's plenty of comedy, so be prepared to laugh. There are some of which references pop culture and classic movies that the film has fun poking fun at, i.e. Brokeback Mountain, You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally..... There are also some very funny cameos by Debra Messing, Ben Stiller, Jodie Foster and Amy Schumer.

      Every actor and actress in Bros from Billy Eihchner and Luke Macfarlane to the supporting roles, like Dot-Marie Jones who plays one of Bobby's co-workers at the LGBTQIA+ Museum, are very well-cast. They're all having a great time on-screen, and, most importantly, the audience can palpably sense that. Everyone gets a chance to shine, so this is a true ensemble. Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane have wonderful chemistry together. They bring a lot of warmth and charisma to their roles, and they help to make it easy to root for Bobby and Aaron to be together. The music score and soundtrack are well-chosen and compliment the film's tone very effectively. The pacing is also fast enough without being too fast, and no scene feels too long or drags. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Bros is funny, heartfelt and refreshingly honest. It's a crowd-pleasing delight, and destined to become a new romcom classic. Surprisingly, there are no outtakes during the end credits. Perhaps there will be some in the DVD's bonus features.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Universal Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

God's Creatures

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer

      After being away for many years, Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) returns to his hometown, a small Irish village, and reunites with his mother Aileen, (Emily Watson), father, Con (Declan Conlon), Erin (Toni O’Rourke) and Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Aileen works as a supervisor at a seafood packing plant and steals oyster seedlings to help Brian start an oyster farm. She lies that he was at home with her when when he's accused of sexually abusing her coworker, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), whom he used to date.

    &nbsGod's Creatures is a taut, intelligent psychological thriller. The screenplay by Shane Crowley takes its time to introduce the audience to Aileen and her dysfunctional family. Brian suddenly returns from abroad without warning. His arrival sets a course of events that break the family apart little by little. Without flashbacks, Crowley incorporates just enough exposition so that you understand what causes Brian to become estranged from his family. What remains intentionally unclear and up to the audience's imagination is what he was doing while he was away. It's also initially ambiguous whether or not he can be trusted and has good intentions. That question gets answered eventually when he's charged with sexual abuse. Once again, Crowley trusts the audience's imagination by not showing what happened after Brian met Sarah at a local pub. Through his behavior and the behavior of his mother in the aftermath, it's easy to connect the dots and to figure out what really happened. He's a human being after all and feels a sense of guilt as well as fear. His mother loves her son and wants to help, so she lies to keep him from being convicted. Her theft of the oyster seedlings is merely a foreshadow of the big lie that she tells for him while it also serves as proof that she has no shame in crossing legal boundaries. She's a human being, too, and Crowley as well as co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer see and treat her as such.

      God's Creatures isn't really a crime thriller; there's a brief police interrogation scene, but, for the most part, the film focuses on the psychological and emotional effect that the crime has on Brian and Aileen. In one of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes, Aileen cries in the shower with her back to the audience. You don't see her crying, but you hear her crying. That moment speaks volumes about the pain and suffering that she's going through as a mother and as a human being. She feels guilty, fearful and frustrated, too. What would a good parent do? Isn't it a parent's job to protect their child from harm? Fortunately, God's Creatures doesn't ask you to judge her. You can, if you want to, but it's far more emotionally rewarding to just experience and observe her. She's a fascinating character whose complexity and conscience makes her all the more human and relatable.

      Emily Watson gives one of her most raw and heartfelt performances since Angela's Ashes. She conveys so much emotion just through her facial expressions, particularly her eyes. She's just as mesmerizing to watch as Tilda Swinton is in The Deep End or Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom, two films which would pair very well with this film. The silent moments in God's Creatures are as powerful or even more so than the scenes with dialogue. The set design, weather, lighting and landscape come together to add to the film's melancholic tone. Then there's the score and use of red color that creates a foreboding tone as though the film might veer into the supernatural, i.e. with demonic possession. Fortunately, it doesn't go in that direction, but the visuals do indeed become poetic. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something. In this case, it's up to the audience to decide what the film is protesting for or against. Perhaps it's a protest for love and against hate or perhaps it's for truth and against lies. Either way, it's very thought provoking. The slow-burn pace makes it easier to absorb the scenes, so kudos to the filmmakers for trusting the audience's patience. At a running time of merely 1 hour and 34 minutes, God's Creatures is a taut, intelligent and genuinely heartfelt psychological thriller.

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

Dos Estaciones

Directed by Juan Pablo González

      Maria Garcia (Teresa Sánchez) owns Dos Estaciones, a tequila factory in Jalisco. She suffers financial hardships when a plague kills the agave crops that her factory relies on to produce tequila, so she hires in assistant, Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), to help get her finances in order in hopes of saving the company. Her closest friend is her hairdresser, Tatín (Tatín Vera), who's in the process of renovating her salon.

      Dos Estaciones is a gently moving character study of Maria Garcia, a woman who faces adversity. She has two kinds of adversities to deal with. The first adversity is her desperate struggle to keep her company afloat after the plague hits her agave crops and a flood damages her factory. Her other adversity is more complex and challenging for her: to deal with all of the mixed emotions of anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear going on inside of her. Writer/director Juan Pablo González and co-writers Ana Isabel Fernández and Ilana Coleman do a wonderful job of getting inside Maria's head with few words so that you can get a sense of what she's feeling. There's no voice-over narration and very little exposition, but if you pay close attention, you'll learn some details about Maria's past, like all the hard work that she had put into plants that she shows Rafaela.  The filmmakers should be commended for trusting the audience's emotions and for understanding the concept that less is more. Not a single scene feels maudlin, contrived or heavy-handed. There's a sense of melancholy, but it's not overstated. Also, there are no unnecessarily subplots, i.e. no romance between Maria and anyone onscreen. Bravo to the filmmakers for seeing and treating Maria as a human being from start to finish. In her own way, she's going through the process of grieving the loss of her factory well before it closes and grieving her hopes and dreams. She has to come to terms with the harsh truth that there's nothing that she can really do to save the company no matter how hard she tries.

      Teresa Sánchez gives a nuanced, tender and heartfelt performance brimming with warmth and charisma. Even during the silent moments, her face, especially her eyes, convey a lot of emotion which show a glimpse of Maria's fragility. She's both strong and fragile concurrently. Sánchez, like the filmmakers, sees and treats Maria like a complex human being which makes it easier for the audience to do the same.  If you've ever faced adversity, you'll be able to relate to Maria to a certain degree. When it comes to the cinematography, director Juan Pablo González shoots many scenes very naturally while giving the audience the impression that they're watching a documentary; you might forget that you're watching a fictional narrative film more often than not. Most impressively, though, González trusts the audience's patience because of how he incorporates moments of silence while moving the film at a slow pace. Patience is often rewarding, so if you're a patient audience member, Dos Estaciones will ultimately reward you. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Dos Estaciones is genuinely poignant, captivating and refreshingly understated. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Cinema Guild.
Opens September 2nd, 2022 at IFC Center.

A Love Song

Directed by Max Walker-Silverman

      Faye (Dale Dickey), lives a quiet life in a trailer on a campground by a lake in rural Colorado. She fishes, drinks coffee and occasionally interacts with a gay couple, Marie (Benja K. Thomas) and Jan (Michelle Wilson), living in a trailer nearby. The mailman, Sam (John Way), might soon give her a letter from a former lover, Lito (Wes Studi), whom she had written to and hopes to receive a reply from him. When Lito shows up in person, he and Faye reconnect and reminisce about their past together.

      The plot synopsis above doesn't do A Love Song any justice because it's much more than just about its plot. Writer/director Max Walker-Silverman keeps the plot as well as the exposition at a bare minimum. He grasps the concept that less is more and that understatement can be a powerful way of connecting with the audience on an emotional level. When you first meet Faye, you don't know much about her, but if you pay close attention to what she says as well as her body language during the quieter scenes, you'll be able to discern a lot about her without any voice-over narration. She's taciturn which makes her all the more interesting. There's probably some sadness, regret, yearning and emotional pain inside of her. After all, she's human, so kudos to writer/director Max Walker-Silverman for seeing and treating her like a human being. Every scene rings true, even the ones where she briefly talks to her neighbors or to her mailman. She patiently and eagerly waits for someone special from her past, but it's not quite clear right away who that person is exactly until he shows up. Once he does arrive, the movie becomes a charming, quietly moving and refreshingly un-Hollywood romance. Patient audiences will be rewarded the most. Some movies are like a slice-of-cake while others are like a slice-of-life. A Love Song is an engrossing slice-of-life like the films of David Lean and Richard Linklater that sweep you away from the first frame until the very last frame.

