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Reviews for March 22nd, 2024

Documentary Round-Up

      Art Talent Show is a mildly engaging and fascinating, but somewhat dull and tedious documentary about the entrance exams at Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Co-directors Tomás Bojar and Adéla Komrzý use a fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking similar to Frederick Wiseman's style without talking-head interviews. There are a number rounds during the one-week exam period, and the film shows each applicant going through the process while the professors ask them questions. Some of those questions put the applicants on the spot because they're unexpected and compel them to think critically. Unfortunately, beyond providing the audience with a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the entrance exams process, Art Talent Show remains limited in scope and not as thorough or immersive as Frederick Wiseman's documentaries. There are a few surprisingly funny moments albeit not laugh-out-loud funny per se. You'll learn about some of the applicants' personalities and observe their anxiety and frustrations, but not enough to get to know them. So, the filmmakers squander their opportunity to turn the film into a suspenseful, transcendent and exhilarating experience like Spellbound or Kings of Pastry. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Art Talent Show fails to transcend beyond a documentary. Fine art aficionados and those who aspire to join a fine arts school will appreciate it the most. It opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema via Film Movement.

      Carol Doda Topless at the Condor is a provocative, engrossing and illuminating documentary biopic about Carol Doda, the first topless dancer in the U.S. Co-directors Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker combine archival interviews and clips of Carol along with contemporary interviews to chart her rise to fame in the 1960's. Carol shot to fame at the Condor Club in North Beach, San Francisco, a topless bar that's still in business today. Dancing topless in 2024 isn't as controversial as it was when Carol first did it in 1964. She was even arrested a year later for obscenity, but that didn't stop her from continuing to dance topless. The filmmakers interview the Condor Club's publicist, David "Davey" Rosenberg, who's responsible for encouraging her to get silicone breast implants. Carol Doda Topless at the Condor doesn't delve much into Carol's personal life which is fine because she's entitled to her and her family's privacy, but you do learn a little about her childhood and her loneliness in an industry that objectifies women. In her archival interviews, she seems charismatic, candid and articulate. The documentary argues that she was feminist, but that's up to debate that's not presented here in a way that's thorough nor fair and balanced. More varied perspectives of the significance of her work would've been beneficial and added some complexity. Nonetheless, Carol Doda Topless at the Condor ultimately succeeds in shedding light on a lesser known woman in U.S. history without judging her. At 1 hour and 40 minutes, it opens at Angelika Film Center via Picturehouse.

      William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill is a captivating, genuinely moving and candid documentary biopic about William Shatner. Through interviews with Shatner himself, director Alexandre O. Philippe captures his warmth, wisdom, sense of humor and emotional maturity. Shatner looks back on his career as an actor while also discussing his love of nature and his spirituality. Ultimately, though, it's his introspection that stands out the most. He's unafraid to be vulnerable in front of the camera so he makes for a great interview as he opens the curtain to show you what he's like backstage in the theater of life, so-to-speak. William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill avoids turning into a hagiography because it presents William Shatner to the audience warts-and-all which makes him all the more relatable. Watching him speak is equivalent to sitting down with someone at a cafe while having a deep conversation with them and learning a lot about them concurrently. By the end of the film, you'll feel like he's your friend. This documentary is also very well-edited and organized into different chapters, so it has some structure. Moreover, Philippe includes breathtaking shots of nature which add visual poetry, especially during the mesmerizing last image of a tall tree with the sun peeking behind it. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill opens in select theaters nationwide via Legion M.

The Black Guelph

Directed by John Connors

      Kanto (Graham Earley), a drug dealer and addict, struggles to make ends meet. His estranged wife, Leah (Lauren Larkin), doesn't want him around the house. His father, Dan (Paul Roe), wants to reconcile with him, but Kanto refuses while getting into trouble with a local gangster who he owes money to.

