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Reviews for May 19th, 2023

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future

Directed by Francisca Alegria

      Enrique (Alfredo Castro) ends up in the hospital after seeing his dead wife, Magdalena (Mía Maestro), outside of a window. Cecilia (Leonor Varela) arrives with her two children Tomas (Enzo Ferrada) and Alma (Laura del Rio), to help her brother, Bernardo (Marcial Tagle), take care of Enrique and the family's dairy farm. Meanwhile, Magdelena continues to appear to each family member.

      The screenplay by writer/director Francisca Alegría and her co-writers, Fernanda Urrejola and Manuela Infante, blends sci-fi, surrealism, drama and tragedy in a way that's refreshingly unconventional. If you're looking for an easy-to-follow film that spoon-feeds you information and leaves nothing for interpretation, you'll be disappointed. The filmmakers trust the audience's intelligence and emotions. Exposition is kept to a minimum. Within the first few minutes, Magdalena comes out of the river and the film's surreal tone has already been set. Who is she? How did she end up in the river? Those questions get answers soon after, but the questions that remain are, "Why did she commit suicide?" That answer might have something to do with her husband, Enrique. Not surprisingly, no one believes Enrique when he claims to have seen Magdalena---they think that he probably has neurological problems. The audience sees Magdalena, though, so whether or not she's back from the dead isn't a mystery. Interestingly, she doesn't look like a zombie or much older; she looks exactly like she did around the time that she committed suicide. To say that bizarre things occur would be an understatement---the film is similar to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in its blend of surrealism while remaining grounded in realism. There's a subplot involving Tomas' transition from a male to a female. Cecilia thinks it's just a phase. Each family member goes through their own innate struggles as Magdalena serves as the catalyst for their introspection and compels them to confront their complex, tough emotions. The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future could've easily veered into horror or thriller territory with its premise or, with a less sensitive screenplay, it could've turned into a clunky, uneven mess. Instead, it becomes a heartfelt film about a family coping with and healing from their tragic past. It's also a melancholic, bittersweet and provocative exploration of love, grief, forgiveness and trauma without

      The performances all across the board are terrific, especially Leonor Varela and Alfredo Castro. No one over-acts or under-acts which makes the film feel more genuinely engrossing. The cinematography is also worth mentioning because it captures the majestic quality of nature with breathtaking scenery that's also somewhat lyrical. Nature becomes like a character in and of itself. The filmmakers grasp the concept that images speak louder than words. They move the film at an unhurried pace without feeling sluggish. Then there's the use of music which also adds to the film's style and substance in a way that's profound. At a running time of 1 hour 38 minutes, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is a tender, poetic and haunting emotional and spiritual journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Dotty & Soul

Directed by Adam Saunders

      Ethan Cox (Adam Saunders), the owner of a self-driving car company, experiences backlash when his controversial Halloween costume grabs the attention of the public on social media and puts his career at risk. To mitigate the damage, he hires Dotty (Leslie Uggams), a 71-year-old snack cart vendor, as the company's new CEO.

      The screenplay by writer/director Adam Saunders lacks wit, laughs and surprises as it takes an unoriginal premise and turns it into a bland comedy. It's hard to watch Dotty & Soul without thinking about funnier comedies Trading Places. As Jean-Luc Godard once observed, where you take ideas to is more important where you take ideas from. Ethan comes across as a bland character with barely even a backstory or a personality that would make him come to life. Why should the audience care about Ethan or his career for that matter? Is it introspective? He doesn't seem very emotionally mature or compelling. Dotty, on the other hand, is at least given a hint of a personality: she's blunt, confident, sassy and unafraid to speak her mind. It's too bad, then, that the screenplay doesn't give her enough funny quips. Her relationship with Ethan feels contrived as does her relationship with her daughter.

      Dotty & Soul has two things going for it that make it somewhat watchable. First, there's Leslie Uggams' charismatic performance. The film comes alive the most whenever she's on screen. She deserves better material, though. There's nothing exceptional about the production values to elevate the film above mediocrity. The pace moves too quickly at times, especially in the very rushed third act. Most of the film looks brightly lit as though it were a sitcom. What's the second thing the film has going for it, you ask? The brief running time of 1 hour and 19 minutes. If it were 2 hours, it would've been tough to sit through. If the film weren't so unafraid to be more bold and zany like the underrated 90's comedy Nothing to Lose, perhaps it wouldn't fall flat and anemic as a comedy or become as dull, unfunny and disappointing as 80 for Brady.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Quiver Distribution.
Opens on VOD.

Fast X

Directed by Louis Leterrier

      Dante (Jason Momoa) seeks revenge against Dom (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Han (Sung Kang), and Tej (Ludacris), so he frames them as terrorists and drains their bank accounts.

