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Reviews for May 14th, 2021

The Djinn

Directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell

      After losing his mother (Tevy Poe) to a tragic accident, Dylan (Ezra Dewey), a 12-year-old mute boy, moves into a new apartment with his father, Michael (Rob Brownstein). He's left home alone at night while his father works as a disc jockey. When he stumbles upon an old, dusty Book of Shadows that he finds hidden in a closet, Dylan unleashes an evil, wish-granting spirit known as a djinn. To get his wish of finding his voice granted, he has until midnight to survive from the djinn which takes on many different forms.

      The Djinn doesn't chart any new territory and stretches its premise quite thin, but it's not dull or inane like the recent horror films Separation and The Unholy. The screenplay by co-writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell keep the film pretty lean as they begin it after Dylan's mother died from an accident which Dylan blames himself for. Once he finds the Book of Shadows and summons the djinn, it's easy to see where the film is headed and that the djinn's offer to grant Dylan his wish is a Faustian bargain.  The backstory of Dylan and his relationship with his mother is more interesting than anything on screen. There are not enough scenes between him and his mother and him and his father to make the emotional, dramatic elements work. Come Play was much more effective at being a poignant, grounded horror film. The Djinn neglects to explore the relationships between its characters more profoundly and seems to be in too much of a hurry to get to the horror elements, so the filmmakers don't trust the audience's patience enough. The Djinn tries, but fails to be a scary and moving psychological horror film.

       As Goddard once observed, it's not important where a film takes its ideas from, but where it takes ideas to. Unfortunately, Charbonier and Powell don't take the ideas in The Djinn far enough or take enough risks except for the brief, dark twist in the third act which won't be spoiled here. The second act feels somewhat repetitive as Dylan and the djinn essentially play cat-and-mouse with a few creepy, but not very scary scenes. Also, the way that exposition is incorporated into the film feels rather lazy without much room for interpretation as you learn precisely what the Djinn's rules and rituals are in the Book of Shadows. Perhaps The Djinn would work better as a video game.

      On a positive note, the production values are decent with great use of lighting, camera angles and set design that provide the film with some atmosphere that adds a little creepiness. The sound design is also worth noting along with the musical score, although at times it's a little intrusive. What keeps The Djinn from being a completely forgettable horror film, though, is its breakthrough performance by Ezra Dewey who's just as radiant as Haley Joel Osment was in The Sixth Sense and, more recently, Azhy Robertson in Come Play. He helps to raise the film just above mediocrity to make it a mildly engaging experience. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

The Perfect Candidate

Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

      Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) works as a doctor at a clinic in a small Saudi Arabian town. She's invited to a medical conference in the big city of Riyadh in hopes of getting a better job at a hospital there, but she gets turned away at the airport because her travel permit expired. To try to secure a temporary travel permit, she goes to the office of her cousin who has political connections. He's only speaking to candidates who applied to run for office at the municipal council, so, on a whim, she decides to sign up before learning that he can't even help her get the temporary permit after all. She now becomes the first woman to campaign for a position in politics. Her older sister, Selma (Dae Al Hilali), an event planner, helps her while their father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a traveling musician, tours with his band and follows Maryam on social media.

      The screenplay by writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann recognizes that Maryan is, first and foremost, a human being who strives for democracy in a country that ostracises and dehumanizes women. She just wants to speak her mind and to be treated equally and fairly. Even at her job at the town clinic, she faces struggles with misogyny from her superiors as well as from patients. Surprisingly, some of her female co-workers admit that they won't vote for her. Despite her struggles, though, she remains strong and perseveres. The main issue that she talks about in her campaign is the poorly paved road to the clinic which she hopes to repave if she were to be elected. She repeats that promise over and over.  The true test of her courage is when she gives a very powerful, honest speech to those who oppose her. The way she talks to them shows that she's not only bright, but also emotionally immature, much more than the older people who she's running against. She knows how to stand up for herself and what she believes in.

      The filmmakers wisely don't try to make Maryan seem like a hero or someone who's perfect. She makes mistakes like all human beings do, and she's sometimes naive. Her father, too, is far from a perfect father because he doesn't show support for her right away, but he still loves her. Fortunately, the filmmakers avoid schmaltz because many scenes ring true. They don't include any unnecessary subplots like a romantic interest for Maryam which would've made the film feel overstuffed and "Hollywood." Maryam doesn't need a man in her life to feel happy or fulfilled. She's a hard worker with a beautiful heart, mind and soul. Bravo to the filmmakers for treating the audience like human beings just like they do for the characters.

