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Reviews for March 3rd, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      The Holly is a gripping, searing and eye-opening documentary. Director Julian Rubinstein follows Terrance Roberts, a former member of the Bloods, who became an anti-gang activist, and held peaceful protests in Denver, Colorado, at Holly Square, a civil rights landmark that he fought to develop. In 2013, he shot a gang member at one of those peaceful protests at Holly Square which resulted in him being charged with attempted murder. He pleaded not-guilty, arguing that he shot him in self defense. The Holly covers a lot of ground while dealing with a myriad of provocative issues such as gang violence, racism and police corruption. Fortunately, it doesn't feel overstuffed, unfocused or undercooked as it blends interviews, news footage and courtroom footage from the Terrance's trial. Concurrently, Rubinstein doesn't judge Terrance Roberts nor does he ask you to judge him. Terrance is no saint; he's flawed and going through his own innate struggles and traumas. He comes across as an intelligent, decent, vulnerable, and compassionate human being who's also a critical thinker. Decency is a major strength. In many ways, he's a warrior who's fighting for truth, justice, peace and democracy, all of which are, sadly, waning in the US.

     The Holly will make you enraged. You have every right to be indignant. However, Rubenstein knows that it's not enough for a documentary to merely cause the audience to get angry; it should also enlighten, captivate and move the audience emotionally. The Holly accomplishes that feat with flying colors. Julian Rubinstein finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Sometimes documentaries can be too dry and academic, but that's not the case at all with The Holly which is well-edited, cinematic and even more suspenseful than most Hollywood thrillers these days. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, it opens at Cinema Village and on VOD via Gravitas Ventures.

Children of the Corn

Directed by Kurt Wimmer

      Bo (Elena Kampouris) and Cecil (Jayden McGinlay) live in a rural town of Rylstone, Nebrasks where a school massacre took place. The government wants to pay the town to stop planting corn which has already been damaged by pesticides from corporate farmers. Eden (Kate Moyer), a.k.a. the Red Queen, leads a group of children who resort to violence to protect the corn crops. Bo, an activist, refuses to join Eden and her gang; her brother, Cecil (Jayden McGinlay), does.

      The new remake of Children of the Corn suffers from the same systemic issue that ails Cocaine Bear: it wastes too much time with dull, contrived exposition and subplots while failing to entertain the audience when it comes the meat of the story. The screenplay by writer/director begins with a prologue that provides a little exposition about the dark history of Rylstone, Nebraska before it flashes forward to add more exposition and to introduce the characters of Bo, Cecil, Eden as well as Cal (Joe Klocek). Oh, and there's also an evil creature lurking the corn field called He Who Walks Beyond the Rows made out of roots. Children of the Corn generates little to no suspense or horror from the evil creature and from Eden and her murderous gang. The villains are poorly-written, there are too many characters, and even the heroes remain underdeveloped, so it's hard to root for them. The film quickly becomes a monotonous bore without comic relief. It's just as unscary and disappointing as Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.

      The on bright spot, though, is Kate Moyer's lively, charismatic performance that invigorates the film. She's very well-cast and does her best to make the most out of her role. Elena Kampouris gives a decent performance which is undermined by the weak screenplay. The cinematography is just as bland as the screenplay, and the visual effects and design of the He Who Walks Beyond the Row creature look unimpressive. There's some gruesome violence and gore, though, which adds an ick factor to film, but not much in terms of horror. Disgusting the audience with blood & guts isn't enough. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Children of the Corn is an undercooked, unfocused horror film that lacks suspense, thrills, and palpable scares.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Creed III

Directed by Michael B. Jordan

      Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has retired from boxing and settled down with his wife, Bianca (Tess Thompson), and daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). That changes with his former childhood friend, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), resurfaces after an 18-year stint in prison. Creed agrees to train Damian because he wants to re-enter the boxing world. Soon enough, he decides to come back from retirement, put on his boxing gloves, and fight Damian in a boxing match.