      Dale Dickey gives the best performance of her career as Faye. She conveys so much emotion without words which is a testament to her skills as an actress, to her emotional generosity, and to the ability to see and treat Faye as a human being. Thanks to her raw, emotionally honest, nuanced performance, the audience can sense an inner life inside of Faye. She begins as a stranger to the audience, but by the end, Faye feels like a fully-fleshed human being who you were happy to meet and get to know. Dickey brings so much warmth to her role. It's so wonderful to see such a complex role for women as well as for older actors. That's something very rare these days. Wes Studi also impresses with his warm and moving performance. No one over-acts or underacts. This is the kind of movie where you forget that these are people acting and that there's a screenplay because it's so seamless and true-to-life.  You don't feel the wheels of the screenplay turning like in the overrated, contrived, sugar-coated and overlong Nomadland. The breathtaking scenery and landscape becomes a character in-and-of itself while adding some visual poetry, but this movie is so much more than just picturesque scenes of nature. Most importantly, it's about human nature. At a running time of merely 1 hour and 21 minutes, A Long Song is a triumph. It's a warm, poetic and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey well worth taking. 

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

      Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is an exhilarating and insightful documentary biopic about Leonard Cohen and his song "Hallelujah." Co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine combine archival concert footage, archival interviews with Leonard Cohem, audio recordings of interviews, and contemporary interviews with musicians and record producers. You'll even see interviews with Leonard Cohen rabbi, Mordecai Finely. The documentary charts Cohen's life chronologically from his childhood to his rise to fame, his fall from fame and then his comeback until his death. They don't shy away from including some of his emotional struggles as well as financial struggles, i.e. when his $5,000,000 pension was pilfered later in his life. Geller and Goldfine capture Cohen's palpable charisma. In the archival interviews, he seems bright and very zen---not surprisingly, he joined a Zen Buddhist monastery in 1994. Even at the monastery, he still managed to write songs. His good friend and collaborator, Judy Collins, makes a list of adjectives that describe precisely what made him stand out to her. One of those adjectives she lists is that he's mysterious which is a very perceptive observation.

      As an interviewee wisely admits, the song "Hallelujah" is open to interpretation. What makes it so special is that Leonard Cohen used a word, hallelujah, that usually has religious connotations, and brought it back down to Earth for the masses. Other musicians, i.e. Jeff Buckley, sang their own version of the song. Shrek used the song, too, but omitted the lyrics that aren't meant for kids to hear. Cohen does get asked at one point to comment on all of the different versions of his song from different music artists. His answer won't be spoiled here, though. Perhaps the most profound statement comes from someone who says that it's an insult to the artist to ask him or her to explain his art. He makes a good point albeit it's a harsh truth that's a lot to process. When it comes down to it, Leonard Cohen's songs speak for themselves. They're transcendant beyond words. The same can be said about Cohen's charisma. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song provides a glimpse into Loenard Cohen's heart, mind and soul. Now on VOD.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp

      Marcel (voice of Jenny Slate), a shell with shoes on, lives with his grandma, Connie (voice of Isabella Rossellini) inside the Airbnb home of a human, Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp). He used to live among many other shells that were part of his friends and family, but after the previous homeowners, Larissa (Rosa Salazar) and Mark (Thomas Mann), divorced and moved out, they took the other shells with them. Dean decides to document Marcel's life and to post the videos online in hopes of using social media to find the previous homeowners and Marcel's long-lost family and friends. When Marcel becomes an internet sensation, he catches the attention of 60 Minutes's journalist, Lesley Stahl, whom he's a huge fan of.

      Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is an enormously entertaining delight for all ages. It's not a Pixar film, but it has the heart, mind and soul of a Pixar film. The screenplay by writer/director Dean Fleischer-Camp and co-writers Jenny Slate and Nick Paley do a great job of expanding the shorts and children's book that it's based on. Sometimes a feature-length film based on a short feels stretched too thinly, but that's not the case here. The filmmakers find just the right balance between making audiences laugh and pulling at their heartstrings without going overboard either way. They introduce you to the world of Marcel through the "documentary" that Dean films about Marcel with a light sense of humor. The first ten minutes or so are basically expositional, but far from dry. You'll learn how Marcel ended up alone with his grandma and Dean, and how Marcel and his grandma have a symbiotic relationship with insects inside the house and outdoors. You'll also get to know Marcel's personality. He's not only adorable, but also witty, funny and optimistic. His bond with his grandma is very endearing.

      Marcel the Shell On could've easily become either too schmaltzy, zany or tedious. Fortunately, the wonderful screenplay avoids all of those pitfalls, and it also has a few surprises up its sleeve, i.e. a scene with a squirrel that won't be spoiled here. The filmmakers don't pander to the audience, so they allow the film to be family-friendly without being infantile or too silly either. You'll end up caring about Marcel as though he were human, and you'll be rooting for him to find the happiness that he deserves. As the powerful poem by Pablo Neruda says, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." To watch the garden of Marcel's soul flourish as he searches for his beloved family and friends is a joyous, profound and inspirational experience to behold.

      On an aesthetic level, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is also a triumph. The stop-motion animation adds to the film's charms and visual delights. Jenny Slate has just the right kind of voice for Marcel that's filled with both cuteness and emotion. The pace moves briskly, but not too briskly. Most importantly, though, the uplifting third act earns its uplift every step of the way. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a heartwarming, funny and exuberant delight for everyone, young and old. It's destined to become a cult classic.

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


Directed by Oualid Mouaness

      The faculty and students of a school in Lebanon deal with the imminent invasion of Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. Meanwhile, Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), a shy 11-year-old student, has a crush on a classmate, Joanna (Gia Madi), so he asks his friend, Majid (Ghassan Maalouf), to help him confess his feelings for her. Joanna lives beyond a checkpoint in Beirut that would make it hard for them to visit each other outside of school, but that doesn't deter Wissam from pursuing her. The contrasting political beliefs of Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman) and Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), two teachers in love, threaten the stability of their relationship.

      Although 1982 is set during the 1982 Lebanon War, it's not really a war film per se; it's a story about human beings, love, and innocence amidst dark times. Even within a dark tunnel, there could be a small light. Writer/director Oualid Mouaness captures that light in the dark tunnel, so-to-speak, as he focuses on the relationships between Wissam and Joanna, Wissam and Majid, and Joseph and Yasmine, while the war and imminent invasion remains in the background, for the most part. The interactions between Wissam and Joanna are sweet, tender and heartfelt without being cloying. Anyone who has ever had a first crush as a child will be able to relate to Wissam. It's also interesting that Wissam has a vivid imagination, like many children, and is good at drawing. At one point, Mouaness incorporates animation in the film that provides the audience with a window into Wassim's imagination in a very inventive and poignant way. The relationship between Joseph and Yasmine is more complex, but just as grounded in humanism, a truly special effect. Mouaness eschews showing the life of either of the characters at home, so he keeps the film lean while omitting any padding. However, there's just enough exposition for the audience to infer what their home life might be like. Similarly, the horrors of the war are left to the audience's imagination. Most importantly, though, he brings the characters to life enough for you to care about them as human beings.

      The performances by all of the actors and actresses, even those in the smaller roles, are genuinely heartfelt. Nadine Labaki is radiant and charismatic, just as expected. The brief use of animation during a key scene that won't be spoiled here helps to invigorate the film while adding a thought-provoking layer of lyricism through metaphors. A metaphor can also be found in the birds that show up inside the school; no, the birds aren't used in the same exact way that Hitchcock uses them as symbolism in The Birds, but it's just as intriguing. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest. Even love poems are a protest against something. What is 1982 for or against? The fact that it's a protest against war and for love is quite obvious, but it's a vital, timely and profoundly human message well worth repeating loud and clear. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, 1982 is a triumph. It's an engrossing, poetic and life-affirming emotional journey.

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


Directed by Bogdan George Apetri

      Cristina (Ioana Bugarin), a nun, escapes a convent suffering from an ailment that she doesn't disclose. She takes a taxi to the hospital, but on her way back from the hospital, she takes a ride with a different cab driver, Batin (Cezar Antal). When she's reported missing, detective Marius Preda (Emanuel Pârvu) arrives at the convent to investigate where she went and what happened to her.

      Miracle has many twists and turns, so the less that you know about its plot, the better. The plot synopsis above intentionally leaves out the surprises. Writer/director Bogdan George Apetri does a great job of playing around the audience's expectations as he begins the film as one genre and switches to another in the second half. If you think that Miracle is about a nun who's unhappy at her convent and yearns to be free, you're partially correct. Apetri trusts the audience's intelligence as well as their patience and imagination which is evident in a key scene that would've been graphic if it were shown to the audience unflinchingly. You hear the sounds during that scene, but you can't see precisely what's happening. That makes the scene actually far more horrifying because your imagination is quite powerful.

