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Reviews for November 10th, 2023

Documentary Films


      Orlando, My Political Biography is a refreshingly unconventional, heartfelt and invigorating documentary/fiction hybrid about Virgina Woolf's novel Orlando. Paul B. Preciado interpretes Orlando from the perspective of non-binary and trans men and women who reenact portions from the novel while portraying Orlando. Each of them gets a chance to share their own individual experiences being trans. If you're looking for a thorough analysis of Orlando, you'll be disappointed. However, if you're looking for a thought-provoking and amusing take on the novel, you'll be delighted and pleasantly surprised by this often experimental film. There are even some lively musical numbers and some wit. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Orlando, My Political Biography opens at Film Forum via Janus Films.


      Stamped from the Beginning is a provocative, well-edited and captivating documentary about the history of anti-Black racism. It's based on the non-fiction book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Director Roger Ross Williams includes many talking-head interviews with Kendi as well other scholars and activists like Angela Davis, Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Imani Perry, among others. He asks them thoughtful questions which leads to insightful answers. Fortunately, Stamped from the Beginning doesn't just offer the audience a history lesson, but also contemporizes its broad topic while providing audiences with a sense of why it's still relevant today. The use of animated sequences enliven the film and make it feel less dry, less academic, less overwhelming and more cinematic. It's also slickly edited and doesn' overstay its welcome at an ideal running time of just 1 hour and 31 minutes. Stamped from the Beginning opens at IFC Center via Netflix.


      A Still Small Voice is a profoundly moving, unflinching and illuminating documentary about a hospital chaplain, Margaret Engel, a.k.a. Mati, who provides patients at NYC's Mount Sinai Hospital with spiritual and emotional care. Director Luke Lorentzen uses a fly-on-the-wall approach to show Mati's experiences at work and how she deals with her own emotional trauma from a family member's death. Similar to Frederick Wiseman, Lorentzen eschews talking-head interviews and excessively stylish editing. The slow-burning pace of the film means that he trusts the audience's patience while the very minimal use of music is a testament to the fact he also trusts the audience's emotions. Both of those forms of trust are important qualities in any kind of filmmaker.

      A Still Small Voice doesn't bombard the audience with exposition of Mati's backstory nor does it reveal much about her private life; this isn't a biopic on her. However, it does provide a glimpse of her day-to-day struggles at work and how vital her role is when it comes to providing spiritual and emotional guidance to patients at the hospital. Her compassion, empathy and emotional generosity are palpable and inspirational which makes her a great role model. It's also interesting to observe her relationship with her supervisor, Reverend David, and how it gradually evolves into a rift between them. There's a powerful scene where she candidly talks about what bothers her about him and how he affects her. His response reveals a lot about him. However, the film doesn't dwell on their dysfunctional relationship at work nor does it villainize Reverend David who's going through his own emotional journey concurrently. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, A Still Small Voice opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema in Manhattan via Abramorama.


      This Much We Know is a heartfelt, but unfocused, overlong and dull documentary about Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who committed suicide by jumping off the The Stratosphere, a hotel and casino in Las Vegas back in 2002. Director L. Frances Henderson bites off more than she could chew as she also sheds light on her own emotional and psychological battles dealing the suicide of her friend, Sarah. It's fine that she expands the documentary's focus and scope by examining the high suicide rate in Nevada which is quite alarming and disturbing. However, she also delves into the issue of nuclear waste buried for decades in Yucca Mountain not far from Las Vegas. Juggling so many topics takes skillful editing, but This Much We Know doesn't quite have that, so it feels like a mess as it jumps from one topic to another. Moreover, Henderson includes too much of her voice-over narration and even adds it over the talking-head interviews instead of letting the audience hear her interview subjects speaking. Why speak for the interviewees when they're clearly capable of speaking for themselves? It doesn't help that her voice often sounds monotonous. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, This Much We Know does not find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually. It opens at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema via Oscilloscope Laboratories.


