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Reviews for July 15th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Directed by Marco Bellocchio himself, Marx Can Wait is a heartfelt, unflinching and profound reflection on the suicide of Marco's twin brother, Camillo, in 1968, and its aftermath. Bellocchio displays emotional maturity for being brave enough to examine his family's dark past head-on without any sugar-coating. Through interviews with his family members, including his siblings and in-laws, you get a sense of how Camillo's suicide affected his family throughout the years. You also get some background, expositional information of what Camillo's life was like fifty years ago, and the emotionaly pain that he suffered from after his father died which led to his suicide. The most heartbreaking part of the film is when his family recalls the moment that they found Camillio hanging in his room. Interestingly, one of Marco's siblings believes that it was an accident, not a suicide. She, like Marco, seems to be processing Camillio's death differently than Marco, and she has every right to. The most profound moment and revealing moment, though, is when Marco talks with his priest candidly about the guilt that he feels about his twin brother's death and that he wishes he could've loved him more. That shows Marco not only Marco's compassion, empathy and emotional generosity, but also that he's capable of being introspective. He sees his brother as well as himself as a human being.

      The fact that he expresses his remorse and guilt while being unafraid to show his vulnerability instead of suppressing it is a strength, not a weakness. It makes him all the more relatable, especially for anyone who's also dealing with trauma. Marco clearly grasps the wise concept that to learn and to heal from the past, you can't ignore or deny it. The poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, "They can cut all of the flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Through this intimate, honest and poignant documentary, the garden of Marco Bellocchio's heart, mind and soul is cleansed and nourished to allow more flowers to grow, so-to-speak. Hopefully, it will inspire audiences to do the same if they're willing to be introspective and to see themselves as human beings, warts and all. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Marx Can Wait opens at IFC Center via Strand Releasing.

      From Where They Stood is a haunting, provocative and gently moving documentary about an important subject: photographs secretly taken by Jewish prisoners at Nazi death camps in early 1940s. Director Christophe Cognet opts for a simple approach by following scholars to the sites where the photographs were taken. Using blown up negatives, he positions the film camera precisely where the photographers stood back then. There are no interviews with the scholars. They merely explain the content and context of the photographs. They're honest when they don't know something, i.e. why certain people in a photograph taken by a prisoner inside the gas chamber are behaving given their body language in a way that doesn't seem logical within the context of the photograph. Photographs are, after all, a thousand words, so the photographs alone speak volumes. Cognet's straightforward approach sans a musical score makes the documentary feel a little cold and academic, as though it were the kind of film you were watching in history class rather than with an audience at a movie theater. It's fundamentally a "show and tell", albeit one that's a vital and eye-opening glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust for current and future generations. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, From Where They Stood opens at Film Forum via Greenwich Entertainment.

American Carnage

Directed by Diego Hallivis

      JP (Jorge Lendeborg) struggles to make ends meet as a fast food worker while his older sister, Lily (Yumarie Morales) has plans to go to college. When governor Harper Finn (Brett Cullen) orders all illegal immigrants to be arrested, JP and Lily get detained and separated. JP agrees to work as a caretaker for the elderly. If he completes the program at the facility run by Eddie (Eric Dane), all charges will be dropped against him and his family. He befriends other detainees at his new workplace including Camila (Jenna Ortega), Big Mac (Allen Maldonado), and Micah (Bella Ortiz), while trying to figure out mysterious events that take place there.