      The second half of Miracle builds the suspense in a Hitchcockian style except that you already know the identity of the villain. Detective Marius Preda re-traces Cristina's steps which reveals a little bit more information about what you observed in the first half with Cristina. It also confirms what you might've suspected was the reason why she went to the hospital in the first place. As gripping as the second half feels, it's also surprisingly moving because Apetri humanizes the detective. Marius comes across as a tough, smart, yet emotionally vulnerable human being. There's one scene toward the end, which won't be spoiled here, where he makes a morally ambiguous decision that says a lot about how he's feeling and what he's thinking. Sometimes a film that veers toward a completely new direction takes a nosedive; that can't be said about this film, though, because it actually becomes increasingly complex and intriguing. Miracle does go toward dark territory, but it doesn't forget to remain grounded in realism which makes it all the more engrossing.

      The performances are all natural and convincingly moving, particularly the performance of Ioana Bugarin and Emanuel Pârvu. Bugarin also impresses during the film's quieter moments during the first half. Writer/director Bogdan George Apetri keeps the pace moving slow, but not sluggishly, while trusting the audience's patience. Patience, after all, can be very rewarding. Even the question of "Why is the film called Miracle?" will be answered eventually if you're willing to wait. There are some hauntingly poetic visuals that speak louder than words, i.e. the final shot. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Miracle is spellbinding, suspenseful and engrossing.

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


Directed by Niki Karimi

      Kazem (Hadi Hejazifar), an middle-aged architect from Tehran, returns to his village hometown after learning that his sister committed suicide. She was stuck in an arranged marriage with an abusive husband who sold their orchard to a different family. Kazem holds a grudge against his domineering father, (Yoosefali Daryadel), and his best friend, Yahya (Ezati), becomes he blames them for his sister's suicide. Meanwhile, he meets Sima (Sahar Dolatshahi) and develops a romance with her.

      In Atabai, Kazem arrives at his hometown with a lot of pent-up anger, sorrow, regret and hatred. The screenplay by writer/director Niki Karimi and co-writer Hadi Hejazifar gradually shows how he confronts his traumatic past and learns how to process his emotions to get rid of his hatred toward his father, his best friend and even his sister's husband. There's a hint of Kazem's darker emotions in the first minute of the film, but the filmmakers don't reveal Kazem's tragic past right away. As he drives with his nephew, Aydan (Danial Noroush), toward the village, little does he know what's in store for him when he discovers that his sister's husband sold the orchard which was her dowry. Karimi and Hekazifar do a great job of incorporating just the right amount of exposition without resorting to flashbacks. They also avoid cheesiness and melodrama. Interestingly, the romance between Kazem and Sima is only a small, yet important subplot with a bittersweet climax. Kazem's sister and her husband aren't even shown; they remain in the audience's imagination as well as in Kazem's memories.

      Throughout the course of the film, Kazem deals with his emotional pains head-on while confronting his father and best friend. His emotional journey and epiphanies are genuinely moving and profound, so his character arc feels real. There's a small, but powerful scene when he tries to hold back his tears by saying that he won't cry. What's wrong with a man crying? Would that make him less of a man? He'll learn that bottling his emotions isn't healthy nor is it an easy task. He's a human being, after, all, so by expressing his emotions, facing them and challenging them, he embraces his own humanity. Another equally potent scene is a when Kazen has a heart-to-heart with his father who shows some signs of introspection and emotional pain of his own. Every character is a human being in Atabai, so kudos to the filmmakers for seeing and treating the characters that way. Even Kazem's love interest, Sima, and his best friend, Yahya, suffer from emotional pains of their own which make them all the more human and relatable.

      Atabai is very well-shot with some poetic imagery. The landscape in and around the village becomes a character in and of itself. Some of the shots are even haunting, i.e. during the scene when Kazem talks about superstition that when you dream about a dead person and pull their finger in the dream, they'll reveal secrets to you. Director Niki Karimi also includes some birds-eye views of the village which adds to the film's scope. She moves the film along at an appropriately slow, but not too slow, pace. The performances, especially by Hadi Hejazifar, are raw, natural and convincingly moving. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Atabai is a genuinely heartfelt, wise and tender emotional journey.

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


Directed by Alex Garland

      Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to an isolated cottage in a remote English village after a traumatic, tragic event occurs with her abusive husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). The cottage's owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), greets her, but soon she crosses paths with a naked, muddy man (also Rory Kinnear), who stalks her to the cottage. She also meets other people in the village, like the vicar, a policeman and a pub owner, all who physically resemble Geoffrey.

      One of the many brilliant aspects of Men is that it can be seen as a metaphor for dealing with a toxic lover and how hard it is to escape a toxic relationship. Or it can be seen as a surreal sci-fi horror thriller. Either way, writer/director Alex Garland has woven a fascinating psychological character study of an abused woman. Harper left an abusive relationship with James which she thought was over for sure, but when she moves into the cottage, she soon realizes that the traumatic memories of their relationship still haunts her. Something happened to her husband that she witnessed the last time he saw her. Garland only provides the audiences with snippets from Harper's memory through flashbacks until you learn everything that happened to him and what led to that event. James is a malignant, gaslighting narcissist. When Harper confronts him about how he's scaring her, he reacts with a narcissist tactic called DARVO (Deny, Attack and Reverse the Order of Victim/Offender). He gaslights her into thinking that she's the one scaring him and that he's the victim. Her experiences at the cottage become increasingly bizarre, so don't be surprised if you're confused initially.

      On an intellectual level, Garland puts you right where Harper is which means that you know as much as she knows about what's going on. Why did the naked man stalk her? Why does almost everyone in the village look like Geoffrey? It's almost as outrageously funny and absurd as that scene in Being John Malkovich when John Malkovich goes into his own portal. If you're patient, you'll find the answers in the third act or, better yet, if you think critically about what the vicar replies to Harper when she opens up to him about how her husband abused her, you might be able to figure out the twist. It doesn't really matter if you can predict the ending or not because what does matter is Harper's emotional journey toward that climax. Without spoiling precisely what happens at the end, it's worth noting that Garland shows that he's unafraid to take risks and to go into dark territory with shades of Cronenberg, Kubrick, Jordan Peele and Charlie Kaufman. A key scene he omits during the last few minutes highlights the fact that he trusts the audience's intelligence and imagination to fill in the gaps on their own by connecting the dots.

      Jessie Buckley, one of the best actresses of our times, gives yet another radiant, heartfelt performance in a role that's filled with complex emotions. Garland designs the window into Harper's heart, mind and soul through the screenplay while Buckley opens that window and jumps right through it. You're able to send Harper's vulnerability as well as her inner strength that gradually rises to the surface. She's emotionally mature, but that doesn't mean that she's not sensitive or can process her emotions easily. Buckley's moving performance helps the audience to care about Harper's struggle which is concurrently an innate struggle. Rory Kinnear is also super in multiple roles, especially his role of Geoffrey which he plays in a sort of tongue-in-cheek, amusing way, i.e. when he jokes to Harper about how she made a big mistake by eating an apple from a tree in the cottage's front lawn. Gayle Rankin plays Harper's friend who she communicates with via FaceTime, but it's a role that only becomes more important in the third act. On a purely aesthetic level, Men is a triumph as the cinematography, set design, lighting and sound design combine to create a chilling, almost dream-like atmosphere. Many of the shots, like the one in the tunnel with the reflections of the puddle, are breathtaking and creepy at the same time. The tunnel, the apple tree, and what happens to Harper throughout the film can be seen as a metaphor, if you wish to perceive them that way. Garland doesn't over-explain anything or spell everything out clearly regarding what the metaphors even mean, so that's up for you, as an intelligent, sensitive human being, to decide. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Men is bold, provocative and engrossing. It's one of the best psychological thrillers since Get Out.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens Friday, May 20th nationwide.

Montana Story

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

      Cal (Owen Teague), a young man, returns home to his family's ranch to deal with the estate of his dying father who lays comatose at home after suffering a stroke. He reunites with his father's longtime housekeeper,  Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), and meets his father's nurse,  Ace (Gilbert Owuor), an immigrant from Kenya. When his estranged half-sister, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), shows up unexpectedly, she's unhappy to learn that he plans on putting the family's precious horse down. She also reawakens both of their memories of of their childhood trauma.

