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Reviews for July 22nd, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      My Old School is a mildly entertaining documentary about a student, Brandon Lee, who, in 1993, intentionally misled students and faculty at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, into thinking that he's 16 years-old when he was actually 32. Director Jono McLeod spends too much time with exposition while essentially burying the lead. You don't find out about Brandon Lee's big lie until about 45 minutes into the film. Until then, it's hard not to wonder, "Where is all of this going?" and "What's the point of this?" which becomes a frustrating rather than provocative one because it also leads the audience to think, "Please to the chase!" or "Get to the point". Once the documentary finally gets to the point, it opens a huge can of worms with many questions most of which it doesn't really bother to explore with any depth. Interviews with some of Brandon's classmates, now in their adult years, reveal how good of a friend he was to them. A good friend doesn't lie to their friends, though, but McLeod doesn't ask them how they define a good friend anyway.

      As you learn more details about the truth of Brandon Lee's life, he becomes humanized, but it's still hard to feel sorry for him. He refused to be on-camera, so actor Alan Cumming sits in a classroom alone while lip-syncing his words. There's also some stylish use of animation and some lively music that Brandon introduced his classmates to. Why give so much attention to a narcissist like Brandon Lee, though? Why does he deserve any attention at all? Many years have passed and he doesn't show any remorse, even for kissing a 16-year-old girl during a school play. My Old School is less concerned about delving into the moral implications of what Brandon had done. There are no interviews with psychologists or any other experts who could've provided much-needed insight. A truly great documentary finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellections. This one fails to find that essential balance. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, it's a stylish hybrid of documentary and animation, but just mildly engaging without being profound or moving enough. My Old School opens via Magnola Pictures at Film Forum.

Alone Together

Directed by Katie Holmes

      June (Katie Holmes), a food critic, lives in New York City with her boyfriend, John (Derek Luke). When the pandemic strikes, John books an AirBnb for them to escape to upstate New York together. When she arrives there separately from him, she's surprised to see another guy, Charlie (Jim Sturgess), double booked at the AirBnb. He lets her stay there. Little does June know that the pandemic will last more than just a few weeks and that she and Charlie will have a lot of time to bond while John visits his parents.

      Alone Together is yet another romantic drama about two strangers who fall in love within a short period of time together. A premise like that could work if the characters are believable or if the chemistry between them can be felt. Unfortunately, neither happens to be the case in the bland screenplay by writer/director Katie Holmes. Almost everything happens the way you expect it to once June meets Charlie. There are too many coincidences from the get-go. Her Lyft driver happens to be a very nice and friendly man who gives June hand sanitizer that she couldn't find back in the city. In one of the many examples of poor exposition, she sees horses during the drive upstate and suddenly comments out loud that she hasn't seen horses since she was a child. That's the little that you learn about June's childhood, but her love of horses isn't mentioned again, so what's the purpose of that comment? She clearly loves her grandpa who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Charlie clearly loves and misses his mother (Melissa Leo). The dialogue sounds too on-the-nose with no room for interpretation about what the characters are thinking or feeling. Also, June comes across as an insecure, paranoid bitch for cheating on her boyfriend behind his back while suspecting him of cheating on her when he's just caring for his parents. If she were to dump him before sleeping with Charlie, that would be reasonable, but she doesn't. Meanwhile, you're expected to want her and Charlie to be together. She's head-over-heels into him and sees him through rose-tinted glasses. He seems too good to be true and, coincidentally, he happens to be more supportive of her true self than her John is---i.e., John discourages her passion for being a food critic and her dreams of being a writer. She feels happier around Charlie, but is she not emotionally mature enough to realize that they're in their "honeymoon phase" of the relationship? Also, would it hurt for the screenplay to include just a little bit of wit and comic relief? Without it, it leads to monotony and tedium.

      What makes no sense is why Charlie would want to be in a relationship with a woman who cheats on her boyfriend after his ex-girlfriend was a serial cheater. He even admits that fact about his ex to June. Before you know it, they profess their love of one another, even after John arrives and confronts June about the stranger she'd been living with without telling him. Briefly, June returns to John and leaves Charlie behind making it seem like he meant nothing to her. Soon after, she suddenly changes her mind. She still seems like an emotionally needy, insecure bitch by the end, so there's no real character arc for. She doesn't even have remorse for her infidelity, so the third act, which tries too hard to be uplifting, does not, in any way, shape or form, earn its uplift. Based on what perceptive audiences can discern from June's past behavior with John, it wouldn't be beneath her to cheat on Charlie once that relationship goes south. Unfortunately, Alone Together is too stuck in a land of fairy tales to even acknowledge that harsh fact.

