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Reviews for October 18th, 2019

Documentary Round-Up

      In the doc Tell Me Who I Am, 18-year-old Alex Lewis woke up from a coma after a motorcycle accident and could only remember his twin brother, Marcus, without any memories of his mother, Jill, and stepfather, Jack. It wasn't until his early 30's when he discovered a dark secret about his family's past which changed the course of the rest of his life and affected his relationship with his brother. That dark secret will not be spoiled here so that you'll be just as shocked and devastated at that precise moment in the film. What complicates matters further is that Marcus knew about the secret, but decided to withhold it from Alex. Until he learned about the secret, though, Alex was under the impression that he had a healthy, loving family and a happy childhood. He admits that has a tougher time grappling with the fact that Marcus lied to him than with the traumatic events from his childhood. Both Alex and Marcus give candid interviews and should be commended for being brave enough to talk about their traumas openly. It also takes self-awareness, inner strength and maturity to be able to be so emotionally naked on camera and diving head-first into a very dark subject matter. They're ultimately survivors and a gift to humanity for sharing their story with others who may have also suffered similar tragedies during their childhood and are struggling to overcome them.

     Director Ed Perkins blends archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments with talking-head interviews. There are also some exterior nighttime and late evening shots of Alex and Marcus' home that give the impression that you're watching a horror film, i.e. tree branches that look as ominous as the ones outside the window in The Shining. Those shots also make the doc more cinematic. Fundamentally, this doc is a horror film, but the horror is emotional and psychological, and it builds up gradually. At a running time of 85 minutes, Tell Me Who I Am is a powerful, brave and heartbreaking documentary. It opens at Quad Cinema via Netflix.

Cyrano, My Love

Directed by Alexis Michalik

      Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès), a playwright, hasn't written a play in over two years. When Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié), an actress from his last critically-panned play, convinces a famous actor, Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet), that Edmond has written a new play and would like to cast him in it. Edmond agrees to cast him, but he hasn't written the play yet. Inspired by an story by Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial) and the romantic pursuits of his good friend, Léonidas Léo Volny (Tom Leeb), Edmond begins to write Cyrano de Bergerac extemporaneously. Meanwhile, is in stale marriage with his wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

     Much of the charm found in Cyrano, My Love charm comes from its wonderful, talented cast who all fit their roles quite well. Bravo to the casting director who Michael Laguens chose such fine actors. The always-reliable, underrated Olivier Gourmet add plenty of charisma to his role as Constant Coquelin and the same can be said about Thomas Solivérès as Edmond. Even when the screenplay by writer/director Alexis Michalik doesn't have enough wit, laugh, nuance, depth of emotion or profound insights, the actors help to keep the film afloat. They manage to rise above the mediocre material. The scenes involving the production of the play are more engaging than the scenes outside of the play between Edmond and his wife or Edmond and his friend.

     Michalik deserves to be commended for creating just the right tone that's reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love, but that Best Picture winner had a much wittier, poignant and clever screenplay along with great costume design, cinematography and editing, not to mention Jedi Dench in a small role. Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be to Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles which isn't brilliant nor extraordinary, but merely breezy and breezy diversion that kept your spirits uplifted during a season of downbeat awards films. If you go to see an intense film like The Lighthouse, Parasite or Harriet, Cyrano, My Love would be just the right antidote in a double feature. At a running time of 110 minutes, it's a whimsical, charming and amusing film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West.

JoJo Rabbit

Directed by Taika Waititi


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Opens in select theaters.

The Lighthouse

Directed by Robert Eggers

     In New England during the 1890's, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) starts a new job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island where an older lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), also works. Their loneliness and isolation takes affects their relationship and their mental health as Ephraim suffers from bizarre hallucinations.

     The Lighthouse is the kind of film that's less about its plot than about its atmosphere and the emotional and mental state of its protagonists. Writer/director Robert Eggers and co-writer Max Eggers keep exposition to a bare minimum with no flashbacks and very little backstory. They also eschew a first act by starting the film when Ephraim arrives to the island and meets Thomas instead of showing his life on the mainland with his family which would've been filler. What follows is what appears to be a chamber piece, but a very cinematic one that doesn't feel too stuffy. There's a sense of dread and mystery in the atmosphere as the film progresses, and the relationship between the two lighthouse keepers becomes increasingly intense. Pay close attention to the dialogue because it's sharply written and has some moments of wit and a dark humor that offseats the film's heavy, dark themes.

     Both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson give tour de force performances and have great chemistry together. They're very believable in their roles and bring plenty of unflinching emotional depth along with them. It wouldn't be surprising if it were difficult for them to shake off these roles emotionally, especially toward the end. The film could have easily gone over the top and it almost does, but doesn't cross that line too far. In other words, Eggers effectively blurs the line between reality and fantasy while leaving just enough room for interpretation. He also shoots the film in glorious black-and-white and a square aspect ratio that makes for a very stunning visual experience. Together with the provocative use of symbolism, the cinematography, use of music and lighting, The Lighthouse might be best watched and analyzed in film school, but, much like Roma, it needs to be experienced on the big screen to maximize your immersion into the sights and sounds. It's not a palatable film nor does it try to be; you might have to see it more than once and to debate it among your friends to understand it better, and even then it might still seem elliptical. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, The Lighthouse is a Bergmanesque trip down the rabbit hole of psychological horror with mesmerizing cinematography. It's bold, bizarre and brilliant.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Directed by Joachim Rønning

      Aurora (Elle Fanning) will soon marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), thereby uniting the Moor and Ulstead kingdoms. She convinces her godmother, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), to meet her soon-to-be husband's parents, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) and King John (Robert Lindsay), while pretending to be her real mother. At the palace dinner, Maleficent hides her horns and tries to treat Aurora's future in-laws politely, but the dinner doesn't quite go as smoothly as planned.

     The majority of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil's problems derive from its pedestrian, tonally even screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Linda Woolverton that's too busy moving the plot forward and rushing to the next scene that shows off the film's big budget with CGI. What about exploring the bond between Maleficent and Aurora more first before that dinner scene that sets up the conflict? What about establishing some sort of chemistry between Aurora and Prince Phillip? None of the beats land after the dinner scene because you simply don't feel Aurora's connection to Maleficent nor to Prince Phillip like you're supposed to. The third act, which is telegraphed from a mile away, falls flat on its face. Also, Michelle Pfeiffer's lines are more awkward and cringe-inducing than funny. What human being talks like that? Have the screenwriters never met a human being before? If the plot were the least bit suspenseful, at least the film would be entertaining on a visceral level, but it doesn't even achieve that bare minimum. Or, on the other hand, it could've been campy and fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Instead, it's tedious, lazy and anemic with clunky exposition and poor editing. The supporting cast, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, are wasted.

     Fortunately, the production values add some eye candy thanks to the set design, costume design, sound design and CG animation, so your eyes and ears will be pleased. Everything in between, i.e. your heart, mind and soul, will be sorely disappointed, and unfulfilled. There is a cute little creature, though, that shows up every now and then to enliven the film, and has a scene in a science lab that's almost moving, but it's cut short before it reaches that much-needed height. If the filmmakers were to hold that scene a little longer instead of cutting away, it would've been a much more emotionally effective moment. At a bloated running time of 118 minutes, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is an overproduced, shallow and often dull experience that fails to be funny, thrilling nor heartfelt despite its talented cast.

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

Zombieland: Double Tap

Directed by Ruben Fleischer


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Columbia Pictures.
Opens nationwide.
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