      Youth (Spring) is an unflinching, but repetitive, exhausting and overlong documentary about the teenagers and young adults who work at a textile factory in Zhili, China. Director Wang Bing uses a fly-on-the-wall approach to shed light on their work conditions and also their cramped, dilapidated living spaces throughout the course of five years. Nothing really changes during those five years. The workers, aged 17 to 20, are under a lot of pressure to excel at their jobs while the company exploits them every way that they can. They're merely cogs in a machine, so, not surprisingly they're dehumanized. Youth (Spring) makes the same points over and over without stopping to get to know any of its subjects which means that it often dehumanizes them as well. You learn their name, age and some of their struggles at work, but not much else. The documentary lacks scope and emotional depth. Moreover, you can feel the weight of its bloated running time of 3 hours and 32 minutes which makes it an endurance test. Youth (Spring) opens at The Metrograph via Icarus Films.

Dream Scenario

Directed by Kristoffer Borgli

      Paul (Nicolas Cage) works as an evolutionary biology professor and lives with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters, Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement). One day, he wakes up and discovers that he's appearing in everyone's dreams except those of his wife.

      A lot more happens in Dream Scenario than in the plot synopsis above, but this is the kind of film that you're better off watching without any of the surprises being spoiled. The screenplay by writer/director Kristoffer Borgli has shades of Charlie Kaufman and Ruben Östlund as it blends comedy, sci-fi, drama and surrealism while remaining grounded in humanism. It's hard to fit it in just one particular genre. Paul comes across as a flawed husband and human being; he shows signs of narcissism, but he's not a terrible person, though. His flaws are part of what makes him interesting and relatable. Borgli hooks the audience with off-kilter comedy and wit within the first hour before Paul's situation becomes increasingly darker and complex. He takes a premise that sounds refreshingly original and turns it into something that's simultaneously zany, unpredictable and thought-provoking without preachiness, melodrama, or going off the rails like Downsizing does around the midpoint.

      Nicolas Cage gives one of his best performances in years. He's very well-cast in a role that allows him to display his dramatic as well as his comedic skills. Julianne Nicholson is also superb as Paul's wife who's going through a lot as Paul becomes famous for being in other people's dreams. Kudos to writer/director Kristoffer Borgli for not forgetting to show Janet's emotional pain and frustrations which affects her happiness and marital life. Michael Cera makes the most out of his supporting role as the head of a social media marketing company as does Dylan Gelula who plays Molly, an assistant at the company. What happens when they pitch their ideas to Paul won't be spoiled here, but it's one of the most provocative scenes in the film. Just when you think Dream Scenario will go in a certain direction, it goes in a different one, i.e. during a scene with Molly and Paul at her apartment. On the one hand, you can see Dream Scenario as a dark cautionary tale, metaphor and satire or as a portrait of a man in a midlife crisis. Either way, you'll be in for a wildly entertaining ride that will make you laugh, think and feel.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

As We Know It

Directed by Josh Monkarsh

      Just as James (Mike Castle) is in the process of dealing with writers' block and a break-up with his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Taylor Blackwell), Bruce (Oliver Cooper), his best friend, arrives at his doorstep to warn him of a zombie apocalypse. They hunker down at his home together before Emily shows up to join their struggle for survival.

      Set during the 1990s, the screenplay by writer/director Josh Monkarsh and his co-writers, Brandon DePaolo and Christopher Francis, has a great command of tone as it blends comedy, sci-fi and horror without taking itself too seriously. The dialogue is witty with some tongue-in-cheek humor as well as some zany, off-beat humor. For example, the cause of the zombie apocalypse turns out to be a certain brand of oat milk which James happens to have in his fridge. Fortunately, the screenwriters do a great job of building James and Bruce's camaraderie as best friends. You can sense by the way that they talk to each other that they've been friends for a while. They also each have their own unique personality, so kudos to the filmmakers for providing them with that because humanizes them while concurrently making them lively and engaging characters. What happens when Emily shows up won't be spoiled here, though, but it's good to know that As We Know It isn't afraid to go a little bonkers without going too far. The horror elements involving the zombies aren't very scary per se nor are they meant to be; they're played for laughs like in Shaun of the Dead. The filmmakers don't just establish their off-kilter comedic tone from the get-go, though, but they also maintain it from start to finish which means that As We Know It never runs out of steam.

