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Reviews for November 11th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Black Notebooks: Ronit is a heartfelt and intimate documentary about the final few years in the life of Ronit Elkabetz, an Israeli actress and writer/director who died of lung cancer in 2016. She co-wrote, co-directed and starred in the film Gett in 2014. During the production, she was battling lung cancer, but remained hopeful and determined to continue to work. She even planned to star in a Maria Callas biopic. Director Shlomi Elkabetz, her brother, provides the audience with a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of Ronit's struggles which mirrored the struggles of the character she plays in Gett. This isn't a documentary biopic of Ronit Elkabetz, so if you're watching it expecting to learn about her childhood or about her entire filmography, you'll be disappointed that it's incomplete in that sense. Love, Antosha is an example of a more illuminating and thorough documentary biopic that also honors an actor who died. There are no talking heads or stylish editing here nor does there need to be. The film remains focused on Ronit during her last few years without going into any tangents. Like in the recent doc Last Flight Home, there's a voyeuristic aspect to watching it because the footage is primarily Ronit's private moments. It's emotionally devastating, but at least Shlomi Elkabetz does a great job of humanizing her by showing what she's like "behind the curtain." She comes across as warm, honest and emotionally generous, especially for allowing her brother to film her and for being so emotionally open and vulnerable in front of the camera. She's brave and strong on the inside. Bravo to Shlomi for filming her with genuine compassion, love and admiration. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Black Notebooks: Ronit opens at New Plaza Cinema via Panorama Films.

      Nothing Lasts Forever is one of the better documentaries opening this week because it finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and well as intellectually. Director Jason Kohn does a wonderful job of exposing the fraud and lies taking place in the diamond industry: natural diamonds that are actually synthetic or mixed with synthetic diamonds, but sold as natural diamonds. You'll learn about the history of how diamonds were marketed and that anything can be turned into something that's overvalued through marketing, i.e. aluminum, the metal found at the top of the Washington Monument, used to be more expensive and considered more valuable than it is today. Kohn not only asks good questions to his interview subjects, but also includes fair and balanced perspectives from both sides of the debate: Aja Raden, a jewelry designer, Dusan Simic, a gemologist, Michael Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group sand founder of the Rapaport Diamond Report, and Stephen Lussier , an executive of De Beers. Nothing Lasts Forever covers a lot of ground without feeling like an academic documentary; it's more along the lines of Michael Moore's documentaries that will make you angry at times while making you laugh every now and then---Aja Raden makes for a very amusing interview subject with her razor-sharp wit and sense of humor. The editing is slick and the pace moves quickly enough without a dull moment; you'll forget you're watching a documentary at times because it feels more like a suspense thriller. At times, though, the musical score is a bit overbearing, especially when it's happening while the subjects are talking. There's enough tension within the documentary itself, so the music score is often redundant and hits the audience over the head. That said, by the end of the film, which is at a lean, efficient and ideal running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, you'll never look at a diamond the same way again. Nothing Lasts Forever is one of the most eye-opening, captivating and persuasive exposés since Sour Grapes. It opens at Quad Cinema via Showtime Documentary Films.

      Retrograde is a harrowing, immersive and powerful documentary about the final 9 months of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 before the fall of Kabul. Director Matthew Heineman captures those months with unprecedented access to Afghan General Sami Sadat and his soldiers who the American Green Berets train. As the Taliban's takeover of Kabul approaches and the U.S. is in the process of pulling out of Kabul, the tension feels as palpable as in narrative war films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Heineman deserves praise for being not only brave enough to film during such a dangerous time and place with many lives at risk, but also for showing the events unflinchingly, for the most part, and truthfully. He lets the footage speak for itself without preaching to the audience. The images speak louder than words, though. Unless you're made out of stone, the final 10 minutes or so of the doc will break your heart and infuriate you concurrently as Afghan and American civilians desperately try to escape Afghanistan at the airport. There's also footage from inside the crowded rescue planes, which makes this a very thorough documentary. The only thing that's missing is a portrait one of its subjects on screen, i.e. General Sadat, or any of the Afghan men or women who successfully fled. Perhaps it'll take many years for them to process what happened emotionally because it's very traumatic, but it would've been interesting to hear their accounts in retrospect. How are they rebuilding their lives now? At least Retrograde will spark a conversation about a tragic event while shedding light on a vital human rights issue. It opens at Angelika Film Center via National Geographic Documentary Films, and it would make for a great double feature with the recent doc Souls in Transit.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Directed by Ryan Coogler

      Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), the new leader of Wakanda, and her daughter, Suri (Letitia Wright), a scientist, mourn the death of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the rules of an underwater society, has a powerful mineral called vibranium which countries around the world, including the U.S. desperately want. He warns Queen Ramonda that if she doesn't find and kill the scientist who invented the machine that the US government uses to detect vibranium, he will destroy Wakanda.  

      Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes place one year after the death of King T'Chalia. The screenplay by writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole begins on a somber note as the people of Wakanda grieve King T'Chalia's death and struggle to move on from it. Queen Ramonda has a lot to deal with especially after the mysterious Namor emerges from the ocean to threaten her. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy, joins Queen Ramonda and Suri's quest to save Wakanda. To describe the plot further would be to spoil its surprisingly twists and turns. A lot happens as other characters are introduced as well, i.e. a CIA agent (Martin Freeman). Of course, just as expected, there's a MacGuffin---in this case it's vibranium. Every superhero movie has to have a MacGuffin by default or at least so it seems thus far. What's more interesting and adds emotional depth is something intangible that Queen Ramonda and Suri want: to find peace and tranquility after the death of King T'Challa. There's no mention of what illness he died from, but that's okay. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever doesn't dwell on his death too much, but it's nonetheless an integral part of the story that shapes the lives of Queen Ramonda, Suri and affects the future of Wakanda. Coogler and Cole don't forget to ground the film in realism and humanity between all of the action and thrills. They give Queen Ramonda and Suri a character arc and allow them to turn into complex human beings. There's also some comic relief, so the film knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. .

      On purely aesthetic note, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a visually dazzling spectacle that's exhilarating to behold, especially on the big screen. The CGI, costume design, set design, and the breathtaking landscape combine to create a sense of awe. ngela Bassett gives a very strong performance as do Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong'o. They provide much of the film's emotional depth from start to finish. There are plenty of action scenes, but they're well-shot and provide a rush of pure adrenaline without exhausting the audience. That said, the weight of running time of 2 hour and 41 minutes can be felt, so the film does overstay its welcome, and the thrills begin to wane around the 2 hour mark. Ultimately, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever won't be remembered for its exhilarating action, stunning CGI or palpable thrills, but rather for its genuinely heartfelt moments of melancholy and tenderness. 

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

The Fabelmans

Directed by Steven Spielberg

      6-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis DeFord) develops a passion for filmmaking when his father, Burt (Paul Dano), and mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth at the local cinema. In his teenage years, Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), still has that passion and makes movies with his younger sisters, Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera), and his Boy Scouts troop. Meanwhile, his father has promotions at work and moves the family from New Jersey to Phoenix to California where Sammy.

      The Fabelmans serves as a coming-of-age story and a semi-autobiography of Steven Spielberg. The screenplay by writer/director Steven Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner begins strongly while showing how young Sammy Fabelman developed his love for filmmaking, how his mother, Mitzi, and family friend/"uncle", Bennie (Seth Rogen), encouraged him. Mitzi has her own subplot involving her unhappy marriage life and her affair with Benny which Sammy films, but leaves that footage on the cutting room floor. Sammy's relationship with his mother and how it evolves provides the film's most compelling and heartfelt moments. Everything else, though, feels a bit contrived and undercooked as The Fabelmans bites of more than it could chew. It deals with many themes including anti-semetism, bullying, first love, depression, perseverance, grief and more. There are too many characters, but Spielberg and Kushner don't focus enough on all of them, especially the most interesting one, Mitzi. She deserves her own movie and is just as complex as a wife and mother as Beth from Ordinary People. She hits Sammy so hard once during his teenage years that it causes a red mark on his back, but she immediately feels regret and remorse. Even years later down the line, she brings up that incident without gaslighting him and tells him that she needs him to forgive her. She's clearly going through a lot on an emotional level, but The Fabelmans doesn't do an effective enough job of exploring what she's going through during the second half of the film.

