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Reviews for October 14th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Cat Daddies is a delightful documentary about cat owners and the relationship with their cats. Director Mye Hoang focuses on nine different cat owners from many walks of life. There's a teacher, a social media influencer/actor, a truck driver, a firefighter and a homeless man, among others. Each of them has developed a special bond with their cat(s). Houng captures that bond palpably as she moves from one cat owner to the next and then back and forth. With a less skillful editor, this could've turned into a confusing, disjointed mess. Fortunately, the editing is superb and assembles everything in a way that's easy-to-follow while keeping you in suspense. It's a roller-coaster ride of emotions that ranges from cute to amusing to provocative to heartbreaking.The segments with a homeless man who has cerebral palsy is the most difficult to watch, but that's what makes it so engrossing. It could've easily been expanded as the main subject of a separate documentary. If you're a pet owner, you'll be able to relate to this documentary the most. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes, Cat Daddies is well-edited, captivating and heartfelt. It opens at Village East by Angelika.

      Eternal Spring is an engaging documentary about how members of Falun Gong hijacked a TV station in China in 2002 to broadcast their true version of Falun Gong which the government spread false information about. Subsequently, the Chinese government organized a raid on Changchun City, forcing many to flee and get arrested. Daxiong, a comic book artist, is among those who fled to America. Director Jason Loftus tells Daxiong's account of his experiences and others experiences during and after the hijacking. Instead of using talking heads to tell Daxiong's story, Loftus uses 3D animation inspired by Daxiong's drawings to bring the words to life. That indeed makes the documentary more cinematic and even suspenseful and thrilling at times. However, Loftus isn't a very good journalist because he's not fair and balanced. He doesn't interview Chinese government officials or others who have different viewpoints about Falun Gong. There's also not enough information about what Falun Gong really means and its history; the doc remains too focused on the 2002 incident which makes it too narrow without looking at the bigger picture to put it in perspective. The hijacking is a form of protest, but no scholars are interviewed to debate whether or not it's an acceptable form of protest. That said, it's heartbreaking to hear and see what happens to one of the prisoners who suffered and died in prison. It's wrong on many levels for a government to suppress any type of religious or spiritual belief and to use propaganda to spread false news and brainwash its people. That alone should make you rightfully enraged, but it's still happening today in ways that this doc fails to explore.. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Eternal Spring is moving and gripping with stunning, vivid animation, but too narrow in scope while lacking fairness and balance. It opens via Lofty Sky Pictures at Film Forum.

      No, despite the title, this isn't a sci-fi/action/horror film about someone fighting monsters; Facing Monsters is a documentary biopic about Kerby Brown, a West Australian slab wave surfer. Director Bentley Dean follows a conventional approach by blending footage of Kerby searching for waves and riding them along with interviews with him, his younger brother, father, mother and girlfriends. Kerby's love and passion for surfing is palpably evident throughout the film through the images alone; his voice-over narration explaining his passion states what's already obvious, but it's nice to hear it directly from him. What helps to make the film more engrossing, though, is his candidness and emotional generosity on-camera about his battles with drug and alcohol. Those are the monsters referred to in the film's title. You'll also learn about the physical injuries that Kerby suffered from surfing accidents. The shots of the waves feel exhilarating, but the heart and soul of the film can be found in Kerby's emotional journey dealing with his addictions, how the risks that he takes while surfing affect his relationship with his loved ones. Although it's not as powerful nor entertaining as The Endless Summer, Facing Monsters, now on VOD after opening at AMC Empire via Garage Entertainment and Level 33 Entertainment, is nonetheless a solid surf documentary. It would make for a good double feature with the doc Maya and the Wave which is currently traveling the festival circuit.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Directed by Edward Berger

      Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), a German teenager, enlists in the German Army during the start of World War I. He fights on the Western front with his comrades who risk their lives while German officials like Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), a diplomat, try to negotiate to end the war.

