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Reviews for October 28th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      2020 Chaos and Hope is a recap of all of the significant events that took place in the US in 2020, a year that will never be forgotten. It covers many issues ranging from the spread of the coronavirus to how the Trump Administration fumbled its response to it to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to QUNON and Trump's failed attempt to prove election fraud. Director June Beallor deserves praise for incorporating so many important historical events in one documentary and for separating them into chapters, but each chapter could've easily been its own full-length documentary. She covers a lot of ground which makes the film quite thorough. However, it also bites off more than it could chew. As a reader's digest version of 2020, it's fine, but there are no revelations to those who've experienced 2020 and are still in the process of experiencing the aftermath while trying to make sense of all of the chaos. Perhaps this doc would be more useful and illuminating for future generations who were too young to remember 2020 or who weren't born yet. It's not nearly as focused and powerful as the documentaryThe First Wave. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, 2020 Chaos and Hope> opens at Village East by Angelika.

Armageddon Time

Directed by James Gray

      11-year-old Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) lives with his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), who works as a home economics teacher, his domineering father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), a plumber, and older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), in Queens, New York. At school, he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black student, who deals with racism. Meanwhile, Paul develops a passion for art which his parents don't approve of, but his loving grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), pushes him to follow his passion.

      Set in 1980, Armageddon Time is an uneven and dull coming-of-age film. The semi-autobiographical screenplay by writer/director James Gray deals with many universal issues like racism, dysfunctional families, financial woes and childhood dreams. Unfortunately, Gray doesn't take any of those ideas anywhere interesting. What do Ordinary People, Wildlife, Boyhood and The 400 Blows have in common? They're poignant, profound and captivating stories about the dynamics of families while also serving as coming-of-age tales. The characters have arcs and you learn a lot about them as the films progress. That can't be said about Armageddon Time which feels less and less interesting as the plot becomes increasingly unfocused and meandering. It barely scratches the surface of any of its themes and, instead, plays it safe as though it were scared to dig deeper and darker. Irving, Paul's father, for example, is clearly abusive both physically and emotionally to Paul, but the relationship between the two of them remains underexplored. Similarly, there's not much depth to the relationship between Paul and his mother, Esther, or his new friend, Johnny. The most interesting dynamic, though, is between Paul and his grandfather who becomes like a surrogate father and a great role model for him. It's ok for a movie to have very little that happens plot-wise because the feelings and thoughts within the plot are more important than the plot itself. However, Armageddon Time is emotionally and intellectually hollow without providing enough of a window into any of its characters' heart, mind and soul. Also, the third act feels too rushed, contrived and pat. On a positive note, the film avoids schmaltz and melodrama.

       The best aspect of Armageddon Time is Anthony Hopkin's strong performance as Paul's grandfather. He brings some gravitas to the film and, more importantly, his scenes brim with much-needed tenderness and warmth. Anne Hathaway, though, is miscast in the role of Paul's mother. She gives the weakest performance of the film, but, to be fair, the screenplay doesn't give her enough material to bring her role to life. The cinematography is fine with nothing exceptional about it, but there are pacing issues. The film moves slowly and then sluggishly before an ending that moves too quickly as though it were in a big hurry to reach some kind of closure to the story and to please the audience concurrently. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Armageddon Time is a shallow, contrived and meandering coming-of-age-film that fails to pack an emotional punch and leaves the audience cold and underwhelmed.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Focus Features.
Opens in select theaters.

Holy Spider

Directed by Ali Abbasi

      Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a journalist, investigates the killing of prostitutes in the city of Mashhad in Iran. The serial killer, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), nicknamed the "Spider Killer", continues his killing spree while communicating with a local reporter, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), through phone calls.  Rahimi risks her life by taking matters into her own hands to hunt down the Spider Killer without the help of the authorities.

      Writer/director Ali Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami do a great job of hooking the audience with a riveting opening scene where the Spider Killer picks up a prostitute before strangling her with her headscarf and then dumping her body outdoors in the middle of the night. Its turns out that he's a family man with three children, a wife and a job as a builder. He makes it clear from the get-go through his messages that he wants to cleanse to the city of immoral prostitutes by killing them and that he's just doing "God's work." How he ended up becoming a psychopathic religious fanatic remains underexplored in the screenplay which is based on a true story. However, he's enough of an interesting villain to make for an above-average crime thriller that veers into horror territory at times. Because of how human the Spider Killer is, he's much more terrifying than any of the villains in the recent horror films, i.e. The Terrifier, Barbarian and Smile. Beyond his murderous rampage, his life seems banal and ordinary. He's even looked up to in his community. Hannah Arendt would probably consider him as "evil" according to her book Banality of Evil. Adding further complexity, the perspective changes to Rahimi's perspective at times. Although there's almost as much tension as there is in David Fincher's Zodiac and Seven, it's not nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat suspense, but rather slow-burning suspense like in Heat. There are no lengthy cat-and-mouse chase sequences or long shoot-outs. If you don't know the true story, you'll be surprised about what direction the plot heads toward in the provocative third act that will send chills down your spine.