      Just when you thought that F9 was a wild, batshit crazy ride, Fast X comes along to up the ante and multiply the craziness exponentially. The overwrought, dumb and witless screenplay by Justin Lin, Zach Dean and Dan Mazeau throws logic and plausibility out the window, but, to be fair, no one watches this film series for those qualities. You want action? Fast X has plenty of it. There's so much action that you'll feel like you're OD'ing on it. You want cameos? There's plenty of that, too. What's not there, though, are exhilarating thrills, suspense or just mindless fun. Yes, it's mindless, but it tries too hard to be bonkers that it forgets to be entertaining. The dialogue is cringe-inducingly awful and stitled. Dante's lines are mildly amusing at most, but get tiresome quickly. He belongs in a completely different movie. There's also an awkward and painfully unfunny scene with macabre humor as Dante talks to dead people sitting next to him while pretending that they're still alive. The less that you think about the plot, the better because it makes little to no sense as it progresses to an over-the-top third act. Do filmmakers not understand the concept of diminishing returns? How many action scenes do they think an audience can handle before the audience becomes exhausted? Audiences are human beings, after all. The director of RRR knows how to turn an action thriller into a rousing and exhilarating Spectacle thanks to the exciting set pieces; Louis Leterrier fails to accomplish that from start to finish.

      There's nothing redeeming about Fast X except for Jason Momoa's campy performance, but even his schtick gets old, tiresome and annoying pretty fast until he becomes like nails on a chalkboard. Vin Diesel gives a dull performance that's almost, but not quite, unintentionally funny when he's trying to act. Charlize Theron is wasted as are Helen Mirren and Rita Moreno who show up briefly, say a few cheesy lines and then disappear. The editing feels choppy, the relentless action is mind-numbing and dull, and the CGI ranges from poor to mediocre. At a running time of 2 hour and 21 minutes, Fast X is a loud, bloated and exhausting bore that's not even fun to watch while stoned.

Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Moon Garden

Directed by Ryan Stevens Harris

      5-year-old Emma (Haven Lee Harris) lives with her mom, Sara (Augie Duke), and dad, Alex (Brionne Davis), whose marriage has gone on the rocks. One night, while her parents have a loud argument, Emma falls down the basement stairs, goes into a coma, and gets trapped in a nightmarish dreamscape.

      Moon Garden is a surreal and terrifying experimental film. To describe the plot of writer/director Ryan Stevens Harris' screenplay wouldn't do it justice because it transcends its plot. There's little to no dialogue, exposition and anything else that's conventional. It remains focused mostly on fantasy/horror elements with brief flashbacks to Emma's memories with her parents. Harris does a decent job capturing the intensity and surrealism of Emma's nightmare while she's comatose, but that comes with a double-edged sword: the intensity and surrealism eventually becomes tedious, monotonous, heavy-handed and, ultimately, exhausting, especially without much in terms of levity. Yes, there are shades of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Henry Selick's Coraline, but Moon Garden doesn't quite reach the emotional depth and brilliance of those classics. It's also not as elliptical, subtle and experimental as Skinamarink nor does it leave much to the audience's imagination.

      Moon Garden's greatest strength is its visual style with stop-motion animation that's effectively creepy, dreamlike and hallucinatory. At times, it even feels like an acid trip while other times, with the music blazing, it's more like a music video. There are a lot of visuals to take in--so much that it eventually becomes overwhelming. A lot of time and resources have clearly been spent on the animation alone. However, writer/director Ryan Stevens Harris rarely provides the audience with some room to breathe. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, Moon Garden is a surreal, visually dazzling and creepy experience, but concurrently exhausting and tedious with excessive style over substance. 

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

The Night of the 12th

Directed by Dominik Moll

      Police Captain Yohan Vivés (Bastien Bouillon) and his partner, Marceau (Bouli Lanners) investigate the brutal murder of a young woman, Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier), in a small town.

       It opens with a shocking statistic that 20% of murder investigations in France remain unsolved before revealing that the crime in this film is one of them. Why does writer/director Dominik Moll and co-writer Gilles Marchand include that seemingly spoilery statistic? Perhaps to prepare the audience for the dark, anti-climactic ending so that it doesn't come as an unexpected shock. The film is more of a character study of how the investigation affects Yohan emotionally and psychologically. By the end of the film, Yohan goes through a character arc. Until that point, though, he and Marceau find potential suspects, but no hard evidence; only circumstantial evidence at best. It turns out athe Clara slept around a lot, so, not surprisingly they interrogate her ex-boyfriends, one of whom wrote a rap with lyrics that happen to mention burning Clara to death because she cheated on him. Just when the investigators believe that they've found the murderer, they're wrong and realize they've reached yet another dead end. They're frustrated, but so are you, too, because you're one step ahead of them knowing that the murder will not be solved no matter what stone they turn. They even hide a camera on Clara's grave to see if the murderer might visit it. That, also, leads nowhere. They have no motive, no leads or anything that gets them closer to solving the case. The murderer could be anyone. It says a lot about Yahon and Marceau that they assume that the murderer is male. Perhaps a woman murdered Clara. Either way, Yohan, who's a new addition to the police force, learns a lot of harsh truths about his job and the emotional toll that it has on him. The filmmakers do a great job of seeing and treating him as a complex human being from start to finish.

