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Reviews for July 28th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Bobi Wine: The People's President is a fascinating and illuminating documentary biopic about Bobi Wine, a musician, activist and political opposition leader in Uganda where President Museveni has been in office since 1986. Co-director Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo find just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. If you're never heard of Bobi Wine before, you'll learn a lot about what makes him so significant to democracy in Uganda. He uses his music to protest against Museveni's regime and to raise awareness among the younger generations of the Ugandan citizens. Unlike Museveni, who, like a true dictator, arrests, tortures and kills those who dare to speak out against him, Bobi Wine uses words as his weapon---a far more powerful and brave tool than the sword. He believes in peace, freedom, truth and democracy, but clearly he's like David fighting many Goliaths. Despite many arrests, he refuses to be silenced. The filmmakers also shed some light on his relationship with his wife without prying into his private life. Just knowing that he became a member of the Ugandan Parliament and hearing the potent words of his songs are worth the price of admission. Museveni isn't that different from Pinochet or Fidel Castro. The film doesn't provide much scope to put Bobi Wine and Museveni in a wider, more global perspective, but the filmmakers trust that you'll use your critical thinking skills to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions.

      Bobi Wine: The People's President ultimately serves as an eye-opening cautionary tale about a dictatorship that could happen anywhere in the world, including the United States. It highlights the importance of questioning the government and fighting for democracy because it's easier to lose democracy than it is to gain it. Bobi Wine: The People's President would make for a great double feature with the recent documentary While We Watched, We Are Many, and What is Democracy?. It opens via National Geographic Films at IFC Center.

      Kokomo City is a spellbinding, engrossing and unflinching glimpse at the lives of four Black trans sex workers, namely, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver, who reside in Atlanta and New York City. Director D. Smith gets up close and personal with each sex worker as they reveal intimate details about their experiences being trans and as sex workers. They're very brave and emotionally generous for being so candid in front of the camera, especially when they share some of their traumatic memories of how they've been abused by some of their clients or how other trans sex workers were murdered. Kokomo City doesn't delve into how they ended up becoming sex workers nor does it judge them for what they do. Instead, it humanizes them by letting them bare their heart, mind and soul. To be fair, initially, there's a sense of voyeurism while you listen to their intimate revelations as though you were eavesdropping on them, but that wanes as you get to know them better by the end of the film. The glorious black-and-white cinematography accomplishes two things. Firstly, it makes the documentary feel more cinematic. Secondly, it captures the beauty of each of each subject. Everything from the editing to the music and camerawork combine to create an invigorating experience that doesn't have a single dull moment. You'll forget that you're actually watching a documentary which, essentially, is a testament to the power of a truly great documentary that transcends its medium. It would make for an interesting double feature with North Circular, another documentary shot in black and white that's also opening this weekend. At a running time of just 1 hour and 13 minutes, Kokomo City opens at IFC Center via Magnolia Pictures.

      North Circular is a mesmerizing, poignant and exhilarating musical journey that captures the culture and history of North Circular Road and the inner-city of Dublin. Director Luke McManus combines breathtaking black-and-white shots of North Circular, interviews with people who grew up there who recall their memories, share personal stories, play music and sing songs in front of the camera. This isn't a conventional doc with talking-heads nor does it bombard you with information that makes you go, "When is the exam??" Instead, McManus lets the sights and sounds from North Circular along with the people's individual stories speak for themselves. The musical scenes are powerful, engrossing and transcendent to behold. The songs are filled with melancholy while highlighting the people's struggles and emotional pain. North Circular would probably be ideal to be seen on the big screen to take in all of its poetic, mesmerizing visuals and to be fully absorbed by the songs. At a brief running time of only 80 minutes, it opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema via Lightdox.

The Baker

Directed by Jonathan Sobol

      A baker (Ron Perlman) hits the road with his 8-year-old granddaughter, Delfi (Emma Ho), to search for his son Peter (Joel David Moore) who might have been killed by a drug cartel after tried to sell a duffel bag full of heroin that he had stolen. Meanwhile, the drug lord (Harvey Keitel) sends his henchman, Victor (Elias Koteas), to hunt down the baker and his granddaughter.

