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Reviews for March 17th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      The Spirit of '45 is a very dry history lesson about the victory of the Labour Party in the UK in 1945 which led to unity and the rise of socialism. Through archival footage and contemporary interviews, director Ken Loach does a fine job of explaining precisely how and why the Labor Party won, and how it changed the country's economy and social welfare. People who couldn't afford medicine or something as simple as eye glasses could suddenly afford them for the first time in their life. Tony Benni gets interviewed a lot throughout the film and adds his vivid recollections of those historic times. Unfortunately, Loach presents this film in a very pedestrian and academic way that makes for an exhausting experience. He covers a lot of ground and many decades in the UK's history, including the fall of socialism when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. There's a lot of food for thought here, but not enough analysis. What about interviewing economists? What about addressing one of the elephants in the room which is that economic textbooks are wrong when they state that a high GDP is optimal for a country----the GDP has to rise with the poor. So, while The Spirit of '45 does have some insights, it's limited in scope and one-sided without being fair and balanced like a truly great documentary ought to be. It opens at Film Forum via The Film Desk.


Directed by Cauleen Smith

      Pica (Toby Smith), an art student, travels around Oakland with her new friend, Tobi (April Barnett), to take Polaroid photos of young Black men for her photography class' art project. She argues that since more and more young Black men are dying in Oakland, they're becoming extinct. Meanwhile, a serial killer terrorizes the city.

      The screenplay by writer/director Cauleen and Salim Akil tackles many topics including friendship, racism, police brutality, gender fluidity, domestic violence and art. With less talented screenwriters, the plot could've easily turned into an uneven, unfocused and overwrought mess, but it avoids those pitfalls. Instead, it all comes together to create a fascinating portrait of Oakland in the 1990s that's still relevant and relatable today. With the exception of a few briefly intense scenes with the serial killer, Drylongso is pretty much a "slice of life" film that follows Pica's emotional journey as she becomes increasingly perceptive to the harsh truths around her and expresses herself through art--her professor isn't impressed with her Polaroids initially, and she has to do well in her art project or else she'll risk failing the photography class. A lot is at stake for her, but she remains determined, stubborn and passionate like a true artist. She's similar to Enid from Ghost World who also used art to express her thoughts and feelings on racism--or more specifically, how racism is whitewashed. .

    Newly restored in 4K by Janus Films, Drylongso looks mesmerizing with bright, vibrant colors. You'd never guess that it initially debuted in theaters back in 1998---or that it's Cauleen Smith's first film. The editing is terrific along with the camerawork, music score and pacing. Toby Smith and April Barnett both give raw, natural performances that help to further ground the film in realism. Like Pica, Cauleen Smith is also a brave, honest and perceptive artist. Her passion, determination and intelligence shine through. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Drylongso is captivating, provocative and heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Janus Films.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Full River Red

Directed by Zhang Yimou

      In 12th Century China, Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) rules as Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty. Shortly before a diplomatic meeting between the Song Dynasty and Jin Dynasty leaders, someone murders a Jin ambassador. It's up to Sun Jun (Yee Jackson), his nephew, Zhang Da (Shen Teng),  He (Zhang Yi), and Wu (Yue Yunpeng) to find the killer as well as a secret letter or else they'll be killed.

      The screenplay by writer/director Zhang Yimou and Yu Chen has a premise that sounds like a grim crime thriller, but it's actually more of an action comedy. The intricate plot becomes increasingly convoluted with too many characters, red herring and twists, one of which is a major one in the third act which won't be spoiled here. A lot goes on, but there's surprisingly not as much action sequences as you'd expect. Instead, there's some dark comedy, tongue-in-cheek humor and witty banter, i.e. between Sun Jun and Zhang Da, although it doesn't quite reach the level of humor found in Stephen Chow's films like Kung Fu Hustle As a suspense thriller, that's where the film disappoints the most because it's hard to take the plot seriously when it's juxtaposed with the comedic tone. That leads to some unevenness and clunkiness. Also, not all of the comedic beats land, but most of them do. There's also a lot of stilted dialogue and lazy exposition, especially during the "big reveal" in the third act.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Full River Red has stylish cinematography with great costume and set design. The lighting and use of colors make everything look grey and washed out without bright colors.  It's not pretty to look at and goes against the film's darkly comedic tone. Interestingly, the blood isn't very realistic nor is there any graphic gore; the blood looks stylized---especially during a disgusting, lengthy scene with lots of blood pouring out later in the second act. Admittedly, the entertainment begins to wane around the 2 hour mark as the film becomes a bit tedious. It's not good when you can feel the weight of the running time. It's not quite as consistently entertaining and zany as John Wick: Chapter 4 which also clocks well past 2 hours. At a running time of 2 hours and 39 minutes, Full River Red is a surprisingly funny and witty dark comedy, but ultimately overlong, exhausting and convoluted. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Niu Vision Media.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

