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Reviews for May 27th, 2022

18 1/2

Directed by Dan Mirvish

      In 1974, Connie Lashley (Willa Fitzgerald), a White House stenographer, meets up with a New York Times reporter, Paul Marrow (John Magaro), to leak a copy of the missing 18 1/2 minutes of Nixon's tape recordings. They agree to stay at an inn run by Jack (Richard Kind) to listen to the tape on Connie's cassette player which, as it turns out, doesn't work. Upon meeting a hippie couple, Samuel (Vondie Curtis Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtin), staying at the inn, they mingle with them while pretending to be a married couple in hopes of borrowing their cassette player.

      Just based on its premise alone, 18 1/2 sounds like it could be a gripping, Pakula-esque paranoid thriller in the vein of All the President's Men or similar to the recent French thriller Black Box. The screenplay by writer/director Dan Mirvish and co-writer Daniel Moya could've gone in that direction or even toward the direction of horror. Instead, it veers into the realm of dark comedy and satire with a hint of campiness. As a political thriller, it's not very effective, and the twists and turns happen in ways that feel contrived. Mirvish and Moya spend too much time introducing the audience to the hippie couple who Connie and Paul meet at the inn, so at that point, the narrative loses its momentum and feels repetitive. You learn very little about Connie by the end of the film. Where are her parents? Does she have any friends? Lovers? Ex-lovers? How did she end up interested in becoming a political stenographer to begin with? Everyone else, especially the hippie couples, seem more like caricatures than fully-fleshed human beings. The same can be said about the owner of the inn. Once 18 1/2 gets over-the-top like Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood does in the third act and then tries to become more serious and thrilling, it's hard to be emotionally invested in the story or in what happens to anyone. The ending, which won't be revealed here, feels rushed and leaves some plot-holes, but it's worth noting that it does leave a bitter after-taste like some of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970's like 3 Days of the Condor or The Parallax View. 18 1/2 works best when it doesn't take itself too seriously which happens some of the time before the convoluted third act.

      Just like the film's tone, the performances are also a mishmash of different tones. Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtin give offbeat performances as though they were in a completely different film than Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro are in. They're almost as zany as characters from the comedic satire Eating Raoul. The underrated Richard Kind briefly shows up and makes the most out of his small role, but his character is under-written. In terms of cinematography, set design, costume design and lighting, 18 1/2 looks and feels authentic to the particular time period. At a running time of just 1 hour and 28 minutes, it's a mildly entertaining and campy satire, but a tonally uneven cross between All the President's Men and Once Upon a Hollywood.

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

The Bob's Burgers Movie

Directed by Loren Bouchard and Bernard Derriman

      Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin) and Linda (voice of John Roberts) struggle to make ends meet while running their family restaurant, Bob's Burgers. Their landlord, Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline), won't give Bob a straight answer when he asks him if he can skip paying rent for a month. One day, a sinkhole opens up in front of Bob's Burgers. Their youngest child, Louise (voice of Kristen Schaal), falls inside the sinkhole and discovers the skeletal remains of a murdered carny. Louise and her older siblings, Gene (voice of Eugene Mirman) and Tina (Dan Mintz), embark on an adventure to investigate who murdered the carny.

      The screenplay by writer/director Loren Bouchard and co-writer Nora Smith blends an awkward amalgam of comedy, mystery, action, suspense and musical numbers. If you're unfamiliar with the sitcom, you might not understand what makes the sitcom worthy of a film version or why the sitcom became so popular. The filmmakers throw the audience right into the middle of Bob and Linda's troubles before introducing the characters before their struggles. There are some witty lines here and there, but nothing laugh-out-loud funny that rises to the level of The Simpsons Movie, South Park or even Beavis and Butthead Do America. There are too many characters none of whom particularly stand out, even the villain who ends up being more silly than anything else. The musical numbers are clunky and, at times, cringe-inducing. There are too many subplots involving the kids that remain underdeveloped and make the film feel simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked. The murder mystery isn't very suspenseful, exciting or surprising either, and it's not help that the third act wraps everything up too quickly as though it were in a hurry to reach the inevitable happy ending. The uplift of happy endings, after all, have to be earned, but The Bob's Burger Movie doesn't really earn that uplift with its often dull screenplay. If you're expecting to see Louise without her hat, you'll be disappointed that it's left to the audience's imagination.

