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Reviews for October 7th, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Battleground is a timely, well-edited and provocative doc that shows the events that paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to revoke the consitutional right to an abortion by reversing Roe v. Wade. Director Cynthia Lowen mostly uses a conventional structure that includes a lot of talking heads. Kristan Hawkins, founder of Students for Life of America provides some insight from her pro-life perspective as does anti-abortionist Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List. There's really nothing exceptional or revealing about this doc in terms of its insights except for somethin that stands out about director Cynthia Owen's approach: she includes both sides of the abortion debate to do the talking without judging any of her subjects. Unlike the over-the-top, annoying Michael Moore, she lets the audience decide for themselves who they agree with and to make their own conclusions. That's refreshing and also a testament to her skills as a documentary filmmaker. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Battleground opens at Village East by Angelika via Abramorama.

      Punch 9 for Harold Washington is a vital, illuminating and captivating documentary about how Harold Washington became the first African-American mayor of Chicago in 1983. Director Joe Winston combines archival footage and photos with old and contemporary interviews to introduce Harold Washington and explain his significance in political history to the audience. If you've never heard of him before, you'll find this doc particularly insightful and eye-opening. This isn't a thorough documentary biopic of Harold Washington, but that's ok. It focuses on the struggles he went through on the road to victory and what it was like for him to run against his political opponents. He believed in people regardless of race or religion. He fought for the people and was outspoken about how much he was against racism, prejudice and hate. He's a wonderful role model who many current and former politicians, i.e. Barack Obama, look up to as inspiration. Director Joe Winston briefly sheds light on Harold Washington's scandal where he failed to file his taxes for four years which makes the doc a little less hagiographic. By the end of the film, you'll be glad to have learned about a lesser known politician who deserves to be more widely known. At a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Punch 9 for Harold Washington opens at AMC Empire via Tallgrass Productions.

      Last Flight Home is a poignant tribute to 92-year-old Eli Timoner, Ondi Timoner's father. Director by Ondi herself, the doc counts down the days until Eli's death. He had a stroke in 1983 that made him suffer emotionally and physically for decades. He died by assisted suicide in 2021. Last Flight Home is more about his life than his last days before he died, but Ondi Tominer doesn't shy away from showing what she and her mother went through as he lay on his hospital bed. It's not easy to watch those scenes at all nor should it be, however, death is part of life. The harsh reality is that everyone will have had or will have a loved one who will pass away one day. Fortunately, this doc also serves as a documentary biopic.  Eli founded Air Florida in 1971, so you'll learn about all of the ups and downs that he experienced as president of the company. You'll also learn that he's a true mensch as a human being and as a loving father. To be fair, you've lost a loved one recently, the hospital bed scenes will be even more difficult to watch, so it might be best to wait after you've grieved to watch this documentary. There's an intimate quality to the film that's warm and deeply moving, but it's a double-edged sword because, with that, comes a sense of voyeurism which might make you feel like you're prying into the private lives of these strangers who generously share their private moments with you. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, Last Flight Home is unflinching, powerful and heartbreaking. It opens at IFC Center via MTV Documentary Films.


Directed by David O. Russell

      Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) a doctor who served during WWI in Amsterdam, examines the corpse Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift)'s father because Liz thinks that he was murdered. He and Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldana), a nurse, discover that he was poisoned, so he must've been murdered. He, along with Harold Woodman (John David Washington) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a former WWI nurse, join forces to investigate the murder.

      The screenplay by writer/director David O. Russell starts on a dull note and gets even duller as the plot becomes increasingly intricate and complex. This is yet another one of those movies with too many characters and a convoluted plot that suddenly becomes a political thriller during the third act. None of the characters manages to be even remotely interesting; they're merely here as pawns to move the plot forward. Cue the clunky flashbacks as well as bland, witless dialogue, tonal unevenness and little to no suspense. Alan J. Pakula would've taken the plot and turned it into a gripping crime thriller, but David O. Russell doesn't even come close to achieving that level of suspense. It's ironic that so much happens in the film, yet very little actually sticks and it feels like there's barely any forward momentum. Mike Myers has the best line which adds much-needed albeit ephemeral comic relief. Most disappointingly, none of the relationships between the characters are even remotely compelling, especially Burt and his wife (Andrea Riseborough). There's some voice-over narration about wanting to be with someone vs needing to be with someone, but that message feels preachy and tacked-on much like everything else in the film. The third act, which won't be spoiled here, takes a sharp nosedive with a lazy bait-and-switch subplot that comes out of left field and remains underexplored.

      Despite the fine ensemble cast full of talented, charismatic actors and actresses, no one succeeds in rising above the lethargic and lazy screenplay. Margot Robbie and John David Washington lack chemistry, so it's hard to buy the romance between their characters. Anya Taylor-Joy tries her best to invigorate the film in her brief scenes, but even she fails to accomplish that. The set design, costumes and cinematography are very stylish, though, and among the film's major strengths. At an overlong running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, Amsterdam is a painfully dull, bloated and clunky mess that's neither fun, suspenseful or intriguing. It's ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.