      Writer/director John Connors and Tiernan Williams have made an unflinchingly dark crime thriller. Everything about Kanto's life is tragic starting with his drug habits and the fact that he leads a gang of drug dealers. His wife, Leah, knows that he's a bad role model for their daughter, so she's among the few wise characters in the film for kicking him out of the house. Kanto's father, Dan, has led a life of crime and wasn't there for him emotionally. He's an abusive, toxic father. As the saying goes, the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree. If you like your crime thrillers like some people like coffee--served black without cream or sugar--The Black Guelph might be right up your alley. There's no comic relief or any form of levity. This isn't a Guy Ritchie movie, after all. So, to be fair, it does become a bit monotonous, tedious and exhausting as Kanto gets further and further into trouble that puts his life in danger. The ending is very intense, tragic and un-Hollywood. Most of the characters, except for Leah, are unpleasant and very unlikable with no redeeming qualities. After watching, The Black Guelph, don't be surprised if you'll feel the need to take a long, cold shower.

      Graham Earley gives a raw and convincingly moving performance that feels very natural. He doesn't over-act nor underact which makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch Kanto suffering. The cinematography, lighting and use of dark colors enhances the film's physical grittiness. There's violence and blood, but nothing that pushes the envelope, so kudos to the filmmakers for this into a torture porn movie which would've cheapened it. The production values add both style and substance. At 2 hour and 5 minutes, The Black Guelph is a relentlessly gritty, bleak and intense glimpse of the dark side of humanity.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Studio Dome.
Opens at Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas in Queens and Concourse Multiplex Cinemas in the Bron.


Directed by Jang Jae-hyun

      Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun), a shaman, and Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun), her apprentice, travel from Korea to LA to investigate the strange behavior of a wealthy family's baby. It might have something to do with the family's great grandfather who's buried in Korea. They team up with Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik), a geomancer, and undertaker (Yoo Hai-Hin), an undertaker, who help them to find the cause of the supernatural events haunting the family.

      Writer/director Jang Jae-hyun combines sci-fi, horror and mystery with enough suspense, thrills and chills. He spends some time introducing the characters first to provide the audience a good understanding of what they do that involves the supernatural. Hwa-rim and Bong-gil consider themselves to be mediums communicating between the real world and the spirit world. Exhuma isn't the kind of film that debates whether or not something supernatural is taking place. No one shows up to cast doubt on the events or to call anyone crazy. So, the mystery that remains is who is haunting the family, why, and how to stop the spirit. In terms of exposition, there's a lot of it which initially feels convoluted, but eventually makes more sense. It just takes some patience. The second act does become a little repetitive, though, with very few new revelations until a much more action-packed and gripping third act where everything comes together. The screenplay spoon-feeds the audience often, so there's not much room for interpretation. If only writer/director Jang Jae-hyun were to trust the audience's intelligence more. Fortunately, Exhuma doesn't turn into a dull or tonally uneven mess. There's some dark and offbeat humor which provides some much-needed comic relief, and there are also a few effectively creepy and terrifying scenes that will send a chill down your spine.

      The entire ensemble cast gives solid performances, especially the very charismatic Choi Min-sik. Their performances help to make the bond of the paranormal team feel believable, so it makes sense that they seem like a family by the end. In terms of production values, Exhuma makes the most out of the natural landscape and the lighting to create an eerie atmosphere. It does overuse CGI effects which are saved, mostly, for the intense third act, so this isn't the kind of sci-fi horror thriller that bombards or exhausts the audience with visual effects to entertain the audience. At a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, Exhuma is suspenseful, scary and thrilling.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.


Directed by Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping

      One night, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a drag queen, gets brutally beaten up by a gang of thugs including Preston (George MacKay). A few months later, he bumps into Preston at a gay sauna and goes out with him while plotting how to seek revenge against him.