      The Baker shares a lot in common with John Wick. Both films are lean with easy-to-follow plots and plenty of actions. If that's all that you're looking for, The Baker will at least satisfy your thirst for a mindless action thriller. The screenplay by co-writers Paolo Mancini and Thomas Michael wastes no time with any extra padding by jumping right into the meat of the story as Peter witnesses a brutal shooting at an airport parking lot before stealing the duffel bag filled with heroin. Exposition is kept to a minimum. All you learn within the first 10 minutes is that Peter and his father, the baker, have been estranged for a while and that his father has been engaged in shady activities in the past that make him skilled at killing people. The baker, who has many aliases, is now a cantankerous elderly man who runs Pappi's Bake Shop. When he doesn't have enough evidence to prove to the police that his son might've been killed, he takes matters into his own hands. What ensues is a wildly entertaining ride with exciting action sequences and a few witty, snarky quips from the baker whom you'll have a lot of fun rooting for. There are no unnecessary subplots or big twists nor does the film go bonkers like John Wick: Chapter 4 does. Interestingly, Delfi doesn't speak throughout the film until the very end. What she says won't be revealed here, but it's an amusing note to end the film on.

      Ron Perlman is very well-cast the tough, mean and grumpy baker. Harvey Keitel shines as the druglord and makes the most out of his role even though his scenes are brief. The action sequences don't quite have the pizzazz that's found in John Wick, but they're entertaining nonetheless, i.e. when the baker kicks some ass with a rolling pin. The pace moves quickly enough, so there aren't any pacing issues. If The Baker were more bonkers and taken more narrative risks, it would've been a more guilty pleasure. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, The Baker is a wildly entertaining, lean and riveting white-knuckle action thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Falling Forward Films.
Opens at select theaters nationwide.

The Beasts

Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen

      Antoine (Denis Ménochet) moves with his wife, Olga (Marina Foïs), to a village in rural Spain. He refuses to sign a form that would allow a power company to purchase their land to build a wind farm. Animosity between him and his neighbors, Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido), increase when he suspects them of terrorizing him and his wife and vandalizing their property.

      The screenplay by writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Peña combines suspense with drama and psychological horror that's grounded in humanism. Sorogoyen and Peña take their time to develop the characters, their personalities and relationships while building the tension gradually, much like in Arlington Road. Antoine comes across as tough and confident, but also impulsive and quick-tempered. The police refuse to arrest his neighbors without any concrete evidence, so he takes matters into his own hands and trespasses onto his neighbor's property to confront and record their interactions with his video camera. He even physically abuses and threatens Xan's younger brother, Lorenzo, who's mentally disabled, after suspecting him of damaging his tomato plants by poisoning his well with lead. Antoine has every right to be indignant, but he puts himself in harm's way by confronting his neighbors alone and by "poking the bear", so-to-speak. Without revealing any spoilers, something very dark and disturbing occurs in the middle of the second act that turns the film into more of a crime thriller. However, there's less mystery because the filmmakers show a key scene that leaves no doubt about who the criminals are, what they did, or how they did it. This doesn't come close to the thought-provoking whodunits Caché,The Night of the 12th, Twilight (the Hungarian film from 1990), or Zodiac. The only questions that remain are if, when and how a certain character will discover the truth and whether or not they'll find the evidence to prove it. It also introduces another character who shows up late in the film with a subplot and backstory that's a bit underdeveloped and contrived. That said, there are some palpably intense and terrifying scenes, including one at night when Antoine and Olga while shadowing figures are peering through the window, but, for the most part, The Beasts remains understated and surprisingly tender with a powerful ending that, fortunately, trusts the audience's intelligence, imagination and emotions.

      Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs give convincingly moving and raw performances. Foïs, especially, stands out because she manages to convey a lot of emotion without words. There's a lot going on inside of Olga, so it's a testament to Foïs' skills as an actress that she succeeds in opening the window into Olga's heart, mind and soul so widely. There's much more to Olga than meets the eye which makes her all the more interesting, complex and, above all, human. To be fair, The Beasts does suffer from a sluggish pace after it takes a dark turn as the plot's momentum comes to a near standstill and meanders while feeling tedious and repetitive. Writer/director Rodrigo Sorogeyen clearly trusts the audience's patience and knows , but he trusts it too much during those scenes especially which makes the film drag and feel exhausted. How many scenes do you need to watch with one character repeating the same activities over and over? Less is more. The cinematography is superb, though, and there are some moments where the scenery and set design alone create a foreboding atmosphere. At a running time of 2 hour and 18 minutes, The Beasts is an often taut, engrossing and slow-burning psychological thriller that occasionally drags.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Greenwich Entertainment.
Opens at Film Forum.

