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Reviews for June 9th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is a stylishly-edited, but shallow reader's digest version of Hipgnosis, a record album artwork design studio co-founded by Aubrey "Po" Powell and Storm Thorgerson. Director Anton Corbijn blends archival footage, archival interviews and contemporary interviews which chart the rise and fall of Hipgnosis. You'll learn how Powell and Thorgerson put the design studio together and how they came up with the name "Hipgnosis." The rest of the documentary is merely a linear "show and tell" of the iconic record albums that Hipgnosis designed along with some amusing details about how they came up with the designs. If you're unfamiliar with Hipgnosis or with what the record albums look like, at least you'll now know that basic info. Powell and Thorgerson's personalities often clashed, but that was part of the recipe for Hipgnosis' success. They were odd couple. Storm Thorgerson comes across as a narcissistic jerk albeit a very talented one. Unfortunately, Squaring the Circle doesn't find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Corbijn fails to dig deeper and to find something profound to say about Hipgnosis beyond the basics and beneath the surface. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) opens at Film Forum via Utopia.

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster

Directed by Bomani J. Story

      Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), a teenager, lives with her widowed father Donald (Chad L. Coleman), and believes that she can cure death after Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy) gets killed from gang violence. She spends time in her secret laboratory to try to bring Chris back to life.

      Why is Vicaria so obsessed with death? The answer in the screenplay by writer/director Bomani J. Story gets revealed very early on: her mother died, her brother died, and there's a lot of gang violence in her neighborhood. Her high school science teacher, Mrs. Kempe (Beth Felice), considers her to be disruptive when she dares to comment her opinion that cancer is a symptom, not a disease. Instead of allowing for critical thinking and debate, her teacher has a security guard escort her from the classroom before she gets reprimanded for speaking her mind. Clearly, what she really needs is a lot of therapy because she's struggling to cope with the grief over the death of her loved ones. Not surprisingly, her success at bringing her brother back to life in her lab like Dr. Frankenstein did to his monster comes with very disturbing consequences. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster isn't afraid to go into dark territory, but it barely scratches the surface of its theme of grief because it's more concerned about scaring and shocking the audience. Writer/director Bomani J. Story knows where to take ideas from, but not so much when it comes to where to take ideas to. The film is ultimately just as unsubtle and unimaginative as its title while failing to reach the emotional and intellectual depths of "elevated" horror.

      Laya DeLeon Hayes gives a terrific performance and deserves credit for bringing ephemeral moments of poignancy to the film. The highlight of the film, though, is its production values. The cinematography, editing, physical effects, make-up design and lighting provide some impressive visual style. Writer/director Bomani J. Story should be commended for not holding back on the gore or going over-the-top with it, although, to be fair, it doesn't leave much to the imagination and veers toward grotesqueness at times. The pace moves quickly, but not too quickly, and the running time is, fortunately, well under 2 hours which is a sign that Story has restraint. Otherwise, this would've become tedious and overstayed its welcome, so it ends just before tedium has the chance to seep in. At 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is visually stylish, intense and well-acted, but also heavy-handed, shallow and ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

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

Blue Jean

Directed by Georgia Oakley

      Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen), works as a PE teacher at a secondary school in Northern England. She's a closeted lesbian with a partner, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), whom she goes on dates with. A new law, Section 28, will soon prohibit the "promotion of homosexuality." When a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), spots her at gay bar, she remains at risk of losing her job if she's outed as a lesbian at work.

      Set in 1988, the screenplay by writer/director Georgia Oakley is a tender and genuinely heartfelt character study of woman who struggling to keep her job while being true to herself during dehumanizing times. Jean's private life remains separate from her work life until Lois sees her at a gay bar. Blue Jean could've easily turned into a melodramatic, preachy and maudlin tearjerker or a gripping thriller. Instead, Oakley focuses on Jean's emotional journey as her world turns upside down and her livelihood is at stake if word gets out at school that she's a lesbian. There are a few tense scenes, though, like when Lois sees Jean at school after witnessing her at the bar. Jean goes through a lot of emotions ranging from fear to despair to sadness, joy and frustration, so the fact that she doesn't lash out at anyone by hurting them because of her emotional pain is a sign that she's at least somewhat emotionally mature. Even though the Section 28 law proposed by Margeret Thatcher's Conservative Party, plays an important role in the film's plot, this isn't a political film per se nor does it delve much into the nitty-gritty of UK politics. Margaret Thatcher isn't even shown. Exposition is kept to a minimum including Jean's dysfunctional relationship with her family who don't support her. She's most happy when she's with her lover, Viv, who's a decent human being and a bright light in the dark tunnel of Jean's life. Bravo to Oakley for seeing and treating her as a flawed, complex human being worth rooting for and caring about which helps to make Blue Jean all the more engrossing.