      The cinematography in Holy Spider along with the sound design, editing and lighting all add plenty of style which becomes part of the film's substance. It's an atmospheric, gritty film with many scenes taking place at night which is when the Spider Killer strikes. The birds-eye view of the city with all of the lights is visually stunning to behold and makes for a cinematic experience that's probably even more heightened on the big screen. The filmmakers don't shy away from showing the Spider Killer murdering the prostitutes, so those scenes will make you squeeamish---as as you should feel. You'll feel rightfully angry and frustrated when Rahimi fails to get the authorities to take action. The lengths that she goes to trap the Spider Killer, which won't be spoiled here, make her a true hero. At a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, Holy Spider is a taut, spellbinding and provocative crime thriller. 

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

The Lair

Directed by Neil Marshall

      After she survives a crash when her plane gets shot down while on a mission in Afghanistan, Sinclair (Charlotte Kirk), a Royal Air Force pilot, finds shelter in an underground bunker. Little does she know that half-human/half-alien monsters lurk inside the bunker. U.S. army soldiers, Lafayette (Kibong Tanji), Finch (Jamie Bamber) and Hook (Jonathan Howard), soon join her in the fight for survival.

      The screenplay by writer/director Neil Marshall and co-writer Charlotte Kirk begins promisingly when Sinclair discovers the horrors waiting for her in the underground bunker. Unfortunately, that's around the time that The Lair takes a nosedive and squanders an opportunity to tell a captivating story with surprises, scares and thrills. The suspense wanes once the alien/human monsters are shown right away without leaving much to the audience's imagination. Barbarian at least uses the audience's imagination at first while only showing brief glimpses of the underground monster. It also has twists, humor, suspense and compelling characters which this film sorely lacks. Sinclair has a daughter who's safe at home while she fights overseas, but the screenplay isn't even remotely interested in exploring that relationship to humanize her. The U.S. army members are just as underwritten and forgettable. What's wrong with humanizing someone on screen enough to let the audience care about what happens to them? Sometimes a film that's not character driven can still be entertaining if its plot remains intriguing, but that can't be said in this case. The more the plot progresses, the less interesting it becomes before it takes a turn into a convoluted, inane and silly third act.

      The strongest aspect of The Lair is its impressive special effects and the make-up design of the human/alien monsters. They look icky and scary, especially their teeth which resemble the kind of alien that Ripley encounters in Alien. There's plenty of blood and guts which will make you squeamish, while the darkness of the bunker provides some creepy moments, but they're far and few between. Ther performances are wooden and bland, much like the screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, The Lair is yet another mindless, uninspired, tedious, vapid and dull B-movie.

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

The Novelist's Film

Directed by Hong Sang-soo

      Junhee (Lee Hye-yeong), a novelist, visits the bookstore of her old friend, Sewon (Seo Younghwa), who used to be a novelist himself. She also interacts filmmaker friend, Park Hyo-jin (Kwon Hae-hyo), Later, at a park, she bumps into an actress, Kilsoo (Kim Min-Hee), who introduces her to a filmmaker, Gyeong-woo (Ha Seong-guk). Junhee wants to write a story for Gyeong-woo and Kilsoo to turn into a film.

      Writer/director Hong Sang-soo has a knack for writing nuanced and tender stories that somehow involve filmmakers and filmmaking. His films are laidback and more than the sum of their parts because there's not much of a plot, but a lot going in spite of that. In The Novelist's Film, he still hasn't lost that knack. The plot seems aimless on the surface, but there's substance beneath it, much like in Eric Rohmer's cerebral films. It's tempting to say that "nothing happens" since there's no action, no villains, no  loud arguments or big twists. This isn't the kind of movie that relies on twists, suspense or anything over-the-top. Like with most of his films, Hong Song-soo keeps everything understated and natural. He has a great ear for dialogue that sounds true-to-life. As Hitchock once wisely stated, some films are a slice-of-life while others are a slice-of-cake. There's very little cake in The Novelist's Film. It's mostly a slice-of-life that trusts your intelligence, patience and emotions. It gradually rewards your patience as you become more and more engrossed and enchanted with these characters who feel like fully-fleshed human beings. There are even some brief moments of comic relief that will surprise you, so there are, indeed, surprises, but they're small ones that you'll appreciate because they help the film to avoid turning monotonous and dry.