      Based on the novel by All Quiet on the Western Front is a rousing, unflinching and emotionally engrossing war film. There have been many great war films over the past few decades ranging from Saving Private Ryan to The Thin Red Line to 1917 to Come and See. What makes them so transcendant is their humanity amidst all of the action and thrills. All of their messages are essentially the same: war is hell. Each of those films, though, including All Quiet on the Western Front sends that message to the audience in different ways. Co-writers Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell do a terrific job of grounding the film in humanism. They tell the narrative through the perspective of Paul while allowing the audience to get to know him as a human being which makes him relatable even if his experiences aren't. His journey isn't just a physical one; it's an emotional and psychological one, too. The violence here is just as graphic and harrowing as the violence in Come and See, but there are some brief moments of levity, so it's intense without being too exhausting or overwhelming. The action scenes are indeed overwhelming and that's part of the film's purpose. When Paul feels exhausted, so does the audience. He goes through a lot and witnesses the horrors of the war. To see his comrades die or get injured around him has a tremendous effect on him that will change him forever. Many of the war scenes aren't easy to watch nor should they be because they show the brutality of war sans any sugar-coating. From start to finish, you'll remain captivated by Paul's emotionally devastating journey on the Western Front.

      Felix Kammerer gives a moving performance as Paul. He brings warmth and charisma to his role. When it comes to production values, the film is a real triumph. The cinematography, set designs, costume designs and sound design combine to create a cinematic, immersive experience with some poetic visuals along the way. You can palpably feel the grit and intensity of war; the only aspect that no war film will ever be able to accomplish is to allow you to smell the ugly smells of war. There are many images of wounded and dead soldiers which don't leave much to the imagination. Those images alone speak louder than words. At a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes, All Quiet on the Western Front ranks among the best war films in decades. It's as powerful, haunting and profoundly human as Come and See.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Netflix.
Opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Court Crandall

      Sid (Josh Brener) and his best friend, Jonesie (Lil Rel Howery) both end up single after their girlfriends dump them, so they move in together. They go on an adventure to Texas with their friends, Dave (Brendan Scannell) and Mike (Asif Ali), where Sid meets Darlene (Taryn Manning), a ferret trainer.

      Bromates suffers from a painfully unfunny screenplay by writer/director Court Crandall and Chris Kemper. The entire film feels like a crude, rude and lewd SNL sketch stretched too thinly. Most of the jokes are of the lowest common denominator type with visual gags, but none of the attempts at humor lands. The characters, if you can even call them that, are over-the-top caricatures who become increasingly nauseating. Sid and his "bromate", Jonesie, have very little chemistry. To be fair, this isn't the kind of movie that cares about delving into its theme about friendship or to create a palpable bond between the friends. So, not surprisingly the friendship between Sid and Jonesie falls flat. The same goes for Sid's relationship with his other friends or with Darlene whom he just met. Although the premise sounds like it could be wild, zany comedy, it only accomplishes the wild part without even being zany enough. The underrated I Love You Man covers similar ground with much more success in the comedy department while also having something to say about love and friendship. Even the Farrelly brothers' worst comedy, Stuck on You is far superior to Bromates.

      Lil Rel Howery gives an annoying performance that's like nails-on-a-chalkboard. He's trying too hard to be funny. Perhaps he's simply undermined by the unfunny screenplay that doesn't give him enough material to shine. However, no one gets a chance to shine here. Snoop Dogg, who narrates the film and has a late cameo, doesn't generate any laughs either. Moreover, the editing feels choppy at times and the cinematography and bright lighting makes the film look like a sitcom. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, is an asinine, witless comedic misfire.

Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by Quiver Distribution.
Opens at Cinema Village and VOD.

Decision to Leave

Directed by Park Chan-wook

      Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a police detective, lives in Busan with his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-Hyun). He investigates the mysterious death of a man who might've been pushed off of a cliff or committed suicide. As he interrogates the man's wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the prime suspect, he becomes romantically involved with her.

      The screenplay by writer/director Park Chan-wook has a little Hitchcockian suspense, but it suffers from an overwrought, tonally uneven plot that becomes increasingly convoluted. It veers more toward the erotic thrillers of the 80's and 90's like Dressed to Kill and Basic Instinct rather than classic Hollywood noirs from the Golden Age of Cinema like The Big Sleep or even dark thrillers from the 90's and 00's like Seven, The Usual Suspects and Insomnia. Like the cop that Al Pacino played in Insomnia, Hae-jun also has insomnia issues that affects him psychologically. Can Seo-rae be trusted? Can Hae-jun trust his own judgement after she successfully seduces him? Park Chan-wook seems more concerned about trying to make the plot more intricate by complicating it with various subplots, including a separate murder investigation. A lot goes on within the plot, yet very little actually sticks, even the romance between Hae-jun and Seo-rae. The plot also jumps many years at one point later in the second act to introduce a new character--there's a general rule about storytelling that it's rarely a good idea to introduce a new character late in a story. There's nothing wrong with confusing the audience as long as it serves the story in some clever way without sacrificing entertainment value. Unfortunately, that can't be said for Decision to Leave. None of the characters are relatable or fully fleshed out, so it's hard to care about anyone or what happens to them. Also, there's not nearly enough comic relief and the film takes itself too seriously at times.

