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Reviews for October 21st, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      In the documentary All That Breathes, two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, open a hospital for birds in their basement in New Delhi. Pollution has caused many birds, including black kites, to get sick and die. Director Shaunak Sen follows Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud as they treat the birds and nurse them back to life. They struggle to keep their hospital afloat and hope to find foreign funding to make their hospital bigger and better. They live in poverty with occasional blackouts, but they don't give up. Their love of animals is palpable. On the one hand, this documentary will make you happy to see compassionate people caring for sick animals. New Delhi is filled with many different animals who all depend on the environment to survive. The birds have even adapted to the polluted environment by using cigarette butts to repel predators. On the other hand, All That Breathes also serves as a potent wake-up call about the systemic issue of pollution in India. Just observing the images alone, you can easily see how polluted the land, water and air are. Birds fall from the sky on a daily basis. It's like watching a horror film, so if you're horrified, you have every right to be. Director Shaunak Sen also does a great job of showing how symbiotic the ecosystem is, plants, insects, birds and humans all live together. Pollution affects them all as do the effects of global warming. All That Breathes would make for a great double feature with the recent doc Invisible Demons now streaming on MUBI. At a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, it's an eye-opening, inspirational and powerful exposé with images that speak louder than words. It opens at Film Forum via Submarine Deluxe.

      Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, director by Nina Menkes, is a mildly engaging documentary about "the male gaze" of women in film from the Golden Age of Hollywood until today. She connects the objectification of women in cinema through the male gaze to larger issues like pay inequality between men and women. In the vein of An Inconvenient Truth, this doc is mostly in the form of a filmed lecture that Nina Menkes gave back in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival interspersed with talking-head interviews with directors like Catherine Hardwicke and Eliza Hittman. There are plenty of film clips from a wide variety of films ranging from Raging Bull to Eyes Wide Shut to Roma, The Hurt Locker, and Promising Young Woman, among many others. Although Menkes' insights about the male gaze in those films are fascinating and will tempt you to re-watch them, she does a less finer job of connecting them to larger themes that attempt to broaden the documentary's scope. Too much of the doc feels dry, pedestrian and academic while compelling you to ask, "When is the exam??" instead of enraging you or surprising you. What about alternative viewpoints for a more thorough and balanced analysis? It really doesn't have much to say that's very revealing or profound beyond the film-by-film analysis. Beauty Bites Beast is a far more insightful and provocative documentary about the objectification of women in Hollywood that's rooted in the way women are portrayed in Disney princess movies---and the added bonus of what can be done to provide women with more power and self-confidence. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power opens at Firehouse Cinema via Kino Lorber.

      In the gripping and provocative documentary Descendant, director Margaret Brown investigates what happened to Clotilda, an illegal slave ship that carried slaves from Africa to Alabama back in 1860. At the start of the documentary, the remnants of the ship have not been found yet. That's the hard evidence needed to prove that the ship existed. The descendants of the slaves who arrived on Clotilda lives in Africatown, Alabama. This documentary serves as an exposé about America's dark past. The people of Africatown deserve to know the truth which has been hidden for many years. Descendant isn't just a documentary about truth, it's also about democracy. Director Margaret Brown does a terrific job of humanizing the descendants as they desperately search for the truth and demand answers about what exactly happened to the ship and why it's been hidden from them. What follows is a heartfelt and captivating journey that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. It's also very well-edited without any padding or moments that feel dry or dull. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Descendant opens at IFC Center via Netflix.

      The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile is a delightful, heartwarming and well-edited documentary. Director Kathlyn Horan merges two documentaries in one: a biopic about country singer/songwriter Tanya Tucker, and Tanya's collaboration with Brandi Carlisle to record her first album after stepping away from the music industry for nearly two decades. Fortunately, Horan combines those threads seamlessly. She does a wonderful job of introducing Tanya Tucker to the audience while providing background information about her childhood and personal struggles. Tanya Tucker comes across as a candid, intelligent, humble, emotionally mature and warm human being---but, above all, a human being, warts and all. You don't have to be into country music to enjoy this documentary. It's magical and uplifting beyond words to watch Tanya work behind-the-scenes on her new album with Brandi Carlile. Even though they never met before, it seems like they've been friends for life. Their camaraderie, love and compassion for each other as human beings and artists, concurrently, feels very palpable from start to finish. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile opens at Angelika Film Center and AMC Lincoln Square via Sony Pictures Classics.

