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Reviews for October 20th, 2023

Documentary Films


      Another Body is a frightening, suspenseful and eye-opening documentary about a college student who discovers deepfake images of her face on porn websites. Co-directors Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn interview the student, Taylor, while respecting her wishes to remain anonymous and to protect her identity by using deepfake images of someone else and not using her real name. Understandably, Taylor reveals very little about private life, but just enough to suspect which of the people from her past might be responsible for the deepfake images and why. She's also emotionally candid which helps to make the film emotionally resonating. Another Body unfolds like a thriller beginning at the moment when Taylor learned from a friend about the deepfake images. She didn't believe her friend at first and assumed that he was hacked when he sent her the link to the porn website, but her life changed after she learned the harsh truth when she finally clicked on the link. She describes the emotional and psychological effects that it had on her. Most alarmingly, she reached dead-ends when she called the police to report what happened. The police's response, which claims that no laws were broken, says a lot about what's wrong with the legal and justice system. Truth and justice are key elements of a functional democracy, so in many ways, Another Body is fundamentally about Taylor's quest for democracy. Even though it doesn't have a satisfying conclusion because Taylor's lawsuit is still ongoing, it's nonetheless a powerful cry for truth, justice and democracy. It opens Wednesday, October 18th at IFC Center via Utopia.


      FU: Fentanyl Unlimited is a vital, eye-opening, alarming and heartfelt exposé about the fentanyl crisis in the US. Director Charlie Minn interviews family members of people who died from fentanyl overdose and survivors of fentanyl addiction who explain the dangers of fentanyl addiction and fentanyl overdose deaths which have been on the rise throughout the years. The statistics are scary and enraging. However, Minn provides a glimmer of hope by interviewing an ex-fentanyl addict and asking her how she overcame her addiction. He goes beyond just putting a human face to the timely issue that's right under our noses, though: he also traces the issue to its source, Mexican cartels, and sheds light on how fentanyl gets smuggled into the U.S. So, FU: Fentanyl Unlimited's major strength is that it looks at the bigger picture and the smaller picture together while remaining focused, insightful and unflinching without resorting to any sugar-coating or euphemisms. Bravo to director Charlie Minn for bravely tackling the fentanyl crisis head-on. It opens at Premiere Cinemas in Bryan, Texas, Satikos Palladium in San Antonio, Texas, and Xscape Theatres in Conroe, Texas before expanding to Premiere Cinemas in Lubbock, Texas.


      The Pigeon Tunnel is a fascinating, illuminating and engrossing documentary biopic about David Cornwell, better known as author John le Carré. Director Errol Morris sits down at a table to interview Cornwell who candidly discusses his childhood, his relationship with his father and his experience working for the Secret Intelligence Service. He certainly has led an interesting life, so Morris is lucky to have him as a subject. He's also very articulate, wise and introspective which helps to provide plenty of depth to the film while also allowing you can grasp what he's thinking and feeling. A truly great documentary opens the subject's curtain to show a glimpse of what he or she is like behind-the-curtain. The Pigeon Tunnel accomplishes that with David Cornwell by humanizing him. He has a lot of interesting anecdotes from his past, but also knows the key events that have shaped and haunted him as an author and as an adult years later. You might understand his novels a little better after watching this documentary. That said, it does suffer from an intrusive music score that hits the audience over the head while trying to make the film feel like a thriller. If only Morris were to have trusted the audience's emotions more because the excessive use of music tries too hard to tell the audience how they should feel. He also uses Dutch angles too much--almost as much as Kenneth Branaugh does in A Haunting in Venice---which does make the film feel cinematic, but overly stylish. At a running time of only 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Pigeon Tunnel opens at Angelika Film Center via Apple TV+.


      The Smell of Money is an enraging, illuminating and heartfelt documentary about how the pig waste from the lagoons of hog farms has been poisoning the air, water and soil while harming the health of residents who live near the hog CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Director Shawn Bannon does a wonderful job of finding the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. You'll learn how North Carolina residents like Elsie Herring and Rene Miller have been suffering physically, emotionally and psychologically from the pig feces that are sprayed as fertilizer from a nearby hog CFO owned by a large corporation called Smithfield. Bannon combines talking-head interviews with archival footage to follow their legal fight against Smithfield throughout the years. They're like David vs. Goliath. Smithfield found loopholes that allowed them to continue to legally spray pig feces and let the runoff from the "lagoon"--a cesspool of feces---seep into the soil without being held accountable for their actions or for the consequences of their actions.

