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Reviews for January 20th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Only in Theaters is a vital, timely and illuminating documentary about the history of Laemmle Theatres, a family-run arthouse movie theater chain in Los Angeles. Director Raphael Sbarge includes interviews with Greg Laemmle, President of Laemmle Theatres, as well as film directors like Ava DeVernay, film critics like Kenneth Turan, and Greg's family members. You'll learn about the Laemmle Theatres' inception in 1938 and how it survived throughout the years as a champion of independent cinema. Many burgeoning filmmakers with limited budgets had their film shown at Laemmle Theatres. Only in Theaters effectively explains why it's such an essential part of film culture, but it also highlights the harsh truth that keeping the business afloat during the boom of streaming services is a struggle. The pandemic magnified that struggle as Laemmle Theatres struggled financially and almost closed for good like Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in NYC. It's heartbreaking to watch Greg Laemmle desperately try to avoid that potential closure. Fortunately, he persevered and never gave up the fight to keep his family's business alive, so it's still in business today--but how close it was to closing down is terrifying and nerve-wracking for anyone who's passionate about films. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Only in Theaters is a poignant love letter to independent cinema. It would be a great double feature with Cinema Paradiso and Searching for Mr. Rugoff. It opens at IFC Center via The Film Collaborative.

Alice, Darling

Directed by Mary Nighy

      Alice (Anna Kendrick) remains stuck with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick), whom she lives with. When her best friends, Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku), invite her to a remote cabin by a lake to celebrate Tess' birthday, she seizes the opportunity to join them and to find peace of mind while lying to Simon that she's on a work trip.

      Although, Alice, Darling has moments of Hitchcockian suspense, it's mostly a psychological character study. Like Shirley from Shirley Valentine, Alice yearns to escape from the emotional prison at home. Shirley escapes to Greece with her friend; Alice escapes to a cabin in the woods with her friends. Screenwriter Alanna Francis should be commended for grasping human nature because she sees and treats Alice like a human being while allowing the audience to get inside her head to understand what she's thinking and feeling. Simon is a narcissist who gaslights, controls, physically abuses her and love bombs her. He's not written as a one-dimensional villain, though, nor is Alice a one-dimensional victim. She's fragile, but she also has inner strength, introspection and decency that Simon sorely lacks. Her friends are a great emotional support system. They stand up for her and provide her with much needed safety, love and compassion. There are some parts of the film that can be easily predicted, i.e. when Alice learns how to chop wood with a splitting maul (not an axe!), you know that the maul will eventually be used again later on at a key moment. What's surprising, though, is precisely how it gets used, which won't be spoiled here. Director Mary Nighy and screenwriter Alana Francis often play around the audience's expectations while subverting them in a way that's satisfying and un-Hollywood. How terrified you'll feel while Alice is away from Simon depends on your own experiences with narcissists and how you'll project your fears (or not) about what Simon will do to Alice. Fortunately, the third act works on an emotional level while earning its uplift because it's understated and grounded in humanism while providing Alice with a character arc that feels organic.

      Anna Kendrick plays against type in a role that gives her a lot to chew on. She gives one of the best performances of her career. Alice isn't an easy character to tackle because a lot of different emotions are brewing inside of her--anger, sadness, despair and fear are among those emotions. Hope, freedom, happiness and tranquility get added to her emotions once she spends time with her best friends who are truly good friends. She's lucky to have them in her life. The filmmakers do a great job of incorporating symbolism, i.e. water, which is very poetic and adds both style and substance without preachiness. Even the opening credits are stylish and poetic. Poetry is often a form of protest for or against something. In this case, it's a protest against hate and for love, happiness, compassion and freedom, all of which are human rights. Alice, Darling could've easily turned into an overwrought, contrived, unfocused, clunky and pedestrian Hollywood suspense thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction or Single White Female. Instead, it's a gripping and provocative psychological thriller, and an empowering, poignant and honest character study.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens exclusively at AMC Theatres nationwide.