      Part family drama, part character study and part sports drama, the screenplay by writer/director Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin delicately balances those three genres to create a truly captivating experience. Like in all great boxing movies, it's not really about the sport, but rather about the characters and their relationships beyond the arena. Adonis Creed has a traumatic childhood with bullying that he has yet to recover from. He also feels guilty and responsible for his friend, Damian, getting arrested and sent to prison for illegal possession of a firearm when they were teenagers. The opening scene shows the arrest while flashbacks provide more exposition later on about what happened between Creed and Damian back then. Now in his adult years, Creed has a lot of emotional baggage to deal with when Damian shows up out-of-the-blue. He also has to take care of his daughter, Amara, who's dead, and his mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who's recovering from a stroke. Director Michael B. Jordan and the screenwriters do a wonderful job of letting the audience become absorbed in the lives of Creed and Damian before the final boxing match that pits them against one another. The boxing matches are intense and gritty, but what truly resonates is the film's emotional depth leading up to the fight. Creed's introspection makes him all the more human and a great role model because that's a key ingredient in the path toward healing from emotional wounds. Fortunately, there are no maudlin, clunky or uneven scenes, and there's just the right balance of comic relief. Creed III is also unafraid to dig deeper in Creed and Damian's relationship to tackle issues like forgiveness, reconciliation, guilt and regret. In other words, it's a blockbuster with a heart, mind and soul that treats its characters as well as the audience as human beings. That's a very rare feat these days.

      Jonathan Majors gives yet another bravura performance while exuding plenty of charisma on screen. He handles the emotional complexities of the role of Damian quite well. The same can be said of Michael B. Jordan who's also terrific here. He and Majors have palpable chemistry. The boxing scenes are thrilling and well-shot while providing some suspense even if the outcome can be easily predicted. At a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes, Creed III is a triumph that will make you stand up and cheer. It's rousing, genuinely heartfelt and exhilarating.

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

The Forger

Directed by Maggie Peren

      In Nazi Germany, Cioma Schönhaus (Louis Hofmann), a 21-year-old Jewish man, pretends to be a marine soldier to avoid getting deported by the Nazis. While living with a roommate, Det (Jonathan Berlin), he puts his life at risk when he joins a secret group ID forgers.

      Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Maggie Peren squanders its opportunity to be a gripping psychological thriller and/or an engrossing characters study. What makes it even more disappointing is that Cioma sounds like a fascinating character, but Peren ultimately fails to provide a window into his heart, mind and soul. What makes him so brave? Is it part of his nature or nurture? What was his childhood like? What's his relationship with his family like? The Forger doesn't spend enough time getting to know Cioma, so he begins as a stranger to the audience and ends as a stranger by the time the end credits roll. It barely even explores the relationship between him and his roommate or him and Gerda (Luna Wedler) a woman whom he has a brief romance with despite that she's not single. Since he's aware that she's not single, it makes Cioma seem like someone who's a homewrecker who doesn't understand the concept of boundaries. She's the one who calls off the relationship which was doomed in the first place, so she's more emotionally mature than he is. For a movie that's set in 1940s Berlin, it's astonishing how little suspense there is when it comes to the danger that Cioma is in. It's as though The Forger were afraid to go into darker, more unflinching territory, so by sacrificing that, it seems too pat and sugar-coated. The recent film A Radiant Girl also has that issue. Why diminish the threat of the Nazis? There are so many scenes that fall flat with lethargy as the narrative's momentum gradually.

      The performances are fine, with no one over-acting or under-acting, but, concurrently, no one gets the chance to shine either. Louis Hofmann is somewhat charismatic, but doesn't quite manage to generate much warmth or to bring much-needed poignancy to the film. None of the relationships on-screen, for that matter, generate any emotional resonance. This is the kind of film that just goes through the motions without breathing any life into any scenes or characters. The set design, costumes and lighting don't add enough style to compensate for the lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes, The Forger is frustratingly underwhelming, tedious, lethargic and anti-climactic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Hunt Her, Kill Her

Directed by Greg Swinson and Ryan Thiessen

      Karen (Natalie Terrazzino) just started working the night shift as a janitor at a furniture factory. Four masked intruders break in and chase her through the factory.

      Writer/co-director Greg Swinson wastes no time with padding as Karen arrives at her night shift job in the first scene. Within the first few minutes, you learn that she's a single mom with a daughter, Lily (Olivia Graves), and an ex-boyfriend, Danny (JC Oakley III). She briefly meets the day shift janitor, Glenn (Larry Bunton), who shows her around before leaving her alone. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward as it turns into a cat-and-mouse chase between Karen and the intruders. There are no major twists or surprises nor does the film veer into dark comedy except for one scene involving the use of a toilet plunger. Swinson keeps the exposition to a minimum while focusing on Karen's fight for survival from her perspective without veering into any tangents. There aren't even any backstories about the villains who remain poorly developed characters rather than fully-fleshed human beings. Their precise motive isn't very clear, either. Nonetheless, it's exciting to watch Karen kick some ass and find clever ways to get away from the intruders. She's intelligent, strong and determined which is refreshing to see in a female role. Even when she gets a deep cut on her abdomen, she knows how to temporarily treat it and patch it up before it becomes life-threatening. The ending does feel a bit contrived, conventional and "Hollywood'', though, with too many coincidences that strain plausibility without taking any narrative risks.