The Innocent

Directed by Louis Garrel

      Abel (Louis Garrel) isn't happy that his mother, Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg), has married a man in prison, Michel (Roschdy Zem). Upon Michel's release from prison, Abel and his best friend, Clémence (Noémie Merlant), hatch a plan to spy on him.

      The screenplay by writer/director Louis Garrel and his co-writers, Tanguy Viel and LoNaïla Guiguet, brims with wit and a little zaniness without taking itself too seriously. To be fair, the romantic subplot between Abel and Clémence feels contrived and corny while slightly distracting from the narrative momentum. The film also neglects to explore the fact that Abel is essentially a momma's boy who's meddling in his mother's private life while crossing boundaries to do so. There's not much suspense because the screenwriters reveal within the first 30 minutes that Michel has returned to a life of crime---that part of the film isn't a mystery nor a surprise, but it's a shame that it's revealed so early on. What ensues is more silly and amusing than laugh-out-loud funny as Abel and Clémence make fools out of themselves when they try to spy on Michel. A scene where Clémence is at a restaurant while Abel hides in his car as Michel catches onto their plan is somewhat funny thanks to some physical comedy, but without reaching the comedic heights of Gérard Oury's or Francis Veber's classic French comedies. The Innocent could use more zaniness and take more risks when it comes to humor instead of playing it safe more often than not.

      The Innocent is very lucky to have Noémie Merlant among the talented cast members because she has wonderful comedic timing. It's delightful to see her in a comedy after Baby Ruby, Tár and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She's clearly having a lot of fun in her role, and the film feels like a breath of fresh air whenever she's on-screen. There are some pacing issues, especially in the first and third acts that have some choppy editing, but those are minor flaws. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, The Innocent is an amusing, witty and breezy farce.

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


Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis

      Nemo (Willem Dafoe), an art thief, becomes trapped inside a lavish New York City penthouse while committing a heist.

       The screenplay by Ben Hopkins has a wafer-thin plot that makes more sense if seen as an allegory like Darren Aronofsky's mother! or Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel rather than Cast Away or All is Lost which it shares a lot in common with on the surface. Otherwise, very little makes sense because Hopkins provides virtually zero backstory for Nemo other than how much he loves and appreciates art above everything else. There's mention of how much time has passed since Nemo gets locked inside the penthouse or where the owners might be. Hours turn to days, days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months as Nemo's beard gets longer and longer. He also gets increasingly more insane, not surprisingly, without being able to interact with anyone else, not even the maid, Jasmine (Eliza Stuyck), who shows up every once in a while. He has to brave the extreme elements as the temperature gets very hot inside the apartment and very cold. The lengths that he takes to find food and water to survive are amazing and show how clever he is, i.e. by softening dry pasta in water for a few days so that it's somewhat edible albeit crunchy. The way that the screenplay adds comic relief is refreshing and helps to break the monotony and tedium, i.e. when the song "Macarena" is used a few time. That said, it's inevitable that tedium and claustrophobia will eventually seep into the film, but fortunately it doesn't  cause the audience to feel too exhausted or frustrated. Director Vasilis Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins trust the audience's imagination and intelligence a lot without hitting them over the head with preachiness, although one important statement that Nemo makes at the beginning gets repeated in the third act. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, leaves some room for interpretation.

      Willem Dafoe gives one of the best performances of his career as Nemo. He's very well-cast in the role because he shows that he's capable of handling a complex array of emotions as Nemo experiences hope, despair and everything in between. He truly gets lost in the role like Tom Hanks does in Cast Away. The set design is also impressive as it becomes an integral part of the film's atmosphere. The penthouse becomes a character in and of itself. It's also interesting that the film doesn't have a music score for the first hour but then adds one later on without being intrusive. Then there's the use of metaphors, i.e. a flood and bright light, which allow the audience to search for a deeper meaning beneath the surface if they choose to. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Inside is an audacious, gripping and provocative psychological thriller.

