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Bacurau

Directed by Dan Scanlon




      Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to Bacurau, her Brazilian hometown, to attend the funeral of her grandmother. Strange events happen upon her arrival. Someone spots a UFO, cell phone service goes out, the water supply gets cut off, and the town disappears from any GPS tracking devices. Domingas (Sônia Braga) works as the town doctor who's pitted against Michael (Udo Kier), the leader of group of fighters whom the government hires to kill the townspeople of Bacurau. The town's corrupt mayor, Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), can't help his own people. Lunga (Silvero Pereira) joins Domingas in the battle against the Bacurau's invaders.

      Bacurau has an intriguing and suspenseful first hour before turning into a shallow and tedious blend of Mad Max and The Hunger Games. The screenplay by co-writers/directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho takes a while to set up its exposition and to tease the audience with all of the bizarre events that transpire in Bacurau leading up to the invasion. Terasa has a former lover,  Pacote (Thomas Aquino), in town, but that's a subplot that seems tacked-on and lacks any depth. None of the characters come to life so by the time their life becomes at stake, it's hard to care about whether or not they survive. The filmmakers start with an interesting idea, but don't know where to take those ideas to. Instead, they opt for a second half that's excessively violent, pointless and that feels like a video game while treating its characters like pawns. There's very little that's imaginative nor fun or exciting once the action kicks in unless you find gore and violence alone to be fun.

      If Bacurau didn't take its plot so seriously and had some campiness or at least a modicum of comic relief, it would've been a guilty pleasure and had the potential to turn into a cult classic. Without any witty lines, memorable characters or anything that stands out, it's just going through the motions like dull B-movie. Sonia Braga, a fine actress, deserves much better material than this which seems like it's beneath her. Her character in The Jesus Rolls was much more compelling than the one she plays in Bacurau. The cinematography provides for some nice scenic views, but comes with diminishing returns after a while. Perhaps Bacurau would've been more palatable as a lean, 90-minute movie. At an unnecessarily long 2 hours and 12 minutes, it's almost as awful as Mad Max and The Hunger Games, but just as unimaginative, vapid and monotonous. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens March 6th, 2020 at IFC Center.




      The Booksellers is a mildly engaging documentary about rare book sellers and collectors in New York City. It charts the history of book-selling and how it has changed throughout the years. The number of bookstores in NYC have been dwindling for the past few decades. The name Barnes & Nobles makes booksellers cringe because it's responsible for putting many independent bookstores out of business. Every year, the Park Avenue Armory hosts the Antiquarian Book Fair where rare books are displayed and can be bought for thousands of dollars in some cases. Director D.W. Young includes interviews with some of the remaining book store owners, i.e. Judith, Naomi and Adina Lowry who own The Argosy. There's some discussion about the golden age of rare books when 4th Avenue was populated with book stores known as Book Row. Times have changed, and more people are using Kindle to purchase and read books.

      The Booksellers deserves credit for tackling a subject matter that hasn't been explored before in a theatrical documentary and for introducing audiences to the book lovers who are trying to keep their passion for rare books alive. Many of the book sellers and collectors are grey-haired, but there are younger generations who are beginning to join them, so there's hope for the future. If you're not very passionate about books or, more precisely, rare books, this doc won't do much to provide much in terms of inspiration. Interviews with the wise, pithy and witty Fran Lebowitz briefly invigorate the film with some much-needed comic relief and wit. The doc's editing, though, rearranges the footage so that it jumps around from topic to topic without thematic cohesion thereby making the film feel scattershot and disorganized. What about the rare book culture in other cities other than New York? Without a portrait of the large picture of the book culture around the country or around the world, it remains somewhat limited in scope. The Booksellers opens March 6th, 2020 via Greenwich Entertainment at Quad Cinema. 


First Cow

Directed by Kelly Reichardt




      In the Pacific Northwest during the 1920s, Cookie (John Magaro) teams up with King Lu (Orion Lee) to try to strike it rich by selling biscuits together. They take a big risk by steaingl the milk of a cow to make the biscuit. That cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a ship captain who loves their biscuits, but doesn't know that they're stealing milk from his cow.

