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Last Flag Flying
***Opening Night Film***

Directed by Richard Linklater




      Doc (Steve Carell), Sal (Bryan Cranston), and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) had served together in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Years later, they reunite to bury the son of Doc who died in the Iraqi war.

      Last Flag Flying suffers from a dull, pedestrian screenplay co-written by Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, the novelist whose book the film is based on. The premise sounds like it could've been emotionally resonant and provocative, but, unfortunately, it fails to generate any tears or insights for that matter. Very few scenes ring true, and the attempts at comic relief feel clunky and awkward. The film's major flaw, though, is that it doesn't feel like a Richard Linklater film at at all. His past films had organic dialogue grounded in realism. Last Flag Flying, though, lacks that essential quality. Although it's great that Linklater is trying to do something very different from Boyhood, different doesn't always mean better. Perhaps the root cause of that problem comes from the fact that Linkater and Ponicsan didn't change anything from the book except for the war. Linklater's own voice seems to be missing from the film. Even the cinematography isn't exceptional. Too many scenes drag, the ending fails to pack an emotional wallop, and the film overstays its welcome at 2 hours and 5 minutes.

      On a positive note, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and, especially, Laurence Fishburne each gives a solid performance that provides much-needed depth of emotion, but that's not nearly enough to compensate for the lackluster, weak screenplay. They're actors who deserve much better material. If only Linklater were to have incorporated more humanism via his iconic true-to-life dialogue, Last Flag Flying would've been a much more powerful, haunting and moving experience instead of a forgettable and mostly lethargic one. There's not nearly enough Truth nor Spectacle to be found here.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Amazon Studios.
Opens November 3rd, 2017 in select theaters.

Wonder Wheel
***Closing Night Film***

Directed by Woody Allen




      In 1950s Coney Island, Ginny (Kate Winslet) and her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) have lost their spark and remain stuck in a stale marriage. She cheats on him with a young man, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who works as a lifeguard. When Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), arrives home while running from the law, she develops a romance with Mickey as well.

      Wonder Wheel is one of Woody Allen's worst movies since You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The screenplay could have been as nuanced, intelligent and poignant as Blue Jasmine, but it quickly becomes an asinine, contrived mess that's overstuffed and undercooked. It's no help that Justin Timberlake is miscast because he lacks charisma and comedic timing. Every single that he's in feels cringe-inducing. Moreover, he's a very annoying narrator. Breaking the fourth wall is something that's very dangerous because it could derail the film if it's not incorporated organically. In this case, it does indeed derail the film. Woody Allen does a poor job of finding the right tone for the film and balancing its light and dark elements. Just when you think the film couldn't get worse, it takes a steep nosedive during the third act that ties everything together in a very lazy and unimaginative fashion. The love triangle between Ginny, Mickey and Caroline feels overwrought and there's no chemistry between neither of Ginny and Mickey nor Carolina and Mickey.

      The only parts of Wonder Wheel that work enough to be mildly captivating are the moving performance of Kate Winslet, the stunning and poetic cinematography, lighting and costume design. Those elements provide the film with some substance, but not nearly enough to breathe life into it. Even at a running time of 101 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Wonder Wheel is a boring, uneven and poorly-written drama that's neither moving, funny nor witty. It feels more like a bad student film or a first draft that could have used many re-writes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Amazon Studios.
Opens December 1st, 2017 in select theaters.






      The breezy doc Faces Places follows co-directors Agnès Varda and JR as they travel from village to village photographing the villagers and plastering the large photographs on variety of places including homes, farms, a train and a huge rock on a beach. JR, a street artist, had met Varda in 2015 and the two of them immediately hit it off despite having very different personalities. As the saying goes, opposites attract. Their chemistry as well as some of their friction grounds the film in humanism. They're both just as charming as the film itself. You'll find some outragously funny and witty moments. The images of the large photographs of the villagers plastered on walls are quite amusing. The closest that Faces Places gets to any kind of dark territory is when the toxic relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and Varda rises to the surface as Godard doesn't show up to a meeting with them as planned or when one of JR's artworks plastered onto a rock gets washed away by the tide. Around the hour mark, the doc starts to feel a little repetitive, but it effectively coasts by on its charms and forms of humanism alone. Cohen Media Group opens Faces Places on October 6th, 2017 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinema.


Call Me By Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino




      Timothée Chalamet provides a breakthrough performance as Elio, a 17-year old who spends the summer of 1983 at a villa in Italy with his mother (Amira Casar) and father (Michael Stuhlbarg). He flirts with a girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), but sets his eyes on Oliver (Armie Hammer), a grad student who visits the villa to assist Elio's father.

      Call Me By Your Name is one of the best films of the year because it's profoundly moving, provocative, intelligent and understated. Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory clearly trust the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination as the story unfolds at a leisurely pace. To label the film as a gay coming-of-age drama would be innacurate, although its protagonist does indeed undergo a sexual identity crisis. The filmmakers don't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertainment or moving the plot forward. Call Me By Your Name is, fundamentally, about the evolution and complexity of human emotions. Don't be surprised if it will put Timothée Chalamet on the map.