      Rosy McEwen is very well cast as Jean. She anchors the film with her nuanced and raw performance that rings true from start to finish. She doesn't over-act nor under-act, so her performance is so natural that you forget that she's acting. That's the sign of a truly great actress. Her charisma feels palpable as does the chemistry between her and Kerrie Hayes who plays Jean's partner. It's also worth mentioning the lighting, camerawork, use of color and set designs which further ground the film in authenticity while also adding some grittiness and poetry without going overboard with the visual style. Even the way that title card drops on-screen is visually interesting and concurrently meaningful. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Blue Jean is emotionally engrossing, tender and nuanced with a radiant performance by Rosy McEwen.

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


Directed by Thomas J. Churchill

      Bobbie Briggs (Krista Grotte Saxon), a police detective, investigates a series of murders and interviews a lone survivor who claims that an evil monster called Devilreaux (Vincent M. Ward) is responsible for the murders.

      Writer/director Thomas J. Churchill takes a well-worn premise and turns it into a dull and lazy B-movie Devilreaux kills because he's seeking revenge for a the rape of his mother, a slave, that happened years ago. A white plantation owner raped her. How does Devilreaux present that crucial backstory to the audience? Through a long, clunky flashback that diminishes the film's narrative momentum. Is it too hard to ask for a filmmaker to know how to incorporate exposition effectively? Devilreaux, who kills his victims with a shovel, makes for a boring villain who doesn't even hold a candle to iconic villains like Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and, of course, Candyman. The other characters remain underdeveloped caricatures, especially Bobbie Briggs whom the audience learns very little about. The less you think about the internal logic of the plot, the better because it becomes more and more preposterous, but without going bonkers like some horror films do these days, i.e. Evil Dead Rise. If Devilreaux didn't take itself so seriously and added some campy fun, it would've been a guilty pleasure rather than such an underwhelming experience that leaves you wishing you were watching Candyman instead.

      The performances range from mediocre to very wooden. No one, not even Tony Todd who plays a supporting role as the husband of Devilreaux's mother, gets a chance to shine. Krista Grotte Saxon lacks the charisma and acting chops as Bobbie Briggs---some of her line deliveries are cringe-inducing, but not enough to result in bad laughs like in The Room In terms of production values, Devilreaux don't have anything exceptional. The blood and guts look cheap, the editing feels choppy and the camera work is just as bland as the screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Devilreaux is a tedious, anemic and lackluster B-movie that's low on scares, thrills and surprises.

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

Mending the Line

Directed by Joshua Caldwell

      Colter (Sinqua Walls), a U.S. marine, suffers an injury while in combat in Afghanistan. He gets sent to a VA hospital in a small town in Montana to recover while also suffering from PTSD. His doctor, Dr. Burke (Patricia Heaton), happens to also be the doctor of Ike Hendrickson (Brian Cox), a Vietnam War veteran who spends his days fly-fishing. Dr. Burke won't let Colter return to Afghanistan, but she does persuade him to join Ike by the river and to learn fly-fishing to heal.

