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Reviews for May 12th, 2023


Directed by Matthew Johnson

      Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) co-founded the company Research in Motion with his best friend, Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson). When they pitch to Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who works for Sutherland-Schultz, about their idea for the first mobile device to have email (eventually called a BlackBerry), the pitch fails. Jim loses his job and convinces Mike and Doug to become their business partner and CEO of Research in Motion.

      Based on a true story and on the book, Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish, the witty screenplay by co-writers/directors Matt Johnson and Matt Miller is a captivating story about the rise and fall of BlackBerry. Mike and Doug are worth rooting for, but they have flaws which make them all the more human and relatable. They have different personalities which clash at times..Doug has more than a few lines that provide surprisingly funny moments of comic relief. Then there's Jim who comes closest to being the film's villain. He's arrogant, narcissistic, rude, selfish and has a huge ego---in other words, he's a tyrant from the very first moment that he sits down with Mike and Doug to talk business. Not surprisingly, he causes a lot of conflicts, tension and systemic issues within Research in Motion that leads to their downfall. The screenplay remains focused on Mike and Doug's struggles without veering off into unnecessary tangents, i.e. romances. It also doesn't go too far with the comedy like Bombshell does, so it's funny without being uneven or unintentionally satirical. There are bland and contrived biopics like the recent Big George Foreman and then there are entertaining and gripping ones like Air. Fortunately, BlackBerry has a lot more in common with Air it takes a serious, dry topic and turns it into something that's brimming with humor and humanity. You don't have to be into technology or business management to enjoy the film.

      Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson both give strong performances that make the most out of their role. It's ultimately Glenn Howerton, though, who stands out the most as Jim Balsillie. His tour de force performance is just as powerful and mesmerizing as Pete Capaldi's performance in In the Loop. The editing and soundtrack are also terrific while making the film feel more cinematic. However, the camerawork resorts to shaky-cam too often, Why move the camera so much in an attempt to create tension when there's already enough dramatic tension within the narrative? It's unnecessary, distracting and even nauseating occasionally. At nearly 2 hours, BlackBerry is spellbinding, funny and heartfelt. It's as enormously entertaining as Air.

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

Fool's Paradise

Directed by Charlie Day

      A patient (Charlie Day) gets released from a mental health facility into the streets of Los Angeles where a Hollywood producer (Ray Liotta) spots him and brings him to the set of Billy the Kid to replace the film's star, Bingsley (Charlie Day). He assumes the name Latte Pronto, gets a publicist, Lenny (Ken Jeong) and an agent (Edie Falco) before marrying his co-star, Christiana Dior (Kate Beckinsale).

      The screenplay by writer/director saves most of the funny jokes for the first 30 minutes before the film takes a nosedive and the jokes fizzle out. The dialogue has a few witty lines with tongue-in-cheek humor, but they're far and few between. Every character behaves so over-the-top that it becomes grating and tiresome rather than amusing after a while. The plot simply isn't zany enough and it awkwardly balances satire with dramatic scenes that fall flat. Plausibility and logic are thrown out the window, but what's left instead? The physical comedy doesn't work nor do the insider jokes about Hollywood. There's nothing wrong with dumb, silly plots as long as they bring the laughs. Mel Brooks knew how to do it in the hilarious Silent Movie. Then there's Armando Iannucci's bold, funny and irreverent satire In the Loop which has plenty of zingers. There are not enough zingers or laugh-out-loud comedy in Fool's Paradise no matter how hard it tries to be funny. Latte Pronto remains mute throughout the film which is an obvious nod to Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's comedies, unlike this one, though, do a much more effective job balancing comedy, tragedy and zaniness with a warm, beating hard beneath the surface.

