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Reviews for March 1st, 2024

Documentary/Experimental Films Round-Up

      Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), an applejack salesman, must fight hundreds of beavers who destroy his wooden barrels filled with applejack. To win over a young woman (Olivia Graves), he must bring hundreds of beavers to her father, a merchant (Doug Mancheski).

      Hundreds of Beavers is a delightfully zany, exuberant and outrageously funny slice of comedy heaven. The screenplay by writer/director Mike Cheslik and co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews takes a simple concept and turns it into an enormously entertaining slapstick comedy reminiscent of the classic comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It has the same madcap energy found in Looney Tunes and the offbeat humor found in A Town Called Panic. Fortunately, it never runs out of steam and gets increasingly bizarre without being exhausting or tedious. There are many clever surprises, big and small, along the way which makes this a rewatchable film to catch all of the details and jokes.

      In terms of its plot, logic and reason are thrown out the window, but that's okay because, as Hitchock once wisely observed, there's something more important than logic: imagination. Hundreds of Beavers has plenty of imagination from start to finish. It's also visually stylish while making the most out of its limited budget with animation that's charming, like Ray Harryhausen's animation. The black-and-white cinematography and the fact that it's silent will make you feel like you're watching a film from the Golden Age of American Cinema. You can laugh with it or at it. You can still enjoy it whether you watch it sober, intoxicated or high. It's best to see it with a large crowd, though. At 1 hour and 48 minutes, Hundreds of Beavers deserves to become a cult classic.

      Pitch People is a captivating, well-edited and illuminating documentary about the pitchmen and pitch women who sell products on TV infomercials or at trade fairs. Director Stanley Jacobs charts the history of their craft and how it has evolved throughout the years, i.e. by President Ronal Reagan's deregulation of FCC laws. He interviews many pitch people including Lester Morris, Wally Nash, Ed McMahon, Sandy Mason and Ron Popeil, among others, each of whom provides plenty of insights. You'll learn, for instance, about their tactic they refer to as A.I.D.A: Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. That's how they hook their audience. One of the pitchmen candidly admits that he feels good when consumers give him money when he successfully persuades them to buy the product. Pitch People also includes footage of the pitch people at work. Like all humans, they sometimes make mistakes and their demonstrations don't work smoothly if a machine is missing a key part, but they learn from their mistakes. It's also a very nerve-wracking profession and, as one pitchman amusingly says, it's the second oldest profession in the world. Kudos to director Stanley Jacobs for capturing his subjects' lively personalities and their charisma while shedding light on a profession that's often taken for granted. At a running time of only 1 hour and 28 minutes, Pitch People opens at Village East by Angelika.

Amelia's Children

Directed by Gabriel Abrantes

      Edward (Carloto Cotta), a musician, knows nothing about his ancestors. For his birthday, receives a DNA testing kit from his girlfriend, Riley (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Soon enough, he's texting with Manuel (also Carloto Cotta) who claims to be his twin brother. Edward agrees to travel from Montana to Portugal to visit Manuel and his mother, Amelia (Anabela Moreira), at their villa, but he ends up getting more than he bargained for.

      The screenplay by writer/director Gabriel Abrantes is an underwhelming amalgam of horror, mystery and fantasy. Nearly every surprise is telegraphed, so by the time a big twist gets revealed during the second act, it's not very shocking. Moreover, the twist arrives too early and includes clunky flashbacks. Amelia's Children seems like it's merely trying to tick all of the boxes that are part of conventional horror formulas. Innocent and gullible victims get lured into the villain's home? Check! The home happens to be very isolated. Check! Foreboding and intense prologue? Check! The villain looks creepy and behaves oddly? Check! One of the victims is more suspicious than the other? Check! The systemic issues, though, aren't related to the highly formulaic plot, but to the lack of palpable scares, psychological horror, thrills and surprises. It's never a good sign when the audience is already steps ahead of the innocent protagonists and can easily figure out that something isn't right before they do. The third act is big mess with too much going on including a lot of backstory that's rushed through, so that's when the film takes a sharp nosedive while leaving the audience with a bad aftertaste.