      You have every right to feel indignant about the fact that Smithfield chose to undermine public welfare for the sake of corporate profit. Their executives must've failed to learn about business ethics when they went to business school. Just because something is profitable and enabled by the government doesn't make it ethical. So, The Smell of Money is an appropriate and well-chosen title for this documentary. It's very much tragic, horrifying and heartbreaking, but it also sheds light on the residents' courage, persistence and sense of hope as they seek justice, truth and, above all, democracy. It will make you think twice before buying pork at the supermarket. At a running time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, The Smell of Money opens at Village East by Angelika, and would make for a great double feature with Common Ground and Food, Inc..


      To Kill a Tiger is a riveting, eye-opening and engrossing documentary about a father's quest to find justice after 13-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by three men in an Indian village. Director Nisha Pahuja follows the victim's father, Ranjit, as he bravely decides not to cave into pressures to drop the sexual assault charges against the three rapists. He won't let his daughter marry one of the rapists either which, sadly, is something that often happens after sexual assaults in India. Ranjit and his family believe in standing up to injustice and standing up for the victim's human rights by taking the rapists to court to hold them accountable for their actions. Pahuja doesn't pry into the private life of Ranjit's daughter nor does she dwell on the details of her sexual assault or delve into her emotional trauma in the aftermath, so she respects her boundaries. By focus on Ranjit's legal battles, Pahuja sheds light on how dysfunctional the democracy in India is a, ow difficult as well as time consuming it is for justice to be served, and how there's some hope to be found even within a lot of despair.To Kill a Tiger is a small light in a dark room which could help inspire others to speak out against injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once wisely observed, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." In terms of cinematography, To Kill a Tiger isn't exceptional or visually stylish. However, its lack of slick, visual polish makes it feel more intimate while allowing the audience to focus more on the film's content---unlike the recent doc The Pigeon Tunnel where the visual style distracts from the film's substance. At a running time of 2 hour and 5 minutes, To Kill a Tiger opens at Film Forum via Notice Pictures.


      We Dare to Dream is a heartfelt, well-edited and uplifting, but too pat and incomplete documentary about four athletes from the IOC Refugee Olympic Team who prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Director Waad Al-Kateab opts for a conventional approach to telling their stories by combining talking-head interviews with footage from their preparation and from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This documentary isn't quite as gripping and unflinching as it could've been if Al-Kateab were to have focused more on darker themes like the refugees' experiences back in their homeland. Nor does it reach the powerful heights and emotional depth of Hoop Dreams. However, it does at least humanize the four athletes, namely, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, Cyrille Tchatchet, Kimia Alizadeh and Saeid Fazloula while allowing the audience enough time to get to know them better. It's equally moving and inspirational to watch them work hard to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The messages at the end, though, about not giving up to fulfil one's dreams feel obvious, preachy and a bit cheesy. We Dare to Dream isn't dull or dry, though; its systemic issue is that it's very sugar-coated and over-simplified. Kudos to the editor for smoothly cutting back and forth between the four subjects without confusing or overwhelming the audience. At a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, We Dare to Dream opens at IFC Center.


Directed by Iman Zawahry

      Sam (Aizzah Fatima) and her sister Maryam (Salena Qureshi) live in New York City with their mother, Khala (Lilette Dubey), who pressures them to get married, but Sam doesn't want to settle down yet and prefers to focus on her career in marketing. When their cousin, Ameera (Shenaz Treasury), arrives from Pakistan, she falls in love with Godfrey (Gabriel Jackson), a bodega owner, despite Khala's disapproval because he's not from their culture.

      Americanish is a clunky and tonally uneven romantic comedy that's as contrived as a sitcom. The screenplay by writer/director Iman Zawahry blends comedy, romance and drama while juggling three different subplots. Sam is the rebel or black sheep of the family for disobeying her mother while Ameera goes against tradition by having a romance with a man outside of her culture. Ameera's relationship with Godfrey is barely fleshed out. So the beats don't land when they spend time together or when they get engaged. Sam also has a taste of romance when a police officer flirts with her and, in yet another cheesy scene, he bumps into on the subway and gives her his number which she promptly texts. Khala comes across as a racist, xenophobic, controlling and domineering mother. Her character arc doesn't feel remotely believable. Moreover, the third act, which can be seen from a mile away, tries to tie all of the subplots together in a way that feels hackneyed, unimaginative and schmaltzy.