In From the Side

Directed by Matt Carter

      Mark (Alexander Lincoln) and Warren (Alexander King), two rugby players from an gay rugby club, have a sexually-charged affair despite the fact that they both have boyfriends. Warren is an a monogamous relationship with John (Peter Mcpherson) while Mark has an open relationship with Richard (Alex Hammond).

      In From the Side has a premise that sounds like it could be an engrossing love story, a steamy romance, and/or an honest, unflinching look at modern relationships. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Matt Carter and co-writer Adam Silver leaves a lot to be desired. There's nothing wrong with a movie that has a wafer-thin plot as long as it compensates for that with something whether it be character development or insights. Some filmmakers can take the mundane captivate the audience while turning into something profound. Carter and Silver have very little to say about love, relationships, polyamory or fidelity. The plot feels like it's stretched too thinly and quickly becomes redundant while making its point over and over. It's obvious from the get-go that Mark and Warren's relationship is doomed because they're both still in relationships with other men. Mark seems more comfortable with cheating than Warren is since he's in a polyamorous relationship. The screenplay barely explores Mark and Warren's relationships with their boyfriends. It also meanders a lot with too little narrative momentum, especially in a scene where Mark introduces Warren to his parents. It's hard to get inside the heart, mind and soul of Mark and Warren, though, as they remain at a cold distance from the audience. Sure, the film does avoid voice-over narration, but there has to be a way for the audience to get to know these characters better as complex human beings. There's also not nearly enough dramatic tension, so lethargy seeps in around the 90-minute mark and the third act's emotional beats don't land as strongly as they try to. The late, great Eric Rohmer would've done a much better job at taking this material and turning it into a wise, honest and heartfelt love story. Then there's the underrated film The Climb from 2020 that had much more to say about similar themes that this film fails to explore, but it explores them with wit, perceptiveness and humor.

      The main strengths of In From the Side are its cinematography, which adds some style and cinematic qualities to the film, and the performances which feel natural and raw. The film's poignant moments come from the performances rather than from the shallow screenplay. Also, there's some awkward and lazy use of slow-motion during a few scenes that feel clunky. Too many scenes overstay their welcome, so the editing lacks restraint. The filmmakers fail to grasp the concept that "less is more." At a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, In From the Side is dull, overlong and vapid despite solid performances.

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

Kids vs. Aliens

Directed by Jason Eisener

      Gary (Dominic Mariche) and his friends make home movies together while his older sister, Samantha (Phoebe Rex), hangs out with the cool kids including Billy (Calem MacDonald). While her parents are away on Halloween night, Samantha hosts a party for all of them. Soon, aliens interrupt their festivities.

      Another week, another B-movie that goes bonkers. The screenplay by writer/director Jason Eisener and John Davies has a plot that doesn't take itself too seriously, but that's all that it has going for it. The characters are all annoying like nails-on-a-chalkboard, and the dialogue lacks wit and laughs. Prepare to cringe more often than not or just be bored by the tedium once the aliens invade. The filmmakers know where to take ideas from, but not where to take ideas to. What follows is like a lazy, pale imitation of a Roger Corman horror film crossed with a TROMA film minus the thrills, campiness and outrageous, tongue-in-cheek humor. The aliens aren't even given much of an explanation or backstory; they're just a plot device albeit one that's very unimaginative. It's not scary, fun nor exciting to watch Kids vs. Aliens, even if you check your brain at the door.

      Even as a gorefest, Kids vs. Aliens is a disappointment. It's disgusting with plenty of blood and guts, but none of that helps to invigorate the film. The editing feels choppy and clunky, the lighting is subpar, visual effects aren't very impressive and the soundtrack is grating. For a much better sci-fi/horror comedy about kids vs. aliens, see Attack the Block or Slash/Back. At a running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes, the dull, toothless and painfully unfunny Kids vs. Aliens is 1 hour and 15 minutes too long. It's the equivalent of someone just banging the piano over and over on the same notes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick

      June (Storm Reid) desperately searches for her mother, Grace (Nia Long), after she goes missing while on vacation in Colombia with her new boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung).

