Main Page
Alphabetical Menu
Chronological Menu

Reviews for January 31st, 2020

The Assistant

Directed by Kitty Green

       Jane (Julia Garner) just started her job as an assistant for a major producer at his production office a little over a month ago. She takes phone calls and schedules appointments with aspiring actresses for her boss while also cleaning the stains he leaves on his couch.  Ruby (Makenzie Leigh) is just one of the many young actresses that she books at hotels for her boss. When Jane complains to the company's compliance officer (Matthew Macfadyen) about her boss' suspicious behavior with the young actresses, he refuses to file a complaint without concrete evidence.

      The Assistant is one of the most disappointing dramas in years because it could've been a gripping, provocative thriller or a moving character study, but it suffers from a screenplay by writer/director Kitty Green that's too understated, toothless and dull to amount to anything. Watching Jane going about her daily mundane tasks at work quickly becomes tedious as you're wondering if something remotely exciting or interesting is going to happen. There's a lot that's implied about her boss' behavior without being explicitly shown. He's like a monster in a horror film that remains unseen throughout, so the Green clearly trusts the audience's imagination. If only The Assistant had to courage to be more horrifying and unflinching.

       Jane isn't enough of an interesting character because she doesn't seem to have much of a personality and there's not nearly enough backstory about her to that would allow audiences to get to know her as a human being. She keeps a lot of her emotions to herself without expressing them to anyone, not even to the audience. It's fine to eschew a voice-over narration, but why does Green provide such little character development for Jane? It makes Jane seem like a cold, boring person. The fact that she's a push-over, insecure and lacking assertion makes her seem cowardly, so she's far from a good role model nor is she empowering in any way.

       Even The Assistant's amateurish lighting, cinematography and set design feels bland and monotonous. Julia Garner is a warm, charismatic actress who deserves a far more warm and engaging film with a smarter and more humanist screenplay. Perhaps Kitty Green lacks warmth herself because, after all, it takes a warm person to capture warmth onscreen. Why be so emotionally stingy to the audience? Why not provide the audience with some levity? Or at least some insights to take home with them? Why not provide Jane with a shred of hope? It's even more dispiriting to observe that Jane has no character arc, and that the third act is very anticlimactic leaving audiences feeling no sense of any kind of close, just hopelessness. Good luck trying to stay awake through this dreary, shallow and ultimately cowardly film. At a running time of 85 minutes, it feels more like 3 hours. The Assistant is so uninspiring and lackluster that it could even discourage victims from speaking out against their abusers. Anyone who's ever suffered emotional, sexual or physical abuse should avoid this toxic film like the plague.

Number of times I checked my watch: 8
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens in select theaters.

Gretel & Hansel

Directed by Oz Perkins

       Gretel (Sophia Lillis) takes her younger brother, Hansel (Sammy Leakey), into the woods to look for food. They smell food when they approach a house belonging to an mysterious elderly woman, Holda (Alice Krige), who persuades them to enter the house to feed them and to provide them with shelter. Strange events happen once Gretel and Hansel go into Holda's house.

      Gretel & Hansel joins The Sonata, The Grudge, The Turning and The Lodge as yet another recent horror film about people who enter a house that may or may not haunted by a malevolent supernatural entity. Of those other 4 films, The Lodge reigns supreme in terms of story, visuals, atmosphere, suspense, character development and screenplay. Gretel & Hansel is much less dark and grim than The Lodge thanks to a screenplay by Rob Hayes that has some dark humor and a somewhat campy performance by Alice Krige. Unfortunately, the stilted dialogue doesn't do the story any justice. There aren't enough palpable scares or surprises in the plot, and the twists can be seen from a mile away. Just by looking at Holda, you already know not to trust her and that she must have hidden motives. When Gretel finds a secret door leading to a hidden room in the basement, you'll know what to expect even if you're unfamiliar with the story of Hansel & Gretel.

