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Reviews for June 17th, 2022

Brian and Charles

Directed by Jim Archer

     Brian (David Earl), a lonely single man, lives in a small cottage in a village in Wales. When he's not farming cabbage, he spends time at his workshop inventing things. One day, he finds a fridge at a junkyard and decides to turn into a robot that he names Charles (Chris Hayward). He and Charles become friends as Charlies gradually learns how to think, feel and act more like a human being.

      Brian and Charles has an interesting concept that feels like a short film stretched thin to make a feature length film. As it turns out, not surprisingly, the screenplay by David Earl and Chris Hayward is based on a short film by director Jim Archer. The plot unfolds precisely as you would imagine it would with nothing surprising, bold or clever once Brian builds Charles. They become friends, Charles becomes increasingly intelligent and, soon enough, he yearns to be free and to travel the world. In between, Brian encounters a local man who bullies him. Any guess who saves him from the bully? You guessed it: Charles. The way that he saves him and even that entire subplot involving the bully seems like it belongs in another, more juvenile and conventional film. It's as though Brian and Charles were afraid to take its concept to unconventional territory or to include offbeat humor. For the first 45 minutes or so, there's just the right blend of quirky comedy, like the kind you'd expect to find in an Eeling Studios movie. The relationship between Brian and Charles is compelling and often sweet, but not very profound.  Just when the film gets interesting, the filmmakers opt for a rather pat, sugar-coated and contrived third act that, again, doesn't take any risks. There's too much on-the-nose dialogue without much room for interpretation. There's nothing wrong with an uplifting ending as long as the film earns its uplift, but that's not the case with Brian and Charles.

      The performance by Chris Hayward as is among the film's highlights. He turns Charles into a charming robot. The design of Charles adds to the offbeat comedic tone. There's also the upbeat song, "Happy Together", by The Turtles, which has lyrics that are a bit too "on-the-nose", although it's a great song.  Bicentennial Man is an example of sci-fi comedy that takes more risks and manages to be more wise, moving and dark. At least it's not as shallow and dumb as the overrated Short Circuit, though. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 19 minutes, Brian and Charles is sporadically funny, harmless and sweet, but ultimately contrived and saccharine without taking enough risks. It tries too hard to please the audience.

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

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Directed by Cooper Raiff

      Andrew (Cooper Raiff) still lives with his mother (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett) and his 13-year-old brother, David (Evan Assante), while struggling to earn a living at a fast food restaurant. When he gets offered a job as a motivational dancer, a.k.a. a party starter, at bar at bat mitzvahs, he seizes the opportunity to make more money. At one of the parties, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) who has an autistic teenage daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and a workaholic fiance, Joseph (Raúl Castillo). Andrew hits it off with Domino, she hires him to babysit her daughter, and, soon enough, she has a romance with him.

      After hitting it out of the ballpark with his first film, Shithouse, writer/director Cooper Raiff does it again with Cha Cha Real Smooth. Raiff has a knack for writing dialogue that sounds natural. With a less sensitive screenplay, the plot could've turned into a cheesy soap opera or a romantic thriller or a contrived sitcom. Instead, it's about flawed human beings searching for something meaningful and fulfilling in their unfulfilling lives. Domino and Andrew's "meet cute" moment is sweet without being saccharine. He impresses her by convincing her daughter to get up and dance at a bar mitzvah. The audience doesn't hear what he whispers to her, though, that convinced her to dance, but that mystery will be revealed later on in the film, so be patient. Andrew doesn't think twice before pursuing Domino even though she has a fiance. Her relationship with Joseph is much more complicated as are her feelings toward him. He doesn't seem like an abusive husband. He's often working out of town which leaves Domino plenty of time to be alone. She's clearly lonely, and the same can be said about Andrew. How their relationship evolves feels true-to-life and allows for both of them to have epiphanies. They're both struggling to make sense of their emotions, so they're still growing up. Without spoiling any of the surprises, they both have different interpretations of their relationship. The way that Domino expresses her feelings to Andrew in the car in a key scene toward the end shows that she has compassion, vulnerability, empathy and remorse. Andrew has a lot of growing up to do as does Domino, but Domino seems to be more self aware and introspective than Andrew.

      There's no villain in this film nor are their saints for that matter. The characters are all flawed human beings which makes them all the more relatable. Their character arcs also feel organic. Writer/director Cooper Raiff doesn't ask you to judge them nor does the film judge them; instead, you're asked to experience them. He does keep a generally light tone, although there are a few scenes that are slightly darker while adding emotional depth, but there's nothing emotionally devastating or too heavy. There's also just the right amount of comic relief and witty dialogue without anything going over-the-top or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

      Cooper Raiff gives a solid performance with great comedic timing while finding the emotional truth of his role. Dakota Johnson is just as radiant as she is in Our Friend. She brings a lot of warmth and charisma to her role. Vanessa Burghardt gives a breakthrough performance as Domino's autistic daughter. The film's emotional depth comes from both the performances and from the screenplay which is a testament to Cooper Raiff's skills as a writer, director and actor. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Cha Cha Real Smooth is warm, tender and wise with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Apple Plus.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.