      Another flaw of The Bob's Burgers Movie is that the pace moves too quickly which gives the impression that you're watching a zany comedy, but, it doesn't come close to being zany enough nor comedic enough to be called a zany comedy. There's also nothing exceptional about the 2D animation style that makes it a must-see on the big screen. In other words, the film's visual style is just as mediocre as its screenplay. The voice cast is great, though, but that's not enough to raise the film above mediocrity. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, The Bob's Burgers Movie is mildly entertaining and harmless, but often bland, clunky and, ultimately, forgettable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Nine Antico

      Sophie (Sara Forestier), a 26 year-old woman, has recently been dumped by her boyfriend, Jean (Pierre Lottin), after she tells him that she's pregnant with his baby. She gets an abortion, finds a new job as a press agent for Jean-Luc (Grégoire Colin), a graphic artist publisher, but she wants to become a graphic novelist herself. Meanwhile, she struggles to find the right guy as she re-enters the dating scene.

      Playlist is yet another romantic comedy that tries too hard to please the audience while offering nothing new or surprising. It's like the female version of High Fidelity, but not as fresh, smart or funny. The screenplay by writer/director Nine Antico and co-writer Marc Syrigas bites off more than it could chew. It begins with Sophie's break-up, moves on her abortion, then to her new job and to her quest to find love in the dating world. Her character seems like nails-on-a-chalkboard, though. There's a lot going on inside of her, but the screenplay fails to get inside of her head. The voice-over narration by Bertrand Belin feels clunky and just as annoying as Sophie while offering oversimplified observations. Who is the narrator? What does he have to do with the story? Why is he male and not female? It makes no sense. Even Woody Allen's films have a better use of a narrator. Why doesn't Sophie narrate the film then? Narration is such a lazy way of getting inside a character's head anyway. It works, though, in the far more witty and insightful Shirley Valentine which is also about a woman who feels lost and has yet to discover herself. Shirley talks to the audience which breaks the fourth wall, but she does so with warmth, wisdom and plenty of wit. Those essential qualities can't be found, unfortunately, in Playlist vapid screenplay.

      Sara Forestier gives a decent performance, but the mediocre screenplay doesn't allow for enough moments to bring her role to life. Sophie goes through so much throughout the film on an emotional level, so it's disappointing that Forestier doesn't get the chance to delve more deeply into the role. She deserves better. Then there's the repetitive music that quickly gets old and, eventually, grating. The black-and-white cinematography adds some visual style, but nothing that stands out or that feels poetic or that adds any much-needed substance. Funny Ha Ha, The Worst Person in the World and any Eric Rohmer film is far superior to Playlist on every level. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, Playlist is a contrived and shallow romantic comedy low on laughs, insight, wit, warmth and emotional depth.

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

Top Gun: Maverick

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

      Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a test pilot, returns to Top Gun after failing a test mission. Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer) gives him the task of training a group of Navy graduate students to prepare them for a mission that puts their life at risk. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), one of the student fighter pilots he trains, happens to be the son of his best friend Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) who died a few decades ago. Jennifer Connelly plays Penny, his new love interest who owns a bar.

      Screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie waste no time by diving head-first into a thrilling aerial action sequence, so they know how to hook the audience who they know are there for the action. The first 10 minutes or so remind you of just how stubborn and bad-ass Maverick is by how he talks to his superiors, namely the Real Admiral (Ed Harris) and Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm). Then there are some scenes with very clear and concise exposition about the important mission that Maverick has to train his graduates for. You'll have no doubt precisely what risks Maverick and his fighter pilots have to take to succeed and what their goal of their mission is. What remains vague, though, is who the enemies are because they remain unnamed, so that's left up to the audience's imagination. It doesn't really matter. Even the details of the mission don't matter. What matters are the rousing action scenes which there are enough of to entertain the audience. The scenes on the ground are fine, but some of the dialogue is too on-the-nose. There's some comic relief, although not anything that's laugh-out-loud funny, just amusing.