      A lot happens then, including a circus monkey that she brings home in a scene that generates laughs, but feels a bit random and out-of-place as though that Spielbergs were desperate for laughs. Then there's an initially funny scene in the bedroom of a devout Christian girl who's Sammy's first love, but the sight gags involving her obsession with Jesus get repeated over and over until they're not funny anymore. The most emotionally resonating and profound scene, though, is when Mitzi's uncle (Judd Hirsch) shows up out-of-the-blue and stays the night while lecturing Sammy about art vs family and the pain & suffering that an artist must go through. The dialogue in that scene is on-the-nose without much room for interpretation, but it's nonetheless very wise and poignant. A less effective scene with on-the -nose dialogue is when Sammy and his bully have a heart-to-heart in the hallway at school during prom night. It's a scene that has some wit and provides some catharsis while humanizing the bully, but it's very heavy-handed, hackneyed and contrived concurrently. The linear plot-structure that ends on a positive, hopeful note makes the film feel conventional, sugar-coated and pat while the more interesting characters remain on the sideline and the darker themes remain underexplored.

      The Fabelmans is the kind of movie where the performances are better than the film itself. Michelle Williams gives an Oscar-worthy performance that brims with charisma and emotional depth that can't be found in the screenplay. Paul Dano is also superb as is Jeannie Berlin as Sammy's grandmother who provides some comic relief with her quips. However, Judd Hirsch knocks it out of the ballpark with the film's emotional center when he delivers a monologue with utter conviction and bravura that will surely lead to a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, the film sidelines his character after that scene and he doesn't return. The cinematography is exquisite and makes the film look very cinematic at times with wonderful costume and set design that pays attention to period detail of the 1950's and 60's. You'll also find some "easter eggs" that reference Spielberg's classics, so Spielberg fans will have a great time finding all of those "easter eggs." At a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes, The Fabelmans is conventional, uneven and bites off more than it could chew. It's isn't nearly as powerful as Ordinary People, Boyhood, Tokyo Sonata or The 400 Blows, but at least it's not as schmaltzy as Belfast. The strong worthy performances, especially by Michelle Williams and Judd Hirsch, add much-needed emotional depth.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens in select theaters. Expands nationwide on November 23rd, 2022.

The Friendship Game

Directed by Scooter Corkle

      Cotton (Kaitlyn Santa Juana) and Zooza (Peyton List) buy a unique game from a mysterious older woman (Miriam Smith) at a yard sale. The game is designed to test the players' friendship when each player confesses their deepest desires and if their friendship survives, they win and survive. If their friendship doesn't survive, they die. They meet up with their other friends, Robbie (Brendan Meyer) and Courtney (Kelcey Mawema), to play the game, but soon Cotton goes missing while their neighbor, Kyle (Dylan Schombing), hacks into Cotton's computer to watch them play.

      The screenplay by Damien Ober wastes no time jumping right into the meat of the story when Cotton and Zooza find the friendship game at a yard sale. Before you know it, they're already gathered with Robbie and Courtney to play it. Who are these people? Who's the lady who sold the friendship game? What's in it for her to sell it, other than---spoiler alert!!!--the $10 that it costs to purchase it? Cotton and Zooza come across as so gullible when the lady explains to them the rules of the game before they agree to buy it. They barely ask her any questions or think twice before buying it. Little to no exposition would be fine if it doesn't make the plot lazy and silly, but that's precisely what happens here, unfortunately. As the plot progresses, it becomes confusing and preposterous as reality and fantasy get blurred. Bizarre events happen that make little to no sense and don't get explained at any point. Also, who are these friends we're supposed to care about? The audience learned little to nothing about Cotton, so the beats don't land after she goes missing. Screenwriter Damien Omer does a poor job of introducing her or any of the other characters. They're boring characters, and their friendship doesn't feel palpable. Moreover, the friendship game itself isn't fun, clever, imaginative nor exciting, and the dialogue is dull and stitled while failing to invigorate the film.