      The performances are decent at best, but not enough to elevate the film above mediocrity. Shenaz Treasury and Gabriel Jackson lack palpable chemistry together, unfortunately. That might not be entirely their fault; it could have to do with the mostly dull, unfunny and sugar-coated screenplay that doesn't take enough risks. There's nothing wrong with following a conventional formula or predictability for that matter; it's more important how a film comes about its plot. The pace moves briskly, though, which is a plus, but there's nothing exceptional about the production values or anything else to compensate for the lack of substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Americanish is a clunky, cheesy and contrived misfire.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Diverse Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Butcher's Crossing

Directed by Gabe Polsky

      Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger) drops out of college and visits Butcher's Crossing, Kansas, where he meets Miller (Nicolas Cage), a buffalo hunter, and embarks with him on buffalo hunting expedition in the Colorado Rockies.

      The screenplay by writer/director Gabe Polsky and co-writer Liam Satre-Meloy is based on the novel by John Williams, but you wouldn't believe that it's based on any novel at all because the characters are so poorly developed and the plot becomes increasingly dull. It's essentially a B-western, but not particularly exciting or thrilling. It does, however, veer a little into bonkers territory as Will and Miller brave the elements during the hunting expedition. Miller is the most interesting character, but doesn't come to life, even when he behaves more and more insanely as the expedition takes a significant psychological toll on him. His relationship with Will falls flat, and it doesn't help that the dialogue feels stilted, dry and lacks much-needed wit as well as levity. There's not nearly enough exposition or backstory, and what little there is is lazy and bland. The supporting characters, too, aren't very memorable, i.e. Charley (Xander Berkeley) and Fred (Jeremy Bobb) who are part of Miller's team of buffalo hunters, and McDonald (Paul Raci), another buffalo hunter. Although Butcher's Crossing isn't afraid get dark and grim with an un-Hollywood ending, it's too low on imagination, emotional depth and thrills to make any kind of impact, een with the text at the end about the dwindling number of buffalos that are nearing extinction.

      Unfortunately, none of the performances help to enliven Butcher's Crossing, not even Nicolas Cage and Paul Raci who've been in far more memorable films with better-written characters. Fred Hechinger lacks the charisma to hold the weight of the lead role, and he doesn't manage to breathe any life into the shallow screenplay either. The wintry landscape and cinematography are the only strong aspects of the film which provide it with some visual style and atmosphere. The slow-burning pace, though, makes the running time of 107 minutes feel more like it's over 2 hours.

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

The Canterville Ghost

Directed by Kim Burdon

      The ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville (voice of Stephen Fry) haunts the mansion that Hiram Otis (voice of David Harewood), his wife, Lucretia (voice of Meera Syal), his sons, Kent (voice of Bennett Miller) and Louis (voice of Jakey Schiff), and daughter, Virginia (voice of Emily Carey), move into. Virginia befriends the Canterville ghost and helps him to break a curse that Death (voice of Hugh Laurie) put him under through trickery. Meanwhile, she falls in love with the Duke of Cheshire (voice Freddie Highmore).

       The Canterville Ghost is a mildly engaging, harmless and kid-friendly animated movie. The screenplay by co-writers Giles New and Keiron Self, based on the novella by Oscar Wilde, is occasionally funny and witty, but mostly just amusing before it takes a slightly darker turn as the Canterville ghost faces Death. There's a lot going on plot-wise, so kudos to the screenwriters for keeping it simple and easy-to-follow for children. They also avoid making it too scary or intense. The humor has too much slapstick which is fine for younger audiences, but a little bit too silly for adults. So, unfortunately, this isn't the kind of animated film that will entertain kids and adults equally. It's not boring and rarely dull, but it's ultimately forgettable and consistently mediocre.

