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Reviews for November 25th, 2022

Battle for Saipan

Directed by Brandon Slagle

      On July 7th, 1944, at a U.S Army hospital, Vic (Casper Van Dien), a surgeon, Major Porter (Louis Mandylor), General Jake Carroll (Jeff Fahey), among others, defend themselves against an invasion from the Japanese Army on the island of Saipan during World War II.

       Another week, another lazy, forgettable B-movie. Loosely based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Brandon Slagle gets everything wrong that far superior war films get right. To compare Battle for Saipan to 1917 or All Quiet on the Western Front or even The Thin Red Line would be like comparing apples to pencils. Slagle barely develops any of the characters or gives them a personality or interesting backstories for that matter. At least he avoids flashbacks, but by eschewing a first act and starting right in the second act during the start of the invasion means that at least some exposition will be necessary that gives you a reason for caring about anyone on screen. Unfortunately, the expositional scenes are clunky at best with stilted dialogue. None of the characters come to life, so the beats don't land when their lives are in danger. Also, there's barely any levity or comic relief. Is it too much to ask to enliven a heavy war film with something that lets the audience breathe for a change? Otherwise, the film is at risk of becoming monotonous, tedious and exhausting. That's precisely what happens here. The suspense wanes as you become less and less emotionally invested in the plot or in any of the characters' lives. It's just as shallow and bland as a Michael Bay movie like Pearl Harbor, but with slightly more grittiness.

       A film like Battle for Saipan needs either great performances, visually stunning cinematography or exhilarating action scenes to invigorate it. Unfortunately, neither of those essential qualities can be found here. The performances range from wooden to hammy with no one breathing much-needed life into their role or exuding any much-needed charisma. The cinematography, landscape and camerawork don't add much style or even a modicum of poetry. Writer/director Brandon Slagle does include some graphic bloody scenes that provide some grittiness, but that's not enough to make the film more engaging on an emotional level. That said, the brief running time of just 1 hour and 34 minutes means that the film doesn't become an insufferable chore to sit through. It's even shorter and less nauseating than the overrated, similarly shallow, overproduced Dunkirk or a forgettable 80's Canon Group movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Leonor Will Never Die

Directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar

      Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) used to write Filipino B-movies. She's now retired and struggling to make ends meet. Her electricity will be shut off if she doesn't pay her bills. Luckily, the bill collector recognizes her from the Filipino film industry and gives her extra time to pay the pill. She takes out her typewriter to finish writing a screenplay about an actor hero, Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), but ends up inside the film when a TV hits her on the head, leaving her comatose. Meanwhile her son, Rudy (Bong Cabrera), sits by her bedside hoping that she'll awaken.

      Part sci-fi/fantasy, part comedy, part drama, part satire and part musical, The screenplay by writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. Otherwise, it would've turned into a clunky, nauseating and uneven mess. The first act takes its time to get to the meat of the story as it introduces Leonor to the audience and provides exposition about her family life, her former career in the film industry and her financial woes. Once the TV hits her over the head, that's when the film gains some narrative momentum and becomes a lot of fun. The hospital scenes are a little bit maudlin, though, but nonetheless sweet and tender more often than not. The scenes with Leonor inside her own action movie are the ones that stand out the most because they're wildly entertaining and amusing even if they're not laugh-out-loud funny per se. To be fair, the premise does lose some steam as it becomes a bit repetitive without anything surprising or interesting happening, but then the third act comes along where the film regains its momentum and even surprises you with an intense, gritty action scene and a campy musical number. The dark and light elements don't always blend effectively; at times there's some tonal whiplash, but that's just a minor, forgivable issue that doesn't sink the film.

      Sheila Francisco gives a heartfelt and lively performance as Leonor Reyes. It's refreshing to see an older actress in such a meaty role that allows her to play someone who's more than just an "old woman". Leonor is a human being, after all, and one who's scarred by memories of her dead son who shows up as a ghost every now and then. Sheila Francisco clearly is having a lot of fun on-screen, particularly in the fantasy sequences and in the musical number at the end. That musical number also includes some dancing which isn't very well-choreographed, but that's part of the film's charm. There have been many batshit crazy movies this year, including Everything Everywhere All at Once, Triangle of Sadness and Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth. Although, Leonor Will Never Die doesn't quite reach the level of brilliance of those films, it's still an amusing, inspired and campy genre-bending delight.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at The Metrograph.

The Son

Directed by Florian Zeller

      Kate (Laura Dern) arrives at the apartment of her ex-husband, Peter (Hugh Jackman), to ask him to take care of their troubled teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), who has stopped going to school for months. Nicholas agrees to move in with his father and Beth (Vanessa Kirby), his father's new girlfriend, who are raising a baby.