       The screenplay by co-writers/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel treats its characters like human beings from the very beginning. They allow the audience to gradually get to know Cal and Erin and to learn about their emotional pain that comes from a traumatic event from the past. For example, when Cal first sees Erin as she arrives at the ranch, there's a long pause. The way that he talks to her speaks volumes about their relationship.  You don't know right away what led Cal and Erin to become estranged or why they're angry at their father, but eventually you do through the well-written exposition that keeps you in just the right amount of suspense. Cal has a scene where he opens up emotionally to Ace who's compassionate enough to listen to him. It's one of the film's most powerful and poignant scenes because the emotions that Cal bottled up and suddenly expresses feel real. There's no melodrama or schmaltz throughout the film. With a less sensitive screenplay, it could've turned into a contrived soap opera. Instead, it's as nuanced, understated and moving as Ordinary People. The relationship between Cal and Erin also feels authentic thanks to the well-written screenplay, i.e. the true-to-life scene as they talk in the car while on the way to buy a pick-up truck. The way that their relationships evolve and how they experience epiphanies feel organic, especially during the sweet and refreshingly un-Hollywood third act.  

      Owen Teague gives the best performance of his career. He handles the emotional complexities of his role very convincingly. Even though you learn very little about Cal's life beyond his childhood trauma, he still manages to be a fully-fleshed human being. You can sense that he hasn't been able to talk to anyone about his emotional pain before and that he feels some sort of catharsis by talking about it to someone who's willing to listen to him. Teague finds Cal's emotional truth which is what makes his performance transcendent. The same can be said about Haley Lu Richardson who has a moving scene in the third act as Erin finally gets to put her emotions to words, too. Whether or not Cal and Erin will fully heal from their trauma remains up to the audience to interpret, but it's certain that their healing has begun as they acknowledge their emotional wounds without ignoring the pain that comes from those wounds. As the poet Pablo Neruda once wisely wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Hopefully, new flowers will begin to grow for Cal and Erin as they heal. It's also worth mentioning the picturesque landscape which provides levity, by relaxing one's mind, as well as some visual poetry. The pace moves along slowly, but not too slowly--just enough for the audience to get absorbed by the story without any scenes that drag. Kudos to the filmmakers for trusting the audience's patience which is rare these days. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, Montana Story is a warm, wise and genuinely heartfelt emotional journey. It would make for an interesting double feature with The Skeleton Twins.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Bleecker Street.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

The Innocents

Directed by Eskil Vogt

      Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), a young girl, moves into a new apartment with her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), father (Morten Svartveit), and older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). She meets Ben (Sam Ashraf) at a playground and discovers that he has telekinetic superpowers. He teaches her how to harness her own telekinetic superpowers. They befriend Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another girl from the neighborhood, who lives with her mom (Kadra Yusuf) and also learns telekinesis. Soon, their use of telekinetic powers goes too far and gets them into trouble.

      Writer/director Eskil Vogt combines horror, thriller, sci-fi and coming-of-age drama in a way that would've been tonally uneven and clunky with a less sensitive screenplay. He keeps the exposition to a minimum while letting the audience come to their own conclusions about where the children's superpowers come from and whether or not it symbolises something metaphorically. It's fundamentally a story about human nature. As The Exorcist's director William Friedkin once told me in an interview, what makes dark themes so compelling is the tug of war between good and evil. That's precisely what happens in The Innocents. The kids' superpowers can be used for good or for something more sinister. They look innocent to their parents who don't give them much attention or supervision. Are the parents to blame for their children's actions? Can the children learn the difference between right and wrong on their own? Can they learn how to understand the consequences of their actions? It doesn't seem like they do based on their behavior. What they do to a cat won't be spoiled here, but it says a lot about what happens when adults don't supervise their own kids enough. Fortunately, the horror and sci-fi elements aren't overdone nor does the film go over-the-top in the surprisingly understated and provocative third act.

      Although The Innocents is a horror film, it doesn't rely on gore, CGI effects of jump scares to scare the audience. The horror is much more of the psychological kind and even more disturbing because the kids look like angels one minute, but bad seeds the next when they're away from their parents. The CGI and practical effects that are used, though, look impressive. There are a few very eerie and atmospheric shots, i.e. when the camera pans the outside of the apartment complex upside down. It's even more effective than the upside-down tracking shot in the opening scene of last year's Candyman. The child actors are all superb, especially Rakel Lenora Fløttum who's just as radiant as Haley Joel Osment is in The Sixth Sense. Vogt moves the film along at a slow, but not too slow pace which allows for the audience to gradually become more absorbed in these characters' lives and in the increasingly complex narrative. At a running time of just under 2 hours, The Innocents is one of the creepiest, powerful and heartfelt psychological horror films since The Sixth Sense.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Midnight.
Now playing at at IFC Center and Film Society at Lincoln Center.

Il Buco

Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino

      In 1960s Italy, a group of speleologists slowly descend Bifurto Abyss, a 700-foot cave that had not yet been explored. Meanwhile, an elderly, ailing man (Antonio Lanza), who works as a shepherd goes missing.

       Based on the true story of the 1961 exploration of Bifurto Abyss, the screenplay by writer/director Michelangelo Frammartino and co-writer Giovanna Giuliani eschew conventionality by eschewing a complex plot, characters and even dialogue. They trust the audience's intelligence to decipher the meaning of what they're watching and to connect, on their own, the story of the shepherd with the experiences of the speleologists. None of the people onscreen are named. There are no backstories, narration, or exposition. The only expositional text comes at the very end before the end credits roll. There's a lot going on if you're paying attention and are willing to absorb sights and sounds. It's a truly immersive experience that's hard to put into words. Words aren't really necessary in a quiet, meditative film like this. Part of what makes it even more engrossing is that it feels like a documentary without any scenes that would make you think that you're watching actors. The filmmakers capture an authenticity that makes for an occasionally exhilarating experience, especially the scenes of the cave exploration. They grasp the fact that there are many ways to communicate with the audience, not just through dialogue.

       The visuals alone in Il Buco are worth watching the film for. Frammartino finds poetry in the many breathtaking shots. He trusts the audience's patience which definitely will be a frustrating experience for those of you with a short attention span who prefer a fast pace. The pace moves slowly which feels very refreshing and relaxing. There are no big action scenes or huge twists, even though there is a subplot involving the elderly shepherd's disappearance. Frammartino's greatest strength, though, is his ability to take what sounds mundane and turn it into something rich and profound. Seemingly simple shots like of a soccer ball being kicked above the opening of the cave are among the most hauntingly beautiful moments.  Yes, Il Buco requires a lot of patience, but patience is often rewarding which can be said about this film. It's also worth mentioning the terrific sound design that helps to make it even more immersive. If Il Buco were 3 hours long, it would've overstayed its welcome, but at a running time of 1 hour and 87 minutes, Frammertino shows restraint, another important strength of his. It's an awe-inspiring, transcendent, refreshing and visually poetic experience. Il Buco would be an interesting double feature with Cow, Hukkle, or Le Quattro Volte.

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


Directed by Audrey Diwan

      verything has gone smoothly for Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a university student in 1963 France, until she learns that she's pregnant. She desperately tries to seek an abortion even though it's legal, but no doctor wants to help her. Even her friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), don't know how to help her. Neither does her classmate, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein). Anne's mother, Gabrielle (Sandrine Bonnaire tries to be there for her daughter, but Anne hasn't found the courage to tell her about her struggles to get an abortion.

      Happening has a vague title and it never once uses the word "abortion", but there's no doubt that that's precisely what Anne seeks within the first 30 minutes. Based on a the novel by Annie Ernaux, the film isn't really fundamentally about abortion. Instead, the screenplay by writer/director Audrey Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano follows Anne's experiences after learning that she's pregnant and then, gradually, opens enough of a window into Anne to grasp her heart, mind and soul. Anne goes through a lot of emotions including sadness, frustration, confusion and anger. Tragically, she doesn't have anyone to talk to about what she's going through to help her process her emotions. Her mother seems like she would be right person for her to confide in, but she doesn't. No one really understands what she's going through except the audience because the screenplay manages to successfully humanize Anne. Fortunately, Happening doesn't shy away from the darker elements of the story which, at times, almost veers into a horror film like Spencer. There's zero comic relief or any levity, but, to be fair, it would be very, very difficult to add comic relief to such a heavy subject matter. Although director/co-writer Audrey Diwan does show Anne's first abortion attempt in a lengthy scene that's not easy to watch, it does leave the images of the abortion off-camera to the imagination of the audience, so Diwan clearly grasps the power of the imagination. The second abortion attempt, interestingly, is completely omitted. Interestingly, what's also omitted is any discussion of who might be the guy who impregnated Anne to begin with. Diwan doesn't ask you to judge Anne, although you're welcome to if you wish to. It's more important that you experience her, as the screenplay provides plenty of opportunities for you to do so. What you think about the issue of abortion doesn't really matter because Happening doesn't preach about the complex, provocative topic. It's up to you, through your own projections and opinions, to discuss and debate it afterward.