      Despite a mostly fine ensemble cast with some amusing cameos, no one gets a chance to shine. Kate Beckinsale is miscast because she lacks the comedic skills to pull off her role. Jullian Bell, who's a far better comedian, has a small role here, but she would've made the film a lot funnier if she had a bigger role. The same can be said abou Edie Falco and Adrien Brody. Charlie Day gives a very bland performance as the mute mental patient-turned-actor. He doesn't hold a candle to the brilliant comedian Charlie Chaplin. It doesn't seem like he's having much fun in his role which could've used more energy like in Jim Carrey's effective mimicry of Jerry Lewis in Liar Liar. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Fool's Paradise is a more silly than funny satire that pales compared to funnier and smarter Hollywood satires like The Player, Bowfinger, What Just Happened and State and Main.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Robert Rodriguez

      Danny Rourke (Ben Affleck), a detective whose daughter was kidnapped 4 years earlier, investigates a series of bank robberies in Austin. He meets Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), a psychic who helps him on his desperate quest to find his beloved daughter, Minnie (Hala Finley). Meanwhile Dellrayne (William Fichtner) hunts them down and might have something to do with the kidnapping of Minnie.

      The screenplay by writer/director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein suffers from an increasingly convoluted, inane and preposterous plot that's also highly derivative of far better mindfucks. As Jean-Luc Godard once observed, it's more important where you take ideas to than where you take ideas from. Hypnotic combines action, sci-fi, drama, mystery and thrills with uneven results. The dialogue often sounds stitled, but there are a few surprisingly witty lines with tongue-in-cheek humor. When it comes to exposition, a key element in many films, Rodriquez and Borenstein resort to having just Danny and Diana sitting in a room or car while reciting expositional dialogue. That's a very lazy and amateurish form of exposition that you wouldn't expect from an experienced writer/director. The dramatic moments that try to ground the film in humanism by adding sentimentality are cheesy and clunky. Moreover, the twists, of which there are many that won't be spoiled here, aren't very surprising. The villain, Dellrayne, is boring with a poorly developed backstory. Sometimes a genre-bending mindfuck can be fun and exciting like Dark City, The Matrix and Inception, but other times it could be a disappointing mess like In Time. Hypnotic joins the club of In Time, unfortunately. At least it's not as exhausting as Cloud Atlas.

      Despite the presence of charismatic actor Ben Affleck, none of the cast members manage to elevate Hypnotic above its weak screenplay. Affleck gives a very wooden performance here. He looks bored most of the time. The action scenes aren't very thrilling and the CGI is mediocre at best. The editing feels choppy at times and there are a few poorly lit scenes, i.e. one that takes place in a prison where it's hard to see the action clearly. There's some pretty graphic blood and gore, but that doesn't add anything except some shock value. The film does have one minor feat going for it, though: it has 4 title card drops, setting a new record. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Hypnotic is a mind-numbing, uneven and clunky mess that's not bad or campy enough to be a guilty pleasure B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Ketchup Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

Knights of the Zodiac

Directed by Tomasz Bagiński

      Seiya (Mackenyu) searches for his missing sister while making money as a street fighter. During a fight with Cassios (Nick Stahl) he suddenly discovers that he has a superpower called a cosmo. Alman Kido (Sean Bean) captures him and brings him to his isolated home where Seiya mets Alman's daughter, Sienna (Madison Iseman), the reincarnation of Athena, the Goddess of War and Wisdom. He teams up with Sienna to battle Alman's ex-wife, Guraad (Famke Janssen) and her sidekick, Nero (Diego Tinoco),

      Despite that it's based on an anime series, Knights of the Zodiac feels more like a bland 80's action movies like Warriors of Virtue. The screenplay by co-writers Matthew Stuecken and Kiel Murrayhe suffers from stilted dialogue, clunky exposition and a plot that lacks palpable thrills and suspense. It's yet another expensive, mindless B-movie with lackluster action scenes and a protagonist who's dull, forgettable and lacks a personality that makes him stand out. The villains, too, remain underwritten and boring. There's also a romantic subplot between Seiya and Sienna which feels concurrently distracting and contrived. The screenwriters do a poor job of introducing the many characters all of whom are merely plot devices. Moreover, Seiya's backstory involving his kidnapped sister isn't fleshed out enough nor does the audience see what their relationship was like before she was kidnapped. A scene that has him meeting his younger self tries to add poignancy, but instead feels cheesy and makes the film uneven in tone. Perhaps if the plot didn't take itself so seriously and had some much-needed comic relief, it would've been fun, diverting Spectacle instead of a lethargic bore.