      The CGI animation is lively and colorful, but not much else beyond that to impress the audience in terms of visual style. The voice actors are fine, especially Stephen Fry. The film moves along at a brisk pace without any scenes that go on for too long, so children won't lose their attention or become exhausted thanks to the ideal running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes. t

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

The Delinquents

Directed by Rodrigo Moreno

      Morán (Daniel Elías), a bank employee, steals $650,000 from his workplace and convinces his colleague,  Román (Esteban Bigliardi), to hide the money while he confesses to the robbery and goes to prison. He plans on splitting the money evenly with him after he's released from prison a few years later.

      The plot gets more complex than the synopsis above and doesn't quite go in the directions that you would expect it to go. Writer/director Rodrigo Moreno takes what sounds like a crime thriller or crime comedy/satire and turns it into an undercooked drama with sporadic thrills and sprinkle of dry comedy. The robbery goes as planned, but what complicates matters is that the bank prefers to sweep it under the rug to avoid scaring its loyal customers, so everyone gets the blame for it and there's no thorough investigation. Not surprisingly, the bank manager suspects that Román has something to do with the robbery because he happened to have called out sick that day and he gets caught visiting Morán in prison. Just when you think he'll be arrested and interrogated by the police, that doesn't quite happen. Just when you think the film will turn into a gritty prison drama, it doesn't. At least it gets some points for being unpredictable. The Delinquents runs out of steam in Part Two when  Román travels to forest to hide the bag of stolen money under a large rock before he meets a young woman, Norma (Margarita Molfino), whom he has a sexually-charged affair with. There's barely any character development, suspense or anything to keep the audience glued to the screen.

      The best aspect of The Delinquents is its picturesque scenery and, at times, its refreshingly relaxing, unhurried pace. That kind of pace is a double-edged sword, though, because it tests the audience's patience. Writer/director Rodrigo Moreno trusts the audience's patience too much. Many scenes drag and the pace feels sluggish while the narrative momentum gradually wanes. The performances are decent, but not enough to enliven the film. Moreover, the weight of the running time 3 hours and 3 minutes can be felt around the 2 hour mark, so the last hour is a slog to get through to the anti-climactic ending.  What ensues is an unfocused, dull and meandering film that becomes less and less engaging.

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

Hayride to Hell

Directed by Dan Lantz


Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by Sugartown Scare Productions.
Opens in select theaters.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Directed by Martin Scorsese

      William Hale (Robert De Niro) murders Native Americans to steal their land and take their oil headrights. He convinces Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), his nephew, to marry Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman, as part of a scheme to inherit her oil headrights. Ernest falls in love with Mollie which threatens to derail the scheme.  Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons), arrives in town to investigate the murders.  

      Based on the novel by David Grann, the screenplay by writer/director Martin Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth spends a lot of time with exposition while blending drama, romance and suspense. The suspense isn't as palpable as it could've been because the audience already knows from the get-go that William Hale is responsible for the murders of Native Americans. They also know why he's murdering them as well as why Ernest is conning Mollie by marrying her. The screenplay barely fleshed out their relationship before they get married, so their scenes as husband and wife aren't quite as heartfelt as they could've been because it's hard to understand what Mollie sees in Ernest. Moreover, William comes across as a cookie-cutter villain rather than as a complex human being. He's greedy, arrogant, domineering and sleazy with not a modicum of remorse for the consequences of his actions. The only remotely likeable character is Mollie. Whenever the film focuses on her, it becomes more engrossing. The rest of the film just seems to be going through the motions with new characters being introduced while the plot meanders. It picks up steam again when the FBI agent arrives before it wanes and then picks up again during the last hour during the gripping courtroom scenes.

      Robert De Niro gives a decent, but unremarkable performance. Leonardo DiCaprio brings charisma to his role, but not much more than that. His accent isn't very convincing, unfortunately. Jesse Plemons is terrific in his support role. If only there were more scenes with him. Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow also show up in smaller, underdeveloped roles. Lily Gladstone shines the brightest with a genuinely moving performance. She's the film's MVP and helps the film to become alive whenever she's on screen. The pace moves very slowly, sometimes sluggish with some scenes that overstay their welcome, i.e. the very lengthy scene at the jail with William and Ernest and the lengthy final shot that makes its point over and over, so it loses some of its visual poetry and emotional impact. It's beautifully shot, though, with a lot of picturesque scenery that provide the film with scope that makes it feel cinematic. At a running time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, Killers of the Flower Moon is well-shot with a fine ensemble cast and a radiant performance by Lily Gladstone, but often meandering, overlong, sporadically exhilarating and only occasionally moving. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Apple TV+ and Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Malibu Horror Story

Directed by Scott Slone

      A film crew, namely, Josh (Dylan Sprayberry), Matt (Robert Bailey Jr.), Ashley (Valentina de Angelis), and Jessica (Rebecca Forsythe), venture inside a cave in Malibu, California to investigate the disappearance of four high school students 10 years earlier.