      The production values look slick with atmospheric cinematography and some breathtaking settings. Beyond that, though, Decision to Leave doesn't have enough style to compensate for its screenplay's shortcomings. Occasionally, the editing feels choppy with awkward and abrupt transitions between scenes, so it's poorly-edited. Some scenes last too long, i.e. the final scene. So, pacing issues add to the film's clunkiness. The performances are fine with no one giving a weak performance. With an excessive running time of 2 hour and 18 minutes, Decision to Leave is a cold, clunky and overwrought thriller. At least it's better than the painfully dull Amsterdam.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by MUBI.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Halloween Ends

Directed by David Gordon Green

      After surviving Michael Myers, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives in Haddonfield with her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), who's now an orphan. Laurie meets Corey (Rohan Campbell), a young man blamed for killing a young boy he babysat. He ends up dating Allyson and reawakens Michael Myers who's living in the sewers.

      Halloween Ends suffers from a meandering plot that fails to deliver the goods. The screenplay, which has four screenwriters including writer/director David Gordon Green and co-writers Paul Brad Logan, Chris Bernier and Danny McBride, barely has Michael Myers in it. He's now a supporting character as is Laurie Strode. Instead, there's a clunky subplot about Corey's struggles with his bullies and his new romance with Allyson. Let's face it: no one sees a horror film for any kind of romantic plots anyway. The scenes with Allyson and Corey flirting feels like unnecessary padding. Therea re also some bizarre scenes with Corey and his mother who seems overbearing and very toxic while she treats him like a little kid. Halloween Ends basically treads water until the expectedly violent third act, but until then it's uneven and dull. There are also at least 6 jump scares, a few of which occur one after the other, but there are no palpable scares, not even when Michael Myers is shown living in the sewers. Once the third act finally arrives, Halloween Ends veers more towards the realm of unintentional comedy where none of the beats land.

      If all you're looking for to satiate your horror appetite is cool kills with blood and guts like in the recent Terrifier 2, Halloween Ends will at least keep you mildly satisfied. When Michael Myers briefly arrives, there are some very graphic deaths with a hint of dark comedy, i.e. a severed tongue on a record player. Unfortunately, Michael Myers' inevitable fight with Laurie is poorly shot and not very exciting. There are unevenly paced scenes that last too long, i.e. the scenes with Corey and Allyson. Also, you can feel the weight of the nearly 2-hour running time. At 1 hour and 51 minutes, is dumb, meandering and uneven while low on scares and thrills.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

The Other Tom

Directed by Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo

      Elena (Julia Chávez), a single mother, lives in El Paso, Texas, with her son, Tom (Israel Rodriguez Bertorelli), while struggling to make ends meet. Tom has been diagnosed with ADHD which causes problems with him at home and at school. When Elena gives his prescribed medicine to treat ADHD, she gets into trouble with Social Services when she stops giving him the medicine because of its negative side effects.

      . The screenplay by co-writers/directors Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo takes its time to introduce Elena and Tom to the audience with just the right amount of exposition. You'll learn early on that Tom has behavior issues stemming from his ADHD and that it frustrates his mother, Elena. Julian (Rigo Alberto Zamarron), Tom's estranged biological father, doesn't help with child support payments like he's legally supposed to. Despite that the plot has elements that could make it veer toward a thriller like The Justice of Bunny King, Plá and Santullo keep it grounded and understated as it explores the relationship between Elena and her beloved son. Bravo to the filmmakers for not judging  Elena, Julian, Tom's teachers or Social Services for that matter. No one on screen comes across as a villain. Elena wants what she thinks is best for Tom while Tom's teachers and Social Services want what they think is best for him. It's up to you, as a sensitive and critically-thinking audience member, to ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do? What would I do in Elena's situation?". The answers aren't black-and-white, and The Other Tom embraces that complexity which makes the film all the more compelling.  The filmmakers also avoid preachiness, melodrama and turning the film into poverty porn. Elena's confrontation with Julian could've easily turned into an over-the-top, clunky and contrived scene, but instead feels organic. It helps that the dialogue sounds natural without any stiltedness, and no scene overstays its welcome. Most impressively, though, the screenplay effectively provides enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of Elena so that you can palpably sense her innate emotional pain and empathize with her even if you might not agree with the choices that she makes.