Ask Me to Dance

Directed by Tom Malloy

      One night, Jack (Tom Malloy) bumps into a fortune teller who tells him that he'll meet the love of his life on New Year's Eve. The fortune teller says the same thing to Jill (Briana Evigan) that night. Until New Year's Eve arrives, they each go on a series of bad dates with other people without knowing that they're destined to be together.

      The screenplay by writer/director Tom Malloy sparkles with razor-sharp wit and perspective observations of the modern dating scene without being preachy or cloying. This isn't a Nicholas Sparks movie, after all, so you won't get a cavity because there aren't any saccharine moments. To be fair, the people who Jack goes out with on bad dates are one-note caricatures and cliched, but grounded in just enough truth and realism to avoid going over-the-top. There's usually some truth to cliches. The same can be said about Jill's unsuccessful dates. Each one of their dates has a systemic flaw that makes sense why they're a deal-breaker for Jack and Jill. You might even find the flaws relatable if you've been on the dating scene yourself. The suspense and surprises are no different than in the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movies of the 80's and 90's, i.e. Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. You know that they'll end up together, but it's how they'll end up together that keeps you in suspense. You're one step ahead of Jack and Jill because neither of them knows they the fortune teller told them the same prediction. The surprises come from the witty dialogue that doesn't resort to the lower common denominator. Fortunately, writer/director Tom Malloy sees and treats Jack and Jill as human beings worth caring about and rooting for them to find love and happiness. They deserve it, just like everyone does Whether or not their relationship will last after they meet is left to the audience's imagination---it depends on how cynical you are about love, fate and romance, of course, but it does look hopeful for them because Jack tells Jill that he wants to get to know her. The film is bookended with exhilarating swing dance sequences that are a joy to behold and will make your spirit soar.

      Tom Malloy and Briana Evigan exude plenty of charisma and have wonderful comedic timing. Evigan is reminiscent of Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Tom Malloy is like a cross between Tom Everett Scott with a little Steve Buscemi. There's something very charming and likable about them that makes their performance feel natural which makes it easier to want Jack and Jill to end up together. At 1 hour and 33 minutes, the ideal running time for a romcom, Ask Me to Dance is one of the most heartwarming, delightful and funny romantic comedies since Love Actually. It's a perfect date movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Glass House Distribution.
Opens at AMC Empire.

Don't Look at the Demon

Directed by Brando Lee

      Jules (Fiona Dourif) has the unique ability to detect the supernatural. She hosts a TV series called The Skeleton Crew which investigates paranormal activity. She and her crew, Matty (Jordan Belfi), Annie (Thao Nhu Phan), Wolf (Randy Wayne) and Ben (Harris Dickinson), travel to the haunted house of Martha (Malin Crepin) and Ian (William Miller) in Fraser's Hill, Malaysia, for their next episode.

      The screenplay by writer/director Brando Lee wastes no time by beginning with a prologue that provides a foreshadow of what's to come, much like in The Invitation. When The Skeleton Crew arrive at Martha's house, it's obvious that a malevolent entity will show up at some point. Of course, there are jump scares and a creepy basement. Unfortunately, the backstory involving Jule's dark past isn't very interesting, and the way that it's incorporated into the exposition feels contrived. There's also some exposition about a banned ritual called kuman thong which involves unborn fetuses removed from a mother's womb that doesn't really add much in terms of suspense or scares even though it's based on a real ritual. The characters are dull, and so are their relationships, so it's hard to care about what happens to anyone on screen when they die or get injured. It's hard to avoid comparing the film to far superior demonic possession movies like the classic horror film The Exorcist which is palpably scary yet grounded in realism. The "found footage" approach here feels lazy and rarely effective; even Paranormal Activity has better and more clever scares. The third act doesn't fall apart too much, though, but a clunky flashback leaves no room for interpretation while spoon-feeding the audience. It's not nearly as fun and audacious as Barbarian.

      The strongest aspect of Don't Look at the Demon is its eerie atmosphere. The lighting, set design and camework combine to create a lot of scenes that will creep you out just through the visual alone. Beyond that, though, there's nothing that really stands out, not even the acting which is fine, but unexceptional. Harris Dickinson has much better material in the more brilliant and wildly entertaining Triangle of Sadness. To be fair, as Roger Ebert once wisely observed, a horror film doesn't really need a star because the horror is the star. There's plenty of gore which, yet again, leaves nothing to the imagination, so this isn't the kind of film for those of you with a weak stomach. Don't Look at the Demon is a mildly engaging, conventional horror thriller that offers very little surprises and a lot of jump scares. It suffers from the same issue as Smile: repetitiveness after running out of steam around the hour mark, but at least, at a running time of 93 minutes, it's about 30 minutes shorter than Smile.