      The performances are fine, with no one giving a bad performance, but the screenplay's poorly developed characters don't allow anyone to really shine. Melissa Leo briefly shows up as Charlie's loving mother, but the role just seems to exist to show later on how kind Charlie is to her. Again, he seems too good to be true as though he were a "knight in shining armor" for June. The best romantic dramas about strangers meeting and falling in love, like Before Sunrise, remain grounded in realism with fully-fleshed characters. Alone Together, at a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, is mildly engaging, but often contrived, hackneyed and witless.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Vertical Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

The Daphne Project

Directed by Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi


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

My Donkey, My Lover & I

Directed by Caroline Vignal

      Antoinette (Laure Calamy), a schoolteacher, has an affair with a married man, Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her students. They had planned to spend time together for the holidays, but he announces to her that he'll be going to hike in the Cévennes in Southern France with his wife, Eléonore (Olivia Côte), and daughter, Alice (Louise Vidal). Frustrated about the sudden change in plans, Antoinette follows him to the Cévennes and hikes there too with a donkey named Patrick as her companion.

      Inspired by the novel Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, My Donkey, My Love & I is a light and breezy romantic comedy. Some movies are a slice-of-life while others are a slice-of-cake, as Hitchcock once wisely observed. The screenplay by writer/director Caroline Vignal falls more under the realm of slice-of-cake rather than slice-of-life. That's fine because it's a pleasant, wispy slice-of-cake similar to the recent film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Antoinette comes across as an emotionally immature, needy and mostly selfish woman who's blinded by her love of someone unattainable. By following Vladimir, she's stalking him which makes her a toxic creep who lacks the concept of boundaries. Imagine if the roles were switched and Vladimir were the one stalking Antoinette and trying to pressure her into spending time with her. Like in the 1950's romcom The Moon is Blue, it wouldn't make the protagonists any more or less unlikable than Antoinette. The scene when she and Eléonore briefly bond seems very unrealistic and clunky, but at least it does humanize Eléonore a little bit more. Implausibility aside, at least My Donkey, My Lover & I doesn't take itself so seriously more often than not. Perhaps the cringy premise is just an excuse for some of the absurd comedy between Antoinette and the donkey, Patrick. Their interactions provide much of the film's comic relief, but nothing more than that. Their bond is nothing like the bond between the dog and Alexandre in the fairy tale Alexandre le bienheureux nor as imaginative, unconventional and bold as Donkey Skin. Even the third act feels so cheesy and contrived that it almost becomes a satire of Hollywood romcoms.

      What helps tremendously to make My Donkey, My Love & I a lot more pleasant than the screenplay allows it to be is Laure Calamy's charismatic, energetic performance. She has great comedic timing and tries her best to rise above the clunky material--and, fortunately, she often succeeds. Charisma alone can sometimes be like the glue to hold a film together which is the case here just like in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Not surprisingly, the picturesque scenery of the Cévennes adds a few breathtaking moments. At an ideal running time of hour and 37 minutes, is harmless, pleasant albeit cheesy and contrived diversion brimming with a warm, charismatic performance by Laure Calamy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center, AMC Kips Bay, and AMC Lincoln Square.


Directed by Jordan Peele

      OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Emerald (Kiki Palmer), live on a horse ranch in California and work as Hollywood horse trainers. They're still coping with the death of their father Otis (Keith David) who died after being struck by something mysterious while on his horse. When OJ and Emerald encounter a UFO in the sky near their ranch, they want to find hard evidence they call the "Oprah shot", so they purchase security cameras at a local electronic's store. The store's clerk, Angel (Brandon Perea), helps them to install it on their ranch. They sell their horses to Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steve Yeun), a former child actor, who runs a theme park.

      Writer/director Jordan Peele begins the film with a foreshadow of the events to come when a bloodied, angry-looking chimpanzee stares at the camera after killing people. The significance and context of that scene will become more apparent later, so Peele deserves to be commended for trusting the audience's patience and for grabbing their attention right away. That's actually a double-edged sword because it means that Nope has to work extra hard to maintain that hook. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite achieve that because it tries to be too many things all at once with undercooked subplots. Part horror, comedy, action thriller, suspense thriller, mystery, sci-fi and satire, Nope has a few gripping and exhilarating moments, but they're far and few between.