       Mila Al Zahrani gives a moving performance that opens the window into Maryam's heart, mind and soul. Her performance is naturalistic much like the film itself. Maryam's bond with her sisters feels palpable as she goes on her tough journey with many obstacles along the way. There's nothing contrived about their relationship, so it's very engrossing. It's also worth mentioning the filmmakers' use of metaphors.  The pavement of the road serves as a metaphor for the metaphysical road that Maryam paves for the way of other women for finding the courage to run for office. Even the final, dialogue-free scene can be seen as a metaphor. A film that uses metaphors is poetic, and poetry is a form of protest for or against something, so in many ways, The Perfect Candidate is protest against dehumanization and a protest for democracy. At a running time of 1 hour 41 minutes, The Perfect Candidate is a heartfelt, provocative and refreshingly un-Hollywood human rights story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at IFC Center and City Cinemas 1,2,3.


Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

      Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), a British journalist, pursuades her editor, Vick (Christine Adams), to let her go undercover to expose a terrorist recruiter, Bilel (Shazad Latif), tricks women into traveling to Syria where they're sold as sex slaves for ISIS. She disguises herself as a coverted Muslim and befriends him on Facebook while also communicating with her fiancé Matt (Morgan Watkins) and best friend Kathy (Emma Cater).  

      Profile tries to be a  but doesn't quite reach those heights. The screenplay by writer/director Timur Bekmambetov, Olga Kharina and Britt Poulton, makes an inventive use of modern technology to tell the story entirely through Amy's computer screen. That's a gimmick that worked for Catfish, Unfriended and Searching because they were narratives that were more intimate and limited in scope in terms of the issues that they were tackingly. Amy tries to expose a sex trade ring in Syria which is a very challenging task for her. Sex trafficking rings and terrorist origanization are  certainly very big issues. She's like David going up against many Goliaths. You'd think that she'd be prepared for her assignment, but she clearly isn't because she hasn't even learned arabic and has to look up Arabic words and how to say them frequently. She has to be told not to look Bilel in the eyes and she forgets that Muslim women are not allowed to have tattoos, so she has to be reminded to cover it up. How is the audience supposed to believe that she's a passionate journalist if she doesn't do the research herself before taking on the assignment? Those scenes were meant for exposition for the audience, but they make Amy look inadvertently dumb, unprofessional and incompetent.

      Bilel also seems not very bright, either, especially when he believes her when she tells him that the photo of herself that she accidentally posted onto Facebook is actually her sister. If Bilel were more suspicious of Amy throughout the course of the film and had questioned her more, there would be much more tension. There's a hint of tension toward the end with the threat of danger to Amy's life, but the fact that she's not actually in danger is obvious. Nothing happens where she's at in England that would imply for sure that she's actually in danger. Also, there's no mystery about Bilel. Both the audience and Amy know that he's involved with ISIS as a recruiter, so there are no surprises. If Bilel's hidden motive weren't so apparent, there'd be more suspense like in the more intelligent Arlington Road which gradually built up its suspense before its bold, chilling and shocking ending. Profile doesn't have a bold, chilling or shocking climax nor does it have any palpable suspense to build up for that matter.  

      Valene Kane gives a pretty good performance that's believable, but there's not enough backstory about her as you're just thrown right into her experiences with the assignment. Her relationships with her friend and fiancé feel like extra padding that's just added because the screenplay necessitated it. It's not a good sign when a film that wants you to think it's a "documentary" feels scripted. If Bekmambetov didn't rely so heavily on using Amy's computer screen as a narrative devise and would've chosen wisely when to use it instead, Profile would've been a much more immersive and riveting experience. The Abolitionists, an actual documentary about the hunt for sex traffickers that has real-life footage of the cat-and-mouse hunt itself, is far more powerful and terrifying, especially because it's real. Profile's only achieves a modicum of realism through Kane's performance and the use of modern technology, but that's not enough to turn it into the taut, modern psychological thriller that's striving to be. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Focus Features.
Opens only in theaters.