      Writer/director Scott Slone offer anything new or surprising with Malibu Horror Story, but he does accomplish is to provide some genuinely scary scenes. To be fair, the "found footage" genre has run out of ideas since the last few Paranormal Activity movies. It all began with The Blair Witch Project which relied a lot on the audience's imagination during many scenes taking place in the dark. Malibu Horror Story also has many scenes in the dark, but it does allow the audience to see horror at times rather than just in their imagination. Slone should be commended for not keeping the film lean and focused on the meat of the story without too much filler. He doesn't bother to flesh out anyone's personality or to delve into their backstories. The suspense is Hitchcockian because it arises from the anticipation of the horrifying events that the film crew will inevitably endure. It's just a question of when and how. The "why?" remains a mystery, so this isn't the kind of film that tries to be an "elevated" horror film that has a memorable, complex supernatural entity. Whatever the film crew encounters is merely pure evil. Although Malibu Horror Story isn't as intense and nerve-racking as The Descent, it does generate enough palpable scares to be a solid B-horror movie.

      The performances are natural enough to help the film be a convincing "found footage" movie. The lighting and production design in general add to the creepy atmosphere, especially during the third act. It's fortunate that Scott Slone avoids using lots of shaky cam to generate tension because that's usually something that only makes the audience nauseous like in The Blair Witch Project. That said, there's not nearly enough levity, so while it does become somewhat monotonous, it's not too exhausting because the film doesn't overstay its welcome. At a running time of only 1 hour and 25 minutes, Malibu Horror Story is palpably scary and creepy, but low on surprises and imagination.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Iconic Events Releasing.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

      60-year-old Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) repeatedly attempts to beat the odds by swimming non-stop for 110 miles from Cuba to Florida after failing to swim the same trek when she was 28. Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), her best friend, serves as her coach while John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) gets hired as her navigator who captains her support boat.

      Based on the memoir by Diana Nyad, the screenplay by Julia Cox follows a conventional underdog sports drama formula, but it's nonetheless an inspirational and moving story even though it tries a little too hard to tug at your heartstrings. Diana remains determined from start to finish to never give up trying to complete the 110-mile swim between Cuba and Florida which no one has accomplished before. She has a tough time finding sponsors because of her age, but eventually she finds one. Her best friend, Bonnie, wants what's best for her and remains a truly good friend to her despite some rough patches along the way in their relationship. Cox does a mediocre job of incorporating exposition, though. There's too little information about how Diana and Bonnie became friends, although Diana explains to a stranger at a party that they had briefly dated years ago. Meanwhile, Diana has flashbacks to a traumatic event from her childhood which she hasn't overcome yet, but what precisely happened back then isn't revealed until much later in the film. By the end, though, it's still underexplored and sugar-coated in favor of keeping the film more light and upbeat. What makes Diana compelling as a character and more human concurrently is that she's somewhat of a narcissist with a huge ego who loves to talk about herself and has a one-track mind. However, she's not a malignant narcissist because she shows that she's introspective when she calls John to offer him a genuine apology while acknowledging her actions that hurt him. She doesn't give him an excuse for how she treated him nor does she gaslight him which is admirable.

      Screenwriter Julia Cox should be commended for also humanizing Bonnie. There's a particularly poignant scene when Bonnie bluntly tells Diana that she hasn't figured out yet what dreams she wants to fulfill for herself while making it clear that she's the only one who gets to determine what those dreams are and what she wants out of life. No one else gets to decide that for her, so for Bonnie to stand up for herself like that in front of Diana makes her brave and emotionally mature---perhaps more emotionally mature than Diana. The swimming scenes are exciting with a few thrilling and surprisingly scary moments involving sharks and jellyfish. It's also worth mentioning the effective use of comic relief at the just the right moments which prevent the film from being a dry, pedestrian biopic. The third act, which can be seen from a mile away, is somewhat schmaltzy, though, with preachy, on-the-nose messages about never giving up. If only the filmmakers could'e trusted the audience's intelligence more to allow them to interpret the film's message on their own rather than to have it spoon-fed to them.