The First Slam Dunk

Directed by Takehiko Inoue

      17-year-old Ryota (voice of Shugo Nakamura),  lives with his mother, Kaoru (voice of Mie Sonozaki) and younger sister Anna (voice of Misaki Kuno), and plays on the basketball team of his high school, Shohoku High while still grieving the death of his older brother, Sota (voice of Gakuto Kajiwara). He competes against the long-time basketball champions, Sannoh High, in a national championship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Takehiko Inoue, based on his manga series Slam Dunk, offers nothing surprising or new to its story of an underdog sports team trying to beat the odds and win a championship. The only thing that makes it unconventional is that it's animated with 2D animation and CGI. A truly great sports drama has compelling scenes both on and off the court. The First Slam Dunk is more entertaining during its scenes on the court; the ones off the court feel a little contrived and clunky, but often heartfelt. Inoue opens the film with a touching scene where 11-year-old Ryota Miyagi (Miyuri Shimabukuro) plays basketball with his older brother, Sota, before Sota dies in a tragic accident. His death fuels Ryota's determination to excel at basketball in honor of his beloved brother. The film doesn't really explore Ryota's battles with grief profoundly nor does it delve into Ryota's relationship with his brother, but at least it does illuminate what his life is like at home and at school beyond the basketball games. Masashi Kawata (voice of Mitsuaki Kanuka), an MVP on the opposing basketball team, remains poorly developed compared to Ryota. If you're a fan of the manga series or of basketball, you'll find the basketball games to be suspenseful and thrilling, especially during the last 10 minutes. There are many more scenes on the court than off the court, though, keep that in mind if you're not into the manga or basketball because the thrills begin to wane after a while.

      On a purely aesthetic level, The First Slam Dunk is a dazzling blend of CGI and 2D animation. It's not up there with Mikazaki or, of course, the recent bold and exhilarating Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, but it nonetheless a triumph that adds plenty of visual style. The animation during the basketball games, in particular, is very impressive with great attention so much attention to detail that you'll forget that you're watching an animated film. That said, the scenes off the court move slower than the scenes on the court which leads to some pacing issues. The film also overstays its welcome by 20 minutes or so as it clocks a little past the 2 hour mark. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, The First Slam Dunk is a mildly engaging, somewhat clunky and overlong, but often poignant underdog sports story. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a brief post-credits scene.

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

Haunted Mansion

Directed by Justin Simien

      Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a single mother, and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), moves into a mansion that she inherited. To get to the bottom of why ghosts haunt the mansion, she hires Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) because he's a paranormal tour guide with a unique camera that can photograph ghosts. Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest, Bruce (Danny DeVito), a historian and Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a psychic, also join the investigation that leads them to discover Allistair Crump, a.k.a. Hat-Box Ghost (Jared Leto).

      Haunted Mansion suffers from an overstuffed undercooked screenplay by Katie Dippold that fails to deliver enough laughs, scares or thrills. Part horror, comedy, action thriller and drama, it never manages to blend its many tones effectively. At times it's silly, zany and goofy while other times it's trying to be either heartfelt or scary. The tonal unevenness often leads to tonal whiplash. There are too many characters and too many subplots, but not nearly enough wit and jokes that land. Also, the film takes a while to introduce all of its characters before introducing even more offbeat characters like Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) who has her own backstory, too. Before you know it, Haunted Mansion tries to add yet another layer to the plot with Travis confronting the trauma from his deceased father while Ben struggles to overcome the death of his wife who's briefly introduced in the prologue. There's nothing wrong with mixing different genres together or trying to entertain older and younger audiences simultaneously, but it takes a sensitive screenplay to accomplish that feat.