      The Son is just as hackneyed, maudlin and contrived as Dear Evan Hansen minus the musical numbers, although there is a dance sequence. The screenplay by writer Christopher Hampton and writer/director Florian Zeller, based on his play, wastes no time setting up the story as Kate arrives within the first few minutes to explain why their son needs to live with him and that she's no longer able to raise him herself. How and why she has failed at parenting Nicholas remains unclear, though, because those details are pretty much left up to the audience's interpretation. Nicholas sees a therapist, but that doesn't help with his rebellious bevahoir, suicidal thoughts and depression. The Son does a sub-par job of getting inside the head of Nicholas; it does somewhat of a better job of achieving that for Peter, but not by much. The system problem comes from the heavy-handed, on-the-nose screenplay that goes around in circles with very little momentum or any profound revelations until the schmaltzy third act that has an unnecessary twist which can be seen a mile away. It's the kind of twist that makes the movie feel cheap, exploitative and lazy. There had to have been a more clever, subtle and less clunky way for the film to say in the third act, but subtlety isn't among its strengths. There's also a subplot thrown in about Peter and his toxic relationship with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and how he confronts him about it, so the film's title refers to both Peter and Nicholas, both of whom are sons going through emotional struggles.In great films like Ordinary People or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the characters start as strangers to the audience at the beginning but become less and less strangers by the end. Unfortunately, The Son barely scratches the surface of those struggles, so its characters remain at a cold emotional distance from the audience. They all seem like strangers when the end credits roll.

      Laura Dern, High Jackman and Vanessa Kirby give raw, moving performances that help to ground the film ever so slightly with pure, unadulterated emotion that can't be found in the screenplay. Zen McGrath gives a decent, but unremarkable performance. Perhaps he's undermined by the weak screenplay. The pace moves slowly, too slow at first, and then picks up during the last 10 minutes which kick up the schmaltz way too high, and the audience feels assaulted by the emotions. Less is more. Restraint is an important virtue for any filmmaker to have, but that can't be found here. Too many scenes last too long. Very few scenes ring true. At a running time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, The Son is maudlin, heavy-handed and hackneyed. It pales compared to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Ordinary People which handled its topics of depression, suicide and dysfunctional families with more emotional depth, nuance, wisdom and warmth.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens in select theaters.

White Noise

Directed by Noah Baumbach

      Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and four children, and works as a professor who teaches about Adolf Hitler. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), one of his daughters, discovers that her mother has been taking a mysterious experimental drug that isn't on the market yet. Meanwhile, after a train with toxic chemicals crashes and explodes, Jack's teenage son, Heidrich (Sam Nivola), does some research and convinces his family to flee for the lives from a potential "airborne toxic event."

      The problem with White Noise could stem from its source material, the novel DeLillo. Writer/director Noah Baumbach deserves credit for taking the daunting task and risk to write and direct the film version of a virtually unfilmable novel. He also hasn't made a film with such a huge budget that requires visual effects, so this is new territory for him. Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes they don't. Unfortunately, in this case, they don't pay off. With a more sensitive and focused screenplay, White Noise could've been a thrilling, moving and entertaining experience. Instead, it's unfocused, clunky and all over the place both tonaly and in terms of plot and genre. The dialogue tries too hard to be witty and awkward, but falls flat with some cringe-inducing scenes, i.e. a musical scene in a supermarket. There are too many subplots and characters without enough room to breathe to get to know any of them to be able to relate to them or care about them. Once the family hits the road to escape what may or may not be an apocalypse, the film becomes increasingly preposterous, undercooked and bites off more than it could chew. Sure, it's unpredictable, but it's also meandering and dull with heavy-handed, preachy messages thrown at the audience in the third act that seem tacked-on and shallow simultaneously. White Noise doesn't trust the audience's intelligence, emotions nore their imagination enough.

      The performances aren't strong enough to rise above the weak screenplay. Adam Driver is fine, but he's much better in Marriage Story which does a more profound job of exploring the relationship between a husband and wife. White Noise also deals with a married couple with issues, but they remain underexplored. It doesn't help that Greta Gerwig is miscast in her role as Jack's wife much like Anne Hathaway is miscast in Armageddon Time. There's a scene where she cries in bed in a way that feels hackneyed as though she were satirizing someone who's crying. Whatever beat she and Baumbach are going for there, it simply does not land. Don Cheadle also shows up as a doctor, but his role is underwritten, too, so he's wasted. The child actors, Raffey Cassidy and Sam Nivola, give the best performances in the film and manage to elevate it ever so slightly. At a running time of 2 hour and 16 minutes, White Noise is overlong, clunky and shallow whiling biting off more than it could chew.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Netflix.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and The Paris Theatre before streaming on Netflix on December 30th, 2022.