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Reviews for January 26th, 2024

Alienoid: Return to the Future

Directed by Choi Dong-hoon

      Lee Ahn (Kim Tae-ri) and Mureuk (Ryu Jun-Yeol) must travel to the future to find the Divine Sword which would unlock a portal that brings back Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and a cyborg, Thunder while preventing aliens from destroying mankind.

      The screenplay by writer/director Choi Dong-hoon has a plot that's much more convoluted than the synopsis above. The first Alienoid felt more refreshing and wildly entertaining like Everything Everywhere All At Once. This sequel isn't dull or lazy, but it doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor. The first five minutes are a re-cap of the events from the first film before jumping into the meat of the story: Lee Ahn and Mureuk's quest to find the MacGuffin, a.k.a the Divine Sword, as they travel through time. There are too many characters and very little room for the film to breathe amidst the action, so it eventually becomes exhausting. The humor this time around isn't as funny and witty as it tries too desperately to generate laughs like Guardians of the Galaxy does. In terms of exposition, the screenplay begins smoothly, but soon feels clunky and confusing albeit not in a fun or enjoyable way, though. If it were more zany, bold and imaginative, it would've been more than just a mediocre, harmless B-movie. At least there are no bad laughs or cringe-inducing scenes like in the recent Aquaman sequel.

      The CGI effects are superb and provide much of the film's Spectacle. However, that kind of Spectacle has its limitations because it comes with diminishing returns as the audience feels bombarded with visual effects. Some blockbusters know how to balance story with strong visuals, but Alienoid: Return to the Future doesn't quite achieve that crucial balance. It also overstays its welcome with a slightly overlong running time. At 2 hour and 2 minutes, it's mildly entertaining and visually dazzling, but often convoluted, uninspired and over-produced.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

American Star

Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego

      Wilson (Ian McShane), a hitman, arrives early on the island of Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, for a final assignment to kill someone. During his downtime, he befriends a bartender, Gloria (Nora Arnezeder) and a young child, Max (Oscar Coleman), and dances with Gloria's mother (Fanny Ardent).

      The screenplay by Nacho Faerna suffers from an undercooked, meandering plot with underdeveloped characters. When the audience first meets Wilson, he's just about to retire from being a hitman before agreeing to do just one more job. There's little to no exposition. Who's the man he's assigned to kill? Who wants him killed and why? American Star sounds like it could be a gripping thriller. Instead, it opts for a character study albeit a very shallow one that doesn't provide enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of Wilson. He seems forlorn, tired and at the stage of his life where he's just going through the motions. Clearly, he's been through a lot, but the film barely allows the audience to get to know him or his personality. He does have a softer side, though, which he displays when he's around the child he meets at the hotel and when Gloria introduces him to her mother, yet another character who could've used some much-needed backstory. None of the relationships land on an emotional level. His new friendship with Gloria feels contrived. Moreover, the dialogue is often witless while lacking comic relief which makes the film feel bland and, worst of all, lethargic.

      Ian McShane gives a charismatic performance that enlivens American Star ever so slightly. He deserves better material, though. Fanny Ardant is wasted in a small role that deserves to be much bigger and more complex. McShane's chemistry with her is palpable during their brief scenes together. The cinematography is decent while making the most out of the picturesque scenery. There's also an interesting although heavy-handed use of symbolism involving a sunken ship off the coast. The pace moves slowly, at times, sluggishly until the faster-paced, inevitably bloody third act that offers a few palpable thrills, but they're ephemeral. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, American Star is meandering, undercooked and lethargic, but elevated by Ian McShane's charisma.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.

Miller's Girl

Directed by Jade Haley Bartlett

      Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman) lives with his wife, Beatrice (Dagmara Dominczyk), and works as a literature teacher at a Tennessee high school. He mentors one of his good students, Cairo (Jenna Ortega), and gives her a writing assignment that leads to an inappropriate student-teacher relationship.

      Writer/director Jade Haley Bartlett has a bold, intriguing premise with a lot of ideas, but doesn't know where to take her ideas to or how to effectively provoke the audience intellectually. The blueprint for a provocative thriller is there as Cairo plays mind games with Jonathan who lacks the restraint and emotional maturity that his colleague, Boris (Bashir Salahuddin) has. In a parallel subplot, Cairo's friend, Winnie (Gideon Adlon), tries to seduce Boris, but he's not as naive as Jonathan. Miller's Girl has a number of systemic flaws including how it takes the plot too long to get to the meat of the story: Cairo's false accusations against Jonathan after she becomes vindictive for turning down her sexual advances. Everything that leads up to that moment makes the film feel like it's just treading water and going around in circles. There are no surprises. Cairo comes across as a cruel, selfish narcissist who has no shame in hurting others or lying to feel better about herself. So, she's also very insecure and vulnerable behind all of her masks, but the film doesn't show Cairo's true self unflinchingly enough. She needs a lot of therapy. Jonathan's home life, unsurprisingly, isn't a happy place. He's stuck in a stale marriage with a neglectful wife who's an alcoholic. Miller's Girl often teases the audience with the possibility of psychological thrills, but they never actually arrivee. Moreover, the voice-over narration is distracting, clunky and unnecessary while insulting the audience's intelligence. Is it too much to ask for a filmmaker to trust the audience's intelligence more?