      The ensemble cast try their best to enliven the film and to keep it afloat. Unfortunately, none of them manages to stand out. Danny DeVito is more amusing than funny here and his physical comedy here is, at times, cringe-inducing, i.e. his antics during a hibachi dinner. Owen Wilson is miscast as the priest, but at least he's not as dull here as he is in Paint. The editing feels choppy with some awkward cuts between scenes, and the CGI is subpar, especially the CGI image of Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) who's trapped in her crystal ball. Winona Ryder and Dan Levy have cameos that don't add much of anything. At a running time of 2 hour and 4 minutes, Haunted Mansion is an overlong, clunky and unfunny mess with tonal whiplash and an identity crisis.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Opens at select theaters and on VOD.


Directed by William Kaufman

      When his daughter, Leigh (Teresa Decher), and her friend, Billi (Megan Elisabeth Kelly), get kidnapped on the Mexican border, Sean (Jason Patrick), an ex-marine, teams up with Max (Cam Gigandet), his former marine buddy, to hunt down the Mexican cartel and rescue them.  

      Shrapnel suffers from a lazy and by-the-numbers screenplay by co-writers Chad Law and Johnny Martin Walters that's just as unimaginative and dull as its title. The film charts the same waters that Taken and, most recently, Sound of Freedom, have charted, but with fewer thrills and less suspense. The plot becomes increasingly implausible and asinine which would've been fine if it were trying to be a dark comedy or a satire instead of a serious crime thriller. None of the characters come to life nor do their relationships feel believable because of the stilted, shallow screenplay, so the beats don't land when Sean and Max set out on their rescue mission. You barely learn about what Sean's relationship has been like with his daughter except that he loves her enough to risk his life to save her. Not surprisingly the film turns into an action thriller. The villains are one-dimensional caricatures and remain just as under-written as everywhere else. Of course, Sean encounters a racist, incompetent cop who won't do his job when Sean asks him for help. Then there's the lack of banter between Sean and his buddy, Max. It's hard to imagine that they bonded as Marines back in the day. Is it too much to ask for a little wit and comic relief? Without those elements or any palpable thrills, Shrapnel quickly turns into yet another tedious, lethargic and forgettable bore.

      Unfortunately, nothing about Shrapnel's production values elevate it above mediocrity. The cinematography, action sequences and editing are decent at best without being exceptional in any way, so this isn't the kind of film that has visual style that compensates for its lack of substance. Jason Patrick and Cam Gigandet give bland performances, but, to be fair, they're undermined by the vapid, witless screenplay that fails to humanize their characters or to provide them with enough room to have chemistry together. The running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes feels more like 3 hours.  At least Shrapnel isn't as unintentionally funny, clunky and disappointing as Hypnotic

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Sons of Summer

Directed by Clive Fleury

      Sean (Joe Davidson) and his friends, Clay (Jonathan Weir), Jack (Matoa Boosie), and Kane (Matthew McDonald), embark on a trip to go surfing at the same place where his father, Boo, used to surf before he was murdered three decades earlier. Meanwhile, he gets into trouble when another friend, Rick (Alex Fleri), persuades him to steal heroin from a gangster, Frank (Temuera Morrison).

      Sean Sons of Summer doesn't work as a surfing movie nor as a crime thriller. The screenplay by co-writers Phillip Avalon and Greg Clayton clunkily merges the two genres while offering very little intrigue, thrills and surprises. If it were a lean, tighter and more focused B-movie, perhaps it would've been entertaining on a visceral level. Instead, it feels disjointed, overstuffed and undercooked. Sean's bond with his friends and the grief that he has yet to overcome from the death of his father has enough conflict for one movie. Why does Sons of Summer feel the need to add a crime thriller subplot? It's the same flaw that The Flood suffers from as well Hurricane Heist: there's too much going on all at once, yet very little sticks. The dialogue is bland, witless and stilted while the characters remain undeveloped and boring. Even Frank isn't a very compelling or memorable villain. Worst of all, though, it's hard to root for Sean because he's naive enough to put himself in harm's way by stealing from a gangster. Does he not expect Frank to hunt him down? Sons of Summer barely attempts to explore the friendship between Sean, Jack and Kane whose father were all friends who surfed together years ago. Moreover, the way that the screenwriters incorporate exposition is sloppy, lazy and unimaginative while the action scenes are bland.

