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Reviews for January 5th, 2024

Documentary Round-Up

      Brief Tender Light centers on four MIT students from Africa, namely, Sante from Tanzania, Philip from Nigeria, Fidelis from Zimbabwe and Billy from Rwanda. Director Arthur Musah follows them for four years and documents their struggles as they try to achieve success and happiness in the land of opportunity. The documentary bites off more than it could chew, though, while barely allowing the audience to get to know its subjects. Each of them could've been part of a separate documentary, but intertwining their stories without smooth editing makes you feel like you're watching four documentaries in one. Brief Tender Light does deserve to be praised for providing a glimpse of experiences, frustrations and emotional battles of the students each of whom has their own issues to deal with as they try their best to make their families back in Africa proud and to make a difference in the world. However, despite being inspirational, Brief Tender Light falls short of being unflinching and emotionally engrossing. There are some tender moments, but they're far and few between. Musah doesn't interview his subjects enough to dig deeper and provide more insights about what they're going through. Moreover, he adds intrusive voice-over narration with poetic, but corny kernels of wisdom instead of stepping back to let the footage of the subjects speak for themselves.At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Brief Tender Light opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema.

      A Storm Foretold is a provocative, enraging, timely and illuminating glimpse of Roger Stone, Donald Trump's political advisor. Directed by Christoffer Guldbrandsen gains access to Roger Stone and films him beginning in 2019 through 2022. He captures Stone's mindset as well as his personality which is toxic at times. Stone comes across as arrogant, rude, selfish and as charming and reliable as a slick car salesman. He belittles the director and, for a while, he backs out of the documentary because he wants money and has a better offer from another documentary crew. When he learns that Guldbrandsen had a heart attack, he suddenly wants to be a part of his documentary again as though he were his best friend. It's not quite clear whether Stone has true empathy for him, though. However, it is, indeed, clear that Stone lacks introspection or at least there are no signs of it through the documentary. What's his true self like? What was childhood like? This isn't a documentary biopic; it's more of a snapshot of Stone during the last couple of years including the Capitol attack on January 6th, 2021. Fortunately, Guldbrandsen doesn't judge him nor does he display his rage like Michael Moore would've probably done if he were at the helm. He wisely trusts the audience's intelligence, critical thinking and emotions to decide for themselves what to make of Roger Stone merely by observing him and his interactions. At a running time of just 1 hour and 30 minutes, A Storm Foretold opens at Quad Cinema via Abramorama.

The Bricklayer

Directed by Renny Harlin

      Radek (Clifton Collins Jr.) murders journalists in Greece, frames the CIA, and extorts them for bitcoins. CIA Chief O’Malley (Tim Blake Nelson) sends Steve Vail (Aaron Eckhart), a former CIA agent now working as a bricklayer, on a mission to Greece to locate and apprehend Radek. Kate (Nina Dobrev) joins him for the mission as his partner.

      The screenplay by co-writers Hanna Weg and Matt Johnson is based on the novel by Noah Boyd, but you'd never guess that it's based on any novel at all because the plot is so bland and the characters are thinly-written. The systemic issue comes from the lack of suspense with too much key information revealed within the first 30 minutes leading to no surprises. It's clear from the very beginning who the villain is, what his motivations are and what tactics he uses to achieve his goals. He's a boring, cookie-cutter villain, though. The same can be said about the hero, Steve. The dialogue between him and Kate is dull and witless. Is it too much to ask for some banter and some comic relief? Renny Harlin's cult classic, The Long Kiss Goodnight, has plenty of that along with a compelling plot with the right blend of thrilling action, comedy, suspense and intrigue. The Bricklayer, unfortunately, sorely lacks those essential elements. Perhaps if it took more risks and weren't afraid to go a little bonkers, it would've been at least a guilty pleasure like last year's Ron Perlman/Nicolas Cage movie The Baker.

      The only scene that stands out in The Bricklayer is a brief, well-choreographed car chase during the third act, but, by then, it's too little, too late. Tim Blake Nelson is wasted in a supporting role that doesn't give him much to do. Aaron Eckhart has some charisma which feels muted by the lazy, lifeless screenplay, but at least he helps to keep the film mildly engaging. He and Nina Dobrev lack chemistry. Moreover, the third act suffers from a few false endings, so it could've used tighter editing. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, The Bricklayer is dull, overlong and exhausting while low on suspense and thrills.