      The brief scenes between Maverick and Iceman are surprisingly moving, though, and there's an interesting dynamic between him and Rooster because he feels a little guilty for the death of Rooster's father. Maverick's romance with Penny isn't one of the stronger elements of the film and often feels contrived as well as tacked-on as though the screenplay required it. Do we really need a scene with Maverick jumping from Penny's bedroom window when Penny's daughter comes home? That sounds like something a teenager would do. Fortunately, it remains a very minor subplot that's not too distracting from the film's narrative momentum. To be fair, no one is really coming to see Top Gun: Maverick for the romance. As Hitchcock once observed, some films are like a slice-of-cake while others are a slice-of-life. This film is essentially a big slice-of-cake that's very so slightly grounded in realism---just enough to make you care about Maverick as a human being.

      When it comes to its aerial action scenes, Top Gun: Maverick delivers the goods. The visual effects, cinematography and sound design combine to create a thoroughly exhilarating experience not unlike being in a roller-coaster ride. It's a very immersive experience that makes you feel like you're right there with them up in the sky. Some of the stunts are truly awe-inspiring beyond words. Tom Cruise still has his knack for looking dapper while exuding plenty of charisma on-screen. That charisma carries the film a very long way and helps to breathe life into Maverick even when the screenplay fails to do so. Just as expected, his hair doesn't get messy even during the action scenes. Perhaps Maverick has very strong hair gel. At a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes, Top Gun: Maverick is a rousing, exhilarating and crowd-pleasing spectacle.

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

The Tsugua Diaries

Directed by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes

      Crista (Crista Alfaiate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta) and João (João Nunes Monteiro) spend their summer shooting a film on a farm in Portugal. They also build a greenhouse for butterflies together.

      The Tsugua Diaries is the kind of movie that you could easily say "nothing happens" in terms of plot, and you'd be mostly correct.  There's nothing inherently wrong with a minimalist plot because it's more important for a film to capture the feeling contained within a plot. There are plenty of plot-heavy films made for millions of dollars that result in little to no emotions or end up making the audience feel exhausted. The most action Tsugua Diaries occurs when someone (spoiler alert!) kills a large mosquito on the wall. Perhaps the mosquitos are the only real villains in the film.  The screenplay by writers/directors Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes along with co-writer Mariana Ricardo opts for a rather laid-back approach with shades of Richard Linklater, Eric Rohmer and Carlos Reygadas. However, they unnecessarily break convention by telling the story in reverse chronological order. In Memento, that works because the main character suffers from memory loss.  In this film, it feels more like a gimmick without much purpose other than to be unconventional. The filmmakers try to walk a fine line between documentary and fiction, but the non-linear structure diminishes the film's sense of realism and distracts from it concurrently as though the film weren't proud or secure of its minimalist plot. Also, the screenwriters spoon-feed the audience and don't trust their intelligence enough because they reveal the number of days to the audience. Despite the word "diary" in the title, there's very little that feels emotionally revealing and engrossing in The Tsugua Diaries.

      The strongest aspect of The Tsugua Diaries is its cinematography which makes the most of the natural landscape and the interiors. The lighting design and even the sound design along with the music score are superb and add plenty of style to the film. Unfortunately, visual and aurals style can only go so far when it comes to adding substance to the film. Carlos Reygadas' films do a better job of making nature look and feel poetic and breathtaking without words, i.e Silent Light. There are some nice touches that show the passage of time, i.e. a rotten fruit that becomes less and less rotten as the film progresses. That's another reason why labeling each day for the audience isn't necessary. Why not let the audience figure out the passage of time just with the visuals of the reverse-rotting fruit? At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, The Tsugua Diaries is well-shot, but meandering and often dull with a distracting non-linear structure.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by KimStim.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.