      Mending the Line is the kind of movie that you can get up to go the bathroom and easily predict what happened while you were gone when you return. The paint-by-numbers screenplay by Stephen Camelio begins with an expositional scene that shows Colter's experiences fighting in Afghanistan before he gets injured and sent to rural Montana. From the moment that he meets Ike and learns fly-fishing, it's obvious that they'll become friends and that both of them will connect because of their traumatic past. There's nothing inherently wrong with a linear plot with no surprises as long as it remains captivating and heartfelt. Mending the Line has a few genuinely heartfelt moments, but they're far and few between. The on-the-nose dialogue often over-explains while failing to trust the audience's intelligence, i.e. when it comes to the metaphor of fly-fishing. Does the screenplay really have to have Ike explain the metaphor to Colter? That's among the contrived scenes in the film. Another contrivance occurs when Dr. Burke confronts Colter outside of work and "prescribes" him to meet Ike. She also discusses Ike's health with Colter. Isn't that an ethics violation? What kind of professional doctor would do that? It doesn't seem realistic in a film that tries to be a "slice-of-life." The screenplay has some aphorisms, but they feel tacked-on and preachy. Harold and Maude is a better example of a film with metaphors and aphorisms that are more organically integrated into the screenplay without insulting the audience's intelligence. Mending the Line, on the other hand, resorts to spoon-feeding the audience as though they weren't mature enough to figure out the metaphors and to connect the dots on their own.

      Mending the Line is lucky to have Brian Cox in a lead role. He brings tremendous charisma, warmth and much-needed emotional depth to the film while rising well above the pedestrian and dull screenplay. He's as great here as he is in the underrated and much better-written film The Etruscan Smile. Wes Studi also brings some warmth and tenderness in a supporting role. The scenery looks nice and the cinematography is fine, but there's uneven pacing with some scenes, especially during the second act, moving too slowly. Tighter editing could've also brought the film's running time down a bit because the film does overstay its welcome around the 90-minute mark. At a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes, Mending the Line is contrived, preachy and paint-by-numbers, but anchored by the always-reliable, warm and charismatic Brian Cox.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Persian Lessons

Directed by Vadim Perelman

      Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a Belgian Jew, avoids being executed by the Nazis by claiming that he's Persian. Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), an SS officer in charge of a concentration camp's kitchen, hires him to write down prisoners' names in a logbook and to teach him Farsi. However, Gilles doesn't speak Farsi, so he makes up words based on the names of the prisoners.

      Based on Wolfgang Kohlhaase's short story,Invention of a Language, the screenplay by Ilja Zofin effectively builds suspense and intrigue as Gilles struggles to keep his lie from being discovered because it would result in the Nazis killing him immediately. Even though Klaus is fundamentally a villain because he's an SS officer, Persian Lessons humanizes him while showing that there's more to him than meets the eye. He dreams of moving to Tehran to open a restaurant which is why he wants to learn Farsi. Not surprisingly, he and Gilles develop a bond. It's not really a friendship per se, but, more importantly, he trusts Gilles. There's palpable tension in a scene where Gilles uses a fake word that he assigns a different translation to and Klaus catches that error before getting angry. How Gillies gets out of that situation won't be revealed here, but it shows that he's clever. The audience knows that Gilles is lying, so they're one step ahead of Klaus who's gullible enough to believe that the words that Gilles teaches him are indeed Farsi. So, now, it's only a question of if, when and how Gille will be exposed as a liar. Fortunately, the relationship between him and Klaus has a few surprisingly moving moments. Interestingly, Gilles isn't given much personality. He seems taciturn and emotionless. Beneath the surface, he's probably very scared and sad. Without voice-over narration, it's hard to tell what's really going on inside of Gilles other than his desperate struggle to survive by hiding the secret that he's not Persian. Director Vadim Perelman and screenwriter Ilaj Zofin trust the audience's emotions, intelligence and imagination while including just enough exposition. Meanwhile, the horrors of the Holocaust remain off-screen, so this isn't an unflinchingly bleak and disturbing Holocaust film like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Son of Saul.

      Lars Eidinger gives a terrific performances as Klaus while finding the emotional truth and humanity within his role. That's no easy task. As the plot progresses, Klaus seems less and less menacing and more of a flawed, vulnerable human being. Kudos to Eidinger, Perelman and Zofin for showing empathy toward Klaus. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart gives a decent performance as Gilles, but because he barely emotes, the performance feels somewhat bland and one-note at times. The cinematography and use of lighting as well as color are also worth mentioning because they provide the film with an eerie atmosphere that compliments the overall grim tone. At a running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes, Persian Lessons is a gripping and intriguing slow-burning thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Pietro Marcello

      Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry) returns to his French village after serving in World War I and discovers that his wife has died and that Madame Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky) has been taking care of Juliette, his infant daughter. She lets him and Juliette stay with her while finding him work. As a young woman, Juliette (Juliette Jouan) meets a witch (Yolande Moreau) who predicts that she'll see a ship with red sails that will whisk her away from her village. Soon enough, she falls in love with a pilot Jean (Louis Garrel) whose plane falls from the sky.