      In terms of production values, there's nothing to write home about. The cinematography is fine, but the editing is choppy and there are pacing issues to boot. Not surprisingly, the surfing scenes provide some breathtaking moments, but they're ephemeral. None of the actors have the charisma nor the acting chops to rise above the weak and vapid screenplay or to bring their characters to life even remotely. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Sons of Summer is clunky, disjointed and anemic while very low on thrills.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at select theaters and on VOD.

Susie Searches

Directed by Sophie Kargman

      When Susie (Kiersey Clemons) isn't interning at a police station, working at a fast food joint or attending college classes, she's busy with her podcast where she tries to solve cold cases. Things don't go as planned when she investigates the disappearance of her classmate, Jesse (Alex Wolff).

      Susie Searches begins as a somewhat provocative, gripping crime thriller before morphing into a preposterous satire with waning suspense. The systemic issue in the screenplay by writer/director Sophie Kargman and co-writer William Day Frank is that it reveals its major twist too early while leaving no room for interpretation or taking any risks beyond the twist. This is yet another case of filmmakers who know where to take ideas from, i.e. from classic 90s thrillers with twist endings, but don't know where to take their ideas to. The suspense here doesn't even come close to Hitchock's level of suspense. Filmmakers are like magicians. If a magician reveals his or her tricks too early, it ruins the experience. Primal Fear is an example of a smarter twisty crime thriller with an ending that truly shocks. At least the first half hour or so of Susie Searches has little suspense, but once the rug gets pulled from under the audience, so-to-speak, the plot takes a steep nosedive and runs out of ideas, surprises and suspense. It's also all over the place when it comes to its tone that blends mystery, comedy and satire with uneven results. If you're looking for a insightful character study of a complex human being or a razor-sharp critique of media like in the far more bold and provocative Nightcrawler, you'll be disappointed by Susie Searches.

      Kiersey Clemons gives a fine performance, but she's undermined by the shallow screenplay. She doesn't have much of a chance to shine here. There's a lot going on innately within Susie, so it's a shame that the screenplay barely taps into it as though it, especially after the big twist. Alex Wolff is super in a role that's underwritten, yet he adds much-needed poignancy to a few scenes. Then there's Rachel Sennott who shows up briefly as Jillian, one of Susie's coworkers at the fast food restaurant, but she's underused here. The same can be said about Jim Gaffigan and Dolly Wells. At 1 hour and 45 minutes, Susie Searching is an increasingly preposterous crime thriller and a toothless, uneven satire with waning suspense and intrigue. In a double feature with Nightcrawler or Primal Fear, it would be the inferior B-movie.

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

Sympathy for the Devil

Directed by Yuval Adler

      A driver (Joel Kinnaman) on his way to the hospital to witness the birth of his son picks up a passenger (Nicholas Cage) who points a gun at him and forces him to drive.

      Who is the man with the gun? What does he want from the driver? Did he choose him randomly or is there something that he's hiding? Is he the devil incarnate? Those are among the questions in the screenplay by Luke Paradise which keeps exposition to a bare minimum. Certain bits of key information about the driver's past only rise to the surface when the plot requires them too soon after a major plot twist. For the most part, Sympathy for the Devil is a mildly suspenseful ride until the big twist that's quite dark, but nothing more than that. If director Yuval Adler and screenwriter Luke Paradise's goal were just to create a mindfuck for the audience, they somewhat succeed for the first 30 minutes or so until it becomes increasingly obvious that the man with the gun probably has a hidden motive. Something must be fueling his rage. Unfortunately, the film barely develops its two nameless characters. The passenger is initially intriguing, though, and increasingly complex as well as unpredictable which keeps the film engaging for a while before it becomes repetitive. The minimalist plot feels like it's stretched too thinly and loses some steam until the "big reveal" when it picks up a little steam, but the dialogue suffers from stiltedness and feels too on-the-nose while the thrills and suspense aren't as palpable toward the end as they are at the beginning. That said, the filmmakers should be commended for leaving the audience with a bitter aftertaste instead of opting for a sugar-coated, Hollywood ending.