      To reveal more about the plot would spoil its surprises, but do keep in mind that it takes a dark, genre-bending turn that's similar of M. Night Shyamalan's Old. Fortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Diego Hallivis and co-writer Julio Hallivis doesn't take itself too seriously while blending comedy, horror, thriller and satire. It's much more fun and exciting than Old and Crimes of the Future without any dullness, silly subplots, clunky dialogue or bad laughs. Although the twist isn't as wild, surprising and bonkers as the twist in Cabin in the Woods or the underrated Come to Daddy and can be easily telegraphed if you're paying attentions, it's still quite shocking and disturbing. The filmmakers do a great job of playing around with audience expectations because one minute the film seems like it might veer into one direction, but it veers into another. Trying to figure out the "big reveal" is part of what makes the film gripping. That said, that moments occur at just the right moment---not too early or too late. Had it been revealed too early, the film might've risked running out of steam which, fortunately, it does not. In other words, the filmmakers have a good handle on exposition, knowing just how much information to reveal to the audience and when to reveal it. They handle exposition much better than M. Night Shyamalan does in Old, especially during the third act. There are some genuinely scare scenes, some dark comedy and sociopolitical commentary which makes American Carnage an entertaining B-movie that isn't afraid to be provocative, even if what it's trying to say feels a little heavy-handed and obvious.  

      The actors are solid and well-cast all across the board from Jorge Lendeborg as the charismatic lead to Allen Maldonado who proves much of the film's comic relief. Jenna Ortega is just as radiant as she is in Scream 5. Without spoiling anything, the make-up and practical effects are impressive during the horror scenes, and the filmmakers deserve to be commended for not shying away from showing some blood-and-guts when the time comes. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, American Carnage is a wickedly funny, thought-provoking and gripping ride well worth taking. It would make for an interesting double feature with Soylent Green and Gone in the Night.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Costa Brava, Lebanon

Directed by Mounia Akl

      Walid (Saleh Bakri) lives with his wife, Souraya (Nadine Labaki), two daughters, Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Rim (Ceana and Geana Restom), along with his mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury), in an isolated mountainside home after escaping the political unrest in Beirut. Souraya longs to return to Beirut, but Walid refuses to leave despite the fact that an allegedly environmentally-friendly landfill is being built adjacent to their home.

      Costa Brava, Lebanon is a bittersweet story about a family struggling to find peace and tranquility in a country that's far from tranquil and peaceful. Walid, the patriarch, thinks that he's doing the right thing by staying put instead of returning to Beirut where his sister lives. Is he right or wrong? Writer/director Mounia Akl and co-writer Clara Roquet don't judge him nor do they ask the audience to judge him. Instead, they humanize him while showing how the tensions arising from the landfill, which Walid thinks is a political stunt, leads to a rift between Walid and Souraya. What's unclear, though, is whether or not a rift existed in their relationship before that point or if it 's the first rift. In one of the film's many heartfelt scenes, Souraya lays next to her youngest daughter, Rim, and tells her the story of how she and her father met and fell in love. That's a great way of incorporating exposition without the use of flashbacks or voice-over narration. Interestingly, the filmmakers leave the precise details of the political unrest in Beirut up to the audience's imagination.

      Costa Brava, Lebanon isn't a political film per se; it's about human beings who have a lot of mixed emotions to deal with. The only subplot feels a bit contrived is the one involving the relationship between Tala, who's nearly 18, and Tarek (François Nour), a civil engineer working at the landfill and living nearby. She's undergoing a sexual awakening and flirts with Tarek before coming over to his place and trying to seduce him. She tries to kiss him, but he's uncomfortable with kissing her, most likely because she's still a child. The way that she reacts afterward to make him look like a predator and then how Walid beats him up makes both Walid and Tala seem like emotionally immature people. It also seems out-of-character for Walid to be violent. Does he think that violence is a solution for any kind of problem? Isn't he trying to find peace and tranquility? If so, then he's a hypocrite and bad role model. He has every right to be indignant, but he doesn't know how to control his anger. Perhaps his emotional immaturity has something to do with what makes his wife unhappy in their marriage and leads to a crucial decision that she makes at the end. Souraya seems much more rational and emotionally mature compared to Walid, but that's ultimately up for the audience to discern. These people aren't villains; the only villains are the corrupt, lying politicians, although they remain in the background despite being integral to the story.