      The less you know about the plot of Missing beforehand, the better, because the screenplay by co-writer/directors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick has plenty of twists, surprises and palpable suspense. Within the first few minutes, they provide you with just enough exposition to learn about June and her family through video clips from June's childhood. What ensues is a lean, Hitchcockian suspense thriller where no one can be trusted. Can June trust Javi (Joaquim de Almeida), a man in Colombia whom she hires to help retrieve the camera footage from the hotel where Grace and her lover were staying? They have 48 hours to find the footage before it's erased for good. Where is Grace? What happened to her? Who is her new lover? Can he be trusted? Can Heather (Amy Landecker), Grace's lawyer/friend, be trusted?

      As the plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly complex. You know as much as June does about her mother's history so that when the mystery begins, you're along with her for the ride. In other words, co-writers/directors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick do a terrific job incorporating just the right amount of exposition. There's nothing wrong with being confused about what's going on because that's precisely what June is feeling at the time. You'll feel frustrated when she's frustrated, scared when she's scared, paranoid when she's paranoid, sad when she's sad, and hopeful when she's hopeful. It's refreshing to see a character who's not written as dumb or very gullible; June is smart and very tech-savvy. Each new revelation leads you to see some characters from an entirely different perspective. Prepare for a roller coaster ride of emotions. There are some moments that are contrived and not very plausible, but those are minor, systematic issues. Like in many suspense thrillers, even the classic North by Northwest even a little suspension of disbelief is required. There's also enough comic relief so that the film never becomes exhausting, monotonous and tedious. The ending with one twist after another, which won't be spoiled here, makes logical sense if you piece everything together in hindsight--this isn't an M. Night Shyamalian film, after all.

      Missing makes clever use of modern technology to tell the story through tech gadgets alone. If you're savvy with the basics of modern technology, i.e. smart watches, it'll be easy to relate to June while making her ordeal even more terrifying. You won't look at your iPhone or text messages the same way again. Moreover, the film moves at a very fast pace with no dull moments that drag and no use of shaky cam to generate tension. The performances are fine, especially Joaquim de Almeida who's wonderfully warm and charismatic in his supporting role. That fast pace keeps the narrative moving forward at all times, so if you were bored with the sluggish pace of Skinnamarink where very little happens on screen, Missing is the perfect antidote. It's also among the few Hollywood movies these days that entertains without going bonkers or resorting to the lowest common denominator. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes Missing is a smart, gripping and terrifying Hitchcockian thriller. One of the most crowd-pleasing, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides since Barbarian.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.

New Gods: Yang Jian

Directed by Zhao Ji

      Yang Jian (voice of Nicholas Andrew Louie), a bounty hunter, receives the task of finding someone who turns out to be Chenxiang (voice of Luke Naphat), his nephew. Chenxiang desperately searches for a magical lotus lantern that can free his mother who's been imprisoned under a mountain for the past thirteen years.

      The screenplay by Muchuan has a lot going in terms of narrative with many characters and backstories. So, it requires some patience because some of the exposition doesn't occur until later on. Who is Yang Jian looking for and why? What does Chenxiang want? confusing and complex at first, but gradually becomes easier to follow with more exposition. Of course, like in most movies these days, there's a Macguffin, the magic lotus lantern, but what's far more interesting is how Chenxiang wants to use the lantern to free his mother. What's left to the audience's imagination, though, is his relationship with his mother or Yang Jian's relationship with her. Miuchuan assumes that you've already seen the first film in the series, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, which fleshes out more of the characters and backstories, i.e. how and why Chenxiang ended up imprisoned under the mountain. There are a fair share of thrilling action sequences, but there aren't not too many. In other words, New Gods: Yang Jian has a fine balance between action and story which offers some suspense and thrills without lethargy or dullness. There's not much comic relief, though, or characters to connect to emotionally because they're all there as plot devices designed to move the plot forward, essentially.