      Nicolas Cage's wildly entertaining, over-the-top performance is the only reason to see Sympathy for the Devil. He has a lot of fun with his role much like he does in Renfield. If only the film itself were more bonkers and over-the-top to match his acting. The cinematography, lighting and night time setting add some style and atmosphere, but not enough to compensate for the lack of substance. Cage's performance can only go so far to mask the rather dull, unimaginative and shallow screenplay. If you're looking for a Nicolas Cage film that better showcases his invigorating, over-the-top performance and also takes place at night, see Bringing Out the Dead. In a double feature with that film, Sympathy for the Devil would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at IFC Center and other select theaters nationwide.

Talk to Me

Directed by Danny & Michael Philippou

      17-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde) lives with her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Riley (Joe Bird), Jade’s younger brother and Sue (Miranda Otto), Jade's mom. Daniel (Otis Dhanji), Jade's boyfriend, joins them at a house party where they play a game using a mysterious embalmed hand that, when touched, conjures a spirit that possesses the person who's holding the hand.

      Anyone who called Talk to Me's premise original probably hasn't seen many horror films. There have been many horror films about cursed objects, i.e. Christine, The Mangler, In Fabric and The Ring. The screenplay by co-director/writer Danny Philippou and co-writer Bill Hinzman offers nothing new or surprising in terms of plot or scares. There are a few terrifying and creepy scenes, but not enough to elevate the film above mediocrity. What happens after one person gets possessed by the spirit when they hold the embalmed hand? Yet another person gets possessed when they hold the embalmed hand. Riley injures himself during his possession and ends up hospitalized while Mia gets the blame. In a poorly developed subplot, Mia has a rocky relationship with her dad Max (Marcus Johnson). Talk to Me does a poor job when it comes to exposition, so if you're looking for answers about the origins of the cursed hand, you'll be disappointed. It's also rather unimaginative that all that someone has to do to conjure the spirits when holding the embalmed hand is to say "talk to me." Why do they have to say those words when the spirits don't even talk to them or vice versa? What do the spirits even want? Are they trapped in some kind of limbo? Talk to Me does a poor job of world-building and leaves the audiences underwhelmed without being completely bored. For a much more provocative movie about a spirit haunting people, see The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future or the even more terrifying horror classic, The Ring.

      Sophie Wilde gives a convincingly moving performance that finds emotional resonance even through the shallow screenplay. She helps to keep Talk to Me afloat. Co-director Danny and Michael Philippou don't leave much to the imagination when it comes to the violence and gore. Some scenes are so gory and disturbing that they'll make you feel shocked, icky and disgusted. Shock value and disgust alone isn't enough to be scary, though. The Saw franchise is also guilty of that. Do you remember the grisly scene in Hereditary? That's the level of blood and guts that Talk to Me goes for, so this isn't for audiences who have a weak stomach. The lighting, set design and music score are decent while adding an eerie atmosphere every now and then, but, for the most part, this isn't as intense or bold as it could've been. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Talk to Me is a mildly engaging, uninspired and intermittently creepy horror thriller that has more shocking gore than palpable scares.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens nationwide.

Tiger Within

Directed by Rafal Zielinski

      Samuel (Ed Asner), a Holocaust survivor, befriends 14-year-old Casey (Margot Josefsohn), a homeless girl who ran away from home and turned to sex work to earn a living on the streets of Los Angeles.

      Tiger Within has a premise that sounds like it could be a heartwarming, inspirational story about redemption, forgiveness, friendship and compassion. The screenplay by Gina Wendkos does deal with those important issues as well as other darker ones like hatred, anti-Semitism, loneliness and despair, so the ingredients are there, but they're presented in a way that's clunky, preachy and maudlin. The dialogue often sounds stilted and on-the-nose with too much over-explaining and not nearly enough nuance, understatement or any room left for interpretation. Moreover, there are no surprises along the way and the ending can be seen from a mile away. Despite those systemic setbacks, it's nonetheless fascinating to observe how Samuel and Casey's friendship evolves and how he becomes a mentor for her like Maude is for Harold in Harold & Maude. Casey learns the true meaning of a Swastika which she happens to have an image of on her jacket and also learns that she had been brainwashed by her toxic mother into thinking that the Holocaust doesn't exist. Not surprisingly, she removes the Swastika symbol from her jacket soon after Samuel enlightens her about it. Her epiphanies, though, don't feel organic, but they're important lessons. Harold and Maude does a better job of incorporating aphorisms into its screenplay and presents its coming-of-age story with more wit, subtlety and genuine poignancy which Tiger Within sorely lacks.