      Annette Bening and Jodie Foster give terrific performances that help to keep the film afloat. They're wonderful together and have great chemistry. The emotional depth comes from their performances more than from the screenplay. It's refreshing to see Rhys Ifans play against type in a serious role which he brings to life with his warm and tender performance. There are pacing issues, though. During the first hour, the pace moves too quickly before slowing down a little and then picking up again. The scenes with Diana swimming are intense, but go on for too long. At a running time of 2 hours, Nyad is a heartfelt, empowering and inspirational emotional journey anchored by Annette Bening and Jodie Foster's bravura performances.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Netflix.
Opens at the Paris Theater before streaming on Netflix on November 3rd, 2023.

The Other Zoey

Directed by Sara Zandieh

      Zoey (Josephine Langford) doesn't believe in romantic love. Her belief gets put to the test when Zack (Drew Starkey), a popular jock from her college, from her college, gets struck by a car, ends up with temporary amnesia, and mistakes her for his girlfriend who happens to share her name and physically resembles her.

     The screenplay by Matthew Tabak doesn't have anything surprising, profound or new to say about love, romance or relationships nor does it reinvent the genre, but it's nonetheless a diverting and pleasant romantic comedy. There's nothing wrong with being derivative as long as it borrows its ideas well which, in this case, it does. Zoey makes it clear from the very beginning that she's cynical about romantic love. She can't stand formulaic romcoms like Notting Hill and When Harry Met Sally.... Before she knows it, she's pretty much stuck inside one when she's mistaken for Zach's girlfriend. Not surprisingly, she discovers that there's more to him than meets the eye. He can make pizza from scratch and almost beats her in chess despite learning it a few hours earlier. She also lies to Zack's parents, Connie (Andie MacDowell) and Matt (Patrick Fabian), his brother, Miles (Archie Renaux) and younger sister, Avery (Olive Abercrombie). Only her best friend, Elle (Mallori Johnson), knows that she's leading them on. She even encourages Zoey to lie to them by reminding her that Zack's doctor stated that Zack shouldn't be put in a stressful situation which could worsen his amnesia. Inevitably, Zack's memory will come back to him. As the plot progresses it becomes more and more like the romantic comedies that Zoey had criticized. However, at least it's self-aware of that connection. oey's change of mind, while within the realm of possibility, feels contrived as she goes against her true feelings after her mother, Paula (Heather Graham), tells her that opposites can attract. Soon enough, she falls for Zack and also for his brother who happens to be polyamorous. There's a lot going on in The Other Zoey and there are too many characters, but it somehow feels breezy while avoiding cheesiness, gross-out humor and cringe-inducing moments.

      Josephine Langford gives a warm and charismatic performance that breathes life into Zoey. She and Drew Starkey have palpable chemistry and have many small, cute moments together, i.e. when they play chess and when she watches him making breakfast pizza with eggs and bacon which she finds to be surprisingly delicious. In terms of production values, The Other Zoey is often brightly lit which does make it seem like a sitcom occasionally, but that's forgivable and not a systemic issue. The pace moves briskly enough, and the film doesn't overstay its welcome like too many romcoms these days. At 1 hour and 26 minutes, it's a breezy, witty and charming delight. If While You Were Sleeping and Isn't it Romantic? had a baby, it would look something like The Other Zoey.

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

The Persian Version

Directed by Maryam Keshavarz

      Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an Iranian-American young woman, visits her large family in New York City when her father (Bijan Daneshmand) needs a heart transplant. Tensions arise between her and her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), who's uncomfortable with her being a lesbian. Leila thinks that it's her fault that she and her ex-wife ended up divorced.