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

Lumpia with a Vengeance

Directed by Patricio Ginelsa

      Rachel (April Absynth), a high school student, joins forces with Kuya (Mark Muñoz) and G-Dog (Earl Baylon) to defeat a local gang that takes over Fogtown and could disrupt her parents' upcoming wedding. Kuya uses lumpia, a Filipino egg roll, as a weapon.

      Lumpia with a Vengeance is yet another action comedy that goes bonkers. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Patricio Ginelsa and co-writers Bernard Badion and Christopher Santiago is painfully unfunny more often than not while it becomes increasingly silly and preposterous. There's nothing wrong with goofiness, outrageousness and silliness as long as it's funny, but it's not even remotely funny, witty or amusing. Perhaps the original film from nearly 2 decades ago was funnier. This feels like a one-joke movie about people fighting with egg rolls. It pales when compared to Stephen Chow movies like Kung Fu Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Even the Chinese film Jian Bing Man is more wildly entertaining and imaginative. The plot here meanders with tedium and, around the hour mark, becomes a drag to sit though. The characters are forgettable, none of the beats land and a few scenes are cringe-inducing. The action scenes, too, aren't very exciting or thrilling.

      Despite a fast pace with a lot going on onscreen, Lumpia with a Vengeance doesn't even impress when it comes to its visual style. It's energetic, but headache-inducing and nauseating at times. The performances are wooden with poor comedic timing by most of the actors and actresses. Moreover, the nearly 2-hour running time means that the film overstays its welcome. It could've been a lean 90-minute slice of dumb escapism, but at 1 hour and 50 minutes, it's overlong and exhausting.

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

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon

      Josh (Winslow Fegley) moves to New York City with his father, Joseph (Scoot McNairy), and stepmom, Katie (Constance Wu). They live above the apartment of Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman) who has a strong aversion to noisy neighbors. When Josh meets and befriends a singing crocodile named Lyle (voice of Shawn Mendes), Mr. Grumps wants to get rid of Lyle. With the help of Lyle's owner, Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem), Josh and his family try to save Lyle from the evil Mr. Grumps.

      The screenplay by Will Davies, based on the children's book by Bernard Waber, doesn't take itself too seriously. For the most part, though, this is a movie aimed at little kids. The villain, Mr. Grumps, isn't particularly menacing nor does he have an interesting backstory. Even the relationship between Hector and Lyle or Josh and Lyle isn't really fleshed out. Again, this is meant to be a kids movie, so that's forgivable. As a comedy, there are some amusing scenes that kids will laugh at as Josh tries to hide Lyle from his parents or when Josh first meets Lyle. Adults, though, will be mildly amused at the silly plot which doesn't really take any risks and plays it safe. There's nothing wrong with that, but it means that the film never really rises above mediocrity. The best scenes are the musical numbers which add a much-needed burst of energy to the film.

      Javier Bardem has a lot of fun in his role as Hector P. Valenti, but Hector disappears from the film for a large chunk of the time before returning later in the second act. Winslow Fegley is a decent kid actor and his scenes with Lyle are heartwarming and charming. The CG effects that bring Lyle to life are impressive. Fortunately, the film doesn't overuse CGI effects nor do the filmmakers bombard the audience with action, so it doesn't become exhausting. The pace moves briskly and the songs are lively and well-chosen although a little bit too obvious, i.e. Elton John's "Crocodile Rock." At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, eLyle, Lyle, Crocodile is a pleasant, harmless diversion that will entertain and delight younger audiences.

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

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle

Directed by Arthur Harari

      At the end of World War II, Hiroo Onoda (Endô Yûya) gets recruited into the Japanese army under Major Tanaguchi (Issey Ogata). He sends Onoda to the island of Lubang in the Philippines to join the guerilla resistance against the American army and the Filipino army.

       Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is both a epic war film and an engaging biopic of Hiroo Onoda. The screenplay by writer/director Arthur Harari and co-writer Vincent Poymiro doesn't follow a linear structure initially. They begin with Onoda (Tsuda Kanji) in the jungle when he's older before flashing back to his younger years. His dreams of becoming a pilot were unfulfilled, so he joins the Japanese army instead while Major Tanaguchi trains him and his colleagues. They're given strict orders to never surrender. After he arrives in Lubang, Onoda maintains a linear plot; this isn't Dunkirk, after all, which jumps back and forth with chronology and perspectives. There are indeed many characters in the film, but Harari and Poymiro focus on Onoda's perspective. They take their time to tell Onoda's story and to introduce new characters like Shimada (Kato Shinsuke ) and Akatsu (Kai Inowaki) who Onoda joins in the guerilla resistance. Despite being a war film, writer/director Arthur Harari doesn't bombard you with action. There is suspense, but it's not an "edge-of-your-seat" kind of suspense. Surprisingly, the screenplay has some moments of comic relief, an essential component of every film. Even Saving Private Ryan has it. The humor is incorporated in a way that avoids clunkiness and unevenness. Most importantly, though, Onoda remains a fascinating character to observe and to get to know which makes the film all the more compelling.  