      Sell/Buy/Date is an amalgam of mockumentary/documentary that centers on sex workers to try to destigmatize and humanize them. Not surprisingly, director Sarah Jones interviews strippers, porn stars and prostitutes to provide a human face to the issue. She also visits a legal brothel. Between those interviews, Jones adds a subplot about her struggles to get the green light to turn her play, "Sell/Buy/Date", into a movie. Not surprisingly, she has setbacks and risks being cancelled, or so she learns, so it's an uphill battle. There are scenes where she portrays characters from her play, i.e. her grandmother, Lorraine, and Rashid, an Uber-driver, but they're awkward, unfunny and cringe-inducing attempts to add levity. They seem more like lazy SNL sketches and make the documentary meander and lose its momentum as well as its focus. Then there also cameos with Rosario Dawson, Bryan Cranston and Ilana Glazer who provide some insight---Cranston has the most moving moment, but all of those cameos feel random, poorly -edited and poorly-incorporated into the documentary when the focus should be on the sex workers. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, Sell/Buy/Date opens at Village East by Angelika via Cinedigm.


Directed by Charlotte Wells

      Sophie (Francesca Corio), an 11-year-old girl, spends her summer vacation in a Turkish resort with her father, Calyn (Paul Mescal). 20 years later, she looks back on her memories of her father from that vacation through video taken from a camcorder.

      Writer/director Charlotte Wells grasps the fact that a movie's plot isn't as important as the feelings contained inside of it. Most people don't remember details of a plot anyway many years down the line unless they've seen the movie over and over. As Hitchcock astutely observed, some movies are like a slice-of-life while others are like a slice-of-cake. Aftersun is very much a slice-of-life with very little cake. Like in Boyhood, there are some scenes that play around with audiences' preconceived expectations of what will happen. For instance, when Sophie swims in the ocean, you might think that something bad will happen i.e., a shark attack or that she might drown. Your imagination will also be put to the test when Sophie wanders around the resort without her father in the middle of the night. Will she get kidnapped or hurt somehow? By often relying on the audience's imagination, Wells compels the audience to project from their own life experiences and their own fears. She also challenges you to rethink what's "cinematic." There are no action scenes here, no villain(s) or inspirational speeches or insights spoon-fed to the audience. Exposition remains kept to a minimum. Everything remains understated, even the emotions, until the powerful and haunting ending which won't be spoiled here.

      Francesca Corio gives a breakthrough performance as Sophie. She's a terrific child actor whose natural performance helps to further ground the film in realism. The same can be said about Paul Mescal. Neither of them under-act or over-act. It's rare to see a film where the performances are just as nuanced as the screenplay. The cinematography is also worth mentioning because it adds both style and substance without being overwhelming. There's some interesting use of symbolism that's left open to interpretation, i.e. the color yellow. Even the film's title, which refers to a cream used to moisturize the skin after exposure to the sun, can be seen as a metaphor---the sun can represent enlightenment, for instance. Bravo to writer/director Charlotte Wells for trusting the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination. She has a remarkable ability to take something mundane and turn it into something poetic, profound and deeply human. That's an impressive feat that takes a true humanist to capture. Patience audiences will be rewarded the most. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Aftersun is a spellbinding, genuinely heartfelt and refreshingly un-Hollywood slice-of-life.

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

American Murderer

Directed by Matthew Gentile

      Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey), a con artist, gets into hot water for owing a lot of money to the people he had conned. Meanwhile, he goes on the run from Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe), a special agent for the FBI who's desperate to apprehend him.

      e shallow screenplay by writer/director Matthew Gentile is based on a true story, but you'd find that hard believe that for a second while watching the film because of how poorly it breathes life into any of its characters. With a premise reminiscent of Heat's premise, you'd think that there'd be at least a little suspense in the cat-and-mouse chase, but there isn't any to be found here. Instead, you'll find plenty of tedium, underdeveloped subplots and characters that tease the audience with a more complex and grounded film. For example, none of the scenes with Jason's mother (Jacki Weaver), father (Kevin Corrigan), or sister (Shantal VanSanten), don't add much to the plot as they're mostly on the sidelines. Jason clearly had a rough childhood with a dysfunctional family, but Gentile doesn't bother to explore that. Nor does he explore the relationship between Jason and his girlfriend, Melanie (Idina Menzel). Without levity, the film becomes a monotonous and pedestrian bore that merely goes through the motions. It's hard to care or root for anyone on screen when the stilted, contrived screenplay keeps the characters at such a cold distance from the audience.