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

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game

Directed by Austin and Meredith Bragg

      In 1970s Chicago, Roger Sharpe (Mike Faist), a writer, embarks on a mission to overturn a ban on pinball machines in New York City. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a single mom, Ellen (Crystal Reed), who has an 11-year-old son, Seth (Christopher Convery).

      The screenplay by co-writers/directors Austin and Meredith Bragg begins with the older version of Roger Sharpe (Dennis Boutsikaris) being interviewed about his life. The film flashes back to how he found his love of pinball, how he met Ellen, the love of his life, how he became determined to fight the pinball machine ban despite many setbacks. The comments that the older Roger makes as he looks back at his life are amusing rather than distracting even though they do break the 4th wall. Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is no ordinary, by-the-numbers or dry biopic. Its tone can best be described as similar to the comedic tone of The Big Short: witty, funny and light. The plot doesn't get too complicated or profound nor does it turn into a character study of its subject. It's just an entertaining snapshot of what makes Roger Sharpe so significant in the world of pinball. The scenes with him and Ellen avoid being schmaltzy, but, to be fair, they're not as compelling as Roger finds the courage to deal with and outsmart bigwigs like Chairman Warner (Michael Kostroff), Harry Williams (Mitch Greenberg) and Alvin Gottlieb (Zac Jaffee). Even if you're familiar with Roger's story and know the ending, that's fine because this isn't the kind of movie that aims to be suspenseful; it's about how he got to the point of achieving his goal.

      Mike Faist gives a lively and amusing performance as Roger Sharpe. From the moment you set your eyes upon Roger's large, noticeably fake mustache, you know that you're in for a fun, slightly over-the-top biopic. It almost veers into the realm of satire, but not quite. The pace moves briskly enough without any dull moments. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is a refreshingly witty, funny and captivating biopic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Vertical Releasing.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Ulrich Seidl

      Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), a lounge singer past his prime, lives in the seaside town of Rimini, Italy where he sings for elderly German and Austrian tourists at hotels. With low attendance at his singing events, he struggles to make ends meet, even while working a job as a gigolo. One day, Tessa (Tessa Gottlicher), his estranged daughter, arrives out-of-the-blue demanding him to pay her all of the money that he owes for child support.

      Writer/director Ulrich Seidl and co-writer Veronika Franz paint a profoundly moving portrait of a man whose life is filledwith tragedy and has hit rock bottom. To call Richie Bravo a man would be inaccurate despite that he's middle aged. He's bitter, alcoholic, lonely, insecure, selfish and emotionally immature. His mother recently died, and his father (Hans-Michael Rehberg) suffers from dementia. From the get-go, it's obvious that he has turned to alcohol to drown his sorrows and to avoid confronting traumatic events from his past. The screenplay doesn't reveal what the traumatic events are right away, but when they are finally revealed, they're quite unflinching without any sugar-coating. Bravo to the screenwriters for being unafraid to make Richie a very unlikable and flawed character. He's not the kind of person you'd want to be around for more than a minute or so, and it's also debatable whether or not he has learned anything by the time the end credits roll. So, Rimini doesn't provide the audience with much of a character arc; it's more of a character study of someone who's a deeply troubled and depressed narcissist. One of the key scenes that shows how Richie hasn't really changed throughout the years is when his estranged daughter---whom he hits on at first without knowing that she's his daughter---confronts him about how he hurt her emotionally, but he refuses to be accountable for his actions and the consequences of his actions. There are some moments of dark, dry comedy, but they're far and few between.

      Michael Thomas gives a genuinely moving performance as Richie Bravo, bearing his heart and soul into the role while displaying his vulnerabilities with emotional honesty. It's not an easy role to play because Richie is such a complex character with a lot of emotions going on inside of him; Richie is his own worst enemy and his no good role models to look up to or to guide him. He's like a big baby who's not loved enough and doesn't love himself enough either. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't ask you to judge him nor do they judge him themselves; you're merely asked to experience him as a human being. Kudos to Michael Thomas for seeing and treating Richie as a human being and for allowing the audience to peer through his heart, mind and soul. The cold, snowy setting of Rimini provides some atmosphere, poetry and visual style that compliments the film's grim and stark tone. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Rimini is a well-acted, honest and heartbreaking character study filled with melancholy.