      The performances are fine with no one giving a weak performance, but, to be fair, the weak screenplay doesn't give them enough material to stand out. The pace moves quickly at first---too quickly--as director Scooter Corker and screenwriter Damien Ober don't trust the audience's patience enough to slow the narrative down a little to flesh out the characters and the sci-fi elements. Despite being about a game that has the word "friendship" in it, it's disappointing how little the film has to say about friendship. It also doesn't say much about technology either even though it does deal with hacking and virtual reality. Perhaps the plot needed to go more bonkers to be at least a guilty pleasure instead of playing it so safely without taking any risks. Of course, the third act ends with a scene that adds nothing except setting the film up for a sequel. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, The Friendship Game is an uninspired, confusing and preposterous sci-fi thriller that squanders an opportunity to be scary, fun and suspenseful, and nothing interesting to say anything remotely interesting about friendship or technology. It's yet another lazy, undercooked B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

L'Odge d'Oor

Directed by Preston Miller


Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

Paradise City

Directed by Chuck Russell


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Sam & Kate

Directed by Darren Le Gallo

      Sam (Jake Hoffman), an aspiring artist, lives in a small town with his father, Bill (Dustin Hoffman), and works at a candy factory with his friend/co-worker, Ron (Henry Thomas). He flirts with Kate (Schuyler Fisk), a bookstore owner who tells him explicitly that she's not interested in dating anyone. When Kate has car troubles one night after church with her mother, Tina (Sissy Spacek), Bill and Sam happen to notice, offer them a ride home, and help to fix Kate's car. Sam and his father agree to join them for dinner which sparks a romance between Sam and Kate as well as Bill and Tina.

      Writer/director Darren Le Gallo has woven a genuinely heartwarming love story with just the right balance of humor and heartbreak. He does a great job of introducing Sam, Bill, Kate and Tina to the audience through expositional scenes that reveal a lot about the father/son and mother/daughter relationships without actually feeling like exposition. He doesn't rely on flashbacks or voice-over to inform the audience about the character's backstories and where their emotional pain comes from. He reveals that information gradually and at just the right time without leading to any clunkiness or cloying melodrama. There's no villain on-screen; just people struggling with their lives and learning to embrace love and romance. Perhaps the only "villain" is the health issues that Bill suffers from. Sam and Kate's "meet cute" moment at the bookstore would have easily been cheesy with a less sensitive screenplay, but it remains cheese-free. Yes, the trajectory of their relationship can be easily predicted from a mile away, but so what? There's nothing inherently wrong with predictability or even cliches. It's more important how a film goes about its cliches and predictability. Fortunately, the characters feel real and lived-in because writer/director Darren Le Gallo sees and treats them like complex human beings with flaws, regrets and personalities which makes them all the more human and relatable. Like all human beings, they have epiphanies, grow and change organically while learning how to come to terms with harsh realities. Too often, older characters are simply written as "old" or caricatures of old people, but Sam & Kate avoids that because Bill and Tina aren't merely "old"; they're human beings, warts and all.

      The performances by Jake Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman, Schuyler Fisk and Sissy Spacek are convincingly moving and charming. Jake Hoffman and Schuyler Fisk have palpable chemistry together which helps you to want Sam and Kate to end up together. The same can be said about Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek. They're wonderful together while radiating plenty of warmth and charisma. There's a small, but powerful moment when Sam cries facing away from the camera. It's a scene that would've been too heavy-handed if it were to have lasted longer. Thank you, Darren Le Gallo, for allowing Sam to cry. It doesn't make him any less of a man; he's even more of a man for being brave and emotionally mature enough to cry. To watch him blossom and to be true to himself is a pure joy to behold. Bill and Tina are blossoming, too, in their own individual ways. It even has a few poetic scenes, i.e. Kate's broken car that Bill and Sam fix or the scene when Sam and Kate sit by a lake at night with fireworks in the sky reflected on the lake. It's a beautiful, magical and transcendent moment that speaks louder than words. Poetry, after all, is a form of protest for or against something. Without preachiness, Sam & Kate is a protest for love and against hate. As the great poet Pablo Neruda once wisely observed, "They can cut all of your flowers, but they can't stop the spring from coming." Sam & Kate is a testament to that profound poem.

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