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


Directed by Xavier Gens

      Samir (Nassim Lyès), a boxer, gets released from prison in France and flees to Thailand where he starts a family with Mia (Loryn Noanay) and their daughter, Dara (Chananticha Tang-Kwa). He ends up working for Narong (Olivier Gourmet), a crime boss, but when one his jobs goes wrong, Narong has his family beaten up by his underlings, Samir seeks revenge against Narong.

      Another week, another B-action movie that tries, yet fails, to be like John Wick. Mayhem! has three screenwriters, namely, writer/director Xavier Gens and his co-writers, Magali Rossitto and Guillaume Lemans, but everything is underwritten including Samir's experiences while imprisoned in France, his backstory, his relationship with Narong as well as with his wife and child. The plot seems like just an excuse to build up to the inevitable action scenes which leave nothing to the imagination. Those scenes are gritty and unflinching, but beyond that, the thrills come with diminishing returns. Moreover, the film essentially treads water until the bloody third act. The dialogue is bland, too on-the-nose and witless. Mayhem! could've used a heavy dose of pizzazz and excitement that films like John Wick and Kill Bill! have in spades.

      The fight scenes are competently shot, but nothing stands out except for the goriness that adds nothing but shock value. Nassim Lyès gives a decent performance although he's undermined by the vapid screenplay that doesn't bother to humanize Samir with an inner life. Olivier Gourmet is wasted in a forgettable role that's beneath him. The cinematography, set designs and editing are unexceptional. Also, the film overstays its welcome by nearly approaching the 2 hour mark. At 1 hour and 49 minutes, Mayhem! is a shallow, anemic and underwhelming revenge thriller.

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

Night Swim

Directed by Bryce McGuire

      Ray (Wyatt Russell), former baseball player diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, moves into a new suburban home with his wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), daughter, Izzy (Amelie Hoeferle) and son, Elliot (Gavin Warren). Little do they know that their swimming pool happens to be haunted until they move in

      Writer/director Bryce McGuire takes an interesting horror premise and squanders the opportunity to turn it into a scary, thrilling or at least a mildly entertaining experience. Cursed objects are a well-worn concept in horror films, though. In Fabric has a cursed dress. Talk to Me has a cursed embalmed hand. The Cello has a cursed cello. Night Swim lacks originality which would've been fine if it delivers the goods. Unfortunately, it doesn't. McGuire knows where to take ideas from, but not where to take them to. The plot has no surprises, twists or revelations. The dialogue ranges from stilted to unintentionally funny. There are plot holes that cause the film veer into preposterous territory as it stretches its concept too thinly. Exposition is kept to a minimum which just feels lazy because there's not even an explanation about how and why the pool ended up getting haunted in the first place. Even The Cello has a more interesting backstory that explains both how and why the object got cursed. The comic relief isn't funny enough and none of the relationships between the family members feel believable. Also, the plot quickly becomes repetitive as it runs out of new ideas. The very rushed and dumb third act is a disappointing mess that leaves a bad aftertaste.  

      The slick cinematography and production designs are among Night Swim's few strengths. It looks and feels cinematic with impressive visual effects, but that's not nearly enough to keep the audience entertained. None of the actors or actresses manage to rise above the increasingly asinine screenplay. Moreover, the editing feels choppy at times and it's clear that there's probably a much more gory and dark R-rated version; the PG-13 makes it pretty tame except for a few brief scenes with blood, i.e. when a character gets cut with broken glass---although that scene is telegraphed a few minutes earlier, so it's not very shocking. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Night Swim is uninspired, asinine, lazy and unintentionally funny.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens in theaters nationwide.

Noryang: Deadly Sea

Directed by Kim Han-min

      Korean Admiral Yi Sun Shin (Kim Yoon-seok) joins forces with Chinese Admiral Chen Lin (Jung Jae-yeong) to battle the Japanese navy led by General Konishi Yukinaga (Lee Moo-saeng).

      Set during the late 16th Century, Noryang: Deadly Sea is the third part of the Admiral Yi trilogy after The Admiral: Roaring Currents and Hansan: Rising Dragon. The narrative remains easy-to-follow without being overstuffed with too many characters or subplots. Director Kim Han-min begins with some expositional scenes that provide the audience with the essential information and context regarding Admiral Yi's battles. Fortunately, he doesn't bombard the audience with exposition nor does he go off on unnecessary tangents. So, with a focused plot, the film's narrative momentum doesn't wane. That said, it doesn't explore any of the relationships between the characters much or delve into their backstory to allow the audience to care about them as human beings. In turn, the film does suffer from shallowness and feels like it's just going through the motions. However, it's nonetheless at least entertaining on a visceral level.