      Director Oz Perkins does deserve some praise, though, for showing some grotesque images that push the PG-13 envelope a little. He also moves the film at a leisurely pace that's a medium to slow burn. Although he doesn't trust the audience's intelligence nor their imagination, at least he trusts their patience. If only he knew how to scare audiences, though, and to tell a story that's more engaging on an emotional and psychological level with characters that are at least somewhat grounded in realism. If audiences don't care about the characters, then the beats don't land as effectively. At least it's not as insultingly amateurish, lazy and disappointing as The Turning which has one of the worst abrupt endings in years.

      The strongest asset of Gretel & Hansel is its very atmospheric cinematography that includes stylish set design, lighting, use of color and camera angles. It's a very well-produced B-movie that suffers from a weak screenplay that doesn't take its ideas far enough. Sophia Lillis gives a mediocre performance that seems awkwardly dead-pan at times, and Sammy Leakey's performance is no better. Perhaps they both don't have enough strong material to shine or their hearts simply weren't into their roles and lines enough. None of their scenes ring true even remotely. Also, the voice-over narration by Gretel is very distracting and unnecessary. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Gretel & Hansel is a stylishly produced and atmospheric update of Hansel & Gretel, but emotionally and intellectually hollow with mediocre performances and not enough scares, surprises or imagination.


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


Directed by Yaron Zilberman


Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Greenwhich Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West.


Directed by Li Cheng

      José (Enrique Salanic) lives in Guatemala City with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) while barely scrapping a living as a worker at a local restaurant. He spends his free time having sex with men via dating apps. One of the men, Luis (Manolo Herrera), becomes more than just a random hookup as their platonic relationship develops into a serious relationship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Li Cheng and co-writer George F. Roberson eschews any big events or twists and instead focuses on the emotional journey of José as he struggles with his sexual identity and finds love in a homophobic culture. There's no violence or any subplots that detract for the experiences of José, so there's nothing Hollywood about about this film. The pace moves slowly, at times even very slowly, so patient audiences will be rewarded the most. It's rare for a filmmaker to trust the audience's patience so much. Quiet often, you'll feel as though you were watching a documentary because everything looks so natural and the performance by Enrique Salanic is raw, organic and nuanced. The cinematography remains unpretentious and unshowy, so you might even forget that there's a camera as you're gradually drawn into José's life. Not a single scene feels contrived, schmaltzy or melodramatic thereby increasing the film's naturalism.

      There's very little exposition about José's backstory and he's laconic quite often, so you don't learn a lot about him despite that the film is centered around him. There are snippets of his personality which can be observed every now and then, but not enough to truly get to know him.  He remains somewhat enigmatic by the end which makes him intriguing, but concurrently leaves you at an emotional distance from him. If only the filmmakers were to have provided a much bigger window into José's heart, mind and soul because although they do treat him as a human being, he's ultimately too much like a stranger to the audience. The ending, not surprisingly, is understated and somewhat abrupt leaving you with more questions about José's future with Luis than answers. At a running time of 85 minutes, José is a slow-burning and mildly engaging coming-of-age drama that's not quite as powerful nor moving as it could have been. 

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

The Rhthym Section

Directed by Reed Morano

      After losing her family in a plane crash, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), will stop at nothing to hunt down the terrorist responsible for planting the bomb on the plane. An investigative Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) informs her of the mysterious terrorist, known only as U17. When Proctor gets killed, she tracks down Iain (Jude Law), an ex-MI6 agent who trains her how to become an assassin in his remote lakeside home. She persuades the wealthy Suleman Kaif (Nasser Memarzia) and his wife Alia (Amira Ghazalla) to fund her assassination plot. Marc (Sterling K. Brown) provides her with intel about whom her next target among the terrorists will be.

       Does anyone in Hollywood bother to proofread screenplays anymore to check for plausibility and internal logic or is that too much to ask for? The Rhythm Section sounds like it could be a gripping revenge thriller in the vein of John Wick, The Brave One and Death Wish, but it falls apart if you try to follow its plot logically by using your brain. Other than Stephanie's motivation for wanting revenge which screenwriter Mark Burnell makes crystal clear through repeated flashbacks of Stephanie's loving family, the other character's motivations remain murky from start to finish. What motive does Proctor have for wanting to meet Stephanie? What motive does Iain have for training Stephanie and helping her find the terrorists? How does Iain get away bombing a car in the middle of the day on Park Avenue in New York City? The fact that he and Stephanie survive the nearby explosion unscathed is a whole other matter. 