      Anamaria Vartolomei gives a raw, engrossing performances that captures all of Anne's wide range of complex emotions very convincingly. She also handles the small, quiet moments effectively because she allows for the audience to witness into Anne's heart, mind and soul during those moments and to observe her innate sadness. There's a sense of voyeurism to watching Anne which isn't comfortable to watch nor should it be, but it takes an emotionally generous actress and filmmaker to open the curtain, so to speak, for the audience to peer into. The cinematography is often up close to Anne which is reminiscent of the Dardennes brothers' filmmaking style. The music score also adds some style as well as substance providing the audience with a sense of unease as though they were watching a horror film. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Happening is an engrossing, honest and gripping emotional journey. It's just as powerful as Vera Drake and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

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


Directed by Gaspar Noé

      A husband (Dario Argento) lives his wife (Françoise Lebrun) in a dilapidated apartment. He suffers from a heart condition while she battles dementia. Their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), a drug addict, visits them to try to convince them to go to an assisted living facility.

      As Hitchcock once wisely observed, some movies are a slice-of-cake while others a slice-of-life. Vortex is very much a slice-of-life albeit one that's toward a tragic stage of a husband and wife's life. The plot, if you want to even call it that, has very little going on on the surface, but a lot goes on beneath the surface and in the husband and wife's backstories. Writer/director Gaspar Noé has been known for making intense movies with explicit sex and violence like Irreversible, Love and Enter the Void. With Vortex, he goes for explicit, unflinching emotional grit without any sugar-coating. He depicts old age and dementia in a way that's honest even though it's difficult to watch. If you're having a hard time watching people suffering, that means you have a heart, mind, soul and, above all, a conscience. There's very little enjoyable about Vortex, but that's part of the point. Life isn't always easy. We all grow old. Noé doesn't ask you to judge the husband and wife or their son for that matter. He's not asking you to pity them, either. Instead, he's asking you to see them as flawed human beings who are going through a tough time while dealing with a lot of emotional baggage.

      The way that Noé incorporates their backstory for exposition feels very organic as does that dialogue. There's very little levity, though, but to be fair, such a harrowing subject matter is hard to balance with comic relief. The film remains focused on the husband, wife and their son without flashbacks. Concurrently, you, as an audience member represent the fourth character because you're observing these people like a voyeur. That means that how you view them depends on your own life experiences, your emotional maturity, and your own projections based on that. Many scenes feel emotionally resonating, but there's one particularly powerful one when Stéphane sits down with his mother and father to try to have a heart-to-heart. If you open up your heart, mind and soul to Vortex, it will end up a very emotionally and spiritually enriching experience. Death, after all, is a part of life, so it's a testament to Gasper Noé courage, emotional generosity and emotional maturity that he looks at both life and death head-on and honestly.

      Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun and Alex Lutz each give nuanced, heartfelt and raw performances that ground Vortex even further in authenticity. They breathe life into their roles with the help of the screenplay that provides plenty of opportunities for them to be emotionally naked in front of the camera. That makes their performances brave because emotonal nakedness is far more intimate and revealing than physical nakedness. It's hard to discuss Vortex without mentioning Gaspar Noé's use of the split screen to tell the story. The split screen doesn't occur right away, but gradually in the beginning after he introduces the husband, wife and son to the audience. The stylish opening credits are also worth mentioning. Noé certainly appears to like creative opening credits---see Enter the Void for the best example of that. Fortunately, the film's visual style doesn't get in the way of its substance nor does it become distracting. It actually becomes somewhat poetic, although it does leave it up to the audience to interpret what it means. At a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, which actually doesn't feel as long, Vortex is unflinching, genuinely heartfelt and profoundly human. It's just as powerful, emotionally mature and haunting as Mass.

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

The Duke

Directed by Roger Michell

      Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a retired cab driver, lives in Newcastle with his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), and sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira), while writing screenplays on the side. He steals Goya�s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery to shed light on his political point about the government's waste of taxpayer's money and to promote his belief that all senior citizens should receive free TV licences.

      Based on an incredibly true story, The Duke manages to be just as sweet, funny and delightful as Saving Grace and Ealing Studios' classic comedies from the Golden Age of British Cinema during the 40's and 50's. Kempton remains endearing despite his flaws and the fact that he went to prison twice. Once for failing to pay his TV licence fees and again for the theft of the Duke of Wellington painting. Although The Duke does have a heist scene, it's not really that nor is it a heist film. The witty screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman sets the comedic tone right away during the first few minutes as Kempton pleads not guilty over and over in court to the charges related to the heist before flashing back to show how he ended up in court. There are a few surprises and twists along the way which won't be spoiled here, and it would be best if you don't know about the true story of Kempton Bunton beforehand. The Duke excels at knowing precisely when to take itself seriously and when not to. The courtroom scenes are amusing and veer toward parody without going over-the-top. The lengths that Kempton goes to stand up for what he believes in is up for debate, but The Duke doesn't ask you to judge him, just to experience him. Cut from the same cloth as Daniel Blake from Ken Loach's sociopolitical I, Daniel Blake, he comes across as a kind-hearted, compassionate and intelligent human being despite his brushes with the law.

      Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are both terrific as Kempton and Dorothy Bunton. They bring tremendous charisma, warmth and tenderness to their roles while finding the emotional truth of the characters. They breathe life into their roles with pure, unadulterated naturalism. There's no hammy or stilted performance throughout the entire film, and Fionn Whitehead is also very well-cast as the one of Kempton's sons. The film moves along briskly enough without a dull moment. Director Roger Michell knows how to edit The Duke to make it cinematic, yet grounded in realism or, more importantly, humanism, a truly special effect. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, The Duke is a crowd-pleasing, funny and charming throwback to Ealing Studios' classic British comedies. It will make you stand up and cheer.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classic.
Now playing in select theaters.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

      Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) owns a laundromat with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). They're scheduled for a meeting with a no-bullshit IRS agent, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), for an audit. They have until 6 PM that day to present Deirdre with the right documents and receipts or else the IRS will fine them and shut down their laundromat. Their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), announces that she has a girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), but Evelyn has no clue how to explain it to Gong Gong (James Hong), Evelyn's father. Meanwhile, she learns that Waymond wants to divorce her. On the way to the IRS meeting, Waymond introduces her to a device that connects their family and Deirdre to parallel multiverses that could help them with their tax audit. � �

      The less you know about the plot beforehand, the better because Everything Everywhere All At Once goes in many surprising directions with some unpredictable twists along the way. Co-writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as "The Daniels," have created a wildly entertaining, audacious and funny trip down the rabbit hole. To compare it to other films that it has a lot in common with, i.e. The Matrix, Being John Malkovitch, Scott Pilgrim and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, wouldn't do it any justice. They mix up the genres of action, sci-fi, satire, comedy and drama which sounds like, on paper at least, that it would lead to an uneven, tonal mess, but it somehow works without unevenness. This is a prime example of a brilliant concept that's just as brilliantly executed. It's fundamentally a story about a dysfunctional family going through a struggle between the family members themselves and the family and the IRS.

     �Yes, there are plenty of silly scenes, but they're amusing when they're not laugh-out-loud funny. You'll find some visual gags, including one that involves a blurred out image that leaves a lot to the imagination and will be discussed as much as the iconic hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary. There's also witty, tongue-in-cheek humor and some "easter eggs" which might require repeat viewings to catch all of it. Exposition is also among the film's strengths because the Daniels find just the right amount of exposition about the multiverses which might be confusing initially, but that's okay because Evelyn herself is just as confused as the audience during those scenes. The Daniels know when to take the film seriously and when not to, so there are actually some surprising moments of poignancy and even some life lessons about compassion, kindness and forgiveness which add intellectual and emotional depth. It's the rare action adventure film with a heart, mind and soul.

      Michelle Yeoh gives one of the best performances of her career in a role that showcases how talented she as an actress when it comes to pulling off drama, action and comedy. She's just as wonderful and mesmerizing as she is in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, another subverse, genre bending film that Everything Everywhere All At Once holds a candle to. Jamie Lee Curtis has a lot of fun in her role as the IRS agent. It's a pleasure to watch both her and Michelle Yeoh let loose, especially in one of the multiverses where their characters have hot dogs as fingers. The visual effects are impressive and the soundtrack is also quite well-chosen. The running time of 2 hour and 12 minutes does feel a bit overlong, though, which results in a little exhaustion around the 90-minute mark, but, fortunately, Everything Everywhere All At Once never runs out of steam or ideas for that matter. You'd be better off watching it with a large crowd while high or with a few drinks. It's destined to become a cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing in select theaters. Opens nationwide on April 8th, 2022.