      The cinematography and scenery in Onoda :10,000 Nights in the Jungle are breathtaking, almost as poetic as the shots of nature in The Thin Red Line. The landscape becomes a character in and of itself. To be fair, another one of Onoda :10,000 Nights in the Jungle's strengths also becomes its weakness. Although the slow-burning pace allows the audience to become easily absorbed by the story and director Arthur Harari trusts the audience's patience, it's easy to feel the weight of the nearly 3-hour running time around the 2 hour mark. A lot happens throughout the film, but by then it's overwhelming and slightly exhausting. Those aren't systemic issues, though, so at no point does the film take a steep nosedive. The performances are solid, especially the performance of Endô Yûya as the titular character. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes,  Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is an exhilarating and sprawling epic. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Dark Star Pictures.
Opens at Film Forum.


Directed by Carlota Pereda

      Sara (Laura Galán), a plus-sized teenager, lives with her overbearing, abusive mother (Carmen Machi) and father (Julián Valcárcel) while working at the family's butcher shop. At the pool, mean girls pick on her for being overweight. One day, she witnesses a stranger (Richard Holmes) kidnap her bullies and doesn't do anything to stop him.

      The screenplay by writer/director Carlota Pereda merges two genres: coming-of-age and horror/thriller. At first, Piggy is a drama about a young girl dealing with bullies, including at home. Once her bullies get kidnapped, it turns into an intense B-movie that leaves no room for imagination or interpretation. Sara gets called "piggy" by her bullies who are just as toxic as the bullies in Mean Girls. Pereda doesn't seem interested in exploring the issue of bullying or getting beneath the surface of its characters. There are multiple "villains": Sara's mother, Sara's bullies, the stranger who kidnaps them, and, ultimately, Sara herself when she takes matters into her own hands. Her rage is justified, but what she does with her rage isn't which makes her someone who's hard to root for. How she ended up snapping and crossing immoral boundaries remains underexplored. The same can be said about how her bullies ended up so mean to begin with. Are they getting bullied at home? Either way, Sara doesn't have any role models or close friends who can be there for her to help her. She's emotionally immature and lacks compassion. What's not very clear though, is what she truly thinks of herself, i.e. if she has any compassion for herself. The answer is "probably not", but it's too bad that Pereda doesn't stop to get to know what Sara is thinking and feeling so that the audience grasps what's going on inside of her on a psychological and emotional level. It's ok that she's unlikable like the lead characters in Falling Down and Taxi Driver who are pushed to the edge. However, Piggy neglects to see and treat Sara as a fully-fleshed human being instead of as a device to move the revenge thriller forward. The second half of the film is very violent, gritty and intense, but without enough emotional grit needed to propel it beyond a forgettable, run-of-the-mill B-thriller.

      Laura Galán gives a decent performance, although she does over-act at times, so her over-the-top performance does feel a little grating. Subtlety among Piggy's strengths, unfortunately. Nor can they can't be found in Galán's performance either. The pacing is fine, for the most part, except for the pacing in the second act which takes too long to reach the very bloody ending that can be seen from a mile away. At a running time of just 90 minutes, Piggy is occasionally thrilling and intense, but lacking nuance and emotional depth.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens at Alamo Drafthouse.

Plan A

Directed by Yoav Paz and Doron Paz

      In Germany 1945, Max (August Diehl), a Holocaust survivor, infiltrates the Nakam, a group of Jewish resistence fighters. Their mission, lead by Abba Kovner (Ishai Golan), is to exact revenge on the Nazis by poisoning the German civilians' water supply. That mission is called "Plan A."

      Loosely based on a true story, Plan A sounds like it could be a gripping suspense thriller or a moving psychological character study, but the screenplay by Yoav Paz and Doron Paz doesn't even come close in going in either direction. Too much time is spent on exposition until Max joins Nakam and Plan A begins. Even after that moment, the film remains dull and also a little clunky. Max breaks the fourth wall by asking the audience "What would you do?". That's a good question, especially after you learn about what Max does to help Nakam plot their revenge against the Nazis. However, Plan A isn't really concerned about provoking the audience beyond that initial question, so the inclusion of that question, which gets repeated at the end, feels tacked-on. There's not nearly enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of Max. He's a human being, after all. Surely, he's going through a lot of emotions, but Yoav Paz and Doron Paz barely tap into any of that. They're more concerned about moving the plot without letting the film breathe a little to humanize the characters. When a plot just goes through the motions, it often leads to lethargy. That becomes a systemic problem with Plan A. Too many scenes fall flat as do the relationships, and not a single scene truly stands out. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning nearly every step of the way which is the sign of a weak, shallow, contrived screenplay.

