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Reviews for January 19th, 2024

Documentary Round-Up

      Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest is a heartfelt, fascinating and inspirational documentary biopic about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to climb the summit of Mount Everest in 1993. Director Nancy Svendsen combines archival footage and contemporary interviews with Pasang's daughter, Dawa Futi Sherpa, and husband, Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, to shed light on how Pasang accomplished the incredible feat. She faced skepticism, discrimination and risk to her own life by following her dream and passion to climb Mount Everest. It was no easy task and she even failed a few times, but she never gave up and didn't let her critics get to her. She and her husband were, fortunately, business savvy and were somehow able to get sponsored by San Miguel Beer for the expedition. Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest doesn't bombard the audience with the nitty-gritty details of how Pasang found her sponsors. Instead, it highlights her perseverance and resilience. Case in point: during a press conference before the expedition, she gave a very clever answer when a journalist asked her a rude question if she's doing it all for the money. She could've lashed out at the journalist, but she clearly knew how to present herself to the media favorably while tactfully putting the journalist in his place. By the end of the film, you'll be glad to have learned about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, a brave woman who deserves to be better-known. At a running time of 1 hour and 12 minutes, Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest opens at Cinema Village via Slice of Pie Productions.

      Vishniac is an illuminating, engrossing and well-edited documentary about Roman Vishniac, a Russian-Jewish photographer who captured with his camera the daily lives of Jews in Berlin before the Holocaust. He studied biology, zoology, orient art and contributed a lot to microphotography. There's no doubt that he's very well-rounded. Director Laura Bialis does an effective job of introducing the audience to Roman through his daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn. His photographs speak louder than words, but there's more to him than just his photographs. Vishniac provides insight about Vishniac's work as well as his family life without prying into his toxic relationships. He's flawed as father and husband which makes him more interesting while also helping the film to avoid hagiography. Mara's candidness, emotional generosity and emotional maturity elevates the doc tremendously as she examines her relationship with her father. Bialis deserves a lot of credit for covering a lot of ground in a way that's compelling and concise without feeling overstuffed, unfocused, meandering or too dry. That's a testament to the skills of the editor, Chris Callister, as well. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Vishniac opens at Quad Cinema via Abramorama.

The Breaking Ice

Directed by Anthony Chen

      While on a bus tour in the city of Yanji on the Chinese border of North Korea, Haofeng (Liu Haoran) befriends the tour guide, Nana (Zhou Dongyu), who introduces her to Xiao (Qu Chuxiao), a restaurant manager.

      The Breaking Ice and Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell share a lot in common. Both films have very little narrative momentum and opt, instead, for a "slice of life" experience of its characters. Writer/director Anthony Chen introduces the audience to Haofeng with virtually no exposition about his past or what his life back at home is like. The same goes for Nana and Xiao who remain enigmatic characters. In terms of plot, very little happens, but there's a lot going on beneath the surface as the three characters spend time together. The Breaking Ice doesn't explore beneath the surface enough nor does it get inside any of the characters' heads. There's little to no dramatic tension except for the anticipation of something dramatic and exciting to happen which doesn't. Chen teases the audience with a subplot in the background involving the hunt for a defector who's on the loose. Sometimes there are small surprises, though, like when the three characters try to steal books and get caught. Haofeng briefly sleeps with Nana while Xiau tries to woo her, so there's somewhat of a love triangle, but even that doesn't lead to anything very dramatic. Much of The Breaking Ice focuses on mundane things which leads to some lethargy at times. Its underdeveloped characters remain frustrating, although there are flashbacks that illuminate some of their traumatic past without being unflinching.

      The cinematography elevates The Breaking Ice while providing it with a stunning visual style that becomes part of its substance. The wintry setting symbolises things that are hidden or memories that are frozen in the ice that's gradually breaking. So, much like in Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, the landscape becomes an integral character in and of itself. It's also very poetic and breathtaking. The performances are natural without anyone over-acting or under-acting. The pace moves very slowly which highlights the fact that writer/director Anthony Chen trusts the audience's patience. He also keeps the running time under 2 hours. If it were over 2 hours, it would've overstayed its welcome and stretched its minimal plot too thinly. At 1 hour and 37 minutes, The Breaking Ice is lyrical, quietly moving and beautifully shot, but ultimately undercooked.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center.

Cult Killer

Directed by Jon Keeyes

      When Tellini (Antonio Banderas), a private investigator, gets murdered, Cassie (Alice Eve), his protégé, investigates his murder which leads her to the wealthy Edgar (Nick Dunning) and Dottie (Olwen Fouere) who are somehow involved. Meanwhile, she meets a young woman, Jamie (Shelley Henning), who's seeking revenge against Edgar and Dottie.