      The screenplay by writer/director Maryam Keshavarz blends comedy, drama, tragedy and whimsy with mixed results. Keshavarz relies too much on narration to tell the story and to get inside Leila and Shareen's heart, mind and soul which feels both lazy and clunky with too much over-explaining. She also uses flashbacks as a form of exposition to illuminate Leila and Shireen's childhood memories, some of which are traumatic and shapes who they are today. In one of the film's outrageously funny and awkward scenes, Leila gets pregnant, despite being a lesbian, when she sleeps with a guy (Tom Byrne) at a party who's playing Hedwig at a Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical. when Leila invites him over to dinner to meet her family, they call him ugly behind his back. Just when you think the film will turn into something along the lines of Meet the Parents or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it adds subplots through flashbacks while shifting the narration from Leila to the Shireen (now played by Kamand Shafieisabet) during her childhood growing up in Iran. The screenplay's systemic issue is that it's overstuffed, undercooked and bites off more than it could chew. There are too many characters and too many different tones, but it feels convoluted and contrived. Leila's grandmother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), seems like she's a character straight out of a Farrely brothers' or Judd Apatow movie as she makes raunchy jokes about anal sex twice. She's more of a caricature than a fully-fleshed human being. Unfortunately, the very rushed third act does not earn its uplift and tries too hard to please the audience with a lively, upbeat song and dance number. The beats don't quite land when Leila and Shireen have major epiphanies. Their character arcs aren't very believable.

      The performances are fine with no one getting the chance to rise above the contrived, shallow and cheesy screenplay. The editing between the present day scenes and the flashbacks are awkward and distracting. At least the editing isn't as choppy as the overly-edited My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 nor does the pace move too quickly. There's nothing exceptional about the production design or anything else that would have provided the film with some stylish visuals except for the dance number which feels like it belongs in a completely different film. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, The Persian Version is mildly engaging, sugar-coated, clunky and tonally uneven.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens in select theaters nationwide.

Sick Girl

Directed by Jennifer Cram

      When Wren (Nina Dobrev) begins to sense that she and her childhood friends, Laurel (Sherry Cola), Cece (Stephanie Koening), and Jill (Hayley Magnus), have been drifting apart, she lies to them that she has cancer. She befriends a young man, Leo (Brandon Mychal Smith), at a cancer support group.

      Based on the premise alone, writer/director Jennifer Cram grasps that comedy is deeply rooted in tragedy. Wren comes across as an emotionally immature, insecure and lonely hot mess. She gets drunk a lot and behaves childishly, so it comes as no surprise when she can't figure out a healthy way to get closer to her childhood friends. The synopsis for the film on Rotten Tomatoes inaccurately refers to Wren's lie as a white lie when it could be argued that it's not that at all because she does hurt other peoples' feelings by lying that she has cancer. She's too naïve to realize the consequences of her actions, especially when her friends start a fundraiser to raise money for her cancer treatment or when her parents, Fred (Dan Bakkedahl) and Carol (Wendi McLendon-Covey), express how offended they feel that she didn't tell them about having cancer when they show up to the fundraiser. It's not a small lie or white lie at all--it's not the same as lying to someone that they like their food. Moreover, Wren shows signs that she might be a compulsive liar, i.e. when she tells her doctor that she sought therapy which he correctly claims that she needs. He's the only voice of reason, but she doesn't even listen to him and has no shame in lying to him, too. Unfortunately, Sick Girl doesn't work as a psychological character study nor as a comedy. It's just as contrived and shallow as A Little White Lie that opened earlier this year. Wren's character arc doesn't feel organic enough, and the same can be said about her relationship with Leo. The wheels of the screenplay can be felt turning from start to finish which is not a sign because it means that none of the characters or their situations ring true. Moreover, the third act is preachy, corny and very rushed without earning its uplift. For a better film about an insecure young woman who's desperate for friends and lies as well, see Muriel's Wedding which humanizes its protagonist, Muriel, by showing that her insecurities and toxic behavior come from her toxic, narcissistic mother and father. Sick Girl is too busy trying to please the audience instead of exploring the origins of Wren's toxic behavior, so it essentially dehumanizes Wren as much as she dehumanizes herself.

      None of the actors or actresses manage to enliven the film with their comedic timing or charisma. Sherry Cola is much funnier in Joy Ride and Shortcomings; here, her role is wasted. Nina Dobrev gives a decent performance, but she's undermined by the witless and bland screenplay. There's little to no chemistry between her and Sherry Cola, Stephanie Koening, and Hayley Magus who portray Wren's childhood friends. The pace moves briskly, though, and too fast during the third act. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, which feels more like 2 hours, Sick Girl is a contrived, unfunny and undercooked blend of psychological character study and comedy. In a double feature with Muriel's Wedding, it would be the inferior B-movie.


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.