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Reviews for July 7th, 2023


Directed by Carolina Cavalli

      After living in Paris, 24-year-old Amanda (Benedetta Porcaroli) returns to her family's home in Italy where she reunites with her mother, Sofia (Monica Nappo), and her estranged older sister, Marina (Margherita Missoni). She also tries to rekindle her relationship with Rebecca (Galatéa Bellugi), her friend from childhood who's been reclusive for the past few years.

      The screenplay by writer/director Carolina Cavalli creates a moderately engaging a portrait of a young woman who's lost as she reaches a turning point in her life. Amanda is lonely, insecure, aimless and somewhat naive. She has a lot of growing up to do along with self discovery, but her mother and sister aren't great role models nor are they very loving and supporting of her emotional needs. Her mother seems controlling from the very beginning especially because she's the one who arranges for Amanda to reunite with her childhood friend, Rebecca, as though Amanda were still a young child who lacks autonomy. It's no wonder that Amanda prefers to bond with her family's housekeeper who's, perhaps, like a surrogate family member for her. Not surprisingly, Amanda manages to coax Rebecca out of reclusion and to give their friendship another chance. There's also a subplot involving a guy she meets (Michele Bravi) who she considers her boyfriend, but the focus remains on Amanda and Rebecca's relationship. The evolving dynamics of their friendship throughout the course of the film is quite fascinating while also very revealing about Amanda and Rebecca. There are no villains, no schmaltz, no melodrama, no lowbrow humor, and nor is there a sci-fi element thrown in like in the recent Eden Lake. Thank you, writer/director Carolina Cavalli, for seeing and treating them as fully-fleshed human beings, warts and all. Amanda isn't always likable nor does she have to be. Her flaws are part of what makes her feel so true-to-life and relatable.

      Benedetta Porcaroli shines in a radiant, breakthrough performance. While writer/director Carolina Cavalli designs a window into Amanda's heart, mind and soul, Porcaroli opens that window. If only there were more scenes where the audience can peer through that window, Amanda would've been a much more moving coming-of-age film, but at least it avoids accomplishing that through lazy techniques like voice-over narration. The cinematography and editing are fine without being distracting. It's also worth mentioning the use of music which enlivens the film every now and then. At a running 1 hour and 33 minutes, Amanda is a light, tender and mildly engaging coming-of-age tale.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Mel Eslyn

      Two friends, Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling K. Brown), take shelter in a biodome while the rest of civilization has died from dangerous toxins. They're now the last remaining humans on Earth.

      Your enjoyment of Biosphere will depend heavily on how much you can suspend your disbelief of the preposterous and silly premise. The screenplay writer/director Mel Eslyn and Mark Duplass begins as a sci-fi drama with shades of Silent Running before it goes bonkers as it morphs into an awkward, offbeat dark comedy. By eschewing a first act and throwing the audience right to the meat of the story as Billy and Ray are in the post-apocalypse, the plot is initially confusing with little to no exposition. You learn a few details about Billy and Ray's life before the apocalypse, but not enough to make them compelling characters. Despite the fact that Billy and Ray are friends, the film doesn't have much to say about friendship except in the last 30 minutes. It's disappointing that there's not enough "world building", though, because all that Biosphere has up its sleeve is the outrageous plot twist later in the second act. Until that point, it's hard to feel engaged by the plot or in the relationship between Billy and Ray. The screenwriters know where to take ideas from, but don't quite succeed at knowing where to take ideas to. They explore many provocative themes while barely scratching the surface as though they were too afraid to be darker or more profound. For a film that has only two characters in one location together, it should have dialogue that feels real and sparkles with at least a little bit of wit or gripping. Biosphere as neither of those elements.

      What Biosphere does have that keeps it afloat are two solid performances by Mark Duplass and the always-reliable Sterling K. Brown. They both rise above the shallow and often dull screenplay, and also have some palpable chemistry together. It's too bad that the film relies too much on their performances while its plot remains underwhelming and tedious, for the most part. Also, there are pacing issues with some scenes overstaying their welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, Biosphere is mildly engaging, silly, tedious and often dull despite a bold twist and strong performances.

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

Dead Man's Hand

Directed by Brian Skiba

      Reno (Jack Kilmer), a gunslinger, kills an outlaw, Ed (Forrest Wilder), in self defense while traveling by stagecoach with his wife, Vegas (Camille Collard). At the next town Reno stops by, Colonel Bishop (Stephen Dorff), the mayor, happens to be Ed's brother who seeks revenge for his death.