      The most interesting character in Hunt Her, Kill Her isn't a human, but rather the furniture factory. With its dark, claustrophobic and labyrinthian interiors, it provides much of the film's creepy atmosphere through the set design alone. Co-directors Greg Swinson and Ryan Thiessen wisely guide the audience through the factory during the opening credits to give them a bit of a tour before the mayhem begins. There's some violence, but not too much. This isn't the kind of horror film that tries to push the envelope with gore---otherwise, it would be torture porn. The directors also avoid the use of shaky-cam to generate tension because they're aware that the story itself has enough tension already. At an ideal running time of Hunter Her, Kill Her is a lean, mean and suspenseful horror thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Welcome Villian Films.
Opens in select theaters.

La Civil

Directed by Teodora Ana Mihai

      Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez), a single mother, desperately searches for her teenage daughter  Rosy (Vanesa Burciago), who was kidnapped by a ruthless cartel in Northern Mexico. When the authorities refuse to do anything without proof and the cartel refuses to release her daughter even after the ransom has been paid, Cielo investigates the kidnapping on her own.

      The screenplay by writer/director Teodora Mihai and co-writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario remains character-driven from start to finish. It could have gone into Taken or Ransom territory by including a lot of action and chases. The filmmakers wisely focus the narrative on Cielo's perspective. The audience knows as much information as Cielo does, they're surprised when she's surprised, they're sad when she's sad and so on. There's a brief first act that shows Rosy leaving to go out with her boyfriend before she gets kidnapped, but the actual kidnapping isn't shown. Is Rosy alive or not? Could she indeed be working with the cartel like the police claim that she might? Anything is possible. Why doesn't Cielo ask for proof of life before paying the ransom? Or why doesn't anyone suggest her to ask for proof of life? That's a minor flaw, though, because it doesn't take away from the film's narrative momentum. There are some gritty scenes, but there's more emotional grit than physical grit/violence. Cielo goes through a lot on an emotional level, so, in a way, La Civil is an intense emotional journey for her. One of the most powerful and provocative scenes is one when Cielo confronts one of the villains, El Puma (Juan Daniel García Treviño), who's surprisingly humanized. The dialogue during that scene does sound somewhat on-the-nose, though, but that's forgivable because it's so deeply moving. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, refreshingly leaves some room for interpretation while trusting the audience's emotions, imagination and intelligence.  

      Arcelia Ramírez gives a raw, resonating and bravura performance as Cielo. She carries the emotional weight of the film very and opens the window into Cielo's heart, mind and soul while allowing the audience to peer through it. The cinematography, editing and lighting enhance the film's naturalistic style which, at times, feels like a documentary. It's also helpful that the pace moves slowly, but not too slowly, so that the audience can take their time to feel absorbed by and immersed into the narrative. Thank you, writer/director Teodora Ana Mihai, for trusting the audience's patience and for creating the kind of strong female role that's rarely seen on screen.  At a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, La Civil is an engrossing, unflinching and suspenseful thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.
Opens at Film Forum.

A Little White Lie

Directed by Michael Maren

      Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson), an English professor, invites a famous reclusive author to be the keynote speaker at her college's literary festival. Little does she know that the Shriver (Michael Shannon) that she invited isn't actually the author, just someone who shares his name. When he arrives at the college, he pretends to be the famous Shriver.

      A Little White Lie, based on its concept alone, sounds like it could be a zany screwball comedy. The screenplay by Michael Maren leaves a lot to be desired as it blends comedy, farce, romance and drama. The tone is all over the place. One minute it's outrageous and silly, the next it's trying to be sweet and poignant. Very few of the beats land, and the plot runs out of steam shortly after Shriver arrives at the college. It's fine to throw plausibility and logic out the window as long as there's something else to hook the audience. Without funny or witty dialogue, though, there's really not much to keep the audience engaging even on a shallow level. There's a corny subplot involving Shriver falling in love with Simone that adds unnecessary padding. The supporting characters don't add much of anything either including Professor Wasserman (Don Johnson) or Delta (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). You'd think hilarity ensues when the real Shriver (Zach Braff) arrives, but, alas, it doesn't. Cheesiness and blandness do arrive, though.