      The production values are the only elements that stand out in Amelia's Children. The set design, lighting and camerawork contribute significantly to the eerie atmosphere. The make-up design and prosthetics that transform Anabela Moreira into Amelia are also impressive. The music score, though, is often distracting and overbearing. It seems as though writer/director Gabriel Abrantes doesn't trust the audience's emotions enough nor does he trust their intelligence or imagination for that matter because he leaves nothing to interpretation. At 1 hour and 32 minutes, Amelia's Children is a visually stylish, but uninspired slice of gothic horror that's low on palpable suspense and scares. It'd be an interesting double feature with Ti West's X.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

Asleep in My Palm

Directed by Henry Nelson

      Tom (Tim Blake Nelson) and his 16-year-old daughter, Beth Anne (Chloë Kerwin), live off-the-grid inside a storage unit in rural Ohio. He prefers to keep her sheltered from the outside world. However, she yearns to gain her independence and goes through a sexual awakening when she meets Millah (Gus Birney).

      Writer/director Henry Nelson has woven a gritty and engrossing story about two broken souls who seek to heal from their pain in different ways. Tom thinks that the best solution to deal with his dark, traumatic past is to run away from it and hide from society in the storage unit. Beth Anne begins to realize that she's different from Tom and wants to experience life because she's feeling suffocated while living with Tom. Asleep in My Palm throws the audience right into the lives of Tom and Beth Anne while eschewing a first act that would've shown how they ended up living off-the-grid together. It's a fascinating psychological character study and coming-of-age film before a very bold and shocking twist in the third act that won't be spoiled here. Sometimes twist endings can be easily predicted and telegraphed, but that's not the case here. It's just as shocking to one of the characters, though, which means that you're on the same page as they are at that moment and are also trying to process it. Repeat viewings would probably make you see the preceding scenes in a whole new light. Fortunately, Asleep in My Palm remains a tender father/daughter story that avoids schmaltz, heavy-handedness, melodrama and over-explaining. Exposition is kept to a minimum without any flashbacks, so kudos to writer/director Henry Nelson for trusting the audience's intelligence, imagination and emotions. Moreover, he deserves to be praised for seeing and treating Tom and Beth Anne as complex human beings, warts-and-all. It's wonderful for a director to show such empathy for his characters. You'll find it easy to connect with Beth Anne on an emotional level and to understand where her feelings are coming from because the screenplay manages to create a window into her heart, mind and soul.

      Tim Blake Nelson gives a warm and emotionally convincing performance as Tom. He's among the many underrated American actors who know how to disappear into their roles because the acting feels so natural. Chloë Kerwin is a revelation. She gives a raw and radiant breaththrough performance while finding the emotional truth of her role. The cinematography is decent without being excessive in style. The setting in a wintry rural Ohio enhances the feeling of Tom and Beth Anne's isolation. Writer/director Henry Nelson grasps the concept that "cinematic" doesn't always mean long chase sequences, violence or explosions; it can also arise from internal conflicts, epiphanies and watchin characters grow and change. Fortunately succeeds in finding the spectacle within the film's many truths, or its humanity. At 1 hour and 29 minutes, Asleep at My Palm is captivating, poignant and gripping.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strike Back Studios.
Opens in select theaters.

Dune: Part Two

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

     Paul (Timothée Chalamet) has joined the Fremen tribe and chooses to be given the name Muad’Dib while promising to bring paradise to the Freman as their messiah. Meanwhile, he joins fellow warrior Chani (Zendaya) in a war against the Harkonnens, led by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler).