      Unfortunately, none of the performances help to enliven the film. They range from mediocre to wooden and anemic, much like the screenplay itself. Jacki Weaver has been in far better crime thrillers, i.e. Animal Kingdom, which gave her much more material to work with. Here, she's wasted in a forgettable role while she's undermined by the lazy screenplay. Tom Pelphrey has a little charisma, but not much to carry the film. There's nothing exceptional about the camerawork, editing or anything else on an aesthetic level. Even the action scenes don't generate much excitement. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes,American Murderer is lethargic, vapid and underwhelming while low on thrills and suspense. It's just as dull and uninspired as its bland title. Rogue Agent is a far more entertaining, intriguing and gripping crime thriller also based on a true story.

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

The Banshees of Inisherin

Directed by Martin McDonagh

      Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) have been lifelong friends on the island of Inisherin located off the west coast of Ireland. Colm announces to him that he no longer wants to be friends and calls him a dullard, but Pádraic refuses to accept the end of their friendship. Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic's sister, and Dominic (Barry Keoghan) try their best to save Pádraic and Colm's friendship.

      The screenplay by writer/director Martin McDonagh brims with wit and irreverent, razor-sharp humor that's McDonagh's trademark. He has a knack for writing acerbic dialogue and pithy, deeply flawed characters who aren't very likable, but they're still very human concurrently. He eschews a first act that might've shown Pádraic and Colm's friendship during their younger years, so he skips right to the meat of the story when they cease to be friends all-of-a-sudden. Whether or not Colm's reasons for wanting to leave the friendship are justified is left up to the audience to debate. He has a right to express his true feelings and to want to be alone. Does Pádraic have the right to have some kind of closure and to reignite the relationship. Fundamentally, The Banshees of Inisherin is a story about friendship, love and emotional pain. Colm has a lot going on inside of him; he's depressed, sad, frustrated, lonely, angry, self-loathing and bitter. He shows his self-loathing in a way that's shocking and disturbing. McDonagh isn't afraid to show the darker side of human nature. He's also unafraid to take the plot into unpredictable territory as it becomes increasingly absurd while avoiding unevenness, clunkiness and schmaltz.  McDonagh grasps that comedy is rooted in tragedy, and he does a fine job of intertwining both. You'll laugh one minute and be shocked the next. The Banshees of Inisherin joins Triangle of Sadness as a film that's enormously entertaining and surprising while making you think and feel simultaneously. Both films also have a donkey playing an important role. Wait until you see EO, though, which has a donkey as the protagonist.

      Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are just as terrific together as they were together in In Bruges. Gleeson gives one of the best performances of his career as he sinks his teeth into the role of Colm while portraying his strength and fragility effectively. He breathes life into the role to make you forget that you're watching someone acting. It's compelling to watch him and Farrell banter with each other. They have a wonderful rapport which is thanks to the sensitive screenplay and to their skills as actors. They're both very charismatic. The same can be said for the actors and actresses in the supporting roles like Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon. They make the most out of their smaller roles and get a chance to shine as much as Gleeson and Farrell do. The scenery is often breathtaking and occasionally adds an eerie, foreboding atmosphere making you feel as though you were watching a horror film or a Shakespearean film---especially with the addition of the mysterious, witch-like character Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton). The cinematography is superb as is the music score and editing. You don't feel the weight of the nearly 2-hour running time. Like any great film, The Banshees of Inisherin transcends its genre and plot. It's much more than the sum of its parts. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, The Banshees of Inisherin is a triumph. It's audacious, witty and wickedly funny. Most importantly, underneath all of the pith and irreverence, there's a warm beating heart. 

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

Black Adam

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

      In the city of Khandaq, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), resurrect Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson), a man who gained superpowers nearly 5,000 years earlier before vanishing. When the Justice Society of America learns that Teth Adam, a.k.a Black Adam, has been resurrected, they travel to Khandaq to face him in battle. The Justice Society of America includes Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and their leader, Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan).