      Noryang: Deadly Sea's major strength are its immersive battle scenes that are full of dazzling, well-choreographed action sequences. The visual effects, set designs, costume designs and cinematography are very impressive. However, the lengthy action scenes do overstay their welcome at times and become tiresome, but those are minor flaws. Clearly, a lot of time, effort and money was spent on the production values. The performances are decent although, to be fair, the actors aren't given much depth to work with, so the emotional beats of the film don't quite land. At a running time of 2 hour and 32 minutes, Noryang: Deadly Sea is a rousing, thrilling and exhilarating spectacle.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens in select theaters.

The Painter

Directed by Kimani Ray Smith

      Peter (Charlie Weber), a former CIA agent, lives a quiet life as a painter 17 years after a mission went wrong with his ex-wife, Elena (Rrlya McIntosh), who's also a CIA agent. One day, Sophia (Madison Bailey), a teenager, shows up at his house and claims to be his daughter. Meanwhile Sophia (Madison Bailey), the CIA's chief, and Ghost (Max Montesi), a mysterious assassin, pursue Peter.

      The screenplay Brian Buccellato suffers from a tonally uneven plot that becomes increasingly convoluted. There are too many characters, backstories and subplots which make the film both overstuffed and undercooked. Peter has a tragic past which gets revealed early-on. His parents were killed before Bryne (Jon Voight), a CIA agent, became his surrogate father. A botched mission with his pregnant wife led to her losing her child and to a subsequent divorce. He now has sensitive hearing and wears ear plugs. The film isn't interested in exploring what happened to Peter during the 17 years between his divorce and when Sophia shows up. Everyone on-screen just seems like a plot device rather than a fully fleshed human being, Buccellato does a so-so job incorporating exposition. The Painter would have benefited from being a leaner B-movie. Too many scenes seem like filler and some even veer toward schmaltz. Not a single moment rings true which would've been fine if the film didn't take itself so seriously. The villains and their motivations are uninspired while the relationships between Peter and his daughter and him and Bryne fall flat with stilted, on-the-nose dialogue. Where's some comic relief when it's needed? The film eventually becomes a monotonous and lethargic experience with a contrived third act that fails to deliver palpable thrills.

      Unfortunately, none of the actors manage to rise above the bland, shallow screenplay. Jon Voight offers some gravitas in his supporting role, but he's undermined by the clunky screenplay. In terms of production design and cinematography, The Painter is slick and stylish albeit not enough to invigorate the film or to compensate for its lack of substance. This isn't anything that comes even close to John Wick or Mission: Impossible during the action scenes. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, The Painter is an uninspired, overstuffed and forgettable B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Paramount Global Content Distribution.
Opens in select theaters.

Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia

Directed by Stefano Mordini

      Cesare Fiorio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the team manager of Lancia, a Italian car manufacturer, prepares for the 1983 Rally World Championship against German car manufacturer Audi. He wants Walter Röhrl (Volker Bruch) to be Lancia's race car driver.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Stefano Mordini and his co-writers, Riccardo Scamarcio and Filippo Bologna, is a by-the-numbers sports drama that doesn't elevate much beyond mediocrity. Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia isn't concerned about getting to know Cesare, Walter or Audi's engineer, Roland Gumpert (Daniel Brühl), Cesare's rival. A journalist (Haley Bennett) interviews Cesare in scenes that bookend the film, but she doesn't ask him any deep questions. Those scenes feel tacked-on, contrived and unnecessary. Unlike the recent Ferrari, the plot doesn't veer off into tangents involving anyone's love life. It's centered, for the most part, on Cesare's determination to convince Walter to be Lancia's driver and to win the Rally World Championship despite the odds being against him. The dialogue is often on-the-nose and lacks subtlety while the characters remain underdeveloped, though. That's disappointing because there's a lot going on inside of Cesare emotionally and psychologically which the film glosses over and sugar-coats. Walter and Roland are also interesting characters who remain at a cold distance from the audience, so the third act's uplift isn't quite as well-earned as it could've been with a more organic and sensitive screenplay.

      The most captivating scenes in Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia are the racing scenes which are well-shot and invigorating without becoming exhausting or nauseating. The performances by Riccardo Scamarcio and Daniel Brühl, both of whom are very charismatic, rise ever so slightly above the shallow screenplay. They deserve better material, though, which would've allowed them to humanize their characters much more.The pace moves briskly, sometimes too briskly, while the music score is lively and well-chosen. At a running time of just 1 hour and 33 minutes, Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia is mildly engaging and occasionally thrilling, but ultimately vapid, sugar-coated and emotionally hollow.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Some Other Woman

Directed by Joel David Moore

      After moving to a tropical island with her husband (Tom Felton) for his job, Eve (Amanda Crew) sees a strange woman, Renata (Ashley Greene), who gradually takes over her life while causing her to doubt her own reality.