      Mike Castle and Oliver Cooper have great comedic timing and play off each other very well as James and Bruce banter and quip. Their rapport is similar to Abbott and Costello. Taylor Blackwell channels Rachel Leigh Cook in her charming performance. Then there's the legendary Pam Grier who has a lot of fun playing James' landlord while making the most out of her supporting role. There's a particularly hilarious scene, one of the film's highlights, set to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" which has never been used in such a way before. You'll have to see it to believe it. The pace moves briskly, the zombie make-up looks believable enough, and the violence/gore is kept at a minimum without becoming excessive or trying to shock the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, As We Know It is a delightfully zany, funny and witty zombie comedy.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Buffalo 8.
Opens in select theaters.

The Gravity

Directed by Cédric Ido

      Christophe (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), fresh out of prison, reunites with his friends, Daniel (Max Gomis), and Daniel's wheelchair-bound brother, Joshua (Steve Tientcheu). He put their lives in jeopardy as he investigates a local gang, a.k.a. The Ronins, who are involved in selling synthetic drugs. Meanwhile, the solar system's planets aline and cause the Earth's gravitational pull to be stronger.

      The screenplay by writer/director Cédric Ido, and his co-writers, Mélisa Godet and Jeanne Aptekman, is a compelling blend of drama, crime thriller and sci-fi. Exposition is kept to a minimum, but the audience learns just enough to understand what's going on and to be able to care about the characters. Even the subplot involving the Earth's gravitational pull getting stronger remains in the background until the last few minutes. The screenwriters do a decent job of humanizing Christophe, Daniel and Joshua so that they don't become one-note caricutures. They each have hopes and dreams, i.e. Daniel who a career as a sprinter and even spends time training with a coach. However, he's often stuck taking care of his brother, Joshua, while struggling to make ends meet. The main villains are The Ronins, although they're poorly developed characters. Little do they know that something far more powerful than themselves---the force of gravity--will threaten their lives. The third act, which does get quite dark, intense and violent, ends on a surprisingly heartfelt note.

      The performances by Jean-Baptiste Anoumon, Max Gomis and Steve Tientcheu are all raw and natural. They each have a least a few scenes where they get to chance to shine. The cinematography with the reddish glow in the sky makes adds an eerie, surreal atmosphere that adds some visual poetry. The increase of Earth's gravitational pull works effectively as a metaphor, so it doesn't have to be taken literally---although the dialogue does feel too on-the-nose when it over-explains its significance. That said, the camework occassionally resorts to shaky-cam which feels nauseating and unnecessary, especially because there's already enough tension within the plot itself. At a running time of 1 hour and 25 minutes, The Gravity is a poetic, captivating and engrossing crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Dark Star Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

It's a Wonderful Knife

Directed by Tyler MacIntyre

      One year after Winnie (Jane Widdop) stops a killer dressed as an angel from continuing his killing spree, she wishes that she had never been born. Soon after, she gets her wish because she ends up in an alternate universe where the killer is back on the loose. It's up to her and her classmate, Bernie (Jess McLeod), to find and stop the killer all over again.

      It's a Wonderful Knife takes the basic premise of It's a Wonderful Life and turns into a horror comedy. If only the screenplay by Michael Kennedy were funny and witty instead of mindless, dull and tonally uneven. The suspense begins to wane when Winnie unmasks the killer early on. When she enters the alternate universe, not surprisingly, everything gets worse for Winnie. She has a tough time explaining to her dad the identity of the killer because he happens to be a friend of his. Her mother often gets drunk and she catches her boyfriend with another girl. The only person who's willing to join her to catch the killer is Bernie. Unfortunately, director Tyler MacIntyre and screenwriter Michael Kennedy have a poor command of tone which feels all over the place. At times, it takes itself seriously while at other times it's trying hard---too hard---to be campy and silly. The dialogue sounds stilted and clunky more often than not. There are not nearly enough scares, laughs or memorable characters, so it falls flat as much as equally underwhelming Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey does as well.