Directed by Andrew Levitas

      W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp), a photojournalist for Life Magazine, travels to Minamata, Japan in 1971 to photograph the harmful effects of mercury poisoning on the people of Minamata. The local chemical company Chisso is responsible for polluting the city's water with mercury and causing the people to suffer from Minamata disease. Meanwhile, he falls in love with an activist, Aileen (Minami), while risking his life to take photos for Life Magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy).

      Minamata works both as a character study as well as a slow-burning thriller about someone who joins the movement to expose a environmental and human rights issue. W. Eugene Smith is such a man. He's broken on the inside and haunted from his experiences as a war photojournalist. He drinks heavily and struggles to make ends meet. What the screenplay by David Kessler captures so effectively is Smith's perseverance, awareness and courage to do the right, moral thing even if it means putting himself in danger. Smith's camera is, in a way, like a weapon or at least a tool that leads toward a powerful weapon: the truth. That makes Smith essentially a soldier to a certain extent. His confrontation with one of the executives of Chisso Corporation is one of the film's most powerful scenes as the two of them go head to head--their combat in that case is with words, not with guns. Smith's relationship with Aileen remains a less effective subplot that doesn't get explored enough and remains on the sideline too much. Director Andrew Levitas deserves praise, though, for not shying away from showing the horrors of the mercury poisoning as the victims suffer debilitating effects. He andscreenerwer David Kessler don't judge Smith for his flaws. He's a fallible human being who's going through a lot emotionally while not giving up no matter what his obstacles are. He's concurrently a hero for expositing injustices to the world through his photos. Not all heroes wear capes, after all.

      Johnny Depp plays against type with an understated, nuanced and emotionally resonating performance. He helps to further ground Minamata in authenticity even in the moments of silence. The same can be said for his beard which actually looks real. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't resort to using voice-over narration which means that they trust the audience's emotions and intelligence. They also wisely trust Depp's performance which provides a window into Smith's soul. Bill Nighy impresses in his supporting role, but there aren't enough scenes with him. The main focus is on Smith and his experiences in Minamata. Aesthetically, the cinematography is terrific with stylish use of lighting at times, and even some scenes that revert to black-and-white. Be sure to stay through end credits that show Smith's photos. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Minamata is spellbinding, taut and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Now playing at Regal Union Square and Regal UA Kaufman Astoria.


Directed by Laura Wandel

      7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) goes to school with her older brother, Abel (G?nter Duret). He gets picked on by classmates repeatedly. When she witnesses him getting bullied, she tries her best to stop it by informing teachers, but to no avail.

      Writer/director Laura Wandel uses a documentary-like approach to telling a seemingly simple narrative about a bullied child. Playground is not just about bullying, though, but about the relationship between a brother and his sister who's gradually learning how to process her emotions and how to react to it upon witnessing bullies picking on her brother. Wandel doesn't paint the bullies as villains; they're just kids who don't understand the consequences of their actions. Whether that's because of the school's incompetent faculty or because of the bullies' parents isn't the focus here, but it does provoke that debate. Wandel focuses on the emotional journey of Nora and her experiences at school while following her closely. It's that particular journey of Nora's that makes Playground profound, poignant and unflinching. Nora is in nearly every frame of the film which puts the audience in her perspective and can get a sense of how she's feeling and what she's thinking even without narration. Wandel should also be commended for turning what may seem mundane into something so much more profound and interesting. In other words, the details of what Nora experiences at the school make the film absorbing because it's more grounded in realism and, above all, humanism.

      Maya Vanderbeque and G?nter Duret give very natural performances as do all of the child actors. The adult actors don't have much of a role to play here because they're merely supporting characters, but even the small role of Nora's father played by Karim Leklou also feels organic. The documentary-like approach along how close the camera to Nora is reminiscent of the Dardenne brother's films like Rosetta or The Kid With a Bike. Wandel doesn't use any music to tug on the audience's heartstrings because she trusts their emotions. The material itself has enough emotional depth and even some tension that music would be redundant or a way of spoon-feeding the audience. Wandel doesn't avoid sentimentality, but she does wisely avoid preachiness, schmaltz and melodrama. The final shot of the film, which won't be spoiled here, is a simple, yet sweet and tender scene that speaks louder than words. It will haunt the audience much like the last shot in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows or, to a certain extent, like a powerful moment between two characters at the end of Mass that hits similar notes. At a brief running time of just 1 hour and 12 minutes, Playground is a provocative, engrossing and honest slice-of-life.

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

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds

Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

      Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) raises her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) alone on the outskirts of N?Djamena, Chad. When Maria announces that she's pregnant, Amina does everything she can to get her an abortion despite that it's against the law. She also tries to find out who got her pregnant and to hold him accountable.

      Lingui: The Sacred Bonds has what seems like a lean and simple plot, but it becomes increasingly complex. Writer/director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun takes a mostly cinema verite approach to telling the narrative as he introduces Amina as she works her day job selling stoves and struggles to make ends meet. The audience gradually learns more and more about Amina's life without flashbacks to the time when she was married to her husband who left her years earlier. Instead, Haroun keeps the narrative focused on Amina's desperate attempts to get an abortion for her beloved daughter and on how Maria's pregnancy out of wedlock reacks havoc on her life. Even Maria's school kicks her out. What transpires after that and whether or not Amina succeeds in finding someone who's willing to abort Maria's baby won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that the screenplay maintains a sense of naturalism for the most part, except for one scene which goes into very dark territory all of a sudden as Lingui: The Sacred Bonds briefly veers into a different kind of genre. That unevenness is ephemeral, though, and a minor misstep in an otherwise genuinely heartfelt film that sees and treats its characters like human beings.

      ?Fortunately, the performances by Achouackh Abakar Souleymane and Rihane Khalil Alio add to the film's naturalism and allows it to be further grounded in humanism, especially in warmth. You can palpably sense the love, compassion and concern that Amina has for her daughter. Another character also displays her compassion in a very moving way. Kudos to Haroun for not judging Amina and Maria; instead he lets the audience judge them if they wish to. How the audience chooses to just Amina and Maria's actions is what's left to the audience's interpretation based on their own projections. What's crystal clear from the get-go is that Amina and Maria are decent human beings and also justifiably indignant which they have every right to be. The sensitive, schmaltz-free screenplay along with the raw performances help the audience to care about what happens to them and to understand how both of them feel and where their feelings come from. It's refreshing to see such strong roles for women and to see female characters behaving heroically while trying their best to conquer adversity while standing up for themselves. Even the cinematography feels natural as well as the mostly slow pace. The third act feels a bit rushed in terms of pacing and contrived like a fairy tale, though, but at least it doesn't tie everything up too neatly and still leaves some room for the audience to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds is thoroughly engrossing, gripping and tender.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by MUBI.
Opens Friday, February 4th at Film Forum.

The Pink Cloud

Directed by Iuli Gerbase

      Giovana (Renata de L?lis) meets Yago (Eduardo Mendon?a) at a party and invites him over to her apartment. They wake up the next morning just when a deadly, mysterious pink cloud envelops the city and everywhere else around the world, thereby forcing them together in lockdown. Days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months and months turn to years as they gradually develop a romantic relationship.

      Even though pink cloud plays a pivotal role in the plot and represents its only villain, The Pink Cloud isn't really about the pink cloud. Writer/director Iuli Gerbase could've gone the edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller route or horror route by showing zombies popping up at any point, but instead opts for a poignant study of a relationship. She doesn't waste much time with exposition as the cloud arrives within the first 10 minutes, so the first act isn't very long. Most of the exposition about the cloud itself comes, briefly, from the news report on TV. Giovona and Yago both seem like strangers to the audience at first, but they're also strangers to each other initially. As they get to know each other throughout the years, so does the audience. It's a testament to the sensitive screenplay that they both feel like fully-fleshed human beings, warts and all. Their relationship doesn't go as smoothly as they hoped because of certain obstacles in their way which will not be spoiled here, but it's always fascinating to observe how their relationship evolves.

      Many scenes ring true, not just given their relatable experiences with lockdown which includes daily food deliveries, but because of how honest and natural the dialogue feels. Moreover, Gerbase leaves just enough room for interpretation. While many years pass, it's up to the audience to fill in those gaps and to figure out what the film didn't show the audience. She also eschews voice-over narration and flashbacks as a means of spoon-feeding the audience. By trusting the audience's imagination, intelligence and emotions, and by providing enough space for the characters to come to life, she also treats the audience like human beings which is a rare feat.

