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Reviews for December 7th, 2018

Bernie the Dolphin

Directed by Kirk Harris

      When Holly (Lola Sultan) and brother, Kevin (Logan Allen), learn that a businessman, Winston Mills (Kevin Sorbo), is hatching an illegal real estate plan to destroy a Florida cove, they do everything they can to stop him including recording him on camera. Their father Bob (Patrick Muldoon) works as a real estate developer associated with Winston thereby putting job at stake. Bernie, a dolphin that rescues Holly after a boating accident, swims in that cove along with other dolphins, so if Holly and Kevin save the cove, they also save the dolphins.

      The best thing that can be said about Bernie the Dolphin is that it's harmless, family-friendly and has beautiful scenery. Just because it's family-friendly doesn't mean that it's entertaining or heartfelt like a truly great family film. Unfortunately, the dull, witless screenplay by Terri Emerson and Marty Poole fails to develop the bond between the titular dolphin and the kids. The villain, Winston, is one-note and the same can be said about other cardboard characters. Too many scenes feel lethargic, and the performances are mediocre more often than not. Worst of all, there's very little to capture the attention or the hearts of adults who watch this with their kids. That said, at least it's not cringe-inducing like the similarly G-rated Oogieloves, but even at a running time of 89 minutes, it still feels like 3 hours. Bernie the Dolphin makes Free Willy look like Citizen Kane.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Grindstone Entertainment and Lionsgate Premiere.
Opens at Cinema Village.

The Mercy

Directed by James Marsh


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Screen Media Films.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Never Look Away

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

      Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) studies at an art academy in East Germany where he meets Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), a fashion student. He falls in love with her despite the disapproval of her domineering father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who was responsible for sending Kurt's aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to death years earlier. Kurt marries Ellie and moves with her to West Germany and further develops painting skills and passion while studying at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. However, his dark family history come back to haunt him.

      Based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away is an enthralling and sweeping saga that's just as powerful and provocative as The Lives of Others. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck begins the film by setting up the tragic events that led to Elisabeth's death as you're introduced to young Kurt (Cai Cohrs), Elisabeth's nephew. Those key scenes put the rest of the film in a very compelling and tragic context especially when Kurt meets his lover's father, Professor Carl Seeband. There's nothing dry or dull about the way that Never Look Away unfolds because the intelligent screenplay immerses you into the story from the very first frame and gets inside the head of its protagonist, Kurt Barnert. His romantic relationship with Ellie feels organic and their love of each other remains palpable throughout. It's equally fascinating to watch Kurt emerge as a very talented artist, but the film's most compelling aspect is how the tragedy from his childhood gradually rises to the foreground as Kurt comes to terms with harsh truths about Professor Carl Seeband.

      A less sensitively-written screenplay would've led to melodrama, distracting flashbacks and schmaltz, but Henckel von Donnersmarck steers clear of those pitfalls which is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. Editors Patricia Rommel and Patrick Sanchez Smith wisely move the film at a leisurely pace which helps you to be more easily absorbed by many of the scenes and to pay close attention to the stylish cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and production design by Silke Buhr. It's refreshing to watch a film that trusts its audience's patience, emotions and intelligence with more emotional grit than physical grit. Admittedly, it would have been interesting were the film shot in black-and-white instead of color, but its color cinematography is nonetheless breathtaking to behold.

      Further enriching the film are the stellar performances by Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer. Schilling not only has good looks, but also exudes charisma which helps to make him a very appealing leading man. Sebastian Koch nails the role of Professor Carl Seeband with aplomb. Koch does indeed has charisma, but he's also convincingly tough and threatening without going over-the-top. There's no cheese to go with any ham here because none of the actors give a hammy performance which adds to the film's authenticity. In other words, Never Look Away find just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle while also finding Spectacle within its Truth. It's not an edge-of-your seat thriller, but rather a slow-burning, spellbinding and quietly poignant film. Despite the running time of 189 minutes, you never feel the weight of the lengthy running time which reflects precisely how entertaining the film truly is during its captivating beginning, middle and end. Prepare to be haunted and moved by the very powerful, wordless final scene. Never Look Away ranks as one of the best films of the year.

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

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen

      Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell), a former cop recovering from alcoholism, starts a new job working the graveyard shift at a morgue. She has an ex-boyfriend, Andrew (Grey Damon), who's concerned about her and suspects her of stealing his Xanax pills. Little does he know that her troubles are far worse after she delivers the corpse of Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson), a murdered young woman who's possessed by an evil demon.

      The Possession of Hannah Grace doesn't tread new ground nor is it as scary as The Exorcist, but at least the screenplay by Brian Sieve keeps the plot lean and doesn't waste any time setting up its tone within the very first minutes during which a priest performs an exorcism on Hannah Grace. The brief subplot involving Megan and her ex-boyfriend is perfunctory as is the backstory of how Megan became an alcoholic. The demonic possession of Hannah Grace and the investigation that ensues when Megan starts looking at Hanna's past is the meat of the story, so kudos to the Sieve and director Diederik Van Rooijen for maintaining focus on those compelling elements. The production design, lighting and visual effects add plenty of style to the film, and it's also worth mentioning that there's some blood and gore to be found (hence the R-rating) which makes for an intense experience.

      Fortunately, the editing doesn't feel choppy like Venom's editing which clearly looked like it was trimmed down from an R to a PG-13 rating. Shay Mitchell gives a decent performance and Maximillian McNamara is very well-cast as a security guard who provides much-needed comic relief. None of the characters are interesting enough to root for nor to care about, but that's compensated somewhat by the fact that the character of Megan is refreshingly more intelligent than your average horror protagonist. In other words, you won't be tempted to yell at the screen to call her stupid.

      You will find some genuine scares every now and then. There are, indeed, a few cheap jump scares just as you'd expect there to be, but when the real scares show up, with the help of the cinematography, visual effects, set design and lighting, they're quite palpable. Even small details like the presence of a fly add to the creepiness. You'll also find just enough exposition to get a basic idea of why the demon is killing people. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 25 minutes, The Possession of Hannah Grace isn't imaginative nor clever enough to rise above mediocrity, but it's nonetheless an intense, occasionally terrifying ride with stylish production design and superb visual effects.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Screen Gems.
Opens in select theaters.
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