      Mackenyu and Madison Iseman give dull performances and lack the charisma needed to rise above the lazy, vapid screenplay. Fammke Janssen and Sean Bean are decent here, but neither of them stands out. There's nothing exceptional about the CGI effects, action scenes,  camera work nor the set or costume designs that could've invigorated the film.  Perhaps Knights of the Zodiac would've worked better as an animated film, but even those films need a good screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, it's overlong, clunky and anemic while failing to deliver palpable thrills. 

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


Directed by Emanuele Crialese

      In 1970s Rome, Clara (Penélope Cruz) and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) move to a new apartment with their three children. 12-year-old Andriana (Luana Giuliani), their oldest child, announces that she wants to be identified as a boy and to be referred to as Andrew. Meanwhile Clara and Felice's have marriage problems, and Andrew begins a friendship with Sara (Penélope Nieto Conti) that blossoms into a romance.

      L'immensità is a poignant coming-of-age story and a portrait of a marriage on the rocks. The screenplay by writer/director Emanuele Crialese and her co-writers, Francesca Manieri and Vittorio Moroni, explores Clara and Andrew's innate struggles as well as their relationship as mother and son. Clara isn't a terrible mother, but she deadnames Andrew by calling him Andri. Others, including his domineering, womanizing father, deadname him too. The only place that Andrew feels at peace is when he goes beyond the reeds to the poorer part of the city where he meets Sara despite Clara explicitly forbidding him to go there. Clara also sends him to an all-girls catholic school. At least Clara isn't as bad as her husband who's abusive physically and emotionally. Like Andrew, Clara goes through her own emotional pain because she's stuck in a loveless marriage with a toxic husband who cheats on her. What Clara and Andrew want is something that they don't bluntly express, but it's what unites them: they want to feel safe, to be true to themselves, and not to be dehumanized. So, in a way, they're both going through a coming-of-age albeit at different stages of their life. L'immensità isn't unflinching or profound per se nor is it brave enough to go deeper into its darker, sadder moments. Moreover, Felice comes across as a one-dimensional caricature without much nuance. Clara and Felice are far more compelling and complex characters, though, and it's captivating to watch their relationship evolve throughout the film.

      Penélope Cruz gives a radiant and tender performance as Clara that exudes plenty of charisma, just as expected. The film's emotional resonance comes from Luana Giuliani's moving breakthrough performance, too. Kudos to the production designer because the set design, use of color and attention to period detail are impeccable. The pace moves at just the right speed without any scenes that overstay their welcome. There are also some lively, imaginative musical scenes, and a particularly memorable and haunting one at the end which won't be spoiled here. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, L'immensità is captivating, tender and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.


Directed by Tony Dean Smith

      Michelle (Leah Gibson), a doctor, works at a hospital where Ryan (Anthony Konechny), a member of the Irish mafia, is being treated for a bullet wound. Ellis (Sebastien Roberts), an FBI agent, plans to arrest him after he gets treated at the hospital. Ryan's father, Patrick (Jon Voight) and brother, Sean (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arrive to take control over the hospital by force and to retrieve Ryan. Meanwhile, Michelle's son, Bobby (Anthony Bolognese), who's also at the hospital with her, gets taken hostage.

      Mercy is yet another B-movie that struggles to do the bare minimum: entertaining the audience. The screenplay by Alex Wright treads water as it begins with a prologue showing Michelle's experiences in the military that shape her mental and emotional state years later when she works at the hospital. Her son is about to celebrate his birthday. Where's his father? What's going on in Michelle's life outside of the hospital? Mercy isn't very interested in exploring that or in humanizing any of its characters in a way that feels authentic and engrossing. There's also not enough exposition about the Irish mafia that terrorizes the hospital all-of-a-sudden. They come across as generic, cartoonish villains rather than fully fleshed human beings. The witless and dull dialogue doesn't help to enliven the film. Is it too much to ask for a little comic relief? What about giving these characters a discernible personality? Or are they just pawns designed to move the plot forward? Gene Siskel once expressed how much he disliked watching movies with children in peril because it's a cheap way to manipulate the audience's emotions. To be fair, every movie manipulates the audience in some way, but he has a point to a certain degree. By including a subplot involving Michelle's son being held hostage by the terrorists, it's yet another example of a lazy plot device that tries hard to escalate the tension that should already be there without him being taken hostage. What ensues is a monotonous and tedious thriller that's far from exciting or gripping. Sure, it's derivative of better action thrillers like Die Hard, but at least it cites its source with a very obvious Easter egg by having a character say "Yippee Ki-Yay" at one point. If you borrow ideas from a classic, it's more important to borrow them well. Olympus Has Fallen is an example of a thriller that borrows much more effectively from Die Hard.