      Dead Man's Hand suffers from a shallow, dull and tedious screenplay by writer/director Brian Skiba and co-writer Corin Nemec. You'd never guess that it's actually based on a novel by Kevin and Matthew Minor because the characters are so under-written. The premise sounds like it could lead to a thrilling, riveting western, but it doesn't even come close to achieving that. It's hard to root for Reno because he's so bland and forgettable. His relationship between him and his wife, like many other things in the film, feels undercooked. Even the villain, Colonel Bishop, remains boring and one-note from start to finish. Then there's the stilted and clunky dialogue with some cringe-worthy one-liners that fail to be even remotely witty. Unfortunately, despite some dark twists and turns, the plot becomes less and less engaging as it crawls to its inevitably bloody third act.

      Dead Man's Hand has plenty of blood and gore that leaves nothing to the imagination, but it doesn't even hold a candle to stylish, over-the-top violence that elevated Tarantino's films. Here it's just disgusting, ugly and grotesque. Why does the camera linger so long on Reno's injured hand with its severed fingers? It makes its point within the first few seconds of that image, but afterward it just hits the audience over the head while trying too hard to be shocking. Moreover, the editing feels choppy and there are pacing issues to boot. The cinematograph looks amateurish at best and doesn't make the most out of the natural landscape which could've given the film more scope and at least provided some much-needed eye candy. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Dead Man's Hand is a dull and tedious bore that's high on violence, but very low on suspense, excitement and thrills.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Insidious: The Red Door

Directed by Patrick Wilson

      Nine years after a demonic possession tore his family apart, Josh (Patrick Wilson) is now divorced from his wife, Renai (Rose Byrne), and has a rocky relationship with his son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who's now starting college with a major in art. When Dalton begins to have strange hallucinations and draws a red door, he and his roommate, Chris (Sinclair Daniel), investigate the significance of the red door and his visions which have something to do with his family's traumatic past.

       Insidious: The Red Door takes too long to get to the meat of its story and sorely lacks palpable scares and thrills. The screenplay by Leigh Whannell and Scott Teems spends a lot of time with exposition as you learn that Josh struggles to grieve the death of his wife and to connect with his son who's also grieving. Josh persuades him to let him drive him to college, though, so at least there's some hope in their relationship. zFor the first 30 minutes, Insidious: The Red Door treads water with a meandering, unfocused plot that jumps between Dalton's perspective and Josh's perspective. What's going on with Josh? What does it have to do with the red door? The answers are obvious if you've watched the previous Insidious films. The screenwriters assume that you either haven't watched them or forgot key information like what "the Further" means, so they don't trust your intelligence. Chris, Dalton's female roommate, is a poorly-written character who's one-dimensional and not even given a backstory. She claims that she's going to ask for a room change the next day after she moves into Dalton's dorm, but that she doesn't follow through with the room change and it's never mentioned again. Instead, she becomes obsessed with helping Dalton figure out the truth about his hallucinations and drawings---although, by that point, the audience has probably already figured it out, so they're many steps ahead of her and Dalton.  Only one scene manages to be somewhat creepy: when Josh hallucinates a monster while he's undergoing an MRI. It'll be even more intense for those of you who have claustrophobia. After that scene that takes place early in the film, the plot becomes increasingly lethargic, repetitive  and dull without making the most out of its premise or generating any psychological scares.  

      As Ebert once keenly stated, "A horror film doesn't need a big star because the big star is the horror." Insidious: The Red Door barely has any horror, though, so it relies too heavily on its actors to carry the film. They do a decent job, but not enough to enliven the film. The underrated Lin Shaye has too few scenes as Elise Rainer, the paranormal expert, this time around. She makes the most out of her brief scenes, though. Then there's Hiam Abbas who briefly shows up as Dalton's professor. She's a terrific actress, so it's too bad that her scenes are ephemeral because she adds much-needed gravitas and panache to an otherwise forgettable B-movie. The CGI effects and use of lighting are fine, but not exceptional. The editing feels choppy at times, especially with a very abrupt cut while Josh is on the phone in his car at the beginning of the film as something that's out-of-focus approaches him in the background. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Insidious: The Red Door is underwhelming, repetitive and dull while low on palpable scares and suspense. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens nationwide.

Joy Ride

Directed by Adele Lim

      Audrey (Ashley Park), a lawyer, brings Lolo (Sherry Cola), her best friend since childhood, along for a business trip as her Mandarin translator. Lolo's cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), and college friend, Kat (Stephanie Hsu), tag along for a trip with more adventure than they expected.