      What helps to enliven Tiger Within tremendously are Ed Asner and Margot Josefsohn's convincingly moving performances. They're chemistry helps to keep you captivated as you watch them rise well above the weak screenplay. Asner, in particular, adds plenty of gravitas to the film. You can feel Samuel's emotional pain when he encounters anti-Semitism which is a testament to Asner's acting skills. Tiger Within, his swan song, is lucky to have him. Other than that, the production values are just average with some choppy editing, but those are minor issues compared to the screenplay's systemic issues. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Tiger Within is an often clunky, preachy and maudlin coming-of-age story elevated by Ed Asner and Margot Josefsohn's strong performances and their palpable chemistry. It would make for an interesting feature with Beautiful Blue Eyes, Roy Scheider's underseen swan song from 2022 that has yet to hit any streaming services.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Menemsha Films.
Opens at New Plaza Cinema.

The Unknown Country

Directed by Morrisa Maltz

      Tana (Lily Gladstone) drives in her grandmother's Cadillac from Minneapolis, Minnesota to visit her Oglala Lakota family in South Dakota for a cousin's wedding.

      The screenplay by writer/director Morrisa Maltz often meanders and feels episodic as Tana travels from town to town while stopping by motels, a gas station and diners along the way. She meets strangers, mingles with them and listens to their stories. There are no villains, romantic subplots nor any voice-over narration. Maltz also eschews flashbacks while keeping exposition to a bare minimum. More exposition and backstories would have been helpful to humanize Tana, though, and make it easier for the audience to connect with her emotionally. What's going on inside of her? What is she thinking and feeling? Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't provide enough of a window into her heart, mind and soul nor does it gie her much of a personality for that matter. She remains at a cold distance from the audience which makes the film a frustrating experience. What was her grandmother like? It's obvious that Tana loves and misses her which explains why she drives her car and goes on the same route that her grandmother had taken decades earlier. However, she doesn't seem to have much of a character arc throughout the journey. The Unknown Country works better as a travelogue and a brief snapshot of small town America, but as a narrative drama, it leaves a lot to be desired because it's very undercooked, tedious and monotonous with little to no levity.

      Lily Gladstone gives a tender performance that brings much-needed poignancy and warmth to an otherwise emotionally hollow film. Her emotionally generous performance anchors the film and helps to make it at least mildly engaging, so it's not a complete bore. Writer/director Morissa Maltz includes some monologues from the strangers who Tana meet, i.e. a waitress at a diner who talk about the struggles in her life. Those segments do nothing more than blur the line between fiction and non-fiction. Then there's the scenery which adds some breathtaking shots of nature. The film's landscape quickly becomes a character in and of itself. The leisurely pace is refreshing, though, so it's great to know that Maltz trusts the audience's patience. At a running time of 1 hour and 25 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, The Unknown Country is a picturesque, meandering and dull travelogue. 

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


Directed by Areel Abu Bakar

      Walid (Megat Sharizal) teaches underprivileged children in a small village while developing a bond with one of his students, Aisha (Putri Qaseh Izwandy). When sex traffickers kidnap Aisha and other children from the village, Walid embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue her.

    Another week, another movie about the hunt for sex traffickers. Walid begins with a heartwarming first act as it focuses on Walid teaching young students in the village and becoming like a surrogate father and mentor for Aisha. The film veers toward darker territory when sex traffickers arrive to kidnap children including Aisha. That's when Walid takes a sharp nosedive as it suddenly becomes an action thriller with martial arts which feels like a bait-and-switch. Writer/director Areel Abu Bakar and co-writer Hafiz Derani deserve some credit for being bold enough to merge two very different genres together, but they don't quite succeed at finding the right balance between thrills and poignancy. It quickly becomes tedious, shallow and over-the-top before the action finally ends and the preachiness and schmaltz begin to seep in. This is the kind of film that's tempting to describe it as "well-meaning" which would be accurate, but it's not enough to make it a great or even decent film. There's nothing wrong with trying to entertain the audience with martial arts sequences. However, in this particular case, the action elements exist at the expense of much-needed character development and emotional depth. Even the action-packed God is a Bullet that also deals with sex traffickers feels less disappointing by contrast because at least it doesn't try to be anything more than a gritty action thriller. Then there's the recent Sound of Freedom which does, indeed, have a solid blend of thrills and heartfelt moments without becoming heavy-handed and disjointed like Walid does.