      Unfortunately, Mercy has nothing going for it in terms of its production values or acting. None of the actors manage to breathe much-needed life into the screenplay. Where's Samuel L. Jackson when you need him? Or Nicolas Cage? The editing feels choppy at times, and the action scenes aren't very exciting nor exceptionally choreographed for that matter. There are other films that also take place in primarily one location while making better use of the set design. At least director Tony Dean Smith and screenwriter Alex Wright keep the running time under 2 hours, so it doesn't become exhausting. At 1 hour and 25 minutes, Mercy is a dull, lackluster and monotonous B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Paramount Global Content Distribution.
Opens in select theaters before hitting VOD on May 19th, 2023.


Directed by Andrea Pallaoro

      Monica (Trace Lysette), a trans woman, has been estranged from her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), for the past 20 years. When she learns that Eugenia is sick, she returns to her hometown to help take care of her. She also reunites with her brother, Paul (Joshua Close), who arrives there with his wife, Laura (Emily Browning) and kids.

      Writer/director Andrea Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado have woven a lyrical and moving exploration of love, compassion, forgiveness and healing from emotional pain. They keep exposition to a minimum while avoiding flashbacks, voice-over narration, over-explaining and on-the-nose dialogue. This isn't a film that has a lot of plot or even character development. Little by little, you learn about Monica, such as the fact that she recently broke up with her boyfriend. What caused the break-up? That question remains unanswered. Something traumatic clearly happened between her and Monica 20 years ago that led to their estrangement. The film doesn't focus on that trauma, but rather at the aftermath during a time of adversity that brings the family together. What's more important are the complex emotions contained within the plot. To be fair, it's not easy to get inside Monica's head at times to understand what she's precisely thinking and feeling. The filmmakers trust the audience's intelligence, imagination and emotions as well as their life experience to figure that out and, hopefully, to relate to Monica in some way. Even if you can't relate to her per day, you'll at least have the chance to see her as a human being because that's the way the screenplay treats her. Kudos to Pallaoro and Tirado for having empathy and compassion toward both Monica and Eugenia. There are no villains on screen except for a silent one: the illness that Eugenia suffers from. Monica also avoids schmaltz, melodrama and sugar-coating. There's barely even any comic relief, but there are brief moments that provide some levity. With a less sensitive screenplay, it could've turned into a Lifetime disease-of-the-week movie instead of a tender slice-of-life.

      Trace Lysette gives a convincingly moving performance. Bravo to the filmmakers for selecting a trans actor to portray a trans character. It adds to the film's authenticity. Patricia Clarkson gives a raw, honest performance as she truly disappears into her role---you'll forget that you're watching Patricia Clarkson acting because it feels so natural. The pace moves slowly and even sluggish at times, so this is definitely that kind of un-Hollywood film that trusts the audience's patience. That's a double-edged sword, though, because it leads to some scenes that overstay their welcome and become repetitive. That said, the cinematography and lighting are exquisite and even poetic, especially when it comes to the composition between light and shadow. The camera gets up close and personal with close-up shots which add to the sense of intimacy and rawness. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, Monica is a gently moving, nuanced and poetic emotional journey. It would make for an interesting double feature with The Whale which also uses a square (1.33:1) aspect ratio.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Rally Road Racers

Directed by Ross Venokur

      Zhi (voice of Jimmy O. Yang), a slow loris, enters the Silk Road Rally to save the home of his grandmother, Granny Bai (voice Lisa Lu) from being demolished by Archie (voice of John Cleese), a frog. He must defy the odds and beat Archie at the race. If he loses, he'll be enslaved to Archie forever and his grandmother will lose her home. Gnash (voice of J.K. Simmons), a goat who used to be a racecar driver and now works as a mechanic, helps Zhi. Meanwhile, Zhi befriends Shelby (voice of Chloe Bennett), a slow loris who has joined Archie's side.