       The screenplay by Charles Burnley takes a premise that sounds like it could be gripping and intriguing. Instead, he turns into a contrived and dull crime thriller with poor exposition. Tellini is more than just Cassie's mentor; he's her sponder as well because she suffers alcoholism when they first meet at a bar. A flash forward of five years skips over a lot including how they developed their relationship. He's also like a father figure to her. Within the first 15 minutes, he gets killed, though. Cassie has a bond with him that's only hinted at through clunky flashbacks, so the audience doesn't quite grasp that bond as much as she does at the very beginning. The tragic beat doesn't land strongly enough when Tellini gets murdered all of a sudden. The suspense wanes after Cassie meets Jamie. The dialogue suffers from over-explaining which leaves no room for interpretation while also not allowing for any surprises in the action-packed third act. Cassie and Jamie share a traumatic past in common, so it makes sense that they connect and empathize with each other, but the film barely explores their friendship. The plot is too concerned with moving forward than in getting to know its characters and their relationships as though it were afraid to be sentimental.

      Alice Eve does her best to make the most out of her role, but she's undermined by the shallow screenplay and stilted dialogue. Antonio Banderas is wasted in scenes that are too brief to make an impact, although his character play a significant role in shaping Cassie's skills during the action scenes. The flashbacks are sloppily edited, though, and redundant while making the narrative non-linear. Why spoon-feed the audience to show exactly what Cassie learned from Tellini and how she learned it? If the scenes with him training her were included earlier, the action sequences later on would've been more exciting instead of feeling disjointed with the flashbacks. There's a major twist that won't be spoiled here, but it's revealed too early in the film. The third act is quite violent and intense. So, while the Cult Killer is physically gritty, it sorely lacks emotional grit that would've elevated it beyond a forgettable B-movie. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Cult Killer is a mildly engaging, but often clunky, contrived and dull crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at AMC Empire 25 and other select theaters nationwide.

Double Down South

Directed by Tom Schulman

      Nick (Kim Coates) runs a plantation house that hosts illegal keno pool gambling. One day,  Diana (Lili Simmons), a young woman, arrives and persuades him let her join his gambling operation to compete against big shot keno pool players like Beaumont (Justin Marcel McManus).

       The screenplay by writer/director Tom Schulman takes an intriguing premise and turns it into a shallow and heavy-handed thriller. Subtlety gets thrown right out of the window along with wit and imagination. Diana and Nick are introduced without much backstory and with more questions about them than answers. Why does she go there alone knowing that she'll be in a predominantly male environment where sexism and racism run rampant. Why put herself in harm's way? Why does she even trust Nick at all? From the very beginning, it's clear that he's a sleazy psychopath who can't be trusted. When you meet his father (Tom Bower), there's no doubt that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Where does Diana get her courage from? While it's refreshing to see a strong female character on-screen, she's not given enough material to breathe life into her role. Cassandra in Promising Young Woman is a better example of a well-written character who's not only brave, but also smart and full of surprises. Diana has a character arc that's not very believable, especially after everything she's been through. There are some underdeveloped, contrived subplots, like Little Nick (Igby Rigney) who has the hots for her. The dialogue is often stitled, on-the-nose and dull with not nearly enough comic relief. Moreover, the over-the-top ending, which can be seen from a mile away, doesn't take any risks and feels like a cop-out.

       The performances are decent, but no one, not even the charismatic Kim Coates, who's effectively menacing here, manage to rise above the vapid screenplay. There's some violence, unsurprisingly, and lots of physical grit. However, the lack of emotional grit is what ultimately sinks the film along with the poorly-shot scenes of keno pool that quickly become tedious. There are also pacing issues with some scenes that move too fast while others move too slow. There's also no justification for the running time to clock past the 2 hour mark because it makes the film feel bloated and causes it to overstay its welcome by at least 30 minutes.  At 2 hours and 4 minutes, Double Down South is gritty, but exhausting, overlong and vapid.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Level 33 Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Directed by Pham Thien An

      After his sister dies during a motorcycle accident, Thien (Le Phong Vu) travels with her young son, Dao (Nguyen Thinh), who survived the crash, from Saigon to their rural hometown village to bury her body. Meanwhile, he searches for his missing brother, Tam, and crosses paths with his ex-girlfriend, Sister Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh).

      The screenplay by writer/director Pham Thien An isn't heavy on plot, suspense or thrills. There are no villains or action sequences except for the brief motorcycle crash that serves as the catalyst for Thien's long journey to his hometown. His journey can also be seen as a spiritual one because he begins it without believing in God, but gradually embraces his faith. Everything remains understated and subtle, though, with minimal exposition. Even the relationship between Thien and his sister isn't shown or what Thien and Sister Thao's relationship was like back when she was his girlfriend. So, there are no flashbacks either. Thien has some unlikable qualities like his temper when he lashes out at Sister Thao, but he shows healthy signs of introspection, empathy and remorse when he apologizes for the way he treated her. Inside the Yellow Cocoon slowly turns into a meditative, quietly moving character study of Thien as he undergoes a religious awakening.