      Megat Sharizal gives a decent, heartfelt performance that exudes much-needed warmth. He basically compensates for what the screenplay sorely lacks. Not surprisingly, his most engaging scenes are the ones with him and Putri Qaseh Izwandy who plays Aisha. Everything else, including the action sequences, just feel like filler and get tiresome very quickly. The filmmakers fail to grasp the concept of restraint and that less is more because the martial arts scenes overstay their welcome. Just when you think the action will end, it goes on and on. At a running time of nearly 2 hours, Walid is an occasionally heartwarming, but an often exhausting, tedious and heavy-handed amalgam of martial arts action thrills and inspirational drama that turns the film into a disjointed, preachy and schmaltzy mess.

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

War Pony

Directed by Gina Gammell & Riley Keough

     23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) lives in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where he struggles to  make ends meet. One of his babies' mamas is incarcerated and wants him to pay $400 to bail her out. Echo (Jesse Schmockel), his other baby's mama, lives in town, but isn't interested in rekindling their relationship despite his many attempts. He convinces Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy rancher, to hire him on his turkey farm. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a delinquent, ends up homeless when his father dies and gets into trouble when he finds his father's meth pills.

       The screenplay by writer/co-director Gina Gammell and her co-writers, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, feels true-to-life and organic. They avoid clunky exposition, over-explaining, schmaltz and melodrama. The dialogue has a natural flow like in the films of Richard Linklater and Larry Clark while the film's unflinching depiction of poverty is reminiscent of Ken Loach's social-realist films. As Hitchcock once wisely observed, some films are a slice-of-life while others are a slice-of-cake. War Pony is a slice of both: it's a "life cake." Tim, who initially seems like a decent human being, turns out to be quite sordid. When Bill sits down to have dinner with Tim and his wife (Ashley Shelton) and tells them that he's no longer in a relationship with one of his babies' mamas, Tim asks him, "What did you do to her?" and even asks it again when Bill denies being the cause of the break-up. On the surface, Tim's question sounds innocent, but beneath the surface, Tim is probably projecting because he's someone who hurts women himself. Case-in-point: he states that money would have no purpose in a world without women. That statement is one of the film's humorous moments that's concurrently grounded in tragedy because it's not just a funny thing to say, it's also very disturbing.

      The filmmakers have a knack for revealing a lot about these characters' personalities through dialogue. Kudos to the filmmakers for seeing and treating these characters as complex human beings, warts and all. Bill and Matho are both deeply flawed, but they do have some redeeming qualities. Within despair, there's always hope. When there's hate, there's also love, although it's safe to say that neither of them come from loving homes. They're a product of their own environment, but that doesn't excuse their behavior. By showing empathy for everyone on screen, the filmmakers provide an opportunity for the audience to empathise with them as well. They also do a wonderful job of gradually merging Bill and Matho's narratives in a way that remains grounded in realism, with just the right amount of levity, nuance and understatement without tying everything in a neat bow during the refreshingly un-Hollywood third act.

      Newcomers Jojo Bapteise Whiting and LaDainian Crazy Thunder both give raw, breakthrough performances. You wouldn't believe they haven't acted in a film before. They both manage to find the emotional truth of their roles while portraying their strength and vulnerabilities effectively. Neither of them overacts or under-acts. The pacing, editing, cinematography and use of music are all superb while making the film feel more cinematic. The film's style becomes part of its substance, especially how it uses nature as a form of visual poetry, i.e. spiders and bisons, which leave some room for interpretation. It's very rare to find filmmakers these days that actually trust the audience's emotions, imagination and intelligence, but the filmmakers accomplish that feat with flying colors here. At a running time of just under 2 hours, War Pony is a captivating, genuinely heartfelt and poetic slice-of-life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Momentum Pictures.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and on VOD.