      Martin Freeman and Jenna Ortega try their best to breathe life into their roles, but they're undermined by the weak screenplay. Neither of them gets the chance to really shine. Bashir Salahuddin fares a little better, though, a fellow teacher who's also Jonathan's friend. There are pacing issues as the film moves slowly at first and then picks up the pace gradually before the third act that feels rushed as though it were in a hurry to reach the ending---just when the narrative begins, ever so slightly, to be more suspenseful. Miller's Girl could've been much darker, bolder and deeper with a better screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, it's mildly engaging, but ultimately toothless, vapid and underwhelming. In a double feature with Election, A Teacher or the Danish movie The Hunt, Miller's Girl would be the inferior B-movie.

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

Rob N Roll

Directed by Albert Mak

      Fai (Richie Ren) owns a retirement home business and struggles to make ends meet, so he plans a robbery with his friend, Robby (Ka Tung Lam). Meanwhile, Lam Tin (Aaron Kwok) robs a currency exchange store, and Nam (John Chiang Jr.) also commits a robbery. Ginger (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee), a police detective, and her partner, Fisher (Leung Chung-Hang) investigate the robberies.

      If Rush Hour, Pulp Fiction, 2 Days in the Valley and Heat had a baby, it would look something like Rob N Roll. The screenplay by Ryker Chan, Albert Kai-kwong Mak, Uen-Ching Man introduces many characters within the first 30 minutes along with more than a few subplots that run parallel and some that are part of the backstory. What makes the film so exciting and suspenseful is watching how the subplots and characters come together. Not everything makes sense right away, but that's okay because there's nothing wrong with being confused as long as there's enough exposition to allow you to follow the plot without being completely lost. Rob N Roll plot is more complex than complicated, although it may seem more complicated initially. Most of the questions that you might have in the chaotic first act will be answered eventually, so be patient. Each character has his or her own unique personality, especially Lam Tin who's somewhat eccentric. The dialogue is often witty and there are some hilarious scenes with dark and offbeat comedy. The filmmakers should be commended for not being afraid to be a little zany and absurd without taking the plot too seriously. They ground the film in just the right amount of realism while bringing some of the characters to life so that they're not one dimensional caricatures. Moreover, they don't go overboard with the comic relief, so Rob N Roll manages to balance its tones without feeling uneven or clunky.

      The entire ensemble is terrific and very well-cast. Aaron Kwok brings plenty of charisma to his role and has great comedic timing. Ka Tung Lam and Richie Ren have great rapport and chemistry together as Fai and Robby get further and further into trouble. The action sequences are well-choreographed and palpably thrilling, especially the gun battles. Fortunately, they don't become exhausting or repetitive. The pace moves briskly without any scenes that feel too dull or that overstay their welcome, so the film is also well-edited. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Rob N Roll is an exhilarating, funny and gripping crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Niu Vision Media.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Sometimes I Think About Dying

Directed by Rachel Lambert

      Fran (Daisy Ridley) lives alone in a small town and works a mundane job at an office. One day, Robert (Dave Merheje), a new employee, arrives at work and they begin to flirt before he asks her out. She agrees to watch a movie with him and have dinner afterward, but her shyness makes it hard for him to get to know her and for their relationship to progress.

      The screenplay by Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Katy-Wright Mead and Kevin Armento, based on his play, "Killers," introduces Fran as a young woman who's taciturn, socially awkward and emotionally guarded. She's also sad, depressed and dreams about different ways to die. So, when you first meet her, she's at a very low stage in her life in terms of her emotional and mental health. How did she end up depressed? The screenplay doesn't reveal everything right away which means that the screenwriters have a solid handle on exposition. They avoid over-explaining or spoon-feeding the audience. The way that Fran and Robert hit it off by humoring each other through inter-office chatting is both sweet and amusing, i.e. how Robert randomly texts her about cheese. He's a movie buff and more outgoing than her, but there's more to him than meets the eye, too. As she learns on one of their dates, he's been divorced twice. Fortunately, Sometimes I Think About Dying doesn't rely on flashbacks to tell its slice-of-life story. Plotwise, not much happens, but that's okay because there's a lot going on beneath the surface and a lot of emotions captured within the minimal plot. The filmmakers do an exceptional job of finding the Spectacle within the film's many truths. Moreover, the dialogue sounds natural without any stiltedness or clunkiness. The supporting characters like Carol (Marcia DeBonis), Fran's colleague who's leaving the company, are well-written. Kudos to the filmmakers for seeing and treating the characters as human beings, warts-and-all, and for showing empathy towards them which makes them all the more relatable.

      Daisy Ridley gives the best performance of her career as Fran. She finds the emotional truth in her role while displaying Fran's vulnerability in a way that feels organic. The same can be said about Dave Merheje. While the screenplay designs the window into Fran and Robert's heart, mind and soul, Ridley and Merheje opens that window very wide, so there's a voyeuristic aspect for the audience as they watch Fran and Robert interacting. The ultimate sign of great fiction is when it feels like a documentary and you forget that it's fiction which happens often throughout Sometimes I Think About Dying. There are also some symbolism like water and, in a surprisingly surreal scene, a large snake. Poetry is often a form of protest for or against, so what is this film a protest for or against? Perhaps it's a protest for happiness, hope, overcoming adversities and loving oneself. That's open to interpretation, so the filmmakers trust the audience's imagination and intelligence. They also move the film at a slow pace, so they trust their patience as well. Moreover, they grasp the power of quiet moments and the concept that less is more. At a running time of only 1 hour and 31 minutes, Sometimes I Think About Dying is an engrossing, understated and poetic emotional journey. It would make for an interesting double feature with Fallen Leaves, Wristcutters: A Love Story and Funny Ha Ha.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.