      Just like with I Am Love, Guadagnino has a knack for making the most out of the poetry of nature. Every scene has visual meaning without overbearing style. The same cane be said about the musical score which doesn't hit you over the head. Even a lengthy monologue with the father talking to Elio toward the end never becomes preachy or exhausting because it feels drenched in warmth and words of wisdom. If you're tired of fast-paced superhero films that are plaguing multiplexes these days, Call Me By Your Name makes for a great antidote. It's a movie that will make you relate, think and feel without insulting your intelligence. Moreover, it's the rare film that has a large, beating heart beneath its surface and a beautiful soul to boot. The fact that the audience stayed through the end credits with their teary eyes still glued to the screen is a testament to the film's emotional resonance and power.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens November 24th, 2017 in select theaters.

Lady Bird

Directed by Greta Gerwig




      17-year-old Christine (Saoirse Ronan), a.k.a. Lady Bird, lives with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), father (Tracy Letts), and her older, adopted brother (Jordan Rodrigues) in Sacramento. She's about to graduate high school and move to New York for college, but before then, she bonds with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and has two boyfriends, Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet)---not at the same time.

      Lady Bird is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. She shows a lot of promise as she combines comedy, romance and drama in a way that's warm, wise and tender. Much of the film's poignancy comes from the performances, though, much more than from the screenplay. Saoirse Ronan gives a wonderfully radiant performance as Christine. She handles the character's innate strength and fragility with conviction. Laurie Metcalf is superb as Christine's mother. Their somewhat dysfunctional relationship feels true-to-life. All of the characters feel lived-in, even Christine's unemployed father. There aren't any villians throughout Lady Bird and there doesn't need to be. It's a coming-of-age film that deals with a major turning point in a young girls life. It has comic relief and remains grounded in humanism for the most part.

      Lady Bird main flaw, though, that keeps it from being a truly great films like Ghost World, Funny Ha Ha or Boyhood is that its ending feels too rushed and contrived. There's a reference during the third act to something that Christine saw while looking up at the sky early in the film, but that way it's referenced comes across as tacked-on. Just when it gets into profound and dark territory, the film backs away from it and tries to sugar-coat it which makes it seem like a cop-out and too "Hollywood." It would've been great to see more scenes with the underrated Lois Smith, too. A bolder, more organically fleshed-out and unflinchingly honest ending would've made Lady Bird far more potent and memorable coming-of-age drama.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24 Films.
Opens November 3rd, 2017 in select theaters.

The Rider

Directed by Chloé Zhao




      Brady Jandreau stars as Brady Blackburn, a young man who spent much of his life riding a horse as part of a rodeo circuit. However, a recent injury has forced him to give up his passion for horse-riding. Brady struggles to new sense of purpose and identity while living in the rural countryside of America.

      The screenplay by writer/director Chloé Zhao is a focused, lean slice-of-life that's based on a true story. It's a slow-burning, understated and gentle character study with a raw performance by Brady Jandreau. Every scene rings true. Beneath the film's surface, there are dark themes that are relatable and universal: loneliness, confusion, alienation, sadness, regret and hope. Bravo to Zhao for recognizing the power of quiet moments which feel very haunting with the picturesque landscape. Images often speak louder than words. To be fair, the slow pace does take a while to get used to, but your patience will be rewarded. The filmmaker also has a great command of exposition. Not a single moment in the film feels written. You'll feel as though you were watching a documentary. Very little "happens" in terms of plot, but it's less about its plot than about atmosphere, feelings and, most importantly, getting inside the head of the protagonist. Ultimately, The Rider has both Truth and Spectacle. Its Spectacle is the best kind: the kind that found within its Truth, if your heart, mind and soul are indeed open to it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens April 13th, 2018 in select theaters.

The Square

Directed by Ruben Östlund




      Christian (Claes Bang), a curator at a contemporary art museum in Sweden, introduces to a the public a new installation called "The Square," a space where people who enter it are supposed to be treated equally and must show compassion and respect for others. It's somewhere that people can, ideally, feel safe at while not crossing moral or ethical boundaries. The ads used to publicise the installation don't quite go as planned. Also, someone robs Christian, and he puts note under everyone's door at an apartment building accusing them of being the robber. One of the residents, a young boy, gets into trouble with his parents after Christian falsely accuses him of being the robber. Meanwhile, he has a sexually-charged affair with a reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss).

      Bold, bizarre, and outrageously funny, The Square makes a very provocative, perceptive and bleak critique of mankind's decay along with its selfishness and shallowness. However, the screenplay by writer/director Ruben Östlund gets repetitive, though, after a while, while hammering its messages over and over and over. The message behind Christian's instillation is quite clear from the get-go, so to have it repeated so often makes it seem like the filmmaker doesn't trust the audience's intelligence enough. At least he trusts the audience's patience, though. Tighter editing would have allowed to film to flow without dragging; some scenes feel too much like filler. A dinner scene with a very off-the-wall interruption goes on for too long, for instance, while belaboring its point.