      The screenplay by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani takes a while to get to the meat of the story as it opens with a prologue that provides Black Adam's backstory to explain how he ended up with superpowers before it flashes forward to modern times in Khandaq. Of course, because every Hollywood superhero requires it, there's a MacGuffin: a crown with a much sought-after substance called Eternium. Not surprisingly, that's what the villains want to get a hold of. Cue the seemingly endless cycle of action scenes which are only mildly thrilling, but after the 3rd battle, there are diminishing returns. Black Adam barely even bothers to develop the friendship between Teth Adam/Black Adam and anyone else including Amon. The villains are boring and forgettable, even Doctor Fate. The exposition feels clunky and the dialogue is both witless and stilted, but to be fair, who goes to see a superhero film for the dialogue? You're there to be exhilarated and have fun. Unfortunately, Black Adam takes itself too seriously and fails to deliver even that bare minimum.

      Even when it comes to the visual effects, there's nothing that will dazzle or provide much eye candy. Some of the CGI doesn't even look very convincing---in other words, you can sense the use of green screen, so it's not seamless. Dwayne Johnson, who's usually charismatic and amusing, doesn't have much to work with to make his character anything more than a generic superhero who's just very strong and fights a lot. There's nothing about Black Adam that stands out, and he doesn't have much of a personality. The same can be said about the major villain played by Pierce Brosnan whose charisma is also muted here. At a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, Black Adam suffers from a bland plot with too much exposition and too many characters. It's yet another loud, long and shallow video game masquerading as a Hollywood blockbuster. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a mid-credits sequence that's the best part of the movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros.
Opens nationwide.

The Divine Protector: Master Salt Begins

Directed by Hiroshi Akabane



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


Directed by Nyla Innuksuk

      Four friends, Jesse (Alexis Vincent-Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Pruksy), Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth) and Maika (Tasiana Shirley) live in Pang, a small village on Baffin Island in the Artic Ocean. During their summer break, they encounter an alien invasion that threatens the village.

      If John Carpenter's The Thing were made for kids, it would look something like Slash/Back. The screenplay by writer/director Nyla Innuksuk and Ryan Cavan keeps the horror elements to a minimum while focusing more on the four young girls coming together to fight the aliens. There's a little bit of character development for each girl as you get to know them and what their life at home is like, but there's not much that's emotionally engrossing from any of that. This isn't a "coming-of-age" story per se, although it veers toward that direction at times. It's also not a sci-fi satire like Mars Attacks!, a thriller like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, nor a dark action comedy like Attack the Block; there's little to no comic relief here. The filmmakers also keep exposition to a bare minimum. What do the aliens want from humans? What's life like on their home planet? You won't find any answers in the film, so it's left up for the audience to come up with their own answers. That makes the screenplay seem a bit lazy, though, so in terms of plot, it's even more unimaginative and undercooked than Jordan Peele's Nope with only sporadic moments of suspense. Fortunately, what helps to make the film at least mildly engaging is the strong bond of friendship between the four girls as they find the courage to stand up for themselves, to save the town from the seemingly evil aliens, and, of course, to become heroes.

      The performances range from decent to weak, mostly because many of the actors and actresses have no prior acting experience. That's forgivable, though, and adds some naturalism, but no one gets the chance to really shine. The most interesting character is the one that can't be directed: the landscape of the island. There are many majestic and breathtaking shots that provide some visual poetry and eye candy. Also, the CGI effects are pretty impressive for a low budget film; this is a movie for younger audiences, after all, so there's very little blood and guts, but just enough moments that are creepy and icky without going over-the-top. The pace moves slowly at times and picks up a little toward the rushed third act. At a running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Slash/Back is mildly entertaining, but undercooked and forgettable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by RLJE Films.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan.

Ticket to Paradise

Directed by Ol Parker

      Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), a law school graduate, meets Gede (Maxime Bouttier) while she vacations with her best friend, Wren (Billie Lourd), in Bali. 37 days later, she's engaged to him, plans to have the wedding on the island of Bali, and spend the rest of her life as a seaweed farmer instead of pursuing her dreams of becoming a lawyer. Her divorced parents, David (George Clooney) and Georgia (Julia Roberts), reunite and hop on a plan to Bali while pretending to get along and secretly plotting to sabotage their wedding to prevent them from getting married.