      The performances are a mixed bag. August Diehl gives a decent performance and exudes some charisma on-screen, but charisma can only go so far when it comes to hooking the audience in on an emotional level. He doesn't succeed in rising above the dull screenplay. The other performances range from mediocre to wooden. No one really gets a chance to shine, unfortunately. There are also pacing issues. The first act moves sluggishly before the pace picks up and then returns to a slower pace before picking up the pace in the third act. The strongest aspect of the film is its set design, lighting and cinematography which effectively combine to create some grittiness and an appropriately somber tone. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, which feels more like 2 hour and 30 minutes, Plan A is visually stylish, but emotionally hollow and anemic while low on thrills, suspense and intrigue.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Menemsha Films.
Opens at New Plaza Cinemas.

Pretty Problems

Directed by Kestrin Pantera

      Lindsay (Britt Rentschler) and Jack (Michael Tennant)'s marriage and sex life has gone stale. They're unhappy with their jobs. Lindsay dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but works at a clothing store instead. Jack used to be a lawyer before he got disbarred for assaulting someone, so now he works as a door-to-door salesman. When Lindsay meets a wealthy customer, Cat Flax (J.J. Nolan), at work, she agrees to bring her husband on a weekend getaway at a chateau in Sonoma with Cat and her wealthy Matt (Graham Outerbridge) and friends.

      The screenplay by co-writers Michael Tennant, Britt Rentschler and Charlotte Ubben suffers from an uneven blend of comedy, satire and social commentary. It ultimately has very little to say that's deep or provocative about the clash between rich and poor. Perhaps the only surprising aspect of the film is that it doesn't veer into the horror genre, although it briefly pokes fun at that which shows that it's self-aware. Unfortunately, the dialogue lacks wit and the humor falls flat while the plot meanders. None of the characters come to life, and the relationship between Lindsay and Jack isn't very interesting nor does it go anywhere interesting for that matter, either. Compared to the far superior comedy/satire Triangle of Sadness, Pretty Problems pales on every level. It's not very funny, bold or compelling, and it remains shallow. Moreover, the guts to explore its themes about the rich, marriage or happiness; it merely teases the audience while barely scratching the surface. There's not a single character who's memorable or worth caring about, so none of the beats land in the third act.

      The performances are mediocre at best, but, to be fair, the actors and actresses aren't really given any strong material to truly stand out. There's very little chemistry between Britt Rentschler and Michael Tennant. Also, there are some pacing issues, especially during the second act where the film runs out of steam and becomes repetitive. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes< Pretty Problems is underwhelming, dull and toothless. In a double feature with Triangle of Sadness, it would be the inferior B-movie.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center and on VOD.

Project Wolf Hunting

Directed by Kim Hong-sun


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Well GO USA.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

Some Like it Rare

Directed by Fabrice Eboué

      Vincent Pascal (Fabrice Eboué) runs a butcher shop with his wife, Sophie (Marina Foïs). They're struggling to make ends meet and their marriage is on the rocks. One night, Vincent runs over a vegan with his car and accidentally disposes of his body in the meat grinder before selling the meat to a customer. Words spreads about the tasty meet and, soon enough, he and Sophie hunt down more vegans for their new meat they call "Iranian pork."

      The screenplay by writer/director Fabrice Eboué and co-writer Vincent Solignac is far from brilliant or inspired, but it has enough wickedly funny scenes to at least be a mindlessly entertaining B-movie. It also doesn't take itself too seriously, and isn't afraid to be both silly and preposterous while staying lean with very little padding. Some of the attempts at humor are a bit obvious though, like when a policeman suddenly shows up and a dog happens to have a human body part in its mouth while Vincent tries to distract the cop so that he won't see the dog. The outrageously funny humor doesn't go as far as it would've thought; this isn't as gut-bustingly funny as Shaun of the Dead nor as witty, campy and zany as Eating Raoul. The funniest sequence is when Vincent and Sophie go on a killing rampage with an hilarious choice of music playing in the background. The song itself isn't funny, but the way it's incorporated in that scene does indeed make it funny. It's also funny when Vince and Sophie debate which vegans would make the tastiest meat. To be fair, the film does run a little bit out of steam around the hour mark, and there are no real surprises. However, at least it stays amusing and pleasantly diverting without trying to be deep or provocative. If you check your brain at the door, you'll have a great time watching it.

      Fortunately, Fabrice Eboué and Marina Foïs are well-cast and have great comedic timing. They seem to be having a lot of fun in their roles which helps the audience to enjoy watching them even though their characters are far from likable. Yes, there are some horror elements and gruesome scenes that might make you gag, but it's not meant to be realistic, so it's more comedic than horrifying. The film moves along at an appropriately brisk pace, so there's rarely a dull moment. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Some Like it Rare is lean, irreverent and wickedly funny.

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

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Directed by Hans Canosa

      A.J. Fikry (Kunal Nayyar), a bookstore owner, lives alone in Alice Island. He turns to alcohol while grieving over the death of his wife. When one of his books gets stolen, he seeks the help of a local cop (David Arquette) to find the thief. He also finds an abandoned young girl, Maya, at his store and decides to take care of her as though she were his daughter. His sister-in-law, Ismay (Christina Hendricks), and her husband, Daniel (Scott Foley), help him to raise her. Meanwhile, he begins a relationship with Amelia (Lucy Hale), a sales rep who lives far away in Providence, Rhode Island.