      Bastien Bouillon and Bouli Lanners both give solid performances that breathe life into their roles of Yohan and Marceau, respectively. The film's emotional resonance comes from their performances more than it does from the screenplay. The cinematography is exquisite without going overboard stylistically, i.e. without resorting to shaky-cam to generate tension. Pace-wise, the film moves slowly, but not too slowly, so it's indeed a slow-burn and requires some patience. Fortunately, you'll feel engrossed by this spellbinding film without feeling like any scenes drag or overstay their welcome. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, The Night of the 12th is one of the best psychological crime thrillers since Zodiac and No Country for Old Men.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Stay Awake

Directed by Jamie Sisley

      Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) lives in a rural Virginia town with his older brother, Derek (Fin Argus), and mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), who suffers from opioid addiction. Derek works at a bowling alley where he hooks up with a coworker, Melanie (Cree). Ethan gets accepted to Brown University with a full scholarship, but when he tells his girlfriend, Ashley (Quinn McColgan), she gets mad at him for not telling her sooner. Meanwhile, Ethan and Derek take care of their obese mother and send her to rehab in hope that it will cure her addiction to opioids.

      Stay Awake is a genuinely heartfelt portrait of a dysfunctional family and a coming-of-age story. The screenplay by writer/director Jamie Sisley bites off a little but more than it could chew, though, with too many subplots. The core of the story is the toxic relationship between the brothers and their mother whom they have to take care of as though she were their daughter. Ethan's girlfriend, Ashely, hits the nail on the head when she bluntly says to Ethan that her mother refers to him as a "parentified child." That's a term that not too many people understand. Does Ashley understand the concept of parentification? Does Ethan understand it? It's possible that he does because both he and Derek want to escape their toxic environment. They justifiably feel suffocated by having to care for their mother. Ethan, who's graduating high school, has girlfriend problems. He's also starting to accept the fact that he might be at least bi-sexual or bi-curious. That's an underdeveloped subplot. Then there's Derek's plans to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor. He debates whether or not to leave town to go to an acting audition. Michelle doesn't seem to change even through rehab, so the brothers are stuck in a quagmire that's unhealthy for them--and Michelle doesn't even notice how toxic she is to them. She's trying her best, but her best isn't good enough. At least the screenplay doesn't villainize her. She's not a monster nor as toxic as other movie moms like Mona from Beau is Afraid. Writer/director Jamie Sisley should be commended for balancing the heavy, dramatic moments with wit and comic relief. The dialogue sounds organic without being stilted or trying too hard to be quotable. In other words, these characters talk and behave like ordinary human beings which makes them relatable---they are our species, after all. To be fair, an event late in the third act, which won't be spoiled here, suddenly veers the film toward the thriller genre which leads to unevenness and clunkiness, but that's a minor, ephemeral and forgivable misstep in an otherwise understated, honest and tender film.

      Wyatt Oleff and Fin Argus both give moving performances while managing to find the emotional truths of their roles. Oleff physically resembles Timothée Chalamet and has just as much charisma as he does, too. Chrissy Metz gives a raw, bravura performance here as Michelle. It's a career-best performance, so kudos to writer/director Jamie Sisley for designing a window into her character's heart, mind and soul, and to Chrissy Metz for opening that window all the way. They both treat Michelle with empathy and compassion--as much empathy and compassion as Ethan and Derek have for her as well. It's also worth mentioning the very creative opening credits sequence and the exquisite cinematography that avoids shaky-cam. The pace moves at just the right speed: not too fast nor too slow. Sisley exhibits ideal qualities of a filmmaker by trusting the audience's emotions, imagination, intelligence and patience. He also shows restraint by keeping the running time under 2 hours, and by leaving some room for interpretation without tying everything neatly in a bow---yes, sometimes it's okay for characters to live on in the hearts and minds of audience members after the end credits roll. At merely 1 hour and 34 minutes, Stay Awake is an honest, wise and genuinely heartfelt slice-of-life with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by MarVista Entertainment.
Opens at Film Forum.

White Building

Directed by Neang Kavich


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by KimStim.
Opens at BAM Rose Cinemas.