      Based on the novel by Frank Herbert, the screenplay by writer/director Denis Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts is more heartfelt than Dune: Part One's screenplay which spends too much time treading water with clunky exposition. Dune: Part One does have some exposition and introduces new characters, but it's not dull or convoluted. The film takes its time to develop Paul as a boy who's becoming a man and must face his future and the Fremen tribe's expectations of him. There's a lot on the line for him, especially with the war going on with the Harkonnens who desperately want to take over Arakis. Feyd-Rautha is a very terrifying and ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to win the war, so Paul and the Fremen warriors have many tough challenges ahead of them that put their lives at risk. Dune: Part Two also focuses a little on the relationship between Paul and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), which ground the film in emotionally resonating scenes. His bond with Chani, which could be something more, also feels engrossing while humanizing Paul. So, this isn't just a big, loud and action-packed spectacle; it actually has a beating heart beneath the surface that allows the audience to empathize with its heroic protagonist. In other words, it has just the right balance of truth, or humanity, and spectacle.

     Dune: Part Two is a mesmerizing display of CGI effects combining with set designs, costume designs and cinematography to provide plenty of visual style and spectacle which becomes part of the film's substance concurrently. It's not only a spectacle for the eyes, but also for the ears thanks to the terrific music score by Hans Zimmer. The action sequences, particularly with the giant worms, are thrilling and awe-inspiring to behold on the big screen. Much like with most blockbusters, watching the film on the small screen would diminish the power of its visuals and sounds. Once again, Timothée Chalamet gives a solid performance as does Zendeya. The stand-out here, though, is Austin Butler who chews the scenery as Feyd-Rautha. Christopher Walken briefly shows up as Emperor Shaddam IV, and Florence Pugh plays the emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan. At a running time of 2 hours and 46 minutes, Dune: Part Two is a rousing, heartfelt and breathtaking spectacle.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Outlaw Posse

Directed by Mario Van Peebles

      Chief (Mario Van Peebles) searches for the gold reparations that he had stolen and hidden in Montana, but Angel (William Mapother) wants the gold all for himself. Angel soon kidnaps the wife of Decker (Mandela Van Peebles), Chief's estranged son, which sets Decker on a rescue mission as he joins Chief's gang.

      Set in 1908, the screenplay by writer/director Mario Van Peebles could've used more focus, though, because there are too many subplots, characters, and conflicts. It also suffers slightly from tonal unevenness when it tries to add poignancy through the relationship between Chief and his estranged son, Decker. Chief has a love interest whom he left behind and hopes to reunite with. That's yet another underdeveloped and distracting subplot. More comic relief and wit would've made the film more fun and less dull. That said, Van Peebles does have a great handle on exposition. Despite the intricate plot that has a lot of backstory, he doesn't rely on flashbacks nor does he turn the plot into a convoluted mess. There's also just the right amount of action scenes without exhausting the audience or leading to tedium.

      The best aspect of Outlaw Posse is its fine ensemble cast who try their best to invigorate the film. Mario Van Peebles and William Mapother both give charismatic performances in the lead roles. In support roles, there's John Carrol Lynch, Cedric the Entertainer, Cam Gigandet, Neal McDonough, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, and Whoopi Goldberg who plays Stagecoach Mary. This is probably the kind of B-western that Gabby Hayes would've probably been cast in if it were made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The action sequences are solid without resorting to excessive blood and guts as a means of entertaining the audience. Although Outlaw Posse is somewhat tonally uneven and unfocused, it's a mildly engaging Western that offers sporadic thrills and excitement.

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


Directed by Julio Torres

      Alejandro (Julio Torres), an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, must find a job in NYC before his work visa expires after getting fired. He bumps into Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art curator, who hires him as her assistant. She happens to be the ex-wife of his former boss, Bobby (RZA).