      Julia Chávez and Israel Rodriguez Bertorelli give true-to-life, raw performances without over-acting or under-acting. Their natural performances help to further ground the film in the kind of unflinching realism found in Ken Loach's movies. The pace moves slowly, but not too slowly, and the musical score doesn't feel overbearing like in the overproduced Till. Even the cinematography at times looks exquisite with great use of symbolism which adds poetry, especially the final shot which feels haunting while leaving room for interpretation. Kudos to the filmmakers for trusting the audience's patience, emotions and intelligence. At a running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes, The Other Tom is a warm, genuinely poignant story about a mother's unconditional love for her son.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Outsider Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.

Stars at Noon

Directed by Claire Denis

      Trish (Margaret Qualley), a journalist, moonlights as a hooker to make ends meet while on an assignment in Nicaragua. At a hotel bar, she meets and begins a romance with Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a young man who claims that he works for an oil company.

      Based on the novel by Denis Johnson, the screenplay by writer/director Claire Denis and co-writers Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack is a mess that squanders many opportunities to turn the film into a romance, thriller or even an engaging character study. Despite the mystery surrounding Daniel's true identity and the corruption that Trish investigates in Nicaragua, Stars at Noon generates very little intrigue and suspense. The plot loses steam early on around the 30-minute mark and doesn't regain any of it at any other point. The relationship between Trish and Daniel becomes less and less interesting as it progresses. They have sex, talk, have sex, talk and then have sex again. Even when Trish learns that Daniel's life might be in danger, the plot remains lethargic with only a few sporadic moments of mildly engaging scenes. There's also just one brief instant of comic relief when Trish communicates with her magazine editor (John C. Reilly) via Skype and he's very forward about how much he can't stand her and wants nothing to do with her. The audience feels the same way but for different reasons: she's a boring character with a bland personality. It's often easier to get inside a character's head while reading a book and much more difficult to do that while watching a movie. To accomplish that, it takes a skilled screenwriter that knows how to see and treat the character as a human being. Unfortunately, the screenwriters fail to construct enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of Trish, so they dehumanize her while leaving the audience cold. Daniel doesn't fare any better. The screenplay also breaks a pretty big rule when it comes to storytelling: don't introduce a new character late in the game. Guess what? Stars at Noon does precisely that later in the third act when Trish and Daniel meet a CIA agent (Benny Safdie). By then, neither the plot nor the characters are compelling enough to hold your interest, so it's hard to care about what happens to anyone on screen or what new twists will transpire within the plot.

      Margaret Qualley gives a decent performance, but it's nothing exceptional. She's undermined by the shallow screenplay that fails to breathe life into her role. The same goes for Joe Alywn who lacks chemistry with Margaret Qualley. There are many sex scenes with nudity, so this is definitely a film for adults. It's too bad, then, that there's physical nakedness on screen, but not much emotional nakedness. Blue is the Warmest Color is a better example of a film that combines nudity and sex with poignancy in a much more organic and effective way. Although the film is set in Nicaragua, the setting doesn't become enough of a character in and of itself, even once the film veers into a brief adventure through the jungle. Moreover, this is yet another film that overstays its welcome past the 2 hour mark and, in turn, becomes a chore to sit through. Yes, in case you're wondering where the title comes from, there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene where you'll see stars in the sky at noontime. What that means in terms of its symbolic meaning remains the film's most thought-provoking mystery that's left for interpretation. At a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes, Stars at Noon is an anemic, meandering and overlong bore that's neither gripping, intriguing nor emotionally engrossing. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

Summit Fever

Directed by Julian Gilbey

      Michael (Freddie Thorp) joins Leo (Ryan Phillippe), Natascha (Hannah New), and his mountain climbing partner JP (Michel Biel) to climb the Alps. They cross paths with other climbers, Béa (Jocelyn Wedow), Rudi (Théo Christine), Damian Roux (Thomas Ancora) along the way as they battle the elements.