      The best aspect of New Gods: Yang Jian is its stunning CGI animation which feels awe-inspiring to behold. A lot of time and money was clearly spent on the visual effects alone, and they paid off because it provides a lot of eye candy. The action scenes are exciting like a rush of pure adrenaline. Fortunately, they don't become exhausting or tedious. At a running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes, New Gods: Yang Jian is an exhilarating, thrilling and dazzling spectacle.

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

Out of Exile

Directed by Kyle Kauwika Harris

      Gabriel (Adam Hampton), an ex-con on parole, returns to a life of crime when he and his gang of thieves stage an armored car robbery that goes wrong. FBI Agent Brett (Ryan Merriman) and Agent Jordan (Karrie Cox) pursue them and investigate. Meanwhile, he reunites with his younger brother, Wes (Kyle Jacob Henry) and tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Dawn (Hayley McFarland).

      Out of Exile joins the long list of B-movies that squanders the opportunity to turn its premise into a gripping, intriguing crime thriller. Much of its problems derive from the lazy, shallow and pedestrian screenplay by Kyle Kauwika Harris that quickly loses steam within the first 30 minutes. The dialogue is stitled, witless and clunky. It's not a good sign when you can hear the wheels of the screenplay turning from start to finish. None of the characters come to life, not even Gabriel who comes from a dysfunctional family. He has a rocky relationship with his younger brother and with his estranged daughter, but none of those relationships are really fleshed out, so they become underdeveloped subplots. Perhaps if the film were lean, focused and took more risks, it would've at least been a guilty pleasure. There's nothing wrong with a movie being shallow, derivative and formulaic as long as it's entertaining---every film is derivative and formulaic to a certain extent. Writer/director Kyle Kauwika Harris knows where to take ideas from, but not where to take them to. It doesn't even have unintentional humor that would've made it at least somewhat entertaining.

      Unfortunately, none of the actors manage to enliven Out of Exile with their charisma or acting chops. That's most likely the fault of the dull screenplay that fails to humanize their characters in a way that feels organic. The action scenes aren't very exciting or thrilling. Everything that this film gets wrong, Heat and Inside Man get right. Even last year's underrated film Emily the Criminal is far superior and suspenseful. As director Renny Harlin once told me in an interview 7 years ago, many films are just "sausage from the sausage factory." Out of Exile is a prime example of that. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, it overstays its welcome.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime: Scarlet Bond

Directed by Yasuhito Kikuchi

      Towa (Riko Fukumoto), Queen of the Kingdom of Raja, rescues and heals an Ogre (Yuma Uchida) who's seriously injured from battle. She gives him a new name, Hiiro. She also uses the magical powers of her tiara to neutralize the poison in the lakes of Raja that's caused by gold mining. However, she's now bedridden when she gets poisoned. It's up to Hiiro and Rimuru (Miho Okasaki), a Demon Lord resurrected as slime, to save the queen and the kingdom of Raja.

      Based on the popular Manga series, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime: Scarlet Bond is yet another feature-length anime film that alienates anyone who's unfamiliar with the manga series. Screenwriter Kazuyuki Fudeyasu throws you right into a battle sequence within the first few minutes without spending time to properly introduce the characters who are fighting. There's an Ogre clan which Hiiro used to be a part of before Queen Towa saves his life and gives him a new name. Who was he besides a warrior before he was Hiiro? That part of the exposition isn't very clear. There's not nearly enough exposition or "world-building" for non-fans of the series to be able to follow the story or to care about any of the characters. It's essentially one action sequence after another which quickly becomes exhausting, monotonous and repetitive. The narrative feels overstuffed with too many characters and also convoluted with not nearly enough levity. The screenplay just seems to be going through the motions from one action sequence to the next. Without being invested in the story or the characters, it's hard for the audience to be immersed into it or to even be entertained or thrilled on a superficial level.

      The animation is decent, but nothing exceptional, so this isn't the kind of animated movie where the visual style compensates for the lack of substance. The action scenes go on for too long, but if you're a huge fan of action in anime films, you might tolerate it more than others even though not a single action sequence stands out. That said, the pace moves quickly as though the audience suffer from ADHD and can't handle slower paced scenes. Director Yasuhito Kikuchi and screenwriter Kazuyuki Fudeyasu rarely allow the film to breathe. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime: Scarlet Bond is exhausting, convoluted and action-packed while low on thrills and a compelling story. It might be more entertaining as a video game than as a feature-length movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Crunchyroll.
Opens nationwide.