      The screenplay by co-writers Yuri Baranovsky, Angela Gulner and Josh Long deftly blend Hitchcockian suspense, intrigue, psychological thrills and psychological horror. When you first meet Eve, she's with her husband on a beach near their home on the island. Their life seems idyllic, at least for the time being. All of that changes when she sees visions of Renata before other bizarre events occur, i.e. when her husband denies that they've been to a place that she remembers being with him at. Is he gaslighting her? Is it all in her mind? Perhaps she's actually going crazy. Or perhaps something else is actually going on. As the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur for Eve, it does the same for the audience who are there along with her for the ride. The less you know about the details of the plot, the better because it has a few twists and turns. It's worth mentioning, though, that Some Other Woman has some surprisingly tender moments and has something interesting to say about human nature, so it's ultimately more than just some of its parts. Also, it succeeds in every way that M. Night Shyamalan's Old fails. Both films take place in the tropics and are a mindfuck. However, unlike in Old, there are no bad laughs and the third act has internal logic while adding depth without being preposterous or taking a nosedive like too many films do nowadays. Yes, I'm looking at you, Night Swim, and The Turning.

      The tropical setting becomes a character in and of itself because it provides some atmosphere and also effectively counterbalances the film's darker elements. It's refreshing to see a psychological horror film that doesn't take place in a cabin isolated in the woods or that relies heavily on jump scares to entertain the audience. In other words, director Joel David Moore and his team of screenwriters don't go for the low hanging fruit. They build suspense slowly after an opening scene teases the audience with some foreshadow. Moreover, they know when to trust the audience's intelligence and imagination while incorporating just the right amount of exposition without over-explaining or confusing the audience. The performances by Tom Felton, Amanda Crew and Ashley Greene are solid and convincingly moving sans any hamming. Director Joel David Moore wisely keeps the running time down under 90 minutes which means that he grasps the concept of restraint and that less is more. At merely 1 hour 25 minutes, Some Other Woman is a gripping psychological thriller with shades of Hitchcock and De Palma. It would pair well with Gaslight, The Double Hour, Us and L'Avventura. In a double feature with Night Swim, it would be the superior A-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Falling Forward Films.
Opens in select Regal Theaters nationwide.

Weak Layers

Directed by Katie Burrell

      After getting evicted, Cleo (Katie Burrell) and her roommates, Lucy (Jadyn Wong) and Tina (Chelsea Conwright), enter a ski-movie competition in hope of winning the much-needed prize money.

      Writer/director Katie Burrell and co-writer Andrew Ladd grasp the concept that comedy is often rooted in tragedy. Weak Layers begins when Cleo and her roommates are at their lowest point financially when they're evicted. Their desperation to make money fuels their desire to win the ski-movie competition despite the odds. They're the underdogs. While it's fun to root for the underdogs, Weak Layers doesn't crank up the suspense. Unfortunately, it doesn't crank up the comedy or satire either which remains somewhat dry with only sporadic moments of wit. The film could use a lot more zaniness. Too many of the attempts at humor fall flat and feel clunky, and the film soon becomes lethargic while running out of steam. Moreover, Cleo's blossoming romance with Gabe (Evan Jonigkeit), a professional skier, is contrived and cheesy. That said, at least Weak Layers doesn't resort to gross-out humor. At least no one poops in a sink like in Bridesmaids or pees onto a crowd like in Girls Trip. Nor do the love interests finger each other on a cliff like in Anyone But You. Also, Burrell and Ladd should be commended for understanding the importance of grounding comedy in realism because the ways that Cleo, Lucy and Tina interact as roommates and friends does ring true. It's always refreshing to see a movie that depicts female friendships for a change. There are also some surprisingly poignant scenes where Clea does some soul-searching and introspection, although those moments are ephemeral.

      What helps to keep the film at least somewhat afloat is the palpable chemistry between Katie Burrell, Jadyn Wong and Chelsea Conwright. They each bring some much-needed authenticity to their roles while trying their best to rise above and to enliven the dull screenplay. The pace moves briskly enough, and the snowy scenery is occasionally breaktaking. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Weak Layers is often anemic and clunky while low on laughs, wit and zaniness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.