      The screenplay by co-writers/director Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping is a compelling and engrossing blend of thriller, romance and drama. The first act sets up the exposition needed for the main plot as Jules works as a drag queen and lives with two roommates. The brutal attack leaves him scared, angry and depressed. He has a tough time leaving his apartment. A chance encounter with Preston at a gay sauna changes the course of everything for Jules. As it turns out, Preston is closeted and prefers to keep it that way while secretly dating Jules. They have a sexually-charged relationship where Preston dominates him. Gradually, they develop a romance, but Jules has vengeance on his mind. Both of them are bottling their feelings: Jules is trying to suppress his own anger, and Preston is trying to suppress his sexual identity and his vulnerability. Preston behaves like a tough guy, but on the inside he's a mess. Femme explores that mess somewhat which turns him into a complex character who has more to him than meets the eye. A lot goes unsaid between him and Jules, and it's open to interpretation whether Jules truly wants him in the romantic sense given that he's among the thugs who beat him up. Do two wrongs make a right? Can Jules forgive him? Can Preston forgive himself? How introspective is Preston? Can he love Jules? Can Jules truly love him? The film shies away from answering those questions, so it leaves them to the audience to answer on their own. Either way, their relationship is toxic because they're both dishonest to each other. Their flaws and vulnerabilities make them all the more human and relatable, though. Beyond that, Femme has some slow-burning suspense as the audience wonders how dark it'll get if and when Jules will decide to seek revenge against Preston and what might happen if Preston finds out that Jules is the drag queen that he had beaten up.

      Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and the always-reliable George MacKay give strong, convincingly moving performances that feel organic. They have palpable chemistry together. The cinematography and lighting contribute to the film's grittiness. Although there are sex scenes, they're not very graphic and there isn't much nudity. The violence, too, isn't very graphic. Femme isn't about sex and violence nor is Jules and Preston's relationship all about sex or violence, either; it's fundamentally about two broken people who have some form of emotional connection and struggle with emotional pain. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Femme is provocative, gripping and genuinely heartfelt.

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

Free Time

Directed by Ryan Martin Brown

      Drew (Colin Burgess), a New Yorker in his twenties who has a mundane office job, tells his boss, Luke (James Webb), that he wants to quit. Now unemployed, he can't figure out what he actually wants to do with his free time.

      If Funny Ha Ha and Falling Down were to have a baby, it would look something like Free Time. The screenplay by writer/director Ryan Martin Brown blends tragedy and comedy with a sprinkle of satire. The humor remains mostly dry and off-beat while grounded in reality, i.e. when Drew tries to swipe his MTA subway card, but it  gets declined over and over. Many people will be able to relate to that and even find the humor in it. At the beginning of the film, Drew is unhappy with his job and feels lose in life, so he thinks quitting without a back-up plan will work. He turns out to be wrong. He's now even more lost and unhappy like someone on a canoe without oars. Joining a band doesn't help nor does a mundane job that his roommate helps him to get make him happy either. Drew comes across as a confused, emotionally immature, self-centered, entitled and obnoxious mess which means that he's very hard to like. That's fine because not every character as to be likable, but his toxic personality and the boundaries that he crosses makes him irritating and seem like a creep who could end up turning violent at any moment. Case-in-point: he wants his old job back, but he can't reach his former boss, so he hangs out in front of the office building to confront him in person. He obviously can't take "no" for an answer. It's no surprise that a date with a woman (Jessie Pinnick) doesn't go as smoothly as he planned it would and that they're very incompatible.  Free Time doesn't explore Drew's discontent beneath the surface, though, so it's neither a complete nor a profound character study, and it's hard to get a sense if he truly changed or truly learned anything by the time the end credits roll. In other words, writer/director Ryan Martin Brown doesn't design enough of a window into Drew's heart, mind and soul. He remains at a cold distance from the audience. Brown does deserve to be commended for a melancholic, un-Hollywood ending that leaves some room for interpretation without tying everything in a neat little bow.

      Colin Burgess gives nuanced performance and has great comedic timing. His natural performance helps to make Drew somewhat more tolerable and less annoying as a character, but it's too bad that he's undermined by a screenplay that barely scratches Drew's surface. The cinematography along with the design of the opening credits adds some visual style while paying homage to 70s films. Fortunately, the pace moves briskly enough and the running time is kept under 90 minutes, so the film doesn't have an issue with overstay its welcome. At merely 1 hour and 15 minutes, Free Time is a droll and occasionally funny tragicomedy with a melancholic undertone.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Cartilage Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Directed by Gil Kenan

      Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), her brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), her mother, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her boyfriend, Gary (Paul Rudd), move into a firehouse in New York City that once served as the station used by the original Ghostbusters team. After a mysterious orb releases ghosts that threaten a second ice age, it's up to them to come to the rescue and to save the city. Meanwhile,  Mayor Peck (William Atherton) hopes to shut down their firehouse for good.