      The cinematography and use of lighting along with the breathtaking scenery are among the film's major strengths. Some scenes look so visually stunning that they become both cinematic and poetic. Writer/director Phan Thien An knows how to use nature as a metaphor without explaining it to the audience, so he trusts their intelligence as well as their emotions. He also grasps the power of quiet moments which often speak louder than words. That said, the pace moves very slowly, sometimes even sluggishly, which takes a while to get used to and leads to tedium. Patient audiences will be rewarded the most. Without any spoilers, the final shot of the film is beautiful, breathtaking and haunting. At a running time of just under 3 hours, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a spellbinding, meditative and poetic spiritual journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Johnny Keep Walking!

Directed by Runnian Dong

      Hu Jianlin (Da Peng) works as a fitter at a factory. After a mix-up, he gets accidentally promoted to a white collar job at corporate headquarters despite no prior experience. When he discovers the corporation's plan to laying off workers, he tries to prevent it from happening.

      The screenplay by writer/director Runnian Dong is funny and witty while grounding its delightful zaniness with just the right amount of realism. There's a subplot involving an employee's hidden motive which adds some suspense. The first hour is especially a lot of fun with all of the comedy of errors. Hu Jianlin comes across as a naive man with more to him than meets the eye. When his HR manager, Ma Jie (White-K), asks him to come up with an Americanized name, he suggests Vegeta and Inspector Gadget as possible names. That's an example of a scene that's both funny, satirical and razor-sharp. Some audiences might even be able relate to being asked that kind of question at work. Fortunately, the plot remains compelling, refreshing and surprising. Johnny Keep Walking has a lot to say about the importance of standing up for human rights and against corporate greed, but it communicates those messages through comedy and satire without tonal unevenness, schmaltz or preachiness..

       Da Peng is very well-cast as Hu Jianlin. He handles the physical comedy with great skill and his comedic timing is terrific. It's the kind of role that Jerry Lewis would've enjoyed playing back in the day. The supporting actors are just as well-cast and charismatic. Writer/director Runnian Dong moves the film along at just the right brisk pace without any scenes or jokes that overstay their welcome. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Johnny Keep Walking! is a funny, inspiring and crowd-pleasing satire. It will make you stand up and cheer.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Tiger Pictures Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Which Brings Me to You

Directed by Peter Hutchings

      Will (Nat Wolff) flirts with a guest, Jane (Lucy Hale), at his friend's wedding and hesitates when they begin to hook up in a coat room. He prefers to talk to her more, so she agrees to spend the day with him to get to know each other.

      Based on the novel by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggot, the screenplay by Keith Bunin is a captivating blend of romance and drama with just the right balance of comic relief. It begins as a light romantic comedy before going into deeper and somewhat darker territory. Will and Jane briefly meet at a bar at the wedding before they head off to the coatroom to have sex. Just when you think they'll definitely be hooking up, Will rescinds his consent all of a sudden. It's a wonderful scene because it reveals a lot about Will while it's also quite funny, honest and unexpected. Jane seems offended, confused and rejected, but he convinces her to spend more time with him to converse. Just the fact that Which Brings Me to You centers on two people having conversations already makes it as refreshingly engrossing as Before Midnight. There are no villains or genre-bending twists nor do there need to be any. The most thrilling scene is when they get caught trespassing in an amusement park and avoid getting arrested. To be fair, on the surface, the plot does seem formulaic and predictable, but so what? What's wrong with being formulaic and predictable? After all, as Ebert once wisely observes, how a film goes about its plot is more important than its plot. Fortunately, the dialogue sounds organic without any stiltedness or clunkiness. Kudos to screenwriter Keith Bunin for having a good ear for the way that people talk with pauses and everything else that comes with it. He does an effective job of humanizing Will and Jane. The audience, in a way, feels like a voyeur who's eavesdropping on their conversations. Initially, they seem like strangers to both each other and to the audience, but by the end, they're multi-dimensional, flawed and fully-fleshed human beings which makes them all the more relatable.

      Nat Wolff and Lucy Hale have palpable chemistry together, especially when Will and Jane they banter and bicker with one other like Susan and David in Bringing Up Baby. It's always a great sign when you actually want the leads to end up together. Both Wolff and Hale bring charisma, warmth and poignancy to their roles, so the film's emotional depth comes more from their performances than from the screenplay. Director Peter Hutchings and screenwriter Keith Bunin should be commended for not relying excessively on flashbacks. There are some which are essential, but they're not distracting or meandering because they're essential to the conversations between Will and Jane. Hutchings and Bunin know when to trust the audience's imagination, especially during the ending that doesn't tie everything in a neat bow. They also wisely decide not to show the image of what happened in Will's past during an embarrassing moment when he had sex. That image would've rivaled the iconic "hair gel" scene in There's Something About Mary, but it would've felt out of place, so bravo to the filmmakers for showing restraint. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Which Brings Me to You is a refreshingly honest, funny and tender romantic comedy. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Decal.
Opens at in select theaters nationwide.