      The satirical scenes, though, are quite quite captivating because of the ways that Östlund uses humor to shed light on harsh truths about humanity. When an artist (Dominic West) is interviewed on stage in front of an audience, an audience member with Tourette Syndrome continuously yells out obscenities like "Show us your tits!" which results in laughter, but that leads us to question ourselves whether or not we really ought to be laughing at someone suffering from a mental disorder instead of showing compassion. It's an awkward, guilty sort of laughter even though comedy does often derive from tragedy. There are a few other instances of similarly uncomfortable humor throughout the film.

      At near 2-and-a-half hours, The Square is just as inspired and unpredictable as last year's Toni Erdmann. Both films have a long running time, a slow pace, deceptively simple plot, a hilarious yet awkward scene involving someone behaving like an animal, and a funny bit involving semen. Did I mention two brief scenes showing an ape with lipstick on? You'll have to see it to believe it.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens October 27th, 2017 at IFC Center and Walter Reade Theater.

Thelma

Directed by Joachim Trier




      After living with her religious, overbearing parents in the countryside, Thelma (Eili Harboe) moves to the city and starts her first year at a university. She develops an attraction to a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), her new friend. Every time she's with her, though, she experiences bizarre symptoms, but medical professionals don't know what the cause of those symptoms.

      The less you know about Thelma's plot going into it, the better because it has a few surprises up its sleeve. Writer/director Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt have woven an engrossing and taut psychological thrillers filled with metaphors and haunting visuals. They trust the audience's intelligence, imagination and patience without overexplaining anything. If this were a Hollywood film, it would've been dumbed-down, clunky and shallow like A Cure for Wellness. Instead, it's a slow-to-medium burn that leaves plenty of room for interpretation while blending a variety of genres in an organic, unpretentious way. There are a few scenes with flickering light that feel very intense. Be prepared for a quietly powerful story that you'll be talking about and thinking about for quite some time. It has just the right balance of style and substance.

      Kudos for Trier and the casting director, Yngvill Kolset Haga, for selecting Eili Harboe as the lead because she's a wonderful actress who does a great job of sinking her teeth into a wide range of emotions. She, along with the sensitive screenplay, make the character of Thelma increasingly interesting, complex and, most importantly, real. Thelma is the kind of film that would probably lose some of its visual and emotional power on the small screen, so try to see it in theaters.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Orchard.
Opens November 10th, 2017 in select theaters.




      BPM (Beats Per Minute), directed by Robin Campillo, is a genuinely moving drama about the rise of the ACT UP movement in France during the early 1990s. Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) leads movement along with fellow member and lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The screenplay by Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot is unflinching, but slightly repetitive. The film could have used tighter editing, especially during the last hour that drags a bit. Nonetheless, the strong performances help to ground the film and to keep it captivating, for the most part. It's far better than Stonewall, but not quite as powerful as Milk. The Orchard opens BPM (Beats Per Minute) in select theaters on Oct. 20th, 2017. Let the Sunshine In, directed by Claire Denis, centers on Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a recently divorced woman who years to fall in love and settle down, but sleeps around with a variety of men, including Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), an actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Marc (Alex Descas). Despite a radiant performance by the always-reliable Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In is a dull, meandering and tedious romantic drama that only becomes interesting during the final few minutes and through the end credits as Isabelle meets Denis (Gérard Depardieu). By then, though, it's too little, too late. There's not enough insight into the character of Isabelle nor does the film say anything profound about the search for love. Sebastián Lelio's Gloria which play at NYFF back in 2013 is a superior film that tackles similar issues, but in a much more compelling, funny and wise way. Let the Sunshine In opens April 27th, 2018 via Sundance Selects. If you're in the mood for a very offbeat, dryly funny period piece, look no further than Zama, by writer/director Lucrecia Martel. Based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama is about Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Spanish officer who awaits a trasnfer from the King. There's nothing conventional about Zama, both the character and the film itself. Even if the offbeat humor does overstay its welcome by the first hour, there's always the breathtaking, awe-inspiring scenery to behold. Martel deftly combines surreal elements into the film. At times, you'll feel as though you were watching a Jodorowsky film like El Topo, although Zama isn't quite as bold as that cult classic. This is the kind of film that very hard to adequetly describe even when it comes to its genre. It opens April 13th, 2018. via Strand Releasing in select theaters. The Other Side of Hope, by writer/director Aki Kaurismäki, centers on a salesman, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who leaves his wife to open a restaurant and hires refugees to work there, including Khlaed (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee. This dramedy is just as provocative, warm and witty as Kaurismäki's La Vie de Bohème and La Havre. Not all of the humor is laugh-out-loud funny; some of it is merely amusing. However, just like with his prior films, there's some visual gags and dry, deadpan humor to be found along with some razor-sharp social commentary. Kaurismäki also does a great job of balancing light and dark elements while finding just the right tone. At a running time of 100 minutes that never feels dull or exhausting, The Other Side of Hope opens December 1st, 2017 via Janus Films.

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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
themovieguru101@yahoo.com
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