      The performances range from mediocre to wooden with no one managing to invigorate the film with their performance. Even Justin Long is wasted here, and it's hard to stop thinking of him in far better horror comedies than this one like Tusk or his lively performance in Barbarian. There's nothing exceptional about the production values, the editing, set designs or anything else that would've elevated the film on a visceral level. Even the kills aren't memorable, imaginative nor exciting. At a running time of 1 hour and 22 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, It's a Wonderful Knife is an anemic, tonally uneven and clunky bore that's low on laughs, scares and suspense.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Journey to Bethlehem

Directed by Adam Anders

      Mary (Fiona Palomo) learns from her parents that she's engaged to be married. Joseph (Milo Manheim) bumps into her at a local market where they flirt while knowling engaged to other people. They soon discover that they're actually engaged to one another, but she's unhappy to be marrying a stranger without falling in love with him first.

     . Writer/director Adam Anders and co-writer Peter Barsocchini tell the story of Joseph and Mary with just the right amount of tenderness, wit and humor while avoiding preachiness, clunkiness and cheesiness. To be fair, it's entirely loyal to the classic bible story, but that's forgivable because what ultimately matters is that the film captures the story's essence: the pure, unadulterated love between Joseph and his soulmate, Mary. Some of the supporting characters like Gabriel who provides some much-needed levity. Then there's King Herod (Antonio Banderas), who's a bit cartoonish, but he's nonetheless an effectively despicable, menacing and arrogant villain. Journey to Bethlehem also features exuberant and lively musical numbers that thoroughly invigorate the film.

      Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim are very well-cast and have wonderful chemistry together. They both exude charisma on screen. The actor who's having the most fun in his role, though, is Antonio Banderas who dials up the campiness through his over-the-top performance. The cinematography is solid without any choppy editing, and everything from the costume design to set design and makeup are terrific. Moreover, the musical numbers are very well-choreographed. They're shot in a way that feels captivating and cinematic. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Journey to Bethlehem is a heartfelt, refreshing and exhilarating reimagining of the Nativity story. It will make your heart soar.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by AFFIRM Films.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by John Trengove

      Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg) works as a rideshare driver and lives with his pregnant girlfriend, Sal ((Odessa Young), while struggling to make ends meet. At the local gym, he befriends Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), the leader of a group of men who learn how to embrace their masculinity.

      The screenplay by writer/director John Trengove takes an intriguing premise and turns it an underwhelming and vapid thriller. He leaves little to no room for interpretation and makes Ralphie seem like a vile human being from the first few minutes that you meet him. He's homophobic, insecure and a jerk who is bottling a lot of anger and frustration. What does Sal see in him? How did they meet? Obviously, the cult-like group that Dad Dad recruits him into brings out his misogyny and other vices. Where does his rage come from, though? What was his relationship with his father like? What was his childhood like? How introspective is he? Manodrome is uninterested in getting to know Ralphie before he loses his corporate job and goes on a downward spiral nor does it allow the audience to get to know him much afterward. It's clear from the very beginning that the cult-like group is unhealthy for him and will put his life and his relationship with Sal in danger. The third act, which isn't even remotely surprising, goes into dark territory which is commendable, but doesn't have anything insightful, interesting or to say. Its provocative themes of toxic masculinity, insecurity and hatred, among others, remain underexplored.

      Jesse Eisenberg gives a decent performance and it's refreshing to see him playing against type, but it's too bad that the screenplay doesn't provide enough of a window into Ralphie's heart, mind and soul. There's a pivotal, disturbing scene where something happens to him toward the end which would surely traumatize him. However, the film just moves on from that scene without showing how Ralphie deals with what just happened to him. It's more concerned about moving the plot forward than exploring Ralphie as a human being. Adrien Brody is a great actor who deserves a better-written role than Dad Dan who's pretty much one-note. The cinematography is decent, but nothing exceptional that would've elevated Manodrome in terms of style to compensate for its lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Manodrome is dark and initially intriguing, but shallow, unimaginative and heavy-handed. In a double feature with Fight Club or Taxi Driver, it would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

The Marvels

Directed by Nia DaCosta

      Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), joins forces with her estranged niece, Monica Rambea (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) to save the universe from the nefarious Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton).