      If the plot synopsis above sounds like three different movies in one, your predictions are correct. The screenplay by Gabrielle Zevin not only bites off more than it could chew, but it combines the subplots in a contrived way that makes the film become increasingly lethargic. It doesn't work as a character study of A.J. Fikry nor as a romance nor as a drama even though it spans years in the life of A.J. You'd think that by the time the film was over, you'd get to know him, but he still remains at a cold distance from the audience. In a novel, which the film is based on, it's easier to get inside a character's head. It takes a skilled, humanist screenwriter who knows how to open the window into a character's heart, mind and soul to accomplish that in a film. That's not accomplished here, so the screenplay fails to breathe life into any of the characters. There are also too many characters. If the plot were more focused and had fewer characters, perhaps there would be room for more emotional depth which is sorely lacking.

      The performances fail to enliven the film, but what's most disappointing is that the romance between A.J. and Amelia falls flat more often than not. When it doesn't fall flat, it's cheesy. Then there's the relationship between A.J. and Maya whom he wishes to adopt. There's nothing about A.J. that makes him seem like he would be a good father or even a good boyfriend. His character arc when it comes to grieving over his wife doesn't feel believable or organic, so it's hard to imagine that he'd be truly able to move on to a new romantic relationship. When filmmakers don't treat the characters like human beings, they don't treat the audience that way either which makes it hard to become emotionally invested in the story or characters. That's the systemic problem in this film. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, The Stories Life of A.K. Fikry is a painfully dull, hackneyed and undercooked slog.

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

The Swimmer

Directed by Adam Kalderon

     At a boarding school's training camp, Erez (Omer Perelman Striks) takes part in a swimming competition where the winner will get a ticket to the Olympics. His coach, Dema (Igal Reznik) strictly forbids any friendships between the competitive swimmers, but that doesn't stop Erez from exploring his attraction to Nevo (Asaf Jonas), a fellow swimmer.

      Although it centers on a swimmer and a swimming competition, it's not really a sports movie per se. Writer/director Adam Kalderon focuses on Erez's sexual awakening like Luca Guadagnino focused on Elio's sexual awakening in Call Me By Your Name. The only "villain" is the coach, Dema, but he's just following the school's strict rules. What he truly thinks about Erez and Nevo's relationship remains open to interpretation. Beyond being a tough coach, he's not really that awful---he doesn't physically hurt or bully anyone. Erez's relationship with Nevo isn't very simple either; Erez has a girlfriend, and it's not very clear what Nevo's sexuality is, but they do have a connection with each other. Bravo to writer/director Adam Kalderon for avoiding schmaltz and unnecessary subplots or flashbacks. There's very little padding here. The Swimmer remains a snapshot of a key moment in Erez's youth that shows him growing up and experiencing an epiphany. Throughout the film, he's discovering his true self and breaking out of his shyness. That alone makes the film universal and relatable because many people go through that at some point in different ways. The third act won't be revealed here, but it's worth mentioning that it has a scene that's surprising, unconventional, exhilarating and even a little poetic.

      The performances are all very good and natural with no one, even in the supporting roles, over-acting or under-acting. Omer Perelman Striks and Igal Reznik have some palpable chemistry and there are even a few silent moments between them that speak louder than words. The cinematography looks great, especially during the swimming scenes and in the aforementioned surprising scene in the third act. What's most impressive, though, is that writer/director Adam Kalderon manages to entertain the audience and appeal to their emotions in under 2 hours. At a running time of just 1 hour and 25 minutes, The Swimmer is a tender, heartfelt and delightful coming-of-age story.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Todd Field

      Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the chief conductor of a German Orchestra, gets caught in a scandal that threatens to end her successful career and her upcoming book launch. She lives with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), and has an assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), at work.

      Tár is a mesmerizing psychological study of a tyrant's downfall. The screenplay by writer/director Todd Field opens with an interview between a host and Lydia Tár which makes it clear that she's at the top of her career, very famous and, most importantly, very full of herself. She's an arrogant, stubborn, myopic, determined perfectionist who lets no one get in her way or disagree with her. In other words, she's a textbook narcissist. On the surface, she appears strong and confident, but, like most narcissists, she's wearing many masks. On the inside, she's weak, emotionally immature and lonely. Perhaps she even hates herself. Field offers no voice-over narration, but what he does offer are many private moments with Lydia Tár where her masks get unraveled gradually and you can grasp what she's thinking and feeling. Even though she's unlikable given the way that she treats everyone around her as inferior to her, including Sharon, she's still a human being.