      Saleh Bakri, Nadine Labaki and the other actors all give raw, natural performance. Even the child actors are terrific. Surprisingly, there are a few scenes that show some fantasy elements through surreal, dreamlike sequences which help the audience to get inside these characters' heads a little. Those scenes are poetic and mesmerizing to behold. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest. Like the film 1982 which would make for a great double feature, Costa Brava, Lebanon is a protest for peace, justice and happiness. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, it's engrossing, poetic and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Deer King

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji

      In a world where the Kingdom of Zol rules over the Kingdom of Aquafa, Van (voice of Shinichi Tsutsumi) works in a salt mine with other enslaved prisoners of the Aquafa Kingdom. He and a young prisoner, Yuna (voice of Hisui Kimura), get bitten by dogs carrying  Black Wolf Fever. Van happens to be immune to the disease and it gives him superpowers. Hohsalle (voice of Ryoma Takeuchi), a doctor, has nefarious plans to capture and kill Val with the help of Sae (voice of Anne Watanabe) to use his blood to develop a cure for the disease.

      A truly great anime, or any animated film for that matter, has a thrilling, heartfelt story with engaging characters. Although The Deer King does have sporadic thrills, it's sorely lacking in the other departments. The screenplay by Taku Kishimoto spends a lot of time with exposition and takes too long to get to the meat of the story which isn't really that interesting to begin with. Sometimes a story that begins on a boring note can become more compelling as the plot progresses, but that's not the case here.  There are too many characters with too many motivations and subplots. In turn, that makes the film feel meandering and unfocused. The villains are forgettable and poorly developed, and the MacGuffin, Van's blood, isn't very imaginative either. Most disappointingly, though, there's not enough depth to the relationship between Van and Yuna, and little to no comic relief or anything surprising that could invigorate or elevate the film. How could the audience connect to any of the characters emotionally if they're merely there to serve the plot? Just because a plot is complex doesn't make it automatically engaging, intriguing or profound. There are some action scenes, but they're not very exciting, even in the dull third act.

      The animation looks fine, but nothing exceptional that even comes close to the anime of Miyakazi. There are pacing issues, to boot. The beginning moves slowly and then speeds up before it slows down and then the ending feels rushed. On top of that, you can feel the weight of the running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes. Around the 90 minute mark, The Deer King begins to overstay its welcome which is a testament to its dull premise and lackluster execution. The Lion King still reigns supreme.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by GKIDS.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.


Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović

      In the mid-20th Century, Albert (Paul Hilton) works as a caretaker for a young girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers), who has teeth made of ice. He changes her teeth many times a day. One day, her master calls asking him to prepare her to leave. Meanwhile, Albert goes to a local bar where he ends up striking the barkeeper, Céleste (Romola Garai), in the face with a broken beer bottle and disfigures her.

      Based on the novel by Brian Catling, the screenplay by writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilović and co-writer Geoff Cox jumps right into the bizarre world of Mia without a first act. How did she lose her teeth? Why does she have ice teeth? Who is her master? Why is she suddenly supposed to leave to see her master? Is there a villain? If you think you'll be able to answer these questions by the third act, you'll be disappointed. Earwig remains elliptical, eerie and mysterious with no "world building" or backstories. Eeriness and mystery alone isn't enough to be engaging, though, unless there's some kind of forward momentum, something revealing or compelling to watch. It seems as though the filmmakers just want the film to be mysterious without a discernible purpose. Mystery for mystery's sake is dull and unimaginative. What follows is a monotonous experience that quickly becomes repetitive while trying too hard to be unconventional. Sure, the last scene feels bizarre in an almost darkly comedic, absurd way, but so what? Like the rest of the film, it's just bizarre for the sake of bizarreness which makes it ultimately shallow.