      Renata de L?lis and Eduardo Mendon?a give solid, well-nuanced performances and have great chemistry together. That helps the audience to feel emotionally invested in the relationship between Giovana and Yago from start to finish, through thick and thin. Surprisingly, for a film that takes place mostly inside of an apartment with two characters, it actually feels rather cinematic instead of like a stuffy chamber piece. There's some CGI, of course, with the ominous pink cloud outside of the couple's window, and the lighting adds some style to many scenes, this isn't the kind of movie that bombards the audience with visual style nor does it have to. Most importantly, though, writer/director Iuli Gerbase manages to find just the right balance of truth and spectacle, and even finds plenty of spectacle within the film's truth in the dialogue and interactions between the couple. That intangible humanism or truth is a truly special effect that's far more special than anything you'll find in a $100 million tentpole movie. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, The Pink Cloud is a tender, heartfelt and unflinchingly honest love story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Now playing at Quad Cinema.

American Underdog

Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin

      Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) aspires to become an NFL football player while struggling to make ends meet in small town Iowa. After he meets Brenda (Anna Paquin) at a local bar, they fall in love and get married. His marriage is put to the test when he has to find a way to balance his love of football and his love of his family.

      Like a truly great sports drama, American Underdog isn't fundamentally about a sport or a sports player. Yes, Kurt is indeed a football player, but he's also a husband, a father, a friend, a son and, above all, a human being. Based on the true story of Kurt Warner, the screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and co-director Jon Erwin never fails to treat Kurt as a human being from the very beginning. His passion for football and for yearning fulfill his dreams of becoming an NFL player feels palpable and relatable to anyone who's ever had a dream. What makes him human, though, are his flaws as well as his strengths. For example, when he first sets his eyes on Brenda at the club, like Tony does with Maria in West Side Story, he overcomes his aversion to country music, learns how to dance from his friend, and returns to the club to dance with Brenda to a country song. He even stops her from dancing with another guy so that he could be the one to dance with her, so he does come across as a bit arrogant and rude initially. She doesn't tell him her name right away and they banter with one another. Their banter is very witty, and you can feel their chemistry together despite Brenda's reluctance to spend more time with him.

      The full reason why Brenda behaves that way toward Kurt becomes clearer later on in their relationship during their intimate moments as they connect, so the screenwriters should also be commended for the effective way that they incorporate exposition into the film. Kurt shows up at her door unannounced, and her young son, Zach (Hayden Zaller), lets him in. With a less sensitive screenplay, that scene could've easily made Kurt seem like an obnoxious creep, but instead it shows that he's compassionate as he bonds with Zach after fixing his radio. He even briefly expresses remorse about showing up without an invitation, so he's not as toxic as you might think he is and he's capable of being introspective. There's a wonderfully-written scene where Brenda's mother, Jenny Jo (Morgana Shaw), sees him interacting with Zach and you can sense right away that she appreciates and recognizes his compassionate nature. Brenda soons warms up to him, too. Fortunately, Kurt and Brenda's relationship as a boyfriend and girlfriend and, eventually, as a husband and wife, feels real without being too heavy-handed or cloying. The film has a pure, unadulterated sweetness that's very rare to find in cinema these days. It's warm, wise and wonderful.

      According to Francois Truffaut, a great film has just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle. American Underdog has Spectacle in the exhilarating football games, but the real Spectacle is found within its Truth or, more accurately, within its humanity. The filmmakers don't shy away from showing humanity in its wide spectrum, from the dark to the light side without dwelling too much on either side. There's just the right amount of levity and gravitas. Kurt and Brenda each have their own emotional pain to deal with which makes them all the more human, relatable and compelling. Both of them express their joy, anger, frustrations, sorrow and other human emotions that breathe life into their characters. It's also refreshing to see Brenda written as such a strong role for a woman. She's strong because she's decent and for perservering while conquering adversity. She's not afraid to express her anger either, which she has every right to do as a human being. At least the audience gets a sense of where her anger comes from. Dennis Quaid shows up as a coach who offers Kurt some valuable kernels of wisdom, but that scene doesn't feel preachy, clunky nor contrived. The same can be said when one of the characters tells Kurt a powerful aphorism about how we shouldn't be defined by our achievements, but rather by who we've become. There's a lot to unpack in that particular scene, both on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, yet the filmmakers trust the audience's intelligence, including their emotional intelligence, to decipher its meaning on their own while inspiring the audience to be introspective concurrently.

      Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin give convincingly moving performances that ground American Underdog even further into humanism. They handle the emotional complexities of their roles with conviction and naturalism without over-acting, even when Kurt and Brenda bicker with one another. They're very emotionally generous and talented for seeing and treating Kurt and Brenda as human beings from start to finish. Co-directors Andrew and Jon Erwin should be commended for casting Hayden Zaller, who's legally blind, in the role of Zach. Hayden Zaller gives a breakthrough, heartwarming performance as Zach who, like Hayden himself, doesn't let his own disability stand in the way of fulfilling his dreams. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a post-credits scene about Zach. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, American Underdog will make you stand up and cheer. It's captivating, heartfelt and exhilarating. It's a triumph!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens nationwide on December 25th, 2021.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Directed by Jon Watts

      Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to deal with two major problems: his secret identity as Spider-Man goes public, and he's concurrently framed for murder. To solve his problems, he visits Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and hopes that his spell will make everyone forget that he's Spider-Man. The spell doesn't go as planned and unleashes Spider-Man's past villains from the Multiverse.

      To reveal more about the plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home wouldn't be fair because discovering the surprises is a large part of what makes the film so exhilarating. Like some blockbusters this year, i.e. Eternals, there are some moments of poignancy which won't be spoiled here. The screenplay Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers isn't overloaded with exposition or intense action scenes, although there's a good amount of both of those necessary elements, but the film doesn't become exhausting nor dull. McKenna and Sommers don't forget that the heart of the story is the relationship between the human beings: Peter Parker and his friends, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), as well as between Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). There are just enough interactions between them to ground the film in realism without boring the audience or veering toward cheesiness. Most impressive, though, is the dialogue that's witty, tongue-in-cheek and even genuinely funny at times. It helps to have watched the previous Spider-Man movies, but it's not a necessity in order to follow the plot which isn't too confusing. It does, admittedly, go bonkers at one point, although not nearly as bonkers as F9, The Suicide Squad Free Guy, and it's aware of its own outrageousness. In other words, Spider-Man: No Way Home knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. If you enjoyed Free Guy, chances are that you'll enjoy Spider-Man: No Way Home as well because it's just as wildly entertaining, delightful and exciting. It's similar to an invigorating, satisfying roller-coaster ride.

      The entire cast seems to be having a lot of fun on-screen. Fortunately, that fun transfers to the audience. Everyone is well-cast, from the main actors to the supporting ones. Tom Holland exudes charisma and impresses even during the more dramatic scenes that require a wide range of emotions. He helps to make Peter Parker/Spider-Man worth rooting for from start to finish. Jacob Batalon provides some great comic relief and Zendaya proves herself to be a solid actress with some heartfelt moments. The action scenes are dazzling with great use of CGI that makes for a palpably thrilling experience which will be heightened even more on the big screen. While the film does have plenty of visual spectacle and pizzazz, it still has an engaging story and doesn't forget to allow the audience to care about its characters. There are even some understated moments with nuance that trusts the audience's imagination and emotions without hitting them over the head like too many blockbusters do.

      So, Spider-Man: No Way Home finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle, and doesn't pander to the audience. To be fair, the editing does briefly feel choppy and distracting at the beginning with too many quick cuts from shot to shot like in a music video, but that doesn't take away from the film's narrative momentum and nor does it become a systemic problem. At a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exhilarating, delightful and crowd-pleasing spectacle with just the right balance of humor, heart and thrills. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a mid-credits scene and a stinger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens on December 17th, 2021 nationwide.

West Side Story

Directed by Steven Spielberg

      After a 1-year prison stint, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Jets gang, returns to New York City where he gets a job working for Valentina (Rita Moreno) at her drugstore. He meets and falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a local dance, but their forbidden love escalates the tensions between the Jets and their rival gang, the Sharks. Maria's brother, Bernardo (David ?lvarez) is a member of the Sharks and wants her to date Chino (Josh Andr?s Rivera). Riff (Mike Faist), Tony's friend, leads the Jets gang. Ariana DeBose plays Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita.