      Loosely based on the novel Scarlet Sails by Alexander Grin, the screenplay by writer/director Pietro Marcello and his co-writers, Maurizio Braucci, Geneviève Brisac and Maud Ameline, focuses on Raphaël as he returns from the war before shifting to Juliette's perspective. Part coming-of-age story, part romance, part fairy tale, Scarlet isn't an easy film to describe in terms of its plot. Not a lot happens on screen and even during a tragic turn that makes the film a little darker, the tragic event is merely referred to without being shown. Admittedly, the tone feels a little uneven. At times, it's whimsical, bizarre and offbeat while other times it's trying to be serious and poignant. Tonal whiplash ensues around the hour mark. It almost becomes schmaltzy, but not quite. There's even a random musical scene thrown in that's lively and imaginative, but also clunky. The relationship between Raphaël and Madame Adeline feels more organic and fascinating than the somewhat sweet, but dull relationship between Juliette and Jean. The screenplay's systemic flaw, though, is that it bites off more than it could chew with too many characters, some of whom are underdeveloped, like the witch who seems like she's merely there as a plot device rather than as a fully-fleshed character. The same can be said about Juliette who remains at a cold distance from the audience.

      Scarlet's major strengths include its breathtaking scenery and exquisite cinematography with great use of color and lighting that provides some visual style and poetry. Its style becomes part of its substance more often than not. Then there's the terrific cast of actors who know how to breathe life into their role and to rise above the screenplay with a sense of naturalism. Juleiite Joaun and Raphaël Thiéry very well-cast and give convincingly moving performance, so the film's modicum of poignancy comes from her performance, not from the screenplay.Noémie Lvovsky, as usual, exudes warm and charisma. The pace moves slowly at times, so director/co-writer Pietro Marcello trusts the audience's patience. If the film were over 2 hours, it would've overstayed its welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Scarlet is a well-shot, well-acted and poetic fairy tale, but tonally uneven, overstuffed and slightly sugar-coated.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

The Secret Kingdom

Directed by Matt Drummond


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

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

      Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), steals cars to make ends meet for him, his mom, Brianna (Luna Lauren Vélez) and his younger brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez). One of the cars that he steals turns out to be an Autobot named Mirage (voice of Pete Davidson). He joins the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) on their mission to find the Transwarp Key to be able to return to their home planet before the Terrorcons find the key themselves and Unicron (voice of Colman Domingo) will destroy the Earth.

      The latest entry in the Transformers franchise has not one, not two, not three, not four, but five--yes, five--screenwriters, namely, Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber. Why, then, could neither of them inject any imagination, surprise or wit into the screenplay? Is that too much to ask for? The plot is pretty simple and easy-to-follow at least. Of course, just as expected, there's a MacGuffin that everyone wants: the Transwarp Key. Elena (Dominique Fishback), an archaeologist, also joins the Autobots' quest. If all you're looking for is mindless action sequences, you'll at least be entertained for the first hour. After that point, though, the action quickly becomes repetitive with diminishing returns when it comes to palpable thrills. The dialogue is clunky and shallow, and the expositional scenes are poorly-written. None of the characters, even the new ones like Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), a Maximal, are memorable or interesting in any way. The same can be said about the villains, known as the Terrorcons. The plot just goes through the motions while remaining low on palpable thrills and excitement. Like the recent Fast X, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts aims to be an entertaining Spectacle, but fizzles out and becomes an exhausting action adventure.

      The CGI effects are dazzling and provide plenty of eye candy. It's obvious that a lot of money was spent on the effects alone. The pace moves quickly as though the filmmakers assumed that the audience has a short attention span. Sometimes it moves too quickly with many quick cuts that feel nauseating. The action scenes provide the film with some Spectacle, but not much else. They get repetitive around the hour mark. At a runnin time of roughly 2 hours, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is yet another dumb, loud, exhausting and pointless sequel in a franchise that has run out of steam.

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