      Writer/director Ross Venokur does a great job of taking a well-worn premise and turns into a refreshing and fun animated film for everyone, young and old. He opens the film with an exciting race before introducing the audience to Zhi and his grandmother. Before you know it, he learns that Archie plans to demolish her house, goes to Archie's headquarters, confronts him and agrees to compete in the Silk Road Rally in hopes of winning and saving his grandmother's house. The plot is simple and easy-to-follow without any major surprises. The surprises that do arrive come from the small bits of dry humor that are reminiscent of the kind of witty humor you find in Pixar's movies. Blink and you'll miss some Easter eggs like a tongue-in-cheek reference to Fast and the Furious. Archie is more of a goofy and amusing villain than a very menacing or intimidating one---he's similar to Bowser from The Super Mario Bros. Movie. There are some tender scenes with Zhi and Shelby who works for Archie despite liking Zhi. Not surprisingly, Gnash helps to motivate and guide Zhi and becomes like his mentor. He's lucky to have someone so compassionate, generous and kind to be a good role model and influencer. The action scenes during the race are thrilling and exciting without being exhausting. Bravo to writer/director Ross Venokur for finding the right lighthearted tone and for not pandering to younger audiences by infantilizing them. There's a warm, beating heart beneath Rally Road Racers and a positive messing about not giving up that make it even better than The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

      The CGI animation looks bright, colorful and dazzling with great character design. The voice acting is also superb, especially John Cleese as Archie. It's probably no coincidence that Archie happens to also be the name of the character, Archie Leach, that John Cleese plays in A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese has as much fun in his role here as he does in that comedy classic. Moreover, the film moves at just the right pace without any scenes that drag or that move too quickly like in the very fast-paced The Super Mario Bros. Movie. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Rally Road Racers is an enormously entertaining, exhilarating, delightful adventure for the whole family. It will make you stand up and cheer.

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

The Starling Girl

Directed by Laurel Parmet

      17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) lives with her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), and younger sister, Becca (Claire Elizabeth Green) in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky. When Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the 28-year-old youth pastor of her church, returns from a trip mission in Puerto Rico, she develops a romance with him even though he's married to Misty (Jessamine Burgum).

    The Starling Girl doesn't break any new ground or offer any surprises, but it's nonetheless an engrossing coming-of-age movie. The screenplay by Laurel Parmet writer/director focuses on Jem as she struggles to grow up in a community that suppresses her emotions and sexuality. From the very beginning of the film, she's belittled and humiliated for wearing inappropriate clothes that shows her bra through her clothes when she's performing in her church's dance troupe. Her mother wants her to date Ben (Austin Abrams), who's around her age, but she's more interested in his older brother, Owen. She flirts with him and he caves into her flirtations. Not surprisingly, he's stuck in a stale marriage. That doesn't excuse him, though, from crossing boundaries with Jem, who's still a child. Jem also should know better than to be a homewrecker. Unfortunately, the screenplay does a mediocre job of bringing Jem to life. Her bland personality doesn't really make her stand out as a character nor does it humanize her enough. Moreover, her romance with Owen falls flat and dull. It's hard to tell what she sees in him besides being physically attracted to him. Meanwhile, she barely even gets to know his younger brother, Ben, who seems like a nice guy compared to his creepy older brother. The Starling Girl isn't interested in exploring Owen and Misty's unhappy marriage or in delving into darker, more unflinching territory. The dialogue sounds natural without trying too hard to please the audience with witty lines and quips, but it still could've used some comic relief and more insight into the characters' innate thoughts and feelings.

    Eliza Scanlen's breakthrough performance is the highlight of The Starling Girl. Much of the film's emotional depth comes from her performance which is so raw that it almost compensates from the somewhat shallow screenplay. The other actors give fine performances, but Eliza Scanlen radiates the most. The pace moves rather slowly, especially in the second act, but even during the slower moments, it's nice to take in the landscape which becomes a character in itself. The cinematography is decent without adding much style or helping to invigorate the film more. At an overlong running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes, The Starling Girl is mildly engaging, somewhat bland, shallow and undercooked, but it's saved by Eliza Scanlen's emotional honest performance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens in select theaters.