      The screenplay by writer/director Adele Lim and her co-writers, namely, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, makes the most out of its R-rating with sexually explicit language and outrageous humor that tries to push the envelope. The plot is often silly and contrived with a tacked-on subplot involving Audrey's quest to find her biological parents. There's also yet another subplot that tries to ground the film in realism by briefly focusing on Audrey and Lolo's friendship which gets put to the test during their trip. Some of the dialogue is witty and wickedly funny, i.e. when the four women arrive at the airport and mock the types of Asians that they encounter based on how they look. The highlight, though, which will probably be a scene that will be referred to a lot in the future, is when they impersonate a K-Pop band. The less you think about the plot, the better because the more it progresses, the less sense it makes. Too many scenes feel episodic. What the film does excel at, though, is providing Audrey, Lolo, Deadeye and Kat each with their own unique personalities which occasionally clash. They're all over-the-top except for Audrey who's equivalent to what Jerry is to Elaine, George and Kramer on Seinfeld. Comparisons of Joy Ride to Bridesmaids and Girls Trip are inevitable. Fortunately, Joy Ride doesn't use toilet humor to generate laughs---no one poops in the sink or pees on a crowd. There are some sight gags, though, that might shock you like the Farrelly brothers try to do in their comedies, although Joy Ride doesn't even come close to being as consistently hilarious and audacious as There's Something About Mary. That said, at least it's not as unfunny and disappointing as No Hard Feelings.

      Sherry Cola and Stephanie Hsu are both the stand-outs here, but Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu are also well-cast. The ensemble of actresses have palpable chemistry together and great comedic timing. Their lively performances help to keep the film engaging at least on a superficial level. The film's editing, though, feels choppy at times, but at least there are no scenes that drag and the pace moves quickly. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Joy Ride is a raunchy, lively and occasionally witty comedy that's only sporadically funny. It's saved by the chemistry of its talented ensemble cast.

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

The Lesson

Directed by Alice Troughton

      Liam (Daryl McCormack), an aspiring writer, accepts a job as a tutor for Bertie (Stephen McMillan), the son of a famous author, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). He moves into their home, signs an NDA, and flirts with Sinclair's wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), who's stuck in an unhappy marriage.

      Despite being a movie about someone who's a great writer, The Lesson, ironically, suffers from an overwrought and contrived screenplay and clunky dialogue. Not a single character in Alex MacKeith's screenplay comes to life, especially Sinclair who comes across as a tyrant with a huge ego. Sinclair is rude, inconsiderate, arrogant and self-centered with no redeeming qualities in his personality. Right from the very first minute that you meet him and Liam sits down for dinner with him, his wife and Bertie, he's unlikable and very, very toxic because of how he speaks to Liam so condescendingly. Nuance isn't among The Lesson's strengths as the rest of the film just confirms over and over just how awful Sinclair is as a human being, as a father and a husband. Oh, and he also sucks with technology, as it turns out. In one of the many undercooked subplots, Hélène has a sexually-charged affair with Liam. Is this some kind of Skinemax movie? What does Liam even see in Hélène? The choices that Liam makes turns him into a toxic person as well. Does he not realise that he's a homewrecker? Does he have a conscience? How introspective is he? Does he really think it's a good idea to sign an NDA without reading what's in it? It's difficult to root for him. Screenwriter Alex MacKeith fails to provide enough of a window into Liam's heart, mind and soul so that the audience can understand what's going on inside him emotionally and psychologically. Sinclair remains a one-note, over-the-top cartoonish villain from start to finish. He's still grieving from the death of his other son, but that backstory and exposition is poorly handled. To be fair, MacKeith deserves credit for not being afraid to go into dark territory in the twisty third act. However, all of the twists throw plausibility and logic right out the window. It's too bad that the only comic relief comes in the form of unintentional humor, although it's not nearly enough to turn The Lesson into a guilty pleasure.

      Daryl McCormack, Julie Delpy and Richard E. Grant are all terrific actors who deserve better material than this. Unfortunately, none of them manages to breathe life into their roles no matter how hard they try. They've all been in far more intriguing and moving films with more organic dialogue. The cinematography is fine and there are even some poetic shots of the lake behind Sinclair's house which adds a modicum of style, albeit not enough to compensate for the film's lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, The Lesson is an undercooked, clunky, overwrought and contrived slow-burning thriller despite a solid cast. In a double feature with François Ozon's Swimming Pool, it would be the inferior B-movie.

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