      The cinematography, set design and lighting are all exquisite while adding to the eeriness. Even the way that the apartment is designed adds to the creepy atmosphere. The sound design, too, becomes like a character in itself, especially during the first 15 minutes which are wordless. The filmmakers do a great job of using silence to create atmosphere. It's too bad, then, that the screenplay doesn't have as much imagination, resonance and depth. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which feels more like 2.5 hours, Earwig is well-shot, but frustrating, tedious and shallow with style over substance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Juno Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Gone in the Night

Directed by Eli Horowitz

      Kath (Winona Ryder), a florist, agrees to spend time with her boyfriend, Max (John Gallagher Jr.), in a remote cabin that he rents at the last minute. When they arrive at the cabin, another couple, Al (Owen Teague) and his girlfriend, Greta (Brianne Tju), happen to be already renting the cabin. They let Kath and Max stay for the night, but Max suddenly disappears in the morning. Al claims that he saw Max hitting on Greta and they must be together. Kath contacts the cabin's owner, Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney), to help her locate Max and to find out what happened to him.

      Gone in the Night sounds like it could be a gripping and intense thriller in the vein of Tell No One, but it lacks palpable thrills, intrigue, suspense and even plausibility. The screenplay by writer/director Eli Horowitz and Matthew Derby begins promisingly with a first act that sets up the basic mystery. Once they flash back to the perspective of Max to reveal to the audience what happened to him, it begins to take a nosedive. There's nothing wrong with the way that the filmmakers use exposition; the film's systemic problem comes from the increasingly preposterous twists that come from the expositional scenes, one of which is kind of obvious if you're paying enough attention. A backstory about Nicholas' trauma seems tacked-on and contrived. None of these characters seem like fully-fleshed human beings, and very few scenes ring true. There's also a silly scene at Kath's flower shop where Kath cons a customer with the help of Nicholas. She doesn't seem like a decent person if she's conning someone without remorse. Also, Kath's character arc doesn't feel believable either. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem less concerned about exploring the psyche of their characters and more interested in moving the plot forward with all twists and turns. The third act is where the film goes completely bonkers, but then it already runs out of steam.

      The performances are fine albeit nothing to write home about. Winona Ryder and Owen Teague have all been in far better films that explored the dark side of human nature with much more sensitivity, depth and plausibility. Owen Teague, for instance, is in the underrated Montana Story. He's capable of giving a great performance with good material. He doesn't have enough material to work with her, especially during a huge revelation in the third act that changes the way you perceive Al. Winona Ryder tries her best, too, to rise above the material, but doesn't manage to succeed. None one really gets a chance to shine throughout the film. If it didn't take itself so seriously, perhaps it would've been at least a mindlessly entertaining guilty pleasure. At a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Gone in the Night is a convoluted, preposterous and asinine mess that's neither fun, thrilling nor suspenseful.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Vertical Releasing.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

She Will

Directed by Charlotte Colbert

      After undergoing surgery for a double masectomy, Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige), an aging actress, travels with her nurse, Desi (Kota Eberhardt), to a retreat in the Scottish countryside where she meets other artists including Tirador (Rupert Everett). The retreat happens to be at the same place where women suspected to be witches were burned alive. Meanwhile, she's haunted by painful memories about a traumatic event involving one of her film directors, Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell).

    To describe She Will in terms of a genre wouldn't be fair because it's not quite a terrifying horror film even though it does have supernatural elements and takes place mostly in an isolated location deep in the woods. Nor is it an edge-of-year-seat suspense thriller either despite the mystery about the source of Veronica's emotional torment. It would be more accurate to call it a psychological character study of a woman grappling with old age while confronting her past trauma that haunts her. From first 10 minutes, you learn that she's angry, bitter and sad, but you don't know why. Writer/director Charlotte Colbert and co-writer Kitty Percy do a great job of opening a large window into the heart, mind and soul of Veronica throughout the film as you gradually get to know her and, most importantly, the cause of her pain. They also effectively blur the line between reality and fantasy. Veronica, too, doesn't quite know what's real and what's not real. Is she hallucinating? Is she merely projecting? Or maybe both? Either way, the audience remains with her and cares about her as a human being despite her flaws. She's not very nice to her nurse, for instance---the way that she quips with her at the beginning seems rude and inconsiderate of her. She also doesn't seem to be interested in making any friends at the retreat. Does she or did she have any friends in the past? What about family? There's not much exposition about her past, but there's just enough for you to understand how she ended up so bitter and angry. Interestingly, they don't show the traumatic event tormenting Veronica in vivid detail, so the filmmakers grasp the power of the imagination because the real horror elements are within the audience's own imagination. They also leave plenty of room for interpretation, especially in the third act that doesn't offer easy answers while leaving you with some questions to linger in your mind along after the end credits roll.