Directed by Gastón Duprat and Angus MacLane

      Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), a Space Ranger pilot, and his co-pilot, Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aruba), end up stranded on a planet with no way of escaping it while an enemy named Zurg threatens them. He and his crew settle down on the planet, and he sets out on a mission with a robot cat named Sox (voice of Peter Soho), to successfully leave the planet and return home, but every time his spaceship departs for even a few minutes, years pass on the planet. Izzy Hawthorne (voice of Keke Palmer), Mo (voice of Taika Waititi) and Darby (voice of Dale Soules) join him on repeated missions.

      From the get-go, Lightyear announces itself as the favorite film of Andy from Toy Story. That's definitely a tall order to fill. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Angus MacLane and Jason Headley doesn't make a very good case about why it would be Andy's favorite film. Pixar is known for captivating, heartfelt stories with memorable, engaging characters. Buzz isn't among the engaging characters. He's certainly brave, but also bland and witless. What makes him stand out to Andy? If anything, the robot cat, Sox, stands out the most because it's used for many sight gags. The jokes involving the cat become repetitive and facile after a while as though the screenwriters didn't have any better ideas about how to add comic relief to the film. Sox is reminiscent of the cat in The Avengers which is also played for laughs. In terms of the plot, that's one of the least enjoyable aspects of Lightyear. It's also very convoluted with excessive and clunky use of exposition. That said, the action sequences do have a fair share of thrilling moments, but not enough to raise the film above mediocrity.

      The CGI work is pretty impressive which isn't surprising given that it's a Pixar film. Some of the scenes in outer-space feel awe-inspiring and look stunning. Visuals can only go so far, though, to entertain the audience. When the story and characters are not very compelling, that makes for a rather dull experience. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Lightyear is mildly engaging, but lackluster and underwhelming. It lacks the heart and soul that Pixar is known for.

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

A Man of Integrity

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

      Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), a goldfish farmer, lives with his wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), and young son in a small village in Iran. Hadis works as the head teacher of a local school. A corrupt company shuts off the goldfish pond's much-needed water supply because he won't sell his land to them. His only way out of his predicament is to pay bribes while dealing with the tangled web of Iranian bureaucracy. He confronts Abbas, one of the men associated with the company, he lands in prison after fighting and injuring him.

     A Man of Integrity is as unflinchingly grim and emotionally devastating as Bicycle Thieves. The screenplay by writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof doesn't waste any time by diving head-first into the tragedy of Reza and his family. Within the first 30 minutes, authorities arrive at Reza's home to aggressively confiscate his shotgun, he struggles with mortgage debts, and then his goldfish pond's water supply gets shut off, threatening his livelihood. He's justifiably indignant, frustrated and distraught that a large, powerful company along with the corrupt government can make his life a living hell in an instant. What happens to him is even more horrifying because it's something that can happen in Iran and in any country ruled by tyrants. Reza, like any man of integrity, wants truth and justice, but to get to that point, he learns that it's complex, complicated and very expensive. People who have the money to bribe others are the ones with power. When he lands in prison for assaulting Abbas, he has the option of bribing the judge to let him out of prison. Reza's most palpable prison, though, is not the one with bars, but the one without bars: his emotional and psychological prison. Writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof doesn't include any comic relief, but, to be fair, it would be hard to find a way to incorporate it into the narrative without unevenness. The closest that the film reaches a form of levity is when Reza occasionally bathes alone in the waters of a cave. Rosaoulof also avoids melodrama, schmaltz and preachiness. He lets Reza's story speak for itself and lets the audience draw their own conclusions about what it means on a political, socioeconomic and, above all, a human level. Fortunately, A Man of Integrity humanizes Reza without voice-over narration while allowing the audience to feel his emotional pain and to emphasize with him concurrently.

