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Reviews for November 9th, 2018

El Angel

Directed by Luis Ortega

      Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro), a 17-year-old high school student, lives with his mother, Aurora (Celia Roth), and father, Héctor (Luis Gnecco). After he befriends Ramón (Chico Darin), his classmate, Ramón introduces him to his parents, Ana Maria (Mercedes Mora´n) and José (Daniel Fanego), both of whom are criminals. José gives him a gun and shows him how to use it. Carlitos and Ramón eventually go on a killing spree while Carlitos develops a crush on Ramón.

      El Angel is just as much of a coming-of-age character study as it is a crime thriller. Writer/director Luis Ortega and co-writers Rodolfo Palacios and Sergio Olguín open the film with Carlitos dancing to music in a house that he had burglarized. It's an amusing way to introduce you to the character of Carlitos who looks innocent, but doesn't behave innocently. The film is lucky to have Lorenzo Ferro in a breakthrough performance as the lead. He brings palpable charism to his role. Carlitos is far from likable, but he does have some redeeming qualities, and there's something compelling about him that makes you care about him and feel sorry for him. He's struggling with his sexuality which is initially shown in subtle ways, i.e. by the way that he looks at Ramón.

      Even though there are indeed crime thriller elements, El Angel shies away from showing excessively gruesome violence. This isn't a Tarantino film like the overrated, shallow Pulp Fiction, fortunately. Ortego and his co-screenwriters actually trust the audience's imagination and emotions. There are some surprisingly poignant scenes and understated moments every now and then. Thanks to the well-written screenplay, the slower moments that add emotional depth don't distract from the plot's momentum nor do they make it feel uneven. The film ends at just the right scene without overstaying its welcome. Moreover, the cinematography looks great and there's also a great, well-chosen soundtrack to boot. Although, El Angel doesn't anything surprising or profound to say about the mind of a serial killer nor does it take any huge risks, it's nonetheless an electrifying, heartfelt and enormously entertaining experience. The running time of 118 minute feels more like 90 minutes.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Orchard.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Intimate Strangers

Directed by J.Q. Lee

      Seok-Ho (Choi Jin Woong) and his wife, Ye Jin (Kim Ji Soo), invite their childhood friends for a house-warming party at their home. Joon Mo (Lee Seo Jin) arrives with his wife, Se Kyung (Song Ha Yoon). Tae Soo (Yoo Hae Jin) arrives with Soo Hyun (Yum Jung Ah), his wife, and Young Bae (Yoon Kyung Ho) comes solo. They all agree to make the night more interesting by playing a game: they must place their cellphone at the center of the table for everyone to read their texts and calls. What starts out as a calm, relaxing dinner party turns into much more than they bargained for.

      Intimate Strangers begins with a very apt quote from novelist Gabriel García Márquez, "Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life." That quote serves as both an aphorism and as a foreshadow of the events to come. The screenplay by Se-Young Bae, based on the Italian film Perfect Strangers, explores the universal, relatable issues of friendship, marriage, betrayal, secrets and lies all in just under 2 hours. The friends who unite for the house-warming have known each other since kindergarten, but the questions on the audience's minds as well as the characters' minds is, "How well do they truly know each other? Who can you trust?" Gradually, each of them has a secret that rises to the surface to threaten the stability of their friendships and marriages.

      Screenwriter Se-Young Bae and director J.W. Lee do a great job of establishing the chemistry between the group of friends while slowly builds up the tension throughout the film. This isn't a nail-biting thriller nor is it a laugh-out loud comedy; it's a wildly entertaining, intriguing and suspenseful social commentary that's grounded in realism. The events that transpire can happen to anyone if they and their friends were to play the same game. None of the twists will be spoiled here, but it's worth mentioning that they're plausible within the context of the film. It's also worth noting that the each of the actors and actresses are well-cast in their roles and give a natural performance without going over-the-top. Each character becomes a fully fleshed-out human being, warts-and-all, as the plot progresses. There's no villain---perhaps technology itself is the villain, but that's up for interpretation. Fortunately, the film never becomes schmaltzy, preachy nor lethargic. By the end of Intimate Strangers, you'll never look at your cellphone nor your friends and lovers the same way again.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Tangren Cultural Film Group and Asia Releasing.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Number 37

Directed by Nosipho Dumisa

      Randal (Irshaad Ally), a burglar, borrows money from a loan shark, Emmie (Danny Ross), so that he and his pal can deal drugs, but when the drug deal doesn't go as planned, his pal ends up dead and Randal gets injured and requiring a wheelchair. When he moves to a new apartment building, his girlfriend, Pam (Monique Rockman), gives him a binoculars which he uses to observe his neighbors across the street. Soon enough, he witnesses a murder and uses his newfound knowledge as a means of blackmailing the killer to pay off his debts to Emmie.