Townhouse Confidential

Directed by Patrick Perez Vidauri


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Vision Films.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

When You Finish Saving the World

Directed by Jesse Eisenberg

      Evelyn (Julianne Moore), the director of a shelter for abused women, struggles to connect with her 17-year-old son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a musician who makes money from livestreaming his rock music performances in his room. Ziggy tries to woo Lila (Alisha Boe), a schoolmate who often talks about political topics which he knows very little about. Meanwhile, Evelyn tries to inspire Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of an abused woman, Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), to stay at the shelter by convincing him to enroll in a college and quit his job working as a car mechanic for his father.

      When You Finish Saving the World is a compelling portrait of a dysfunctional family. Evelyn and Ziggy both have a lot of growing up to do. They're emotionally immature, selfish, insecure. and lack introspection. The screenplay by writer/director Jesse Eisenberg is fundamentally about characters who are too self-involved to see others as human beings. Evelyn has a long way to go before she can accept Ziggy's individuality. Before then, she must learn to like and love herself. She sees Kyle as a surrogate son and thinks that she's helping him by enrolling him in college, but she's just doing that to be controlling as though she knows him better than he or his mother does. It's condescending and dehumanizing to Kyle as well as his mother, especially because she does that behind her back. Evelyn sees Ziggy as an extension of herself, like a classic narcissist does. The apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree because Ziggy seems insecure with his true self and even goes to the extent of telling his crush, Lila, that he wants to be like her. He wants to impress her by learning about politics and humanitarian issues, but he comes across as emotionally needy, clingy and inauthentic. Lila catches on to that. As Enid in Ghost World states,"I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers." She'd hate Ziggy, then, for sure.

    &nbs At least When You Finish Saving the World is perceptive about human nature enough to understand where Ziggy's problems stem from: his toxic mother who's a bad role model. His father (Jay O. Sanders), who's most likely his narcissistic wife's enabler, hits the nail on the head when he calls both Evelyn and Ziggy narcissists. Ziggy asks him, "What does that make you, then?", and his father replies, "Unlucky." What's not quite clear, though, is how all the dysfunction affects the father who remains on the sideline as he watches his wife and son argue at the dinner table. How is their narcissism affecting his marriage? Why doesn't he consider divorcing Evelyn or helping her instead of enabling her? When You Finish Saving the World has a lot on its mind and asks a lot of questions that aren't easy or simple to answer. Eveyln and Ziggy are very flawed, but profoundly human which makes them relatable even if both of them are myopic and have boundary issues. Fortunately, the third act doesn't tie everything in a neat bow nor does it find easy solutions to Evelyn and Ziggy's problems nor does it clearly show that they've truly grown up. It does, however, offer a glimmer of hope that they want to change, to grow up and to see one another as unique, individual human beings.

      Julianne Moore gives a moving performance that finds the emotional truth of her complex role. Kudos to writer/director Jesse Eisenberg for creating a character who has both likable and unlikable qualities and, above all, who feels true-to-life. There's a brief, revealing moment where you see Evelyn privately crying. It's almost as powerful as the scene in American Beauty when Angela closes the curtains and cries in private while going through an emotional meltdown. Finn Wolfhard gives a breakthrough performance as he, too, handles the emotional complexities of his role convincingly. He does a great job of portraying Ziggy's vulnerability and insecurities which helps to humanize Ziggy even further while making him relatable even though he's someone who you might not want to be around. The cinematography is fine with interesting use of graininess to make it look like you're watching a film print. The music score, on the other hand, occasionally feels intrusive and awkward. That said, this is a much more organic and schmaltz-free portrait of a dysfunctional family than The Fabelmans. At a running time of 1 hour 27 minutes and 31 seconds, When You Finish Saving the World is tender, perceptive and profoundly human.

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