Riders of Justice

Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and on VOD.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

      Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), the son of a retired police chief, Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), persuades police captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nicholas), to lead the investigation of a killer who's targeting cops. The killer sets traps for his or her victoms, leaves behind tape recordings with a disguised voice, and marks the crime scene with spirals. Rookie detective William Schenk (Max Minghella) tags along with Zeke to help him find the mysterious killer.

      Spiral: From the Book of Saw begins with a very gruesome murder that sets the tone and reminds you that you're in for a horror crime thriller that's just as gory as expected from the Saw franchise. Screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger know that the killer's traps are part of what makes Saw stand out, so they include some inventive traps, with the exception of one that's pretty lazy. Unfortunately, beyond the imaginative traps, the story and mystery itself remains unimaginative with a twist ending that's not much of a twist because it's telegraphed early on. It's really not much of a mystery which means that the notes of surprise and shock in the third act don't land. Then there's the backstory of Zeke and his ex-wife, Lisa (Genelle Williams), which feels contrived. The way that the screenwriters show the flashbacks of Zeke and his father is clunky and distracting. The same can be said for the poor attempts to add comic relief and a little wit into the screenplay that falls flat. Unless you plan on checking your brain at the door, there are more holes in the plot than there are in swiss cheese. The only morsel of suspense can be found in waiting for the next trap, but that's not nearly enough to hold your attention.

      Chris Rock is poorly cast in the lead role because he's not convincing during the dramatic scenes. He's playing against type which is refreshing, but he lacks the acting chops to rise above the material and to bring the character of Zeke to life. It's hard to look at Zeke and not think, "Oh, look! That's Chris Rock!" In other words, he never actually becomes his character. Perhaps he'd be better cast in a comedic spoof of Saw since he's much more talented as a comedian. Also, the film suffers from uneven pacing issues and editing that, at times, feels choppy. At least the running time is only 90 minutes, so it doesn't overstay its welcome, but it's still nonetheless a dumb horror thriller that's sorely lacking in suspense.

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

There is No Evil

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Film Forum and virtual theaters.

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

      Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper in Montana, still grieves over the death of three children who she failed to save in a forest fire.  Hitmen Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) track down and kill Casserly (Jake Weber), an accountant who knows classified information about financial crimes. Casserly's son Connor (Finn Little) survives and goes on the run before crossing paths with Hannah. He hides out with Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and his wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), in a cabin while Jack and Patrick try to hunt him down.

      If the plot synopsis above sounds convoluted, you're right because that's what it feels like watching Those Who Wish Me Dead. The screenplay has three writers, namely, writer/director Taylor Sheridan, co-writers Charles Leavitt and Michael Kortya, whose novel the film is based on. Neither of them manages to breathe any life into the film that's too busy moving its plot forward than in treating any of its characters like human beings. Some of the dialogue sounds very stilted, and there's not enough exposition to make sense of some of the characters' motivations, especially Jack and Patrick who are very weak, one-dimensional villains. There are at least two flashbacks to the forest fire that traumatizes Hannah through her nightmares, but there's really not much that's surprising or revealing about each of those nightmares. At least the film avoids voice-over narration, but it's a testament to the weak screenplay that the audience doesn't get enough of a chance to get inside Hannah's head. She's an interesting character, so why not treat her like a human being?  Ethan and his pregnant wife, Allison, are also characters worth more screen time, yet they're not nearly enough on screen to make an impact, so the third act when the audience is supposed to care about whether or not they survive doesn't pack an emotional punch. There's also not enough wit and levity to be found here.

      Angelina Jolie exudes charisma, but she's wasted in a role that gives her too little to do beyond displaying her action skills. Her fall off a watchtower after a lightning strike, though, is rather implausible because of how she survives it so easily while barely getting injured. Finn Little gives a decent performance and shows some promise as a child actor, but he deserves better material much like the rest of the talented cast. If Those Who Wish Me Dead were a cartoon or a video game, it would be much more effective perhaps, but as live action film, it's a misfire when it comes to action, thrills, drama and suspense. With a more focused, lean plot, it would've been at least engaging on a visceral level, like the throwaway, but fun B-movies that The Cannon Group used to make back in the 80's. Instead, this film is a dull, lethargic meandering bore that takes a steep nosedive and crashes early on without recovering.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Warner Bros.
Opens in theaters and HBO Max.