      The screenplay has as many holes in it as there are in Swiss cheese. If you can overlook the many plausibility issues, The Rhythm Section is a mildly entertaining thriller.  Just as you'd expect, there's a twist in the third act regarding U17's identity which won't be spoiled here, but Stephanie comes to the conclusion and confronts that person so quickly that the ending feels rushed and not quite as powerful as it could have been. There's too little backstory about that character, so he's a boring, cookie-cutter villain. Also, there's a very clunky and confusing scene when Stephanie and Marc are together when it randomly cuts to them making out and about to have sex before cutting back to them talking. Was that supposed to be a flash-forward or just part of Stephanie's imagination. It's not clear and makes it seem as though the filmmakers couldn't decide whether or not Stephanie and Marc should sleep with each other, but it just makes the film feel even sloppier.

      Blake Lively gives a raw, convincingly moving performance, though, that elevates the film whenever it falls flat because of its increasingly preposterous plot. She wears very little make-up and handles the emotionally complex aspects of Stephanie with conviction. She deserves a much better movie as does Jude Law who's charismatic, but isn't given a strong enough role with enough screen time. The lively use of music is quite bold and interesting at times, but you feel like you're watching a well-shot music video. There's one exciting chase sequence that's exhilarating albeit ephemeral. If The Rhythm Section hadn't taken its plot so seriously like in the John Wick series and weren't afraid to go over-the-top with the action sequences, it could've been a guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a dumb, implausible, confusing and convoluted B-movie that's barely saved by Blake Lively's performance.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

The Traitor

Directed by Marco Bellocchio

      Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), one of the many mobster in the Sicilian Mafia known as La Cosa Nostra, gets arrested with his wife, Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), in Brazil before being transferred to a prison in Italy. Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) asks  him to become an informant against the Cosa Nostra which he agrees to do reluctantly with no remorse for his past actions. At the trails, he provides testimony that incriminates his fellow mobsters.  

      The Traitor, based on a true story, coves a lot of ground because its plot spans across two decades from 1980 to 2000. The screenplay has four writers, namely, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santella, Francesco Piccolo and writer/director Marco Bellocchio. At times it feels like it has so many writers because it switches genres from dry comedy to drama and action, but for the most part it's a drama about a mafioso struggling with a crisis of conscience as he grows older and puts his family's life on the line. Not surprisingly, some members of his family do get murdered as do many more people throughout the film. You'll find corrupt politicians in bed with the mafia, mafia members willing to lie under oath, and some flashbacks. Like many mafia films, it clocks nearly 2 and half hours. The Traitor doesn't offer anything groundbreaking nor does it become a moving character study because Buscetta always remains a bit of a mystery and doesn't open himself up emotionally to the audience, but at least it's not as dry and dull as the overrated The Irishman. The courtroom scenes during the last hour are among the most riveting and captivating scenes.

      Pierfrancesco Favino's bravura performance is the real selling point of The Traitor. His performance compensates for the emotional depth lacking in the screenplay. He knows how to play a slick, confidence and unlikable character in a way that's compelling and, most importantly, authentic and human. It also helps that he's very charismatic as an actor much like some of the actors from the Golden Age, i.e. Marcello Mastroianni. The cinematography looks cinematic and picturesque at times, the soundtrack is well-chosen and the editing is sylish with just the right pace that doesn't drag like in the sleep-inducing The Irishman. If you're looking for a solid crime drama that's more entertaining than The Irishman, look no further than The Traitor, Italy's Offical Entry for the Academy Awards. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Film Forum and Walter Reade Theater.
Questions? Comments? Please click here.

Main Page
Alphabetical Menu
Chronological Menu

Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
Privacy Policy