      Peele reveals some information to the audience by spoon-feeding with exposition and flashbacks while leaving other information to the interpolation by asking the audience to use their intelligence to connect the dots themselves. For example, there's a connection between the mysterious death of Otis and the mysteriousness of the chimpanzee who suddenly went into a violent rampage, but Peele trusts the audience's intelligence to figure out that connection on their own. But then he throws in the seemly random fact that OJ and his sister are descendants of the little-known black man who Eadweard Muybridge photographed on a horse for his iconic moving picture The Horse in Motion, but that fact turns out to be just another way to spoon-feed the audience the film's repeated message about exploitation. It makes Nope feel heavy-handed instead of subtle and nuanced. Around the time when OJ and Emerald convince a cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), to help them film the UFO with his film camera, Nope begins to take a nosedive into a shallow, pedestrian and even somewhat silly third act. Angel, Antlers and another character who shows up out-of-the-blue working for TMX seem like characters who are just there to move the plot forward because the plot needs them to be there. Also, does OJ really need to say the film's title out loud a few times? Who is he even talking to when he says "Nope!" without anyone else around him? Why not just let the audience think and say that to themselves instead during those scenes?

      Nope is a triumph of visual effects, sound design and cinematography that make for an immersive experience on a superficial level. There's a lot that remains beneath the surface, though, that remains underexplored making the movie feel disjointed. The performances are fine, especially Kiki Palmer who gets a few lines designed to make the audience cheer or laugh. The design of the UFO is interesting and, without revealing too much, you'll never look at clouds the same way again. Some shots of the clouds alone feel chilling for a few reasons, one being that the UFO might be lurking behind them. Peele clearly knows where to borrow ideas from, but he doesn't do a good job of showing that he knows where to take the ideas in the film to. So if you're just looking for Easter eggs, you'll be happy. Of course, just as expected, there are a few jump scares, but only one ephemeral scene that's very terrifying with equally terrifying sounds. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, Nope is well-shot and initially intriguing, but ultimately undercooked, uneven and underwhelming without taking enough risks. Like most of Hollywood's films, it suffers from style over substance.

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

Skies of Lebanon

Directed by Chloé Mazlo

      In the 1950's, Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) leaves her family in Switzerland to move to Beirut where she meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), an astrophysicist, at a cafe and falls in love with him. They move in with one another, get married and raise their daughter, Mona (Isabelle Zighondi), together before the Lebanese Civil War threatens their lives.

      The screenplay by writer/director Chloé Mazlo, inspired by the experiences of her grandmother, covers many years and events in the life of Alice from the 1950's to the 1970's. A lot happens to Alice and in Lebanon during that time, so Mazlo deserves credit for trying to cover so much ground. She ultimately bites off a little bit more than she could chew, though, but that's not the least of the film's systemic issues. There are tonal shifts that lead to unevenness. One minute the film is trying to be cute, funny and whimsical, the next it's more serious, tender and slightly dark. Alice and Joseph have a "meet cute" moment at a cafe and, before you know it, they've moved in together, get married and have a baby. Mazlo rapidly speeds up those parts of Alice's life as though they were trivial when they're really not. It dehumanizes both Alice and Joseph while diminishing the emotional resonance of their romantic bond. She leaves the dark elements of the Lebanese Civil War, mostly, to the imagination of the audience which, in turn, softens or even sugar-coats its emotional impact. That kind of omission worked in the movie 1982 and, to a certain degree, in Costa Brava, Lebanon, but it doesn't quite work in Skies of Lebanon because there's not enough emotional depth to the relationship between Alice and Joseph nor enough narrative's momentum or suspense to keep the audience engaged. Much like in the recent film, Charlotte, there's not enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of the protagonist despite that she's obviously going through a lot on an emotional and psychological level. Then there's the third act which almost ends on a bittersweet and understated note until the last minute that wraps everything up with a schmaltzy note and makes the film, as well as Alice and Joseph's relationship, seem more grounded in fairy tale and whimsy than in reality.

      Alba Rohrwacher gives a tender performance, just as expected. The genuinely heartfelt moments come from her performance rather than the screenplay. She's the glue that holds Skies of Lebanon together with her charisma despite the screenplay's shortcomings. The intermittent use of animation enliven the film, but they seem like they belong in a totally different film. Mazlo tries too hard to please the audience and to be unconventional during those scenes, but they end up merely distracting and clunky. That said, the film doesn't overstay its welcome with a running time of 92 minutes. Skies of Lebanon is tonally uneven and lacking emotional depth, but anchored by Alba Rohrwacher's genuinely heartfelt performance.

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