      West Side Story is not quite as powerful as the original, but it comes close enough. Spielberg deserves a lot of praise for finding the courage to remake such an iconic and beloved all-time classic. The screenplay by Tony Kushner has just the right blend of romance, drama, action, poignancy, joy and tragedy along with exciting musical numbers while avoiding cheesiness and clunkiness. The first few minutes serve as exposition to show the tensions between the Jets and the Sharks gang before they break into song on the streets of New York City, and the conflict between them and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll). To be fair, the pivotal scene when Tony meets Maria at the dance lacks the emotional punch of the original because it's shot differently with less visual poetry, but at least they develop palpable romantic chemistry after that scene. You can sense that they're in love and pine for one another, especially when Tony climbs up the side of Maria's apartment building to sing at her window. It's a magical scene that works on many levels, but it's especially notable for how sweet and moving it feels without being cloying. There's also just enough comic relief, wit and kernels of wisdom every now and then. Anita has some funny quips while Valentina provides the aphorisms to Tony. She's very much like a mother figure to him. Fortunately, the profound, timely messages about love, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion aren't heavy-handed or preachy. They're universal themes that also make the film relatable and engaging on a human level.

      Finding the right tone like West Side Story successfully accomplishes isn't only because of a well-written screenplay. It's also very dependent on the right casting. Everyone, even those in the smaller roles, are well-cast here and have a chance to shine. They all steal the show concurrently. Ansel Elgort is, surprisingly, pretty good at singing and gives the most heartfelt performance of his career thus far. It's hard to pick just one stand-out though because they're all such a terrific ensemble filled to the brim with charisma. Mike Faist, Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose give breakthrough performances while Rita Moreno provides plenty of gravitas in her role as Valentina. They each have memorable musical numbers that feel exhilarating.

      The wonderful choreography, costume designs, lighting, set designs and camerawork also helps to invigorate the musical numbers, particularly the delightful song-and-dance number "America". There's also an amusing dance number, "Gee, Officer Krupke", at a police station. Another unforgettable musical number takes place on a dock by the river and has impressive choreography and editing that must be seen on the big screen. West Side Story has ultimately just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. It's a dazzling, exhilarating and genuinely heartfelt musical that will make you stand up and cheer. At a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, which doesn't feel that long, West Side Story is the best musical film of the year. It blows In the Heights and tick...tick..BOOM! out of the water.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Now playing nationwide.

A Son

Directed by Mehdi Barsaoui

      Fares (Sami Bouajila) drives down a highway in Tunisia with his wife, Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah), beside him in the passenger seat and their 11-year-old son, Aziz (Youssef Khemiri), in the backseat, when terrorists suddenly ambush their car, injuring Aziz. They take him to the hospital where they learn that he desperately needs a liver transplant which he can only get from a specific blood type. Neither Fares nor Meriem are able to be one of those donors, and the waitlist for a liver transplant is very long.

      ?Why Fares can't be the organ donor won't be spoiled here because the screenplay by writer/director Mehdi Barsaoui has a major twist early on. Fortunately, the twist isn't what the movie is truly about, but it does make it more layered, complex and suspenseful. A Son, despite the title, is fundamentally about the relationship between a wife and her husband when faced with adversity and harsh truths that alter the dynamics of their relationship. In turn, the audience perceives Meriem differently once one of her secrets gets revealed. Fares, too, does something that changes the way you perceive him, but whether he made the right decision is up for interpretation. Barsaoui doesn't just Fares and Meriem, and doesn't ask the audience to judge them either; just to experience them. What follows is a gripping, intense and emotionally devastating story that's unafraid to go into dark territory and to show the characters in their most intimate moments as they struggle. The audience feels like a voyeur at times because the filmmakers make them feel as though they were watching a documentary.

      ?There's nothing Hollywood about A Son. There's no comic relief or any maudlin scenes or unnecessary subplots. There aren't even flashbacks even though the past does come back to haunt the characters. With a less sensitive screenplay, this could've easily turned into an overwrought, preachy, sappy Lifetime movie like Breakthrough. Everything that Breakthrough greats wrong, A Son gets right. It's not always a comfortable experience and demands the audience to deal with tough emotions, but that's part of the point. After all, Fares and Merem are dealing with tough emotions, too. It's not supposed to be comfortable. Kudos to Medhi Barsaoui for not sugar-coating anything. When Fares and his wife are sad, the audience feels the same way. When they're feeling hopeful, the audience feels hopeful too. When they're shocked and surprised, the audience feels like that, too. That's precisely why it's best not to know much about the plot or its few surprises beforehand.

      Sami Bouajila gives raw, natural performance as does Najla Ben Adballah. No one gives a hammy or wooden performance. The film's emotional depth comes both from the screenplay as well as from those stellar performances, so not a moment rings false throughout the film. Barsaoui also doesn't resort to shaky cam to generate tension; the tension comes from the narrative itself. There isn't any slick or stylish camerawork nor does there need to be. A Son remains grounded in humanism albeit the dark side of humanity, and it bravely stays that way from start to finish much like Mass and A Hero. The fact that Barsaoui accomplishes so much within just 1 hour and 36 minutes is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller because it shows that he has restraint and focus while grasping the concept that less is more. Ultimately, A Son is gripping, provocative and profoundly moving.?

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

Red Rocket

Directed by Sean Baker

      Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), an ex-porn star, moves back to his small hometown in Texas after living in Los Angeles for a while. His wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod) reluctantly agrees to let him stay with her and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), as long as he pays a portion of the rent. No one wants to hire him in town when he applies for jobs because of his experience in the porn industry. He hopes to make some money through porn once again when he befriends and seduces a 17-year-old girl, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at a donut shop, and tries to convince her to become a porn star.

      Red Rocket works much better as a character study than as a comedy. The screenplay by writer/director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch does have some humor in it, especially at the beginning when Mikey feels like a fish-out-of-water in his hometown. For the most part, though, it's a tragic story about a man who has a lot of growing up to do and lacks emotional maturity while engaging in toxic relationships. One of those toxic relationships is with Strawberry who's just as emotionally immature as Mikey. They're both emotionally needy people. She's still a child, technically, and he behaves like a child. Their relationship is doomed to fail from the get-go, but Mikey remains too immature to even realize that. Unsurprisingly, Strawberry lacks a father figure in her life which explains why she's into older guys like Mikey. The screenwriters should be commended for being unafraid to make Mikey and Strawberry unlikable characters. They're deeply flawed which makes them all the more human, but they're far from good role models. No one on screen is a good role model, and Red Rocket doesn't offer easy solutions to their problems either.

      A tragic incident involving Mikey and his friend, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), makes them even more unlikable. The same can be said when Mikey confronts Strawberry's boyfriend to tell her that she's dumping him. Mikey clearly lacks empathy, compassion and boundaries. He's a controlling, lying, selfish narcissist. The filmmakers don't judge him, though, but let you, the audience, judge him if you wish to or to just experience him. Despite his many vices, he's like a whirlwind of energy and, like when seeing an accident, it's hard to look away whenever he's onscreen. There are also a few subtle and not-so-subtle political commentaries, i.e. a sign that reads "Make America Great Again." Mikey is poor, amoral, childish and delusional. Does that make him a microcosm of Trump's America? The answer to that question is also left for the audience to decide on their own. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, leaves room for interpretation, although it has shades of the ending of Sean Baker's The Florida Project. ?

      Simon Rex gives a lively, charismatic and invigorating performances as Mikey Saber. He truly sinks his teeth into the role and adds emotional depth occasionally. The character of Mikey feels like nails on a chalkboard sometimes, but Simon Rex's performance makes Mikey a slightly less grating character. Mikey is still over-the-top in some ways, yet he remains grounded for the most part. Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss anchor the film with understated natural performances which counterbalance the high-energy of Mikey. There are some unflinching sex scenes that leave little to the imagination and give the film its hard R-rating, but this movie isn't fundamentally about sex or porn. ?Does Red Rocket need to be over 2 hours? No, it could've used tighter editing to make it a lean 90-minutes movie, and does lose a little dramatic momentum toward the end, but it's still entertaining for the most part. At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, Red Rocket is audacious, provocative and surprisingly heartfelt with a wildly entertaining, charismatic performance by Simon Rex. It also boasts a pretty great soundtrack.?

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

      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.
Now playing in select theaters. 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 Ry?suke 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 Ry?suke 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.


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 (?un Laj?i), 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.


Directed by Pablo Larra?n

      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 Larra?n 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. Larra?n 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.


Directed by Chlo? 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 Chlo? 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-L?ve


Chris (Vicky Krieps) and her husband Tony (Tim Roth) spend their summer on F?r?, 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-L?ve 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 F?r? 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-L?ve 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-L?ve 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 F?r?. 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.


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.


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 Skarsg?rd), 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.


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.


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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