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


Directed by Lola Quivoron

      After she loses her motorcycle and gets kicked out of her mother's house, Julia (Julie Ledru) steals a motorcycle and finds refuge with a local motorbike gang led by Domino (Sebastien Schroeder) who live a life of crime and perform stunts with their motorcycles. She befriends a gang member Kais (Yannis Lafki) as well as Domino's wife, Ophelie (Antonia Buresi).

      The screenplay by writer/director Lola Quivoron and co-writer Antonia Buresi is a rather pedestrian glimpse of a young woman entering a male-dominated motorcycle gang while putting her life at risk. Julia comes across as tough, carefree, reckless and lacking boundaries. She has no shame in stealing motorbikes and loves riding those bikes---and showing off her skills while she's at it. What makes her so passionate about it? Why doesn't she have any good role models or friends to look up to in her life? She clearly comes from a toxic, dysfunctional family which could provide some answers to the second question. Rodeo isn't too concerned about answering those questions, though, or about delving into Julia's heart, mind and soul. There's a lot going on inside of her, but the film barely scratches the surface of Julia or of her relationships with the gang members. Exposition is kept to a bare minimum and so is character development. Why not include more backstory about Julia's relationship with her family? Also, why not include some comic relief to break the monotonous tone? The plot just seems to be going through the motions which makes it feel like a shallow B-movie or a grittier version of The Fast & the Furious. It also doesn't explore gender roles or toxic masculinity. Julia wants to be like the cool guys in the gang, but why? Just because they're cool and fun to be around? Again, what's Julia's true self and identity like? That remains an unanswered question which is quite frustrating and leaves the audience at a cold distance from Julia.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Rodeo does have its fair share of thrilling and exciting scenes with Julia on her motorbike. Those moments are the only ones where the film feels alive and engaging. They're very well-shot in a way that provides you with the sensation that you're riding with Julia and experiencing her joy of motorbike riding along with her. You can palpably feel the rush of adrenaline during those scenes. The performances are mostly solid with no one giving a weak performance despite having no prior experience in acting. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Rodeo is mildly engaging, gritty and occasionally exhilarating, but ultimately too cold, underwhelming and shallow to pack an emotional punch.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods

Directed by David F. Sandberg

      Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child who transforms into a superhero called Shazam (Zachary Levi) when he yells "Shazam!, teams up with his siblings to battle Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler), a.k.a. The Daughters of Atlas, who are searching for a magical staff that can help them to regain their powers.

      The screenplay by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan suffers from a convoluted plot with too many undercooked subplots and too many forgettable characters without enough of the wit, charm and laughs found in its predecessor. More action, more conflicts and a more complex plot does not always translate into fun necessarily. Some of the dialogue tries too hard to be funny and to please the audience while falling flat, i.e. when Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) awkwardly yells his name to Anthea when he first meets her at his high school. It turns out that Anthea is the nicest one among the Daughters of Atlas, the villains. Of course, there's a MacGuffin, as always. In this case, it's the staff of a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou). There's also a magical pen that can provide information and take dictation---that last part is used for more awkward laughs when Hespera reads a message written with the magical pen, but it's very juvenile humor. Was this movie written for 8 year olds? That's the kind of humor it seems to aim for. Don't ask how Skittles end up part of the plot. It's not funny or even amusing. There's also a painfully unfunny reference to The Fast and the Furious. Unfortunately, the plot becomes less and less interesting as it progresses. The thrills, suspense and excitement wane as exhaustion and tedium increase concurrently. It's too bad that the film takes itself too seriously at times, fails to take risks and lacks the courage to go bonkers.

      Despite a fine cast, no one gets the chance to shine, not even Helen Mirren who's not given much to do. This role is beneath her. The same can be said about Rachel Zegler who's radiant in West Side Story, but remains undermined by a vapid, lifeless screenplay here. Her West Side Story co-star, Mike Faist, stars in Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game as a real-life super hero who saved pinball machines from being banned in NYC. He has much more fun in his role there than Zegler has in her role in Shazam! Fury of the Gods which has a larger budget. That's a testament to the fact that a larger budget does not always mean that it's a better film or a better role. The true star of the film is the CGI effects which provide plenty of Spectacle---some of it looks a bit shoddy, though, because you can tell that there's a green screen behind the actors which feels distracting. Then there are creepy-looking monsters that show up suddenly in the third act which could scare little kids. The soundtrack is fine with songs like "I Need a Hero" that blazes while on the soundtrack during an action scene. It's a tacky choice that's too obvious and on-the-nose without the tongue-in-cheek humor and zaniness Deadpool. At a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is an exhausting, dull and convoluted superhero comedy that's low on wit, laughs and palpable thrills.