      What remains unclear, though, are which events from her childhood shaped her personality in her adulthood. Was she raised by narcissists? Was she perhaps sexually abused as a child? On the one hand, it's okay to leave some things to interpretation, but Lydia's childhood shouldn't be one of those things that are unexplored. A small hint about her childhood would've been tremendously revealing about her current behavior. Nonetheless, Field does a great job of allowing the audience to get a glimpse of her heart, mind and soul, especially during a provocative, chilling dream sequence which is around that time that the film veers ever so slightly into the realm of psychological thriller. It's an exhilarating emotional journey with an understated ending that will linger in your mind for a while and compel you to re-watch the film.

      There's no denying at this point that Cate Blanchett is among the best actresses of our time. She's up there with the wonderful actresses from the Golden Age of American Cinema like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Tár gives Blanchett a huge platform to showcase her tremendous acting talents. She's spellbinding to behold as she sinks her teeth into the role of Lydia Tár so convincingly. You'll forget that you're watching Cate Blanchett. That says everything you need to know about how great she is as an actress. It's her best performance since Blue Jasmine. Nina Hoss also deserves to be commended for a moving and nuanced performance as Lydia's lover, Sharon. The music, sound mix, editing and cinematography are also exquisite. The first few minutes, though, are bizarre, though, because they're just the end credits slowly appearing on the screen. What's the purpose of that other than to subvert your expectations and to be unconventional? That's not very clear and feels distracting, especially since there still are credits at the end of the film. Fortunately, despite a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, you barely feel the weight of the long running time. Expect many Oscar nominations.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Focus Features.
Opens in select theaters before exanding on October 28th, 2022.

Terrifier 2

Directed by Damien Leone

      Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) comes back from the dead with a little girl (Georgia MacPhail) as his sidekick. They terrorize Sienna (Lauren LaVera) and her younger brother, Jonathan (Elliott Fullam).

      Writer/director Damien Leone deserves some credit for creating a relentlessly intense, dark and violent horror thriller that makes It look like a Disney movie. Nothing is left to the imagination as Art the Clown and his sidekick go on a killing rampage with lots of blood and guts. If all you're looking for in a horror film are plenty of kills and oodles of gore, Terrifier 2 will deliver the goods for you. Unfortunately, anyone looking for nail-biting suspense, a clever plot with surprises or memorable characters will be disappointed. Damien Leone keeps the plot lean and easy-to-follow. The characters, if you want to even call them that, never rise above caricatures. Even the villain, Art the Clown, is pretty one-note and not nearly as interesting as iconic villains like Jigsaw, Jason Voorhees, Freddie Krueger and, It the Clown. Good luck trying to avoid making comparisons between Art the Clown and It. Art is much more over-the-top than It which, ironically, makes him less scary than It. Without any wit or tongue-in-cheek humor, Terrifier 2 becomes too monotonous and tedious as the violence keeps going and going with diminishing returns.

      Terrifier 2 suffers from writer/director Damien Leone's lack of understanding that "less is more" and his lack of restraint. Very few B-movies have any right to be more than 2 hours and this isn't one of them. By the 90-minute mark, the film gets tiresome. Too many scenes overstay their welcome which makes the pacing feel too slow. There's a good reason why none of the Saw movies were over 2 hours: they would've been over-indulgent and bloated like Terrifier 2. When it comes to the blood and guts, clearly a lot of time and money was spent on the make-up effects to make it look as disgusting and disturbing as possible. So, if that's Damien Leone's goal, he at least succeeds in grossing out the audience. Terrifier 2 is a tedious, uninspired, and exhausting experience that bombards the audience with relentless violence, depravity and gore. At 2 hours and 18 minutes, it's overkill---pun intended.

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

To Leslie

Directed by Michael Morris

      Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother, won $190,000 in the lottery and became an alcoholic after squandering her money on alcohol. Six years later, she has hit rock bottom and gets evicted from her motel. She briefly reunites with her estranged son, James (Owen Teague), but soon heads back to her hometown where she finds a job and place to live at a motel run by Sweeney (Marc Maron).

      The screenplay by Ryan Binaco, based on true events, briefly introduces Leslie to the audience through a news footage of her joyous moment when she won the lottery and expresses that her dream is to open a diner. Then it flashes forward six years to her in the motel while skipping over her downward spiral. A lot has happened during those six years, but Ryan Binaco gradually fills in the gaps throughout the film. How and why did she end up alcoholic? Does it run in the family? Is there any hope for her or is she past the point of no return? Where does her emotional pain come from? Fortunately, To Leslie answers those questions while trusting the audience's patience. Exposition isn't something easy to incorporate into a screenplay, but Binaco does it very skillfully. He knows exactly when to reveal key information about Leslie to the audience. Most importantly, though, he sees and treats her as a fully fleshed human being. She's flawed, a trainwreck, and not very likable, but she's a complex human being who's no more or less human than you or me.