      The performances are natural and raw, especially that of Reza Akhlaghirad. He finds the emotional truth of his role of Reza even during the quieter moments. You can sense a lot of Reza's anger, pain and sadness in his facial expressions and body language alone. It's interesting how writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof uses water as a metaphor. It becomes a character in and of itself. Water is what's cut from Reza's goldfish pond while it's also something that he bathes in to cleanse himself in the cave waters. Rasoulof includes a few lengthy shots of Reza in that cave water which add some poetic imagery. Poetry is a form of protest for or against something, so it's fair to argue that A Man of Integrity is a protest for truth and justice. Truth and justice, after all, are essentially an integral part of democracy, so what Reza fundamentally wants is democracy. Rasoulof moves the film along at a slow pace thereby showing that he trusts the audience's patience. He also trusts their intelligence, emotions and imagination. Most importantly, though, he sees and treats the characters and the audience as human beings. That's among the essential qualities of a truly great filmmaker. At a running time of just under 2 hours, A Man of Integrity is powerful, provocative and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Big World Pictures.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Mike Stern

      Tom (Shane West) and his wife, Alice (Chelsea Gilligan), rent a mid-century home design for a brief vacation. As they experience mysterious paranormal activity, they gradually learn about the dark history about the home and about how its architect, Frederick Banner (Stephan Lang) abused his wives, including Marie (Sarah Hay), decades earlier.

      Mid-Century is yet another movie that tries to combine too many genres all at once while none of the beats actually land. The screenplay by Mike Stern begins with a prologue that provides exposition about Frederick Banner's dark side, although it also spoils any suspense the audience might have about whether or not he can be trusted. Imagine Psycho with a prologue about Norman Bates' murderous side. The rest of the film wouldn't be as suspenseful. There are flashbacks that repeat the same point over and over about Frederick's evilness. In a poorly-developed subplot, Tom and Alice suffer from marital problems. Little do they know that they'll be facing even bigger problems when they encounter apparitions. It's around that point that Mid-Century takes a steep nosedive. Blending horror, sci-fi, mystery and thrills could be effective with a smart and well-written screenplay, but that's not the case here. It bites off much more than it could chew and becomes unfocused and convoluted as it progresses. Moreover, Stern doesn't give the audience much of a reason to care about Tom, Alice or anything on screen for that matter. Even the villain is obvious from the very beginning and doesn't really have anything about him to make him compelling or memorable. He's just as bland as everyone else.

      The production design is the film's greatest strength, both in the flashback scenes and the present day scenes. The lighting and set design add some atmosphere, but that's not enough to hold the audience's attention. The performances range from adequate to wooden. Casting Stephan Lang in the role of Frederick Banner makes it hard to avoid thinking of his better role in the much more suspenseful, thrilling, chilling and fun B-movie Don't Breathe. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, which feels more like 2.5 hours, Mid-Century manages to be dull, overwrought and clunky while low on thrills, chills, suspense and fun.

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

Official Competition

Directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn

      Humberto (José Luis Gómez), a millionaire nearing his 80th birthday, wants to be remembered for producing a great film. He hires Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to direct it. Lola casts actors for the two roles in the film: Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas). The two actors' egos and acting methods clash as they meet with Lola to rehearse for the film.

      Official Competition is one of the most wickedly funny satires of the film industry since The Player and What Just Happened. The screenplay by co-writer Andrés Duprat along with co-writers/directors Gastón Dupra and Mariano Cohn brims with wit, tongue-in-cheek humor and a few surprises up its sleeve. They establish the tone right away merely by the way they introduce Lola Cuevas with her over-the-top, curly hair that's just as quirky and over-the-top as her personality. Lola comes acorss as a director who's difficult to work with, yet clever, talented, awkward and unpredictable. The fact that she casts two actors who are very different from one another in many ways shows that she's not afraid to take risks. Although many scenes are indeed funny and even silly at times, they're always grounded in a harsh truth about human nature, art and the filmmaking industry. Félix Rivero, a huge international star, behaves like a diva more often than not. He's an asshole and a narcissist with no shame in hurting others emotionally or lying. For example, when he points to a woman standing outside of the building, he criticizes her looks and says that she's probably Lola's lesbian lover. He's wrong, though, because a few seconds later, Iván introduces her as his wife, so Félix managed to offend both his co-star and Lola simultaneously. Does he show any remorse or accountability? Nope. Does that make him likable? Nope, not even remotely. So what? It's amusing to watch him bicker with Lola and Iván. The more time that Félix and Iván spend with each other, the more they get on each others' nerves. What Lola does to them in the second act is even more abusive, but she has a point to make and so does the film. The way that she makes that point makes her just as unlikeable as Félix. Something happens later in the second act that adds a dark twist which won't be spoiled here, but that twist, despite how contrived it may seem, also has a purpose when it comes to what it says about actors' limitless egos and the sacrifices that they make for the sake of art.

      Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez have great chemistry together and, more importantly, terrific comedic timing. They're clearly having a lot of fun in their roles, and, fortunately, the audience has some fun watching them concurrently. A large part of the film's successful blend of tone comes from terrific cast who know how and when to go over-the top so that the audience knows not to take the scenes too seriously. Their charisma is also palpable from start to finish. They somehow make these mostly unlikable characters a lot more tolerable than you would think they'd be given their descriptions above. With less talented actors, they would've been like nails on a chalkboard. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Official Competition is a bold, provocative and razor-sharp satire.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.