      The screenplay by writer/director Gil Kenan and co-writer Jason Reitman adds nothing exciting to the Ghostbusters< franchise. The plot suffers from a lack of interesting and clever ideas as well as clunky exposition. The brief prologue provides backstory about the ghosts who are about to wreak havoc on NYC. Right after the prologue, the film jumps right into a long action sequence through the streets of the city before Gary, Callie and her kids settle into the firehouse. Ghostbusters: The Frozen Empire remains too low on laughs, scares, wit and palpable thrills, though, after the first ten minutes. The attempts at humor don't land more often than not. Callie and Gary do banter and quip at times, but those lively scenes are far and few between. On top of that, there are too many subplots many of which are undeveloped, i.e. Phoebe's unlikely relationship with a ghost, so the pay-off at the end isn't effective. Even when the original Ghostbusters join forces with them, the film still doesn't rise above its mediocrity and dullness. Not surprisingly, the majority of the action is saved for the third act, but upt to that point the meandering plot barely holds the audience's attention.

      The CGI effects are decent, but nothing exceptional that stands out. Patton Oswald has the best scene and he's a breath of fresh air that invigorates the film with his comedic timing, but that's ephemeral because only briefly in the film which makes him a cameo pretty much. Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon try hard to rise above the shallow screenplay, but they don't quite succeed. Moreover, the pace moves so quickly that it's nauseating and exhausting at times. It's as though the filmmakers assume the audience has ADHD, so they don't let enough scenes breathe. At 1 hour and 55 minutes, Ghostbusters: The Frozen Empire is a lackluster, overproduced, and forgettable entry in the Ghostbusters franchise. 

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

The Heart Stays

Directed by Diane Fraher

      17-year-old Shannon Kihe-kah-zhi (Nathalie Standingcloud) aspires to become a writer and lives with her 16-year-old sister, Erin (Sierra Kihega), father, Andrew (John Proudstar), and mother, Carrie (Delanna Studi) on a Native American Reservation. She goes off the college while Erin rebels against her parents by sneaking off with a band member and stealing drug money. Erin seeks help from Shannon to get out of trouble and to cross the border to Canada.

      The screenplay by writer/director is moving and tending, but it bites off more than it could chew. At its core, it's about unconditional love, coming-of-age, family and tradition. The relationship between Shannon and her younger sister, Erin, is the emotional backbone of the film. It generates some poignancy as Shannon balances helping her with dealing with her own struggles in colleges where she encounters racism.  She also tries to save the college's essential Native American literature program while writing about her experiences. There's so much going on within the plot that it feels exhausting, overwrought and somewhat convoluted at times. Some of the dialogue sounds stilted and on-the-nose, especially during the scenes with Shannon's professor and the mother of Shannon's roomate. The Heart Stays does get a bit dark toward the end, but without becoming heavy-handed or maudlin, so kudos to writer/director Diane Fraher for avoiding those pitfalls.

      Nathalie Standingcloud and Sierra Kihega both give raw and moving performances while finding the emotional truths of their roles. The film's poignancy comes from their performances, not from the screenplay. The cinematography is fine, but some of the editing feels choppy with awkward transitions and flashbacks which somewhat distract from the narrative momentum. Also, you can feel the weight of the film's running time around the 90-minute mark, so tighter editing would've been beneficial. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Heart Stays is engrossing, well-acted and provocative, but overstuffed, overlong and occasionally clunky. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Indican Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.


Directed by Michael Mohan

      Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) enthusiastically joins a convent in the Italian countryside where she befriends another nun, Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli. She soon suspects that Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) and Cardinal Merola (Giorgio Colangeli) are harboring a dark secret.