      All of the performances are natural and reflect the nuanced screenplay. It's also worth mentioning the mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography with a few instances of color toward the end. Those moments of color are a little surprising at first, but they're not distracting. The fact that he keeps the running time of less than 2 hours shows that he has restraint as a filmmaker. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Novelist's Film is wispy, nuanced and enchanting.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by The Cinema Guild.
Opens at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.


Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot

      Benjamin Boltanski (Benoît Magimel), acting teacher, has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and hopes that Dr. Eddé (Gabriel A. Sara) can extend his life expectancy with chemotherapy. He eventually breaks the news to his mother, Crystal (Catherine Deneuve), but doesn't tell his acting students. Meanwhile, he befriends his kind nurse, Eugenie (Cecile de France) at the hospital, and reconnects with his ex-wife, Anna (Melissa George), and son, Léandre (Oscar Morgan), whom he's meeting for the first time.

      It's tempting to begin this review with the statement Peaceful is well-meaning, but...".That statement wouldn't be false, but aren't most if not all movies well-meaning? Peaceful tries to be heartfelt, tender and endearing tearjerker. However, the contrived screenplay by writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot and co-writer Marcia Romano turns the film into a maudlin tearjerker that tries too hard to hit the same sad notes over and over. Around the one-hour mark, it becomes exhausting and repetitive while giving the audience very little room to breathe with one tragedy after another. This is one of those movies where you can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning or the keys of the piano being struck every step of the way. Then there's the clunky introduction of Benjamin's son and ex-wife who live in New York ,and an even clunkier scene where the son travels to visit the hospital where Dr. Eddé converses with him outside as Benjamin happens to notice them through the window. The way that Bercot and Romano incorporate exposition into the narrative is very awkward while making the film overstuffed and undercooked simultaneously. There's little to no backstory about Dr. Eddé who has the hospital staff join him in a choir to sing joyful music. Where did Dr. Eddé find the inspiration to do that? What's his life like at home when he's not working? Crystal and Eugenie also come across as underdeveloped characters whose relationships with Benjamin fall flat on an emotional level. The stilted dialogue also doesn't help to breathe much-needed life into any of the characters.

      Even the charisma and heartfelt performances of Catherine Deneuve and Benoît Magimel and their heartfelt performances fail to rise above the weak, stilted screenplay. Too many scenes, especially during the second act in the hospital room, last too long after making its point over and over and over to the audience, so tighter editing would've helped tremendously. Less is more. There's nothing exceptional about the cinematography that adds any style to the film, so it's unfortunate that there's a lack of both style and substance here. At an overlong running time of 2 hours and 2 movies, Peaceful is as maudlin, contrived and heavy-handed as a Lifetime Disease-of-the-Week movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Distrib Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Please Baby Please

Directed by Amanda Kramer

      In 1950s New York City, Suze (Andrea Riseborough) lives on the Lower East Side with her husband, Arthur (Harry Melling). One night, they witness a street gang called Young Gents commit murder in front of their apartment. That event ignites Suze's sexual urges and she begins a sexual awakening while her husband remains less keen on exploring her sexual adventures. He develops a crush on Teddy (Karl Glusman), a Young Gents gang member. Suzie befriends her neighbor, Maureen (Demi Moore), who opens her mind to her sexuality and to discover new ways to find sexual pleasure.

      In a year filled with movies that go bonkers, Please Baby Please is one of the most disappointing ones. The screenplay by writer/director Amanda Kramer and Noel David Taylor blends camp, sex, comedy, satire and drama with so much tonal unneveness that it might give you whiplash. Kramer and Taylor try too hard to be outrageous, bizarre and wacky while veering toward John Waters territory. However, the dialogue lacks razor-sharp wit and humor that make Waters' films such wickedly funny, entertaining guilty pleasures. The characters range from dull and forgettable to annoying like nails-on-a-chalkboard. The latter can be said about Suze; the former can be said about Arthur. None of the beats land, especially when the film tries hard to be funny. The desperate attempt to be over-the-top and anarchic is the equivalent of a pianist banging the piano over and over on the same notes. What ensues is a lot of tedium, noise, clunkiness and headache-inducing scenes that don't provoke the audience emotionally nor intellectually nor, most importantly, keep entertained enough. Eating Raoul is an example for a far superior sex comedity with much more bite, brilliance and laughs.Everything that Please Baby Please gets wrong, Eating Raoul gets right. Even Striptease with Demi Moore is funnier.  

      The performances are a mixed bag, but none of them truly stand out or rise above the weak screenplay. The set designs, lighting, music and use of color are stylish and add some atmosphere, but not nearly enough to hold the film together or to invigorate it. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours, Please Baby Please is witless, clunky and tedious with too much tonal whiplash and not nearly enough laughs to turn it into a campy cult classic.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens in select theaters.