      Summit Fever is yet another B-movie with a wafer-thin plot and too many poorly developed characters. In the shallow screenplay by writer/director Julian Gilbey, the most interesting character is mother nature. She's unpredictable, ugly and majestic all at once. The human characters, though, remain at a cold distance from the audience which makes it hard to get to know any of them. The dialogue is often stilted and the interactions between the characters often feels contrived. With no one to care about on screen, how can the audience root for anyone? The characters seem like they're just there as props to move the plot forward--not there's much of an interesting plot to begin with, though. It's pretty simple: the climbers brave the elements while risking injury and death. Some of them make it, some of them don't. When one of them dies, the others briefly grieve before moving on. You learn so little, though, about the climbers' life outside of mountain climbing. None of them is given an interesting backstory. After the second climber dies, the film begins to feel repetitive and loses its dramatic momentum while exhausting the audience with a lot of action scenes. Those scenes are initially thrilling, but the thrills wane as the tedium waxes. There are some scenes during the lengthy second act that even veer toward schmaltz while almost completely derailing the film. Also, would it be too much to ask to add a little comic relief or some kind of levity every now and then? Even war films like 1917 have levity along with poetry and poignancy which this film sorely lacks.

      The special effects are decent with some stunning shots of the mountain, but, for the most part, Summit Fever not nearly as exhilarating or gripping as it tries to be. Beautiful images of nature aren't enough to hold your attention. Too many scenes, including a few action scenes where someone gets injured, last too long and hit the audience over the head. There are also pacing issues with the second act feeling too slow before the pace picks up again. If it were a lean, tightly 90-minute thriller, perhaps it would've been more entertaining, but at nearly 2 hours, it's monotonous, vapid and exhausting while overstaying its welcome.

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


Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

      Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) lives with her 14-year-old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), in Chicago. Emmett spends the summer of 1955 visiting his cousins in Mississippi where he whistles at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), who works at Bryant’s General Store. A few days later, he's found dead in the Tallahatchie River. Mamie seeks justice for her beloved son's brutal murder and lynching.

      Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu and co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp tell the true story of Emmett Till's lynching with a linear, straight-forward plot that doesn't really break any conventions or take any risks. The screenplay seems to be going through the motions as it introduces Emmett's life with his mother in Chicago during the early scenes before he travels to Mississippi where he gets into trouble for whistling at a white woman. Till then focuses on his mother's perspective and her journey to find the truth about what happened to Emmett, who killed and tortured him, and to bring them to justice. She has an uphill battle with the help of Medgar Evans (Tosin Cole), eventually. The filmmakers leave the events that happened to Till when he was tortured and lynched to the audience's imagination. Instead, they show his brutally beating corpse when his mother sees it for the first time. That image alone is emotionally devastating and speaks louder than words. Unfortunately, you never really get to know any of the other characters besides Mamie, but that's okay because her journey to justice is also an emotional journey that humanizes her. You can feel her emotional pain. To be fair, though, this is the kind of film that resorts to heavy-handedness with some preachy dialogue that almost feels cheesy at times. It tries too hard to tug at the audience's heartstrings. It's the equivalent of banging the keys of the piano too hard. You can sense the wheels of the screenplay turning. Nuance and subtlety can't be found here, unfortunately.

      Fortunately, Danielle Deadwyler's emotionally-charged, convincingly moving performance compensates for the conventional, shallow screenplay. The film's poignancy comes from her performance, not from the screenplay. When it comes to the production values, though, they're a little too slick with too much bright lighting that makes it look like a TV movie. Moreover, the music score feels overbearing and distracting at times which is a sign that the filmmakers don't trust the audience's emotions enough. Why try so hard to tell the audience how to feel when they can figure out how to feel through the performances? That said, Mamie Till's speech in the courtroom scene is incredibly powerful, captivating and unforgettable. At a running time of 2 hour and 10 minutes, Till is over-produced, by-the-numbers and heavy-handed, but genuinely heartfelt. It's elevated tremendously by Danielle Deadwyler's breakthrough, Oscar-worthy performance.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens in select theaters before expanding wide on October 28th, 2022.