      The screenplay by Andrew Lobel doesn't earn any points for originality, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for the way its heavily borrowed ideas are executed. If you combine The Nun, Rosemary's Baby and Suspiria, you'll get Immaculate. Lobel jumps right into the scares with a prologue where a nun runs away from a convent and ends up buried alive in a coffin. How did she end up there? Why did she end there? Who was she running from? You'll have to wait about half an hour for the answers to those questions. Immaculate has a major twist around that time, but it's not very surprising given the prologue. So, the suspense comes from what the audience anticipates will happen to Sister Cecilia, especially after she notices burn marks shaped like the cross on the bottom of a nun's feet. Obviously, something sinister is going on. The question isn't what will happen, but when and how. Exposition is kept to a minimum without any over-explaining. Once the twist arrives, just when you think there's no more twists, there's yet another one. Fortunately, it's a twist that makes Sister Cecilia very strong and clever as she tries to outwit and escape her tormentors. There are also some surprisingly funny dialogue which provides levity, so the film doesn't always take itself seriously. Moreover, when the scares come, they're quite terrifying, although the most palpable terror arrives during the scenes with psychological horror. After all, the audience's imagination is always a powerful tool. During the audacious third act, that's when the film escalates its visceral horror and goes over-the-top while maintaining suspense and intensity.

      Sydney Sweeney gives the best performance of her career in Immaculate. It's a truly transformative performance that's miles better than anything she's ever done before, so hopefully she'll choose more meaty roles like this one in the future. She's as raw and radiant as Cecile de France is in High Tension or Dakota Johnson is in Suspiria. The set design, lighting, use of color and sound design are all superb while drenching the film in a creepy atmosphere while even adding some visual poetry at times. Bravo to the filmmakers or not holding back on the grisly violence. It joins Love Lies Bleeding as a very grotesque and gritty depiction of violence with lots of blood and guts, so this isn't for an audience with a weak stomach. Yes, it tries push the envelope and to shock the audience as it briefly veers into torture porn territory without making the film seem cheap or lazy. Most importantly, though, screenwriter Andrew Lobel and director Andrew Mohan understand the concept that less is more by keeping the running time under a 1 hour and 29 minutes. Too many films these days overstay their welcome and think that they need to clock past the 2 hour mark. So, kudos to the filmmakers for keeping Immaculate lean, mean and unflinching. It's a bold, gripping and visually stylish slice of horror. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by NEON.
Opens nationwide.

Late Night with the Devil

Directed by Cameron & Colin Cairnes

      Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of the late-night 70s TV talk show Night Owls, desperately needs to boost the show's low ratings or risk having it canceled. So, for a Halloween special, he invites Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), a parapsychologist, Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a psychic, Carmichael (Ian Bliss), a hypnotist, and Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a young girl who's allegedly possessed by the devil, onto the show as guests.

      Co-writers/directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes should be commended for taking an amalgam of satire, horror and comedy and turning into a wildly entertaining ride. A less smart and sensitive screenplay would've either run out of ideas early or become tonally uneven or both. Fortunately, that doesn't happen with Late Night at the Devil. It has many clever ideas and takes its time to escalate the horror elements gradually, so it doesn't display all of its cards right away. Even though it deals with sci-fi, it's still grounded in just enough realism. For example, Jack is still grieving the death of his wife who died from lung cancer. His show's ratings plummeted after her death. Carmichael, the hypnotist, has trouble believing in the paranormal and he doubts that Lilly is truly possessed by a demon. Small details like a theremin becomes a more significant detail later on. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly darker and twisted while still keeping its wit and tongue-in-cheek humor intact. Kudos to co-writers/directors Cameron and Colin Carnes for finding just the right tone and maintaining it from start to finish without any tedium or lethargy.

      Late Night with the Devil uses a mockumentary or found footage format which makes its scary moments more effective. The filmmakers don't resort to shaky-cam like The Blair Witch Project to generate tension, so that's a huge plus. Interestingly, they use black-and-white cinematography during the scenes that are off-camera on the talk-show. David Dastmalchian gives a wonderful performance. He's very convincing as a 70s talk show host both in the way that he talks and his hair style. Ingrid Torelli, the young actress who plays Lilly, is also exceptional, especially during the demonic possession scene. The make-up design and visual effects are quite impressive. During the horror scenes, the film doesn't hold back on the blood and guts, so be prepared for a few briefly stomach-churning scenes that will make you squirm in your seat. At a running time of just 1 hour and 26 minutes, Late Night with the Devil is equally funny, witty and terrifying. It deserves to become a cult classic.