      Based on the novel by screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, First Cow is a very slow-burning film with a plot that makes it sound like it could be a comedy, thriller or both, but it's actually neither. It's mostly about the dynamics between Cookie and King Lu as they become partners in a risky business venture and befriend each other. Their chemistry as friends doesn't feel very palpable, though, because the bare-bones screenplay doesn't flesh out their characters nearly enough to make them compelling, memorable or, most importantly, human. Director Kelly Reichardt trusts the audience's patience too much with scenes that move in such a sluggish pace that it takes away any narrative momentum and soon becomes monotonous. Trusting someone's patience can be worth it if it's rewarding ultimately, but there's very little that's rewarding in First Cow. There can be poetry to moments of quietness if they're used in a way that has depth beneath the surface. Unfortunately, there's not much depth to be found here even during the seemingly still and picturesque shots of nature. Dimly lit scenes also don't help matters much and inducing you to fall asleep more often than not.

      The sliver of substance found in First Cow doesn't come from the screenplay; it comes from the actors who give convincingly natural performances. It's too bad, then, that they're undermined by the dull screenplay without any scenes that feel moving. Much of the film feels cold while the characters remain at an emotional distance from the audience. If the running time were 80 minutes, perhaps First Cow would've been easier to sit through, but at 122 minutes, which feels more like 4 hours, it's a painfully dull, tedious and disappointing film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by A24.
Opens March 6th, 2020 in select theaters.

Pain and Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar




      Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a famous film director, recently lost his mother, Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) and suffers from back pain. He agrees to do a Q&A for a screening of a newly restored version of one of his films, Sabor, so he tracks down the lead actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), to ask him join him for the Q&A. They haven't seen in each other in a few decades, but rekindle their friendship. Mallo recalls memories from his childhood when he (now played by Asier Flores) lived in a refurbished cave with his mother (now played by Penelope Cruz).

      Pain and Glory is a bittersweet and poignant story about the struggles of an artist grappling with old age and childhood memories. The semi-autobiographical screenplay by writer/director Pedro Almodóvar jumps back and forth between past and present seamlessly without any clunkiness, convolutedness or uneveness. Salvador's childhood and his evolving relationship with his mother affects his life in many ways which makes the film relatable because everyone's present-day emotional ailments are rooted in the past. As Pain and Glory plot progresses, it becomes increasingly complex, layered and even surprising. There's also just the right amount of nuance and no reliance on over-explaining, especially during a pivotal moment during Salvador's childhood when he comes-of-age and has a sexual awakening. Almodóvar, like all great filmmakers, trusts the audience's patience, intelligence and emotions. He treats Salvador like a human being which is a testament to his humanism, a truly special effect. He doesn't try to push the envelope here like he had done in his past films, so the film remains a tender character study from first frame to last. There's also some witty comic relief every now and then which helps to counterbalance the darker, heavier themes.

      While Almodóvar paints the window into Salvador's soul, it's Antonio Banderas who opens that window widely as much as Renée Zellweger did in Judy. You forget that you're watching Banderas because he fully transforms into Salvador. He deserves to be nominated for a Best Actor award come Oscar time. Most importantly, though, he finds the emotional truth of his role which allows the audience to feel empathy for Salvador every step of the way even when he's battling addiction to cocaine. His reunion with his old friend/actor Alberto is one of the film's most powerful and beautiful scenes. At a running time of 112 minutes, Pain and Glory manages to be warm, tender and profound. It's one of the best films of Almodóvar's career. Antonio Banderas gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens Oct 4th, 2019 at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West.

Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon Ho




      Kim Ki-woo (Choi Wood-shik) and his sister, Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), live in a dilapidated basement apartment with their mother, Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). When Ki-Woo discovers that there's a job opening as a tutor for a wealthy family, he seizes the opportunity to tutor a teenager Da-hye Park (Jung Ziso), the daughter of Sun-kyun Lee (Park Dong-ik) and Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), and older sister of Park Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) who live in an upscale. Soon, each member of the Kim family work for the Park family without them being aware that they're related.

     Like all great films, Parasite transcends its plot as well as its amalgam of different genres. The less you know about its plot beforehand the better, though, because the screenplay by writer/director Bong Joon Ho and co-writer Han Jin-won offers many clever twists and surprises. What ensues after the Kim family meets the Park family turns into an intriguing blend of psychological thriller, dark comedy, social commentary, and drama. Bong Joon Ho ratchet up the tension gradually with a slow-burning pace which shows that he trusts the audience's patience. He and Jin-won also include some provocative metaphors without hitting you over the head with them. Most effectively, though, they withhold key information from the audience until a major reveal during the second act that won't be spoiled here. The twists work because they're not dumb like those found in M. Night Shyamalan's films, and they're not meant to merely shock the audience. The performances by everyone, even those in the supporting roles, are all superb.