      The screenplay by writer/director Nia DaCosta and her co-writers, Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik, suffers from a number of systemic issues. First of all, the plot feels disjointed with too many underdeveloped subplots and poor use of exposition. The filmmakers assume that the audience has forgotten key scenes from Captain Marvel, so there's a montage of those scenes with flashbacks just in case. Kamala Khan, a huge fan of Captain Marvel from Jersey City, turns into a superhero too quickly within the first ten minutes; unlike Blue Beetle that takes more time to explore the relationship between its superhero and his family before he turns into Blue Beetle. Secondly, the tone is all over the place. At times, it's goofy and silly, other times it's trying to be serious or thrilling, but even then it falls flat. The attempts at humor are also lame with recycled jokes involving the cat from Captain Marvel. When Kamala meets Captain Marvel for the first time, her reaction is supposed to be funny, but it's neither funny the first time she nervously gushes over the sight of her nor the second or third time. Why repeat the same jokes over and over? Thirdly, the nemesis, Dar-Benn is very weak, underwritten and forgettable. Her dialogue sounds stilted more often than not. The same can be said for the Captain Marvel's and Monica's witless and bland dialogue. Also, there's not a single action sequence that feels exciting, even the inevitable final battle.

      At least in terms of production values, The Marvels has impressive CGI effects and breathtaking scenes in outer space that provide some sporadic moments of exhilaration and visual dazzle on the big screen. On the small screen, though, that exhilaration and dazzle will probably be significantly diminished. The film moves too quickly, especially during the first 10 minutes, so the filmmakers clearly don't trust the audience's patience. Nor do they trust their intelligence because there's too much over-explaining. Unfortunately, none of the actresses or actors rise above the shallow screenplay. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, but he's wasted here. There's only one scene that stands out because of how it uses Barbra Streisand's song "Memory" in a way that's outrageously funny and clever, but the scene is ephemeral. Moreover, the film's editing feels choppy with awkward transitions between scenes on Earth and scenes in outer space. Amazingly, though, The Marvels's running time clocks under 2 hours which is a step in the right direction because at least it's exhausting. At a running time of 1 hour 45 minutes, The Marvels is a disjointed, clunky and tonally uneven mess with not nearly enough surprises or palpable thrills.

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

Your Lucky Day

Directed by Dan Brown

      Sterling (Angus Cloud), a thug, enters a convenience store where a man announces that he won $156 million lottery ticket, so he holds the man hostage to steal his lottery ticket. Ana (Jessica Garza), Abraham (Elliot Knight), her boyfriend, and the store's owner, Amir (Mousa Hussien Kraish), get caught in the hostage situation while a police officer, Cody (Sterling Beaumon), also gets involved.

      The screenplay by writer/director Dan Brown benefits from being a focused and intense crime thriller before it eventually goes over-the-top. Your Lucky Day wastes no time to jump right into the meat of the story when the man wins the lottery ticket before Sterling holds him and everyone else hostage in the store hostage. What happens when Cody, the police officer, arrives on the scene won't be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that it leads to a series of events that changes the way you look at each of the hostages. The film isn't afraid to show the dark side of human nature. Greed, among other vices, becomes a common issue as everyone wants that $156 million lottery ticket, the plot's MacGuffin. There's just the right amount of character development without the use of flashbacks or filler as you get to know the hostages one by one. More backstory for each of them would've been helpful, but at least they're humanized enough. What would they do with the money if they were to have it? Would they really be happier? Your Lucky Day isn't really interested in exploring the answers to those questions, but that's forgivable. Nor does the film become as intriguing as the plot in The Outfit. However, it's an often gripping and exciting B-movie that will keep you at the end of your seat without making you feel exhausted or underwhelmed, so kudos to writer/director Dan Brown for avoiding dangerous pitfall that many films these days don't avoid: lethargy and tonal unevenness.

      The performances are solid with no one over-acting or under-acting. For a movie that's primarily set in one location, like The Outfit, Your Lucky Day makes the most out of its setting to turn it into a cinematic experience. There's plenty of action that doesn't hold back on the blood and guts, so the violence is somewhat Tarantino-esque, although not quite as stylized or bold. The pace moves fast enough which means that no scenes overstay their welcome. That said, the ending does feel a bit rushed and not very imaginative. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Your Lucky Day is a lean, suspenseful and gritty crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well Go USA
Opens in select theaters.