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Warner Bros.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Herbert James Winterstern

      William Brody (Daniel Diemer) runs away from home to follow the footsteps of his father, Bill (Richard Gunn), a storm chaser who died while chasing tornadoes ten years earlier. He and his classmate from college, Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), join his uncle, Roy (Skeet Ulrich), and Zane Rogers (Alec Baldwin), to chase tornadoes. Meanwhile, his mother, Quinn (Anne Heche), tries to find him because she's worried for his safety.

      Another week, another unimaginative, bland and underwhelming B-movie. Supercell aims to be an exhilarating, heartfelt disaster film in the vein of Twister, but falls very, very short. Within the first 15 minutes, a lot happens with too much exposition that's glossed over. William's dad dies, he's unhappy at home while still grieving his dad, and he starts college where meets Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), his love interest. Before you know it, he receives a notebook belonging to his father and packs up his things and leaves home to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, the human drama in Supercell isn't even as remotely as engaging as the William, Roy, Zane and Harper's battles against mother nature as they chase tornadoes. The action scenes, though, aren't very thrilling or exciting, and it's hard to care about what happens to anyone when none of the characters come to life. The romance between William and Harper feels corny and distracting. The dialogue sounds too on-the-nose and witless without nearly enough comic relief like in the cult classic 90's movie Twister that was unafraid to be a little zany and to humanize its characters by giving them---dare I said it--some personality. When the story lacks suspense, the action lacks excitement and the characters are merely on-dimensional caricatures, it's hard for the audience to be engaged even on a superficial level.

    The CGI looks fine with some dark, menacing storm clouds that provide a modicum of atmosphere, but not nearly enough to elevate the film above mediocrity as it just goes through the motions. The third act feels rushed as does the first act while the second act moves at a slower pace, so there are pacing issues. The performances are weak to mediocre with no one managing to breathe life into their roles, but that could be because of the lazy and vapid screenplay. Anne Heche is much better in 13 Minutes, a far more moving, sensitively-written and thrilling disaster film that sees and treats its characters like human beings, unlike this film. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Supercell is a shallow, bland and underwhelming B-movie.

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


Directed by Matt Smukler

      As Bea (Kiernan Shipka), a teenager, lays comatose at a hospital, she recalls dealing with her dysfunctional family including her mom, Sharon (Samantha Hyde), and dad, Derek (Dash Mihok), both of whom are intellectually disabled, her aunt, Joy (Alexandra Daddario), and grandmothers, Peg (Jean Smart) and Loretta (Jacki Weaver). She also remembers falling in love with Ethan (Charlie Plummer), a boy from her school.

      Another week, another overstuffed dramedy that bites off more than it could chew. The screenplay by Jana Savage suffers from those ailments along with an uneven blend of comedy and drama. Cue the schmaltz, cringe and clunkiness. There are too many characters and a lot going on in Bea's childhood like falling in love, dealing with school bullies, academic pressure, and a toxic home environment that affects her on an emotional and psychological level. Bea narrates events from her life in a way that spoon-feeds the audience and feels lazy. Narration in general is hard to get right, but in this case there's both weak narration and too much of it concurrently. None of Bea's relationships with her mother, father, grandma, aunt or boyfriend ring true, so Wildflower falls flat as a coming-of-age drama, a romance and as a portrait of a dysfunctional family. Some scenes even veer toward unintentional satire or a SNL skit. Awkward humor can work if it's well-integrated within the story, but here it clashes with it and makes it hard to take the darker moments seriously. So, the beats don't land when the film tries to be funny or when it tries to be touching. Wildflower pales compared to other coming of age movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Ghost World. or the more unflinching, perceptive and genuinely moving ones like Boyhood and Ordinary People. It even makes The Fabelmans, one of Spielberg's worst movies, look like masterpiece.

      Despite a fine cast, none of them manages to rise above the clunky and contrived screenplay or to shine even remotely. The editing feels choppy at times, and there's nothing exceptional about the cinematography that could've added some style to compensate for the lack of substance. Charlie Plummer is in a much better-written coming-of-age film called Words on Bathroom Walls. Jacki Weaver does her best to make the most out of her role, but, like the other actors and actresses, she's undermined by the lifeless, shallow screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, which feels more like 3 minutes, Wildflower is a clunky, tonally uneven, schmaltzy and undercooked mess.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Momentum Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.