      Michael Shannon does his best to make the most out of the character of Shriver, but even he can't rise above the weak screenplay. He and Kate Hudson lack palpable chemistry, which makes it hard to buy Simone and Shriver's romance. M. Emmet Walsh briefly shows up as a professor, and he says one mildly humorous line when he comments that he thought that Shriver was dead before the film cuts to the fake Shriver in New York City. For a much more funny, witty, smart and tender movie about an imposter, see the underrated Mumford.

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

Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre

Directed by Guy Ritchie

      Orson Fortune (Jason Statham) leads a team of spies,  J.J. (Bugzy Malone) and Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), who recruit a famous movie star, Danny Francesco (John Hartnett) to join them. Their mission is to stop a billionaire, Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), from buying a deadly weapons technology.

       The screenplay has three writers, namely, Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, none of whom manage to enliven the film with witty lines or banter. There are a few mildly amusing lines, but, for the most part, the jokes don't land, i.e. when Greg refers to Cock Cancer is a funny kind of cancer. Despite many opportunities within the plot to escalate the absurdity and to go over-the-top, it doesn't quite go there. It feels like a watered-down version of a Guy Ritchie film that's afraid to take risks and take the action, comedy and thrills full throttle. The plot itself gets bogged down by too many twists and turns as it jumps from one location to another. It just seems to be going through the motions with nothing truly exhilarating, exciting or wildly entertaining going on. The film's modicum of energy dissipates around the 90 minute mark as the action becomes tedious and the lame attempts at humor fall flat yet again.

      Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre has a fine ensemble cast, but none of them really get a chance to shine or to display their comedic timing. They also lack chemistry together which is disappointing and leads to even more lethargy. Guy Ritchie does his best to add some style to the film with slick editing, picturesque settings and a fast pace, but none of that help to raise the film above mediocrity. It could've been a much more tight, lean and bold spy thriller if it were 90 minutes instead of nearly 2 hours. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre is a mildly engaging spy thriller with a dull plot and not enough laughs, suspense, thrills or zaniness.

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

Palm Trees and Power Lines

Directed by Jamie Dack

      17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) lives with her mother, Sanda (Gretchen Mol), in California. When she meets an older man, Tom (Jonathan Tucker), she begins a relationship with him behind her friend's and mom's back.

      Writer/director Jamie Dack has a perceptive and emotionally mature sense of human nature which she displays through the complex characters and their true-to-life relationships. Lea comes across as a vulnerable, sensitive child who comes from a broken home. Her mother brings men over to have sex with them at home while emotionally neglecting Lily. She's not as awful as other movie moms like the one from Mommie Dearest, but she's ill-equipped to look after the well-being of her daughter. It's a parent's responsibility to protect their child from harm both from themselves and from others. Lea's mother fails at that as Lea spends more time with Tom who's twice Lea's age. Writer/director Jamie Dack doesn't judge any of the characters, even Lea's mother and Tom. Other than Tom's charms and good looks, what does Lea see in him? Probably a father figure which she sorely lacks at home. She's too naive to know that Tom's charm and sweet-talking are all part of a façade to groom her. Like a true narcissist, he isolates her from her friends and family, gaslights her and controls her. There's a particularly revealing scene about Tom when he confronts a waitress at a diner who tried to warn Lea that he had brought other young girls to the diner before. The audience doesn't get to hear what he says to the waitress, but you can sense a lot just through both of their body language. How Tom ended up so toxic and predatory isn't explored--perhaps he was sexually abused in his childhood. He clearly lacks the concept of boundaries. In a way, Palm Trees and Power Lines unfolds like a horror film: it begins on a seemingly peaceful and tranquil and gradually descends into darker territory as Tom and Lea's relationship progresses. Where precisely the plot heads toward in the third act won't be spoiled here, but keep in mind that it's one of the most chilling, potent and refreshingly un-Hollywood endings in quite some time.

      Lily McInerny gives a breakthrough performance as Lea. She's radiant and manages to sink her teeth into the emotionally complexities of the role. Jonathan Tucker is very well-cast as the suave, deceptive and seductive Tom. Writer/director Jamie Dack moves the film along at a leisurely pace, but none of the scenes drag or overstay their welcome. She does a great job of showing the small details of Lea's daily life which makes her even more human and relatable. Interestingly, Dack uses metaphors through the film's title and the opening scene which shows power lines. What do those things symbolize? That's up to the audience to determine on their own; this isn't the kind of film that hits you over the head with over-explaining or preachiness. "Power Lines" might refer to the power of a sexual predator over their victim. Poetry, after all, is a protest for or against something. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, Palm Trees and Power Lines is a captivating, tender and eye-opening cautionary tale about sexual predators and the grooming process.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Momentum Puctures.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and on VOD.