      Not a single moment in the screenplay by writer/director Ol Park and co-writer Daniel Pipski rings true. Within the first five minutes, it already turns into a cheesy fairy tale that becomes increasingly implausible, silly and contrived without taking any risks. There's nothing wrong with romcom fairy tales as long as they're genuinely sweet and/or funny. Look at Muriel's Wedding as an example or even Mamma Mia! is campy fun. David and Georgia's banter lacks the sparkle, humor and wit required to elevate it to something that's beyond just two people bickering. Did Ol Parker and Daniel Pipski never see a romcom from the Golden Age like Adam's Rib and Bringing Up Baby? The banter in those classic films are far more funny, smart and witty. In a scene that speaks volumes about how toxic Lily's parents are, David and Georgia scheme to ruin their daughter's marriage by stealing their wedding ring from the bridesmaid who's a little girl. Georgia agrees to commit the theft because it was her initial idea. For too much of the film, David and Georgia behave like immature teenagers; Georgia is only slightly more mature when she's honest with Lily in the maudlin, preachy third act which can be seen from a mile away. Lily and Gede aren't bad for each other per se, but they're very boring and bland as a couple, so you won't care either way if they'll end up getting married. David and Georgia, on the other hand, are so toxic together that you root for them to not fall in love again.

      George Clooney and Julia Roberts have a few amusing moments together, but Ticket to Paradise relies too heavily on their charisma alone to propel the film. Unfortunately, their charisma isn't enough to hold your interest. They smile a lot and look happy to be at such a beautiful location, but it's hard for that joy to spread to the audience when the screenplay doesn't give them much to do beyond looking happy. Even the scene where they get drunk doesn't generate any laughs or anything to enliven the film. Yes, the scenery looks breathtaking, but that's easy to accomplish in a tropical setting. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Ticket to Paradise is a hackneyed, unsophisticated, unfunny and witless fairy tale that's so saccharine that it could give you a cavity. Even the charisma of Julia Roberts and George Clooney can't save it. They're no Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn nor is writer/director Ol Parker anything close to Howard Hawks or George Cukor.

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

Voodoo Macbeth

Directed by Dagmawi Abebe, Víctor Alonso-Berbel, Roy Arwas, Hannah Bang, Christopher Beaton, Agazi Desta, Tiffany Kontoyiannis-Guillen, Zoë Alyce Salnave, Ernesto Sandoval and Sabina Vajraca

      In 1936, the Federal Theatre Project found the funds needed to create a Hatian version of Shakespeare's play, "Macbeth", at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor), a producer/actress, and John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman), an producer/actor persuaded Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridge) to direct the play while Martin Dies (Hunter Bodine), a conservative congressman from Texas, threatens to shut it down.

      Based on a true story, Voodoo Macbeth is a collaboration of 10 film students from a graduate program at USC who direct the film along with 8 film students who served as the film's screenwriters. Despite so many filmmakers behind-the-scenes, the film itself is often anemic with too many characters and not nearly enough of a chance to breathe life into them. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way because the dialogue sounds stilted at times.  The filmmakers seem more interested in moving the plot forward than in humanizing any of the characters to allow the audience to care about them or what happens to them. Orson Welles, who was 21 when he directed the play, is the most interesting character, but all of them could've been with a more sensitive screenplay grounded in humanism, a truly special effect. Speaking of truly special effects, there's very little wit or emotional depth found in any of the scenes, and the relationships between every on screen, i.e. Orson Welles and  Edna Thomas (Ashli Haynes), whom he casts as Lady Macbeth, fall flat. The same can be said about the dramatic tension between the congressman and Orson Welles, John Houseman and Rose McClendon. Even the play within the movie, which involves voodoo, isn't very exciting.

      Unfortunately, the actors and actresses give mediocre performances at best without enough charisma to rise above the bland screenplay. Jewell Wilson Bridge, the actor who portrays Orson Welles, never fully becomes Orson Welles like Christian McKay does in Me & Orson Welles. Lethargy seeps in around the hour mark as too few film's beats land, thereby leaving the audience at a cold distance from everyone on screen. It's hard to watch Voodoo Macbeth without wishing it were as captivating and charming as Me & Orson Welles or as exhilarating and brilliant as Topsy Turvey or Shakespeare in Love. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Voodoo Macbeth is clunky, dull and contrived despite that it's based on an incredible true story that deserves to be better known.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Lightyear Entertainment.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.