      The only similarity between Number 37 and Rear Window is that they're both about a man in a wheelchair who witnesses a crime being committed as he looks out of his apartment window. Writer/director Nosipho Dumisa opts for a gritty thriller that, unlike Hitchcock's film, is very unflinching in its depiction of violence while leaving very little to the imagination or for interpretation. None of the characters are memorable nor are there any scenes that stand out long after the end credits roll. In Number 37, there's no denying that a murder took place nor is it a mystery of who the killer is for that matter, so in that sense, this is nothing like Rear Window at all. The majority of the suspense comes from the events that transpire once Randal and his girlfriend start their blackmailing scheme and put their lives at risk.

      Randal isn't a good person at heart because he's a burglar, so it's hard for the audience to connect with him on an emotional level. To be fair, Taxi Driver also had an unlikable character, Travis Bickle, but he's a very well-written, complex character, unlike Randal. The emotions in Number 37 derive not from the screenplay nor from the characters themselves, but from the raw, convincingly moving performances of Irshaad Ally and Monique Rockman who invigorate the film. The cinematography, music score and lighting are all top-notch making the film feel quite cinematic. If only it were to have more going for it than the good performances and production values. Rear Window is a very stylishly-shot, well-edited and rewatchable film that transcends its genre; Number 37 is also stylishly shot and well-edited, but fails to transcend its genre. It pales in comparison to Rear Window, but on its own, it's mildly gripping and very gritty, but unremarkable and forgettable B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Dark Star Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Time Freak

Directed by Andrew Bowler

      When his girlfriend, Debbie (Sophie Turner), dumps him, Stillman (Asa Butterfield) invents a time machine to figure out what went wrong in their relationship and how he can prevent the break-up. He maps out key moments from their relationship starting with when he first met her when she was serving him and his best friend, Evan (Skyler Gisando), at a restaurant bar. Evan (Skyler Gisando), joins him in his time-traveling quest.

      Imagine Back to the Future crossed with (500) Days of Summer and you'll have some idea of what Time Freak is like. It's much more important where you take ideas to than where you take ideas from, though. Fortunately, Time Freak has an interesting concept that's executed pretty well, for the most part. The screenplay by writer/director Andrew Bowler effectively sets up its basic premise and its lighthearted, comedic tone from the very first few minutes so that you know kind of movie you're about to watch: Stillman goes back in time over and over try different ways to redo the moment when Debbie broke up with him at a restaurant. He gives her various sizes of flower bouquets to no avail. Bowler minimizes the amount of exposition, so you learn a little bit about how the time machine works throughout the course of the film. Whenever anyone goes through the time machine, they immediately experience a massive headache. Also, when they go back in time, they don't end up with two versions of themselves like in Back to the Future. There's one plot hole, though, that makes requires too much suspense of disbelief: How could Stillman afford to build the time machine to begin with? It looks very expensive. Also, he and Debbie fall in love rather quickly, so their romance feels a bit rushed and contrived.

      With that said, Time Freak does at least explore modern relationships provocatively and honestly. Its ultimate message about how there's no "quick fix" for a failing relationship is far more profound than the shallow message in the overrated Back to the Future where Marty learns that happiness just means getting a hot girl and a cool car. There's a lot more to happiness than that, and Stillman has a very interesting character arc as he experiences more and more epiphanies about his relationship with Debbie. He starts out as a perfectionist and an unctuous people-pleaser which is part of his problem which he ends up confronting. Time Freak isn't as brilliant nor as engrossing as (500) Days of Summer or When Harry Met Sally..., but at least it has somewhat of a heart and a brain unlike most modern Hollywood romcoms, i.e. Nobody's Fool. It's also fortunate to have Asa Butterfield who elevates the film with his charisma. Time Freak would make an interesting double feature with Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life which also has a provocative concept that combines science fiction, romance, comedy and drama.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at AMC Empire.
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