      Unless you enjoy watching other people suffer, you'll root for her to find the innate strength to improve her life and get better psychologically and emotionally. She's lucky to have someone kind, empathetic and compassionate like Sweeney in her life. He's more than just a romantic interest for her; he's a true friend. Their relationship is sweet without being cloying or contrived. Her relationship between a couple Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) who are very mean toward her. They're the only two characters who seem like caricatures, so the subplot involving their hostile relationship with Leslie does feels contrived and melodramatic, especially in a over-the-top scene in the third act. The most fascinating and poignant relationship, though, is between Leslie and her son. The way that it evolves feels true-to-life. Some movies are a slice-of-cake, some movies are a slice-of-life, as Hitchcock once observed. To Leslie is a engrossing slice-of-life that earns its uplift.

      Andrea Riseborough gives one of the best performances of her career as Leslie. She fully opens the window to Leslie's heart, mind, soul for the audience to peer through. Her raw, tour de force performance is mesmerizing. She finds the emotional truth of the role from start to finish, so kudos to her for seeing and treating Leslie as a human being. Kudos to her, too, for being an emotionally generous actress who's unafraid to bare her naked emotions in front of the camera. Emotional nakedness is often much more intimate than physical nakedness. She and Marc Maron have great chemistry together. Owen Teague is just as superb as he is in Montana Story which would make for an interesting double feature with To Leslie. At a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes, To Leslie is a gritty, unflinching and genuinely heartfelt story of a deeply troubled human being who's struggling to conquer adversity. It's one of the most powerful and inspirational movies since The Way Back.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Momentum Pictures.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

Triangle of Sadness

Directed by Ruben Östlund

      Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model, goes on a luxurious yacht cruise with his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a model and social influencer. Other guests on the ship include Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and his wife, Clementine (Amanda Walker), Uli (Ralph Schicha) and his wife, Therese, (Iris Berben) and Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) and his wife, Vera (Sunnyi Melles). Among the crew, there's Alicia (Alicia Eriksson) who works under the chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), and Abigail (Dolly De Leon), the toilet manager. The ship's captain, Thomas (Woody Harrelson), must show up for the Captain's Dinner, but he's drunk and refuses to come out of his room no matter how many times Paula tells him to. The guests get immediately stricken with a food-borne illness when the seafood spoils after Vera requests that the crew stop working and take a dip in the pool.

      To describe what happens during the rest of the plot after the guests get food sickness would be to ruin the film's many surprises. Writer/director Ruben Östlund once again hits the ball out of the ballpark with a witty, honest and very funny glimpse of the dark side of human nature. He begins by introducing Carl to the audience through his absurd and shallow experiences as a model. A fashion show has texts on a screen with social commentary that will become more relevant as the film progresses. Then it cuts to an expensive restaurant where he has an argument with Yaya over why she didn't make an effort to pay the bill despite promising to pay for the next meal. Their bickering continues in the hotel and, eventually, on the ship when Yaya flirts with a shirtless member of the crew (Timoleon Gketsos) while they lay out in the sun. A lot happens within the first thirty minutes, and that's even before the guests get sick. Each guest has his or her own unique personality and specialty. They all love to brag about their wealth and success in the world of capitalism.Triangle of Sadness is a black comedy, but with a lot of tragedy beneath the surface. It has a lot to say about capitalism and, occasionally, it's very blunt and unsubtle about its observations, i.e. when the crew chants "Money!" over and over. Other times, it's more subtle and nuanced, like with the look on Dimitry and Carl's face as Yaya and another woman flirt with Jarmo at a bar on the ship.

      Ruben Östlund has a knack for writing dialogue that's organic, full of pith and a wicked sense of humor. There's also a few sight gags that lead to some uncomfortable humor that will make you stop and think about why you're laughing. This isn't an ordinary comedy by any means. Concurrently, he keeps the audience in suspense as the film goes in directions that you least expect it to. Moreover, he trusts their intelligence and imagination to be able to connect the dots because he omits a scene when a crew member gets fired, but it's implied when he's waving goodbye to his coworkers as he's seen being taken off the ship in a speedboat. Without spoiling anything, Triangle of Sadness remains a brilliant, razor-sharp social commentary and a perceptive commentary on human nature even during the third act.

      Every actor and actress, from the lead roles to the supporting roles, is well-cast and gives a wonderful performance with terrific comedic timing. It's hard to choose just one stand-out performance, but if necessary, Dolly De Leon gives a breakthrough performance that's as great as Yalitza Aparicio is in Roma or Hong Chau in Downsizing. Zlatko Buric is also superb. He and Woody Harrelson play off of each other very well during a scene when they're drunk together. If you pay attention, you'll notice many interesting details that provide the film with more depth, i.e the book Ulysses that Carl reads on the ship or an even smaller detail that serves as a foreshadow: the sound of flies on the first day that the guests arrive on the ship. Like in Force Majeure writer/director Ruben Östlund grasps and shows the entire spectrum of human nature from the light side to the dark side. Making the audience laugh while making them think and feel is no easy task, but he accomplishes it with flying colors. At a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Triangle of Sadness is bold, provocative and wickedly funny.

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