       Writer/director Julio Torres understands that comedy is often rooted in tragedy. At its core, Problemista centers on a young man whose hopes and dreams are in danger of being crushed because of a flawed and unfair immigration system in the U.S. One small mistake at his job gets him fired and at risk of losing his work visa. He'll accept any job, so it's no wonder that he seizes the opportunity to work for Elizabeth when they first meet. She's eccentric, demanding and as hard to please as Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. They mostly get along despite their differences in personality. The way she talks to a waiter, for example, makes her seem like a rude, insensitive narcissist. How did she end up so toxic? Problemista isn't very interesting in exploring that as much as it's interesting in showing Alejandro and Elizabeth evolving friendship and how she inspires him despite her absuive behavior. Perhaps the film is trying to say that it's a tough world out there, so you have to be thick-skinned and confident like Elizabeth to survive it. Alejandro seems like her doormat at first, but he gradually learns how to believe in himself. Their relationship doesn't quite hit the same heights as the relationship between Harold and Maude in Harold & Maude, but it's cut from the same cloth. Alejandro has a loving relationship with his mother who's in El Salvador which is shown through their phone conversations rather than through flashbacks. Fortunately, Julio Torres, in his directorial debut, is unafraid to take risks by including some surreal flourishes to the film that make it outrageously funny, unconventional and refreshing without any clunkiness or tonal unneveness. The film's minor flaw occurs at the very end when Alejandro says something to Elizabeth that means that perhaps he hasn't really changed that much after all.  

       Julio Torres gives a performance that's moving and grounded while being a great counterbalance for Tilda Swinton's over-the-top performance. With a less talented actress, Elizabeth could've easily turned into nothing more than an annoying caricature. To be fair, Elizabeth is annoying at times and not very likeable, but Swinton finds her humanity and gives her a few redeeming qualities that show Elizabeth's vulnerability ever so slightly. The costume design and hair & make-up design, especially for Elizabeth, is quite lively and stylish. There are also a few witty and trippy animation sequences. So, Problemista has both style and substance which is rare these days. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, it's funny, witty, poignant and refreshing.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Johan Renck

      Jakub (Adam Sandler), a Czech astronaut on a solo mission, leaves behind his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), while struggling with loneliness in outer space. He bonds with a large mutant tarantula, Hanus (voice of Paul Dano), aboard his spacecraft.

     Based on the novel by Jaroslav Kalfar, the screenplay by Colby Day is an engrossing and cerebral blend of sci-fi and psychological drama. When the audience first meets Jakub, he's already well into his space mission and exhibiting signs of loneliness as he pines for his beloved wife, Lenka, back on Earth. She's pregnant and lonely, too, but little does he know that she wants to divorce him. Commissioner Tuma (Isabella Rossellini) tries her best to prevent Lenka from disclosing the sad news to Jakub because doesn't want it to negatively affect his mission. Spaceman isn't very plot-heavy when it comes to its sci-fi elements. Jakub's mission is to reach a nebula called Chopa Cloud for research purposes. That's pretty much it. Although Hanus looks scary and intimidating, there's more to him than meets the eye. Is Jacub merely hallucinating him or is Hanus real? The film doesn't explore that question, per se; instead, it leaves it open-ended for the audience to answer on the own afterward. Spaceman focuses on Jakub's emotional and psychological state with the help of Hanus. He shows some signs of introspection as the very wise Hanus analyzes him like a therapist would. The events going on down on Earth with Commissioner Tuma and Lenka are kept to a minimum, though. Anyone expecting edge-of-your-seat thrills or suspense will be disappointed because the tension is mostly derived from Jakub innate emotional battles to conquer his loneliness and sadness rather than from physical battles.


Adam Sandler gives a refreshingly understated and nuanced performance as Jakub. He's given enough of a complex role to bring it to life and to provide emotional resonance. So, the film's poignancy comes from his performance rather than from the screenplay. There are also some surprisingly tender moments with Hanus. The design of Hanus makes him look like a scary monster, though, that could eat Jakub alive at any moment, but the CGI animation is quite impressive and effectively anthropomorphised. Unfortunately, Carey Mulligan and Isabella Rossellini are wasted in underwritten roles that don't give them enough to do on screen; their characters seem like mere plot devices. The pace moves leisurely, so kudos to director Johan Renck for trusting the audience's patience. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Spaceman is a poignant, meditative and profound emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Netflix.
Now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.