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


Directed by Tran Thanh

      Mai (Phuong Anh Dao) works as a masseuse who meets a flirtatious client, Duong (Tuan Tran) during a massage. She agrees to date him despite the fact that she's disinterested in a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, she tries to hide a secret from her past from him.

      Mai is tender love story about a woman who struggles to overcome a traumatic past involving prostitution that she wants to put behind her and move on. She's ashamed of it along with her dysfunctional relationship with her father. From the moment that she meets Duong, she's very hesitant about dating him, but he aggressively pursues her and, soon enough, their relationship blossoms into a romance. What might happen if he finds out the truth about her past career? How will her shame affect their relationship? When she meets Duong's family, there's a twist that won't be spoiled here. It could've turned the film into a comedy, but it doesn't, although Duong's grandmother (Ngoc Giau) is pretty funny in the way that she interrogates Mai. There are other brief moments of comic relief like when Mai meets her landlady for the first time when she moves into a new apartment. Duong's mother (Hong Dao) is a controlling, conniving and toxic parent who can't let go of her son and cares more about material wealth and her image than anything else. The way that Duong stands up to her is very powerful and inspirational. Mai's ultimate journey as a character is learning how to love herself and to find true joy despite her adversities. Just when you think the film will go in a predictable direction, though, it goes toward another that's refreshingly un-Hollywood and more true-to-life. It's reminiscent of Past Lives and hits similar notes that are just as emotionally resonating and haunting.

      Phuong Anh Dao gives a nuanced and moving performance that helps to ground the film with authenticity. She and Tuan Tran have chemistry together, so you can feel Mai and Duong's connection as they get to know each other. The cinematography is exquisite while the music score is very well-chosen without being intrusive. Moreover, the pace moves at just the right speed and allows for the performances by the entire ensemble to shine brightly. At 2 hours and 11 minutes, Mai is one of the most honest, engrossing and powerful love stories since Past Lives

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 3388 Films.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Peter Five Eight

Directed by Michael Zaiko Hall

      Peter (Kevin Spacey), a hitman, arrives at a small town on an assignment to kill Sam (Jet Jandreau), a real estate agent. Meanwhile, he tries to seduce her boss, Brenda (Rebecca De Mornay).

      The less you know about the plot of Peter Five Eight beforehand, the better because it's filled twists and turns. Writer/director Michael Zaiko Hall maintains the suspense while blending mystery, thrills and dark comedy. Who is Peter? Who sent him and why? What secret might Sam be hiding from her past? The answer to the first question gets answers early on, but the film takes its time to answer the other questions. So, exposition is kept to a minimum at first which keeps the audience on their toes as they wonder what's going on and what's the motive of the person who hired Peter to kill Sam. Peter comes across as a ruthless, smart and calculating hit man. He's a man who wears many masks and knows how to put on the charms to get what he wants while terrorizing his victims. He's an interesting villain because of his snarky, eccentric personality which leads to a few funny and witty one-liners. Peter, Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men are cut from the same cloth. To be fair, the subplot involving his seduction of Brenda is far-fetched, especially how he aggressively pursues her without taking no for answer and that he proposes to her so soon. It doesn't make much sense that she'd fall for him. Also, the flashbacks are somewhat clunky and the dialogue is often stilted, but with enough tongue-in-cheek humor so that it doesn't take itself too seriously. There's even a scene where Peter lets loose while dancing and lip-syncing to a song. He's unpredictable which makes him all the more entertaining as a character. The other characters aren't quite as lively and memorable as Peter, though, so it's very fortunate that the film often switches to his perceptive.

      Kevin Spacey gives a charismatic performance that brims with panache and great comedic timing. Occasionally, he almost veers toward campiness. He's clearly having a lot of fun in his role. He truly invigorates the film, so it's worth seeing for his performance alone. Rebecca De Mornay has a few scenes where she gets to shine, especially toward the end. There's violence, but no gore and very little blood. The blood even looks a little stylized, so it's not disturbing or shocking like in Love Lies Bleeding. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Peter Five Eight is a wildly entertaining, gripping and wickedly funny crime thriller.