      Like Hitchcock, Bong Joon Ho knows how to keep his audience in suspense because the suspense derives from the anticipation of the events to come. Throughout Parasite, there's almost always a foreboding feeling of unease. You know that something dark will be happening imminently, but you don't know what that will be in particular. Bong Joon Ho and the co-writer clearly understand human nature because they treat the characters like human beings and their actions are all rooting in the way that human beings truly think, feel and behave in similar situations. You might even find yourself relating to some of the characters, but even if you don't you'll still sympathize with them, especially when it come to the heartfelt relationship between Kim Ki-woo and his father.

      On an aesthetic level, Parasite is a feast for the eyes without being gaudy or suffering from excessive style over substance like the recent Lucy in the Sky did with too many changes in aspect ratio. In other words, Bong Joon Ho doesn't try too hard to please the audience, although the camerawork does looks exquisite and communicates a lot through the lighting, set design and camera angles. The same can be said about the use of classical music which never becomes intrusive or distracting. At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, Parasite is a triumph of directing, writing, cinematography and acting. It has repeat value and is destined to become an all-time classic that will be discussed and analyzed for many years to come. It's one of the best films of 2019 by far.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by NEON.
Opens October 11th, 2019 at IFC Center.

Sibyl

Directed by Justine Triet




       Sibyl (Virginie Efira), a psychotherapist, wants to give up her job to write a novel. She discovers inspiration for her first novel when she analyzes a patient, Margot (Adele Exarchopoulos), a troubled actress. Margot confides in Sibyl that she's in a romantic affair with her co-star, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), the husband of Mika (Sandra Hüller, who just so happens to be the director of the film that Margot is starring in.

      Sibyl tries to be a character study and darkly comedic psychological thriller concurrently, but it bites off much more than it could chew. The screenplay by writer/director Justine Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari begins promisingly, but gradually takes nosedive until it becomes increasingly contrived and preposterous. Sibyl crosses ethical boundaries when she secretly records Margot and also becomes involved in her life, so she's clearly a very flawed, toxic character and not very easy for the audience to connect with or to root for. There are no characters for the audience to root for throughout the film for that matter. Perhaps this would've worked better as just a  character study because there's enough inner conflict within Sibyl to make her a complex and fascinating character. The filmmakers don't really explore the inner life of Sibyl enough to humanize her, so it's unfortunate that the film remains a shallow character study. The use of flashbacks adds some style and unconventionality, but they seem tacked-on in a contrived and clunky way. The same can be said about the comic relief which falls flat and adds even more clunkiness.

       Very few scenes ring true despite the solid, capable actors who try their best to rise above the material. Each of them have starred in superior films. Virginie Efira is in the superior Elle which did a much more effective job of combining a character study along with psychological thrills with dark humor. Adele Exarchopoulos is in a much better-written role in Blue is the Warmest Color while Sandra Hüller is in the brilliant, bold and profound Toni Erdmann. Sibyl doesn't even come close to being as powerful as those three films. If it were campy and didn't take itself so seriously, Sibyl could've at least been a guilty pleasure instead of being such an overwrought, underwhelming film.      

     

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Music Box Films.

The Traitor

Directed by Marco Bellocchio




      Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), one of the many mobster in the Sicilian Mafia known as La Cosa Nostra, gets arrested with his wife, Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), in Brazil before being transferred to a prison in Italy. Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) asks  him to become an informant against the Cosa Nostra which he agrees to do reluctantly with no remorse for his past actions. At the trails, he provides testimony that incriminates his fellow mobsters.  

      The Traitor, based on a true story, coves a lot of ground because its plot spans across two decades from 1980 to 2000. The screenplay has four writers, namely, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santella, Francesco Piccolo and writer/director Marco Bellocchio. At times it feels like it has so many writers because it switches genres from dry comedy to drama and action, but for the most part it's a drama about a mafioso struggling with a crisis of conscience as he grows older and puts his family's life on the line. Not surprisingly, some members of his family do get murdered as do many more people throughout the film. You'll find corrupt politicians in bed with the mafia, mafia members willing to lie under oath, and some flashbacks. Like many mafia films, it clocks nearly 2 and half hours. The Traitor doesn't offer anything groundbreaking nor does it become a moving character study because Buscetta always remains a bit of a mystery and doesn't open himself up emotionally to the audience, but at least it's not as dry and dull as the overrated The Irishman. The courtroom scenes during the last hour are among the most riveting and captivating scenes.