Directed by Matt Nable

      Ryan Logan (Sam Worthington) moves back home to reunite with his delinquent 16-year-old son, Billy (Edward Carmody), while still grieving over the death of his wife, Justine (Phoebe Tonkin), who died in a car accident. He had saved Billy's life with a blood transfusion. Ryan turns to the criminal underworld with the help of Johnny (Matt Nable) to make ends meet.

      Transfusion is yet another B-movie that bites off more than it could chew. The screenplay by writer/director Matt Nable doesn't work as a father/son story nor as a thriller or character study of a father's struggle with grief. Ryan desperately wants to reconnect with his troubled son and to avoid losing custody of him. There's enough of a conflict there with dramatic tension, so why add more dramatic tension? There's too much going on yet very little of it actually sticks. Nable also does a poor job of exposition with clunky flashbacks. When Ryan decides to work for Johnny in the criminal underworld and put the life of himself and his son at risk, that's around the time the film becomes a mess. Why would Ryan endanger the life of his son? Is crime really the only option for him? What's going on with Billy on an emotional and psychological level? Transfusion fails at exploring that deeper. It's essentially a failed attempt at humanizing its characters because it barely scratches the surface. The third act, which won't be spoiled here, is very banal, lazy and anemic when it should be gripping and moving.

      Sam Worthington delivers a decent performance that occasionally finds some moments of poignancy, but they're ephemeral. Writer/director Matt Nable doesn't design enough of a window into any of the characters' heart, mind and soul, so it's hard to connect with them and care about them as human beings. The same can be said about the relationship between Ryan and Billy which is the heart of the film, but it doesn't generate any emotional punches. The camera work, lighting and editing are fine without adding anything in terms of style. The pace moves rather slowly at times which makes some scenes, especially during the second act and third, drag. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Transfusion is overlong, overstuffed, dull and shallow.

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

What We Do Next

Directed by Stephen Belber

      Elsa Mercado (Michelle Veintimilla) served 16 years in prison for murdering her father who sexually abused her. Upon her release from prison, she confronts Sandy James (Karen Pittman), a New York City Councilwoman who's running for mayor, and corporate attorney Paul Jenkins (Corey Stoll). Sandy and Paul had given Elsa $500 which she then used to purchase a gun to shoot her father. If that information were to go public, it would derail their careers, so they try to mitigate their predicament with Elsa.

     Writer/director Stephen Belber weaves a compelling, increasingly complex and unpredictable story with just three characters: Elsa, Sandy and Paul. He does a wonderful job of incorporating exposition without diminishing the narrative momentum or leading to any confusion. He doesn't show Elsa murdering her father, but it soon becomes clear how and why she did it sans the use of flashbacks. Belber grasps that what's a true Spectacle is dialogue, not CGI or action scenes. It's captivating to watch Elsa, Sandy and Paul converse with one another and go head-to-head. Elsa persuades Sandy to help her get a high-paying job, but Elsa returns later to ask for another favorite after getting into a fight with a man at a bar. What ensues is like a chess game as each of them has to decide how to make their next move. The wrong move can have dire consequences for their career.Each of them comes across as smart, determined and also selfish. Fortunately, Belber doesn't judge them nor does he ask the audience to judge them. They're human beings. In a way, What We Do Next has a lot in common with Mass not only because it takes place primarily in one location, but also because each audience member becomes the 4th character while being compelled to ask, "What would I do in this situation?" The film offers no easy answers or solutions nor does it have to. Without preachiness or spoon-feeding the audience, it asks a lot of brave, tough and thought-provoking questions about racial bias, power, corruption, law, morals, ethics and politics that provide more food for thought than most American films these days.

      Michelle Veintimilla, Karen Pittman and Corey Stoll give strong, mesmerizing performances that breathe humanity into their characters. They're lucky to have a well-written, razor sharp screenplay because it allows them to convincingly display a wide range of emotions--hope, despair, anger, frustration, sadness and more. The film is indeed very talky, but not stuffy or dry. None of the scenes drag thanks to the crisp pacing, camerawork and editing which turn it into a cinematic experience. At a running time of just 1 hour and 17 minutes, What We Do Next is a spellbinding, provocative and gripping political thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Small Batch Studio Entertainment.
Opens at AMC Empire 25 and The Quad Cinema.