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

Riddle of Fire

Directed by Weston Razooli

      Hazel (Charlie Stover), Jodie (Skyler Peters) and Alice (Phoebe Ferro) live in Wyoming with their mother, Julie (Danielle Hoetmer), who'd bedridden with a cold. They steal some food and a gaming system, but can't play the games because their mother locked the TV with a password. She will only give them the password if they bring her favorite blueberry pie from Celia's Bakery The bakery doesn't sell blueberry pies that day, so they manage to get the recipe from the baker, steal the ingredients, but need one speckled egg to complete the recipe. John (Charles Halford) takes the last remaining eggs from the supermarket, so the siblings go on an adventure take an egg from him.

      The screenplay by writer/director Weston Razooli has a plot that's very slight and even a bit silly at times, but it captures the wonder, freedom, sense of adventure and excitement of being a child, so it resembles a fairy tale. Hazel and his sisters eventually meet John's wife, Anna-Freya (Lio Tipton), a witch, and their daughter, Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote). John, Anna-Freya and Petal are members of the Enchanted Blade Gang. Exposition and logic aren't among the film's strengths nor is there much dramatic tension. Many scenes feel episodic as the plot meanders with little narrative momentum. Hazel gets drunk in one scene which doesn't have much of a pay-off or consequences--especially since he's just a child, so drinking that much alcohol would probably make him pass out. It's not funny to watch him get drunk. However, there are some amusing moments, a surprisingly lively dance number where the film comes to life, and a genuinely tender ending that will put a smile on your face.

      Riddle of Fire has a grainy look to make it feel like a 70s or early 80s film, and it works very effectively. At least it doesn't overdo its style like a Wes Anderson film does. The child actors are wonderful, especially Lorelei Olivia Mote, but they all get the chance to shine. They're even better than some of the adult actors. To be fair, Riddle of Fire does suffer from pacing issues with some scenes dragging on for too long. Tighter editing would've made the film flow more smoothly. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, is a whimsical, enchanting and occasionally exhilarating adventure.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Yellow Veil Pictures.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.

Sleeping Dogs

Directed by Adam Cooper

      Roy (Russell Crowe), a former homicide detective with memory loss, re-opens the investigation of a murder that might prove that the convicted murderer, Isaac (Pacharo Mzembe), is actually innocent.

      The screenplay by writer/director Adam Cooper and co-writer Bill Collage takes an intriguing premise and turns into an increasingly asinine and convoluted crime thriller. Until midway in the second act, Sleeping Dogs just feels like a pedestrian B-movie with underwritten characters who are merely plot devices. Roy isn't a very interesting character other than the fact that he has memory loss like the detective in a far superior crime thriller, Memento. Even the priest he plays in The Pope's Exorcist has more of a personality. There are many suspects who could've been responsible for the murder and for covering-up the true identity of the murderer, so at least there are some ephemeral moments of suspense. The dialogue, though, is stilted and dull with not enough levity. Alan J. Pakula would've generated a lot more psychological suspense, cleverness and thrills with this premise. Moreover, the exposition is poorly incorporated, which makes Sleeping Dogs the kind of crime thriller where you can hear the wheels of the screenplay turning. Plausibility and logic get thrown out the window right after the announcement of a major twist that's very dumb and lazy especially in hindsight given all of the plot holes. Even Arlington Road's twist ending has more plausibility. That's precisely when the film takes a sharp nosedive and turns into a preposterous mess with no one on screen to root or to care about.

      Russell Crowe brings some charisma to his role, but not much more than that. Karen Gillan and Marton Csokas have supporting roles that don't give them nearly enough material to rise above the shallow screenplay, so their performances fall flat. The editing feels choppy at times and there's nothing exceptional about the cinematography or set design that would've provided some style to compensate for the lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, Sleeping Dogs is an overwrought, convoluted and clunky crime thriller. In a double feature with Memento or Presumed Innocent, it would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by The Avenue.
Opens nationwide.