      Pierfrancesco Favino's bravura performance is the real selling point of The Traitor. His performance compensates for the emotional depth lacking in the screenplay. He knows how to play a slick, confidence and unlikable character in a way that's compelling and, most importantly, authentic and human. It also helps that he's very charismatic as an actor much like some of the actors from the Golden Age, i.e. Marcello Mastroianni. The cinematography looks cinematic and picturesque at times, the soundtrack is well-chosen and the editing is sylish with just the right pace that doesn't drag like in the sleep-inducing The Irishman. If you're looking for a solid crime drama that's more entertaining than The Irishman, look no further than The Traitor, Italy's Offical Entry for the Academy Awards. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens January 31st, 2020 at Film Forum and Walter Reade Theater.

Wasp Network

Directed by Olivier Assayas




       Two pilots, Rene (Edgar Ramirez) and Juan Pablo (Wagner Moura), defect from Cuba to Miami where they help to rescue Cuban refugees sailing in from Cuba. They soon join a covert operation to secretly inform the FBI about their knowledge of terrorist organizations responsible for bombings. Rene has a neglected wife, Olga (Penelope Cruz) and daughter,  Irma (Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda), who live in Cuba. Gerardo (Gael Garcia Bernal) soon joins Rene and Juan to help them infiltrate the terrorist groups and assist the FBI.

       Wasp Network is a convoluted mess with a non-linear story that has too many characters and subplots while sorely lacking anything in anything that's entertaining, clever, thrilling, suspenseful, engrossing or suspenseful. Writer/director Olivier Assayas essentially combines at least 5 or 6 movies into one thereby making it feel overstuffed and unfocused. Everything from the editing to writing, directing and even the acting feels subpar and amateurish. You'd never expect a film like this from such a talented director like Assayas. He handles the exposition poorly, and many of the transitions between scenes are very choppy. Good luck following the narrative when there's so much going on that you don't really care about. The actors seem to be just going through the motions as though they were in a B-movie. Perhaps the screenplay and director should be blamed for that because they're capable of much better performances. There's also very little nuance, intrigue and coherence for that matter.

      What Wasp Network does succeed in is in generating unintentional humor. Some of the dialogue sounds so stilted and awkward that it's hard to avoid laughing, especially given that the dialogue made it to the final screenplay after re-writes. The film is even more disappointing because there's so much tension within its story on the page that dissipates onscreen. Rarely has a film squandered so many opportunities. It's too bad that Assayas forgot to allow Wasp Network to breathe a little and to allow audiences to care about its characters on a human level. At a seemingly interminable running time of 124 minutes, Wasp Network is an astonishingly anemic and nauseatingly convoluted misfire.

Number of times I checked my watch: 8
Released by Netflix.

The Whistlers

Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu




        Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a police inspector, travels to the Canary Islands in Spain to learn a secret whistling language that gangsters use to communicate. At a hotel, he falls for the seductive Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). He's under surveillance from the Bucharest police and works for both sides of the law as he tries to help a criminal, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), escape from prison.

      Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu takes a silly concept and turns it into a dull, clunky and convoluted slog that's neither funny, smart nor thrilling. A lot happens in terms of plot that includes double crossings all of which are told in a non-linear structure that merely adds to the confusion. None of the characters come to life, and there's no chemistry between Cristia and Gilda, although they do have a steamy sex scene together. Porumboiu doesn't seem to know how to properly edit a scene to transition to the next one once it makes its point to the audience. Listening to Cristi trying to learn the whistling language is mildy amusing at first, but quickly becomes tedious and unfunny as it's repeated over and over throughout the film to try to make the audience laugh from the weirdness. Weirdness just for the sake of weirdness simply doesn't work. Why include a very bloody scene with someone's neck being cut? It feels out of place as though the film were trying to mimic Tarantino's use of excessive violence. Is the non-linear storytelling trying to imitate Tarantino as well? Porumboiu should learn from Aki Kaurismaki who knows how to make dry, outrageously funny and delightfully bizarre comedies that rarely disappoint.

      Unfortunately, the only strength that The Whistlers going for it is the stylish cinematography, set design and beautiful scenery. There's nothing else that holds your attention, and it's no help that the pacing drags more often than not. The performances fails to enliven the film either because they range from mediocre to wooden. At a running time of 97 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, The Whistlers is an uneven, convoluted and underwhelming mess that's neither as brilliant, witty and funny as a Aki Kaurismaki film nor as entertaining, bold and shocking as Tarantino film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens February 28th, 2020 at Film Forum.


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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
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