      Alice Krige gives a convincingly moving, raw and bravura performance as Veronica. While the filmmakers create the window into Veronica's heart, mind and soul, Krige opens that window all the way to show Veronica's innate vulnerability, fragility and strength to the audience. She handles the emotional complexities of her role very effectively even during the silent moments. On a purely aesthetic level, She Will is a triumph of atmospheric cinematography with some trippy visuals that add some visual poetry while making the film an immersive experience. Even the opening shot of a lake looks breathtaking almost like a painting. Is it an upside down shot? Most likely. You can tell which part is the sky and which part is the lake, but that's the point. There's a similar shot of the train that's a haunting split mirror image. What do those poetic visual represent? That's up to the audience to decide, but it becomes somewhat clearer by the end. At a running time time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, She Will is a mesmerizing, heartfelt and intriguing emotional journey with just the right balance of style and substance. It would make for a great double feature with Promising Young Woman.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Directed by Olivia Newman

      In 1969, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) lives alone in a marsh in North Carolina. She's sent to prison after being accused of murdering Chase (Harris Dickinson), one of her lovers. With the help of her lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), she tries to prove her innocence.  

       The screenplay by Lucy Alibar, based on the novel by Delia Owens, bites off more than it could chew. If you can imagine Primal Fear as a lighthearted Lifetime movie-of-the-week crossed with a Nicholas Sparks romance, you'll get something along the lines of Where the Crawdads Sing. Very few scenes in the film ring true. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar fails to breathe life into any of the characters, even the protagonist, Kya. So, when you're supposed to be moved by her romance with Chase or with another lover, Tate (Taylor John Smith), the beats don't land. Nor do they land during the flashbacks to her childhood with abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) and her mother (Ahna O'Reilly). Her traumatic past definitely affects emotionally and psychologically in the present day, but the film squanders the opportunity to delve into that to humanize Kya. This is the kind of film where you can easily hear the wheels of the screenplay turning. The romance between Kya and Chase as well with her and Tate feels hackneyed and schmaltzy. The same can be said about her friendship with the kind shop owners, Jumpin' (Sterling Macer Jr.) and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who are like her surrogate parents. The courtroom scenes are more engaging than the flashbacks to Kya's past, but not by much. It's no help that the prosecution or the defense rarely say "Object!" to anything. The prosecution also has a very weak case based on circumstantial evidence, so the verdict can be predicted from a mile away. What you might not predict, though, unless you've read the book, of course, is the twist ending during the last minute that's just as twisted as the ending in Citizen Kane, but it's very implausible and contrived in hindsight. Moreover, the ending feels very, very rushed.

      Daisy Edgar-Jones' tender performance helps to keep Where the Crawdads Sing somewhat afloat. It's a shame that the screenplay doesn't give her enough of a chance to truly shine, though. The picturesque scenery provides some eye candy, but it gets repetitive with diminishing returns. When it comes to the editing, that's where the film suffers a lot because the transitions from the courtroom scenes to the flashbacks are awkward and distract from the narrative momentum. At a running time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Where the Crawdads Sing is anemic, clunky, overwrought, and so saccharine that it could give you a cavity.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens nationwide.